74th Warhead Detachment, Schwabstädl Kaserne, Lechfeld Air Base, Bavaria,
It was midnight, and I had just gotten off duty as Staff Duty NCO and, with my cane, hobbled into the mess hall, which was open around the clock. There was always a cook on duty, although after midnight only sandwiches were available, as the cook had to do the prep work for breakfast.
The mess hall was empty except for six people sitting at a table playing poker. Included among them were Sergeant-Major Parks, Sergeant First Class Murphy, who was Charlie Team Sergeant, and my friend Corporal Dennis Gibson. There was also the detachment clown Ray Ellis, a former gang banger from Oakland. Ray stood out because he was the only black guy in this group.
I grabbed a ham and cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee and sat down at the next table to read my book. I was working through the novels of James Michener and was halfway through ‘Chesapeake’. Half-consciously listening to the conversation at the next table, I heard Ellis say, “I really need to win some money here. I have to go back to Oakland for my baby sister’s wedding next weekend.” He put forty dollars into the pot. “I raise you twenty.”
The Sergeant-Major looked at him. “And just when were you planning to put in your request for leave? I haven’t seen it come across my desk.”
“I’m not going to take any leave. I have two four-day passes that I’m going to string back to back. That should be enough time. I just don’t have the cash for both a plane ticket and a nice present. Actually, I don’t have the cash for either one.”
Dennis put two tens in the pot. “I call.”
“Did you okay this with your Team Sergeant?” Parks looked at SFC Murphy. “Ed, did you know about this?”
Murphy was staring at his cards. “First I’m hearing about it. I don’t care what he does. He doesn’t do anything when he is here, so we won’t miss him if he’s gone. I call.” He added twenty dollars to the pile of money in the center of the table.
Ellis laid his cards down. “Three aces.”
Dennis tossed his cards towards the deck and Murphy placed his cards face down on the table. “Crap!”
Smiling, Ellis swept the bills to him. “This will get baby sister a nice present. Now I just have to get enough for a ticket.”
Dennis looked at Ray and spoke in his Texas twang, “I thought y’all once said you could go anywhere on the Army’s dime.”
Ray stopped counting the bills, “That’s in Europe. Going back to the States, . . . well, I guess I could do it. I’d have to find a transport flight out of Ramstein and then somehow, . . .” His voice trailed off and he stared at the wall for a few seconds. “Yeah, I could do it.”
Parks was idly shuffling the cards. “No, you can’t. You would need to have travel orders. In order to get those, you need a legitimate reason to have the use of military transport. Going to a wedding is not, I repeat not, an acceptable reason to get military travel orders.”
“I betcha I can. I bet I can get there and back without spending a dime.”
Parks stared at him for about ten seconds. “I believe you could talk your way there and back. You really have a talent for bullshit. How about making it a real challenge?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll bet you five hundred dollars that you can’t go all the way around the world using only military transports in those eight days and go to the wedding to boot.” Parks was divorced and his kids were all grown, so he had extra money. If you needed cash, he would always loan it to you, no interest. Most units had a resident loan shark, but Parks wouldn’t tolerate that activity.
Ray smiled. “It’s a bet.”
Murphy added, “I’ll throw in a hundred.”
Dennis said, “Me too.”
I had to get in on this. “Just hold on a minute. If everyone is going to be betting on this, it’s got to be organized. You need someone to take the bets and hold onto the cash; almost like a bookie.”
Parks looked over at me. “You just volunteered. You can’t do any duty except Staff NCO until the doctors say you can go back to your team, so you will be available to take the bets. Plus, you’re good with math. I’ll go to the bank in Augsburg tomorrow and get you my money. I’ll tell the other Team Sergeants in the morning and pass the word”. I had injured my knee again a month earlier, so was on loan to Headquarters as a typist. I could type faster than anyone else using just two fingers of each hand and one thumb for the space bar.
Murphy pulled out his wallet and handed me five twenties. “There is no way in hell he can go all the way around the world in eight days.”
Dennis also handed me a hundred dollars. That broke up the game and everyone left except Ray and me.
“Do you really think you can do it?”
Ray looked at me and smiled. “Not by myself. I need your help.”
“My help? For what?”
