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5/10/10

Keflavík 1954 - Destination Frankfurt




In December of 1954, my wife and I were living and working on the NATO base at Keflavík, Iceland. Although it took only slightly less than an hour of dirt road to reach Reykjavík, the capital (where I was born), this was a godforsaken spot of land surrounded by lava rock and open to anything the elements could dish out. Not that Reykjavík was much fun in those days, but it was what Vegas might be to Hackensack: a sign of life. I should add that much improvement has taken place at Keflavík since 1954—roads are paved, discriminating buttons are history, and people of darker complexion no longer have to be out of there on the next flight. Seriously, the Icelandic government wanted the Keflavík base to be all white, because there were so few Icelanders and they wanted to keep the old culture intact—they have since seen the light. Let me point out that, scenically, Keflavík stands in stark contrasts to much of Iceland, which is breathtakingly beautiful.

The SS Dronning Alexandrine brought me back to Iceland.
I saw Iceland as my stepping stone to the U.S. At that time, I could have applied for an immigration visa on either the Danish or Icelandic quota, and the latter was said to be easier. So, in March of 1954, I booked passage on the Dronning Alexandrine (pictured here), a creaky, venerable old Danish steamer on which I had often sailed between Iceland and Denmark as a child. Built in 1927 and seized and renamed by the Germans in WWII, it  was back with its rightful owners and name.


My mother, having now left her third husband, was in Reykjavík, being courted by Styrmir, who would become her fourth. He worked as a desk clerk at Keflavík and suggested that I go there for a job. That's how I became a hotel night clerk. Hotel? Yes, there actually was one on the base, to accommodate stranded passengers and crew. Besides serving as a NATO and Air Force base, Keflavík was an international fueling stop for transatlantic commercial airlines. The hotel was there in case Stratocruisers, DC-4s or Constellations were grounded by bad weather, which they often were.

You get to meet a lot of people as a desk clerk, but that was about the only advantage that job held for me, so I made regular trips to the Civilian Personnel office in search of a more satisfying job. It did not take me long to switch to a desk in the Provost Marshall's office—with the English I had learned at P.S. 101 a decade earlier and the Icelandic I grew up with, I was well suited for a job as translator. Working with the O.S.I. (Office of Special Investigations) and the Military Police, I was privy to all the dirt that went on at Keflavík and remote radar stations. We had Army, Navy and Air Force personnel stationed there, and there wasn't a hell of a lot to do, especially when we were snowed in and the base theater ran Not As a Stranger for five weeks. I won't now go into some of the things guys got into, let's just say that reading the police reports was an eye-opener and that this job eventually led to quite a drama. I'll tell you about that before long.

One night, one of our three O.S.I. agents invited me to dinner at the Officer's Club and there introduced me to the Colonel who ran the Civilian Personnel office. That proved to be a lucky break for me, because the Colonel was a music lover and he thought the local Armed Forces Radio station could use someone who knew how to pronounce the names of European performers and composers. That there was no civilian slot at the AFRS unit did not pose a problem, he simply authorized one for me to fill.

The following day, he took care of the bureaucratic formalities, walked me over to the two joined Quonset huts that housed TFK, and informed the Officer in Charge, Captain Patterson,  that I was his new on-air voice. Before you could say "Edouard de Reszke," I was hosting "Concert Hall," a noontime classical music show with lots of foreign names to roll off my tongue, but they still needed me over at the Provost Marshall's office, so I now had two jobs, both very much to my liking.


"Concert Hall" was only the beginning for me at TFK. Pretty soon I was spinning everything from Nervous Norvus to Red Norvo and Red Foley to Irmgard Seefried on the radio and even doing some sort of weather show on TV. It was all highly irregular for not only was I the only non-American on the staff, I was also the sole civilian. I have a strong feeling that this could not have happened in this day and age. For a while, I did the all-night show, which meant that I was left alone at the station, an alien with an open mike! Well, I was in my homeland, but in the eyes of the Americans I was still a "Fish Head"—some sort of odd native alien. Once I stepped out of the building, I became became an inferior being in the eyes of some Americans. Let me explain.


All civilians on the base had to wear an ID button, a rather large one with a mugshot and a number. The color identified one as either an American civilian (green) or a foreigner (blue). I bring this up in an earlier post, I Find Racism in the City of Brotherly Love—you will find it in the second paragraph. Imagine being regarded as a foreigner in the country of your birth—how ridiculous is that? They would listen to my shows and, sometimes, call me up for a friendly chat or request, but the minute they spotted that blue button I became just another Fish Head or "Mojack," which was another nice name they had for Icelanders. Again, let me hasten to add that most Americans showed no hostility, and I never had a problem being accepted by the guys I worked with, in either job. Intolerance borne out of ignorance, we see the same thing in the tea party crowds over a half century later. Amazing what a mere pin-on button can do. I hope you understand why today's hateful teabag danglers give me déja vù—it's enough to drive me to the nearest cup of coffee. 

