This morning it was my privilege to attend the ribbon cutting for the new USO operation at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, along with many other supporters, military and civilian.
I suspect that when most people hear the USO mentioned, they immediately think of the troop entertainment efforts the organization makes in conflict zones, from Bob Hope to contemporary acts, but I think the domestic facilities like this one are at least as important. They offer a welcoming hand and knowledgeable assistance to servicemen and women who are often going through some transition/displacement in their young life, far from home in a place they don’t know and where they might not know anyone, maybe even confused about where they are supposed to be.
Fifty two years ago, in late 1967, I was a green 20 year old kid who had never been anywhere
beyond Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. I was a private in the U. S. Army, fresh out of Boot Camp at Fort Gordon, in Augusta, and assigned to Fort Monmouth, NJ. On my first weekend pass I caught a Greyhound bus from the base gate to the Port Authority in Manhattan, and was easily the intimidated southern rube cliché, rubbernecking at the tall buildings and overwhelming crowds. I followed directions from other soldiers to the USO building and there was given hotel vouchers and passes for movies, and I’m sure lots more information that I don’t remember. The hotel was on 42nd Street just off Times Square, at a time when Times Square was a lot more “interesting” than it is now.
I remember vignettes from my several visits to the Big Apple in the several months I was in New Jersey, all supported by the USO vouchers. I saw the lobby of the Empire State Building, but the elevator was not open that day to get to the Observation Platform at the top and to this day, with dozens of trips to Manhattan since, I’ve still never made it to, “…the nearest thing to Heaven.” (Terry McKay line from “An Affair to Remember”) I visited the General Assembly of the United Nations, and walked in a beautiful, whispery quiet snowfall one evening in Washington Square, getting just a little taste of Greenwich Village. One evening I was supposed to meet up with an Army buddy, but fell asleep on the subway and woke up in Far Rockaway.
It was many years later before I began my more extensive traveling, but I think of this as my first excursion away from the familiar of home, and some of the first steps on the long, winding journey to here. It was all made easier by the volunteers of the USO. My attendance at the opening today, and this memory sharing is my small, and very belated, way of saying Thank You. Thank You USO for all you do and have done for all the millions of members of our military who came before me and after.