August 8th and 9th 2001 -
After a long flight from Dulles Airport near Washington DC where the heat had sky rocketed up to 98 degrees, Gia and I quietly landed at Heathrow Airport in London. I was elated and at the same time very groggy from the long flight. We collected our bags and made our way through customs. We took the underground from Heathrow to Liverpool Street getting off at Holborn to transfer from the Piccadilly Line to the Central Line. I felt as if I was going upstream against a very heavy throng of rush hour commuters who could not care less that we were lugging huge bags. We were, I imagine an annoyance taking up their literal precious space.
We finally made our way onto a quiet train departing London, leaving the hustle and bustle for Ipswich. Being very tired it was a real breather for Gia and me to be sitting quietly for a moment collecting our thoughts and the reality that we were in England. This was the first time Gia's ever been to England, so I watched her as she soaked in her surroundings.
Our plan was to go to Ipswich, which is about an hour trip outside of London. As we neared Ipswich I started thinking back about the many trips I'd taken from Ipswich some twenty-one years earlier. Back then I took trips often alone just to go to London and see what I considered a Broadway play.
At Ipswich train station, I was excited feeling as though I finally made it into my old photograph albums while at the same time seeing so many changes. My brain raced furiously remembering what Ipswich looked like way back when, and the floodgate of my mind opened up allowing my memories to soar.
Prior to leaving England, I was in touch with the famous Mr. Linn Barringer and told him that I would call him in London, so that he would be there when we got to Ipswich. The strong current of commuters in London motivated me to get to the train as quickly as possible so I called Linn when we got into Ipswich. Linn was kind enough to volunteer his time, energy and cost of petrol to drive us around. I read on his website that he had opened his friendship to a dear friend of mine Chuck Dalldorf and I respect Chuck's judgement of others so my instinct told me that Linn was not a stranger but a brand new friend and a gentleman.
Linn told me that it would take him a half an hour to get there and he'd meet us in the coffee shop inside the station. Linn being very punctual was there in a half an hour. Linn saw us before we saw him. He directed us to his car where we placed our bulky luggage inside his car. Then I proceeded to walk over to what I thought was the passenger side but was the driver's side. Linn having that, rich, dry sense of humor asked me where I planned to drive. Still feeling sleepy it took a split second to realize that, yes they drive on the other side of the road. Back some twenty years ago I drove All-American cars on British roadsso there you have my excuse for walking to the wrong or other side of Linn's car.
Linn took us to the town of Woodbridge where we checked into the Historic Bull Hotel. We unloaded our things and Gia cleaned herself up while I went downstairs to talk with Linn. I guess I was so excited about being in England, and I knew I had minty-fresh breath that I didn't mind that I was in the same clothes I wore the previous day. Linn was pointing out the statues and buildings near to the hotel. I told Linn that I remember going down to Woodbridge only to find the town closed that's what happened when you work swings and mids.
Gia freshened up quickly and I asked Linn if I could take a picture of Gia and Linn near the town center where there were beautiful flowers going up the steps. The sky was so bright and the air was so crisp, not like the hot humid temperatures we left in Washington DC.
We climbed back into Linn's car and we were off to my old haunts RAF Woodbridge and RAF Bentwaters. Linn pointed out many of the changes and also showed us the old roads I might have been familiar with. My anticipation to see some of what many would view as "so what" spots choked me up a bit. In a strange, obscure way, I felt I had come home. We arrived to what had been the Main Gate at RAF Woodbridge what we called first Alpha 12 and then Police 12. I ignored the brick gatehouse because that wasn't my gateshack. I went over to the side of the road where my beige Formica gateshack once rested, the foundation was still there covered up a bit by weeds. I stood on the slab and imagined that I'd just been posted there and I had a long shift ahead of me. I looked in the direction off base and saw a patch of trees I remembered so many years ago and now I stood in the same place where I had slowly counted my days down. I turned around and saw foundations that once held RAF Woodbridge chow hall and the All Ranks Club that we also called the Fireside Lounge.