The broadcasting gig was actually a great job, one that prepared me for working at a small radio station, doing my own engineering, etc. We didn't have that opportunity in Denmark, where broadcasting was state run and housed in a large, corporate-like facility.

Posing in front of TFK at Keflavík - probably 1957
As I said before, it started with the classical show, but I ended up doing all kinds of programs, including a couple of hours of country and western. For that, I quickly picked up the lingo and found myself embellishing my Danish accent with a faux Southern drawl and saying things like "here's the kinda song that keeps them Kleenex people in business." Nobody seemed to take issue with this Scandinavian hillbilly, but I did raised some eyebrows when I innocently suggested that GIs returning home to their wives would be "back in the saddle again." Remember, this was 1954.

Of course, I also did a jazz show. We were not authorized to play commercial releases, but most recordings could also be found on the 16" discs supplied by AFRS. I also found great stuff on older Voice of America discs, including jam sessions that had never been released commercially.
That's me working at the RCA console, ready to spin a 16" AFRS disc.
It was amazing how readily my presence at the station was accepted by the military staff. They were a great bunch of guys to work with, and I can say the same for the Provost Marshall's office. One funny thing happened at TFK. Each day at 5pm, taps were played and the flag lowered in front of headquarters, and whoever was on the air at that time had to perform a little  government regulated routine: Play a recording of bugled taps and introduce the "Star Spangled Banner" with the following words: "Ladies and gentlemen, our national anthem."

Well, on weekdays, I was that guy, but what was I to do? Not being an American, it wasn't my anthem (although I sorely wanted it to be), and "your" national anthem didn't quite cut it, so I decided to make it "the" national anthem—that seemed to work for everybody, but there was more to the routine. Following the playing of the anthem, organ music heralded a mandatory reading of some innocuous, straight-out-of-Reader's Digest inspirational message, solemnly introduced as: "Thought for the day." Then a slight twist of the volume knob brought the music up, you let go of the disc on turntable two and segued into a beloved hymn, but only long enough to establish what it was, then you dipped it down and—with all the solemnity you could muster—issued an invitation, or was it a command? "Let us pray..." This was followed by the reading of a prayer from a government-issued book that contained one prayer and one thought for every day of the year. Not being in the least way religious, I felt somewhat hypocritical reciting a daily prayer, but, what the hell!


 One day, a couple of my co-workers decided to play a trick on me, so they waited until I had brought down the organ music, flipped open the microphone switch, and announced the thought for the day. Then, with perfect timing, they snatched the book and forced me to ad-lib. So, my thought for that day became "Do unto others as...,and so forth". When it came time for the prayer, the book and my co-workers were out of the studio, looking in through the glass. I started to recite the Lord's Prayer, but drew a blank after ..."he leadeth me..." so I all but shouted "Amen!" and boosted the organ music to the max.


From that day on, I kept a firm grip on the damned book.


Looking back, I was very fortunate and I had a great time working at the station, but Iceland was just not a place where I wanted to live. I had discovered Armed Forces Radio on the dial when I lived in Copenhagen, and become a regular listener to the Frankfurt station. Completely disregarding the fact that a fluke had landed me the job at TFK, I began to naïvely wonder if I could transfer to AFRS Frankfurt. So I sent them a letter. Of course, I forgot to mention one very important detail: I was not an U.S. citizen. As it turned out, they simply assumed that I was an American civilian, for, otherwise, how could I be on the air at TFK? The response I received looked promising, it suggested that I come to the AFRS office at the I.G. Farben building in Frankfurt. 


With that, I resigned at TFK and made plans to go to Frankfurt after the New Year. It was now two weeks before Christmas, 1955, and we—Hanne, my wife, and I—decided to go to New York on a tourist visa, then fly from there to Copenhagen and spend the holidays with her parents. I should point out that Christmas was something my family always observed, but never as a religious event—it was simply a festive time of the year where beautiful music could be heard in churches and everybody felt rather good and generous.


My next post will pick the story up in New York City where Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" was the hit of the day, Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza were jumping, and a Times Square vendor sold a tourist couple a "genuine" shrunken head—"the perfect Christmas gift." Then it's on to Copenhagen and a very cold experience in Frankfurt.

20 comments:

  1. Keep posting these fascinating stories from your life!

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  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Jeff.To quote Jimmy Durante, "I got a million of 'em!"

