Sunday, June 22, 2008

BACK TO THE FUTURE: PART III

Dear Friends,

Well, I finally did it! I mustered up enough courage to return to the base on Sunday, June 15th. It was sort of a surreal experience but not as emotional as I thought it would be. After disembarking the bus on the main highway in front of the base, I slowly walked toward the main gate. The little guard shack which sat in the middle of the road was now empty and silent, and the familiar sign mounted atop the guard shack which identified it as, “IRAKLION AIR STATION”, had now been replaced by a sign that read, “CRETE AQUARIUM”. How many times I had walked (or stumbled) toward that little shack in years past, and how many times I had been challenged by an Air Force Security Policeman to produce my military I.D. before I could gain access to the base. Now all was quiet and still. I kept hoping against all hope that some smartly dressed young S.P. in his neatly pressed 1505’s or in his dress blues would step out and ask me for my I.D. I looked inside only to see all of the wiring and lighting ripped from the walls and ceiling, and the floor littered with debris. I continued past the guard shack to the Base Chapel on the left. It looked as if the building was in pretty good condition, but the grounds were a mess. The grass and weeds were waist-high and the trees and shrubbery were in obvious need of trimming. As I stood there looking at the Chapel, I was somewhat amazed that not a single panel of the stained glass window at the front of the Chapel had been damaged – it was completely intact! Even though there were signs posted both in Greek and English to “Keep Out”, I still had to try each door to see if I could get inside, but to no avail. I remembered during the two years, eight months that I had been stationed on Crete, I entered the Base Chapel only on four occasions: Once when I “in-processed” upon my arrival, once to attend a memorial service for an NCO on another flight who had been killed in a car crash, again when I attended the memorial service for Kent Pahling and Dave Griewank, and finally when I “out-processed” to leave Iraklion Air Station. I never once attended a Christmas service or an Easter service or a regular Sunday service. That’s not a very good record for a young man who was raised in the Christian tradition. But then, perhaps that’s what young men do when they first gain their independence; they forget the upbringing that formed the identity of their youth and they forge ahead to form the identity that proclaims their independence as young men, now out on their own. I left the Chapel and headed north until I reached the first street that turned to the right. I think the name of that road may have been “Olympic” or maybe “Olympia”, but I’m not sure. Perhaps some of you who read this entry might help me identify some of the streets on base, as well as some of the buildings on this blog. The first building on the left was the Base Gym and it also looked as if it had been maintained and not simply abandoned to the elements. Immediately across the street was a building which had been the Base Library; there is now a sign in Greek which reads, “Biblio...”, so, it may be that it is now used as a Greek library. Next, there was the Base Snack Bar, the barber shop, the Base Exchange (BX), and the Service Club (Recreation Center), all on the left. On the opposite side of the street was a barracks-styled building which I think housed the Squadron Commander’s Office, the CQ’s office, perhaps classrooms for the University of Maryland, other administrative offices, and where linen, blankets and pillows were issued. I think there were also rooms on the upper floors of that same building which were used to temporarily house newly arrived enlisted men until they could be assigned to a flight, or until they had completed “in-processing” and could assume the duties for which they had been trained. As I continued down the street, I noticed the wind had picked up considerably, and dust was being swept up from the antennae field and across the street, sometimes carrying with it some paper debris. It began to remind me of a ghost town from a Grade B western. I halfway expected Gary Cooper or John Wayne to suddenly appear at the end of the street and challenge me to a confrontation. How the mind can play tricks! I came to the first barracks (dorms) on the right. There were chain linked fences around them and signs in English and Greek warning intruders to “Keep Out”. I ignored the signs and found a breech in the fence and stepped through. I wandered past the first barracks to the barracks immediately behind it. At first, I mistakenly thought that I was at the west end of Dorm #307, but it was actually Dorm #308. I could hear the breaking of glass and a crashing sound accompanying it. There were workmen who were removing debris from the second story of Dorm #308 and tossing it