WE’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE, MAN . . .
Johnny Cash’s famous song summarizes our touring experience. Letters From the Front has played at 135 different military installations around the world, many of them several times.
In addition to U.S. venues, we’ve also performed in England, Germany, Italy (including Sicily & Sardinia), Spain, Belgium, S. Korea, Japan (including Okinawa), Diego Garcia, Guam, and Kwajalein.
Our show has been transported by truck, air cargo, and ferry boat. In military terms, we are ‘C-soned’ travelers having been transported on C-131, C-141, C-17, C-8, C-9, and C-5 aircraft.
Being a completely self-contained show, we not only bring sets, costumes, and props but all the lighting and sound gear as well. This became a little more complicated when we toured overseas where electricity voltage and frequency (Hz) can vary tremendously.
The solution was to bring along a rather large electrical transformer weighing 425 lbs. capable of intaking currents up to 480 volts then outputting good old American 120v/60 Hz so all our American-made lights, sound, and A/V gear could operate flawlessly.
When touring overseas we were literally given our orders and were under the auspices of the Department of Defense Overseas Shows. This incredibly efficient organization is run like a well-oiled machine and juggles dozens of touring shows at any given moment at U.S. bases all over the world, including Alaska and Hawaii.
Different area managers handled the activities in specific areas such as Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific-Rim. We all became fast friends and they made our job, and lives, much easier.
Life on the road can be exciting when visiting new places and meeting new people, but it can also be tedious, frustrating, and exhausting. Trucks break down, flights are cancelled, venues can be overbooked, work details no-show, the list goes on.
The only certainty is that Murphy’s Law is always at play: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong — and at the most inopportune time. The order of the day is to ‘grin and bear it” and keep on moving.
A FEW OF OUR FAVORITE PLACES
There are too many of them to possibly feature on this site, each of them wonderful in their own way, but we thought we’d point out just a few that were exceptional.
While in Alaska we played at Elmendorf AFB and Ft. Richardson in Anchorage (now Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson).
Alaska is indeed America’s last frontier. The unspoiled beauty of countless majestic snow-capped peaks, sparkling rivers teeming with salmon, and endless forests populated with a wide variety of wildlife, make this a land that is a delight for both the eye and the soul. And who would have thought that one of the finest restaurants in the world is located just outside Fairbanks? It’s called the Turtle Club and rivals the finest restaurants we’ve dined at in the U.S. and Europe.
LA MADDALENA, ITALY
This small Mediterranean island due west of the Italian mainland, just off the northern tip of Sardinia and below Corsica, is the ideal R&R location.
After our performance at the Naval support base, we spent a few days of R&R on the broad, colorful, and sunny Piazza Umberto where we sipped wine and watched big yachts sail in and out while casting our worries to the puffy white clouds overhead. There is also an eclectic blend of shops, cafes, and sidewalk vendors selling locally made arts and crafts.
We’ve always maintained that more than anybody else on earth, the Italians have mastered the art of living. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in La Maddalena. Sadly, our base there was closed in 2008.
DMZ, SEOUL, S. KOREA
This is the Demilitarized Zone where S. Korea meets N. Korea. In addition to the operational headquarters, there are several buildings that straddle the border line, just big open meeting rooms.
In one end of the buildings you’re in South Korea and in the other end you’re in North Korea. We were allowed to cross over into the N. Korean side. The room is guarded by soldiers from both sides, big and stone-faced. The guards at Buckingham Palace have nothing on these guys.
Outside is a bridge that connects the two countries. It is called the Bridge of No Return. During the height of the conflict, many were killed while trying to flee N. Korea over this bridge. One of them was the sister of our driver, still a painful memory for him.
This is still a very dangerous place. The conflict continues as does the decades old truce.
The ride back to Seoul, where we were performing at Yongsan Garrison Army Base, was very quite. Seoul itself is the world’s second largest metropolis and is bustling beehive of activity.
We were fascinated by the entrepreneurial spirit, from street vendors who could make a full suit of hand-made clothes while you waited, to city-block-sized buildings 5 or 6 stories high that were in fact specialty markets. One sold nothing but buttons; every size, shape, color, and style imaginable, bins overflowing, floor after floor. Another was a flower market, millions of them as far as the eye could see, all fresh, and the fragrance powerful enough to make you lightheaded.
