Sleepless in Seattle

  • Published
  • By Bob Van Elsberg
  • Air Force Retired
In 1974 when I was serving with the Coast Guard prior to joining the Air Force, I had just gotten back to Seattle from a 70-day patrol in Alaska on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro. Everyone received four days off — five if you could pay someone to stand your duty on the fifth day. After two months of patrolling the Alaskan coast and the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, I was anxious to see my girlfriend, who lived in San Diego. Since GPS was decades from being a common vehicle accessory, I whipped out my road map.

Using the tried and true “string measuring system,” I figured it would be a 1,250-mile drive. I calculated I could make it in 24 hours.

No big deal.

I’d stood 24-hour duty before, so driving a car would be a snap.

I hit the road at one minute past midnight. To my credit, I covered about 900 miles before my energy level dropped through the floorboards. I pulled over for a brief rest and then drove the remaining 350 miles.

As you can imagine, having driven so far I wanted to cram as much as I could into those three days; so I cut corners on my sleep schedule. But hey, I was 22 years old and bulletproof. I could handle it.

Finally, I had to head back.

I pulled out from my parents’ house at “zero-dark-early,” glad that I would at least miss the Los Angeles morning rush-hour traffic. Except for gas, I didn’t take a break until I hit the northern California town of Dunsmuir, where I stopped for a bowl of chili. I figured that would keep me going for a while longer.

By nightfall, I had traveled well into Oregon. As I looked ahead, I thought I saw people walking across the freeway. I slammed onto the brakes and slowed to a crawl. But when I rubbed my eyes and looked around, nobody was there.

“Wow,” I thought, “was that what is called ‘highway hypnosis’?”

I poured myself a cup of coffee from the thermos, determined not to fall prey to another illusion. An hour or so later I saw what I thought were the taillights of a tractor-trailer stopped in front of me. I hit the brakes and swerved into the left lane — but there was no tractor-trailer. The “taillights” were just some stars low on the horizon.

This was getting serious, so I took the next exit and pulled off the road to get some sleep. I figured I could get in an hour-long nap and still make morning formation. I wasn’t asleep for long before a policeman shone his flashlight through the window and asked me what I was doing. Tired or not, I was going to have to get back on the road.

Once more I headed north on the highway. I rolled down the window, hoping the cold air would keep me awake. When that didn’t work I tried slapping my face and punching my right leg, figuring the pain would keep me awake. It wasn’t pretty, but at least my eyes were staying open.

The sun had been up for an hour or so when I passed the Seattle city limit sign. I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d made it.

Or so I thought. …

Without any warning, I simply fell asleep on the freeway. I awoke to a blaring horn. I’d drifted to the right and was about to sideswipe a Corvette. I swerved to the left, scared stiff at what had just happened. I realized I was no longer in control of myself. Fatigue had taken over. I could fall asleep again at any moment, and I was only minutes away from my unit.

I got lucky. I somehow made it back without crashing.

Wearily, I shaved and dressed for formation. My boss took one look at me and ordered me to bed. He later told me I could have been brought up on charges for being unfit for duty, but this time he was going to let me off with a warning. I realized later that he cared enough to stop me from doing something stupid like this again. (NCOs can make a difference in their Airman’s off-duty safety.)

I was lucky three times on that trip, which was more luck than I deserved. I let being young and “bulletproof” almost make me dead. And dead is a lousy way to end leave.