Ascension Island Fall 1974
Date written: May 20, 1996BACK
Ascension Island is a small island 8 degree's latitude below the equator in the Atlantic half way between Africa and South America. This Island is owned by the British and they appoint a Governor. The population varies around 1000 people. The Island is small, about 7 miles long and 3 miles wide.
It is a complex trip getting to Ascension Island from the Grand Canary Island. I caught an Iberian Airline plane to Madrid, Spain and from there to London, England. Then I flew from London to the Island of Antigua, in the Caribbean Sea, on British Airline. From Antigua Island I caught a US Air Force Hercules C130 cargo plane to Ascension Island. I stopped in London and Antique for overnight stays. I spent the night near London in an Airport Hotel. The flight to Antigua was uneventful. Antigua was about what I expected, yacht harbors and metal-drum bands. It was a beautiful Island but there was no work for the people--about half of them seemed to be taxi drivers. When I got off the plane from London I was mobbed by taxi drivers, shouting and waving their arms. I took a tour of Antigua Island, and that night I went to the small town and listened to a steel-drum band. There were tourists there off a large yacht in the harbor. I discussed their experiences with them. They enjoyed working on a yacht and paying for the privilege. Anyway, they enjoyed the Caribbean.
The next day, I caught the US Air Force cargo plane to Ascension Island. It was a long boring trip. There were no windows in the plane and the seats were not comfortable. I was very happy when we landed at Ascension. I got off the plane and looked around. I saw John Lacewell, the Site Manger, right away. The Island was flat except for a mountain in the center. John came forward and welcomed me to the Island. The wind was blowing very hard. I found that they had this wind all the time. The trade wind at Ascension was famous. Not only did they have a trade wind it was a blowing hard wind. There was not much on the airport to blow around. The area was cleared by years of east trade winds. We were by the sea. Come to think of it, everything on Ascension Island was right by the sea.
A US Air Force Officer was stationed at Ascension. He was at a Commander at the United States Air Force Base. As far as I remember the Base is called Wide-awake, I assume for the birds that go flying at night singing. They are called Wide-awake birds--after a while one gets used to them.
A radar was in operation 24-hours a day at Ascension. It was for tracking space objects. Many of which were not putting out a signal. Several of the items the radar tracks are space junk and are given a number to keep track on them. The contractor for the radar station was RCA at that time. NASA had a spacecraft tracking station on top of the one mountain on the Island called "Devils Ash Pit." The station was for tracking the manned Skylab and unmanned space craft. This was my assignment. Most of the supplies were air lifted to the Island. There was an air strip on the Island with usually a Hercules C-130 parked off to one side. A British ship used to come every third month, and other ships from South Africa. The ships could not get close to shore and had to be unloaded with a small boat.
Everyone who worked at the NASA Tracing Station lived at the United States Air Force Base. John took me to the quarters where I would be living. There were about four 2-story buildings. They reminded me of the places I had stayed in the US Air Force. The buildings were square and looked like barracks. That is what they were. There were rooms for 2 people with a bath between 2 rooms. I got a corner room with Stan Valeski, the engineer that came from Gran Canaries about the same time as I did. One thing about the room, being on the corner you could hear the wind howling every minute of the day or night.
The United States Air Force Base area was small. The dinning room where we were to eat was a short walk and the bar where most off-duty was spent was the next building. The bar had every thing the guys could think of to drink. There was a snack bar that served hamburgers and French fries. It was in the same building. Tennis courts were available. In case the people had forgotten there rackets there were ratchets and balls for asking. They were supposed to be returned when you finished. The Base had two tennis courts. You could get fishing equipment for the asking.
The Base medical facility was close by. It was very small. There was two beds. One of the small towns, Two Boats, I believe has a hospital. The Two Boats village was located about three miles from Wide-awake Base. The other village was called Jamestown. It was about the same distance from the Base. There was a small library near by in Two-Boats and another library in about the same condition on Wide-awake Base. I found that one rightaway. The books were in bad condition. I don't think that Base management put much thought into a library nor the town management in Two Boats. The libraries looked very neglected. Some of the books were still in the box. They were cast off books, probably from libraries in Great Britain.
