RV crowd flocks to MacDill mecca
By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Some people settle in for a day, others for a week or even six months. The rent is cheap, the beach is nearby and life is pretty much a vacation.
This is FamCamp, an RV park nestled on the eastern edge of MacDill Air Force Base that is the largest of its kind in the United States. The residents drive their motor homes onto the base year-round, some from as far away as Alaska and nearly all proudly flying American flags. Many have made the annual pilgrimage for decades.
They pull into neatly numbered spots near two golf courses, a seafood restaurant and Hillsborough Bay. It's prime waterfront real estate at extraordinarily low prices.
A full-service slot, which includes electricity, water and cable, costs just $400 a month. Not surprisingly, the camp runs at 100 percent occupancy during the winter months.
The average age of residents is about 70. They play bingo, line dance and have happy hour at 11 a.m.
"Now that I'm retired, I don't know how I had the time to work," said Stanley Clack, 70, a full-time RV user and avid golfer.
Much time is spent swapping war stories that get better as they get older. Some joke about life in a moving house they will never live long enough to pay off.
"It's great fun," said Donald Anderson, who has driven to FamCamp from Maine with his wife for 13 winters.
A retired Army master sergeant, Anderson volunteers on base during his stays and works as the camp's night host, checking in residents and tending to problems that come with senior citizens maneuvering motor homes the size of refueling tankers.
"Just the other week, I got 14 calls in five minutes. Someone had knocked down a fire hydrant," said Anderson, 75. "With 40-foot RVs, some don't know how to drive. Sometimes it's a circus out here."
And there is the problem of memory loss. Anderson often receives calls because a motor home doesn't have power.
"They don't remember where the (power) switch is," Anderson said, shaking his head.
But the complaining is mostly in fun, because that's what RV life is all about.
"It comes with the territory," said Ashton Shoop, 74. He likes to point out that he is younger than Anderson.
It's not all play at FamCamp. Shoop and Anderson service golf carts, build ramps and make small repairs.
Some of the FamCampers put in up to eight hours a day of free service. Those with medical backgrounds, such as Shoop's wife, Christie, work at the base hospital. Others spend time at the welcome center or coach golf and bowling.
Many agree that the best part about FamCamp is the close-knit community. They have potluck dinners and town hall meetings. There's even a mayor, though no one remembers an election.
"I haven't heard of a mayor," said Wally Brandenburg, a 73-year-old retired Navy lieutenant and longtime FamCamper. "We settle our own disputes."
But others point to Barry Newstadt, a retired Air Force colonel who really doesn't want the honor.
"That was a facetious title," said Newstadt, 67. "There's no such thing."
Newstadt said some residents took issue with the reservations, pets and pricing policies a few years back but didn't want to complain publicly.
After a few town hall meetings, Newstadt became their designated spokesman. A base official dubbed him the mayor and the title stuck.
Ever so mayorlike, Newstadt runs down a list of the great things about MacDill and FamCamp, including medical services, tight security and its proximity to the beach. The bike trail gets lots of compliments. So do the golf courses.
And the best things about the community? The patriotism.
"The American flags make up more per square inch down here than anywhere in the world," Newstadt said.
Many of the FamCampers have been to combat. This season, the war in Afghanistan has dominated the conversation.
"It's like a gathering to a big fraternity," Newstadt said. "You can talk to people who will understand."
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