Last month I spent two weeks in Europe with my family. Wonderful times. Although I neglected the Bosque Boys entirely in my absence, my wife did maintain a travel blog to which I contributed a few travel posts.

Here is a version of something I wrote over there (please forgive the self-indulgent length):

22 July 2009

Can anybody direct me to the "British Museum of British History"? Like the English Constitution, a central and systematic telling of British history seems to be everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. I would love to see the UK equivalent of the Smithsonian American history collection. Until then, we skip back and forth across London paying homage to landmarks and statuary, picking up scattered pieces of the story, and continuing to mostly breathe in the past. Today we have all of the things we have not done looming over us (we wake up in the throes of last day panic). We tentatively have four museums on our agenda today.

For the record: the last day was a major triumph visiting the Museum of Natural History, the Apsley House (Wellington's home) located conveniently beside the Wellington Arch, the Winston Churchill Museum, and one last visit to the gates of Buckingham Palace.

Yesterday, however, was different. Yesterday we were in search of an American history. Specifically, we were on the trail of the Charles and Janice Yates family. Colonel Yates served in the USAF for 27 years (most of that time with Mrs. Janice Yates by his side, although she served without rank or remuneration)--and most of that time with the Strategic Air Command. During the early 1960s, the Yates clan (all eight of them) found themselves stationed at Greenham Common AFB outside of Newbury--approximately fifty miles west of London. For as long as I have been a part of the family, I have heard the cherished stories of the Hilliers Farmhouse in which they lived during this assignment. Yesterday, we went in search of place--part myth, perhaps, and part reality?

The trip to Newbury required a rental car, about which I had some anxiety. For a number of reasons (mostly logistics and economy), however, the rental presented itself as the only real option. So, with much trepidation, I crawled into the wrong side of a Euro-fitted Chevrolet compact and headed west out of London on M4. We made it back alive--but one tire did not after I ran us into an inconvenient curb.

Although the property remains fairly isolated, thanks to the amazing benefits of modern technology, the GPS led us to the front door of the legendary farmhouse. Truly Amazing! But there it was behind a stone fence, looking shockingly like the painting on the living room wall of the current Yates home.

"We've got a really crazy question--and even crazier request," I said.

"This really is bizarre," replied the surprised lady of the house--home alone and desperately trying to take the proper measure of a strange man in a rented car dropped from the sky. Fortunately, as my wife and then two sleepy boys emerged from the vehicle, the woman's suspicion gave way to curiosity and human connection as she came to see us as earnest pilgrims and embraced the spirit of our mission.

She happily agreed to our picture taking--offering to take one of the four of us and reluctantly agreeing to pose for one herself. Although we refused her gracious invitation of tea, we did take a quick peak into the house. It was lovely. As it turns out, our kind host is an interior decorator, and she had lovingly and skillfully blended the classic with the modern (see the pics).

Back on the road, my wife and I looked at each other and agreed that our appointed labor really could not have gone any better. We had renewed an old family connection to a specific place and moment attenuated by the passage of time and a changing world. Caleb and Cade had trod the same steps as their grandmother had at almost the same age nearly half a century ago when the planet was a very different place. We had watched our children in the front yard of that same 400-year-old house that Charles and Janice had lovingly watched their brood when they, like us, were in the fullness of life--young and powerful and in command. While there really is no accounting for the joy we take from such errands, our hearts beat happier and more alive for the rest of the afternoon. We had venerated the spirits of our personal past.

Finding the Hilliers Farmhouse seemed close to miraculous. After considerable research, my wife came up with a few vague directions and an odd-sounding partial address. We entered a foreign postal code into the GPS, followed the electronic road map for fifty miles (with almost no confidence that we would end up even remotely close to our objective), and, suddenly, there we were in the middle of nowhere exactly where we had hoped to be.

Even more unlikely was the way in which we stumbled onto Greenham Common (formerly Greenham Common AFB--where Charles led a Strategic Air Command squadron). After searching fruitlessly, we were giving up and looking for a place to safely turn around when we mistakenly pulled into the "Greenham and Crookham Commons" parking area.

