The four of us were scattered throughout the airplane. I sat in a window seat. A senior USAF officer sat on the aisle, with an empty seat between us. We chatted a little, on and off. I learned she was stationed in Australia and was returning to her hometown for a visit. She worked on an elaborate Australia themed cross stitch pattern. A little sad, and a lot tired, I don’t remember much about the flight. Still dressed for winter, I was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, Nikes, and a leather jacket with my prized koala in one of the pockets. I showed it to the officer, then returned it carefully to my pocket. At some point near the end of the flight I fell asleep, and woke up to see the sun rising over San Francisco. The bay and the Golden Gate bridge were partially shrouded by fog that was quickly retreating into the hills.
We disembarked from the plane around 0800. Rob, Brian, and Kacy had about thirty minutes to find and check-in to their connecting flights. I had to wait about four hours for mine. We all hastily said goodbye.
My second leg was a four-hour flight to Chicago, and I absolutely shut down. I fell asleep after take off and did not wake up until we were about to land in Chicago. I must have smelled like a yeti. I had started sweating as I returned to summer. I decided to leave my jacket on. Wearing it or carrying it – either way would be a pain.
I also had to wait a few hours in Chicago for my flight to Birmingham. I nearly missed it when I fell asleep in a chair with my legs draped over my suitcase. It was a short flight, but I slept the entire time again. When we landed around 2330 on 31 July, it still about 80 degrees in Alabama, and I was sweating in earnest. It was another neat bit of time travel: we departed Sydney around 1100 on the 31st, and I arrived in Birmingham around 2330, also on the 31st.
I stayed in my seat until the plane emptied. As I stood up, I checked to make sure the koala was still in my pocket. I slowly walked off the plane, back to my ordinary life.
Mark Creighton and Carol Moreau
31 July 1996
Wednesday, 31 July
Carol and Mark picked us up in the morning. The ride to the airport was nearly silent. We had been an amazing group. We were six fun loving, easy going people. I don’t remember a moment of tension between us – not a single argument or disagreement. Sure, Carol swatted me on the behind in a grocery store once and called me a “cheeky little shit” but she had been in the middle of a conversation with Mark. I gave her a poorly timed look. It was a humorous misunderstanding.
Carol and Mark accompanied us through the airport as far as they could. Kacy presented them with USA/Olympics t-shirts. As we said goodbye, Carol cried. I swallowed past a large frog in my throat.
Belinda got my camera either to or from our meeting at AirTC HQ in Sydney. Really... with the flash?
30 July 1996
I stayed in touch with the Crowleys, Carol, and Kacy for a couple of years. But life moved on, and we drifted apart for many years. Kacy and I reestablished contact by email in 2018. She was a vice principal in Oklahoma and had a very busy life full of kids, work, and CAP. Carol and I reestablished contact in 2020.
I got in touch with Rob and Brian through Facebook also in 2020.
In the summer of 1998, Mark visited the US. I was living in Montgomery, Alabama at the time. Mark rented a car and made his way to Alabama for a couple of days. I was able to return some of his hospitality and took him on a tour of Pensacola NAS, including the Naval Aviation Museum, and Maxwell AFB. We have been in touch on and off over the years.
The anxiety of making sure I was prepared for the exchange turned into a recurring dream. In my dream I’m at the airport, about to depart, when I realize I don’t have a passport. I stay in line, hoping they’ll let me into the country anyway. It’s the IACE equivalent of showing up to school naked.
My life did not progress exactly as I thought it would when I was twenty. Does anyone’s? I did not become an Army officer. There were a few detours between 1996 and 2001, when I started a career as a paramedic. All of the leadership qualities that I had learned in CAP and Army ROTC – especially confidence, perseverance, and teamwork – were put to good use though.
I still think about the RAAF officer’s request at the dining-out in Canberra.
I did not rise to the top of our military – but I will always remember Australia.