Soaring spirit

When aircraft from McConnell Air Force Base soared overhead last month in a tribute to those fighting the coronavirus, Roberta Seiwert Lampe couldn’t help feeling thankful.

Thankful for medical personnel, first responders and others on the frontline of the battle. Thankful for the pilots and base personnel who made the air show possible.

And thankful for memories it rekindled. 

Here’s the letter she penned to Col. Richard Tanner, commander of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell.

Hello Col. Tanner,

I love airplanes, ships, trains — anything that travels. And in my younger years, from 1956-59, my dream of travel was fulfilled as a member of the Women’s Air Corps.

Watching your beautiful big planes brought back memories. And the more that returned, the more I had to smile.

I was raised in Garden Plain. My dad had to sign my enlistment papers. Having no brothers and with me being the oldest daughter, you can imagine what a jolt that was to him. World War II had ended not too many years before. He finally said, “I’ll sign your papers, but if you don’t like it, don’t come crying to me.” My answer: “Don’t worry, I won’t.”

I wanted to join the Air Force but their recruiter thought I was too young to work in Public Information. Because I’d written for publications, the Army agreed to send me to Public Information School.

So it was off to basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., then to Public Information School at Fort Slocum, on Long Island Sound near New Rochelle, N.Y., all by various means of travel. If one of the girls from basic training, originally from Massachusetts, had not come with me, I would still be trying to get out of Grand Central Station. 

Then on to Fort Knox, Ky., to the Armor School Headquarters for 13 months. Just thought about a person I worked with at Ft. Knox, a really strange little bird whose name I was to be reminded of later – Harlan Ellison. He asked me once if I wanted to read the story he was writing, about a machine that mass-produced women. Told him I wasn’t interested. Years later, he was on a talk show, a writer of 140-plus books and one of the most popular episodes of “Star Trek.” How about that? He just passed away five months ago, at age 84.

After Knox, orders came for Germany. By bus then to Fort Dix, then to nearby McGuire AFB. On the way, visited Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, although it was raining like crazy.

Then for 17 months to Frankfurt am Main, Germany, a dream fulfilled.

But first Newfoundland, for refueling. Landed in the dark, and colder than blazes in late November. They had cleared the runway and we walked through snow banks probably 12 feet high to a small building to wait. Then it was back through the snow tunnel and onto the plane, the sun rising beautifully in the east and us flying between clouds above and below us.

And then Prestwick, Scotland, again for refueling, and another very small wooden building, encircled by a fence, near a pasture and a farmer’s cows taking it all in. 

Our next landing: Rhein Main Air Base in Frankfurt, shared by the U.S. military and the city. Frankfurt was not the major European hub it is today. They barely had Frankfurt rebuilt. 

I worked for Public Information, Northern Area Command, located in the IG Farben Building, once the home of the largest chemical company in the world, and Eisenhower’s headquarters in 1945. It was a huge, fabulous building, with an equally huge club for the company. Love it there,
 I did. 

Another adventure: Ann, a friend in my detachment, and I contacted the Air Base for a possible hop on one of their planes to London. We were assigned to a cargo plane. Wooden benches along the sides to sit, parachutes strapped to our backs, with instructions, if we had to ditch in the English Channel, to kick off shoes and head for the door. Fourteen young men also hitching a ride — and good-looking! But the real thrill: all those huge cartons of cargo strapped down the middle of the plane. Please Lord, don’t let those straps break.

The plane landed at an air base about 65 miles from London, then we took a train into the city. We met some English sailors who directed us to the subway for the military hotel. When we got there, the clerk asked, “Did you come on the tube?” I stammered while Ann answered, “Roberta, yes, the tube!” The hotel was near London’s beautiful Hyde Park. We met some English folks there who were real memory makers. We returned via the ferry across the English Channel, through Holland and then “home” to Germany.

I did lots of traveling over there, as I also did here in the United States. And no, Dad, I did not regret it at all.

Roberta Seiwert Lampe lives in Garden Plain. She is the author of “Two Farm Cats,” “Prairie Dog Pet” and other books.

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