This memorial and story of Col. Vincent Scarano was sent to Walker Aviation Museum by his son, Steve Scarano. Col. Scarano, thank you for your great service to our country:

A Safe Place to Grow Up
How I was Lost and Saved by Popcorn

My childhood had the shark-tooth imprint of the Capitan Mountains on the western horizon and it remains in the geography of my heart now after more than a halfcentury, although back then I had no idea what a shark’s tooth even looked like– we had miles of beach but no ocean, people there would say. It was a place of paint-by-number sky where God evidently determined it wasn’t all that necessary to color within the lines. That view of impossible sunsets from the now defunct Walker Air Force Base in Roswell was the visual compliment to the nighttime lullaby of the throbbing growls of B-36 propellers and roaring B-52 jet bomber engines during the Cold War years. It seems even now that it was the right place for me then, and true.

If you go even now to a certain address out there on West Eyman Street and get down on your hands and knees as I did decades later with my wife and children, you will find the “Stephen” and “Kristine” and “1957” my sister and me etched with a nail into the concrete garage floor my dad had poured when we were stationed there for thirteen rich years. And if today you were to take a jackhammer to the small patio on the right of the front door, I bet you could find, just in front of the water faucet, a couple dozen then-shiny pennies I buried there in a blue and yellow bouillon cube tin the very day I returned from school aghast to find fresh concrete covering it. That house and the others were abandoned by my friends and neighbors when what is still called “The Base” by Roswellites who weren’t even born then was decommissioned in the mid-60’s. Indeed, I was a very sad sixteen year old who helped pack them up into trucks in my summer and weekend job with the local Fowler Van Lines. But there is this keen memory:

Jerry and I worked for free saddle time at the riding stables–mucking out stalls, fixing tack, and making fried egg sandwiches from what we collected in the hay barn. On a ride one day we discovered some very large brass ammunition casings and a fairly undamaged “slug” on what must have been a  unnery range. We joined the two parts and for some now forgotten reason, hid them by reaching through a horse-chewed hole in the wall of the saddle room. Fifteen years later I brought my family there–the place was like a spaghetti western movie set then, tumble weeds even against the sagging corral boards. I was telling them “the bullet story” with my hand in that hole when my fingers closed at precisely that moment upon that long-ago find. It was almost unsurprising. I left it for Jerry, who was by then counting down his years as a Marine Corps officer and upward to become New Mexico’s Game and Fish Department Director.

The Base was a place where a kid could leave the house after inhaling a bowl of cereal on a summer vacation morning and not have to return until the street lights came on. We knew we were monitored by each other’s parents and anyone who knew us and everyone who didn’t. Safe enough so that when I was late for the bus in grade school my mom would send me to the Main Gate to have the Air Police officers stop a townbound
car and ask a total stranger to deliver me there. And they did. Several times. Our parents would take my siblings and me to the Ball-O-Jak drive-in movie theater in our pajamas to watch the July 4th fireworks where we were thrilled to play on the swings at the bottom of the big screen in the near dark while we waited for the show to begin. When we’d go to the occasional movie people would honk their horns if it didn’t start on time, and maybe even if it might not start on time. My pals and I would somehow hitch rides to the abandoned Jingle Bob drive-in north of town and we’d hunt for the rose and amber tinted quartz crystals we called “Pecos Valley Diamonds” in the gravel of the driveway.

In the winter, we’d take turns rolling each other inside trash cans down the slope of the Officers’ Club empty swimming pool to the deep end, emerging disoriented and feeling loopy. And–this is so storybook you could find it suspicious: summers we’d lie on our backs in the cool clover and conjure up shapes of sailing ships and Indian chiefs among the afternoon storm clouds. I am reasonably certain that my inability to do that now is one of those dismal casualties of growing up. Anyway, the days were full and the summer went slowly, as summers indeed should when you’re a kid.

I experienced death for the first time in the Land of Enchantment. I was six or seven years old and with some other altar boys on a monk-led hike at a Benedictine monastery in Pecos. We had just crossed the river on a jiggling suspension bridge and saw it: the coiled snake with an over-stretched mouth and a half-in, half-out mouse. I didn’t really know what death was supposed to be or do then, but I knew I was watching it happen. And it is as possible as it is improbable that the seed of my thirty year career as a police officer was sown when I was a twelve year old crew member at the Saturday morning
cartoons and serial movies in the Base theater. The arm bands we safety pinned to our sleeves were made from bed sheet rags and identified who we were with crayon: Matinee Patrol. Our mission was to keep kids from sailing their flattened popcorn boxes through the projector light to make shadows on the screen. It was a dirty job but somebody had to do it, and the pay was about right–free popcorn at the snack bar from the old man we called “Pop”.