“I need travel orders to pull this off.”
It took a few seconds, then the light bulb went off in my head. “Oh no! I can’t get you travel orders. They keep them locked up because they are numbered and controlled forms.”
“Sure you can. When you have B-Man duty, use the Duty Officer’s keys. Just get me about ten blank travel orders and put the Major’s signature on them.” Major Wilson was about the laziest officer I had ever met. He was so lazy that he didn’t even want to sign anything, so he had a rubber stamp made of his signature. “Also, since you’ve been pulling the night sergeant duty, I need you to handle any phone calls that come in asking about my credentials.”
“You want me to give you ten blank travel orders with the Major’s stamped signature on them? I could get court-martialed for that. It’s called fraud or something like that.”
“No one is going to get court-martialed. Major Wilson will never know. Take forms from the bottom of the pack. No one ever uses travel orders, so by the time anyone knows they are gone, you and I will be transferred back Stateside. Besides, I’ll cut you in on the winnings, say, ten percent.”
I thought for a few seconds. “Twenty-five percent, and I’ll do it.”
“Twenty, and that’s as low as I go.”
“Look Ray, I’m not stupid. You know that most people will bet against you, judging from what we’ve just seen. You need the travel orders to make sure that you can pull this off. If people were betting on you to make it, you would just show up late, so that wouldn’t be a problem. But then, everyone would think that you lost on purpose. You’ve got to win so that nobody will be suspicious about anything. You need those travel orders. Twenty percent.”
“Alright, twenty. I’ll be leaving next Thursday. Have them ready.”
“I’ve got B-Man duty tomorrow night. I’ll get them then. Spread the word and I’ll do the same. The more people we have betting against you, the more money we make.”
Ray grinned, slapped me on the back and walked out into the night. I thought about it a few minutes, then went back to my book.
The next day, I found one of the old launch code safes in the storeroom. There was a manual with it, so I was able to change the combination. I hauled it over to the Duty Officer’s room and locked the money inside.
That night at nine o’clock, I put my book down, belted on my 45, and grabbed my cane and the duty officer’s key ring. I said to 2nd Lieutenant Carter. “Ma’am, I’ll make the rounds for you.”
She looked up from her book. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. I need to exercise my knee.”
She blushed, knowing full well that her actions had indirectly been the cause of my injury. Then she said, “Thanks! I can’t put this one down! I just love his books!”
She was reading ‘The Lonely Lady’ by Harold Robbins. I was kind of disappointed in her, expecting a little better taste in literature from a West Point grad.
I went down the hall to the main office and let myself in. The Duty Officer’s key ring had keys to every lock in the compound; even the cabinet in the main office that held classified materials and controlled forms. I found the dust-covered pack of travel orders on the bottom shelf. Only two had been removed. I took ten out of the bottom of the pack, then put it back in the cabinet, which I relocked.
I was curious about Ray. He was older than the rest of us, in his thirties. However, he was still an E-5, a Specialist 5, the same rank as a Buck Sergeant. He should have at least made it to Staff Sergeant by his age. I went over to the file cabinet that held the unit’s personnel records. Unlocking it, I pulled out Ray’s file.
I went into the Major’s office and sitting down at his desk, pulled his stamp and ink pad out of the top drawer. After stamping his signature on all ten forms, I put them into an envelope and set it aside. Opening Ray’s file, I began to read.
To my surprise, this was Ray’s second time in the Army. He had been in the Army before; from 1969 to 1973, then got out and re-enlisted in 1980. He had served two tours as an infantryman in Vietnam and had won a Bronze Star and had been awarded a Purple Heart. He had never mentioned this to anyone that I knew.
After replacing the file, I locked up and made the rounds. When I got to Charlie Team’s building, I rapped quietly on Ray’s door. He opened it and without a word, I handed him the envelope, then left.
By the following Thursday morning, there was a little over three thousand dollars bet against Ray and only eight hundred for. Every time someone mentioned the bet, I would say that there was no way Ray could do it. This seemed to influence some to bet against Ray, which was what we wanted.
