"Memories of GTMO in the Early 70's"
By Jack Scott
Having read the interesting essays on the GTMO web page, I
decided that after 30 years it was about time to commit to writing
some of our recollections of GTMO life. I hope these bring back
fond memories to those stationed in GTMO over the years.
Life's Cravings Sweet Tarts, jelly filled donuts, corn on the cob, and Jersey tomatoes. Anyone who has lived in GTMO knows the strange cravings you develop. Parents (and teachers) used to bribe little kids with Sweet Tarts. When word got out that a pilot was returning from JAX with 100 dozen jelly filled donuts onboard, Base Police crowd control was needed just so he could land safely at Leeward! And, once on returning from the States, Base Security opened my bags and discover my "stash" of contraband: two dozen freshly picked ears of corn and two dozen fresh "Jersey" tomatoes. After careful inspection, they let me keep it all I think . hmmm come to think, I never did recount them.
Good GTMO transportation . is my 68 Pontiac still running. Who can forget GTMO cars. I recall a new arrival negotiating to buy one. He asked, does it use much oil? Response: don't know, haven't changed it since I bought it three years ago. What about the radio? Response: well, I turned it on the first day and it started a fire. What did you do? Response: I just don't turn it on anymore.
Let's go to the movies, tonight. what's playing; does it matter. Ah, there you are, sitting under the stars in a comfortable chair, a warm breeze, a free movie, with occasional audience conversation in the background, like: "Hey Mon; where you go'in, Mon; what you got to eat, Mon?" I wonder how many second-features I slept through? According to my wife, all of them!
Golf GTMO style new meaning to "bunkers," "hazards," and "Astro-turf." So, you think you have seen it all in golf courses. How about one where bunkers have the sand in bags and openings for weapons. How about carrying a square of Astro-turf along with you, because GTMO rules permit you to place the ball on the Astro-turf for shots between the tee and green. And, hazards also take on a sense of realism. According to GTMO course etiquette, armored tanks crossing the fairway ALWAYS have the right of way.
Armed Forces Radio & Television Service (AFRTS) in the early 70's we didn't have cable TV. So, we only had the local version of AFRTS and the Cuban channel. AFRTS was thought by some to offer its own "slant" on the news. After all, we all remember Robin Williams in "Good Morning Vietnam." On the other hand, the Cuban station offered great baseball and cartoons that were vintage 50's USA. As to reporting of international news well let's just say the two provided an interesting contrast. And, in the evenings we could hear the AM radio station from Kingston, Jamaica. Years later, my kids were playing some popular music and said, "Dad, you probably never heard this before. It's from Jamaica and called Reggae." For once, I was ahead of the times in the eyes of two teenagers!!
So you are going to the States could you bring back a rebuilt carburetor for a 19xx Chevy. I recently saw a TV ad for Home Depot. A guy comes in from "the islands" with a long shopping list and three days to find it all. At Home Depot he finds it all in hours and had the rest of the time free. Ah, that brings back memories. Unfortunately, in the early 70's there were no mega-stores. So, stateside-shopping lists presented a real challenge.
Filipino christenings where did they get that great food. Fortunately for me, my wife was the civilian pediatric nurse at the hospital. So, we got to know everyone who had a baby in GTMO. We used to look forward to getting invited to Filipino christenings. Now, these were events not to miss. The Filipino delicacies were outstanding. Who knows where they got the ingredients and the cooking was out of this world. You needed a rope to get my wife away from the lumpia!
Barrel boat fleet GTMO fishing at its best. Now, I am not much of a fisherman but you would have to hate fishing not to enjoy it in GTMO. No problem disposing of 55 gal drums they were prized possessions used to build a barrel boat. Now, I will not go on to bore you with fishing stories. Suffice to say, we enjoyed many a dinner of red snapper or langosta.
Sherman Ave... is there anyone you don't know. Where else would you drive down Main Street and wave to every car that comes by. Actually, you need to do so in GTMO because, where else would you know every driver that comes by. The Sherman Avenue car wave is an important skill to master. Fortunately for new arrivals, it takes a couple months before you know every driver. And, by then you have developed the muscles tone, technique, and endurance necessary to be a truly "friendly GTMO driver."
Booze was cheap and the balance of trade. Now, of course, everything was cheaper in the 70's, including incomes. Nevertheless, I still recall our cheapest brand of scotch, Golden Wedding, sold for $0.65 a quart. However, I don't recall anyone actually buying it because premium brands were only $3.00. So, to move this swill, our garage manager suggested we offer it as a cheap alternative to antifreeze, to be used in cars shipped Stateside in the winter. Then, there was the time we got an edict from Navy Resale HQ to report what we were doing to help the US balance of trade, by encouraging purchase of US goods versus foreign goods. So, we reported that we had lowered the price of Wild Turkey bourbon to $2.75 a quart and raised the price of the non-US scotches to $3.25. This patriotism, of course, was well appreciated by the many bourbon drinkers on base.