We found the S. Koreans very family oriented and friendly, comprised of a unique blend of Christian and Buddhist worshipers. The U.S. Army Garrison in Yongsan is an all-American small town in the midst of an ancient Asian culture. We were made to feel very welcome. Fortunately for us it has a very active and well-equipped community theater program. The cheerful support they provided us while we performed at Youngsan and Camp Humphreys made our task much easier.
DIEGO GARCIA, BRITISH INDIAN OCEAN TERRITORY (BIOT)
If you’d like to visit this exotic tropical island in the middle of absolutely nowhere in the Indian Ocean, forget about it.
Unless you’re a member of the U.S. or British military, a member of the press, or a member of a theatrical touring company entertaining the troops, like us. Otherwise visiting Diego Garcia is by invitation only. The island is strictly a U.S. Navy Support facility.
The primary mode of transportation on the island is by bicycle or foot. The foliage is lush and coconut trees are abundant, as are coconut crabs. These giant nine pound, three foot long arthropods (the biggest in the world) are a protected species and have the run of the island. Fortunately they don’t eat people.
Diego Garcia is a sushi-lover’s dream. The surrounding waters boil with schools of yellow fin tuna numbering in the thousands. It is a jaw-dropping site.
The island also has numerous WWII era cannon still lining its shores, a reminder of the fierce fighting that took place here. Other war relics also include a PBY Catalina flying boat that looks right out of an Indiana Jones movie.
There are quite a few military bases in the DC area and we’ve played at all of them — including the Pentagon, so we’ve had ample opportunity to visit our nation’s capital. Located at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, the city has more monuments and historical sites than can possibly be seen in a day’s time.
Most of these are located on or near the National Mall, which extends from the Capital complex past the Washington Monument all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.
We’ve all seen pictures of these since school days, but seeing them up close creates a very different appreciation of what they stand for, especially the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. You can lose yourself for days in any of the Smithsonian Museums.
And if you’re lucky enough to be in DC during the Cherry Blossom Festival, you’ll witness a visually spectacular treat, particularly in the Tidal Basin area. Americans have a capital city we all can be proud of.
We’ve visited Venice in the best of times and the worst of times, the worst being when the canals and streets were flooded. During the best of times Venice is sheer magic. We visit there when playing at U.S. bases in Northern Italy such as Aviano and Vicenza.
Piazza San Marco and its famous pigeons, St. Mark’s Basilica, the Grand Canal, gondolas deftly traversing the myriad canals, the countless bridges including the most famous of them all, the Rialto — we’ve all seen it in movies and pictures, but to experience it first hand is something never to be forgotten.
The shops in Venice sell some of the finest and most fashionable apparel to be found anywhere in the world, especially for women, with equally fine jewelry, shoes, scarves, and other accessories.
Venice is also famous for its hand-made colorful and often intricately designed carnival masks. Equally impressive is the hand blown ornate Venetian glass work found on the nearby island of Murano. Visitors can watch these master craftsmen create their dazzling works of art.
KWAJALEIN ATOLL, MARSHALL ISLANDS
As you watch tall palm trees swaying gently over white beaches, you can almost hear the song “Bali Hai” whispering on the trade winds — except Kwajalein is in the North Pacific, not the South.
It’s located midway between the Hawaiian Islands and Australia in some of the deepest ocean in the world.
Regardless, Kwajalein is the very definition of a tropical island paradise. We particularly enjoyed snorkeling in the crystal clear water.
USAKA Army Base did not have a theater facility so we played in the high school auditorium. Not a problem for us since we come completely self-contained.
Afterwards we got to witness a ballistic missile test at the Reagan Test Site. A missile was fired from Santa Barbara halfway around the world,
then we watched as another missile was launched from Kwajalein and hit the Santa Barbara missile someplace high over the earth. A beach party followed and lasted well into the night. A good time was had by all.
Located about an hour’s drive north of London, the city of Cambridge is England with a capital E. Letters From the Front has played at RAF Alconbury, Croughton, Lakenheath, and Mildenhall – all within easy driving distance from Cambridge.
Students from all over the world attend the University of Cambridge and the contrast between eager youth and the stately old buildings, some of them dating back hundreds of years, is both startling and refreshing.
Sitting at a sidewalk cafe sipping wine and observing students bustling about in their native dress is a highly recommended activity, as is punting along the Cam River, meandering past King’s College and beneath the Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College.
The village area near the University has, not surprisingly, quite a few book stores, plus bed-and-breakfasts, pubs, and curio shops. While we love London, Bath, Stonehenge, and Tintagel, if you haven’t been to Cambridge, you haven’t been to England.