I don’t get out of the Batcave very often but on those special occasions that I do the lunch thing with a friend of mine, I drive by one of my most favorite places; the El Toro Marine Base. It hurts to see it now. The base closed in 1999, and I was one of the few who mourned the loss. Our first home twenty eight years ago was very close to the base, and we’d hear “the boys” winding up their F-15s and Intruders in the morning as they clawed for airspeed to clear the mountains and head off to wherever jets go. We’d hear them screaming back to base for a brief lunch before they tore off again. For years, it was the only way I knew it was lunchtime.
Many neighborhoods hated the jet noise and circulated any number of petitions. I never signed. After all, who was here first? Back in 1942, the only thing around were orange groves and strawberries. The base was built on an old beanfield. It wasn’t until the early seventies that neighborhoods sprang from the ground. My feeling is; you don’t want jet noise, don’t move near a Marine base. While others groused, I preferred to think that was freedom screeching over my roof, and I blessed each and every pilot as they disappeared into the clouds that they’d come home safely.
Even though I wasn’t part of the military, I’d come to think of the ET Marine Base as mine and its soldiers as “my boys.” Back in the day, our little town was filled with jarheads and camouflage. The Iron Mule was spitting distance from the base. It was their hangout, and it wasn’t at all uncommon for a Friday night fight to break out in that diviest of dives. It was part of the charm. The barber shops all had signs in their windows advertising military haircuts at cheapie prices. The dry cleaner was filled with all sorts of multi-colored uniforms. They were an integral part of our community.
One of our neighbors was a jet jockey, and I was always trying to ply him with my killer margaritas in an effort to extort a freebie ride in an F-18. Never happened, and I was reduced to letting my kids ditch class for a day so we could all attend the Air Show and ooh and ahh as flyers strapped all kinds of planes to their butts and perform death-defying tricks.
When my kids were little, they always made me pull over to the side of the road so we could watch a squadron of Intruders and F-15s fly in. Our little nest on top of the bridge had a bull’s eye view of the runway. Those are some of my favorite memories – being with the kids when they were small and untroubled and watching “my boys” do what they do best.
But it’s all changed now. The base is closed as I drive past these days, deserted. The military buildings are cracked and rotting. The family housing where military wives hung their laundry out on communal lines while their kids played on hand-me-down toys has been torn down and stands ready to become something else. Aged curtains ripple in the breeze through the broken windows where young Marines once lived. Loading docks that once bustled with men and women in uniform now stand silent. Slowing my car down, I can almost feel their ghosts against the burning of my eyes. It’s sad to see something that was so vibrant and alive reduced to tumbleweeds and dust. There are weeds growing through the cracks of the runways, a sacrilege to me. The hangers where engineers tested jet engines used to create such ferocious noise that I could hear them from miles away. They now stand silent, and the only thing to be heard are the crosswinds blowing through the open doors.
I can still hear the echoes of platoons as they ran drills around the large track ringing the perimeter of the base. My kids used to wave at them as we sped by, often rolling down the window to tell them they shouldn’t run with a heavy backpack and gun.
The base is gone. In its place, they city is planning on building The Great Park. They already have the balloon ride going on the runway. I suppose it’s a great idea. But it’s hard for me to imagine anyone tearing down the buildings that saw so much action. Many of our Marines deployed from
I suppose my melancholy derives from the fact that their history is wrapped up in my own. The base was so active and alive, as were my kids and I, and we took so much pleasure in watching them up close and personal. Watching the crows pick at the stuffing from a discarded mattress makes me realize how quickly the years flew by. “My boys” packed up their gear, flew their jets into the skies and were absorbed by other bases. I can’t help but feel left behind.