It was funny because I couldn't stop talking; telling Linn the stories of the times we found buildings to be "insecure" when we meant to say "unsecured". So much for any of us with our air force jargon grasp of the English language. I stood on another slab next to what was the shoppette where I remember getting soda's and ice cream to keep awake. It was the little things back then that were so important. Linn wanted to get a picture of me waving a car onto the base and he hopped in his car and I stopped him and asked to see his identification card as Gia snapped the picture. I was so transfixed and amazed that I was there and it wasn't a dream or a bad dream because I knew this place would always be a part of me as it is for every airmen who stepped foot onto Bentwaters.
I saw what was once a lively high school now fenced off and covered in over growth of thickets, trees, bushes and weeds. We drove past the RAF Woodbridge church that I remembered once was "matter-of-factly burning while searing flames shot through the roof. Linn then asked if I'd like to visit (drum roll please) East Gate. I said, "Hell no!" No, I didn't say, "Hell no!" It was the first time in my life that I was eager to see the place I had stood alone in the middle of the night and dreading it. We had to park Linn's car several hundred yards from East Gate. From there we hiked along the brush that grew into the road. I told Linn that this road had once been clear and that you could see Folly House from East Gate. Not anymore you could see Folly House from East Gate.
I noticed the forest that once stood tall and sharply uniform behind East Gate was now a thick bush of pine trees, not the long poles with just the tops covered in needles. I told Linn that those trees from long ago were so foreboding and the atmosphere in the middle of the night was downright scary. For some reason I didn't feel uncomfortable sharing with Linn my not so macho feelings about East Gate. Now at East Gate stood a brick guard shack. I told Linn that gate shack like the main gateshack was built after I left in December of 1980. I pointed to a gray metal barrier between the old wooden gate shack (that doesn't exist anymore) and the runway.
At the time when they built the barrier I was irritated because it obstructed my view of the runway and that was the only entertainment I had back then watching planes take off and land or do what they called "touch and go". They didn't build the barrier until the later part of 1980. I thought they built that barrier because it prevented the gateshack from vibrating from the piercing sonic pitch of the aircraft. I swore there were times I thought the glass plate window of my gateshack would blast out from the pressure of the loud fighter aircraft. I would often leave the door open to alleviate the pressure.
Gia noticed the numerous butterflies and dragonflies. I think the insects were surprised to see humans too. As we were walking back to the car, I pointed out to Linn where Duffield and I had seen our UFO siting. Our siting being between the end of the runway and Folly House. Linn showed me the dirt road Penniston and Burroughs drove down to the crash site of their UFO siting ten months after Duffield and I reported our siting to the Desk Sergeant.
Linn asked how we went from RAF Bentwaters to RAF Woodbridge. He said airmen talked about a back gate near Butley but didn't now how to get there. I thought Linn's question had an easy answer but we couldn't find the entrance to Butley Gate. Gia and Linn were starting to get hungry and talked about lunch and I agreed but kept getting distracted going down memory lane. It was as if my brain was remembering while at the same time taking in all the changes.
Roads were a little bit different, some roads and modern buildings grew out of what was once farm fields. Driving to the main gate of Bentwaters, we drove past the old Wing Commander's building on the right side of the road where we ceremoniously hoisted the flags up the flagpoles. On the left side of the road were the officer's housing, Base Exchange (BX) and dormitory areas. The main gate to the cantonment side was over grown with weeds, long gone were the beautiful rose bushes that decorated the road welcoming visitors, and was fenced off.
We had to go up to my old round about and go through the area that once held our hospital clinic Quonset huts. They were now gone. In its place was a housing area and the road was named Wacker Field after my former Wing Commander Colonel Rudolph Wacker. Then we drove past the "new" commissary that rested quietly on my left. I remember when they broke ground to put up the commissary.
Now the commissary's face was worn from years of neglect. On our right side was the base gym where I learned to play racquetball. Now the base gym stood dangerously with it's collapsed roof and vandalized shattered windows. There was a building in front of the gym where a tennis court once laid.
