The First Base

My first base was always my favorite: Mather, AFB. It has been closed and we are going back to see what is left very soon.

We did not live on Mather until I was six. WWII and a trip to Alaska postponed being able to live with dad until then. Before the war, he had been stationed there and was there when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Dad and his new bride lived off base. I was born nine months later just before he was sent to the South Pacific with his B-25’s

A couple of years after the war, dad was, once again, transferred to Mather. This time, we would live on base and, while at Mather, once again war breaks out and, once again, we will be sent back to Detroit. North Korea attacked South Korea bringing a wonderful experience to an end at Mather. We would never be stationed there again but I have gone back many, many times. Dad retired to Sacramento.

Once again, new guy in town with no friends. Hey, I worked with a dentist’s son that lived at Mather! Drove right over, the A.P. saluted me at the front gate (the enlisted sticker at the base we came from was the same color and design as the officer’s sticker at Mather. Took advantage of this a few times to impress the ladies. I was a fighter pilot dontchaknow.) One friend led to another and some brats I knew showed up. Mather had one of those new teen centers. Finally something to do on Saturday night for a guy under 21!

Now, let’s go back to 1949.

It all started when the brand new Air Force beat the Navy out of the money from congress that year and was exploding with growth. So fast, there was not adequate housing. The base had all these empty barracks around since the war was over so they were turned over to us to live in.

The military barrack was a pretty standard two story structure back then. You still see these on abandoned military installations and in the old parts of bases and posts. No matter what installation you were on. They were all built from the same blueprint. It had a room with a dozen toilets going down one wall and sinks with mirrors on the opposite wall. The urinals were about 10 feet long. At the back was another 30 x 30 room totally lined in zink plated thin steel. Along every wall on the inside of the room were shower heads poking out and a couple of knobs below each one. A barrack does not have a mens room and a ladies room

The standard barrack style most used is called “open bay.” There are no interior walls except around the latrine. The Air Force put eight families in each one. Can’t remember how mom washed dishes. We went to a big place full of laundry machines for our clothes. Plywood walls were put up for a little privacy. We were out of sight but definitely not out of sound.

One might say, they even invented the unisex bath room:

Dad was barrack chief so we got the first room on the first floor closest to the latrine. He made a flat arrow from plywood and attached it to another Monopoly board sized piece . The arrow was attached with a nail right through the middle. It could spin like a propeller. One side of the board was painted green and the other red. The word ’MALE’ was printed over one color and ’FEMALE’ over the other. If nobody was using the facility, there was a spot the arrow would be pointed to saying ’COAST IS CLEAR.’ Wish I had taken that thing with me.

Unfortunately, the building was occupied with brats or the nail became loose in the arrow and it would occasionally slip. It got to the point that some women would not go in unless another would come along to monitor the door. We were one big family. Cooks, M.P’s, air craft mechanics. It was not unusual to see the ’FOLLOW ME’ jeep parked out front at lunch time.

Thinking like as an adult, this must have been miserable for the young married couples. As a kid, what could be better? All of us brats became brothers and sisters. In no evening would every family have every one of their children sleeping with them. We would crash and eat with each other, go to school, play and go on adventures together all over the base. All the couples were very young so no kid was any older than me. In the barrack next door there was a kid that was eight. He was the oldest. I have no doubt that civilians could not have done this.

The military experience of the men had already accustomed them to communal living. N.C.O. wives banded together every where. Enlisted dependents were a relatively new thing to the military. Officers’ wives used to have military posts to themselves. There was very strong resistance to the new enlisted wives from the officers’ still going on when WWII ended. So, because they had a common enemy, they were automatic allies and got along magnificently.

Mather gave me a wealth of experience and more stories than can be told here. Here are a few, though, which I hope you enjoy.

It was exciting living on a base the first time. All they told me was the places I couldn’t go, including the officers’ pool. Ok, whatever. I had never moved to a new place before so I did not know to remember landmarks when I went some place new on base so I could find my way back. I got my lesson on this the first day there.

The grade school was on base near the front gate. My parents gave me directions to get over there and I got to school in time. On the way there, I was taking in all the new sights and not paying attention. When school let out that afternoon, I started off in the direction of our new home. There were so many streets to take from the front of the base, I didn’t know which one to take back.

I went over to one, looked down it and nothing looked familiar. After trying several more, the fear and frustration became to much and I just sat down on the curb crying. There was absolutely no idea in my head of what to do next.