How do you miss a former jet bomber air force base? It is easier than you might think. The installation no longer exists--and by that I mean it is GONE! The physical campus of the former base has been almost erased from the landscape, replaced by an intentionally wild meadow public park area.

Why the complete undoing of the once-crucial Cold War bulwark? During the early 1980s, Greenham Common emerged as an acrimonious bone of contention between the peace movement and Cold War hawks. Long after SAC departed, the United States Air Force designated Greenham as a prime installation for short-range nuclear weapons. Inspired and supported by an international nuclear freeze movement, area residents joined the "Peace Women" in demonstrations that vehemently objected to the basic premise of nuclear deterrent in general and the local deployment in particular.

Aided by the collapse of the USSR (which some might argue, ironically, was the product of a hard-line policy toward the Soviets), the peace activists ultimately prevailed in regards to Greenham. The USAF moved out in the 1990s, relinquishing all rights and control of the facility to the Royal Air Force. Soon after, the RAF vacated entirely and ceded all claims to the vast campus back to the community.

Once under local management, a series of community trusts and commissions immediately went about the business of removing all traces of the American occupation. Their efforts have proven amazingly successful. What was once the 12,000-foot-long runway sized to accommodate B-47s and B-52s is now meadow and indigenous brush. Base housing: gone. The hangers and assorted structures to support military aircraft: gone. While the old control tower stands as a reminder that this immense tract of wilderness is the product of un-development, there are few other indications of the myriad sorties flown here or the thousands of USAF personnel stationed here over the years.

The fruits of their labor are truly beautiful (ingeniously funded by a secluded business park on a small portion of the former air station). Walking the breadth of the old base, one cannot help but feel the inherent exhilaration of nature reclaiming a parcel of the earth temporarily despoiled by the grandiosity of man.

Nevertheless, I kept thinking a crazy thought: you know, they tore down a perfectly good thermo-nuclear missile base to put up a meadow. What a shame!

Of course, I say that with a large grain of self-conscious irony. Even a right-wing war monger like me can admit that a peaceful meadow is better than a concrete staging area for nuclear Armageddon. But, in all seriousness, there is an eerie hollowness about the place. Any piece of ground in which its history has been surgically removed engenders some disquiet in my soul.

For us, of course, the redaction is more palpable. In a deeply personal sense, we feel the absence of commemoration for the legions of men like Charles Yates who so diligently and responsibly flew all those missions. Entrusted with the most lethal military weapons ever produced, those Cold War warriors personified professionalism and dedication to a cause they earnestly believed essential to the preservation of Western Civilization. Reasonable people will disagree whether they were naive and/or misguided, but no fair-minded account can cast aspersions on their sincerity and honorable intentions. No one should question their fierce fidelity to the cause of human freedom.

What of those warriors? The only scant and indirect attempt at history at the reformed Greenham Common is the sympathetic telling of the "struggle for peace." On a six-by-six placard, a short narrative triumphantly relates the tale of the community's long struggle to overcome the mighty American war machine. Eventually, rationality transcended madness, and the people wrested local control of the Common away from powerful foreigners bent on bringing the world to the edge of nuclear catastrophe. One prominent quote proclaims that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented--but the moral framework that allows the existence of such weapons of mass destruction can be unlearned.


At the end of the day, we enjoyed a fine walk through an inviting meadow on a beautiful July afternoon. Life is good. We are the beneficiaries of an uncommonly serene moment in human history. Have we really changed the moral framework of human existence? Is that the true lesson of the restored meadow with the carefully incomplete history?

I have my doubts--but I hope I am wrong.

Last week an American family, in pursuit of its own history, picked their way across the brambles and marshes of the erstwhile jet bomber runway--enjoying the natural beauty and soul-renewing power of the transformation. But, at the same time, we looked up into the sky and fondly remembered trim young men in their leather jackets and aviator shades a long way from home protecting hard-won freedoms.

May we always remember that heroic spirit. We forget the sacrifices of the past at our own peril.