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Historically Speaking: Memories of an Air Force brat

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives / Steve Scarano The caption reads, "Eagle Scout ceremony night, Sept. 1961: Steve Scarano's mother Josephine pinning the badge on him, with father, USAF Colonel Vincent Scarano looking on."

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Following is a sort of “Happy Days” story, the memories of Steve Scarano, who grew up in Roswell as an Air Force brat where his dad was stationed at Walker Air Force Base. Steve had a career as a Marine, then a policeman in San Diego County. He sent me the following nostalgic story, that many who grew up here in that era may identify with: Whether they attended St. Peter’s School, were scouts, or when kids could play outside in the summer, all day until the street lights came on. I hope you enjoy his story as much as I did.

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How I Was Lost and Saved By Popcorn

By Steve Scarano

My childhood had the ‘shark tooth’ imprint of the Capitan Mountains on the western horizon and it remains in the geography of my heart and mind, even now, after half a century, even though back then I had no idea of what a shark’s tooth even looked like — we had miles of beach but no ocean, people would say. It was a place of ‘paint-by-number skies’ where God evidently determined it wasn’t all that necessary to color within the lines. That view of impossible sunsets from the now defunct Walker Air Force Base in Roswell was the visual complement to the nighttime lullaby of the throbbing sounds of B-36 propellers and B-52 jet bomber engines during the Cold War years.

“If you go even now to a certain address out there on West Eyman Street, and get down on your hands and knees as I did decades later with my wife and children, you will find the ‘Steven’ and ‘Christine’ and ‘1957’ my sister and I etched with a nail into the concrete garage floor my dad had poured when we were stationed there for 13 years.

“And if today you were to take a jackhammer to the small patio to the right of the front door, I bet you could find, just in front of the water faucet, a couple dozen then-shiny pennies I buried there in a blue and yellow bouillon cube tube. That very day I returned from school shocked to find fresh cement covering it. That house and others were abandoned by my friends and neighbors when what is still called ‘The Base’ by Roswellites who were not even born then, was decommissioned in the mid-’60s. Indeed, I was a very sad 16-year-old who helped pack them up into trucks with my summer and weekend job at Fowler Van Lines.

“Then there is this keen memory: Jerry, my friend, and I, worked for free saddle-time at the riding stables — cleaning stalls, frying eggs from the hay barn, and fixing tack. On a ride one day, we discovered some very large brass ammunition casings and a fairly undamaged slug on what must’ve been a gunnery range. We joined the two parts and for some unforgotten reason, hid them by reaching through a horse-chewed hole in the wall in the saddle room. Fifteen years later, I brought my family there — the place was like a spaghetti western movie set then, tumbleweeds, even against the sagging corral boards. I was telling them the bullet story with my hand in that hole when my fingers closed upon that long-ago find. It was almost unsurprising. I left it there for Jerry, who was by then counting down his years as a Marine Corps officer and upward to become New Mexico Game and Fish department chief — Jerry and I were also in the Marines together.

“The base was a place where a kid could leave the house on a summer vacation morning and not have to return until the street lights came on. Safe enough so that when I was late for the school bus in grade school, my mom would send me to the Main Gate to have the Military Air Police officer stop a town-bound car and ask a total stranger to deliver me there.

“Our parents would take my siblings and me to the Ball-0-Jak drive-in movie theater in our pajamas to watch the July 4th fireworks and we were thrilled to play on the swings at the bottom of the big screen in the near dark. When we’d go to the occasional drive-in movie, people would honk their horns if it didn’t start on time. My pals and I would somehow hitch rides to the abandoned Jingle Bob drive-in, north of town, and we’d hunt for the rose- and amber-tinted quartz crystals we called Pecos Valley Diamonds in the gravel of the entryway.

“In the winter, we’d take turns rolling ourselves inside metal barrel trashcans down the slope of the WAFB Officer’s Club empty swimming pool to the deep end, emerging disoriented and feeling a bit loopy. And — this is so storybook, you could find it suspicious — summers, we’d lie on our backs in the cool clover and conjure up shapes of sailing ships, and Indian chiefs, among the afternoon storm clouds.

“I experienced death for the first time in the Land of Enchantment. I was 6 or 7 years old and with some other altar boys on a monk-led hike at a Benedictine monastery in Pecos. We had just crossed the river on a jiggling suspension bridge and saw it: a coiled snake with an overstretched mouth and a half-in and half-out mouse. I didn’t really know what death was supposed to be or do at that time, but it occurred to me, I was watching it happen, before my very eyes.

