Recollections — South Dade

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

Although I spent only four years in the U.S. Navy, its recollections have been surfacing for a time. Perhaps it was the relatively-young age of my shipmates (and me) that etched such a long-lasting impression on my psyche.

After having spent nearly six months in ‘A School’ in West Florida, (Corry Field, Pensacola), I received orders to a Naval Security Group [NAVSECGRU] field station in South Dade County, Florida. New to the business of electronic surveillance and cryptography, I had no inkling of what the day-to-day work would entail.

In the pre-TSA days of travel, the flight from Pensacola to Miami International was short, pleasant and uneventful. I had never before been exposed to a dual-language environment, and was intrigued by signs printed in English and Spanish. With some reservations, I would grow to appreciate the influences of Latin (mostly Cuban) culture on that part of south Florida.

As I recall, it was probably a bus ride from Miami which delivered me, bag and baggage, to Homestead Air Force Base. The NAVSECGRU, a small contingency of communicators, intercept operators and the ilk, was a tenant activity of the Air Force base. Homestead A.F.B. had been downgraded from a Strategic Air Command (aka ‘SAC’) operation to a Tactical Air Command (TAC) operation before my arrival there. During the Cold War, SAC-based B-52s were aloft 24/7 ready to bring nuclear annihilation to the Soviet Union and other bad players of the time. Less-intense air power was on display at Homestead, but I will never forget the earth-shattering (literally) roar as a sizeable fleet of B-52s wound up for takeoff a few hundred feet from my barracks room near the flight-line runway.

As a side line, the story is told of a forced landing of a B-52 at our small, regional airport in Charleston, West Virginia, (aka ‘Charlie West’ or CRW) several years ago. While the aircraft landed without incident, a ‘full-bird’ Colonel was dispatched to the scene to get the bird airborne and back to its base. The Colonel and a crew paced the meager runways at CRW and reported to CRW staff that a 6-feet-tall snow fence would need to be removed at the end of the runway, before the B-52 would have enough roll-out space to fly. The mountain-tops airport would give enough room as the behemoth could dip into an adjoining valley far enough to fly.

Homestead then was a sleepy, mostly farming and military community. What became I-95 was still on some engineer’s drawing board, but US-1 (and Alt-1) was a busy affair. Locals and tourists used it as the main route between Miami to the north and south to the Keys. It took me a year or so to learn all the costal back roads and the picturesque spots, away from the rush of US-1. After the Navy years, I returned to South Dade, via the Gold Coast on old US-27, only a couple of times. I really haven’t had much desire to return to visit in recent years as my ‘recollection spots’ likely no longer exist.

In the next-adjoining community of Florida City, heading toward the Everglades, there were countless acres of fresh-produce farming. A shipmate dated the daughter of the owner of Carpenter Farms, which then produced much of the winter tomato crop for the East. The same farm today is in its third generation of operation. Farming in that part of Florida remains a mainstay. This ‘farming’ is not to be confused with acres and acres of citrus. That’s a different part of the state.

The two years I spent in south Dade (1970–72) happened also to be a period of extended drought in that part of the world. Sometimes there was a yellowish pall of thick smoke as wild fires raged in the Everglades. Part of me was surprised that a ‘River of Grass’ could burn so vigorously, given optimal fire conditions, but it certainly did. For the better part of two years, I remember ‘water advisories’ including stiff fines for lawn watering and car washing. Likewise, there were constant daytime temperatures of 95 F.+, precious little rain and only two or three days of ‘cool’ weather in two years. That was in February 1972. Due to the always-high humidity of the south Florida peninsula, when the days were cool, they were bone chilling to a population acclimated to hot, sub-tropical weather. I can vouch that neither the Air Force barracks, nor the apartment complex where I later lived had any provision for home heating, unless one counts running a through-wall air-conditioning-unit in reverse. All structures were built on a concrete slab — no digging into the hard, coral limestone of what had eons ago been seabed — and many were masonry. Once warmed (or cooled) they remained that way for hours.

Our duty station, now abandoned, was located on Card Sound Road, between Homestead and Key Largo, now also known as state route 905A. I do not recall any particular signage for the facility, just a nondescript ‘T’ intersection in a ramrod-straight and table-top-level stretch of two-lane highway. To the tourists and others driving by, one could get a second or two glimpse of the receiver site, as one traveled to or from the Keys. A short driveway ended in a white, two-story, masonry structure situated in the center of an antenna array. If one envisions a several-hundred-yards-diameter bull’s-eye, with a structure in the center, that describes the layout. Part of the driveway passed between the tall, utility-pole-mounted long-wire antenna which ran the perimeter in a perfect circle. I later learned that this station, along with other, similar stations, scattered in distant parts of the Atlantic, permitted accurate direction-finding capabilities for the U.S. military. In fact, we had communicators from every branch of service, including several members of the Canadian Navy. From our location, the site could triangulate positions of ships and subs which traveled the Atlantic. Our mission was much more involved than that. Although a secret at the time, we monitored every broadcast from every source in Cuba. As an ally of the Soviet Union, it was fair game for the aircraft surveillance over flights, electronic eaves dropping or most anything else that could be seen as a military advantage to this country. We knew every radio operator in Cuba by name, his favorite radio frequencies of operation and his broadcast times. We routinely worked with CIA operatives, in-country Cuba, and shared their on-the-ground findings with authorities in Washington, DC, including the White House. Even in those pre-Internet days, our capabilities via teletype were instantaneous, globally. We enlisted rates worked mostly for E-7 Marine or E-7 or Warrant Officer-grade Navy supervisors. I have listed some links at the end of this piece, for readers who may have interest in further reading on the subject.

