July 1995. Mark Wilkerson, trombone picker and memoirist.
The Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee has been a favorite trip for all of us at The Army Band. We fly out on Saturday, have a free evening, march in the parade on Sunday afternoon, and fly back. Transportation is always Military Air. All meals are furnished by the sponsors, so there is no per diem. Many folks volunteer for the trip as there are a multitude of fine German restaurants and numerous breweries (micro and otherwise) to slake a bandsman’s thirst. A few of us go to see the Brewers play, as they usually are at home that weekend. And so it was that our I, a simple Staff Sergeant (promotable to simple Sergeant First Class) was assigned to this year’s trip.
The temperature had been in the 100’s all week in Milwaukee, and we feared that a 4½-mile parade in that heat would be brutal. Fortunately, the weather broke, and the parade went off with the temperature in the low 80’s and humid. That’s still hot enough that you sweat through your hat during a long parade. We checked out of our rooms prior to the parade, but a few rooms were retained for us to change and, hopefully, shower afterwards. Little did some of us know what kind of shower that would be.
One of the “Regular Army” supply sergeants who works with us has called our musicians “the dumbest bunch of smart people” he ever saw. This was borne out as we repaired to the rooms after the parade. There were about seven guys to a room and space was limited. For want of a better place, a clarinet player hung an empty coat hanger on the ring that protects the fire sprinkler head and managed to strike the fragile fitting. Hence, there were ten rooms doused, along with all of the clothes that those folks had. The hotel staff was thrilled. I was fortunate to be in another area, get a conventional shower, change into the spare pair of underwear I had brought, and pack my sweat-soaked clothes. All of us having gotten a shower of one sort or another, we got on the bus for the return trip.
After a wait, SGM Bill Lee, the Ceremonial Band Group leader and all-around good guy, came on board to ask us all to come inside for a meeting. It seems that the plane that had brought us to Milwaukee had gone on to Mississippi after it had dropped us off the day before. While it was there, the pilot had hit his head on the wing resulting in an injury requiring sutures. He and the plane had gone back to Washington, so our transportation home for 67 people now consisted of the C-130 cargo plane that had brought our equipment. Seventeen seats were available. It was decided that those assigned to work the next day, those going on leave, and one poor soul with the stomach flu would take that flight. The rest of us would remain until transportation could be arranged. Aside from an underwear shortage, those of us who had not been involved in the sprinkler incident weren’t too bothered by this, as it meant another night in downtown Milwaukee.
Unfortunately, Milwaukee was also popular with another very large group holding a convention, and that group had booked almost all of the hotel rooms in the entire city. Our hotel only had ten rooms vacant, and one might recall that they were a little damp. Finally, after camping in the hotel lobby and bar for a few hours, rooms were secured at a motel out at the airport. We climbed on the bus and left the fine hotels and restaurants of downtown for Motel 8 and Denny’s. And so to bed.
Most of us, I’m sure, figured that we’d get a call at 0DARK00 the next morning telling us to be ready to leave right away. As it turned out, there was a sign posted when we ventured out in the morning that announced a 1630 departure. We again consolidated our belongings into a few rooms, took careful note of the location of the fire sprinkler heads and scattered to pass the day as best we could. The Band is always resourceful in these situations. Some folks went downtown by cab, others rented clubs and played golf, and others took in a movie. We all convened at 1630 for the bus ride to the airport. After an extended tour of the various terminal facilities, we finally found the terminal we would use for departure. It was only a few hundred yards from the hotel. The greatest source of disappointment at the terminal was that there was no plane there. A call to the Air Force Base that knows where every military flight is at any moment revealed that they had no idea where it was.
It was decided that we should wait across the street where there was a bar and the aforementioned Denny’s, and we would be called when (some of us thought if) our flight did finally arrive. We were warned that we should be ready to go at any moment, and, sure enough, the plane arrived just after everyone ordered their food. Some folks got “doggie bags”, but some had to leave meals uneaten. As it turned out, the plane had to be serviced, so everyone could have eaten twice before we left.
The flight crew of our Navy Reserve jet had been expecting an easy day. Originally, they were to fly a group to a destination for a meeting, wait for them, and fly back. After the delivery, however, they were sent to transport another group, and then returned to collect the original passengers, whose meeting ran long causing more delay. Somewhere in this process, they lost cabin pressure and had to repair a defective window. Then to top it off, they were sent to fly us home. So, they had already been flying for a long time by the time they saw our beleaguered faces.
After about a half-hour wait, our bus was dismissed and we boarded the plane, and prepared for takeoff. Unfortunately, the air traffic control computer in Chicago was not functioning, so we waited another half-hour for flight clearance. The computers came up in time for us to be informed that the Washington, D.C. area was experiencing heavy thunderstorms. The crew was rapidly closing on their time limit, so the pilot decided that we would try again the next day.
Of course, the hotel from the previous night, which was within walking distance, was booked up for the night, and the bus was long gone, so the next trick was not just to find rooms for 50 people, but to figure out how to get us there, wherever “there” was. After another hour, rooms were secured at a Ramada Inn about ten minutes away, and we were told that their shuttle would take us there. The fee would be $4. Our intrepid sergeant, knowing that he was headed home, had spent his last dollar on a piece of cherry pie at (where else?) Denny’s. Several other folks were in similar straits, so we made a foray to the local cash machine while we waited for the vans. This bears mentioning for two reasons. First, most of us had brought money for only two days where all meals were provided. Second, the only person who had any problem with the automated teller was the Band’s computer “guru”, Chuck Mayhew. At any rate, the rest of the evening was uneventful, though there were rumors floating about of a Midwestern Bermuda triangle.
Most of us wondered if we’d ever make it back by this point. After a breakfast buffet at the Ramada, we went to check out and found that there was one clerk on duty to handle the front desk and the phones. She wasn’t too pleased to see a line of 50 people form in front of her desk. Finally we checked out, took the hotel shuttle back to the air terminal ($2 this time), and had a smooth flight home. We kept waiting for the bus to break down on the way home from Andrews AFB, but we made it back to the Band building about 1400.
Oddly, a year later there were so few volunteers for the trip that some had to be assigned- including the clarinet player.