Monday, July 6, 2009

A Dangerous 4th of July Vacation

I wrote back in May about how I had been sent to an American base in Italy for Operation Allied Force (OAF) in which NATO aircraft were bombing Serbia for a total of 76 days not to long after arriving in Europe.

Looking back on it, the deployment there was probably my most memorable time in the Air Force. I was young and so new to the Air Force I didn't realize that the state we were operating in was only temporary and acceptable during 'war' circumstances. As it was all I knew I imagined it was supposed to be like it was. A situation where a lot of standards were overlooked or forgotten about because of the pressure involved in 'war-like' operations.

After we were sent back home in late June 1999 we were given what was called CAD days (contingency appreciation days) which were accumulated at the rate of 1 day off for every 6 days in a combat zone with a maximum of 14 days. These were great because they were not charged as leave and were designed to allow families to refamiliarize themselves and single guys like me to travel around Europe.

I think we had attained about 6 or 7 CAD days and then with the onset of the 4 day fourth of July holiday weekend it was a jackpot of time off.

And as I had met a girl while deployed to Italy I had a free place to crash at and it didn't take much for me to convince my best friend Angel to tag along with me. He had just arrived in Germany while I was in Italy but we knew each other prior to that from tech. school where he was about a month behind me. We had the same job and got orders to go to the same base and even the same squadron strangely enough.

As it was a 4 day weekend it was impossible to find a rental car on base on such short notice. My car was barely trustworthy enough to drive to work everyday let alone to Italy. But I had enough courage to drive it to the largest Air Force base in Germany named Ramstein AB where there was some cars available to rent. We picked up an Opel Astra four-door and parked my car on in parking lot close by bought some gas coupons and set off with nothing but a European map to get us to our destination in Italy.

We set off headed towards Munich and planned to head towards Innsbruck, Austria then south through the Alps towards an Italian town named Bolzano and then some back roads towards Pordenone which is about 115 km or 70 mi north of Venice.

We set off on the afternoon of Tuesday the 29Th of June and were thrilled that we didn't have to be back to work until the Monday the 5Th of July. It was a pretty uneventful trip through Germany and until we got to Austria. There was quite a bit of road construction through the Alps and we had to get off the autobahn and use detoured back roads. It was quite a pain but some of the scenery we saw was incredible. I remember being on this winding mountain road and seeing a large Austrian castle on the side of another mountain lit up only by the faint light of the night moon.

As Angel and I were only using a road map to guide us and now we were heavily detoured off our original path we decided to stop for the night and sleep as it has become to difficult reading the map in the car with the interior lights. We awoke the next morning to the sun coming over the crest of the mountain at around 9am and continued on our journey.

We had not been driving too long when we found ourselves on a construction marked dirt road and then at an intersection with no signs or indications as to which way we should proceed. We sat there on the smooth dirt road that was awaiting concrete to be laid on it and we decided that we would go left. Off we went down the smooth dirt road leaving a trail of dust behind us. As the road was so smooth and there was nobody insight I decided to increase my speed and soon was hitting 100 kph (60mph) when I noticed a red BMW a ways back flashing me with his lights.

I told Angel and he looked in the side mirror and said that he thought we should slow down and see what he wanted. I had other thoughts and kept going but noticed he was gaining on us very quickly and I could now hear him honking his horn at us while still flashing his headlights. Angel became much more adamant that we stop to see what he wanted and I finally relented and came to a stop. The man in the red BMW started speaking German to us and I sheepishly asked him if he spoke English to which he said that he spoke a little.

He then carried on telling us in heavily accented and slightly broken English that this road we were driving down was new and the bridge connecting it with the mountain on the other side was not finished and if we continued down it at the speed we were traveling we would have surely driven off the cliff dropping to our deaths.

Sweet... because it was definitely my and Angel's dream to re-enact Thelma and Louise with an Austrian twist.

We thanked the man profusely and he told us to follow him as he would take us back to the main road which we did and soon found ourselves stopping in Bolzano Italy for some food. By the time we set off again it was beginning to get dark and it was not too long before Angel and I realized we didn't have much money left.

The problem was that payday wasn't until the 1st (the very next day) and the rental agency had blocked off $250 on my bank card for the guarantee on the car. But more importantly at the time it meant to autostradas as they are littered with tollbooths and most importantly we didn't have anywhere enough gas to make it to Pordenone.

Off we set through the back-roads of the Italian Alps and of course we managed to find probably the only toll road in Italy that is on a small road and not the highway. We pulled up to it but there was no one there. You were supposed to put the money into an automated system similar to a candy or soda machine and the arm would them apparently lift up for you to continue on your journey.

So we sat there. I was thinking we should turn around and backtrack a little and go around it when all of a sudden Angel jumped from the passenger seat and ran up to the arm, lifted it up over his head and waved me through. He dropped it back down and jumped in the car and we took off.

Not long after that the warning light came on indicating that we were almost out of gas. I knew we probably had 50 km (30 mi) before we would stall out so I told Angel we were going to shoot for the nearest town center and wait until the morning when we would have our pay deposited into our account and then gas up.

We stopped at a gas station in the middle of a small town and decided we would wait there and keep trying our bank card in the ATM on the wall of the station as there was a machine in the middle of the 2 pumps where you could insert some lira and get gas similar to the candy or coke machine. Angel decided for some weird reason that he was going to see if he could get any gas from the pumps now. He took the nozzle inserted it into the slot and pulled up on the handle... And diesel flowed out! A total of 20,000 lire (almost $15) worth of gas poured out into our empty car. All we could think was that someone had put the money in and couldn't figure out how to get the machine to work or tried the wrong pump. I don't know. But we had go-go juice.

Between the 20,000 lire worth of diesel we were gifted and the minor amount we had left in the car we were able to make it to my friends apartment early the next morning. We didn't do to much while we were there in Italy that I can remember. I remember taking Angel to the disco I mentioned in my other Italy post as the absolute most beautiful disco I have ever seen and my friends taking us to another disco that I hadn't been to.

Angel and I also went on the base to buy some gas coupons but ended up going up a one-way road on base and getting pulled over my a military cop and thanking God he didn't give me a ticket as that would have gotten back to my squadron and Italy is quite a distance outside the 6 hour rule we are allowed to be distance wise from the base without being on leave.

I believe we left back for Germany on the Friday evening and didn't have as many problems going back like we did coming. Although we were amazed to find out that we were supposed to have a road-tax sticker for driving on any Autobahns in Austria and would have received quite the fine if we were pulled over or found out by the police.

A few weeks after returning I was called into my section chief's office and asked if I knew why OSI (The Office of Special Investigations) would be calling me over to see them. All I could think of was that I had been out of the 6 hour rule distance and maybe that cop had reported me. So, I told the section chief I had no idea why and then stopped off for some lunch before making my way to the OSI building.

I was sat in an interview room and importantly was NOT read my rights. I was asked if I had been traveling anywhere over the past week by the agent and told him that yes I had. I had travelled down to see Munich. He asked me about my driving habits overall and then specifically during that trip. I told him that in general I drive fast when there is no limit on the autobahn but obviously follow any road signs indicating speed limits when I come across them.

Apparently a woman had reported my licence plate as a car that had run her off the road somewhere between Mannheim and Munich. I have to this day no idea and never drove that erratic but I wasn't sure if that was all they had or not. So I told them that I wanted a lawyer and off I went never to hear anything about it again...

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