It was the last couple of years of my military career. I was on active duty in Stuttgart, Germany, supporting operations in Bosnia. My wife and son joined me for the Christmas holidays. USEUCOM (United States European Command) gave everyone a few extra days off during Christmas week.

MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) tours were available to go to Italy for six days and seven nights – starting with midnight mass in the Vatican. Seventy-six of us signed up, and off we went on a 76-passenger bus. As we neared the long 17-kilometer (10.5 miles) Gotthard Road Tunnel, some of us smelled smoke in the bus. It was concentrated near the back end of the bus.

We notified the bus driver. He soon discovered that the insulation protecting the engine exhaust had come off (disintegrated) and had baked an unprotected portion of the engine compartment that started to smolder. He called his boss, and we were told that it would be eight hours before two busses could rescue us. It was after midnight, freezing and snowing. Did I mention that it was cold – icy?

The bus engine was shut down. We had options of sitting in the bus with a strong smoke aroma or standing outside in fresh air. It seemed that most everyone took turns inside and outside the bus that night. We had dressed warmly for our departure from Germany but not for an all-nighter in the mountains of Switzerland.

Eight hours later, two buses show up, and we continue our bus tour of Italy. Our appointment for midnight mass at the Vatican was in jeopardy because of the eight-hour delay. With pitstops for food and bathroom breaks, we arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica before midnight, but not in time to claim our reserved seats. They had been given away thirty minutes earlier. We did manage to gain entry to the Basilica and heard the mass in the background.

Things happen for a reason. I am convinced of that. Many times, we never know why. The bus was all military and families. No one complained, which was strange to the bus driver (who was also an owner/operator). I guess Germans complain when accidental fires happen on their bus tours.

Our guide reminded me of a class I took in California history. It was like listening to a National Geographic each night of class until the professor said there would be a test next week. I had barely taken a note. I was mesmerized by the presentations and information.

The guide would go into intimate detail about the history of everywhere we stopped on tour. Two tour-guide presentations held me spell-bound. One was about the Pantheon in Rome – its history, construction, and more. The other was about Michelangelo’s Moses with horns.

Being within reach of the statue and listening to the master storyteller describe the history of Michelangelo and this statue was one of the highlights of my life. History was living in front of me.

We visited many other memorable tourist spots before returning to Germany. However, I could not imagine the dire straits at the beginning that turned into a beautiful Christmas vacation with my wife and son. It turned out to be my last Christmas in the military. I retired in less than a year – 01NOV99 – with 31+ years.

My best friend and I went to Dallas, Texas, to take a Navy Aviation Aptitude Test and flight physical. We both passed the test. Unfortunately, he did not pass the physical. That Sunday afternoon, 30JUN68, I said, “I do!” to the Navy. The following Wednesday, my best friend was my bridegroom, and I said, “I do!” to my wife – now 53 years.


Live Longer & Enjoy Life! – Red O’Laughlin –

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