30. August 2005 · Comments Off on Gulfport/Biloxi · Categories: General, Good God, Memoir, Military

I did my very last TDY at the little Naval station in Gulfport ten years ago to the month. It was a charming, sleepy place, flat as a pancake inland— as near as I could tell with my hill-bred senses—all around and between Gulfport and Biloxi. The highest bit of real estate anywhere around seemed to be a great artificially built ridge on Gulfport Naval Station, called the “Bauxite Mound”. We were sent there, and set up there, for a vast aerial war-game, involving the ANG camp by the airport, Keesler AFB, and an assortment of other units and bases.

I was there for two weeks or so, tasked to sit in a trailer on the Bauxite Mound, and hit “play/record” and “stop” on a videotape recorder twice daily. The VTR was connected to a Hi8 camera bungee-corded to a vantage-point in a mobile radar trailer, and focused on a radar screen. At the end of a two-hour exercise scenario session, I popped the tape out of the machine, another Combat Camera TDY expert did the same with the VTR that she monitored (from another camera, bungee-corded in another trailer) and we put them both in a padded envelope, and a runner with a security clearance came to collect them. I think they were Fedexed somewhere, for after action review and analysis. For this onerous duty twice daily for two weeks, the DOD paid airfare, travel and per diem. (Your tax dollars at work, people… the peacetime military had certain discrete charms.) Most of the unit videographers were on a real combat doc assignment elsewhere— those on this one were stray broadcasters, and a couple of engineers— I think they sent the unit graphic artist as well. The unit was essentially emptied of everyone but the commander and the admin NCO. We joked that they might as well pull down the blinds, turn on the answering machine and pretend that no one was home.

For all but the four hours or so that we were needed at the exercise, Monday through Friday, we were free. We had the use of a couple of rental vans, though, and by careful scheduling and cooperation, were also able to amuse ourselves in a mild way in what passed for the fleshpots of the Mississippi Gulf Coast— although I ought to make it clear that my own excursions were to a fabric store, services at an Anglican congregation in Gulfport on Sunday, and to funny little nursery and pottery where I bought some concrete and pottery animals for the garden.

People who don’t know better claim that Texas is a southern state. It isn’t. I found that out the first evening, a van full of us buying groceries at the largest upscale grocery in Gulfport. At six of an evening on a weekday night, it was all but deserted. Maybe one clerk, and a couple of other customers besides ourselves. At that time of day, that time of week, grocery stores in San Antonio are jumping. No, Texas hustles… Mississippi was lazy and languid and mellow. Except for the casino barges all along the coast to Biloxi, the sidewalks all rolled up at about 4 PM. (A clerk in the Navy Exchange told me that she had to finally take the afternoon off, when she wanted to buy a car. By the time she got off shift in the late afternoon, all the dealers were closed.)

Every local I met, on post or off— they were gracious, friendly, languid, unhurried. I was too much, I realized, the energetic and keyed-up Yankee to feel comfortable with that over a long period of time, not unless there was something mellowing in the water. I knew that otherwise, I would eventually snap and grab a local citizen by the shirt-front and begin screaming “Wake up! It’s the poppies, I tell you! Snap out of it!!” But since I knew that I would be going home long before I reached the exasperation point, I could accommodate the laid-back and casual attitude— well, for two weeks, at least— and enjoy the differences.

Back of the ocean front, the land seemed to be very flat, and lushly wooded, threaded by slow-moving creeks, ditches and canals. I loved to run a circuit around the back-forty of Gulfport NS, which featured a golf course and a picnic ground with a large lake. Turtles the size of soup plates basked in the sun, plopping hurriedly into the water almost as soon as I saw them. Egrets and other water birds haunted the woods and the tangle of canals, and one day I saw what I thought first was just a pathetically skinny, reddish little stray dog, grooming himself on the grass verge between a ditch and a paved road. But no, it had a sharp little muzzle and pointed ears edged in black; every time it looked down for a bit more grooming, I stepped closer to the fox. It would turn, and look at me uneasily, I would hold very still… and reassured, the fox would resume grooming, until I was almost close enough to touch it. I wouldn’t, of course. Besides fleas, parasites and rabies, it also had very sharp little teeth— but I had never seen a real fox, not up so close.

The coast between Gulfport and Biloxi was beautiful— not because the beaches were scenic like Big Sur—but because they were white sand, and the sea always smooth and calm, and Highway 90 was a four-lane motorway with a landscaped median that paralleled the shore, sweeping around every gentle curve and headland. On the inland side of it a graceful series of large and small houses overlooked the road and the endless beach. We drove along that highway a number of times, but the one that sticks in memory was coming back from dinner at one of the Biloxi casinos (the pirate ship one— I won $5.00 on a slot machine). It was just about sundown, daylight fading out of the sky. All along the coastal road, the beautiful homes sat, with their windows and curtains drawn open to the sea breeze, lights on inside the rooms. It was like looking into the windows of a series of elaborate doll houses, but ever in the back of my mind—even then— was the thought of how close the water was, how flat the country and how fragile those beautiful mansions and cottages would be, in the eye of a storm.

The news reports have the storm surge that hit Biloxi as being 30 feet, and I am wondering, without any way of ever knowing, how many of the lovely houses that I admired, and how many of the places that I spent my TDY money at, and how many of the people I met in passing— at the nursery, at the church service, or ringing up my groceries— are OK, and alive. Thirty feet of water, all at once…We think of our world as solid, immutable, but it is not— it has its own whims.

Comments closed.