“It is as possible as it is improbable that the seed of my 30-year career as a police officer was sown when I was a 12-year-old member of the Matinee Patrol at the Saturday morning cartoons and serial movies at the Base Theater. We had armbands we safety pinned to our sleeves that were made from bedsheet rags, which identified who we were with crayons. Our job was to keep kids from sailing their flattened cardboard popcorn boxes through the projector light, so the shadows would appear on the screen. Very important work!

“I could tell you about using my tiny ‘Cub’ model press to print advertisements for jobs like mowing lawns, and washing windows — never, ever do that — to earn my way to the 1960 Boy Scout National Jamboree in Colorado Springs — it was far easier going door to door on weekends hawking Spudnuts (doughnuts made from potato flour) from the basket I wore around my neck.

“It was a bookmark year in my life, 1962, when as a 14-year-old Eagle Scout the letter arrived announcing that the Conquistador Council’s executive awarded me a $15 weekly Ranger position at Camp Wehinapay in the Sacramento Mountains. That summer was a season of immense responsibility, with spectacular afternoon thunderstorms you could set your clock to expect — 1 o’clock almost without fail, wearing my genuine military surplus poncho, and the long walks alone along the trail to my distant campsite in the dark. I got to where I really didn’t need to whistle, but I wanted to, just to let myself or anything ‘out there’ know, that I was ‘out there’ too!

“The week before our first group of ‘grubbys’ — what we called the new arrivals — was filled with long, busy, dirty days. The quartermaster inventoried and arranged his canteen store, the ‘pearl divers’ learned the art of dishwashing, the medic from Walker Air Force Base stocked the sick bay, and the archery instructor — John Good, who we called Robin — and the Range Master, set up their gear in their skill areas. The rest of us — the Rangers — made close acquaintance with post-hole diggers, two-handled saws, shovels and axes.

“I spent the better part of a warm afternoon on the roof above the ‘firing line’ at the rifle range with Fred Maldonado, the year-round custodian, whose leathery face made him look like a tobacco can advertisement, ancient, and therefore, ‘important.’ At some point, between a new row of green asphalt shingles, he warned me away from ‘liars, beggars and thieves.’ ‘Can’t stand them,’ he said, with some sort of authority that came out of the lines and shadows of his coppery face, even though today I have absolutely no idea what, if there was anything at all, motivated that discussion. The totality of the circumstances, at any rate, was such that the moment is memorialized in the topography of my life.

“Each Sunday for the ensuing seven weeks, we’d get a new batch of scouts spread throughout Potato Canyon amid a half-dozen forested sites. My counterparts and I would take them on hikes, get them to their scheduled activity areas, teach them typical pioneering skills, and make sure they made it on time to the ‘Dining-Never-Ever-Say-Mess-Hall’ for their meals. And we’d periodically remind them of the three firm rules of safe camp life: 1) Don’t even think about looking at Fred and Priscilla‘s daughter. 2) Never run downhill lest you trip and fall and have to see Doc, and 3) don’t even think about looking at Fred and Pricilla’s daughter! After the campers went home on Saturdays, we’d hurry to the shower house, where there were two washing machines available for us to use. We’d scoop the citrus-scented powder from a cardboard drum into each load. It wasn’t until we were doing the end of season cleaning that someone turned it around and we discovered a label for a lemonade drink mix and not detergent.

“One week I was assigned a fairly large group to take on a long day-hike, which began and continued in heavy rain. These fellows were my age and older, and although they had a couple of adult leaders with them, I was clearly ‘in charge.’ At some point, I became disoriented. Stupidly, I didn’t reveal my worry even when the adults periodically asked if we were doing OK. The good news is I smelled the unmistakable aroma of freshly cooking popcorn and knew that the map showed a nearby church youth camp along our intended route. Indeed, we came upon an enormous tent in which really dry kids were watching a movie and munching what we smelled. We slogged on by them while the adult leaders no doubt, allowed me to act like I knew it all the time. The smell of popcorn saved me!

“On special nights after the ‘all-camp’ campfire program, two other buglers and I played ‘Silver Taps’ at 10 o’clock after everyone was back in their designated campsites. We were staged at both ends and in the middle of the canyon. The farthest ranger played the initial few notes and the other two of us echoed him consecutively. Even to us young teenagers, we knew that something sacred and patently beautiful was happening.

