SANTA ANA — When the announcement came Friday that the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station and Northern California's Ft. Ord had been targeted for closure, James Parten could feel two pieces of his past taken from him at once.
As a young man, Parten spent 13 weeks in basic training at Ft. Ord in Monterey County. And as a fifth-grader in Santa Ana, he watched in awe while his parents and his neighborhood opened their arms to the Tustin Navy men, welcoming the base that residents believed would pull them from Depression and protect them.
"Everybody was scared to death," Parten, 60, said Saturday, sitting in the living room of his Santa Ana apartment, surrounded by pictures of clipper ships and characters from Westerns. "These guys came and put up the base, and we knew we were safer."
Friday, with little advance warning, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney recommended to Congress that 31 major military installations be closed by 1997. Besides Ft. Ord and the Tustin base, Cheney targeted Long Beach Naval Station and eight other California bases, an announcement that sent residents in many communities reeling.
Established in 1942, the Tustin base and its huge blimp hangars brought comfort, excitement and a touch of glamour to a rural community that until then had stood at arm's length from the rest of the world, Parten recalled.
Famous band leaders would come to perform--Parten remembers Tommy Dorsey's band playing once--and other entertainers would venture down from Hollywood to encourage the GIs.
A couple of times a year, the military would hold receptions in the hangars, and women in bobby socks would join their uniformed dates inside one of the world's most cavernous dance halls.
In its World War II heyday, the Tustin base, then called Santa Ana Naval Air Station, was home to Patrol Squadron 31, a blimp unit. Because they could fly low safely, the blimps flew anti-submarine patrols for convoys. While on the ground, they were housed in the hangars, which each could hold six at a time.
And the base, both during construction and after it opened, brought badly needed jobs to an area that had suffered in the Depression.
"That really helped my dad out," Parten recalled.
His father went to work for the base, landing a job as a plumber to support his 10 children. And one day, Parten can't remember when, his dad grabbed a photo off a wall in one of the base buildings.
It has stayed in Parten's family ever since, a picture of hundreds of wartime faces, beaming as the submarine-chasing blimps were towed into one of the gaping hangars behind them. One of Parten's sisters had the picture for years. When she was cleaning up a couple of years ago, she came upon it. She did not know what to do with the photograph but could not bear to throw it out, so she passed it on to her brother.
Parten keeps the photograph carefully rolled up and pulls it down occasionally to remember the old times. And when the announcement was made Friday, he hauled it out of the closet to remind himself about what Orange County would be losing if the installation closes.
"They make you feel good about your country, don't they?" Parten asked, staring into the faces of the military men and women. "I'll miss the servicemen."
Born in 1931, Parten was just a youngster as World War II drew near. He can remember the tense months leading up to the conflict only dimly. His father and mother fretted about it, but the conflict for the most part seemed remote.
Then, on a sunny December Sunday in 1941, Parten was playing out in back of his family house when his mother rushed, yelling, to the window. "We're at war!" she cried.
Overnight, it seemed, the sleepy farmland of Orange County was transformed. Tractors cleared pastureland in El Toro and Tustin, and construction of the Tustin base began almost at once.
The threat of invasion or shelling from the sea seemed real: School days were interrupted with air raid practices, and nights punctuated by blackout drills.
The hangars at Tustin represented protection against that threat, so the community cheered on their construction, Parten said. In 1978, the hangars were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. With the prospect of the base closing, their fate is uncertain.
In 1942 adults saw the hangars and the blimps for their military value, but Parten and his buddies saw a huge and inviting place to play.
"You'll never see anything like them," Parten said. "We never had. We'd ride our bikes over there and sneak in to get a look at them."
Along the inside of the hangar walls were row after row of catwalks, designed so workers could constantly tighten the bolts of the wooden structures, which stand 178 feet tall, are 300 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. The walks proved too much for youngsters to resist: He and a friend were caught scaling the scaffolding one summer afternoon.