25. September 2004 · Comments Off on School Busses, and Scrambles and Owls, Oh My!! (The Final Stretch) · Categories: General

For just about every busload of kids, a visit to the Mather AFB Museum and Planetarium (and whatever else) was the first ever time they had ever been to a military base. The grade school kids were demented with excitement from the sheer adventure of being sprung from a boring classroom for a day, and although the more worldly middle and high school students managed a show of insouciance, they were usually impressed and fascinated, also. Mather’s neat, tree-lined grid of streets and ranges of World War II era temporary buildings certainly looked like a movie set of a military base. (Temporary in this case means that the military gets at least half a century of hard use out of it; permanent has to last a couple of centuries. Really and truly temporary is canvas with a wooden floor.)

I turned the commute between the gate and the flight line into part of the tour, with a monologue about how the base was really a town, just like where they lived: we had a city hall (the wing HQ), and a grocery store (waving a hand towards the road where the commissary was), a department store (we’d be passing the BX complex at this point), and apartment buildings (which would be the student navigator barrack blocks). Our suburb was the housing area, away around the end of the runway, where there was a church and a grade school. To the kids, this was familiar, but the uniforms…. And the airplanes…. And the helicopters!

All that made it no end exotic, and extra fascinating, to the point where I couldn’t give up this part of the tour when we had a group that came in a carpool, instead of efficiently all loaded onto a bus. In that case, I’d have prepared by bringing along strips of bright cloth, to be tied to the aerials of all the cars in the tour, with me in the lead car, and my casual officer assistant in the last. At various key points, I’d have the tour convoy pull over and park, and the kids gather around for the commentary. This would eat up precious time, unloading and loading the cars, until I came up with a strategy to move the kids along briskly. I told them the story of England’s Finest Hour, when the RAF fighter pilots had to be ready, standing by their aircraft and ready to take off at a moments’ notice to fly and fight. As soon as they were given the order to “scramble” I would say, they had to run to their planes, jump in, fasten their safety belts, and take off, as swiftly and as efficiently as they could. And this is what I wanted the kids to do— to run to the car they were riding in get in and fasten up, and help their friends— the minute that I yelled “Squadron! Scramble!” Worked like a charm, too, but there must be many thirty and forty-somethings on the Sacramento metro area who now have a decidedly eccentric take on the Battle of Britain.

We usually took them to the planetarium first, a tiny column of a building with a domed roof that always reminded me of Poindexter’s planetary telescope— which could seat an astonishingly large number of people, on the tiered seats inside. I listened to the planetarium presentation so many times, I could have done it myself, if necessary. It was interesting to see how the various school groups responded, and sometimes disheartening; how so very few kids could recognize the planet earth, blue and green and swathed with clouds, in a shot taken from space. It seemed that the sharpest classes were either from parochial and private schools, or from the small rural towns outside the city. The dullest academic knife in the drawer during my time doing tours was a class which contained only two kids— one white, one black— who spoke English. The rest of the class was split between Hispanic and Vietnamese, and although they had a Spanish-fluent and a Vietnamese-fluent teachers’ aide with them, we were left all to wonder if anyone had gotten anything out of the trip at all.

The museum was down the street and around the corner from the planetarium, an easy walk of three blocks or so, and which incorporated a “sight” not actually listed in the teachers’ “handbook of field-trips”. I always stopped the column of children about half a block away, and told them what it was, and what they should look for. This was Mather AFB’s very own unofficial mascot and endangered species, a particular and very rare breed of ground-burrowing owl, peculiar to California and very high up on the endangered species list. So when one of these rare birds deigned to make itself entirely at home in a stretch of field and find a mate and build it’s own-equivalent of the rose-covered cottage adjacent to a well-traveled sidewalk, the powers that be were suitably impressed. So was everyone else. No one on base was permitted to pester, harass, or deliberately frighten it. The owl (or owls) were often seen, perched on top of the rounded cone of dirt from the burrow. A kind, wild-life loving soul in CE even provided a gnome-sized patio table with umbrella to mark the burrow especially. (Little-known fact: military preserves are often very well stocked with endangered species, which often seem remarkably stoic about live ammunition, noisy engines, and frequent explosions. Go figure.) With luck, and if they were quiet and kept their eyes fixed on the little table, and the mound of dirt, at least half the tour group would have a glimpse of the owl— a stubby brown little thing about the size of a fat grackle, before it went to ground.

Around the corner, the Museum was in an old warehouse, quite professionally designed and with a nice collection of aviation relics, an authentic old wire recorder, and a half-sized replica biplane that the kids could actually climb into. The unicycle-riding major provided good amusement value, although his accounts of Pancho Barnes’ place in aviation history had to be considerably toned down for the grade-school set.
And then to the picnic ground across the road from the museum, keeping a watchful eye on the kids, eating bag lunches, chatting to their teachers, and answering questions posed by clearly hero- or heroine-worshipping kids… well, there are worse ways to spend a morning at work. I could hardly believe the Air Force paid me a salary to do something I enjoyed this much,
We used to get packets of thank-you letters and drawings from the kids, afterwards. Their teachers assigned them to do pictures and letters as a class assignment.

It was amazing, how many of them did pictures of the owl!

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