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My Brush With Fame

I have been aware for some time that many of my participants are far more well-traveled than I am. It certainly isn’t because I don’t like to travel! But at the same time, I never pursued a career in travel, or tourism, or anything of the kind. It just kind of - happened.

I’m not going to bore you with all the failed experiments, dead ends, minor successes, and just plain disasters (in several different professions) that led to where I am now - which, thanks to the pandemic, is a little battered and worse for wear right now.

As you may have heard before, all the experiences (and experiments) that a person acquires on her journey through life, contribute to that development. And one of those things - for me and 14 other aspiring actors (mostly graduate students at the University of South Dakota) - was the opportunity to form a USO performance troupe assigned to tour the Northeast Command in the fall of 1970. Despite the grueling (and relatively short) rehearsal period to mount a full production of a Broadway musical plus a musical comedy revue composed and staged completely by the participants, there was fierce competition for those coveted spots. With only 15 players (actually 14, since the director didn’t perform) we all had to be able to sing, dance, act, play an instrument or two, be a stagehand, and ad lib in an emergency.

That’s what we knew at tryouts. We didn’t yet know about other skills that we would be obliged to learn along the way. Despite being mostly students or recent graduates, we were not without experience. There were two army veterans (one having served two tours of duty in Viet Nam), four married couples (one of which got hitched along the way), and several others had already begun their transition from amateur to professional ranks. Yet I think it is fair to say none of us was prepared for the warning our handlers issued to us before the very first performance: “because of the all-male audiences, the abundance of cheap liquor, and their first in-person glimpse of young women in tights for months, we are positioning armed guards between the audience and the stage for your own protection”!

Ok, armed guards are one thing. But at the conclusion of that same performance (which received a gratifying ovation) the guards vanished and we were instructed to “go out into the crowd and mingle”!! It was the first of many life-skills we would acquire during the coming weeks.

We also learned to tolerate a performance and travel schedule consisting of mostly “hurry up and wait”. Because the fall weather was so unpredictable in the Northeast Command, we repeatedly packed and showed up for a middle of the night departure which was delayed over and over until the “window” closed, and we had to wait another 24 hours for the next flight clearance. The Air Force called these exercises “being Phased In”. We called them “Chinese Fire Drills”.

The Northeast Command wasn’t the most prestigious assignment for a USO Troupe at that time. Viet Nam was still raging, but the likes of Bob Hope had that route all locked up. Still we were thrilled to be going to Air Force Bases and Coast Guard outposts in numerous Greenland locations, plus Gander and Goose Bay in Canada. But the cherry on the top was the opportunity to go to Iceland and perform where some of the best theatre at the time was said to thrive. Alas, those miserable “Phases” erased that possibility, and Iceland has been on my Bucket List ever since.

There were many highlights, such as performing at the northernmost US Coast Guard Station in the world (only 600 miles from the North Pole) for a handful of incredibly grateful guardsmen. We basked in their adoration, and indeed, encountered this attitude everywhere we performed. One of the biggest take-aways from this six-week tour, was that these airmen and guardsmen knew perfectly well that their sole job - should a nuclear attack be launched over the Pole toward North America - was to inform us that we were going to die in fifteen minutes. But there wasn’t a damn thing they could do to stop it. (Hence their military designation: Ballistic Missile Early Warning System or BMEWS.)

This, of course, was enormously demoralizing for these poor guys who had signed up to serve their country but had instead been handed an empty assignment.

Added to this was the omnipresence of a considerable number of Danish civilians who worked for private industry (electronics) at an enormous and tax-free salary. But if they left before their six month contract was up, they would forfeit everything they had earned during their stint in Greenland*. Shortly after the tour began we witnessed the meltdown of one of these poor souls following a show. He had been harassing a couple of us women, and exhibiting his manliness by snuffing out lit cigarettes on the bare chest of his buddy. In the end he was apprehended by military police and escorted out in a straight jacket. We learned later he was on a helicopter out of there the very next morning.

* Greenland is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, and by the end of the tour we had taken to calling this island within the continent of North America, “Daneland”).

Next month: The Triumphant Return

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