Visiting Ghosts

Made a pilgrimage of sorts today. Speaking at an EMS conference in Seminole, TX, I noticed that Hobbs, NM was just a short jaunt down the road.

As a child, I heard many stories about Hobbs Army Airfield from my dad as a child. He had trained as a B17 crew member there in the early days of World War II. We’d flip through pages from an old book of his squadron, him pointing out pictures of old B17’s, some of them missing large pieces due to flak bursts. He’d tell me of the mission one of his squadron mates flew in which everyone bailed out of their damaged bomber, Everyone, that is, except the bombardier, who would be damned if he’d jump over occupied territory.

So he flew the plane back into friendly territory with his old Norden bomb sight before bailing out and being picked up by friendly forces. What happened to the rest of the crew, Dad couldn’t say.

It was likely there that he met the man who would teach him to fly, a man my fuzzy childhood memories told me was the man who rescued the real-life Smokey the Bear. It my mind’s eye, Dad knew how to fly before he was sent to Hobbs, and the man who taught him to fly had rescued Smokey Bear while doing wildfire suppression.

Derelict buildings and old concrete foundations, shot through with grass and prickly pear, empty except for the occasional jackrabbit and Gambel’s quail… and the memories of young men long gone.

More likely, he met him as a fellow draftee sent to Hobbs, one of the lifelong friends he made in training, They shared a love of flying, and undoubtedly received more than a little bootleg instruction from the IP’s at Hobbs. They’d picked up and pursued that love of flying after the war ended. Likely as not, he was a young twenty-something from the region, who would go on to be one of the fire crews who rescued Teddy Hotfoot in the El Capitan fire of 1950. Dad went on to become a licensed pilot, with instrument, multi-engine and seaplane ratings.

Dad would have come to Hobbs in late 1942. He’d was been barely 21 then, yet to become the man that war shaped him into. It was there he’d learn how to repair and operate radios and electronics, fire those Browning .50’s when need be, and become a small cog in the machinery of war, one of millions of young men full of hope and promise, trained to visit death and destruction on their fellow man.

A hell of a thing, war. But that was what one did; you loved your country, and you served when she called, without question. Dad never spoke of the things he saw in war, only of the friendships he had made.

Then again, men of his generation never did speak of those things.

There’s nothing there now but concrete pads and a few derelict old buildings. Grass grows in the cracks on the flight line, but a few adventurous souls still haunt the grounds there, soaring in their gliders and parasails. A lonely Cessna shot touch-and-goes on one of the runways as I kicked about the crumbling remnants of the past nearby.

I don’t know what I’d see when I came to Hobbs. There’s really little to see there, and the locals from Seminole tell me that the Hobbs of today is a crime-ridden, economically depressed backwater. But in 1942, men who would form the Greatest Generation made their homes there, if but for a brief time. It meant something, to more than just my Dad.

Dad likely learned aerial gunnery here, shooting pintle-mounted Browning A5 shotguns from the back of moving Army trucks. He said he was better at it than most, because he’d fed the family growing up with the same shotgun.

I suppose I’m just getting maudlin as the years creep up on me, and I seek out those happy memories of my past. Dad and I fought way too much in my teens and early twenties; no two men could have misunderstood each other more than we two. I was a grown man and Dad on the decline before I was aware of what a good man he was. Most of the things I learned about being a man, things about honor and integrity and hard work, I thought I learned from my brother Terry. It wasn’t until both of us were grown men that we realized that the lessons he taught me were ones he himself learned from Dad, a fact we never appreciated until he was gone.

Perhaps that is the way of things between fathers and sons. I don’t know. I just miss my old man, and I wish I had been smart enough to make more memories with him when I had the chance.

I suppose that’s why I drove an hour out of my way to visit an abandoned Army base nobody cares about any more. I felt the ghosts of the past there, faint whispers of youth and fond memories among the prickly pear and sage.

And at least one of them was familiar and friendly.