by Tony Klein
In May of 1989 I was just finishing up my time on the Rock. No, not Alcatraz there, Tiger, I’m talking about Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, where I’d been stationed with the Marines Corps. I’d been there two years and was more than ready to get on a bird and get the hell off of that island.
My brother Gary had left a year earlier, but I decided to extend another year. I had what they called, “good duty,” driving for a colonel.
“You are driving for the man,” my brother used to tell me. In a way I think he was proud of me getting such an opportunity. I looked up to Gary, who was a Lance Corporal. I felt I needed to prove something to him, and I was striving to be the best that I could possibly be.
The day before I was to leave Camp Foster, a truck showed up for my trash, the term we used in the Marine Corps for our belongings. My trash consisted of four sets of t-shirts, skivvies, socks, two pair of boots, four sets of trousers, one jacket, three long-sleeve shirts, three short-sleeved shirts, two garrison caps, and four sets of camouflage utilities, all green and military issue.
At dawn’s first light I jumped out of bed and stepped to the window. My barracks room was on the third floor, and the building sat atop a hill overlooking the entire base and that beautiful ocean. In my eyes it was the best view, paradise. I opened my window to soak in that springtime freshness. The morning was clear, not a cloud in the sky. Looking out over the ocean, I could see the sun shining on the ripples in the water.
I headed for the shower, but took a moment for a last look around my small barracks room: the bunk beds, two closets, two chairs and refrigerator. The room always had an overpowering smell of cleaning supplies and air freshener, a lingering aroma that I would not miss anytime soon.
I stopped off at the chow hall to scarf down a last helping of those nasty-tasting powdered eggs, toast, and coffee, which tasted just like mud.
At the motor pool, an older Japanese fellow, my cabdriver, waited, ready to take me to the airport. I was so relieved because I thought I was going to miss my ride. Had we left the motor pool any later, we would have gotten caught in rush hour traffic, which could be murder. I threw my luggage in the van and said, “HJubba, hubba, honcho!” which in Japanese slang means, “hurry, hurry, cabdriver!” He got me to the airport at 7:30 a.m., a record time by any cab driver’s standards, and well ahead of my 9 AM flight.
At the gate I pondered how much I hated to fly over large bodies of water. If my plane went down, how would the search and rescue team find us if we were sitting at the bottom of the ocean? Would their radar pick us up? Even if we were to pry our way out, we couldn’t hold our breath long enough to make it to the top. And I have an extreme fear of sharks. Either way I would be toast. With about 150 other passengers, I boarded the plane for the two-hour flight to Tokyo. Then I’d be on to Detroit. “We’ll be taking off shortly,” the captain said over the intercom, “so sit back, make sure you’re buckled in, and enjoy the flight.”
We backed away from the terminal and taxied down the runway. This was the moment I had been waiting two years for. At the edge of the runway, we stopped. I assumed we were just waiting for clearance to power up and take off.
Twenty minutes passed before the captain told us that we were experiencing some technical difficulties. “Just sit tight and we should be on our way shortly,” he said. “I’m going to throw on a movie for everyone to watch.”
After we sat through all of Rain Man, the captain’s voice came over the intercom again. “I’m sorry, folks, but we won’t be flying today,” he said. “It seems our oil pump has gone out and they will have to order one from Tokyo and have it shipped in later tonight. We have no more flights leaving for Tokyo until tomorrow morning.” Picturing what could have been, our plane dropping from the sky into the ocean, I felt lucky to be alive. To be living in that moment, and imagining my future, was the most thrilling and humbling experience I had ever gone through. I had so many possibilities ahead of me. I would be reunited with my family, I would receive an honorable discharge and could further my education through the GI Bill. I thought about having a real shot at true love. I could get married, have kids, travel the world with them. My heart raced. As we taxied back to the gate, the passengers complained about the hassle and inconvenience.
Everyone except for me.
I believe I was supposed to die that day. I guess God had a different plan, and gave me a second chance.