“About the time I retired, my Albuquerque friend Carlos Martinez, Albuquerque attorney, invited me to the dedication of the Eagle Scout patio at the Roswell headquarters, where he was asked to deliver the keynote address. I am so proud that our names are engraved on the floor tile there, a sort of touchstone of our lifelong friendship. 

“Coach Art Martinez had allowed us to leave our basketball game in Lake Arthur at halftime so my dad could drive us back to Roswell to attend the ‘Court of Honor’ ceremony, and receive our awards in 1961.

“In a fading black-and-white Polaroid photo of me in my uniform, I am shaking hands with a distinguished looking dignitary in the La Fonda Hotel’s dining room in Santa Fe, where the annual Eagle Scout luncheon was held. Those were the years I lived for high school basketball; we regularly played Capitan, Ruidoso, Carrizozo, Hagerman, Saint Michael’s, Dexter, and even Pojoaque once. On one court, a wall and out-of-bounds line were one and the same. In another, the ceiling was so low that a ball hitting it on a long path was deemed out of play. Volunteers at one school would scurry out to mop up the puddle from a leaky roof each time the players ran to the other end — I wonder if they were awarded letters for that?

“Thanks to a scout who needed teaching time to finish a badge requirement, I learned to swim in the Pecos River at summer camp in Carlsbad. When I arrived there, I was greeted by a fellow who had what I thought was his name on his camp T-shirt, and respectfully called him Mister Staff; later, when I saw another ‘Staff’ I figured them to be brothers. It wasn’t until dinner when I saw the whole family at their special table, did I ask about it. A couple years later, I was one of them, teaching other youngsters to swim in the muddy river water that had initially terrified me.

“The summer before I went into the Marines, I taught swimming to Native American kids at what had been the NCO Club at Walker Air Force Base — it was then a program operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a chemical corporation Thyokol. I was a college student in Portales at the time and their families were living ‘on base’ in the very homes previously occupied by my friends and neighbors. Many of the kids had never seen a body of water as large as a swimming pool, and some squealed with delight in trying to squeeze the liquid between their hands.

“My family and I return periodically, look for those places and visit lifelong friends. My dad‘s Air Force emblems are displayed in the WAFB museum in the airport terminal, near what had been the flight line, and you can even see him with his B-36 crew in a video that plays there. The three swimming pools I lifeguarded at are still there, and strangely looks so much smaller in their afterlife. The old municipal airport, where my buddy Stevie and I would go to watch the rooftop launching of huge weather balloons has been torn down — it was the police station at one point, I’ve been told.

“The last time I was there, my wife and I found our way into the St. Peter’s high school gym — the school is closed now, although the church uses the place for various activities. In my mind or heart, I could hear the squeal of white Converse high tops and balls being dribbled — Johnny, Joe, Frank, Mickey, Dennis, George and Larry are all back again. A kind janitor passed the ball to me from the gear room where our green and white Lancers and Crusaders uniforms used to hang — there is no other sound in the world like a basketball bouncing in an empty gym. I stepped to the free shot line — no clock, no bleachers, no pressure — pushed it, swished on my first try. I walked away with tears in my eyes, unable to see the hoop clearly anyway, and not willing to try to make it any better than I had it then. The school is vacant now, but it isn’t empty.

“Other than memories, what is left of me there may include tarnished sports trophies in a dusty display cabinet at the end of the school hallway, and the Air Force insignia my dad donated to the WAFB museum at the airport terminal — you can see him with his B-36 crew mates in a black-and-white photo. And oh for the gift of memory!

“During my 30 years as a policeman, I enjoyed serving as a volunteer reader at a fine elementary school in a gang area here in California, and one of my favorites was Toby and Brad Bluff’s ‘Tenderfoot.’ The final page still moves me deeply and brings me back to those regal camp summers.

“I occasionally look at my Boy Scout patches — Mom sewed everyone of them — and think of Carlos, Robin Good, Fred, Coach Martinez and the others.

“Many years have passed, and ‘Dickie Duck,’ ‘Jack Rabbit’ and ‘Bobo’ are now grown up and have gone their separate ways; but they frequently recall those golden days when they were scouts. Sometimes they take out their badges. Sometimes they put them on, and when they do, a strange thing happens. They are no longer miles apart. They are once again young, and buddies.

“The telling of the story is more important, difficult than the doing of the things in it, and it seems that it is the kind of story that comes up short in the telling, like if you weren’t there, you just don’t know.

“But there’s the smell of popcorn. …”

Janice Dunnahoo of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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