Thursday, December 2, 2010

Blur - Girls & Boys EP

By May of 1994, I had been living and working in New Zealand for a year. I had a ton of leave saved up, so I requested and received permission to head back to the States for a monthlong vacation.

Flying back and forth between New Zealand and the U.S. was prohibitively expensive, but I had an ace in the hole - each week, the U.S. Armed Forces ran a C-130 cargo plane shuttle across the Pacific between Honolulu and Sydney, Australia, with stops in between, as part of the Air Mobility Command. If space was available among the supplies and other personnel aboard the plane, I would be able to grab a seat (known as flying "Space-A") and get to where I was going - eventually. I say 'eventually', because while the weekly shuttle had to leave from Hawaii on the same day for the westward trek of its weekly schedule, the points and destinations in between were flexible and subject to change, as were the layover times in those places. On an AMC flight, I might get to the States lickety-split, or it could take me a while. But it was of no matter to me - I had a month to burn, so I wasn't in any great hurry. Plus, it was free, so why complain?

The Air Force officer stationed in Christchurch in charge of the local air detachment and all U.S. military flight operations there was a good friend of mine, and he completely hooked me up. The C-130 made a brief stopover in New Zealand on a Wednesday in mid-May, headed west (there was to be no Christchurch stop on its return trip east, so I had to go with them to Australia first). After I boarded, I discovered, to my surprise and delight, that my Air Force buddy had amended my travel orders to essentially make me part of the plane's crew, as long as I was with them. I wasn't fully appraised of the benefits of this designation until we landed near Sydney. It was to be a two-day layover there, and for situations like that, the military provides for accommodation for the crews somewhere. So I ended up staying with the C-130 gang in my own room at the Panthers World Of Entertainment, a resort complex owned by the local top-level pro rugby team, the Penrith Panthers, and located in Penrith, a western suburb of Sydney.

We had a lot of fun over those two days. During the flight there over the Tasman, I learned that the pilot was a woman who graduated from the Air Force Academy the same year I graduated from Navy. We found that we had a number of mutual acquaintances. And I also spent a lot of time yapping with a couple of the enlisted crew members during the ride (overall, I found that the Air Force didn't appear to strenuously enforce constraints of hierarchy and separation between officer and enlisted - it was more like, they were all on the plane together to do a job, and so be it, which was cool by me). After we landed, one of those crewmembers, the pilot and I sort of joined forces, and we spent a lot of time together during our stay in Sydney.

It was my first visit to the city (outside of passing through the airport en route to New Zealand the year before), and it turned out to be a lot of fun. Sydney completely lived up to its advance billing; to put it in an American perspective, it's like a cleaner, friendlier New York City, in a more attractive setting with sizzling, tanned blonde Australian chicks everywhere you look (and you can drink beer on some of the streets without the cops hassling you). Our activities ran the gamut from lowbrow (we of course HAD to see the Kings Cross area, and I wanted to visit some of the great Aussie music stores I'd heard so much about) to highbrow (we made a long visit to the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)). We visited many bars (including one on George Street called Jacksons on George, a place that would figure prominently in another Australian adventure I'd have a year later, when I discovered EXACTLY how much they love Americans over there. . . but that's another story (heh heh)) and had great stuff to eat. And the highlight of our time there: on a suggestion from the female member of our group, we hurriedly bought tickets and were treated to an evening performance by the city's symphony orchestra within the absolutely stunning confines of the world-famous Sydney Opera House [to attend the Opera House show, I passed up seeing a band that was performing at the Panthers World of Entertainment that same evening - The Hoodoo Gurus. As good as seeing the Hoodoos would have been, I still think I made the right choice].

Late the next afternoon we left Sydney, headed northeast towards Honolulu. We were in the air for what seemed like most of the day, the only excitement occurring when the door latch to the plane's toilet broke, trapping me inside for almost an hour until the crew figured out a way to open it. We were flying over tropical regions, but at 30,000 feet in the air in an unheated C-130, it was getting pretty cold. I spent the remainder of that leg of the journey in my seat, hunkered down in army blankets, reading a book of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories I'd brought along with me.

It was somewhere well after 2 am when we finally landed in Pago Pago, American Samoa. That was a very weird stopover. We landed at a location which appeared to have been hacked out of the surrounding jungle; I couldn't see any city lights blazing anywhere. As we taxied towards the terminal, I looked out past the field lights to see mobs of people gathered on the edge of the airstrip - children, men and women, many wearing the traditional lava-lavas, all staring intently at the cargo plane. It struck me that life in Pago Pago must be stultifyingly boring, if watching a plane land in the wee hours of the morning can draw that kind of crowd.

