Saturday, 20 October 2012

Pensacola Swabby

Riddle: What is overweight, out of condition, and filled with slightly apprehensive elation? 

Answer: A sixty-one-year-old retired English professor revisiting the scenes of his crimes as a nineteen-year-old sailor. Ah, there is no greater joy than a major wallow in nostalgia.


It began early, early, as I boarded the first bus from downtown to the Naval Air Station. 5:45 a.m. early, so that I wondered aloud to the bus driver where I could find a place to eat breakfast at the civilianly ungodly hour. A black sailor in dress blues and pea jacket (obviously returning from some serious overnight liberty) came to the front of the bus and counseled, “Yo can eat at the McDonalds, right next to the Rec Center. Take the Base shuttle bus.” And, having overheard my palaver with the bus driver about this being my first visit in 42 years, he added this charming inference, “Yo was in the Old War, eh?” The Old War. I guess. Not World War 2.5 (swabby talk for the Korean unpleasantness) or Nam. The Old War. That made me an Old Warrior. Absolutely.

My eager old eyes took in every detail after I transferred to the shuttle bus. Zounds. The aircraft carrier Lexington was in port. I shifted my mind into high gear. I had to get on the Lex if I were to consider my mission a success. Even though my last posting (in an underdistinguished twenty-two month, twelve day career as a sailor) was at this NAS, I had never swung a visit aboard a carrier. The aircraft carrier to me, as an aviation electronics technician’s mate, was the mystery of the twentieth-century. How they got off the ship was marvel enough. But how they managed to land the planes, even in the best of weather, simply confounded all calculation.

So my plotting began at McDonald’s, schmoozing with the civvies and the sailors and Marines pit-stopping, as they munched breakfast. I decided my best bet was to simulate my boy journalist persona, fingering the Philadelphia Press Pass I possess, courtesy of Oliver Franklin. I got directions to the base newspaper, “The Gosport,” named after the device used to communicate within ships. There I picked up the latest copy of the weekly and casually (ever so) got the telephone number of the Lady Lex’s public affairs officer, a certain Lieutenant McCorkle. My heart sunk when I saluted the petty officer in charge of security. Wednesday mornings was “quarters” when the ship’s company was inspected. Yuck. No answer to Lieutenant McCorkle’s phone. I palavered a half-hour away with the petty officer and his friends, learning that McCorkle was a corker, a lady lieutenant who drove the snazzy white Volvo he pointed out to me in the parking lot. And a lively lady to judge from their scuttlebutt.

But wait. There was the familiar wail of the boatswain’s pipe. Quarters was over. And in a few minutes there was the Lieutenant, a smashing brunette English / broadcasting graduate from James Madison College in Virginny. But she was in a foul mood. An admiral was coming. And why didn’t I write ahead? And who did I think I was, showing up as Quarters ended, thinking she could drop everything and show me the ship? I knew it was time for my humble pie mask. I groveled a bit obsequiously, trying a little humor. (“You know the only thing I remember from boot camp?” “No.” “This first-class petty officer from Kentucky told us, ‘I want you to pick your hand up like honey and tho it away like shit.’” She smiled like an angel and said, “Follow me.” Up the gang plank, where I showed the O.O.D. that that cracker salute trainer had not taught in vain. “Aviation Electronics Technician’s Mate 2nd class Hazard, returning from a 42-year retirement, SUH!!” He smiled too and waved me aboard.

McCorkle was a good guide. She explained how the Lady Lex was no longer armed and could only spend seventeen days at sea. They don’t even see the aviators who practice landings and takeoffs, first in daylight and then at night, as the Blue Ghost (it was the only uncamouflaged carrier in World War II and the Japanese thought they had sunk it four times so that Tokyo Rose began to allude to it with that name) heads into the wind to facilitate landings. A line of sailors was pacing the deck with their eyes on the landing surface. “FOD duty,” McCorkle explained. “Foreign Object Damage.” Every foreign object on the flight deck is a hazard to the plane’s jet engines. So they have to sweep it visually frequently. 

The Lady was about to leave for Key West, where she spends the winter months, returning then to Corpus Christi for spring (the carrier’s steam heat is too steamy for the Gulf of Mexico below decks so it ties up for the months of July and August). 1,200 potential naval and Marine fliers use the Lex for their floating school each year. And the ship’s complement as a training facility is 1,400, “100 of whom are women,” McCorkle noted proudly, “and by the mid 1990’s we expect half of the complement will be female.” Since it is no longer a combat ship, this goal is possible.

