Photo by Jack GouldI was okay until I saw the M-16. I'd done just as Kathleen instructed: drove down Katella Avenue, took a right at Lexington—where stands the great Katella Deli—and drove two short blocks past rows of small family homes to the gate of the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos. A guard appeared, I showed him my driver's license and told him I was there to see Kathleen about the banquet facilities. He looked at me, then he looked at the two soldiers standing in front of my minivan—one unarmed, one with a rifle slung comfortably across her chest like a baby harness. The guard asked me exactly which building I wanted to go to, and though I knew the answer, I went blank, and the solider with the rifle started toward the van.
"Oh," the guard said in a welcome tone of recognition. "Yeah, right, Kathleen."
Breathing easier, I listened in an overly serious manner as he told me to take the road ahead to where the tank was, veer left and head to the end. I did as I was told, and though the posted speed limit was 25 miles per hour, I did it at 20. I drove past rocket-loaded helicopters and camouflage trucks and a sit-down mower outfitted with an American flag. I got to my appointed building and walked inside—being careful to look neither left nor right—amid the whir of a returning Blackhawk and set about to find Kathleen.
This was March 27. The day before, 15 Iraqi civilians—the Iraqis claim 36—had been killed in a Baghdad neighborhood, their bodies described as charred, twisted and smoldering. Some reports said they'd been killed by American cruise missiles, precision-guided weapons that had targeted Iraqi missiles and launchers in the area but apparently veered and slammed into an area of homes and, the AP reported, "inexpensive restaurants."
A statement from U.S. Central Command placed blame for the deaths on the Iraqis since "most of the [Iraqi] missiles were positioned less than 300 feet from homes. . . . In some cases, such damage is unavoidable when the [Iraqi] regime places military weapons near civilian areas." Later, Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke said the fact the Iraqis had placed weapons 300 feet away from homes was "a sign of the brutality of this regime and how little they care about civilians."
But if that's true, what are we to think about the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, nestled among homes and apartment buildings, some just a couple of hundred feet from the base entrance? (As for inexpensive restaurants, well, you can get the best turkey sandwich in the county two blocks away at the Katella Deli for six bucks.) In my short time there, the people on the base seemedto care about civilians—even the soldier with the rifle was courteous. More than that, the base actually seemed a part of the community, seemed—oh, what's that word everyone's using—embedded in the community. It has four Little League baseball fields, is the site of the Los Alamitos 10K and plays host to an annual Independence Day fireworks spectacular that attracts tens of thousands.
Come to think of it, aren't most military installations—and whatever they're packing—usually a part of the neighborhood? Don't bases tend to be like prisons, causing whole towns to flower around them to serve them? I mean, less than an hour down the road at Camp Pendleton, they have civilians living on the base and working at fast-food joints and daycare centers onthe base. Less than an hour south from there in San Diego, the military and its hardware not only operate among civilians but also are tourist attractions. Aircraft carriers dock near smart shops, not-so-inexpensive restaurants and luxury hotels, so much so that if one of those carriers were to be attacked, the collateral damage would likely include a fabulous brunch in the Prince of Wales Room at Loews Coronado Resort Hotel.
But I don't think people think about this much. No more than the folks in Los Alamitos' upscale Rossmoor district or at St. Hedwig's Catholic Church think about the implications beat out by the Blackhawks returning from their training missions as they fly over the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.
* * *
Though I got to the building, I had no idea where I was going, and I was suddenly seized with the fear I would wander into a forbidden area. It was all very quiet, the halls were empty, and I became increasingly nervous that I was somewhere I shouldn't be, and then I became more nervous that I was looking increasingly nervous—and therefore guilty—and tried my best not to look nervous so people wouldn't notice me, but that sent me into a near panic when I thought that people—military people with M-16s—might think I was trying too hard not to be noticed. I kept walking. Trying to look like someone who had a reason to be there—to look at some of the facilities—but I didn't know what I should look at and what would get me sent to Guantanamo; I needed Kathleen for that.
Summing up, I was lost and certain I would never see my family again.
And then I saw a small woman at a desk—Kathleen—and I said hello. She said hi and almost immediately passed me off to a very nice woman named Tracey to show me the facilities. Tracey told me they had two rooms and suggested we take a look. She showed me the 100-person Colonial Room, a rather straightforward, if not drab, place that would probably be a nice room for a bingo game or model-train enthusiasts, but I couldn't see it hosting a function with any life to it. (Indeed, Tracey later told me, the Colonial had the day before hosted a wake.)
We walked out to the adjoining patio and bar. She pointed over to the lawn, just before the landing strip, and said there were plans to put a gazebo up so the base could host weddings. "We already do some weddings, but we just put up temporary arches," she said.