    If only I didn't also have to make a living.

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  3. I had read about the Armed forces radio in Iceland in the fifties- little did I dream that I would someday find a first-hand account from one of the broadcasters. Wonderful post, Chris!

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  4. Thank you PB, there is more on Keflavík and TFK coming in part III of this thread.

    Oddly enough, as you posted your comment here, I was catching up on your wonderful blog (which is now linked here). I was going to ask you how you generate the characters "eth" and "thonn" (as in my father's name, Thórdur on your Mac.

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  5. I've been following Icelandic blogs for over six years now, so I learned that on a Mac if you go to >System Preferences>Language &Text>Input Sources then scroll down the list and check Icelandic. When you click on the US flag icon in the right side of the menu bar, a drop down menu will show an Icelandic flag as well, click on that and a standard Icelandic keyboard will replace your regular one. I wrote the Icelandic characters on in the corner of the keys they replace.

    Thanks for the link!

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  6. Who would have thought that a story from a relatively obscure place, and from a relatively distant time could be so interesting.

    Thank you

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  7. Thank you for commenting, Molly Claire.

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  8. Wow! This was such a treat. I was looking around for a possible photo of good 'ol Kef for a self video bio and ran across your blog.

    Chris, I'm here to tell you that the photo of you standing outside of AFRS, and the studio pix hadn't changed between then and the mid 1970's. That's when I was stationed there. Although I was the Programming Director (what's in a title), I ran the radio station the majority of the time, 7-8 months. The very equipment in your photo is the same we were using then - the console had been updated, but the turntables, and the tape recorder look the same! We had some phenominal engineers - only remember one of the names, Gunnar. The 16" records were packed up and sent back to AFRTS Los Angeles just before I transferred to television. Also had an interesting moment on a train from Weisbaden to AFN Frankfurt. As you say plenty of stories, happy to tell you more if interested.

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  9. What a great story. You might have crossed paths with my Great Aunt. She told us as a kid she was a disc jockey on TFK when she was stationed at Keflavik in the 1950's. She was immensly proud that I chose radio as a career.

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    1. Your mother probably came to TFK after I left (1957), there were no women assigned to the station while I worked there I was also the only civilian and non-American, but I understand that this changed. I had a great time at TFK and it prepared me for working at small stations,
      which I did after coming to the U.S. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting.

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  10. Did you know Bob Kingsley, who was there in the late 50s and went on to the DJ Hall of Fame?

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    1. The name is not familiar to me, so he must have arrived after October, 1957, which is when I left to immigrate to the U.S.

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    2. Hey! I was stationed at AFRTS, Keflavík, in 1967-'68, assigned to TV. Our 6pm news were simulcasted. One of the tricks we used to pull on the Chaplains was to tape a folded Playboy pinup picture under the lens of one of the 2 cameras. As the Chaplain was preaching, the stage manager would do a 5 second countdown then point, not at the waiting camera, but at the photo taped underneath, which was opened as the countdown reached 0. We had Chaplains stammer, giggle, pause, but one chap simply continued, glaring at the state manager. Fun times back then!

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    3. Hi Brad, I had been gone for ten years by then and—after a period of working as a jazz record producer—was the General Manager of a New York City FM station, WBAI.

      I got a kick out of hearing that the pranks lived on at TFK. Coincidentally, it was Father Bradley, the Catholic Chaplain on base, who got me the papers I needed to get my immigration visa.

      Thanks for steering my mind back to Keflavík Air Base... I have many interesting memories from there that the years have not vaporised.

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  11. I enjoyed stumbling onto your blog and the stories you've shared. One note: I did this while doing research onto how certain pieces of gear were being used (there's room for us geeks too). In the picture 'broadcasting at Keflavik ca. 1956', the board in the backdrop is actually a Gates board, a 52cs "consolette", purchased in large numbers by the military for AFRS stations all over the world. I picked one of these up when I got out of college about thirty years ago and was doing some research on its contemporary use.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. It was indeed a Gates console and, as I recall, the turntables were made by Presto. I once called base supply and told them that we needed a news stylus. They installed a brand new turntable, because "it's easier than ordering a stylus from the States." Costly inefficiency that shocked me, a frugal European. There was so much waste.of taxpayers' money.

      Our tape machines were Ampexes bearing Bing Crosby's name—I think he was an investor.

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  12. My father, Jack McRedmond, was a program director at TFK in the 1950s. I wonder if you remember him?

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    1. Hi Sarah. No, I'm afraid your father's name does not ring a bell with me. I left Iceland in October, 1957. to immigrate to the U.S. and I was the first and only civilian working there. Was your father there in the service?

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