My next stop was the new Naval Aviation Museum on the base. NAS Pensacola calls itself the “cradle of navel aviation” because it was here in the year-around good weather that they could work out the details of the new technology that they couldn’t at Langley / Virginia. The base is well plaqued, showing, for example, the first seaplane hangars with ramps into the Gulf in 1915-16 (before that, they kept the planes in tents!). I was eager to replay my Nostalgia Tapes at the museum. 

Flying officers had to spend a minimum number of hours in the air to get flight pay, and they used to use us enlisted men for ballast. We loved it. So I looked for the planes I had been flown in. the N25, a primitive biplane, but with an open cockpit giving you a really Red Baron feeling. And the SNJ, the primary trainer where you could feel you were really at war as you settled in sitting on your own parachute and slid the cockpit cover back to keep out the slipstream. But greatest thrill of all, the PBY Catalina, that great dinosaur of a flying boat. I can still remember like it was yesterday the antsy feeling about whether this damn thing was really going to make it into the air as it lumbered ever so slowly down Pensacola Bay. 

There’s a great souvenir shop there too. I got my ex-Navy son Tim (he was a jet engine mechanic in the 1970’s) sweat pants grandly emblazoned NAVY and a pullover NAS aviation technician. I got myself a Lady Lex flight deck cap and a FLY NAVY / PENSACOLA pullover. Plus an ingenious tote that has an expandable ditty bag built into it, almost as if designed for a ratpacker like me. It’s a pricey store, my Visa blinked at the $113 tab. But what the hell. Once every 42 years. And it helps support the museum. As I prowled the outside aircraft park, F-4’s practiced touch and go’s on the other side of the fence. Wowee!

I took the city bus back to town in a state of high exultation. I’m convinced the biggest thrills of the Pre-Senile Period are such wallows in the good old days, however ordinary they were in actual fact. What had prompted me to pit stop in Pensacola on my way to the Key West American Literature seminar was my reading in the Pensacola News Journal’s Sunday paper the month before (when I was Greyhounding to San Francisco by the Southern route on one of those $59 point to point 30 days in advance fares) that they had just opened a new State Museum in the recycled 1909 City Hall.

So I hiked up the main street from the Transportation Center to the T.W. Wentworth, Sr. Florida State Museum. That nonagenarian is the principal benefactor whose heterogeneous collecting has given the curators a run for their very limited money. I interviewed Norman Simon, the director, who said it was costing them $285 a day to keep going, and money is still a big problem. The only classy exhibit so far is on the top floor, a childrens’ “Discovery” show on how you recover the meanings hidden in a shipwreck.

One of the problems in Pensacola seems to be a superfluity of museums and a minimum of money. Within a few minutes walk, in recycled warehouses you can experience a Museum of Commerce and Industry, and a Museum of Transportation, and a city museum in a recycled church. For an inveterate museum nut like myself (with apologies to Will Rogers, I’ve never visited a museum I didn’t like) there are nuggets aplenty. But for the median tourist, the gruel is thin indeed. It’s a chicken and an egg proposition. Once they get enough visitors, they’ll have the money to upgrade the exhibits. I’m not warning tourists away, I’m just establishing reasonable expectations.

On the other hand, I’m thrilled by the Gulfstream Gingerbread houses in this same historic district. And after abandoning their downtown like everyone else for the Siren Song of malls, Pensacolans are drifting back home. Take The Grocery Store (which is what it used to be) where I had lunch. The chatty lady who had just opened it was telling everybody nooning about how the Sunday night piano bar had been a smash. Once the returnees reach a critical mass, Pensacola is going to be off to the races as a major tourist destination.

And there’s no better place to stay than the Hilton, the lobby of which is the old Louisville and Nashville train depot—from which I used to depart on leave for Detroit. What a great idea. Since it had run down a lot before they decided to save it, the “memorabilia” is from all over—Tiffany glass from a Youngstown, Ohio vaudeville theatre, and the delicious cut glass chandelier over the bar’s small dance floor from a Philadelphia movie theatre. The hotel is right across the street from the new state-of-the-art Convention Center, which I didn’t visit in person since the choice during my visit was wrestling or Jimmy Swaggart. (Now, if I could have wrestled Jimmy Swaggart!?!)

Basement Bargains: Public Transportation is sixty cents exact change, with good weekday service and free transfers (and the bus drivers actually wait to make the connections!). You can avoid the high cost of the Hilton by staying at the Days Inn across from the Greyhound depot (six miles out of downtown, near I-10) or Best Western, just kitty corner from the Transportation Center downtown. Taxis are pricey, but plentiful. The new Visitor’s Center is not accessible by foot, placed strategically on the edge of town where cars head for the beaches. But the News Journal has a good weekend guide to what’s current. So you don’t even have to be a superannuated swabby to get a kick out of Pensacola. But it helps!

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