At about that time I got my first paycheck as a pin-setter at the bowling alley. It required me to get a social security card, offered discounted burgers and shakes at the snack bar, and paid fifteen cents a line. I worked alongside airmen. Sometimes a mean or intoxicated bowler would roll a ball down the lane while we were in our pit retrieving pins to put back into the rack. For those people we kept packets of sugar to make a paste we’d pour into the finger holes before sending the ball back to them. I could tell you about using my tiny “Cub” model press to print advertisements for odd jobs like mowing lawns and washing windows (never, ever do that) to earn my way to the 1960 Boy Scout National Jamboree in Colorado Springs. It was far easier going door to door on weekends hawking bags of spudnuts from the basket I hung from my neck than perfecting window shine for housewives.

It was a bookmark year in my life, 1962, when as a fourteen year old Eagle Scout the letter arrived announcing that the Conquistador Council’s Executive awarded me a $15 weekly “Ranger” position at Camp Wehinahpay in the Sacramento Mountains near Weed. That summer was a season of immense responsibility, spectacular booming afternoon thunderstorms with decidedly serious lightning flashes you could set your watch to expect (1:30, almost without fail), wearing my genuine military surplus poncho, and the long walks alone along the trail to my distant campsite in the dark. I got to where I really didn’t need to whistle, but I wanted to, just to let myself or anything Out There know that I was out there too. The week before our first group of grubbies arrived (what we called the campers) was filled with long, busy, dirty days. The quartermaster inventoried and arranged his Canteen store, the “pearl divers” learned the art of dishwashing, the medic on loan from Walker Air Force Base stocked the clinic, and the archery instructor (John Good,
who we called Robin) and the range master organized their gear and set up their skill areas. The rest of us–the rangers–made close acquaintance with posthole diggers, two-handled saws, shovels and axes.

I spent the better part of a warm afternoon on the roof above the firing line at the rifle range with Fred Maldonado, the year ‘round custodian whose leathery face made him look like a tobacco can advertisement, ancient, and therefore important. Word was that Fred could speak six languages. At some point between a new row of green asphalt shingles he used one of them to warn me away from “liars, braggers and thieves”. “Can’t stand them”, he said, with some sort of authority that came out of the lines and shadows of his coppery face, even though today I have absolutely no idea what, if there was anything at all, motivated that discussion. The totality of the circumstances, at any rate, was such that the moment is memorialized in the catalog of my life.

Each Sunday for the ensuing seven weeks we’d get a new group of Scouts spread throughout Potato Canyon amid a half dozen forested sites. My  counterparts and I would take them on hikes, get them to their scheduled activity areas, teach them classical pioneering skills, and make sure they made it on time to the DINING-Never-Ever-Say-MESS-Hall for their sit-down meals. And we’d periodically remind them of the three firm rules of safe Camp Wehinahpay life: 1) don’t even think about looking at Fred and Priscilla’s daughter, 2) never run downhill lest you trip and fall and have to see Doc at the clinic, and 3) don’t even think about looking at Fred and Priscilla’s daughter. After the campers went home on Saturdays we’d hurry to the shower house, where there were two washing machines available for us into which we’d scoop the citrus scented powder from the cardboard drum and then air dry our clothes. It wasn’t until we were doing the end of season cleaning that someone turned it around and we discovered a label for lemonade drink mix and not detergent. Sometimes we’d get to Alamogordo in the back of the camp’s stake bed truck for a few hours. There was a ritual to this: first we’d jump into a random motel’s swim pool with our clothes on to cool off, then rush to the bakery for a $1.00 dozen of day-old donuts–each!

One week I was assigned a fairly large group to take on a quite long day hike, which began and continued in heavy rain. These fellows were my age and older, and although they had a couple of adult leaders with them I was “in charge”. At some point I got “disoriented”. Stupidly, I didn’t reveal my worry even when the adults tactfully asked if we were doing ok. The good news is that I smelled the unmistakable aroma of freshly cooking popcorn and knew that the map showed a nearby church-sponsored youth camp situated along our intended route. Indeed, we came upon an enormous tent in which really dry kids were watching a movie and munching what we had been smelling for the last muddy half mile. We slogged on by them while the adult leaders
no doubt allowed me to act like I knew it all the time. On special nights after the all-camp campfire program, two other buglers and I played “Silver Taps” at 10:00 after everyone was bak in their designated campsites. We were staged at both ends and in the middle of the canyon. The farthest ranger played the initial few notes and the other two of us echoed him consecutively. I felt rich to be in the last position, calling the night’s silence after my final note. Even to us young teenagers we knew that something sacred and patently beautiful was happening.

