Today’s Mileage: 157 miles
Total Trip Mileage so far: 3455 miles
While I was getting my exhaust bolts squared away, my friend Kevin Foley was on his way from the Orange County area to meet me in Lancaster. We were going to ride over to the Mojave Airport and then out to Edwards AFB. Because of Kevin’s background in aerospace (he worked on the space shuttle while employed at Lockheed, among other aero related things) he was interested in seeing what is going on at the Mojave airport/space port and at Edwards. A visit to Edwards is more difficult for a civilian in these days of increased security at all bases. However, since I am a retired military, I can escort a civilian on to a base. And since I spent so much time at Edwards I can give a pretty good tour of the Edwards I remember. I was to find that while much has changed since I last worked there (mid 80’s), much has remained the same. Kevin would have to get back home by mid-afternoon due to some family commitments so we were going to do a pretty fast broad brush tour for him and then I would stay a few more hours after he left.
Kevin and I left Lancaster and rode over to the Mojave airport for breakfast. We ate in the Voyager Restaurant. The restaurant virtually oozes aircraft and space tech and memories as well as hope for the future. The hallways are lined with signed photos from just about every aviation or space icon that you can think of – quite an experience! Oh, yea, the food was ok, too. A quick ride around revealed a tremendous amount of activity and growth at the facility. Mojave is one of, if not the headquarters for private space flight operations and development. Our Mojave flash tour completed, we moved on to Edwards Air Force Base just down the road (Highway 58).
Due to security I couldn’t take photos of all the places I took Kevin in our quick tour of the base. I showed him the buildings that we worked out of for the cruise missile project, and for the B-1. I showed him the big maintenance hangar where I worked as an aircraft mechanic and the test engineering building right across the street were I worked when I came back to Edwards as a flight test engineer. That was a weird thing in itself, I left Edwards as an enlisted Tech Sergeant (E-6) – about 5 or 6 years later I returned to work across the street as a baby lieutenant (O-1) – the guys that I knew that were still there when I got back were a little confused. I showed Kevin the Test Pilot School and the Test Operations where all our flight briefings and de-briefings took place. I even showed him my old 5 mile lunch time running course. Then we headed over to the base motorcycle club facility to see what it looked liked now.
We found a locked gate at the base motorcycle club track and the clubhouse building is gone. I was the club president for 2 years around 1979 or 80. Beyond the gate at the top of the hill there used to be a building that was our clubhouse. There were bleachers to either side. We expanded our motocross races to include civilians from the surrounding communities and pretty soon from the whole LA area. I did not get to talk to anyone about what happened but I suppose 9/11 and the increased security (EAFB is now a “closed” base) put an end to the era of big successful motocross races that included the civilian population. Since the club was self-sustaining with that money flow from the races, once that was gone there was likely no money to keep up the building and grounds – so it was torn down. Sad, a lot of good times up there – the kids and wives would run the concession stand and you never knew who would show up to race. One time Gene Hackman (the movie star) brought his son up to race and spent the day.
