This story has nothing to do with flying airplanes and maybe just a little bit about crew dogs, those military crew members just trying to do a job and have some fun in the process.
— James Albright
The thing about flying Air Force One Backup is you are supposed to remain unseen, unheard, and generally maintain a very low profile. We pack two crews into the airplane, fly somewhere just ahead or just behind Air Force One, and then we wait. If the airplane is needed, we move on a moment's notice and the Air Force One crew — the big boys — take our airplane and we find our own way home. Now that's glamour!
This week's trip was to Japan and I was paired with one of my favorite travel mates, Fred Steele. "Fast Freddie" is a former SR-71 pilot and not in the normal MAC — Military Airlift Command — mold used to cut most of us VIP pilots. In fact, I'm not really cut from that die either, so it would be a good pairing. The second crew, the B team, were dyed in the wool MAC toads and would be happy enough to spend their half of the time off doing whatever it was that makes MAC toads happy.
"We got two days off," Fred said to me as we droned on at 45,000 feet with Alaska behind us and Japan in front, "what can we do in two days other than visit every bar between the base and Tokyo?"
Now that was a good question. We spent a lot of time in Tokyo and most of it in bars. Everyone had already done the obligatory visits to the Ginza and the emperor's palace. Boring. Of course Fred had done none of that, since as an SR-71 pilot he had a very narrow travel portfolio. As we neared Tokyo Fred spotted Mt. Fuji in the distance. "What's that?"
"Fuji Yama," I said. "Mount Fuji to you, white boy."
"We should climb it."
"Are you serious? It is over 12,000 feet high and it takes a few days to do that."
"We got two."
So we announced our travel plans to the B Team and they agreed to take the first two days while we attempted to climb Mt Fuji. "Just be back by Wednesday at 1800! If you are late you are dead meat." That much didn't need to be said. Spending two days on the airplane was cruel and inhumane punishment so we normally broke our shifts into twenty four hours. They were cutting us a huge amount of slack.
We landed at 1800 and Fast Freddie and I were walking to the train station the next morning by 0500. We both looked at our watches and noted our suspense. "T-minus 37 hours and counting," Fred said. Give a guy astronaut wings and he talks like that the rest of his life.
The thirty minutes out of Tokyo were very nice and very fast. "This is going to be a piece of cake."
The next three hours? Not so fast. Not so nice.
By two p.m. (T-minus 28 hours) we found our way to the base of the mountain, dressed only in running shoes, light jackets, and we each had a backpack filled with granola bars, a camera, and a standard issue USAF canteen filled with water. There were a few merchants hawking their wares to the few of us who came out for the climb. For a couple of hundred yen we each got a walking stick. It seemed like the thing to do.
They say the best time of year to climb Mt. Fuji is August. The worst time of year would be all the other months. That's where we found ourselves. "At least there isn't a crowd," Fast Freddie observed. After an hour's climb I would have to agree. Behind us? Nobody. Ahead of us? Nobody. Two of us a crowd does not make. Without a second thought, we selected the Subashiri-Guchi route. My Japanese isn't what it used to be, okay it was never what is used to be, but the sign said something about this route being tranquil. Tranquil is good. The sign also predicted we would be on top of the world by dinner time, it would be an easy four hour climb. Muttsu toki. "It's only muttsu toki to the top," I told Fred. Good news indeed.
Fred is part mountain goat and he traveled up the thirty to forty degree incline with agility, style, and grace. I had to double time with something less than his agility, style, and grace just to keep up. Every now and then I would stumble and fall back a few feet. Fred would look back, "you okay?"
"Okay? I'm just lying here flat on my back with a few loose rocks on top of me and a useless walking stick half way up my..."
"Don't forget, we gotta get that stick burnt at each station." Yes, each station. Most of the stations were deserted. There would be a helpful sign with a picture of a walking stick with yet another station milestone burnt into its side. So far we had passed six stations and had two burn marks to show for our efforts. Just muttsu toki, I reminded myself. On top of the world by six.
"Are you sure that sign said four hours?" Of course I'm sure. Muttsu means four. Every Hawaii boy has that drilled into his head: "Hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, yottsu, itsustu, muttsu...
"Ah, Fred? Muttsu means six. We got another two hours to go." Those hours passed quietly and for the most part, in the dark. We found a hut on top with two old Japanese men tending to a fire. "Dozo," they said and we gladly shared the warmth. They spoke no English and with what little Japanese I have we managed to coax a bowl of soup and rice before settling onto the ground for the night, our back packs as pillows.
The next morning I woke to "T-minus twelve, buddy. You missed the sunrise." I also missed the snowfall. The path we took up was no longer passable. Our Japanese hosts pointed us to the opposite end of the mountain, it would take longer, but at least we could find the path. As fast as Fast Freddie can climb a mountain, he is doubly so going down. Using only his well-burnt walking stick for course corrections, he was flying down that mountain. Me too, what choice did I have? "T-minus six," he announced as we stopped at a dead end, "we gotta go back up a bit." Up to go down. Yikes.
But down we went, passing the noteworthy fifth station with T-minus three. Noteworthy because there is a train station there. We boarded and sat in our seats, a row apart, too exhausted to talk. Across the aisle a pair of Japanese school girls chatted, smiling, and every now and then looking at Fred. "What are they saying, James? They are pointing at me."
I strained to listen. Fred, the confirmed bachelor, always trying to look good for the females. We were both covered in Fuji grime. What could they be saying? Totemo ku-sai. What does that mean? Ah, I got it. "They are saying you are really cute. Ku-sai means cute."
Fred beamed happily. Every single male his age wants to be called cute. Ku-sai. Fred was ku-sai, if you are into that kind of thing. Wait a minute. My mom used to call me ku-sai, but she would never call her boys cute. Cute was babies and girls. Cute was ... ka-wa-ii. When did my mom call us ku-sai?
"No Fred, ku-sai isn't cute. Ku-sai means stink. Fred, you really do ku-sai."
We made it back to the base at T-minus negative ten minutes. I guess that would be T-plus ten. "The B-team is going to be pissed." Thirty minutes later we were at the airplane and the B-team was in the middle of a poker hand. "Oh you guys back already? Whad'ya got to show for your adventure?" We proudly showed them our walking sticks, each with a fair number of burn marks. "Oh that's nice," they all agreed.
"You guys got the jet. We're heading for the O'club."
Note: the walking stick, with all its burns marks, has been sitting in the closet for thirty years now.