2017-11-17 / Ticket

A Reflection of Life at BNAS

BY RUSS PERRINE


A HELMET on display at the Brunswick Naval Air Museum & Memorial Gardens 
JOHN SWINCONECK / THE TIMES RECORD A HELMET on display at the Brunswick Naval Air Museum & Memorial Gardens JOHN SWINCONECK / THE TIMES RECORD It was around 11 p.m. on July 30, 1963. My military obligation was fulfilled. I was returning to civilian life. When I reached age 18, all eligible men were required to serve in one of four branches of military service. I selected the U.S. Navy. To my astonishment, following recruit training in Great Lakes, Illinois, I was sent to Brunswick, Maine.

I arrived by plane in Portland, followed by a train and a ride from a local taxicab to the base. I got there around 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 30, 1959.

The “sea duty” I was to serve in was Patrol Squadron Twenty-One (VP-21). Because this air squadron, with 12 P2V-Neptune aircraft, would periodically deploy for a few months to some country outside the continental United States it was considered the same as being aboard ship. But to most BNAS the mindset was different, and the “real” Navy was only found aboard ship, in the ocean, sailing from port to port.

To me, being stationed in Brunswick was a godsend because it was a mere six-hour drive to spend duty-free weekends in New York, where my parents' home was always available – with a free car in the garage.

But let us return to the night in 1963 when I returned to civilian status.

My separation documents were processed by 10 a.m. that same day, so I easily could have departed before noon. But the culture of the air station, Maine, Brunswick and the surrounding towns had four years to grow on me.

I'd purchased a used station wagon during my first year on the base that enabled me to drive other New York area personnel back and forth for a Friday-to-Sunday weekend. I charged $8 per passenger, which was serious extra revenue in those days. The military biweekly paycheck was never touched, but the car loan was never late.

As I slowly approached the U.S. Marines-manned gate with my discharge papers, I was surprised when the guard quickly removed my base parking sticker. Then he saluted me.

That brought me back to reality – I was wearing civilian clothes, so all I could think to say was “thank you.”

I was really leaving.

My first stop was Fat Boy Drive-In. For three years I feasted on their lobster rolls; the cost was $3 and I never ordered anything but a lobster roll and a soft drink. On a recent return to Brunswick, I was pleased to see Fat Boy still in operation. When you request a lobster roll, the server writes it down as if it's a special order; the price today is $13.

Connected to the culture

Relationships I was leaving behind were a large part of the culture with which I connected. My job on the base was managing several functions of the squadron personnel office. Stored in a gunmetal gray cabinet in that office were all the service records. One of this stood out above all others, the record of Tom (n) Watt, AMC, USN. (The (n) was the Navy's designation for having no middle name.)

Chief Watt was the squadron's “Leading Chief.” His service record was the thickest folder in the drawer, containing every possible recommendation document offered by the Navy. He'd requested to be assigned to VP-21 for at least three tours, lasting four years each – something unheard of and requiring special approved from the Third Naval District, which was responsible for our unit. Chief Watt loved Brunswick, settling there with his family.

The chief and I had one activity to perform daily – sitting down in his hangar office, just big enough to seat two people, we wrote down the names of the watch standers who would cover the next 24 hours. It wasn't the task that was so memorable, it was the opportunity to speak with Tom Watt privately. To the 19-year-old me, this was like talking alone with Spencer Tracy in his prime. He was like a giant sponge, one who had spent a lifetime soaking up the human experience, which flowed out every day with different viewpoints. Chief Watt was a consummate military leader – but content to remain in the enlisted ranks. The daily plan should have required only 20 minutes or so, but our conversation stretched that time to an hour. It never ceased to be interesting and entertaining.

We were frequently visited by First Class Aviation Electrician Angelo Spera, who later became Brunswick police chief after retiring from the service with a honorable discharge. The camaraderie between these two men was pure gold and I was very privileged to witness it.

Socially, I was not yet of legal drinking age (in Maine the age was 21), but enjoyed going out with other service members who hailed from all over the country to explore the area hot spots. We were careful, selecting our destinations with that in mind.

The Villa Hotel in Lisbon Centre had a dance each Wednesday that was popular with local French-Canadian girls our age who had migrated to the U.S. with their parents. They all looked like models, and they spoke two languages – and we did not – and it was like they all talked in code in front of us.

The culture of Brunswick based was further developed by air squadron deployments to various countries in the world for five-month periods. Sicily, Morocco, Spain, Greece, Palma Majorca, Newfoundland and Puerto Rico (in the dead of Maine winter) were just a handful of destinations I was sent to. In just three years, boys became men and young men became responsible older adults – all because of what we experienced and learned by being stationed in Brunswick.

A Return and Reflection

On my most recent return trip in August, I drove into the public road that has become Brunswick Executive Airport. The base tower is still standing – proudly bearing the 75 foot elevation letters. The twin 8,400-foot runways (01 and 19) are in excellent shape – but with no cross runway.

Most hangars have been replaced by commercial structures. The golf course at the end of Perimeter Road is still there and has many golf carts. The ground is still hard, which meant you could hit a ball almost 100 yards every time.

Upon reflection, I know that my fond memories of the base, and even coming back for a visit, might not have been if I'd not entered the Navy after high school.

When I graduated from high school in 1959, it seemed every one of my classmates went on to enter college, graduating in 1963. My high school grades were so poor that I was rejected by all six nearby colleges to which I applied. I was devastated by this failure to be accepted by at least one, including a local university that had opened its doors five years earlier and was known to accept most applicants. My only choice was to be drafted and complete four years of active duty.

Instead of earning a college diploma in 1963, I received an honorable discharge from the Navy and the knowledge my military obligation was fulfilled.

Ironically, after my discharge, I was accepted without hesitation by C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University – the local college that four years prior was known to accept most all applicants – to enter as a freshman student in the fall 1963. It seems the admissions officer admitted all former military personnel with a clean service record. My high school scholastic records were no longer a factor.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was waiting for a 1 p.m. conference with my English professor to discuss a mid-term paper I had written during an the previous week. Mrs. Rodax entered the room we were to occupy for the conference. She entered weeping and shaking so badly I immediately rose and offered her to sit. She was able to speak after a few minutes and explained that the department head had told her in the front office that “President Kennedy was dead.”

My student conference was re-scheduled and I exited the campus office building – into the world instantly changed by three rifle bullets fired by an assassin.

President Kennedy was likely the only individual who would have withdrawn our advisers from Vietnam, having stated this to Walter Cronkite during an exclusive interview just two weeks before he was killed.

John Kennedy’s vice president, along with many of JFK’s cabinet members who stayed on, plunged our nation into a full-blown 17- year-long war. Had I entered college after high school instead of the Navy – at Brunswick Naval Air Station – I very possibly would have become an early casualty in Vietnam.

Brunswick, Maine has become more to me than just an old duty station. It is where my military obligation was completed and my own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness began.

Russ Perrine is a freelance journalist.

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