I had to get off while the plane refueled, so I sauntered into the waiting area of the terminal. It looked more like the waiting area of a Greyhound bus terminal, with dull brown Formica-tiled floors, a couple of rows of hard-backed wooden chairs, and a black-and-white TV playing from a ceiling corner. There was also a sorry-looking snack bar there, stocked with a paltry selection of stuff that I didn't want to buy [I did notice one thing there, though: the only cola drink they had for sale was New Coke, the reviled and ridiculed soft drink that had been introduced and quickly withdrawn in the States three years earlier. So if you ever wondered what the Coca-Cola Company ever did with their leftover stock of that crap - now you know]. I sat in that terminal for an hour, watching some docudrama about John Gotti on the no-color TV, until it was time to reboard just as light was reappearing in the eastern sky.

I discovered as I took my seat that I was to have additional company - other folks were flying Space-A as well, headed back to Hawaii from what appeared to be short vacations in tropical Samoa. These people sat across from me wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals, jabbering about how great Pago Pago was. Hours later, as we crossed the Equator during our 3,000 mile flight to Honolulu, those same people were suffering, quivering in their beach clothes under blankets and piles of newspapers as the temperature dropped inside that plane. I was dressed a little better/smarter then they were, and by then knew what to expect, so I was good to go.

We arrived in Hawaii about noon, where I said goodbye to my friends among the crew (never to see them again), and made my way over to the AMC office to see about a connecting flight to the mainland. There was going to be nothing available for a day or so, so I was left to fend for myself. Mind you, this was my very first visit to Hawaii, I didn't know my way around and had no place arranged to stay while I was there. But I was young and fearless; that didn't worry me a bit. I merely made my way over to the main airport and rented a Jeep. I figured that, worst case, I could store my luggage in the car and sleep in it that night.

Upon leaving the airport's rental car area, I remembered that a girl I used to see when I was stationed in the DC area a year earlier was now stationed somewhere in Honolulu, so I figured I'd try to look her up and see what was what. But that plan was almost immediately put on hold as I eased up at the first stoplight - for there, on my right, was a Tower Records, the first I'd seen in more than a year.
[Quick aside: There were some pretty good record stores in Christchurch, well stocked with local product and some semi-cutting edge rock and alternative acts (they had plenty of Nirvana and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it took them almost four months to get the Fugazi CD I ordered through them). But the thing with NZ music stores is that they GOUGE the locals. At the time, standard prices for CDs were between NZ$28 and NZ$34. With the New Zealand dollar equal to about 60 cents U.S. at the time, that equates to somewhere between $17 and $21 per CD, at a time when CD prices back home were moving steadily towards the $11-$12 range. The prices there didn't faze me that much, because I was paid in U.S. dollars, I already had a huge music collection, and I could find a lot of stuff at the base exchange. But I felt bad for Kiwis - no one there really owned a whole lot of stuff (upon coming over to my house for the first time, one of my buddies there was astounded at all the music I owned). I was happy to be back in an area that had (relatively) cheap music.]
I skidded that Jeep to a halt in front of Tower and ran inside. I bought a ton of stuff that day, things I'd wanted to hear for a while (like Bjork's debut album, appropriately titled Debut) and things I bought . . . well, not sight unseen, but the aural equivalent ("ears unheard"?). The store was playing a song with a thumping discofied beat over the intercom; it tickled my fancy enough to inquire of the counterperson what I'd been listening to. When she told me it was "Girls & Boys" by Blur, I went back and picked up that single as well, to add to my pile.

Well, this EP, with the cover picture of a frolicking couple on the beach, and lyrics celebrating tropical holidays in Ibiza, sort of set the stage for the rest of my stay in Hawaii. I met up with that girl I knew, and she was very happy to see me. I took her out to dinner in town that night, wearing my hybrid Miami Vice/Magnum P.I. 'cool' summer gear, and we went to some of the beachside bars there in town. At one point, we sat out in the sand under a palm tree with our drinks, with a warm, gentle tropical breeze blowing and the surf roaring at intervals, but not loud enough to drown out the Hawaiian band playing at the nearby bar. I can recall thinking that NOW I could relate to what Blur was singing about, and how my time in Honolulu couldn't get any better than that moment . . .

(Well, actually, it DID get better ;) . . . but that's a story that won't be elaborated on here. Leave it be said that we had fun.)

I left Honolulu on an AMC flight a day or so later, and after additional layovers (and more good times) in San Francisco and Charleston, SC, I finally made it home to Virginia a week after I started. But the journey was just as fun as the actual vacation, if not moreso. I often think back on that time and those adventures, and smile.

So in honor and in memory of my wonderful first visit to Hawaii, I offer you Blur's Girls & Boys EP, featuring two superb remixes of the original song (off of Parklife) produced by the Pet Shop Boys. Enjoy, and mahalo!

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