Within These Walls
Updated: Jun 16
It stands on the corner of West Avenue onboard Naval Air Station Pensacola: a four-story red brick warehouse built in 1937, numbered 603.
Large windows line the exterior. The north windows provide a view of the century-old homes and stately live oaks on Admiral’s Row; the upper floors’ south-facing windows offer a view of the intracoastal waterway; the eastern windows overlook an old chimney, remnants of a 1905 power plant, a docked Coast Guard cutter and the glistening waters of Pensacola Bay. The western windows also give a glimpse of the intracoastal, as well as an expansive view of the old brick ‘mosquito’ wall, erected in the mid-1800s as a boundary for the original Navy Yard.
In Building 603’s prime, railroad cars pulled alongside of the covered platform to load and unload supplies needed for the repair and maintenance of aircraft used to train new aviators. Up until recently, portions of the railroad tracks were still exposed.
I first walked across the parking lot and into Building 603 on September 3, 1985. Tomorrow, June 16, I will walk out the door and across the parking lot for the last time. With the exception of four years working on a neighboring base, most of my career – and life - have been spent within these brick walls. In the proverbial blink of the eye, decades have slipped by.
While the building is still considered under renovation and off-limits, I decided to take advantage of the rainy-day-absence of construction personnel and sneak a walk around one more time. I wanted to visit with old memories; I needed to bid farewell.
Although the renovation changed the layout of office spaces, some things didn’t change. Built before modern structural engineering, to support the upper floors, the interior hosts massive cement columns every 20-feet. Based on the view from the windows and the position of the columns, I knew the location of my former workspaces.
I can take you to where I was standing when I heard the Challenger exploded, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, and a plane hit the World Trade Center. From the windows, I’ve watched the Blue Angels zip across the skies, a tornado drop from angry storm clouds and a wrecking ball painstakingly demolish a building damaged by Hurricane Ivan. I’ve watched the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation Blue Angel’s show from the roof, literally ducking on low passes. I’ve helped pull old wiring from beneath the floor of the decommissioned data center. I’ve hunkered down with coworkers in the central hallway during tornado warnings.
I walked through the quarterdeck, which was once the entry way to the command’s front office. The navy blue carpet has been removed, exposing original terrazzo polished concrete. I wandered through the former front office spaces, smiling at the memories of when I was the executive assistant to the commanding and executive officers; hands down, those were the best years of my career. I loved being immersed in the formality of protocol, traditions, good order and discipline. I thought about the intense planning of the changes of commands and the big exhales when each one was over.
From the 1970s until the early 2000s, several naval commands occupied 603. Each command was assigned a suite identifier for their mailing address; ours was Suite B. Once, the commanding officer received an official letter addressed to Sweet Bee. Amused, and after a good laugh at the misspelling, the CO came up with the idea to send out handwritten ‘Sweet Bee notes’ to recognize and encourage employees.
I chuckled when I saw the fresh paint on the original freight elevator…it was like putting lipstick on a pig since nothing on the inside changed. For years, it was the only operational elevator and the biparting vertical doors were still operated manually; you had to pull down on a long rope attached to the top section to pull the doors closed. I dreaded using it since I was not strong, or tall enough, to yank down the rope. Once, I literally dangled from that danged rope. Back in the day, there wasn’t a floor selection panel, you held the button down until you were thought you were level with the floor. Since it had a history of breaking down, a telephone was installed inside of it; thankfully, I never got stuck in the elevator nor do I intend to take the risk by taking a final ride!
As I walked past the door to the warehouse, I remembered the time I was working on a project and ran out of paper. In a hurry, I raced around the corner and flung open the door to the supply cage in the warehouse; the door bounced off the wall and the slammed shut. It was locked...and it was late on Friday afternoon. Frantic, I pounded on the door and yelled at the top of my lungs, hoping someone else was still in the office. After several minutes, I gave up and started plotting a MacGyver-like escape. While there were windows, there wasn’t anything I could stand on to reach the window locks. I was looking for something to break through the cage’s chicken-wire when I noticed the dust-covered fire alarm. I quickly moved boxes aside and, just as I got within reach to pull the alarm, the door opened. I confess, for a split second, I was disappointed. Instead of getting rescued by strong firemen clad in turnout gear, I was rescued by an older gray-haired manager who promptly chided me for making a such racket and mumbling about how I woke up folks in China.
While 603 stood structurally sound against the relentless winds of a hurricane, the rain from a mere thunderstorm seeped in around the windows. Since the roof leaked like a sieve, tropical storm and hurricane preparations always included covering our desks and equipment with plastic; it was a given that water would infiltrate somewhere and bring down ceiling tiles. However, no one ever thought the first floor would take on Hurricane Ivan’s storm surge and render the freight and passenger elevator inoperable for almost a year.
As I meandered through the spaces, tears filled my eyes as memories danced in my mind. I literally grew up within these walls. Each person I worked with and each work-life experience played a significant role in shaping me into whom I am today. The good and joyful days greatly outnumber the difficult and bad days.
When I first started working within these walls, I thought coworkers in their 40s were old farts; those in their 50s were really old farts; and those that were in their 60s just needed to be done.
I took a final look around the front office, pausing to run my hand along a column that was once beside my desk. As I turned to leave, a smile tugged at my lips.
Yep, the time has come for this really old fart to be done.
Building 603…Sweet Bee, thanks for the memories!
For a thousand years in Your sight
Are like yesterday when it passes by,
Or like a watch in the night. ~ Psalm 90:4