We had our morning formation at seven o’clock, right after breakfast. Ray came out of his barracks building, resplendent in his dress greens. Everyone else was in their duty fatigues; no one ever wore their dress uniform. The chatter died away as everyone in the ranks stared at his uniform. His ribbons stood out in the morning light. Two Army Achievement Medals, two Army Commendation Medals, the Good Conduct Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Purple Heart, and the Bronze Star.
As usual, Major Wilson was too lazy to come out for morning formation. Sergeant- Major Parks stood in front of the detachment and yelled out, “Detachment, Attention! Specialist Ellis, step forward.” Ellis stepped out of formation and strode up to the Sergeant-Major. Parks took out two pieces of paper and handed them over. “Here are your passes, signed by the Major. I have to say good luck, even though I hope you don’t make it. You are on the clock as of right now.” Then he raised his voice, “Detachment, dismissed!”
Everyone headed back to their buildings as I hobbled out of formation and stepped up to Ray, who was still standing next to Parks. “Why the dress uniform? You aren’t required to travel in it.”
Ray grinned, “Civilian clothes are fine for Northwest Airlines. But I’m going to be relying on the kindness of our fellow soldiers, so I need every advantage I can get.” He indicated all the ribbons on his chest. “Here’s my first step,” nodding towards the road.
The courier van that went to the Army base on the north side of Augsburg pulled up next to Ray. He opened the door and got in the front passenger seat. “See you next Friday!” and slammed the door shut. With a squeal of tires, the van pulled away. As I followed Parks back to the mess hall to get another cup of coffee, I saw the van go through the gates and then straight across the road onto the airbase. It should have turned left to go to the main road for Augsburg. That was unusual, but I didn’t dwell on it.
Murphy was in the mess hall, also getting coffee. The three of us stood there awhile and speculated about Ray and his travel plans. Finally, I looked at Parks.
“Did you know about Ellis? Vietnam, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart?”
Parks looked at me like I was an idiot. “Of course I knew. I know everything about my troops. That’s the job of a Sergeant-Major. I know that you got A’s in all your calculus courses in college. I know everything. Remember that.”
About fifteen minutes had passed since Rays’ departure. We stepped back out to go to the HQ building when we heard a low rumble in the sky. Looking up, we saw an Army C-130 Hercules lumber overhead, then as it was gaining altitude, make a long sweeping bank to the northwest.
Murphy was staring at the plane. “Isn’t that the C-130 the snake eaters use for their drop training?” he asked Parks.
“Yeah, but why is it heading northwest? They always drop to the south.”
They were referring to the Green Berets from the 10th Special Forces Group over at Bad Tolz. Murphy turned away and headed to Charlie Team’s building, while I limped behind Parks towards HQ. But I was thinking; Northwest. Northwest was Stuttgart. Northwest was Frankfurt and Ramstein Air Force Base. That was the only place that transports flew out of Germany back to the States. I was sure that plane was on its way to Ramstein and somehow Ellis was on it.
The week passed quietly. No one called about Ellis. We didn’t hear anything about him at all. People were continuing to place bets until on Wednesday, Parks announced at morning formation that the betting was closed. When I went on duty that night, I counted the cash and checked against my tally book under the eagle eyes of the Sergeant-Major. We had six thousand, four hundred and fifteen dollars bet against Ellis and only twelve hundred and eighty for. Parks looked at the piles of different denominations and said, “Quite a little scam you two have going here, isn’t it?”
“Sergeant-Major? I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Don’t give me that crap DiMarco. If he makes it, he’s golden, but you know as well as I do that Ellis can’t cover those bets if he loses. So, he must have an advantage. He knew before he left that most of the bets were against him. He must have some guarantee that he will win.”
For once, I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t going to end up in the stockade for Ellis or this stupid bet.
Parks said, “Ok, fine. Let’s just wait and see what happens.”
Thursday night and Ellis still had not returned. He had to be here by seven the next morning. I got off duty at midnight and went right to my bunk. It seemed as if I had just fallen asleep when I was woken by someone shaking me. I looked up at the Sergeant-Major who whispered. “Get up and get dressed. We have to go somewhere.” Groggily, I slid out of bed and grabbed my uniform that was hanging at the end of the bunk. I reached over to pick up my boots and socks when Mark, on the top bunk, sat up and yelled, “Grab the shotguns!”, then laid back down. Startled, Parks jumped back against the door. Across the room, Hatch and Keene were snoring like freight trains. “How the hell do you sleep with all this noise?”
