Back in the old days you would walk up to an airline counter at the airport, pull some money out of your wallet and buy a ticket for cash. If you had cash they didn’t even ask to see your identification. I begin today’s blog with this preamble because in 1970 I had a flight that became the hitch hike trip from hell.
In 1970 I was stationed onboard the USS Claude V Ricketts, DDG-5, which at the time was in the Portsmouth Naval Ship Yard. The Ricketts was in the yards, it was a holiday weekend, and I didn’t have the duty. Put in a Special Request Chit in to have the Thursday before the holiday off and it was approved. That gave me 4 consecutive days off a rarity at the time. I wanted to go home to Louisville for the long weekend, and I wanted to have as much time as possible off. I decided to fly. Back in the old days, you could fly round trip from Norfolk VA to Louisville KY for $104 dollars round trip. I called Piedmont Airlines and made a reservation. Another major difference was you didn’t have to have a credit card, you could pay cash at the counter when you went to the airport for your flight. Oh and by the way, there was no such thing as a direct flight from point A to B. The flight I was scheduled to take, considered a normal flight from Norfolk to Louisville when something like this. Depart Norfolk, 1st stop Chesapeake VA, 2nd stop Richmond VA, 3rd stop Charleston WVA, 4th stop Lexington KY and then 5th and final stop Louisville KY. Total flight time over 5 ½ hours. Also military had to be in uniform to get the Military Discount. I was wearing Tropical Whites Long. Anyway back to the story, on the Thursday morning I arrived at the airport, when up to the Piedmont Airlines counter waited my turn. My reservation was confirmed, and the very nice lady said if I flew standby I could save 40 dollars reducing my ticket price from 104 to 64 dollars. To an E3 that forty dollars represented almost 2 weeks salary. But that reduction came at a different price. You could be bumped from the flight at any of the stops along the way. The Piedmont sales counter person really was pro military, and she really wanted me to save my money, she told me getting to Louisville would not be a problem at all, and that the flight I was scheduled to take returning Sunday evening was only 1/3 full. She almost promised that I wouldn’t have any problems flying standby both ways. Based on this advice I changed my reservation to standby, and pocketed the 40 bucks, my beer budget tripled for the weekend.
I flew to Louisville, as promised the flight to Louisville at no point had more than 50 percent of the seats occupied. It was great. Got to Louisville as scheduled and had a great weekend. I have no memories at all of the weekend, but I remember I still had money in my pocket when I headed back to Norfolk.
Now on to the substance of this blog. Remember above where I outlined the trip from Norfolk to Louisville, well the return was the opposite. I was one of 3 sailors on the return flight to Norfolk, 2 of us were flying standby. The flight was almost full, but I wasn’t overly concerned the Piedmont Lady in Norfolk told me there wouldn’t be a problem. The flight departed on time, and at our First stop Lexington KY, myself and another sailor were asked to leave the plane, we had been bumped. We were advised that Piedmont was sorry, and they could get us on a 9am flight the next morning. That would have made us UA (Unauthorized Absence). We made the decision to hitch hike to Norfolk. We figured we had almost 13 hours before muster. BTW I didn’t know this guy, and we were not shipmates. We got our refunds, about $13 apiece, and hit the road. We did decide to hitch hike together both of our ships were in Portsmouth and we could back each other.
Another thing to remember was back then it was not interstate between point A and B. US 64 was 4 lanes to Charleston WVA and from there to Richmond VA was pretty much 2 lane roads. From Richmond to Norfolk and Portsmouth was 4 lane.
We caught our 1st ride within minutes of getting off the airport proper. It was a dad and his son coming home after a Cincinnati Reds ball game. I remember the father being very nice to me and the other guy. But this ride only lasted 25 miles or so, and then the car broke down, and we were thumbing again. The next ride took a lot longer to catch, we must have stood there for 15 or 20 minutes before the next ride. Our next ride got us as far as Huntington WVA. Maybe 100 miles at most, but we had covered 125 of 600 miles in about 2 ½ hours. And it was still light when we got to Huntington. Huntington to Charleston was relatively easy, but it being Sunday night the traffic was thinning (and it was only about 50 miles). But we were making progress, and the fact we were in our Dress Grimy Whites made us easy to see on the side of the road. But we were now on State Route 60, a snake trail thru the mountains of West Virginia. No traffic, no light, no signs of life, and you heard banjo’s playing in the background. Time seemed to stand still, we had maybe 6 different rides between Charleston and Richmond (a distance of 300 miles) took close to 8 hours. We knew we would never make muster, so we call our respective ships and told them we were going to be late getting back to the ship. It took 3 more rides before we finally made it back to our ships. I reported to Officer of the Deck at approximately 1100, and was logged in. I needed a shave, and my uniform looked like I had slept in it on a pile of coal. That too was noted in the log book. I was told to get cleaned up and report to my duty station (radio central). Where the Chief Radioman gave me hell for not calling the duty radioman, instead of the quarterdeck. I was advised that I might end up in Captain’s Mast because of my actions, which scared the crap out of me. But I wasn’t allowed to dwell on it. At end of the day the Chief came to me and told me that starting 0800 the next day I was assigned to the vent cleaning team. This was my penalty for being UA for 3 hours. I was assigned to this duty for 5 days (which could be a story by itself). But I wasn’t formally written up, and no note was included in my permanent record.
This was a valuable lesson. I never flew standby again. I never missed another muster, and I always left Louisville in plenty of time to make it back to the ship in a timely fashion.
Thanks for listening, as always your comments are invited and welcome.