April 15, 2009 Edition

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Army air base
changed lives

(Note: The late Martha Warner Metrailer of Baton Rouge, La., grew up in Walnut Ridge and Hoxie, the daughter of the late Lucian and Margaret Warner. In the following essay, she recalls what it was like when the air base was located near Walnut Ridge. Martha's sister, Peggy Warner supplied this essay.)

By Martha Warner Metrailer

Rumors had been circulating around town for several weeks, but now it was official. There it was ... all printed in black and white, spread across the front page of our weekly Times Dispatch, "Army air base to locate in Walnut Ridge."

The government had been quietly buying up farmland a couple of miles north of town, and plans were being finalized to construct a basic flying school. The Army Corps of Engineers, out of Memphis, was opening a personnel office immediately. Workers were needed. There were jobs to be had: office and construction workers, laborers ... jobs... jobs... jobs!

The sleepy little agriculture-centered town in northeast Arkansas sprang to life. Lawrence County had been slow to recover from the depression. Many families had fled to the steel mills of Gary, Ind., and the assembly lines of Flint, Pontiac and Detroit.

It was May 1942. My class was just graduating from Walnut Ridge High School. We went almost en masse to the personnel office. Thanks to those typing, bookkeeping and shorthand courses of Mrs. Miller's at the school, most were taken on as office workers. Alas, for me, I didn't meet the age requirement and was assigned the lowly job of messenger.

The corps had rented office space all over downtown (all four blocks of it): spaces that had been vacant for years on the top floor of those vintage 1890's two-story buildings. At the far end of Main Street, across the railroad tracks, a drafting room was set up in the gym of our community center where I had played basketball just a few months earlier and had swung to "In the Mood" only weeks ago at the senior prom.

My job was to carry various communications between offices: memos, letters, bound volumes of regulations, specifications, departmental orders and rolls and rolls of blueprints, plot plans, schematics, surveys, et cetera, et cetera.

It was mid-June. The thin red line of mercury in the thermometers fixed to the walls of various filling stations around town was slowly rising. Summer was here. Ninety-degree temperatures had arrived. Those little upper-story cubbyholes were heating up, and outside on the concrete sidewalk in full sun, it was an oven.

I rushed up and down those stairs, back and forth to the drafting section down the street, laden with important documents. Fans whirred, foreheads glistened, tempers shortened and soon dress regulations collapsed. Short sleeves, bared legs, sandals, cotton sundresses became the order of the day.

My rescuer came in the form of Miss Franciola, 50ish spinster and long-time employee of the Memphis section of the Corps of Engineers. She was the supervisor of the clerical office. Somehow, word had gotten to her that I could type, and in some mysterious way the age requirement was circumvented and I found myself assigned to the typing pool. Just about this time the entire operation was moved to the air base site three miles north of town.

One of my former classmates was the proud owner of an old Model A Ford. He provided the transportation, picking up three or four of us every morning for the trip out to the base. Our offices were housed in army-barracks type buildings that had miraculously risen, Phoenix-like, from the cotton-stubbled fields. We had to brown bag it for lunch and ate at long wooden tables set up in a huge tent.

Dust swirled everywhere as dozers, graders and earth movers shaped the runways. Summertime dust devils twisted across the raw earth. With windows open wide to catch the faintest breeze and big ventilator fans working mightily to move the stagnant air, we ate dust, eyes smarted and reddened and brunettes turned gray. The grit was in our mouths, covered our desks, clogged the typewriters. Letters had to be dusted off before insertion into the envelope.

All too soon that frantic summer was over. My classmates and I parted ... some going on to college, some to other jobs in the city and some marched off to war. Some I would never see again.

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