I looked at him with bleary eyes, “What noise?” We went out into the hall and I got dressed, then sat on the floor to put on my socks and boots. “What’s going on? What time is it?”
“I have to go to Stuttgart. You’re driving me. One thirty.”
“Why do I have to drive?”
“Because I don’t have a license. You do. Now stop asking stupid questions and let’s get going.”
One of the courier vans was parked outside the barracks door. I got behind the wheel, adjusted the mirrors, and waited for Parks to settle in the passenger seat.
As I pulled away from the curb I asked, “Why are we going to Stuttgart?”
“To pick up Ellis. The Colonel called me about twenty minutes ago to let me know that Ellis was being held by the MP’s in Stuttgart and I had to retrieve him. He didn’t want to involve the Major because he knows what an asshole Wilson is and he didn’t want one of my men to get into too much trouble.” The Colonel was Lieutenant Colonel Grandino, Major Wilson’s superior officer, who was at our mother unit in Neu Ulm.
“Why would the Colonel do you such a big favor? I thought he was a by-the-book guy.”
“We did a tour together in Vietnam. That was when he was still a Captain. He owes me.” Parks didn’t elaborate any further.
“How did Ellis get to Stuttgart?”
“I’ve told you all I know. Now shut up and drive.”
I drove through the darkness, chugging down the autobahn at a pitiful seventy miles an hour. If I only had a Porsche! Even the cheap Audi’s would top one hundred. Parks had the radio going and was listening to oompah music, which was driving me crazy.
After a little over two hours, the lights of Stuttgart glowed on the horizon. I had been to that Army base before, so I took the second exit, hung a right, and stopped at the main gates. We showed the MP our ID’s and he waved us through. Parks directed me to the Provost Marshal’s building and I pulled into a parking space. As he got out, he growled at me, “Wait here.” He went through the front doors.
About ten minutes later, he came back out, followed by Ellis, who was in civilian clothes. As they got to the van, Ellis shouted, “Shotgun!” Parks glared at him and got into the front seat. Ray threw his duffle in the back and climbed in after it with a wide grin. Parks turned to me, “Back to Schwäbstadle.” After a few minutes of silence, Ellis started to say something, but Parks cut him off. “Shut up. Don’t say a fucking word. Just hand over those blank travel orders
Ray’s eyes went wide in surprise. Silently, he reached into a pocket and pulled out some papers and handed them forward. Parks looked at them quickly. “Four blank forms with the Major’s stamped signature. So, you used six.” Parks stared at me. “I could have you court-martialed for this. You know that, don’t you?”
I started to say something, but Parks held up his hand, indicating for me to be silent. He turned in his seat to face Ellis. “Ray, you think you’re so smart, but I figured it out. If more people bet that you would make it, all you had to do was return after the deadline and you would win the money. But they didn’t. From what went on at the poker game, you knew they would bet against you. I knew you would need travel orders, so the day after we made the bet, I checked out what we had on hand. Then, after you left, I checked the pack again and guess what I
found? There were ten missing forms. So, you must have had DiMarco here steal and stamp those travel orders for you. They practically guaranteed that you could get on any transport and make it a whole lot easier for you to get back on time. Then you would win the money. But something went wrong. The MP Captain didn’t have any details, just that you were delivered here by the MP’s from Hanover and you were to be returned to your unit. You’re just lucky that the Colonel called me and not the Major. So, what happened? Tell me everything from when you left.”
Ellis took a deep breath and started his tale.
“Well, back in Nam during my first tour, I served with Mike Palmerson. He was regular infantry, like me, but after he got back, he went through Special Forces training and became a Green Beret. He’s stationed at Bad Tolz now. He had heard about my bet and called me. Turns out, they had gotten a new C-130 for their airdrops and the old one was being sent back to the States. He arranged for it to leave last Thursday, but it was just going to Ramstein for now. They wouldn’t be sending it on from there for a few weeks. All I had to do was be at the airbase before 7:30 and I could get to Ramstein in about a third of the time of ground transport. Problem was, we got into Ramstein too late to catch the regular transport flight back to Dover. But there was a flight to Morón Air Force Base in Spain.”
