email excerpt from Richard Grimm
Thanks to everyone for all this info on Cross City AFS. The satellite photo has a lot of elements in it that I don`t recognize. It was evidently taken in 1996, so a lot of time has passed and things inevitably change. The installation looks about twice as big as I remember it being. From what the guards told me, the three original barracks buildings are still there, but it`s apparent that much construction has taken place since the site became a prison. The fact that the runways are visible in the satellite photo is a dead giveaway that this is indeed Cross City AFS. I remember the runways well. I had been married only a few months when I was transferred to Cross City in 1968, and I taught my wife how to drive our car on those runways. It was a perfect place for her to practice without getting out into traffic.
The town itself hasn`t changed much in the thirty year interval since we left there. We did some poking around in town after our unfortunate encounter with the prison staff. Got a lot of hostile looks from the local population, too. It never was a very friendly place, just a typical small Southern town that was, and apparently still is, highly suspicious of outsiders.
We lived off-site as I didn`t have enough rank to qualify for base housing. During my search for a house to rent, I was told by a local realtor that I did qualify for low-income housing if I wanted it. One look told me I didn`t. I finally found a "shotgun" shack to rent and we moved in. It was crude but fairly clean, and we stayed there for the whole tour. Nearly died from the heat in the summer and froze during the winter, as the place was not insulated and did not have air conditioning, just bare frame construction and a "hot tin roof". It has evidently been demolished as we couldn`t find it during our return visit.
Most of the local economy in 1968-69 was supported by the Air Force personnel and also the Georgia-Pacific sawmill. This was located about a mile from our place, and ran 24 hours a day. There were large kilns used to dry the newly cut lumber there, and always the scent of pine smoke in the air. It was mostly a quiet place except for occasional gunfire at night, which probably came from hog hunters or deer poachers (I never went to investigate!).
As with most small towns, the prices for groceries were sky high, so my wife and I did our shopping in Gainesville, about 50 miles east of Cross City. We could afford to drive over twice a month on paydays and the cost of the trip was offset by the savings on supplies. It also gave us a chance to see a movie as Cross City had no theater. (Well, there was a drive-in there, but the heat and mosquitoes were hard to take.) This was also way before cable TV, and the only TV station we could receive on our antenna was an educational channel from the University of Florida in Gainesville.
My tour at Cross City was pretty uneventful except for three incidents that stand out in memory. The first was that I was promoted to Staff Sergeant, which just came out of the blue. I didn`t even realize that I was being considered for it. It was a pleasant surprise and the extra pay definitely made our somewhat meager lives easier.
The second occurred during a violent thunderstorm (which happen often in Florida during the summer). The Height Finder Maintenance NCOIC was trying to set a record for service life of the magnetrons that powered our FPS-6`s, so he established a policy that if there was any likelihood of a power failure, the magnetron filament voltages were to be lowered very slowly (manually) and then the radars were to be turned off until the storms passed. This was accomplished by going up into the tower and manually turning the gears of the filament voltage regulator autotransformer to reduce the voltage. During one storm, I was in one of the towers, in the process of cranking the voltage down, when the tower was struck by lightning. I learned that when you are at "ground zero" there is not much sound during a strike. The tower was well grounded, so all I felt was a quick static charge making my hair stand on end. I wasn`t injured at all and finished lowering the filament voltage.
The third incident was preparing for the approach of a hurricane. Our two FPS-6 antennas did not have radomes, and were on towers about 50-60 feet tall (as I remember). We had ample warning that we were likely to be in the path of the storm, but upper management decided not to take any action until the winds reached 40 miles per hour. At that point, it was approaching sunset and already raining fairly hard. Our task was to climb up the towers, disconnect the crank arms from the antennas, then point the sails straight up and lash them down with ropes. Looking back on this, it was a minor miracle that no one was killed or injured, because scrambling around on a slippery steel deck in the dark with a 40-plus mile an hour wind blowing rain in your face is not a healthy situation. We got the job done, though, finishing sometime after midnight. Then, as hurricanes often do, it turned and the worst of it missed us.
It was a sometimes scary, sometimes frustrating tour at Cross City, but much better than being shot at in `Nam. And it was only a six hour drive to my home town (Miami), so we had a chance to visit my family fairly often. Being there was a unique experience and looking back on it is always pleasant.