to the ground below. When they saw me approaching, they motioned for me to go away. I told them that I was an American and pointed to my camera, as if that gave me some legitimacy to be there trespassing and breaching the fenced-in area. I tried to enter the building but the doors at the west end of the barracks were locked shut. There was a sign posted on the door which read, “FEMALE VISITORS MUST BE UNDER ESCORT BY AN OCCUPANT OF THIS DORM AT ALL TIMES FROM ENTRY TO EXIT FROM THIS BUILDING BY ORDER OF THE BASE COMMANDER”. I recalled how we were forbidden to have ANY female visitors in our dorm, but I was glad that those Airmen who came after us were permitted to have female guests. I decided to take the outside stairway and make my way to the second floor, where again I was met with a locked door. After retreating down the outside stairwell, I walked around to the back side of the dorm, where I found they were doing obvious repair work and renovations. How my heart soared! Perhaps some of the dorms would be salvaged and be put to good use. I took a couple of photos of the outside of the building, still thinking at that point that it was Dorm #307. I retraced my steps back to the hole in the chain-linked fence and then proceeded down the street to the next set of dorms. Here I made my way through a stand of tall grass and weeds past the first dorm to the dorm immediately behind it. There, stenciled in large digits on the west end of the dorm were the numbers, “307”. I froze. This was where I had lived! This had been my home for two years, eight months. I looked at it. My heart pounded. Could I gain access? Did I even have the courage to venture in? My thoughts were suddenly shattered by a sharp banging noise – the wind was causing the outside door of the second floor to slam open and then shut...then open again...then shut again. Once again my mind wandered to a Grade B western with tumbleweeds and wind and doors slamming open and shut in an old abandoned ghost town. I approached the west end of the dorm and tried to open the door. It was unlocked! I ventured in...carefully. The first room at the end of the dorm on the left side had been mine. I took a few steps down the hallway and peeked into the room on the left. There was debris on the floor, the wall lockers had been broken into, and the windows had been smashed. My first thought was, “My God, this will NEVER pass inspection!” I took some photos and then stepped out into the hallway and peered toward the east end of the dorm. As I stood there I closed my eyes and could imagine Steve Gregory coming out of his room; “Hey, Bob, do you want to go over to the chow hall and grab a bite to eat?” Or Mike Dusek coming out of the latrine with just a towel wrapped around his mid-section; “Bob, wanna go over to the snack bar and get a coke and sandwich in a little while?” Or Ernie Arguello and Willie Like approaching me and asking, “Hey, Midget, what are you doin’ just standing there in the middle of the hallway? Come with us to the Airmen’s Club and have a couple of beers.” I ventured down the hallway and looked into the latrine. The urinals had been smashed, the commodes were missing, and most of the copper supply lines had been ripped from the walls. The large shower room with four nozzles coming out of one wall and four nozzles coming out of the opposite wall had been replaced with individual shower stalls. Here again, I was glad that those airmen who came after us were afforded a greater degree of privacy than what we had enjoyed. I walked further down the hallway toward the dayroom. It was empty...no chairs...no T.V...no lounges. I took more photos and then decided it was time to leave. As I walked back toward the west end of the dorm, I turned again for one final look – those images from the past were now only memories, and the sound of laughter and talking were now nothing more than echoes in my mind. I walked out of the dorm from the past; the door slammed behind me, and once again I was back in the present!

I will continue with additional photos of the base and another commentary in the coming days.

Take care, stay well, and let me hear from you.

Your Friend and Fellow “Silent Warrior”,

Bob (Midget) Armistead

4 comments:

William said...

Bobby, Glad you're back. I was beginning to think you were kidnapped by a Herd of Hellenic Hotties. The photos look about the same as when I stopped there in 2005, on my way home from Iraq. Keep it up. We are all reliving days gone by through your pen and lens. Thanks Bill Simmons

Spiff said...

Great photos and narration. Brings back a ton of memories.
Rick Carner
73-74 IAS

Anonymous said...

Bob, I have been following your blog and can't wait to read your next post. I was there 81-84. I am reliving the greatest experience of my life through your visit. Thanks so much. Steve D.

mac said...
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