In November 1957 I completed my enlistment in the U.S. Air Force. I had been stationed the last year and a half in Germany, at Ramstein Air Base, and I was very ready to go home. There's a lot good to be said for the military, but from that point on I preferred to say it from a distance.
I left Germany on a cold and sunny day, flying by Military Air Transport Service to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, from where I would be bused to Manhattan Beach Air Force Station at the southern end of Brooklyn (the military at times has trouble getting names right) to receive my discharge papers. I was looking forward to it.
At that time, most planes did not cross the Atlantic in one hop, but stopped somewhere to refuel. It seems to me Goose Bay in Labrador was the most frequent stopover, but in this case we went to the Azores, a rather grim sheaf of volcano tips jutting out of the middle of the ocean and claiming to be part of Portugal, although the rest of Portugal is a thousand miles away.
When we arrived and deplaned -- a couple hundred passengers, a mixed bag of officers and enlistees and family members, already a little travel-scuffed, expecting a wait of an hour or so while the plane was being refueled -- we were told that a major storm had descended on the east coast of the North American continent and had closed every airport from Florida north. We would have to stay in transit barracks here in the Azores until the storm went somewhere else.
Remember, I was on my way to get my walking papers from the Air Force, an event I was looking forward to and which would happen promptly at journey's end, as soon as the damned journey ended. How long are we going to be stuck here in the Azores? Nobody knew.
I don't suppose anybody on the plane was really happy about this turn of events. There were families aboard with little children. There were staff-level officers who'd always assumed they were more important than weather. There were grunts going home on leave. And there was me, who would become a civilian just as soon as ever I got to Manhattan Beach.
I don't want to say anything bad about an ally, and I presume Portugal is still an ally, but the Azores are never, ever going to be mistaken for Club Med. The weather, probably the leading edge of my friend the storm, was overcast and clammy. The landscape was vertical and dour, darkly jagged, unfit for human occupancy, rather like a Bronte novel without the characters. If there were a Michelin guide to the place, it would consist of one word: Don't.
We orphans of the storm were restricted to a transit camp under the control of the Portuguese army, which was mostly short wide guys in dark uniforms who looked like they came out of one of those barroom scenes from "Star Wars." There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to see, and we single enlistees were housed in the kind of cots-in-rows vast open dormitory usually reserved for winos of a certain age. It was the kind of place where nobody wants to wind up, certainly not at 24. (I'll try not to mention the food.)
Also, none of us had packed for an extended stay. Most of my stuff had been mailed home, and I was traveling light. Socks and underwear I could wash, but I very quickly ran out of anything to read. And now what?
Just sit there, little boy blue, that's what, sit there and count your fingers. And the days. We spent a night, and then we spent another night. The storm, meanwhile, continued to spend all its time on the Eastern Seaboard.
We people of the plane were not a cohesive group. We'd never met before, had nothing in common but irritation, and would have been happy to see one another's backs. So I assure you there were no impromptu softball games, no glee clubs were formed, and not one photo of a wife or girlfriend was passed around. No one suggested reunions. Each of us merely simmered in his or her own private stew.
It was worse than Alcatraz. At least if you were there, you'd be able to see San Francisco out over the water, and there was always that one chance in a million you might actually swim to that city across the bay; I'd take those odds, or I would have then.
But in the Azores, what? You make a break for it and jump in the water and if the ocean doesn't throw you right back onto a volcano, what do you do? The nearest land is a thousand miles away, and that's Portugal. Manhattan Beach Air Force Station is 2,400 miles the other way.
Frustration, impatience, boredom; I would say that this was not one of the high points of my life.
On the afternoon of our third day -- I'm supposed to be home by now, in clothing of my own choice -- I had found some kind of old magazine somewhere and had sat on my cot to try to find something of interest in it, or at least something bearable, when a guy half a dozen cots away switched on a radio. Oh, now, that's the last straw, I thought. Now I gotta listen to somebody's tinny little radio.
It was AFN he had tuned to, the Armed Forces Network, American radio for the troops overseas, which was being beamed to us, the lost patrol, somewhere at sea. Unwillingly I listened, because when there's a radio on you have no choice but to listen, and I was beginning to think that maybe a good fistfight would clear the air. Bust that radio over that clown's head, mix it up with a couple Air Police, get thrown into a Portuguese brig, duke it out with a few of them for a while, work it all out of my system. Self-destruction therapy: Why not?
But then I was snagged by a bit of dialogue:
"How is her ladyship at the moment?"
"Her lady doesn't have a ship at the moment."
What? Unwillingly, I paid attention.