Ham radio phone patch connection to "the World." Who could forget: "hello --- over;" "how are you --- over." And, privacy --- forget it! When I checked in at Navsta Admin, someone suggested I get to know one of the few ham radio operators on base because ham radio phone patches were the only way to talk with friends in "the World." I mentioned that, while I had not been active for years, I still had a valid ham license and had experience running phone patches for overseas military. Well, talk about fresh meat! Within hours, it seemed, I was issued a GTMO call sign and soon began running patches in the evenings at the club station near the old hobby shop. And, 5 months later when I got housing and my bride of 5-1/2 months arrived, a telephone pole mysteriously was erected in my back yard -- courtesy of someone at PWC -- and materials I'd need to build an antenna appeared --- courtesy of some Sea Bees. It always was gratifying to connect GTMO personnel with their stateside friends and relatives. Well, almost always. A young sailor I knew "needed" to talk with his fiancée in Scranton, PA. So, he came over one night and I put out a call for a PA-based ham operator. It was not a good sign, however, when I heard through the earphones his fiancée refusing to accept his collect call coming from nearby Allentown, PA. I quickly "lost the signal due to atmospheric conditions." Oh, well .. can't win'em all.
Sights and sounds of the Cold War warships, artillery, planes, and DEFEX. The 60's and early 70's were not just about Vietnam but also the Cold War with the Soviets. Who of my generation could forget the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was a senior in high school when President Kennedy spoke to the nation that October night, telling us he had just evacuated civilians and dependents from the Naval Base at Guantanamo and he was imposing a naval blockade of the island. Would the Soviets attempt to run the blockade, would they remove their missiles, or would they launch missiles at the United States from Cuba? Quietly, we all wondered whether we would see high school graduation in June.
Consequently, GTMO life in the early 70's was one of extreme contrasts. A quiet evening at a movie lyceum, but with the sound of artillery practice in the background. The silence of an early morning, interrupted by the sound of fighter jets as they lifted off from Leeward and kicked in their afterburners as they passed over our Coronaso Point house. The tranquil waters of the bay, with the ever present US warship underway and several others at piers and off shore training. The Soviet sub base at Cienfuegos and eastern-bloc commercial ships passing through the bay to the Cuban ports of Boqueron or Caimanera.
And, who could forget the monthly DEFEX. Although only a drill, one wondered if recent history would repeat itself.
November company that elite strike force? The Marine Colonel -- not Jack Nicholson -- wanted "a few more good men." Unlike the movie, however, this one was willing to settle for a rifle company composed of part-time Navy personnel. So, a number of us lucky ones got to train with the Marines a couple days a month and join them on the fence line during DEFEX. It was sort of like being on active duty and the reserves at the same time. Although there was lots of complaining on the part of the Navy personnel, I think we all developed a sense of appreciation for the Marines of Ground Defense Force.
Career military and alternative draftees -- There was an interesting contrast between career Navy and those of us who were in for one tour. We non-career types joked endlessly about "lifers" and how they had to work long hours to impress the boss, play politics, and suck up to seniors in hope of getting good fitness reports and career billets. As entertaining as all this was to us non-career types at the time, it also proved to be excellent on-the-job training for all of us who subsequently pursued careers with large corporations.
Salute to a lost shipmate - The enlisted working in the Navsta Admin office were an interesting blend of young high school and college grads, virtually all of whom had chosen the Navy as an alternative to the draft and Vietnam. A colorful and somewhat rag-tag lot, they also were bright and well liked. One of them, a 19-year old from New Castle, DE, had just gotten married while on Christmas leave. He was a short-timer with about a month to go and would tell you to the day when he was going to take the Silver Bird off the Rock. One Sunday morning he tragically drowned while swimming at Windmill Beach. I happen to be on the plane to Norfolk that took him home. I'll never forget looking out the window as we lifted off from Leeward. There was that rag-tag admin section lining the runway, and I feel certain without permission. But on this one occasion they could have passed for a Presidential Honor Guard, in their perfect dress whites, perfect hand salutes, and the utmost military bearing -- bidding farewell to their lost shipmate.
GTMO revisited One wonders why GTMO is a life-long memory to many families stationed there. In our case, perhaps it was because it was our first home as a married couple. For some, perhaps it was the first location where they really were accepted as adults. Maybe it was the isolation away from relatives and the opportunity to establish friends that are "ours," instead of his or hers. And, maybe it was these GTMO friends: military, civilian, Cubans, and Jamaicans.
I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to revisit GTMO almost 30 years later, this time with my adult son. The military presence, of course, is greatly reduced. Now, there are such modern conveniences as cable TV, telephone access to the States, Internet access, and even McDonalds. Though, I was happy to see there still is no traffic light on Sherman Avenue. I got to meet with some Cuban commuters I had worked with at the Navy Exchange in the early 70's. I again got to hear the sound of Jamaicans speaking English in a way only they can. And, one evening we attended a double feature at the Navsta Movie Lyceum. I reflected on when I was my son's age sitting in that same spot, when my mother visited us in the early 70's and sat in that same spot, and even when my grandmother visited my uncle's family stationed in GTMO in the early 50's. Four generations .now, that is a lot of GTMO memories! And, yes, I again slept through most of the second movie. Some things never change!
About the Author: Jack and Maggie Scott were in GTMO from January 1970 to January 1972. They lived on Coronaso Point. Jack was the Assistant Navy Exchange Officer and Maggie was the one civilian nurse at the Navy Hospital. They now live in Kennett Square, Pa., and have two sons. David is in NROTC at George Washington University, in DC and served as an enlisted Navy SEAL for five years before college. Michael attends the University of South Carolina. In June 1999, Jack and David visited GTMO as guests of Bill and Jessie Keenan.
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