Down Admiral Fitch Avenue

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 parked the Jeep and just started walking.

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.

Anchors aweigh!

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13 Responses to Down Admiral Fitch Avenue

  1. Loosehead Prop says:

    I said that?

    What I noted was that the working sailor (and it was a sailor at the front gate, or in earlier times, a marine) made a mighty contrast with the high-falutin’ and well-financed pretensions of Bowdoin College. As you seem to have noticed as well. My own impression of BNAS as a child was that it was mean and impoverished, especially compared to the lavishly prepared Air Force bases I had grown up on. The Navy did make an effort to improve the base, building a lot of new facilities there in the 1990s, only to leave them largely unmanned. The medical building, for example, usually only had one actual physician in it for a location with over 3,000 sailors. All things considered, perhaps it was best the Navy closed the base and consolidated all the P-3s down in Jacksonville.

    Many a sailor who came to Maine thinking it the most backwater of places fell in love with it in their short tour and retired there. I went to a Navy school with a young woman from Texas who drove a fiery red BMW convertible. It was good she thought so much of herself because none of the rest of us thought much of her. In those days women did not go to sea as Intelligence officers, they went to P3 squadrons or SOSUS sites, and our friend went to Brunswick. While her tour at Brunswick did not go well (the usual mishmash of a woman who thinks her genitalia entitles her to entirely short-circuit the good order and discipline of the Navy followed by multiple complaints of sexual harassment when good order and discipline are enforced on her), when I ran into her years later she raved about how beautiful it was, and how she and her new SEAL husband bought a place down the coast that way.

    The Cold War is gone. It ended over two decades ago, and to rising generations who can’t think past the next glowing tweet on their handheld digital device, it is ancient history, as ancient as whatever that war was in 300.

    • It was a phantasm, perhaps or a voice in a dream telling me to take a walk at Brunswick Landing. Brunswick was a different town “back in the day” and what you remember helps me to better understand what I only saw from a passing car window, happy motoring along. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, as always, Reggie.

    • And yes, there is a tremendous amount of vacant residential real estate. Some of it is “dorm-ish” and deteriorating from lack of occupancy, as well as the large “Navy Gateway Inn & Suites.” Most of the houses along Admiral Fitch Avenue are also vacant, including the first two houses to the right. The Commander’s house?

  2. Mary Conant says:

    Nice article today, Julie-Ann. I enjoyed it but with a little of a heavy heart. It saddens me when our bases are closed and left to deteriorate. Also, so many people made their lives there over the years and it’s sad to think that’s all gone now. As your friend who was married at the chapel. I do hope those who are trying to preserve will succeed. I’m sure it made for an interesting walk down memory lane. Thank you for the great article and for giving us a piece of the memory as well. Hugs, Mary

    • Mary, I agree that there is a history of things that is important to remember and yet, so easily we forget. Sometimes, when I think about the Cold War and the base, it doesn’t seem real, yet for over 50 years, families came and went and added something different and interesting to our little corner of Maine. Thank you, as always, for reading my blog and taking the time to comment.

  3. Loosehead Prop says:

    That row of houses would have been occupied by the base commander, the wing commander(s) and the commanding officers of the various squadrons. They looked like standard enlisted family housing on an Air Force base, not very impressive to me at all. Temporary bachelor officer lodging would have been at the Gateway Inn, and there would have been a lot of barracks housing for enlisted sailors. I can’t imagine any market for it. The runway is the major asset, and it, too, may require a lot of upgrading to be functional.

    • Reggie,apparently, there is quite a bit of “recreational potential” at the base. 3,500 acres of it, including a golf course, XC skiing, and trails down to the head of the estuary. A friend mentioned a potential bike/walking path behind Bowdoin Fields that would go to and through the base to Cooks Corner and beyond. While these recreational pursuits don’t generate much income and jobs in the way the base once did, it does make Brunswick less oil dependent (sort of). I also saw a small private jet leaving on Sunday afternoon, so I think the runway is functioning, although I’m not sure about total capacity.

  4. The JBE says:

    I always have an odd feeling being able to just drive onto the base without anyone stopping you at the guard station. I had a nice “guided” tour about a year ago from my friend Paul, who works at CEI. There has been some “development” of the base and there is an entity in charge of its development. I hope we don’t get the Brunswick version of Zuckerstan. You never know what the development mafia have in the works, because they keep it pretty secret until they need some approval from the town fathers. It’s worth keeping an eye on.

    Nice post!

  5. Carrie Sims linebaugh says:

    I went to High School with your brother. I Follow him on facebook and saw this..I’m no writer, but you and Jim both write well. I Enjoyed your article about the base. As u may know, my father was stationed there for 11 years. My parents were friends of your parents as we lived on Center St in Lisbon falls. I spent a lot of time on that base. .brought back memories. Pool, movie theater, neptune hall, commissary, medical clinics, etc, loved this article. We moved to Dallas, Texas in May of 1980. thank you, Julie

    • Hi Carrie!
      I remember your family! Your mom, Judy, was my Girl Scout leader for a while.
      It all seems like so long ago now, but I’m glad you enjoyed the memories! Feel free to stop by the blog any time! 🙂

  6. Eugene Dodge says:

    was stationed at the marine barracks at Brunswick 1960-1961—- tried to get on base years latter but even Marine guards wouldn’ allow me on base, even with my military ID— Have some good memories.

    • Eugene, as you can see, BNAS is now wide open to everyone. There has been additional development since I wtote this post. I always feel a little funny going in, though. Thank you for stopping by my blog!

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