The Beautiful Unexpected
In October 1978, I boarded a C-130 bound for Greenland. It was a long 4-hour flight from Goose Bay, Labrador, wrapped in a wool blanket and sitting on a fold down web cot in the cargo bay. This was the beginning of a one-year assignment in the Miami of the North, Sondestrom AFB, where the days were already growing short and the temperatures remained below zero.
As my sponsor, Tina, drove me around the base pointing out the buildings, it felt like being stranded on a remote island. The longest paved road in all of Greenland was here, just a few miles long, running along the Fiord to the port connecting to the Atlantic. The speed limit was 35 mph. The total Sondestrom population was just under 1000 people, 800 of which were Danish, and only 80 women. Scandinavian Airlines flew from there to Copenhagen. The runway divided the Danish side and the American side.
We had a dining hall, gym with racket ball courts, a bowling alley, a movie theatre, a small base exchange, post office, security police, an NCO club, the Polar Bear Hotel, and two barracks. On the Danish side, there was an apartment building, the Airline Building and restaurant, grocery, and a few other buildings. There were no trees except the little potted evergreen in the Royal Danish Commander’s yard. All-in-all, it was a very small town in a stark land.
The next day we drove across the bridge over the fiord and up the long dirt road that led to the Radio and Television station. It sat beside the lake within sight of the Danish Row club, which of course was only in use a few months of the year. These were the days long before internet and we had no other source of radio or television or ways of communicating. Our connections to the world were the wire service at the station, the MARS station, and the two weekly planes. We were permitted one 30-minute call a week from the MARS station, which connected to McConnell AFB in Kansas. From there it was a collect call to whomever we wished to talk. I didn’t call home much.
The radio and television station was important to those who lived there. You could say we had a captive audience. We provided up-to-date news from the wire, but received recorded national news programs from the States one week late, delivered on the weekly C-130 runs that had ferried me there.
By Thanksgiving the days were so short they weren’t noticeable, and temperatures dropped as low as 60 below. Then I heard of a guy who had been sent back to the states for psychiatric evaluation. It sounded like a great way to get home for some form of sunshine, so I hatched a secret plan. My teddy bear, Little OVE, would become a constant companion. She had her own seat and plate of food at the dining hall, and was scolded each meal for not eating because there were hungry bears in China. We danced at the NCO club and she didn’t drink the fuzzy bear drinks ordered for her by me and others. We went to the movies. Every radio show, she sat in a chair with a mic but refused to speak, even after she had promised she would. Soon, people were driving up to the station to peak in the window to see if she was really there. All through the holidays I was quite serious about that bear, and was never seen without her.
After a few months, the base commander asked me to report to his office. Colonel Gallaway was a big, fatherly, kind-hearted Texan and did a regular radio show called Big Jim’s Country hour. Military protocol on the base was quite loose; we didn’t salute officers, we didn’t always wear our uniforms, and there were no inspections. What are they going do to you? Send you to Greenland? But this day, I polished my shoes, put on my dress blues, tucked Little Ove under my arm, and very formally reported to the Colonel for the both of us.
Big Jim smiled and began slowly with his long drawl. “I really want to thank you for what you’ve done for morale in the last few months. This time last year there were five attempted suicides. This year there were none, and I believe it’s directly attributable to you and that bear. I’m recommending you for the Air Force Commendation Medal.” Little Ove went on a shelf.
I remained in Greenland the full year. The following year, in Spain, the commander awarded me that medal, but of course the citation said nothing about Litte OVE and I didn’t reveal her secret plan until I was out of the Air Force. I pinned the medal on Little OVE and she still wears it today.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that sometimes we set out to do one thing and it turns into something completely unexpected. And the beautiful, unexpected is so much better than the plan.
Written by: Blog Contributor Linda S. Henderson