On a much-lighter note, there has always been much debate between branches of the U.S. military services over which has the reliably-best food service. While I still believe the Navy still bears the torch, part of that conclusion rests in the high-quality meals provided crews at the receiver site. While some poor Army-type was surviving somewhere on K-rations, we had fresh meat and wholesome vegetables (along with a pastry chef) at every location I ever served. I will have more to say about meals onboard an aircraft carrier in a later writing.

Since our tenant activity was small, it became quite easy for crew members to meet socially across all levels of staff and nationality. Sometimes, during the later days of my service in South Dade, we skipped lunch at the receiver site, in favor of some tourist-directed eateries in the area. Still open to this day was our favorite spot, Alabama Jack’s Restaurant. My personal fete was homemade crab cakes on toast, with navy soup beans on the side. Regardless of the daily luncheon offering, we supplemented our taste for brew with a new brand to mark the occasion. While we may not have been professional drinkers, I believe my shipmates and I appeared in the short list for amateurs. I still like a decent beer with my crab cakes.

Farther south in Key Largo was Martha’s Restaurant. Martha’s had the best conch chowder on the planet at the time. Nothing could beat a steaming bowl, Manhattan style, which had simmered for hours before opening time. The overhead fans, turning slowly at the high ceiling, made a good breeze in the predictable heat. Whether one had a sandwich or side, the chowder was heavenly, as was any number of fresh-caught fillets of fish. Why are my recollections laced with memories of seafood, you may ask. Having been raised in land-locked West Virginia, much of my previous experience with ‘seafood’ was limited to occasional dinners of frozen, bait shrimp, battered and deep fried. Simply no way to treat sea foods. I was in my early 20s before I tasted Gulf prawn and shrimp larger than a nibble.

I had earlier mentioned being immersed in a largely-Latin culture. Every group has its ups and downs and I eventually learned of some downsides. Since we were sailors (and eventually fleet sailors), we enjoyed the clubbing life on off-duty weekends. We would pile into an available car and hit the clubs in Miami, particularly one along Tamiami Trail, called “Evil People.” Okay, I guess the venue name was a portent of things to come, but we still enjoyed the multi-level set of ‘lighted-from-underneath’ acrylic dance floors with adjoining bars. In those days, disco had made its mark on Miami, as thousands of young people (especially African-American, Latin-American, etc., etc.) packed the dance venues. Never before or since have I witnessed a better-dressed gathering of people of all description who danced at professional grade. Unfortunately, gang violence eventually inserted itself into the scene and police eventually helped shut the doors on “Evil People.” It surely was fun while it lasted.

Although 46 years now separate us, a small cadre of shipmates with whom I shared life in South Dade, remain friends to this day. Emails and the occasional phone calls have kept us asking and caring about each other and our families. Some shipmates, my closest, visited my ancestral home in West Virginia. I likewise visited with Carolinian and Floridian friends after my Navy years. We shared many, many days at Homestead Bayfront Park, broiling in the sub-tropical sun. Owing to the shifts we worked, we often arrived at 8:00 AM and stayed until sunset. We survived by buying hotdogs at the little cantina, drinking beer, reading novels, discussing philosophies of life and watching the locals of all ages enjoying time in the park. Bayfront was lined with palms, had an enclosed salt-water swimming lagoon and enough open space for football (for American readers I do mean soccer). The kids (and grownups) played endless games, consumed tons of brought-from-home Latin food at picnic tables in the shade, as old men chatted with each other, mostly in Spanish, as old men do. I still have photographs of at least some of the shipmate crew of those days, mostly taken with a borrowed 35-mm SLR camera, and mostly at Homestead Bayfront Park.

In the intervening years, a pavilion, enlarged marina and other amenities have been added to the park and maybe one day, I will go back to bask in the simple pleasures that formed my early years, surrounded with open views, some mangrove and coral outcrops thrown in for good measure.

There is probably some need to explain our work schedules which permitted lots of park time. We worked then what was called a “two, two, two and 80” set of work shifts. That was two day shifts, two midnight shifts, two evening shifts and then 80 hours off shift. When the alarm clock sounded, I nether knew what day of the week it was, nor time of day. There was zero circadian rhythm. Since the park was close, it was no trouble to work in beach-front park time into our schedules. Even after midnight-to-8:00 AM shifts, we could still be at the park shortly after 8:00 AM. Even though I regret the exposure now, we were tanned so darkly that in a darkened corridor of a barracks, only our eyes and teeth were visible in daytime.

Barracks construction brings back the thoughts of awakening in mornings, with mosquito bites on the face and in the thin skin between fingers. Despite the efforts of the air base to control insects with insecticide fogging of the open canals on and around the base, the mosquitoes flew, unhampered, through the screens that lined the outside-facing, louvered walls. It wasn’t until several months after my arrival that enlisted barracks finally became centrally air conditioned.

So, that was how time was spent in South Dade: Working crazy shifts in a windowless structure in the interest of national security; enjoying some unforgettable growing up time with people who would become lifelong friends; and savoring new surroundings, new flavors, new cultures and new experiences in sub-tropical Florida.

The next duty station would be an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. But more on that later.

Links for further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_Security_Group

For details of the cryptographic equipment then in use:

http://www.cryptomuseum.com/crypto/usa/

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