About the time I retired from policing, my Albuquerque friend Carlos invited me to the dedication of the Eagle Scout Patio at the Roswell headquarters, where he was to deliver the keynote address. I am so proud that our names are engraved on a floor tile there among others we knew, a sort of touchstone of our life-long friendship. Coach Art Martinez had allowed us to leave our basketball game in Lake Arthur at halftime so my dad could drive us back to Roswell to attend the Court of Honor ceremony in which we received our awards in 1961. In a fading black and white polaroid photo of me in my uniform I’m shaking hands a year later with a distinguished looking dignitary in the La Fonda Hotel’s dining room in Santa Fe, at the annual Eagle Scout  uncheon.

By the way, maybe sometime I will tell you the consequence of nonchalantly calling Coach Martinez by his minor league baseball nickname. Those were the years I lived for high school basketball. We regularly played Capitan, Ruidoso, Carrizozo, Hagerman, Dexter, even Saint Michael’s of Santa Fe and Pojoaque Pueblo once. On one court a wall and out-of-bounds line were one and the same. In another, the ceiling was so low that a ball hitting it on a long pass was deemed out of play. Volunteers at one school would scurry out on the floor to mop up the puddle from a leaky roof each time the players ran to the other end–I wonder if they were awarded letters for that. Thanks to a Scout who needed teaching time to finish a badge requirement, I learned
to swim at summer Aquatic Camp on the Pecos River in Carlsbad. When I arrived there I was greeted by a fellow who had what I thought was his name on his camp t-shirt, and respectfully called him “Mister Staff”. Later, when I saw another “Staff” I figured them to be brothers. It wasn’t until dinner and saw the whole “ Staff Family” at their special table did I ask about it. A couple years later I was one of them, teaching other youngsters to swim in the muddy river water that had initially terrified me. If only I could find that fellow to thank him for teaching me to swim and to tell him of the hundreds of kids and adults I eventually taught, and of a few rescues I made.

The summer before I went into the Marines I taught swimming to native American kids at what had been the Non Commissioned Officers (NCO) Club at Walker Air Force Base. It was then a program operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a chemical corporation. I was a college student in Portales at the time and their families were living “on Base” in the very homes previously occupied by my friends and neighbors. Many of the kids had never seen a body of water as large as a swimming pool, and some squealed with the delight of trying to squeeze the liquid between their palms. By the end of summer some of them were a courageous team who competed against town kids.

My wife and I return periodically, look for those places and visit life-long friends. My dad’s Air Force emblems are displayed in the museum in the airport terminal, near what had been his flight line, and you can even see him with his B-36 crew in a video that plays there. The three swim pools I lifeguarded at ware there, and strangely look so much smaller in their afterlife–the one we rolled down in trashcans had been filled in long ago. A friendly lifeguard kid gifted me with well-placed, earnest questions about what it was like back in my time, and I am grateful to him.

The downtown airport, where my buddy Stevie and I would watch the rooftop launching of huge weather balloons is something else now–was the police station at one point, I’ve been told. The last time we were there we stopped at the high school gym; the school is closed now, although the church uses the place for various activities. In my mind or heart I could hear the squeak of white Converse high tops (the kids call them “Chucks” now), and balls being dribbled–there is no other sound in the world like a basketball bouncing in an empty gym. Johnny, Joe, Frank, Mickey, Dennis, Larry, all the others,
all back again. A kind janitor passed a ball to me from the gear room where our green and white Lancers and Crusaders uniforms used to hang. I stepped to the free shot line– no clock, no bleachers, no pressure–pushed it, swished it on my first try. I walked away with tears in my eyes, unable to see the hoop clearly anyway, and not willing to try to make it any better or any different that I had it then. That school is vacant now, but it isn’t empty.

Other than memories, what is left of me there may include tarnished sports trophies and photos in a dusty display cabinet at the end of the school hallway. There’s my name etched in the tile at the Scout office, and the Air Force insignia my dad donated in the Base museum. And oh, for the gift of Memory!
During my thirty years as a cop I enjoyed serving as a volunteer reader at a fine elementary school in a gang area, and one of my favorite books was Toby and Brad Bluth’s Tenderfoot. The final page still moves me deeply, and brings back those regal Roswell days. “Many years have passed, and Dickie Duck, Jack Rabbit, and Bobo are now grown up and have gone their separate ways; but they frequently recall those golden days when they were scouts.  Sometimes they take out their badges. Sometimes they put them on. And when they do, a strange thing happens. They are no longer miles apart. They are once again young, and buddies.”

Well, I do occasionally look at my own patches–mom sewed every one of them–and think of Carlos, Hank, Stevie, Fred, Coach Martinez and the others. The telling of the story is more difficult than the doing of the things in it, and it seems that it is the kind of story that comes up short in the telling, like if you didn’t go you just don’t know. But then there is this smell of popcorn…

Col. Vince Scarano

Col. Vince Scarano

Col. Vince Scarano