Still not having eaten anything for a while, we decided to leave the dormitory area for the next day. We headed over to the technical side of Bentwaters. Again, the adrenaline rushed with memories standing tall at Alpha 10 that evolved into Police 10 which was really the main gate of the technical side of RAF Bentwaters. We drove around the round about to the technical side of Bentwaters or what we SP's called "the tech" side of Bentwaters. We stopped at the gate where we shared my old pictures of Bentwaters technical side main gate from the late 1970's.
The guard was genuinely interested to see that the gate shack used to be a fiberglass box that he mistook for a temporary building that rested on the left side of the entranceway as we drove onto the base. I pointed out a green building that was one of the few buildings that still existed and was in my photos. We could also see the wash rack and transportation building that still remained. It's funny how my eyes coveted and longed to see what I remembered. The old farmhouse that strangely sat across the street from the old law enforcement building was gone from the corner of Thompson Drive. The law enforcement building was gone too. In the place of the old farmhouse was a two or three story Security Police (SP) solid brick building. Behind the SP building were an older building but one that I remember as the "new" one story SP building. The new "one story" SP building was barely opened and I never did step foot in it - back then or now.
The old light aqua green colored Quonset Hut that posed, as our post office on the right side of the road was gone. However, our personnel (CBPO pronounced "see bow") building still stood across the street except now it was beige. In fact quite a few of the buildings that were olive drab green were now uncharacteristically painted in desert colors. The air force must have had lots of excess beige and brown paint.
Linn and Gia finally convinced me that it was time to get some lunch. We went to a nondescript building that was between the RAF Bentwaters Fire Department and the control tower. Now it was a café run by some British folks. It was there that we ate some veggie pies and chips (their version of French fries). After we ordered our meals, we sat and met a British spitfire fighter pilot from World War II and his American son-in-law Alan who was stationed at RAF Bentwaters in the mid eighties.
Now to me this is where the story gets coincidental and has a "gee, what a small world we live in" flavor to it. Before Alan spoke a word Linn made a witty comment, "See other American's eat at the café on Bentwaters", pointing to this young guy who was sharing lunch with an older gentleman. The way Linn was talking, I thought he knew them. Alan introduced himself and was talking about the buildings he directed and managed to see be built. Then I asked Alan if he's been to Linn's web page and in awe Alan looked at Linn as Alan's face lit up with recognition, he asked, "Are you THE Mr. Barringer?"
I looked at Linn and said, "Hey I feel like I'm with a celebrity." Gia talked with Alan's father who told stories of how he helped teach the American's to fly in the United States. We then talked about how Linn's website has brought so many people together, allowing us to share our stories whether good or bumpy. I think Alan was also amazed that I came back 21 years later. We exchanged email addresses and said our good byes.
From there we went to the air tower. I pointed out the various aircraft parking areas that we sometimes used to park aircraft that weren't loaded up with weapons. I also pointed out the area where the Drug Dog Handler would burn many kilos of contraband drugs.
Linn introduced Gia and me to John Kemball one of the owners of Bentwaters. He was very respectful of my history and time I spent at Bentwaters to allow Linn to guide us around Bentwaters. So, there wasn't any climbing over any fences. We signed waivers so that in case we got ourselves in trouble we couldn't sue. We then headed upstairs into the air tower. I was impressed with the décor of some of the rooms that must have been a commander's office and meeting room.
The air tower still had the vast windows minus the equipment. The air force did a good job stripping all electronic equipment from the building. We did notice some stickers and various signs with emblems of proud squadrons. Inside one of the rooms we saw maps and drawings of the base that went back to 1979. I think I could have spent a few hours in that room alone scanning the schematic drawings of Bentwaters.
The weather was faithfully changing from sunny to icy cold raindrops as we stood inside the Bentwaters air tower. We never did get to see the Woodbridge air tower where I went to investigate the UFO siting since that is now an active RAF army base. Being in the air tower looking all directions felt like I was on top of a privileged world. Privileged to go places that I was once restricted from.
