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Excess baggage

August 29, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

I spent almost all my time in the Navy at a small communications poston an army basein northern Germanyaway from ships of any kind. And as odd as that sounds, it was no odder than anything else about my military career.

Anyhow, in May 1972, when I had about 11 months left on my hitch, the Navy suddenly announced it was closing our command. Anyone having less than a year in his enlistment could get discharged; everyone else was stuck for their 365-plus days.

Of course I opted for getting out. And since we were having a beautiful summer, I figured I'd stay till the end of July.

This gave me plenty of time to relax before I hit The World (or as it turned out, before The World hit me).

But while I was taking it easy, the rest of the place was in a frenzy. Essentially, all the Navy communications materiel had to be dismantled and shipped out, and all the sailors and dependents - hundreds of them - had to be reassigned and moved. And all of it had to be done in only a few months.

First, our mission was reassigned to other stations, which was done in a month. After that, we got different assignments. Mine - along with about 50 other guys - was with the Sea Bees. I showed up at 0800, as ordered, and reported to the chief in charge. He was a fat, beady-eyed little swine, who for reasons I never knew, clearly despised me.

As he read off the various assignments, I did the only thing I could - I waited to hear just how much of a screw-job I was going to get. The longer I waited, the more I knew it'd be a good one, since from time to time the chief'd look up and give me a vile little smirk.

Finally, I was the only one left.

After he read my name, he paused with a look of fake surprise on his face, and said, "Hey, look at this. You go to Army Household Baggage."

My surprise, however, wasn't the least faked.

"Army Household Baggage?" I said. "What the hell is that?'

"Dunno," he said. "But you go over there and I'm sure you'll find out."

I left, furious. First, I figured I'd spend my final three months there shlepping suitcases, sea chests and household appliances all over some huge, disgusting warehouse. And second, after three-and-a-half years of exemplary behavior and productivity, I was being sent to the Army? It was an insult, plain and simple.

I fumed all the way to the Household Baggage building, but by the time I got there, I was resigned to my fate. After all, if I'd learned nothing else in the service, I'd sure learned how to tolerate inequity.

In the army now

I went into the main office and was greeted by the guy in charge, a captain, who seemed like a decent sort.

"OK," he said, "your job is to fill out and process the forms submitted by the Navy families. Chief Foster's assigned here, too, so he can help you. It's not really complicated, it just takes time, is all."

Then he took me into a big room with four desks, with a typewriter on each. At two of them were German secretaries; at the third was Chief Foster. He was a grey-faced cadaverous character, who sat slumped over his desk, cup of coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other, staring off somewhere in the middle distance. The fourth desk, now empty, was presumably mine.

The captain then introduced me to the secretaries, said they'd explain the fine points and he left.

The secretaries showed me the forms, told me what went where and how to do blah blah blah, and if I needed any help, to just ask for it.

After that, I went over and introduced myself to Chief Foster. He just sat there, taking alternate hits of coffee and his cigarette. Finally, he slowly turned his head, looked at me with red, rheumy eyes and mumbled something like, "Yeah."

It took me about two seconds to figure out the cause of his apparent anomie: He was in the throes of one king hell of a hangover.

No biggie - it wasn't the first time I'd seen a monumentally hungover chief. And if he stayed at Household Baggage with me, it sure wouldn't be the last.

When I went to my desk and decided to go to work, I had my second big surprise - there was no work.

Actually, there was work, but the German secretaries did it all. And when I say all, I mean all. There was nothing for either me or Chief Foster to do.

Ultimately, this wasn't all that weird. When I was in Germany, the U.S. dollar was so strong, we farmed out most of the base jobs to German nationals. The snack bar, the theater, the cafeteria, the garage, the barber shop, the bowling alley, the craft club - you name it and German nationals staffed it.

In fact, the gate guards for our top secret, hush-hush radio shack were all German nationals, too - raising yet one more question about who in fact won WWII.

So, ultimately, the secretaries doing my work for me was only logical.

and darn glad of it!

At 1100, we broke for lunch, and when I came back at noon, I had my next surprise.

"Why are you back?" asked one of the secretaries.

"Lunchtime's over," I said, naively stating the truth.

"Oh," she said, "Chief Foster never comes back here after lunch. He always goes to his afternoon Navy assignment instead."

They say the truth shall set you free, but I realized at that moment the exact opposite was true and I rose to the occasion.

"Oh yeah," I said, slapping my forehead, in the classic gesture of forgetfulness. "The afternoon Navy assignment. Of course!"

I'd instantly known Chief Foster's "afternoon Navy assignment." It was bellying up to the bar at the Chief's Club, swilling 10-cent Lowenbraus and swapping lies with his cohorts. Mine, however, was far less traditional.

I went to the gym, where I had one very long and leisurely workout, followed by an equally long and leisurely sauna. And in the midst of the sauna, it dawned on me: As long as no one found out my Household Baggage scam, I'd have it made for the rest of my hitch.

Luckily, no one ever found out. Good thing, too, since all the guys who were assigned to the Sea Bees spent the rest of the summer (the hottest summer in Germany in 40 years, no less) tearing out and packing all the equipment in the radio shack. And when they finished that, they had the pleasure of ripping up all the wiring, insulation, fixtures, appliances, carpets - all the while breathing huge fluffy clouds of dust, dirt, asbestos, dioxins and Lord knows what else.

Since Household Baggage was on the other side of the base and I didn't live in the barracks, I rarely saw those guys. But when I did, it was always the same thing.

They'd give each other a knowing look and then, barely able to contain their glee at what a loser I was, one of them would ask, "So, how's things in Household Baggage?"

My response was always the same: I'd shake my head and try look disgusted, as if it was all too painful to talk about.

Then, finally, I'd speak.

"Fellers," I'd say, "you don't even wanna know."



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