“I didn’t want to go there, but the duty sergeant told me that it would be easy for me to get to the States from Morón. He made a call to a friend of his stationed there, then informed me that I was all set. He gave me the name of his buddy with instructions on where to find him. Forty-five minutes later, I was on my way to Spain.”
“When I got there, I found his friend, Air Force Tech Sergeant Willis. He took one of my travel orders and filled it out for Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, then took another one and filled that one out for Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. He explained that there were some NASA astronauts going back to the States after doing some glad-handing with people from the European Space Agency. They were going to Patrick first, but then some of them were going on to Vandenberg, which is NASA’s west coast launch center. He told me that he really shouldn’t be doing this, but his friend at Ramstein told him about the bet and he thought it could be done. He wanted me to let him know if I made it all the way.”
“So, I spent both flights with a bunch of astronauts. I never heard of any of them before except for this one guy, Rob Crippen. He’s been up in space a bunch of times and had some funny stories. I told them what I was doing and they all thought it was great. I finally got into Vandenberg at about two in the morning. The duty officer told me that there was a Navy bus that made a trip from San Diego Naval Air Station to Alameda Naval Air Station twice a week. It would stop tomorrow at Vandenberg at about eleven a.m. and I could catch it at the HQ building. He let me sleep on their office sofa and woke me at eight in the morning. One of the airmen took me to their mess hall for breakfast, then I just lounged out and waited for the bus.”
“When I got to Alameda, I called my brother and he came and picked me up. That was Friday afternoon. Before I left, I found out that there would be a Navy personnel replacement flight to Pearl Harbor leaving Sunday. I would just fill out the travel order for Wheeler Army Airfield in Honolulu. So, I went with my brother to pick up the present I had ordered for baby sister, a nice wedding present; a set of crystal champagne glasses with their names engraved on them. Saturday was the wedding and then Sunday morning, my brother drove me back to Alameda. They validated my travel orders and I was on my way to Hawaii. I had to admit; I was a little nervous at this point. I had no idea how I was going to get anywhere from Pearl. But if I got stuck there, at least I could have some fun at the beach.”
It seemed as if I could feel the irritation building in Parks as Ray chuckled about that.
“Well, when the plane landed at Hickam, I went to the main reception building and was looking around when I heard someone calling my name. I turned around and guess who it was?”
Parks stared at him icily, not saying a word.
“Anyway, it was Tony Hernandez. You remember him from Nam? He’s a Master Sergeant now and is stationed there. He said to say hi, by the way. So, I told him about this bet, and he laughed and said you never did know what to do with all the money you stashed away. ‘Anything I can do to help Parks lose a bet is good.’
I interrupted his narrative. “Wait a minute! You two were in Vietnam together?” I glanced over at Parks.
“You know, for a college boy, you aren’t that bright. You should have pulled my file when you looked at Ray’s.” I just stared at him, open-mouthed. How the hell did he know? “I told you before, a Sergeant-Major has to know everything that goes on. Don’t you ever forget that. Keep your eyes on the road. I don’t want my career to end in a traffic accident on the autobahn.”
“You read through my file?”
“You’re older than the rest of us, so I was curious. You never said anything about being in Vietnam. Plus, I know gang guys from LA and New York and you aren’t like them.”
“I just made that up so people won’t screw with me. I don’t like to talk about Vietnam.”
“Will you please get back to it?! Parks nearly shouted in frustration.
“Anyway, Tony hooked me up with the Sergeant-Major who coordinates supply runs throughout the Pacific. He got me on a cargo hauler to Okinawa and then on to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. He told me, ‘That’s as far as I can help you. That cargo plane turns around and comes back to Pearl. I think you can get to Turkey from Diego Garcia, but I’m not sure’”.
“I thanked him and then Tony took me to the commissary and had the cook put together some sandwiches for me. I grabbed a few cans of soda and Tony drove me to the hanger to where the cargo hauler was. I had to give one of my travel orders to the pilot, who wouldn’t let me on without it. I thanked Tony and got on the plane after we exchanged addresses. ‘Let me know how it turns out!’ he shouted at me as I went up the ramp.”
