How I learned that a “free” family vacation is priceless

Growing up the kid of a Department of Defense employee (I call kids like myself military brat adjacent), I moved frequently and lived everywhere. Although I have enough travel stories to fill any sized Moleskine journal, one sticks out as an I-can’t-believe-that-actually-happened tale that gets brought out on occasions where a fun fact about myself is needed.

It was April 1998, I was nine and living in South Korea, a place I had never heard of until my dad was presented with his orders. Always the one to find a good deal, my father discovered a way to have an essentially “free” vacation. Per his job, we were eligible to sign up for Environmental Morale Leave (EML) flights, which basically amounted to extra space in cargo holds that were already headed to your chosen destination.

My brother and I were on Spring Break from school, and it was decided that we’d take a week-long trip to Misawa, Japan to visit a family friend who had recently been stationed there. My father, mother, brother and I hopped aboard an Air Force C-130 bound for Japan. Since all flights are space available, we were squeezed in among palates of cargo, strapped to what are called “jump seats”, but are more realistically compared to a cargo-netting hammock-style sling with a seatbelt. The flight came with complementary earplugs, which were necessary to bring the airplane noise down to a tolerable misery.

Anxious, and a little airsick, I held onto a tiny stuffed alligator the size of my palm; I don’t remember where I got this toy, but I death gripped it like it was all I had in this world. Halfway through the flight, my mother suggested I give it to the (younger) girl seated across from me, who was crying from the pain of near-exploding eardrums. I hesitated. She needed it more than I did, but I still needed it! We made a short stop at an airbase midway to refuel and then back in the air we were, herded like cattle on a “free” adventure. Spoiler: I gave the girl the alligator after a healthy dose of Dramamine and saltine crackers.

My parents hate when I admit this, because my memory before my teen years is inexplicably fuzzy and does not lend itself to remembering the countless places and cultural experiences they exposed us to, but I don’t actually remember much of the trip itself. We saw the city’s sites, including the Buddha at Seiryū-Ji (the largest seated Buddha statue in Japan), Asamushi Aquarium, and Hirosaki Castle (built in 1611). What I do remember was that it was cold, people were very polite drivers, and it was the first time I had ever seen a bidet.

Perhaps the greatest part of the adventure, however, was the trip back home. Since EML flights are available on a space-permitting basis, they can be unpredictable. On the day of our first scheduled flight, they had so much cargo on the plane that there were only three seats available, a seat shy of our four-man-band. On the second day, the plane had some sort of emergency, and flew right over us, never stopping. The third day, the cargo being shipped was deemed too hazardous to be transported with people, so yet again we were bumped. With my father already late getting back to work, and my brother and I missing more school by the day, we had to purchase four last-minute one-way tickets on a commercial flight. Our “free” vacation had become insanely expensive overnight, and solidified the fact that I’d never make it in the military.

It’s amazing how my memory really is in the details. The uneven footing as we boarded the plane, my brother holding my hand during a particularly rough patch of air, a family sing-a-long to a silly tune as we strolled through a Japanese park. This time, perhaps like in life, it really was the journey, not the destination that mattered.

(Image via Warner Bros)

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