We climbed back into Linn's car with me still unintentionally gravitating toward the driver's door. Linn zipped up and down the runway. That was something I would never, ever do while stationed there and I was missing a very cool perspective of Bentwaters. I did drive the taxiways and remember having to stop to let a plane drive by me, but never did I drive on the "runway" and now I was on a ghost town runway. Interestingly being on the runway showed me just how small Bentwaters really was. It just seemed larger since we were confined to use the perimeter road.
We drove off the runway and onto the perimeter road (Thompson Drive) past several buildings. I was very impressed with Linn's history and knowledge of some of the building I never had the privy of learning what they were used for. Before I knew that they were all related to the squadrons that worked directly with the airplanes and pilots and that was it. Linn showed me where my friend Chuck Dalldorf worked and the hanger where Chuck lost his friend and colleague in a violent explosion.
Linn pointed to a small garden that Chuck created outside his work area. Very cool Chuck! Chuck was and still is the kind of guy who finds the positive and beauty in life that's why to this day I call him my friend.
Linn took us over to some buildings where the bag and box nasties (our meals) were made for our numerous alerts. From there I directed Linn to the petroleum area (POL site) that was directly behind Butley Gate. From the POL site you could barely see the gate that led off base to East Gate. I assured him that there was a gate there.
I got momentarily very quiet as we drove toward the Weapon Storage area (WSA) - another place I was not permitted to step inside because I was a LE and not a SP although my badge said, "Security Police" which we shortened to SP. LE's back in 1978-1980 stood for Law Enforcement. The evolution of the Air Force changed us and combined us into Security Forces but that was way past my tenure in the Security Police field. Back then I remember meeting old guys who told me that they were AP's that being short for Air Police but that was way before my time.
I pointed out the non-munitions storage area (NMSA) to Linn. Explaining, I could not guard bombs in the WSA but I could guard bombs in the NMSA. Linn couldn't figure out how a bomb could be a non munitions. I told him that is what I was told and I accepted the label even if it was and is confusing. It wasn't my place to question. I agreed that NMSA doesn't make any sense. I reminded him that my job wasn't to know what I was guarding but to guard.
Then we drove into the Weapon Storage Area (WSA). I couldn't believe it. We drove past what I liked to call, "No man's land" into the WSA without a badge. We went in there without a need, without anything but our minds and my memories.
Gia was very, very tired and opted to stay in the car. I went out with my trusty camera and Linn following. I tried to show Linn how we used to open windows with flimsy latches. Unfortunately, the flimsy latches were working quite well. Linn and I climbed the tower although the steps creaked a lot. I thought the view from the top was great and thought about all the SPs I knew and now know like Ken Kern who did his share of work in the tower. I was also surprised at how small the WSA was. The NMSA was two times the size of the WSA and when I guarded the NMSA, I did it alone.
I saw sand bagged bunker on top of one of the bomb shelters in the WSA and climbed up the steep mound. Linn and I went into every building in the WSA and noticed sheep had found homes inside the bomb shelters although we didn't see any sheep. I enjoyed the echo of a few of the buildings. There were also plenty of rabbits running around - no surprise there.
The NMSA held several horses, which again looked odd from my point of view having guarded non-munitions there.
Gia spotted us and walked around with us, we showed her the cavernous echo chamber like buildings. She patiently smiled while I continued going down memory lane, having fun in places I've never been before.
We got back into the car and headed over to Central Security Control (CSC). We pulled into the parking lot where the SP vehicles used to sit. CSC hadn't changed at all. It was as though it was locked in an open-air time capsule. It was a little bit run down sitting in the midst of overgrown grass. There was sheep poop all over the floors of CSC. I went to the darkened patio area where we received our weapons and radios, loading and unloading our weapons. On the back wall was a bulletin board that held the schedule of our duty posts for the following day. I remember the Desk Sergeant painstaking typed the schedule that would tell me what gate I'd be manning on a manual typewriter. This was in the olden days well before we used electric typewriters let alone computers.