Kevin was starting to run short of time so I sent him out the gate toward home and I went back for a little more visiting around. After Kevin left I went back down to the big maintenance hangar where I had worked both before and after Sandy and I got married. I really did enjoy that job – I worked on all kinds of aircraft, from the just regular line planes to the special, special one-off flight test aircraft – often secreted in their own special hangars or spaces. In the machine and sheet metal shops I honed my fabrication skills for making and repairing one-off parts. I often worked night shift, actually my favorite time, as I was usually alone to take care of any emergencies that came up or finish up jobs on a deadline. After Sandy came to Edwards she often came down to shop late at night to bring my lunch (or what ever you call food in the middle of the night). If things were slow I would take her for rides in the shop tug (breaking about a million rules I am sure) out around the flight line and show her the planes. Once she got me in big trouble by doing what she thought was a good deed…cleaning the shop coffee pot…how could she know that the old timer in charge of the pot considered the formation of a certain amount of scum as critical in perfecting the taste of the coffee? He bitched and complained about that for at least 6 weeks. Sandy never cleaned anything at the shop again. So as I was parked thinking about all these memories in that building, I decided I would really like to go inside and look around. Of course I did not have the proper pass to get in, security and all that, so I decided I would just walk in the main door and ask for a supervisor of some sort, and just start pleading my case (worked here over 40 years ago, retired, visiting, whatever). Well, it worked! I walked in, saw a guy in an office and started telling him my story, he listened, asked a few questions, then got up and shook my hand and said it would be his pleasure for me to look around – he said some things have moved but the machine and sheet metal shops were still in the same places because of the big machinery. He told a sergeant and an airman to escort me and take me where ever I wanted to go. It was quite a nostalgia trip – I was surprised at how much of the building was the same and talking with the 2 troops – how similar their lives are to what mine was back then. Then we went out into the hangar and it was like deja vu – there was a T-38 (F-5) and a B-52 in there for repairs. I remember working on B-52’s and saying I would never fly on one of those things because there is always so much broken when they come in for repairs that is still broken when they go out. And then less than 10 years later I was flying 100’s of hours on one during the cruise missile project. I can tell you I thought about that every time I got on a B-52 for a test mission… The troops were so nice to me and seemed so glad to be doing it for me that it was just the best day ever!
Driving by the EAFB service station, the only one on base when I was there, there was a line to buy gas – always a line – one of the things that has not changed. During the gas crisis of the early 70’s the line would stretch down the street a quarter to a half mile. I am sort of surprised they never added more pumps. The gas station is where my friend and co-worker Irv was driving the base surveying truck one day and hooked the fender on a post – he was afraid he would get in trouble so we quickly went down to my house and fixed it best we could and then just parked it back at work like nothing had happened. Several days later when someone finally noticed it had been repaired I think Irv just kept saying “I don’t know anything about that” until they gave up. I know he kept his job (he was a civilian) and was still there when I left – and retired to Las Vegas a few years ago. I am not sure what the moral to that story is…
Further on down the road past the service station I see the train cars are still there. These train cars were set up in the early 70’s and a Baskin-Robbins opened up in them – it was a huge deal at the time because of the lack of civilian style places on base where kids and others could hang out. And definitely not get that good ice cream they had – you had to drive 30 miles to Lancaster (the nearest real town) to find any. It was a big hit – of course, if you are going to open a business in the desert, why not ice cream? It is nice the train cars are still there – but no longer an ice cream joint – I think it is an alteration shop now.
Just riding around Edwards AFB opens a flood gate of memories about mine and my family’s time here. A little quick summary of our history with this place will explain our attraction to this out of the way spot in the desert. I was stationed here twice, once as an enlisted and again as an officer. I was assigned to EAFB after my last Viet Nam/SEA tour. Thinking how great it was to be assigned to California, beaches and palm trees, etc – I was quite confused on the way out to the base after having been picked up by the base shuttle at LAX. Where are we going I thought, as we drove further and further into the desert – at last, there is the gate to base – but where is the base? The driver said, ‘oh, about 15 more miles”. I was sure I had been court-martialed and sent to some desert penal colony. Unmarried I would be living in the barracks which looked a lot like a jail building – with no car I would be pretty much in exile. Things did get better, my job as an aircraft mechanic was interesting and I made friends with folks that had cars. It was pretty good duty after all. When Sandy and I got married, she had pretty much the same reaction, only worst for her – I brought her up at night – when she looked out the next morning and saw the bleakness of the desert – she cried. At 19, she had never been this far from home in such a hostile looking place with an uncertain future (we didn’t really know where we were going to live…but that is another story). The most amazing thing is that many years later we all cried that we were leaving…
After a few failed adventures in housing on the local economy we finally got a house on base – this was truly our first house – Chelsea was born in the base hospital and brought to this first home of ours to spend the first years of her life in a community of sharing that is so common to military base life. I had several part-time jobs to fund my motorcycle riding/racing habit – we could race motocross several times a week, Ascot, Lions Dragway, Indian Dunes, Saddleback, Bay Mare, etc – and Desert. Plus I could ride desert right on the base. Then we had to leave for other assignments, Valdosta, Ga and Fairbanks. Then, after several hard years of plugging away at getting a year of college in my “spare time”, I was accepted into a program that would ultimately send me to Auburn University at government expense to get a degree in mechanical engineering. As part of my commitment to the military, I then went to San Antonio for another round of basic training – this time for the 3 month officer training – and poof, I was a 2Lt.
