The Triumphant Return
I had always thought I would write about one of the most extraordinary experiences of my entire life at some point, but just never got around to it. Last month’s Trail Talk, My Brush With Fame, was what I now recognize as barely half of the story. Luckily I had kept a journal of that amazing adventure, and was able to fill in most of the details from my sometimes hastily scribbled notes. So here is Part Two.
Our embarkation point had been the western South Dakota town of Rapid City, on Aug. 29, 1970. We had spent the summer as part of the acting company of the nearby Black Hills Playhouse, auditioning for the USO Tour troupe, rehearsing, getting our shots and passports, and building “portable sets” that would fit into standard military trunks. 1970 was the 25th anniversary of the oldest continuously operating summer theatre in the country (last year was the 75th). The occasion was marked by numerous special performances throughout the summer, including our show, “Call Me Madam” and the revue. As I recall we also performed at several events around the Hills, including the Central States Fair. But through it all we were still members of the regular company, and as such we worked crews and performed in a full slate of scheduled shows as well.
Our scheduled return was to be October 5. But we wound up returning not to Rapid City, and two weeks earlier (Sept 21 to La Guardia) where we binged on four days of Broadway plays of our choice. Our fearless leader had set aside 50% of our daily meal allowance throughout the tour so we could take advantage of this opportunity. In the end, we returned to Sioux Falls, which was the closest airport to the University of South Dakota, and where many of us were headed anyway, on September 25.
But before all this, we still had many shows to do, command performances at various Officers’ and Service Clubs, radio interviews, and of course, THE WEDDING. This was an entirely spontaneous event conjoining two members who had met for the first time at the beginning of the summer. Personally, I don’t remember much about it, because the night before, following our final performance of the tour, we were walking to the Mess Hall along an unlit path for our customary midnight breakfast, when I stepped off the surface and somehow managed to break my left foot clean across the instep from side to side. There ensued much hand-wringing and decision-making to drag, push and pull me to the infirmary, where I was confronted by a very angry, not too sober M.D. (who I learned later had been pulled out of an “important” bowling tournament to tend to me.) He hastily slapped a cast on my foot after manhandling my foot into the shape it has had ever since, but still managed to ask me - in a stellar example of tactlessness - if my foot had always been deformed. The answer was no (but I had had polio as a child, not to mention the current - unwelcome - realignment).
He sent me away without any pain killers, and by morning the pain and swelling had risen to heroic proportions because of all the broken blood vessels, torn muscles and tendons, and I don’t know what-all. They removed the too-tight cast and fitted me with a new one, and by that time it was time for the wedding - so, as I said, I don’t remember much about it.
So now it was off to the Great White Way and cramming as many matinees, evening performances, shopping and museum hopping as we could into our remaining time. I must say that with the help of a rented wheel chair, I was able to fully participate, and even scored significantly better theatre seats or free museum admission in some cases.
But finally the day of our homecoming arrived and we boarded our first commercial flight in nearly a month for the final leg of our excellent adventure. The Sioux Falls Airport was apparently not yet equipped with jet bridges, because when they opened the plane door, we walked straight out onto the stairs to the popping of flashbulbs and shouted questions from reporters. The head of the theatre department had given the media a heads-up of our triumphant return, plus the added human interest of a newly married couple and a hapless former dancer on crutches. We were in hog heaven.
There wasn’t much that could top the thrill of Broadway and a hero’s welcome home, but it was now time to pick up our various lives and move on. Those of us still in school had missed an entire month of classes and needed to find places to live.
In July my husband had accepted a job as the drama coach at Flandreau Indian School, a boarding school on the tiny eastern South Dakota reservation of the same name, plus we were in the final stages of adopting our first child. (Because we were between domiciles, we had to "borrow" a house in our former hometown for our last interview, the crucial “home visit”.) I had expected to get a part-time clerical job at the school, but my long recovery period kept me out of action for several months. Eventually we sorted everything out, reclaimed our pets, and found a house near Flandreau, which was big enough to host those members of the company who were still homeless, or indecisive about what to do next.
It was good to be home (although “home” in this case is entirely relative.) Most of us were at a cross-roads, taking on new lives, new jobs, or moving on to graduate school, but with extraordinary memories of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that has given each of us life-long memories that we still cherish.
We were pretty much a mixed bag politically, but as artsy-fartsy hippies we were slightly taken aback to find out that part of the deal was that we were officially inducted into the Air Force for the duration of the tour. The upside was that we received free medical care, free access to the BX and mess, and were loaned standard issue military parkas for the duration. The four married couples were less than thrilled with the scarcity of conjugal sleeping quarters for us.
Perhaps because we were recruited from a University, our schedule included endless “educational tours” of military facilities at every Base we visited (when we would much rather have been sleeping!)
The women were advised in advance that because latrines and bathing facilities would be few and far between, we might wish to invest in a wig or two. (We all did).
The revue was subject to constant revisions in response to audience reaction, and by the end of the tour was a very different show (less Charlie Brown and more country music). My husband and I brought down the house with our imitation of the Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash rendition of “Jackson” every performance. On the other hand, this was hardly the audience for a 1950's Broadway show, and we ended up performing it only twice.
At Sondrestromfjord, the largest base on our itinerary, we were all inducted into the Society of the Frozen North, complete with grandiloquent hand-colored and inscribed certificates, in recognition of our unique contribution to the service (the six women being only numbers 7-12 to ever be so honored.) Alas, the base was decommissioned in 1992.