I went out the back door and walked along the crunchy stones to the break room remembering the television set that had once sat in the corner. I walked through a double door that led me into the hallway. Off to my right side appeared to be an office, maybe for the officer in charge or the flight chief. Around the corner to my right was the entranceway into the armory. It was pitch dark so I didn't venture further into that room.
To my left was the men's bathroom or the only bathroom since they didn't have women's bathroom. The bathroom door was lying oddly in the entranceway. Past the bathroom on the left was a snack room and on the right side was a room that held a lot of communication equipment. The floors were littered in sheep poop so I didn't linger.
Outside I looked for a souvenir but didn't find anything. So instead I took some pictures. The grass was pretty high so I didn't wander over where the 81st Security Police sign was planted.
The building was ugly then and ugly now but I was in awe of its history. I imagined myself going to the back patio area to get my .38 caliber weapon. I could see myself talking to the guys knowing shortly that I'd be posted alone somewhere on some gate. I could see myself rushing off to Guardmount with my Motorola or ITEK "brick" radio, weapon and alert bag. Oh and maybe I'd have some fresh olive drab "D" size batteries for my official flashlight.
The metal barricade still stood strong, still protecting the armory from unknown enemies. I wished the lights still worked in the armory just to see the overly coated oil based shiny gloss painted walls, doors and windowsills. I wanted to see some human life, see some of the guys from my youth making me laugh and expelling the stress from the looming fact that soon I'd find myself alone on post.
Linn with his vermouth sense of humor and kindness chided me a lot about the times I eloquently talked about "freezing my butt off on post". I did. He was studying me, wondering if I had an axe to grind or if I was a whiner about my time there. He found neither. He heard consistency in my stories. I agreed that I was a very young kid who chose law enforcement as a career because it sounded like fun. To this day I respect anyone who works in security and law enforcement. The problem that I encountered at Bentwaters was that the NCO's and some of the officers found pleasure in taking away basic necessities like taking bathroom breaks.
After talking with Linn I understood that I was angry about the bad leadership, management and the good old boy network that drove the 81st Security Police Squadron because it didn't have to be that way. It was preventable.
Linn could see that my experiences from my Bentwaters days forced me to grow up, forced me to put up and shut up, forced me to survive and motivated me to prevail. My time at Bentwaters prompted me to be the best that I could be because I was better than the way I was treated. As a young child I shattered walls from my blue-collar family by getting my degree. I was smart and even though several Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs) and officers tried their best to drag me down, hold me back that I still believed in me and that's all that counts.
The leadership in the 81st Security Police Squadron gave me a run for the money, the good old boy network was in full force and had its share of being a mean, nasty place to work, but you know what? If life at Bentwaters was a game than I won, as did so many other airmen who came before me and after me.
Some people wonder what I have to say. These pages are filled with brand new memories of a very old ghost town. I am pleased for those airmen who look at Bentwaters as the best time of their lives. I wish that my working situation was on a fair and equal playing field, that I didn't have to feel pressured to always prove myself, that I didn't have to be perfect because I wasn't perfect. Bottom line to this story, I was a kid from Long Island, New York who was trying to fit in while finding herself in this big world God gave us.
The voices and souls of young airmen will forever live on RAF Bentwaters. There are the "war stories" that I must say "Thank you Linn and your website for sharing our stories."
Once a young airman told me before I was posted out onto East Gate to look out onto RAF Woodbridge runway, for I might see East End Charlie, the pilot who crashed into the runway walking the runway wondering what went wrong with his aircraft.
Thank you Linn and your wife Vivian and their friends for breaking bread with Gia and me. Linn you are a good listener and a friend for life. You listened without prejudging me. You see Bentwaters will always be a part of me, as I will always be a part of Bentwaters. Ironically Bentwaters will always be my home and like in the story Field of Dreams, "If you build it (a museum), they will come."
Thank you, Lori for sharing your experiences with the rest of us! Lori was an enlisted person during her stay at RAF Bentwaters, but is now a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve. She is looking at a near term promotion to the rank of Major. Congratulations, Lori!