"The Mickey Mouse Wrist Watch"


I consider Danish people, working under contract for the United States Air Force at Thule and Sondrestrom Air Base, to be some of the most patient people on earth. Probably most Danish people are patient; however my experience comes from the ones venturing north.

Being an Air Force air traffic controller at Thule (1981-1982) and Sondrestrom (1983-1986) and being married to a nurse from Slagelse, Denmark for over 20 years, I believe I speak with more than just a passing knowledge of the Danish way of thinking about life.

Many Danes, under contract to the USAF, worked most of their lives in Greenland. They had seen military contract monitors come and go year after year. Danish workers had to teach the new contract monitors what life above the Arctic Circle, and the contract, was really all about. The DAC contractors had a certain amount of respect for our military bureaucracy, or bureaucracy in general; however I believe Danish culture has always been to question authority and then do what they think is the right thing to do, keeping in mind what their neighbor might think of their decision.

As a person making the military a 20 -year career, it was refreshing to see how the DAC Danish contractors would treat each of us differently with respect to how we dealt with bureaucracy. Of course we had all heard "the real story" about how they felt after a few drinks at the club or at one of their dinner parties. I’ve gotten a little off track, but sometimes don’t we all?

Living with one of the Thule Danish nurses in the hospital, I often met the temporary doctor, visiting from Copenhagen, while one of the regular doctors was on vacation. Keep in mind … the base doctors were held in very high regard; their status was just below that of the base commander. These visiting doctors really wanted to see native Greenland, not just the military base. Being a member of the Thule Aero Club, flying often to Quannaq, and being around the hospital, there were many requests to visit Quannaq.

I clearly remember flying Dr. Finn Nielsen to Quannaq on a bright clear morning. Finn had a tall, thin build with almost a "baby face." I wasn’t sure he really was a doctor; he just looked so young. We met at the hangar, made some small talk about visiting Greenland for the first time and then started the flight. After taking off from the Thule runway, we headed in a northwest direction directly over a large ice field at about 6,000 feet. On this route, we flew over the ice field for about 20 minutes with nothing but white snow below. After reaching cruise altitude, it became a fairly routine flight, so I would usually ask questions about life in Denmark.

Dr. Finn enjoyed discussing Denmark and he had what I considered a "worldly knowledge" about life; however I continued to be amazed at how young he looked. At one point, Finn reached for the map located on the cockpit dashboard. It was then that I noticed he was wearing a "Mickey Mouse" watch. It just struck me funny … here we were flying over an ice cap in Greenland. Finn looked like a teenager, and almost to confirm my suspicion about his age … he was wearing a Mickey Mouse watch. Turns out Finn was really proud of visiting Disneyland and purchasing the Mickey Mouse watch. I became a little jealous; I’d never owned a Mickey Mouse watch.

Dr. Finn and I landed on the gravel runway about one kilometer east of the village near the top of the mountain. We walked into Quannaq and went right to the hospital were we met a colleague of his. I had fresh pastry and coffee while Finn listened to how treating patients in Quannaq was a totally different experience than in Copenhagen.

Finn kept looking at his Mickey Mouse watch to ensure we departed for Thule on time. He was invited to a full military honors dinner at the Officer’s Club that evening. General Sullivan was visiting Thule and of course the base doctor was invited … young looking visiting doctor or not!

On the flight back to Thule, Finn asked if I would like to attend the dinner. Usually only high ranking enlisted personnel were invited to such a dinner; however all the nurses would be there, and Finn said he would introduce me as "the pilot that flew him to Quannaq." I agreed to go, thinking this might be my only chance to rub elbows with a General.

Later, at the Officer’s Club, we had a few drinks before sitting down to dinner. Seating was prearranged, and as luck would have it, I was seated opposite Dr. Finn and the General was seated immediately to Finn’s right. I could hear every word said. I could tell that the doctor was not accustomed to the military "pecking order," and it was easy to see General Sullivan was delighted to be in the "spot light." He was treated almost as well as when Prince Charles of England visited Sondrestrom.

I listened as General Sullivan asked, "Finn how old are you? You look too young to be a surgeon." Finn assured him that he was older than he looked and had plenty of experience working in Copenhagen. All of a sudden Finn reached over to get the salt and pepper shakers, and General Sullivan saw the Mickey Mouse watch. The general’s look of shock and surprise was one I will never forget.

General Sullivan was searching for something to say about the Mickey Mouse watch as Dr. Finn quickly said, "Beautiful watch, isn’t it?" The General’s face still had a shocked expression as he swallowed his mouthful of food and searched again for something nice to say about the Mickey Mouse watch.

Military customs and Mickey Mouse watches just don’t have anything in common. On the contrary; they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Meanwhile, I was holding back the urge to break into the deepest gut-wrenching laugh I have ever had.

Finn, realizing the General was having difficulty with the fact that the Thule United States Air Force Base Doctor was wearing a Mickey Mouse Watch, continued by saying, "Every Danish doctor is awarded an authentic "Mickey Mouse Watch" upon graduating from medical school."

This was too much for General Sullivan; he didn’t finish his dinner, got up immediately and went to the bar for a triple scotch. At this point I learned a lot about Danish humor and the Danish way of dealing with military authority.

It’s a beautiful thing when you experience those moments.