“Anyway, that was a horrible flight. The passenger area in those cargo planes holds about ten people and there aren’t any seats; just two long benches. Plus, it was freezing cold. The co-pilot gave me a blanket, but it wasn’t enough. I put on all the clothes I could, but I was still cold. When we landed at Futenma Air Base in Okinawa, they wouldn’t let me off the plane. I never got to Okinawa when I was in Nam, so I really wanted to see what it was like; I mean, when would I ever get back there?”
A growl from Parks made Ray get back on track.
“So, the plane refueled and went on to Diego Garcia. That was another long trip in the cold; about twelve hours. When we landed, I nearly threw up from the heat. It must have been pushing ninety-five degrees there. I went into the control building and found the Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, CMS Walters, who scheduled flights. This guy was no-nonsense, so I was straight with him. I told him about the bet and that I had blank travel orders to use. I didn’t tell him how I got them, though.” Parks snorted at that.
“CMS Walters got interested, but said, ‘I really can’t get you all the way back to Ramstein. We do have a flight that goes to Turkey after refueling in Bahrain, but it only goes once a week. Not soon enough to help you. However, there is a flight going to Greece tomorrow; not one of ours, but a Greek Air Force fuel tanker that was on loan to Pacific Command. I might be able to get you on it, but you will have to make your way from Souda Bay on Crete up to Larissa Airbase in Northern Greece. From there, you can get a flight to either Ramstein or Aviano in
“So, I stayed in the Transient Officers Quarters that night. I was really wiped out. That long flight from Okinawa did me in. I was woken up by the Duty Officer’s orderly in time to catch a quick breakfast. Then he drove me over to the hanger where the Greek fuel tanker was getting ready to take off. The pilot didn’t speak a word of English, so I just wrote ‘Souda Bay’ on one of the travel orders and gave it to him. He nodded, gave me back my copy, and pointed to the ladder to get into the crew compartment. When I climbed in, an airman smiled at me and asked, ‘American?’ I nodded and he pointed to a pull-down jump seat. I strapped in and about fifteen minutes later we were in the air.”
Parks interrupted, “Wait a minute. You just admitted that you lost the bet. A Greek military flight? You were supposed to use US military transportation!”
I interjected, “No, you said military transports. You didn’t say which military.”
Ray went on, “Anyway, I must have still been exhausted from the Okinawa flight, because I fell asleep again. I was jerked awake by being thrown against the seat straps, then slammed back into the bulkhead. There was another crewman in the compartment with us and he just looked at me and grinned. He jerked his thumb towards the outer bulkhead and said ‘storm’. I was thinking, no shit, Sherlock, but I couldn’t say anything, because I was trying to keep from throwing up.”
“I saw the first crewman put his hand to his headset, then he spoke into his mike, ‘OK.’ He leaned over to me and said ‘No Souda Bay. Bad Storm. Bad Winds. We go to Sedes.’ Well that was fine, but I had no idea where Sedes was. ‘Where Sedes?’ I asked. ‘North. Near Bulgaria’. At that point, I didn’t really care where Sedes was, I just wanted to be back on the ground.”
“About two hours later, we landed at Sedes. That was at about ten pm. The duty sergeant at the control building didn’t speak much English, but I managed to get him to understand that I wanted to go to Germany. Finally, he picked up the phone, spoke some gobbledygook to someone and a few minutes later, a young private came in. He spoke some English and told me that there were no flights scheduled to go anywhere for the next few days. Also, there was no regular bus or van to get me to Larissa. But, if I wanted to go to Germany, he thought he could help.”
“We went outside and got into his jeep. We drove off the airbase and he went off the main road after a few miles. We spent the next hour or so driving along a bunch of back roads and finally drove into a small village and stopped outside a train station. The Greek private said, ‘Lesovo. Troop train to Germany.’ He pointed at my decorations and grinned, ‘Credentials’. Then he pointed to the ‘US ARMY’ plate on my uniform and asked, ‘Souvenir?’ I took it off and handed it over. ‘Thanks for all the help’. He just smiled and nodded.