There was a convenience store on the Air Base. I went to the store to look around. They had some of the best fishing equipment I have seen. That was about all. I was told that the fishing was the best in the world here. I decided that I would go when I could. I decided my time "off" at Ascension would be spent running and fishing. I picked out an area for running and measured off a mile and 2 miles.
I started writing when I got there. I wrote several articles there for the local paper. The paper was called The Islander. It was a six-page paper of local news. There was a small school in Two Boats that contributed quite a few of the articles.
Skittles were a popular sport. You bowl for 6 pins using a small wooden ball in an outdoor alley. The team is make up of 5 or more bowlers. There is a league and the team standing is recorded in The Islander when it comes out. I soon joined a team.
Movies were an every night occasion. The films were received from the US on the C-130 that came in weekly. They were shown in an out door theater. The weather was the same most of the time and it was very warm. It was nice for outdoor events if you were sheltered from the wind. One could sit and watch the movie with a beer in his hand.
They had a few vehicles on the Island for general use and taking us up to the Site. The Base Commander and John Lacewell the manager of the NASA site had a car of sorts. They were in bad condition. I made the trip to the NASA station the first day after I arrived. The Site was manned 24 hours a day. The people at the mess service fed us at the site. They ran a vehicle up to the site with food three times a day. There was a hot meal at midnight every night. We ate breakfast before going to work at the Site. Dinner was delivered by the mess personal to the night shift and another dinner was served after we got back to the United States Air Force Base down below. The Mess Hall had the best food I have eaten. Apparently they thought good food would keep people longer, so they fed us like kings. I had a hard time keeping my weight down while I was there.
I did find a pair of running shoes, that fit, which I bought. I would get off work in the evening, changed clothes and go for a run. I had brought my golf clubs with me, but didn't use them much. I ended selling them to a left-handed St. Helena Islander. I do not know if I mentioned being left handed. It was not a big disadvantage.
The St. Helena Islander thought it was a miracle that he had found a set of left--handed golf clubs on Ascension Island. St. Helena Island is south east of Ascension 600 miles. It is where the British exiled Napoleon in 1815 after the battle Waterloo, for the rest of his life. St. Helena Island is inhabited by people from Africa and Portugal descent. Many of them have moved to Ascension Island to work for the English and United States people. They did most of the driving, mess services, unloading the ships, and run most of the stores. They were good humored and likable people, but their education and surroundings were limited to St. Helena and Ascension.
In 1815 there was a troop of English solders living on Ascension Island to guard St. Helena and Napoleon again a ship trying to rescue him. They left donkeys behind which flourished in more 130 years that they were left to their own on the Ascension Island. The donkeys became one of the blights on the Island and many of them had to be destroyed.
I had been dabbling in the market while I was on the Grand Canary, although it was difficult because of communications. I just about had to give it up while I was at Ascension. Even making a telephone call was difficult. So one more hobby was temporary on hold.
I went fishing the on the next day that I had off. Ascension was virgin water for fishing--there was almost no fishing there except for the people on Ascension Island, when they could get a boat. To get to the fishing boat the St. Helena Islanders put a small motor boat in the water. You had to swing out on a line and drop in the small motor boat that took you to the big boat that we used for fishing. Three St. Helena Islanders came along to drive the boat and gaff the fish. We put our lines in the water as soon as we were on the fishing boat. It was moored quite a distance off shore. We started catching fish at once. The put up a hard fight. The guy who pulled in the first one had a "Jack." We caught a couple of them before we got away from the shore. We started getting Wahoo when we got to deep water. Getting a Wahoo in before a shark got it was quite a trick. The Wahoo averaged 43 pounds each. They are a good fighting fish and very good for eating. We caught 498 pounds of fish, all Wahoo that day. We didn't have any way to cook them. The villagers took them off our hands. They were very glad to get them. They have to pay for their groceries in the Two-Boat store and these were free. We caught almost enough to feed the whole village of Two Boats.
That was not the last time I went fishing but it was memorial because it was the first time I went deep sea fishing in Ascension. Fishing on shore was wonderful. You could put a bare hook in the water and the "black fish" would pile up trying to get it. "Black fish" were on the average 10 or 11 inched long and were good fish for eating. Of course, we didn't eat them. We would filet them and use the meat to fish for "grouper." We caught a lot of "grouper" almost every time we went fishing. They weighted about 2 to 5 pounds.
