Our daughter, Lesley, was a Fulbright Scholar in Mainz, Germany in 2000. Our daughter, Meredith, still a student at the University of Dallas (UD), had just completed her Rome semester at the UD Rome campus. She was spending some time with Lesley in Mainz before returning to the USA. Bill and I and our son, Christopher, aged 11, decided to try a new adventure – fly Space-Available to Germany to visit them. (Retired military could fly on a regularly scheduled military flight if there were extra seats – space available.) We would meet the girls at the Frankfurt Airport, pick up a rental car and stay overnight with friends in nearby Hofheim (The daughters of both families had participated in a high school Exchange Program in 1996 and had kept in touch.) before going to visit friends in Schwarzenau where we had lived during Bill’s second assignment in Germany from 1982-86. Our plan was to drive from there to Austria to meet friends Lesley had made during some of her foreign travels. Great plan if we could get on the plane in Atlanta!
For a Space-A flight, possible passengers must arrive at the airport many hours earlier than usual passengers, sign in and wait while the ticketed military personnel and their families are checked in and processed for the flight (Most of them are not traveling for a pleasure trip like ours, but are heading to a new duty station with all the apprehensions and stresses of moving to a foreign country). For the Space-A travelers, it was a waiting game; it was only after all the active-duty soldiers and families were on the plane, did it become clear if there were any seats left over. After about five hours of waiting, we were told that we had the last three seats! We quickly went to the pay phone to place a call to Germany to say that we would be in Frankfurt the next day. Yeah! The adventure was only beginning as we grabbed our bags and rushed to the plane.
No sooner did we store our carry-on bags under our seats and buckle our seat belts than an announcement came from a stewardess who was walking up and down the aisle, “Colonel Rice, Colonel Rice” repeatedly until Bill responded. The stewardess stopped at our seats and said, “All three of you come with me and bring your bags.” Were we being removed from the flight? Why would that be? What about Lesley and Meredith in Germany?
As we re-entered the terminal, the stewardess told us quietly that Bill was the highest-ranking officer on the plane and that is why we were escorted off the plane first. It seems everyone would be getting off the plane behind us. The plane’s radio was not working, so the plane could not fly. We were given a voucher for dinner, as was the entire passenger list. They had no idea how long the repairs would take so we were advised to have dinner and listen for announcements about the progress of the repair team. In case of a long delay, we were offered a voucher for an overnight stay at a nearby motel which we declined; we could drive home in 20 minutes, if necessary. We ate dinner and then went back to the gate for a few hours sitting on the floor as we awaited the outcome of the repair work.
About six hours later, we got the word that the radio had been repaired and we could board the plane again. Because of the difference in time and the fact that Lesley lived in a dormitory where the phone was in the hallway, we had been unable to contact them about the delay and when we might arrive (they only discovered our long delay after they arrived at the Frankfurt airport – six hours too early). Later, we learned that part of the long delay was that their usual procedures for replacing the radio were unsuccessful; someone eventually thought to buy a new radio at RadioShack and install it. Only problem with that was that all the Radio Shack stores were already closed for the night. Getting a replacement meant getting a manager to open his store long after business hours.
When we finally got into the air, the rest of the trip was wonderful and went off as planned: visiting with old friends and making some new ones. The return Space-A was another story.
We returned to Rhein-Main Airport following the same instructions: be there hours early and this time even a little earlier since we had to return the rental car beforehand. Luckily, the rental car office was in the same building as the check-in counter, so it didn’t take us long to return the car. It was only then, that we realized our lovely May trip to Germany was ending on Memorial Day weekend. We didn’t think that would affect us in Germany, but it seems that the school year for Department of Defense schools had just ended and many American dependents had decided to use this weekend to take a trip back to the USA. Why not? Summer was just beginning! Who would make the cut for travel – most of us were Space-Available? At the Rhein-Main desk, we were told to sign in and see what would happen. At some point, we were told that we were on the flight list; that would get Bill back to work on the day after Memorial Day as planned. We were on our way – at least until an announcement: this airplane needed some repairs, could not fly and we should come back tomorrow when they hoped repairs would be completed. We got the rental car back and went to find the military transient billets (hotel) on Rhein Main. No luck – no rooms at the inn! That is when Bill decided to drive back to Mainz and spend the rest of the day with Lesley and Meredith – there was no answer when we called the dorm phone, so we drove the hour trip to Mainz to surprise them!
We expected them to help us find a gasthaus (bed and breakfast German-style) for the night and have dinner with them. Turns out that Lesley had a better idea: stay in the dorm with them, Bill and Christopher in her tiny room – on the floor and in the twin bed; the three Rice ladies on the couches in the dormitory common area. She fixed us a lovely German oatmeal breakfast before we headed to Frankfurt again the next morning.
Getting back to Rhein-Main, we found a different problem: the original plane was not in service, yet, but a different plane might be possible transportation if they could get special permission to carry civilian passengers – it was a C-130 cargo plane that could carry 90 passengers and crew above a large open bay below for cargo.
If civilians were to travel on this flight, special permission was required because of the hazardous cargo aboard that had priority over Space-A passengers. Eventually, permission was granted, and we were ready to travel. Next problem: the flight was going to Dover, Delaware instead of Atlanta, Georgia.
No problem. We’d get a rental car in Dover and drive home. That turned out to be easier said than done because it was Memorial Day weekend and there were no rental cars left when we arrived in Dover. We could get an airport shuttle the next morning to Baltimore Airport (two-hour drive) where there would be more cars available. We did that and from Baltimore, we started on the additional 14-hour drive. However, the trip ended up taking a lot longer. As we entered the city of Washington, D.C. on that Sunday morning, we made our first acquaintance with Rolling Thunder. We were met with hundreds of bikers on the streets of D.C. as we tried to pass through.
Rolling Thunder had been coming to D.C. on Memorial Day weekend since 1987 to commemorate the lives of their fallen comrades and to keep a light shining on the POW/MIAs of foreign wars. Coming from all over the country, these veterans would spend Memorial Day together, reminiscing and honoring our fallen military heroes. To accommodate all the bikers, the roads around Washington were closed or re-routed.
We found ourselves going around and around in circles not knowing where we were, where we were going, or how to get out of there. The map that we purchased to get home did not reflect the temporary closings and gave us no clue how to get out of town. (This was long before GPS.) Though we thought we would never find our way out of the big city, it was an unexpected, heartwarming and patriotic end to our Space-A adventure. And Bill did get home in time to go to work on Tuesday morning, though often along the way home we doubted if we would ever get home! It was quite an adventure.