So, I went inside and there were some soldiers sitting on a bench. I sat down opposite them and one of them spoke to me in some weird language. I thought abought it, then shook my head.’ One of the troops nodded and pointed to my medals, ‘Ethiopia?’ When the guy said Ethiopia, I realized that they probably had never seen a black guy before. I had been looking around and all the signs were in some funny alphabet. Then, I remembered reading somewhere that the Russians were in Ethiopia. Right then, I realized that the Greek soldier must have brought me into Bulgaria by way of the back roads. That’s why he wanted my US ARMY
plate. I just nodded, and then said, ‘Berlin.’ They smiled and that was it.”
“When the train chugged into the station, I got on with those guys and found a seat. That train went to Sophia, then Belgrade, Budapest, Prague, Dresden, and finally, East Berlin. At every stop, soldiers got on and off. I figured that if I could just get to East Berlin, I could bullshit my way over the border. Whenever anyone spoke to me, I just shrugged and said, ‘Ethiopia’ and ‘Berlin’.”
I was trying not to laugh, especially as I could see that Parks was fuming. I had a feeling he was about to start screaming if Ray didn’t finish soon.
“When I got off the train at the East Berlin Bahnhof, it was late last night. I had been on that train for almost twenty hours. Walking outside, I saw a bunch of young people talking and laughing. I went up to them, and you know that my German is pretty good, so we got to bullshitting. Anyway, I told them that I was American and had wound up in East Berlin by mistake. They really thought it was funny. They talked me into going to a club with them to have a beer and figure out how to get me over the border. Later, we were all drunk when they had me change into civilian clothes and drove me to Checkpoint Charlie. They explained what was going on to the East German guards and the guards just laughed about it. The guards had me pose for a picture with them, then they walked me through to our side.”
“Our MP’s weren’t so nice. They asked me for my ID, and when they looked up the 74th on some list they freaked out and arrested me, putting me in cuffs and everything. Some MP Captain came in and started asking me all these questions, but I was so drunk, I just fell down and laughed. So, they took me to the train station and the MP’s rode the train with me to Hanover. When we got to Hanover, they turned me over to some other MPs who were waiting for me. They told me they were waiting for the train to take me to Stuttgart. When we got to Stuttgart, I had them call the Colonel. Then they put me in a holding cell until you showed
Ray dug a wad of papers out of his duffel bag and handed them up to Parks. “Here are my validated travel orders for each flight. Of course, I don’t have anything from the train.”
“Ray, why did you have the MP’s call the Colonel? He might have had Wilson throw the book at you.”
“You must have missed it in my file. The officer who put me in for the Bronze Star was Colonel Grandino. He was a Captain then; our Company Commander.” He waved to indicate Parks and himself. “I kept him from getting hit by mortar fire. Damn mortar got me instead.”
Parks had been sitting quietly, rubbing his temples. “I’ve got a headache. Technically, since you are assigned to a nuclear unit, you could be sent to Leavenworth for ten years for being inside a Warsaw Pact country. But, God help the Communist that ever tried to interrogate you.” He paused for a few seconds, gazing into the darkness. “I want my money back. And, as a lesson, I want twenty percent of your winnings to pay for the Fourth of July Detachment picnic. After all, you cheated by using those travel orders.” He looked at me, “How much will
“Well, we have six thousand, four hundred and fifteen bet against Ray. We subtract out twelve hundred and eighty to go to those who bet for Ray to make it. That leaves five thousand, one hundred and thirty-five. Minus your five hundred makes it forty-six hundred and thirty-five. Twenty percent is nine hundred and twenty-seven dollars for the picnic and the same for me, which leaves twenty- seven hundred and eighty-one dollars for Ray. Not a bad haul.”
“I worked for it. I never want to see the inside of another airplane.”
Later, when we turned onto the road to Klösterlechfeld, the village next to our airbase, Parks said. “Don’t either of you say anything about those travel orders. Ray, you’ve won your bet. Enjoy it.”
The sun was just starting to come up when I pulled the van into our compound and dropped them off at the HQ building, then drove over to the motor pool. I was thinking, nine hundred and twenty-seven dollars. Not much for the risk of getting court-martialed and being sent to the stockade. From now on, I would stay away from Ray Ellis. And I would have to keep an eye on the Sergeant-Major who knew everything.