Small World!

Summer of '66

It was the summer of 1966. The end of August was approaching and I was due to leave for USAF basic training on the 2nd of September. Ten days before, I'd made the 500-mile trip up to the family cottage in the St. Lawrence River's Thousand Islands. It had been a good time - seeing friends, the party in the Danforth's boathouse, and I'd even taken my '66 Bonneville across the River to Murray Isle on a construction barge and given rides around the community house and post office to all the girls. But now it was time to return home and make final preparations.

I left at the crack of dawn with all my gear stuffed in a bag and strapped across the rear fender behind the skimpy Bates seat. Even though I had 500 miles ahead of me, I opted for Route 12 - the two-lane road we took to the River before the Interstate.

I'd only gone about forty miles when the gearbox began making a bad sound.. "It'll go away" I told myself. But it didn't. It got louder and louder until it was clear that a breakdown was imminent..

I pulled into a farm and inquired where the nearest motorcycle shop might be. I'm in luck! A fellow on a dirt road not far away works on Harleys. I manage to find him and an hour-and-a-half or so later I'm back on the road - but lighter by thirty dollars, which was nearly all the money I had.

I got on the Interstate and made a beeline for home, trying not to go faster and faster while mentally calculating over and over the remote possibility of somehow making it all the way to Maryland. I had enough change in my pocket to fill the 1-gallon peanut tank a couple of times until I finally ran out of gas a couple of miles north of Wilkes-Barre, PA.

So I pushed the Bonnie up those long, steep Pennsylvania hills and then coasted down sidesaddle until I finally reached the exit at the northern end of Wilkes-Barre.

There I was. No money, no gas, no food. I tried prevailing on a gas station attendant to loan me a couple of bucks or sport me a 1-gallon fill-up. No dice. With nothing else to do I began panhandling, an experience everyone should have at least once for a lesson in humility.

The location wasn't exactly downtown, and there weren't many people around, so I wasn't having much luck until one fellow finally stopped. After listening to my story he says he'll help me out. He drives me to his place where he makes a few calls and then we take his Harley to a nearby working man's restaurant where we're met by his buddies. After treating me to probably the best lunch I ever had we return to the gas station where my guardian angel hands me a twenty dollar bill. I fill up and he and his three friends on their Harleys all escort me across town and put me on the south-bound on-ramp with goodbye waves. Returning home I posted my benefactor a twenty-dollar bill the next day.

Now fast forward two months: basic training completed, I'm arriving at Keesler AFB for 52 weeks of technical training. As we debark the buses and get briefed, we're told that those playing brass wind instruments or drums are invited to audition for the base's Drum and Bugle Corps - with the enticements that Corps members are exempt from KP and get to straggle to classes instead of marching in formation. I decide to give it a try and I audition on tenor drum. After a couple of weeks billeted with regular troops, word comes that I was accepted by the Corps - get my stuff and get over there.

After their initial acceptance by the Corps, boots had six weeks to learn their music and pass their final audition - all the while being hazed by Ropes* - full Corps members. (Thread on your uniform? Catch a Mississippi cockroach, make a thread leash for it, and carry it around in a pocket and upon demand by a Rope present it for inspection). Those who didn't pass the audition were out, and those who did were given 72-hours to prepare for their white-glove inspection during which their room would be literally torn apart. Those who failed the inspection the first time were given 24 hours to put things right again and prepare for a do-or-die second and last chance.

So it was that I found myself assigned to a room with two Ropes whose job it was to mentor me through the next six-and-a-half weeks of hell. As we introduced ourselves I discovered that my Polish roommates Rick and Joe were both from Wilkes-Barre. Naturally, I told them my story of being stranded and subsequently rescued there. Rick asked me the name of the fellow that met me on the street and lent me the twenty and when I told him he jumped up exclaiming "That's my next-door neighbor!"

Rick and Joe turned out to be the best roommates I could ever have asked for - they were kind and helpful and at Christmas they shared with me the home-made polish kielbasa that came from back home. Rick loved telling people that he had a "Rolls-Con-Harley" back home - "rolls down one hill, can Harley make it up the next". Ever since then I've had a warm spot in my heart for Wilkes-Barre, PA.

And, yes, I got my rope! Still have it!

*Airmen who wear the black shoulder rope are experts in drill and ceremonies, those wearing a blue and white rope are members of their base's drum & bugle corps, and Air Force honor guard members wear a silver aiguillette on their left shoulder. All take pride in pristine personal appearance and presentation of the uniform.