Long ago circling for hours I felt aimlessly lost but certain I was near where I needed to be in order to find my way home. Then, suddenly I took a turn and saw an American Flag. I pulled over and cried. Home. I knew my home from here. I was sitting in front of the American Embassy in Madrid, Spain.
Many things happened in those two short years that loom large over my life perspective. There was that moment and the sight of the flag - my point of reference to "home" that day.
There was a rise in anti-American sentiment in those early years of 1980. Once I was with a Mexican American friend near the Plaza Mayor, and fortunately before I could comprehend, he understood the chants of the marchers coming down the street. He pushed me into an alcove and stood in front of me as we watched protesters march while burning an effigy of President Carter. In those moments I felt fear, but in the months to follow I experienced hope as I had opportunities to talk with students in Madrid and hear their questions and concerns. I learned much from those personal encounters.
In Torrejon where I was stationed, there were sections of town that were not American friendly. I loved some of those places because they were "authentically" Spain. Some nearby places exhibited America to be American friendly which is very nice but I sought Spanish culture. When family visited, I took them into the pure Spanish area of Torrejon. We were surprised by two flat tires when we left the restaurant. This was a frightening situation and it was not solved with local help. Obviously, I live to tell the story.
A few months after the family visit, protests sprouted outside my apartment complex which was about 45% American and the remainder Spanish. They were shooting guns and shouting in the field just across the street from my apartment. I was afraid but again, I live to tell the story.
Then there was the attempted overthrow of the Spanish government. I was on duty as the first AP and UPI stories came across the wire with news that the Spanish Parliament had been attacked by military who appeared to be old Franco loyalists, military leaders, and they claimed to be in charge of the country. At the time, our radio station was the only station with power enough to broadcast throughout the country. As such, part of our training included plans to take the station off the air if anyone tried to take over our airwaves. We were obligated to use an ax to sever the lines to the transmitter - an obligation - a duty - that would kill the person doing it because of the the power lines. We had often joked about the need to learn to accurately throw an ax but that night, the three of us stood knowing one of us might be the one - our engineer, our television technical director and me with radio.
As news hour was approaching, we needed to know if we should run the story. It was late in the evening. Our Senior Managers were all gone for the night. In an odd Franco arrangement, long before as the base was built, NCO and Officer housing was separated by miles from the base. At that time in Spain, having a telephone was a luxury. We were not able to reach our superiors. But we knew any story about Spain had to be confirmed by our Ambassador before we could air it. I made the call and woke him up. He's call me back. Soon he confirmed the story.
Our base was a Spanish Base with a Spanish Commander. We were there as guests. Soon as we looked out the windows we saw that we were surrounded by Spanish Guards. Were they protecting us or were they soon coming in? The station had a security system to limit access but there were windows. There were ways. Was our Spanish commander part of the coup attempt? We settled in for a long night. By morning we knew that our local commander was not part of the coup attempt but we could not leave. Our leaders could not get to us. The roadways between the NCO and Officer housing were blocked. There was a stand off.
For several days we stayed on duty. A few other low ranking staff living on base were eventually able to come and provide relief and support. Enough of the Spanish military command had remained loyal to the existing government (including our Commander) that the coup did not succeed. I was able to return to my apartment, a few miles off base, in time to watch President Juan Carlos tell the nation the coup was over.
There is much about Spain that I loved and I often say if the Air Force had let me stay there, I would still be in the Air Force. (Perhaps holding the record for the longest serving AFRTS broadcaster.) But I also remember shocking things that I hoped would never be part of America. One was the military presence with M16's in airports and many public places. I was there during a peak of Basque Separatist activity in northern regions. It was also a time of great struggle between the authoritarian Francoist segments and the reform socialist segments.
It shaped me. It resonates with me still. I struggle to explain it other than to tell the story.