The technicians were involved with building airplanes, building wind gadgets to make electric, skin diving, playing disk jockey, and operating a transmitter for the Island. This was among the things that keep us busy off-duty. They started sending female technicians to the site. This did not seem very smart to me. It caused John the Site Manager a problem finding then a place to stay. One of them wanted to work a shift with her boy friend. She was on a different shift. She came to me with the problem. I tried to tell her the difficult I had placing her on the shift she wanted. She insisted and even cried. I put her on the shift she wanted.
I was running every evening religiously to keep my weight down. My heart started giving me problems. I went to the local doctor for an examination and he told be to stop running. One more hobby I lost. My heart was to give me problems intermittent from that time on.
I told Bendix that I did not want a permanent assignment at Ascension Island. The R&D (Rest and Recreation) was now to South America. There was no chance to go to Gran Canary for R&R. I would have to move my family to the USA and be away from them for up to a year if I took an assignment to Ascension.
I was writing a letter faithfully every week. I missed Connie and Monica. The wind howling around the corner of the barracks did not help my mood any. I remember sitting on a bed and sewing buttons on.
The laws were strict on the Island. If anyone got into a fight with someone he had to leave the Island wherever it was his fault or not. When one person was sent off the Island because he had a disagreement two persons went. John Lacewell got one of the houses in Two Boats and settled for a long stay. Stan and I had decided to leave. We both had enjoyed Ascension, but I couldn't stay without the possibility of seeing Connie and Monica for nearly a year.
We caught a military plane for Monrovia, Liberia. We spent a few hours there. The country around Monrovia looked like I would have imagined with small bush and reddish dirt. The land did not look fertile. We were invited to a party at the hotel where we were staying. There was plenty to drink and food the whole evening. The whole place was lit up by torches. We caught a commercial flight that night to Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone there were many troops, armed with rifles and submachine guns stationed all over the airport. We had to stay in a small room in the airport awaiting the next flight. This one took us all the way to Gran Canaries. We were very glad when we saw the Gran Canaries Island.
I checked in at the Site and said hello. I would be available for telephone call from Bendix although I was not in a hurry for another assignment. I was called two days and asked it I would be available for an assignment as the Training Supervisor at the site at Madagascar. I looked up Madagascar on the map. It was a large island south east of Africa that, at that time, was governed by the French. It did not look too exciting as an assignment, but I was excited to get the job of Training Supervisor.
I called Bendix back to accept the job. But I got a real jolt. Now the job was just a trainer with a reduction in grade. I refused it on these grounds and started looking around for something to do out of Bendix. I had an apartment, a yacht paid for, and a pretty good stake. I thought that work as a full time stock investor was a pretty good occupation. I wanted something to do in my spare time, so I looked for a fishing boat for sale. Actually Madagascar didn't appeal to me anyway.
I spent a happy 1974 Christmas with Connie and Monica. I was 42 year's old-it was hard to believe. Time was passing too fast. Where did the years go? Monica was growing up.
John Gale called me from Bendix and asked I was free. He offered me a position at Fairbanks, Alaska. I thought about it for a while. Going to Alaska would be an adventure. I had read a lot about Alaska and wanted to see the state. I just had to convince Connie of this. Monica was in the British School and we needed special clothes. Also, I had a yacht I had to sell. That turned out to be an easy job.
I called and told John I would accept Alaska. We went to local stores to buy parka and boots. It seemed strange that they had the clothes that we needed for Alaska in Las Palmas. But they did. After stocking up with what we needed, we were ready to go. We had the furniture in our apartment packed and shipped marked for Alaska and bought airline tickets to Baltimore, the nearest stop to Bendix Field Engineering Headquarters. We had to stop at Bendix for a briefing. I was going to Alaska as a sort of Special Projects Engineer. We did not know what we would find went we got there. Knowing Special Projects Engineer was a catch all for a lot of things and that they were having problems with the persons stationed there gave me a feeling of "being on the edge."
We kept the apartment in Las Palmas. We just closed it up. Leaving Las Palmas after the years we had spent there was not easy. Later, I was to be glad that I hadn't taken the Madagascar assignment. There was an armed revolution in Madagascar shortly after Bendix made me the offer that I refused. Solders with rifles allowed the people on the Space Craft Tracking Site to pack suit cases and take what they could carry with them when they left. They left their cars and furniture behind on Madagascar.