For readers who have been paying attention, Monday is the day I write about my “Lady Alone Traveler” adventures. In the back of my mind, I have an idea for a book about interesting and off-beat places in Maine. I’ve tossed around a few different themes, like visiting and writing about every Maine town with a Reny’s store. It’s a fine list of places, except there are no stores in Aroostook County and Lady Alone Traveler thinks all of Maine’s sixteen counties are worthy of her attention. Another scheme I considered, in addition to occasionally talking about myself in the third person, was writing about the home towns of famous and not so famous Maine writers; there are many of them. This prompted my visits to Gardiner and Head Tide a few weeks ago.
I’m not ruling this book idea out either.
In the last few weeks, time has been in short supply and I haven’t been able to venture too far beyond my backyard. But since I am almost always the Lady Alone Traveler, even when I’m only running errands, I’m weaving this week’s travel adventure from my everyday life.
A Sunday afternoon antique show at the renovated Cabot Mill pointed me towards Brunswick, a livable town less than ten miles from home. There are generous sidewalks, a Saturday farmers market, a health food store, an independent book store, Bowdoin College, an Amtrak station, many restaurants, and of course, antique shops. My good friend Shelley lives there, too. Brunswick is the kind of town I could live in without a car.
The antique show was fine but something was not right in the Brunswick air yesterday. I couldn’t put my finger on it but everyone I passed, with the exception of the antique dealers, had foul looks on their faces. I know it’s hard to imagine, but every Brunswick man, woman, and child looked like they had either just smelled a fresh fart or stepped in a pile of smoking dog BLEEP. I’m sure it was just a temporary affliction, like a mote in one’s eye, but it darkened the afternoon and I couldn’t seem to overcome it with my own cheerful demeanor. Their looks said “move along.” One last strained and sickened glance from an old man with horn-rimmed glasses screamed “leave this town.”
Then I remembered something Reggie had said.
“You ought to go over to the old Naval Air Station, walk around and see what’s happening.”
It seemed like a good idea.
The Brunswick Naval Air Station is just two miles from the downtown area. Growing up, it was a strange and forbidden land because my father wasn’t in the Navy. When I made friends with a military family in high school, we would pile into their station wagon on rainy Saturdays and go to the pool. It was thrilling to stop at the guard-house and wait for a posture-perfect soldier to salute us and wave us through to a land of clipped lawns and efficiently moving traffic.
My memories of “the base” were imprecise, so as I drove past the abandoned guard-house and down Admiral Fitch Avenue, I had to dig deep into my brain to figure out the way to the pool. There was no traffic, so it didn’t really matter how slow I drove. At the end of the avenue, I circled left on Pelican Street and then down Burbank Avenue and parked near the Dental Clinic. My friend Shelley’s father had been in the Navy and Brunswick had been his last stop. I wondered if she had ever had her teeth cleaned on base. All the clinic’s fillings are being removed now. This building may be slated for demolition; I’m not sure.
I retraced my driving route, looking for things I remembered. I found The Chapel, where Shelley and Steve were married.
What a beautiful day that was, so long ago now. A group of retired and ex-navy personnel, the Brunswick Naval Museum and Memorial Gardens, want to buy The Chapel and restore it for historical and archival purposes. They currently rent space in Hangar 6 from the base’s owners, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority. I wonder how they’re doing with membership and fundraising.
I kept walking and thinking and seeing what I could see.
The base was decommissioned and closed as a naval operation on May 31, 2011, barely three years ago. Any ambitious project, like creating the Maine Center for Innovation, will take time. As I walked and looked at ghosts of another era, I kept thinking about John Summers’ tart article from The Baffler, “The People’s Republic of Zuckerstan.” In this long essay, Summers discusses Massachusetts and Cambridge in particular, as the hub of the East’s “Innovation Economy.” I wondered as I walked if Brunswick could soon experience the type of entrepreneurial zeitgeist Cambridge was experiencing as an incubator of ideas and economic growth.
I thought about the long walks I used to take around another relic of the Cold War, the former Pease Air Force base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There isn’t a museum at Pease, as far as I know, but there’s still an active Air Force presence, unlike Brunswick. Time has marched on and in a generation, it’s possible that the people who live and work at these places won’t remember there had been a war at all, hot or cold.
The Lady Alone Traveler starts her adventures too late on Sunday afternoons, I think. She’s always wandering around a cemetery or a deserted naval base as the sun starts sliding into the western sky. These long shadows and venues aren’t conducive to light and optimistic thoughts and even if there is a large white birch tree full of big fat robins next to a deteriorating building, she can’t help but wonder if one million square feet of industrial space is a big vacancy to fill.