Luck was with us, in the usual opposite of the military way I asked for EAFB…and got it. We were on our way back to where I would work as a flight test engineer. Now we settled in our second base house and we were back in the community. I was on flight status so that meant a few extra bucks – bucks that were quickly converted to motorcycles. All three of us had dirt bikes, Chelsea had her MR-50, Sandy had her PE-175 and I had a Bultacos, Can-Ams and others. I worked on the B-1, F-15, F-16, and Cruise Missile projects, Sandy landed a drafting/Design and Purchasing agent job at NASA working on the upcoming first Space Shuttle flight. Chelsea was in school and hanging with her neighborhood friends. There’s more, so much more – but we loved Edwards and the work and play we did there. But then we had to leave for another assignment in 1981- I was chosen to get an advanced degree and we would move to Ohio to do that – however, we were told I would return to my old job at EAFB after school was over (and Sandy made plans to return to hers as well) – this time however, the sometimes seemly cruel military way reared its ugly head and said, “change of plans” you are not going back. We had never even unpacked most of our boxes in anticipation of returning…both girls cried this time…and we never returned to Edwards — but everything did work out, probably for the best. Sorry for the long winded background. I had been back to a few times as part of my job in the Air Force in Ohio and a couple of times after retiring but this visit and the feelings it evoked was just different.
Now I was passing the NASA Dryden facility located on Edwards and where much of the Space Shuttle testing was performed and the first landings were made. Even after the shuttle started landing in Florida, Edwards remained an alternate landing site. Kevin Foley was at Edwards several times to assist in the recovery operation after the shuttle had diverted for a landing at Edwards. Much has changed around the NASA facility since he and I last saw it. I visited the gift shop and when I told the lady I was looking for something for my wife that used to work there – she threw in some freebies with my purchase just for old times sake, nice lady. No, Sandy I will not tell what I got – you will have to wait until RideAbout is over…
My next stops were to find the houses we had lived in on base and drive by the hospital Chelsea was born in. We lived in 3 different houses during our various stays at Edwards: #14 10th Street, XX on 14th Street, and 5885 Lindbergh I think was the number. The house on 10th holds the most precious memories, as that was our first real house and the house Sandy and started our life together in, and much more, it was the house we started our little family in. Chelsea came to us there and filled our life with joy and the worry of “it’s a baby, what do we do now, will it break?” My late sister and her daughter Paula(9 months old at the time) visited there for two weeks in June 1970 when Chelsea was due to “help with the baby” – two weeks came and went and no baby – she had to back home. Chelsea was a month late…something the docs would probably never allow these days.
My Mom and her boyfriend Joe visited us in that house, My Grandmother even visited us there. Chelsea spent many hours of almost every day digging in the dirt next to the sharp points of that Yucca plant – bad parents? She never got stuck by it as far as I know – she just seemed to know to stay away from it. Motorcycles were built and raced from that little garage. I built the 64 Triumph Bonnie with the Honda 750 front end in that garage (I wanted a disk brake) – I also built the Bultaco Mettise with the Ducati 250 engine in it (my idea of what a lightweight 4stroke should be – a bit ahead of my time on that one – rode it in the desert race that became the desert race scene in “On Any Sunday” – when you see the line for the start – I am about a quarter of the way down from the right – no, you can’t actually see me but I know I am there…cool). And lots more. The house on 10th street was in the enlisted housing area-the military you remember. Oh, and there was the time Sandy and I were riding on the Triumph going up to Tehachapi and we hit what was later to be known as the “exploding rabbit” in the road – what a smelly mess! The second house on 14th street was were we moved in upon our return after I became an officer – this house was bigger and nicer and had the most important thing – a two car garage!
