We were wheels up Tuesday night--April 21, 2009--out of Andrews Air Force Base.
We are the team of America's toughest tour--the annual Toby Keith USO tour. With seven tours under their big buckle belts since 2002, TK and his band of brothers are nearly as seasoned at these jaunts as our military.
Our air crew, five young USAF pilots and loadmasters based out of Charleston Air Force Base, welcomed us aboard our USAF C-17. Four rows of airline passenger seats had been locked into the floor, jump seats lined both sides of the plane, and our luggage had been palletized and stored up on the tail section. If you didn't carry on, there would be no stewardess to bring a pillow or blanket during the nine hour flight to Germany. This was a no frills flight--no windows, no wall covering, exposed wires, shafts, circuitry, and vents--and a portable latrine. But the flight was as smooth as could be at a cool 38,000 feet.
The band made themselves comfortable for the long haul we had in front of us, playing spades well into the night--Toby and Brian O'Connell lead in the ongoing tour tournament of cards that they've been playing during their annual USO tours seven years running--while the rest of us tried to grab some shut eye to keep up the time zones passing below us one by one.
At 1000 local time, "0830 Zulu time" we landed at Ramstein Air Base for a short layover. Waiting on the rest of our team to arrive and bring on some fuel, we were brought over to the base golf club--courtesy of the US Air Force, of course--for brunch on the veranda overlooking the 10th hole--a par 3, 160 landscaped yards. A short pop up into the air, some good aim, and a little luck, you might score one of the course's favored hole in ones.
Unable to resist at least an attempt at German golf fame, Toby and the boys grabbed an eight iron and went for the hole. As so much in the game of golf does, the hole in one eluded all--with two balls on the beach, two more treed, and another six feet from the pin.
Being out in the sun, on a mild spring day in Germany, mingling with service members on that treasured day off to play a round was the perfect layover, military style. Beats commercial layovers any day of the year in a stuffy airport terminal watching life taunt you from the outside.
All around Ramstein, Toby and the guys posed for photos with every service member we encountered. This is why Toby does the USO tours -- to meet our service men and women around the world. The photos were all smiles. A handshake and a chat about where they were from, and the guys climb on board once again. They've done this before, they're as good as they ever were.