I think she could tell I was less than impressed. She suggested we go over to the larger—300 maximum capacity—room. Nice. This place seemed not only twice the size but also had a much better feel about it: posters for such movies as Shall We Dance on the walls, thick carpet, columns, nice art-deco lighting fixtures. It was the kind of room you see at a nicer hotel, except the hotel probably wouldn't call it the Militia Room. Tracey said they had a dance floor they could put down and that the DJ—whom we would have to provide—could set up in the corner.
And then she took me over to the pub.
* * *
Now, I think it's important for me to tell you how normal all of this was. Yes, I was on a U.S. military installation at a time of war, and yes, those were rockets on those helicopters, and yes, I'm sure there was other heavy-duty stuff in those other buildings and warehouses, but as I wandered around with Tracey, I might as well have been checking out the Airport Ramada. It was all so typical, except the part where Tracey said how nice it was to sit on the pub's patio, have a drink at night, and watch the Blackhawks take off and land.
I guess I was surprised by the typical-ness of it all, but I don't know why I would have been. I grew up in the '70s, when every other Southern Californian worked in aerospace—my mom worked for McDonnell Douglas—and those who didn't usually worked in a business that served aerospace. My first job was as a pizza-delivery boy in Downey, many of my deliveries taking me to a Rockwell plant the size of a small city. As a high school kid, my best friend Chris and I used to spend our summers driving south on the 405 to the beach, driving past the aboveground bunkers of the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. The bunkers couldn't have been more than a few hundred yards from the freeway and were a lot closer to the farm workers working the fields in front of them. Like everyone, Chris and I used to speculate what was in those bunkers: Artillery? Regular bombs or good stuff? We'd all heard there were nuclear warheads in there, and in the '70s, we wondered if those nuclear weapons didn't include a few neutron bombs, which was a very hot weapon at the time, though I'm not sure it ever existed. Driving past the bunkers, Chris and I would discuss how fast we'd have to drive our VWs to get away from nukes when—never if—the Soviets lobbed them at the weapons station. "Really fast," we figured, but, alas, not fast enough, since we also figured there were too many people living in and around the weapons station—not to mention the 30,000 students at Long Beach State—and the roads would be jammed. Anyway, we reasoned that even if you escaped the blast by heading south, you'd get vaporized by the nukes hitting Pendleton or San Onofre, and if you went north into LA, you'd get smoked by the stuff thrown at LAX. We talked like this back then.
Today, my kids talk about anthrax and dirty bombs and North Korean missile capabilities.
* * *
After we'd looked at everything, Tracey took me back to her office so we could talk price and she could show me a menu. And an impressive menu it is: Tuscano grilled chicken sandwich, Italian concha shells, grapefruit salmon and lots more. Plus, Tracey said, they could customize almost any dish if given the proper time. I asked her a few more questions but then became aware I was asking a lot of questions. It's a strange thing to be talking grapefruit salmon and thinking about treason. Here I was discussing facilities, realizing that's exactly what a spy would want to know. So I knew I had to ask about the facilities, so as not to seem uninterested, and yet not to ask too much about them.
If Tracey picked up on my panic, she didn't let on, not until she mentioned how it can be a little nerve-wracking coming on the base for the first time. Tracey isn't part of the military; she's an independent events planner who arranges things on the base. I told her about my own M-16 moment.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"Yeah," she said. "I know. I felt that way at first. You feel guilty for some reason. You think you've done something wrong when of course you haven't."
She said her first few weeks on the base she was nervous. Once, she'd brought her eight-year-old son on the base, and he had been so excited he kept asking her to slow down so he could check out the military gear. She panicked that she'd get stopped. "But," she said, "eventually you get used to it."
And isn't that the truth? I still pass the Seal Beach bunkers when I head to work, but it seems the only time I actually look at the bunkers—which, I'm told, still house nuclear warheads—is when they fertilize the fields in front of them. It doesn't seem odd for me to drive by it every morning going to work. It doesn't seem odd that the bunkers are just across the street from Leisure World or that the Naval Weapons Station stretches all the way down to PCH and just across the street—not more than 300 feet from McGaugh School, home of elementary school kids, various swim teams, the Seal Beach Kids Baseball and the place I used to play recreation-league basketball. (Oh, by the way, McGaugh has a Choral Program coming up. You can't miss the school—it's the one across from the weapons station.)
And it didn't seem odd to me as I left the base, taking one last look at the Little League fields, that the moment my car left this armory, it entered a neighborhood, with lawns and basketball hoops and inexpensive restaurants where people talk about their day and anthrax and North Korean missiles. Maybe it should have, but it didn't. You get used to it.