Lots of memories in that house too – some of the most fun times were when we had a Belgian exchange pilot living across the street – he brought his wife and 2 daughters about Chelsea’s age. The 2 girls spoke no English and the wife just a bit…we had many a fun time trying to communicate some everyday occurrence, such as the time Agnes asked Sandy, “What do you call a mouse with a long tail?, and the blender, oh the blender, Agnes made mayonnaise everyday as they seemed to eat it on everything – when she discovered Sandy’s blender it was if struck from Heaven, such a wonderful device she just had to have one. The girls were just dumped into school to pick up English on their own – but the kids all seemed to have a language of their own – Chelsea and the girls (I can’t remember their exact names) seemed to always communicate just fine – maybe Chelsea can add to this story. The last house we lived in was the best, I do not remember exactly how we were allowed to move there but I am sure it involved a list or two and waiting for our name to come up. It was a bigger house – 3 bedrooms (finally and extra room for an office, etc) but more importantly it was on the corner and backed directly up to the desert – the kids could play in the desert right behind the house with all the rattlesnakes and, very importantly, I could ride my dirt bike directly out of the garage and into the desert – I could take the access trail to the mx track or ride the 40 plus mile desert loop I had mapped out. This was the house were we got our first family dog, the super puppy Kermit who went everywhere, rode in bicycle baskets, on the tank of my motorcycle, sat on the luggage when we were going somewhere, and was always quiet when we snuck him into motels. We were to have the joy of his being with us for 17 years of Kermitisms.
This was the house where Sandy drove to work at NASA (about 5 or 6 miles) with her coffee cup sitting on the roof of the truck – we she got there she just picked it up like nothing was unusual about that. Another time I was gone and the battery was dead on the truck, she didn’t want to be late for work so she rode my Suzuki GS750 to work – the first time she had ever ridden it other than as a passenger. There was also the time she got mad at me and took all the spark plugs out and hid them. With this background, it should be clear why it was so disturbing to find out that the base hospital was torn down and not built back – there is nothing but a clinic now – I suppose you are in big trouble if you are seriously sick or injured. No trace of where Chelsea was born… But even worse (even though it is a good thing for the troops that live there now) – all the housing has been torn down and rebuilt, not one original house was left standing – but worse yet – all the roads were removed and new roads routed much differently. So, none of the houses still exist, none of the roads exist or go to any of the same places – even the house numbering was redone. I could not find the previous location of the first 2 houses at all – I found the general location of the last house only because it was next to the desert. It was if they had purposely set out to obliterate all our most precious memories of Edwards, in the name of progress of course. It was definitely a “you can’t go back home moment”. So no photos of old houses we used to live in at Edwards today.
Chelsea attended elementary schools at Edwards. I know that a lot of the military kids may have felt that they lived in the middle of nowhere but Edwards gave kids the thing they could rarely have living in a city (then, and now even more so) – the freedom to be safe, virtually every kid walked to school, usually in groups, but just kids, no parents needed. After school, they could go and do without escorts. Pretty much like when I was a kid, you went outside in the morning and your mother did not expect you back until mealtime. What I noticed on this days visit was that the kids are still doing that on Edwards, I saw groups and singles walking everywhere…still. One of the good things about the military community is still happening at Edwards, and basically for the same reasons…it IS in the middle of nowhere. When Chelsea was older – she rode her bike everywhere, usually with super dog Kermit in the basket.
With that I headed for my next stop for the evening – Ridgecrest, CA.