The show seemed to be British, with an inspector questioning Lady Marks about the disappearance of her son, Fred Nurke, the scene ending as the inspector says, "Just leave everything to me -- your furs, jewels, checkbook, ginger glass eye, war bonds, trombones . . . "
What? Next, in a shipping office, the inspector is told that Fred Nurke left for Guatemala on a banana boat, disguised as a banana, but left this banana behind. Seizing on the banana, the inspector triumphantly cries, "Now I know I'm looking for a man who's one banana short!" Great cheers from the studio audience, and a segue to a jazzy version of "You're Driving Me Crazy" from a bouncy combo backing a lead harmonica.
What? This was the most stupid, the most ridiculous, the most asinine thing I'd ever heard in my life. I was too angry and too upset and too thwarted by life to have to put up with nonsense like this.
Back with the story, if that isn't too grand a word for it, the inspector is now in Guatemala, talking with a rebel who intends to search him, because any foreigner found hiding a banana on his person "will be shot by a firing squad and asked to leave the country." The inspector draws his banana and aims it: "You can't fire a banana!" (BANG!) "You swine! It was loaded!"
Oh, please, I shouldn't have had to listen to this. What I should have done, short of mayhem, is gotten out of there, gone outside, looked for a wall to throw stones at.
Somehow, the inspector is in a prison cell where "the only other occupant was another occupant." The two decide to escape by piling chairs one atop another to reach the high window. As we hear them begin, an announcer tells us that 50 to 100 chairs will have to be piled up before our friends can reach that high window, so in the meantime here's a song by Cyril Cringenut. A terrible version of "Three Coins in the Fountain" follows, interrupted when the announcer tells us the chairs have now all been piled, he interrupted by cries and crashes, followed by another run at "Three Coins in the Fountain."
Oh, why go on? It did go on, like that, as brain-dead as ever, and why was I laughing? I didn't feel like laughing, I felt like being sorry for myself. So why did I no longer want to conk the radio owner on the noggin with his radio? Why couldn't I bring myself to leave here and find someplace private where I could sulk in peace and quiet?
And where are we now? "On the grounds of the British Embassy our heroes are dug in around the lone banana tree, the last symbol of waning British prestige in South America." But not for long. Pretty soon, the inspector is alone, tied to a chair in the remote rebel headquarters deep in the jungle, and the phone rings. The phone rings, all right? And if that isn't enough, deep in the jungle, the tied-up inspector answers it: "This is Fred Nurke, and this is my banana night. In three seconds a time bomb explodes in your room!"
And so, with the roars of explosions and the rasp of the banana tree being sawed down, the fastest and most lunatic half-hour of radio I'd ever heard crashed to a close, to be replaced by something more normal and less interesting. But that was all right; I didn't need any more. Somehow, I felt a whole lot better than I had 30 minutes before. Day Three in the Azores, and I was smiling.
I asked the guy with the radio what that show had been, but he didn't know. He'd just switched the radio on to see what was there. I knew the station was AFN, but the AFN I'd listened to in Germany had never broadcast a program like that. I would have noticed.
Whatever it had been, it had done its job. I was calm, I was patient, I was even cheerful. The storm clouds had cleared from my brow.
And the next day, they cleared from America as well. We all climbed back aboard our plane, I did finally get to Manhattan Beach Air Force Station and out of uniform, and life went on.
But over the years, from time to time, I found myself wondering anew: What in the world was that show? Maybe nothing in the world. Maybe, instead of AFN, that little radio there in the Azores had picked up a broadcast from Mars. That was a better explanation than most.
It was a decade or so before the mystery was solved, when first I heard about "The Goon Show," the utterly daft (British for wacko) BBC series from the '50s written by Spike Milligan and starring Milligan with Peter Sellers (that's where he started) and Harry Secombe (that's where he finished). The episode I'd heard was called "The Affair of the Lone Banana," and a few years ago, in London, I found that the BBC had put "The Goon Show," including "The Affair of the Lone Banana," onto audiocassette.
Obviously, I now own it. You never know when the Azores are going to reenter your life. Every once in a while, medicinally, I listen to it again:
"Headstone, you're a footman."
"Two-foot-six, to be precise."
"How lovely to be tall."
I don't want to get all misty-eyed here about the beneficial effects of humor. I'll leave that to Preston Sturges, who, at the end of his movie "Sullivan's Travels," had Joel McCrea say, "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."
Right on. I don't suppose "The Goon Show" has ever been accused of saving anybody's sanity before, but in my case, that's pretty much what happened.
Donald E. Westlake has published "70 or so" books under a police blotter's worth of names, including his own. He lives in Upstate New York.