After a couple of minutes, this M.P. jeep comes down the street and stops in front of me. Still remember the bright white hat, shiny belts and, of course, those glossy M.P. boots. He asks me what’s up and I tell him my predicament. He asks me to jump into the jeep and we sail down the road. He drives right to the front porch of my barrack. It took two minutes and we were right there. How did he know where a new kid in town lived? Do M.P.’s have special powers, do they know where every person lives on the base?

He watched me jump out and walk in then took off in his M.P. jeep keeping his secret till I saw him come home from work one day and go upstairs to his family.

One day I realized they had no way to know my “rank” so I just walked into the officer’s pool and took a swim. The place was not nearly as much fun as our pool and was smaller. Still, the sin made it special. They had much nicer towels, too, so I took one… Oh, I forgot about the M.P. upstairs! The towel stayed at the pool. I still thought he had magical powers.

Lastly, this final story became a family icon.

The most popular guy in the barrack was a cook from Tennessee. He could make ribs to-die-for and always came home with goodies for all of us. He also came home with fruit juices.

He lived above us. As housing became available, families would move out. When the family next to us left, dad got a saw and cut a doorway through our adjoining wall doubling the size of our living space. The girl that had lived there had a great personality and had been the first one to welcome me with her box of crayons in hand when we moved in. I missed her right away when she left. She had a certain peace about her. She probably grew up to be a beautiful woman. But I had her room now!!

We now occupied the entire length of the barrack on one side. In the last room on the end corner, there was a window on each wall. It was gorgeous even with the two by four studs on the outer walls the military never seemed to get around to cover in any of the barracks. Mom and dad wallpapered the plywood, furnished it and sent for grandma.

Meanwhile, in the same corner upstairs, the cook had five gallon glass water jugs full of fruit juice…and yeast. He made wine that rivaled Napa Valley that was just across the valley from us. Everyone enjoyed it very much and every family got its share. When I was up there playing with his son, he would pour a sip into a juice glass (the one that pimento cheese came in?) to show off his latest batch to me and tell me to ask dad to come up and see him.

***

Why is it that things taste so much better when we were younger? Like beer, for example. When a couple would come over to play cards on Saturday night, they would all have a beer. My treat was to suck the foam off of dad’s. Beer never tasted nearly that good when I grew up. In fact, I can’t stand the taste now and don’t drink it at all. The finest wines I could afford to drink (these were the ones I could take out of the paper bag) never ever came close to our cook’s vintage fruit juices.

***

About the second week after grandma moved into her sunny, wallpapered room with the double windows… the still blew up in the middle of the night. It was not a big explosion but it was enough. It was not noticed till late the next morning. When the cook went over to his little corner room he had the still in, he saw the floor bathed in wine. He immediately ran down to dad freaking out. He’s going to get busted, they are going to send him to Greenland, etc. Dad told him not to worry, he was the barrack chief and he was not about to loose out on those fantastic bar-be-ques, wine and goodies from the mess hall.

They went back to the room and saw where some of the wine had streaked down and soaked into the new wallpaper. The cook was beside himself with grief. Grandma had come in with a smile, she saw how much the cook was suffering. They asked her why hadn’t she said anything. Everyone could now smell the wine in her room. The wise ol’ gal went over and put her arm around the cook saying it had been a long time since she had such a good night’s sleep and laughed for a full minute. She did not want the wine to be scrubbed out of the wallpaper and wanted it left just it the way it was. The straight laced, Midwestern, bible thumping grandma thought this was as wild as a week in Vegas.

Dad went upstairs with the cook and helped him mop up.

We had Christmas and Thanksgivings at the mess hall. Every time we all felt closer. The kids’ table we had was the grandest one anywhere. There were more than a dozen of us stuffing our faces and having a ball. When done, all of us kids could reach into number 10 cans full off candy and take hand full’s with us on the walk back…well…home.

Over the following years that found the barrack family spread all over the world, there were many lonely times that I wish I could tap on the wall and get a knock back from a friend that would then go out with me and play. This is only one of many joyous things that happened at that old, T for temporary, building. Mather was the best base ever.

Now, the base, grandma, mom and dad are all gone. It was about 20 years ago since I was on Mather. Our old home had become the Civil Air Patrol H.Q. back then. After moving into our new home in Sacramento, we are going to go back to the location of the base. If the building is still there, we will try to get in. If grandma’s wall is gone, the memories won’t be.

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  1. Thank you John for your blog post. For me it was Benjamin Franklin Village in Mannheim, Germany. I was six years old and for four great years it was my home and after all these years, it is my favorite post.

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