As Sam Sees It

This week my wife and I will be in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee for a reunion of my Air Force Russian language class of 1954-55. This group has become very close to my wife and me over the years. We have been meeting since the early 1990’s after many of us had gone nearly 40 years without significant contact. Reunions have been held in Syracuse, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; Orlando, Florida; San Antonio, Texas; Branson, Missouri, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, California.

San Antonio was where many of us met for the first time. One or two of this group knew each other from civilian life. (Tom Green and I were classmates at Casa Grande Union High School.) Some of us met during basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio (Orville “Snap” Schneewind and Eldon “Jan” Jansen were in the same training squad as Green and I and Tom Pickle may have been.) For all of the rest, our first acquaintance came at “pre-lang.” school at Kelly AFB, also in San Antonio. The first real “war stories” start there. Many involve a marvelous Russian teacher known affectionately as “the Countess. She was such a language expert (any language) that she could carry on conversations with students who happened to speak Spanish, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and, believe it or not, Navajo.

Twenty-four of us were selected and sent to Syracuse University to study Russian there from the fall of 1954 until May of 1955. One was removed from the class due to some irregularity in his security clearance investigation. The rest of us spent that winter together in what for most of us was a trying and unfamiliar environment. (We were mostly Southerners or Westerners.) Syracuse proved to be a friendly and fun city despite the early disappearance of the ground under a blanket of snow. Memories from there should be the material of a book, not a column. There was plenty to do in Syracuse for a guy like me who is sports oriented. The Syracuse Nationals won the NBA Championship that year. The Syracuse University Orangemen featured one of the best football players ever in the great Jim Brown. In fact, he was a great athlete regardless of the sport. The Syracuse Chiefs professional baseball team played in the Little World Series between the winners of American Association and the International League. They lost. Syracuse boxer Carmen Basillio won the welterweight championship of boxing that year.

That was the last time we were together as a group. Some of us went to Washington and studied at NSA (National Security Agency). Others went to a voice school, mostly at Keesler AFB. Those of us at Washington continued our sports connection and spent a lot of time at Washington Senator baseball games.

One of those was the unforgettable Morris “Gar” Garfinkel, one of the best baseball fans I’ve ever known. Years later, Gar wrote me a letter complaining about his beloved Dodgers. (He now lives in Los Angeles, but wasn’t always a Dodgers fan. Like me, he listened to and rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals.) He quoted Winston Churchill in his complaint about a baseball trade. Gar also knew the author of one of my favorite quotations; “Luck is the residue of design.” The author, of course, is Branch Rickey, the man who signed Jackie Robinson and in doing so became the real savior of the game.

At last count, 13 YRAB’s (Young Russo-American Boys) were planning to attend the reunion with 11 spouses for a total of 24. That isn’t bad for a group that only has 19 veterans remaining who could conceivably attend. It should be a great weekend. (Actually, by the time you read this, it will be over and we will be winging our way home with another great set of memories.

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