Never Mind War, El Toro Is Hell

In 15 days, the last marine marches off the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The county's plan, which was hatched years ago in a frenzy of optimism, was for county officials to quickly occupy the base in time to begin commercial cargo flights by Independence Day. That plan is now forgotten. Today, county officials will be happy if they can continue operating the base's golf course, stables and officers' club past the Marines' bug-out date.

Well, most officials. On June 11, Jean O. Pasco reported in the Los Angeles Times that retired Marine Corps colonel and former El Toro base-closure manager Jim Ritchie resigned from his $110,000-per-year job as interim manager of the base. Under contract with Arizona-based Cabaco Inc., Ritchie was responsible for getting as much of the base into private hands as possible. His reason for quitting: too many delays.

"This is a tough political environment," Ritchie told Pasco. "If I could have turned this into a robust, income-generating piece of property, that's where the action is."

Ritchie's use of the singular "I" is significant, correctly suggesting that Ritchie was on a mission: to personally convert the shuttered, creaky El Toro base into a well-oiled economic engine for Orange County. He was going to use his 30 years of experience in the Corps to make sure the county got its airport operational as soon as possible.

In fairness, that's the world Ritchie lived in—a world in which Marines are ordered to take hills, beaches and enemies and respond by saying, "Sir, yes, sir!" It's all a matter of having the superior will to squash the enemy with superior force. But the real world—a world of democracy rather than mere authority—is different. What happens when some pip-squeak attorney in Sacramento files some brief and suddenly the Sheriff's Department won't get base-security authority until at least August? What happens when you push for immediate cargo flights for interim use but can only secure permission to keep the horse stables and the officers' club running? What happens when anti-airport groups and all their consultants and attorneys set up so many obstacles that Ritchie realizes there won't be any lucrative cargo flights "any time in the near future"?

What happens is that Ritchie quits after just eight months.

Ritchie, who flew helicopters in Vietnam during the fall of Saigon, should have known better. Superior force doesn't always equal victory. Skills, resources and training mean little against someone who only wants to demoralize you.

Ritchie told Pasco that he's headed to Los Angeles International Airport to work as general manager for the Mercury Air Group, a private fueling and cargo-handling company. We hope the political environment there isn't too tough.


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