Things have changed. If you flew out of Rhein-Main AFB to the States in the sixties or early seventies, the passenger terminal was not much different than it was in the forties, pretty plain and a bit austere. Once you checked your luggage in, you were herded upstairs to the "passenger lounge" to await the call to board your flight. The lounge was a large room with huge windows on one wall that looked out on the flight line. Seating was plastic chairs on metal legs, just like the mess halls had. Like I said, pretty plain. Once your flight was announced, you were herded down the stairs and out onto the flight line where you boarded the plane by way of the old mobile staircase. If your plane was parked further out on the line, they would sometimes take you out to the plane on a bus. It was a pretty low-rent operation.
In November of 1970, MamaCharlie, HBW, and me went through all of that to get on our "freedom bird" that would take us to McGuire AFB in New Jersey by way of Iceland. We had shipped our car a month before so it would be in Bayonne waiting for us to pick it up. We had shipped our dog that morning so he would be in JFK waiting for us to pick him up when we got "back to the world". Everything had been thought out, planned, executed to perfection. Right.
The flight from Frankfurt to Iceland didn't take very long; we had been able to see Ireland also, as we flew over it, well...as much as you can see from 30,000 feet... and lots of frigid ocean. As we approached Keflavik AFB, we both commented on how dreary and bleak the landscape was..just a pile of frosty rocks. At some point MamaCharlie needed to get something out of her purse and after a frantic few minutes searching our little space on the plane, we realized that the purse...containing her passport, our money orders, and lots of other important papers...was no longer with us. The captain announced that we would be getting off the plane in Iceland and that we would need our passports to re-board after our two-hour layover. We were more than a little upset; we talked to the stewardess who talked to the captain who didn't have any idea what to do about it, either. We were allowed to de-plane and stay in the lounge area (neither of us had any real ambition toward travel in Iceland, anyway) and they allowed us to re-board, but no one really had a clue about what would happen to us once we got to New Jersey.
For the rest of the flight, we were very nervous; not only was a chunk of our money gone, but we didn't even know if MamaCharlie and HBW (who shared her passport) would be allowed to enter the US at all. At McGuire, they acted like this sort of thing happened all the time; in fact, it probably did. We were told that MamaCharlie and the baby would be allowed to enter the country but we would have to pay a twenty-five dollar fee for not having the documents. And MamaCharlie had to promise that she was a citizen. McGuire Operations personnel had some fancy telephone hook-up to Rhein-Main (1970...remember?) and soon established that MamaCharlie's purse had been found in the passenger lounge area and had been turned in to the desk at the terminal at Rhein-Main, that it was safe and sound and appeared to have all the traveler's checks, cash, papers, and passport in it still. They arranged to have it put into the daily diplomatic pouch and would ship it out the next morning. It was the first time in several hours that I fully exhaled. We got a post taxi to take us to the visiting officer quarters at Fort Dix (right next door to McGuire) and got a room for a couple of days. They even exempted us from paying in advance after hearing our tale of woe. This was a good thing because we had to do a lot of things before we could leave New Jersey: we had to find our car and our dog, and get MamaCharlie's purse back before we could even think about leaving.
The room was about normal for military accomodations in those days, but by the time we got to bed, jet lag, stress, uncertainty, and utter exhaustion took its toll, we slept. The next day we called the shipper to find that they didn't have our dog. We rode a bus to Bayonne, found our car, got lost in the port area, returned to Fort Dix (right next to McGuire) and called the shipper again...still no dog. On the third day after we shipped him, and several frustrating calls later, we discovered that the shipper couldn't read simple English and was holding our dog for through-shipment to my Dad's address. Even though the shipping papers clearly said I would pick him up at JFK, they had looked at the paperwork and saw the California address of my home-of-record and decided that that's where the dog needed to go...but only enough money had been paid to get him to JFK...so they were holding him...I don't know...maybe they figured if they kept him long enough the dog would give up and fork over the balance of the shipping fee. I wrote an article about the whole thing a few years ago so I won't belabor it now. In any case, by the time we rounded up our traumatized, skinny, soaking wet, howling dog, got him in the car and drove back to New Jersey, MamaCharlie's purse had arrived and we were...three days late...finally intact and ready to start our trip out to California. It was 9:00 o'clock at night when we checked out of the VOQ and departed. Not a wise move, I know, but we all agreed that we didn't need to stay one more minute in New Jersey than we absolutely had to. We got as far as Wilmington, Delaware around midnight and spent the night.
So, like I said, things have changed. For a couple of hours, MamaCharlie was an illegal alien in Iceland...a truly undocumented non-person with a baby. If that had happened today, she'd probably still be in the passenger-holding area at Keflavik. Heehee. And by the way...if all it takes is twenty-five bucks to get into the country...what's the big deal?