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My Town

Maneuvering at MacDill

Security on the military base has gotten far more strict since Sept. 11. A local writer tells what life is like inside the fence.

By PICHAYA FITTS
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003


I was prepared to present my base ID, the normal routine for entering a gate at MacDill Air Force Base. But that wouldn't be enough this time. One of the guards asked me to park my car, open the hood and the trunk and then step out of the vehicle.

This was the "random search," he explained, a procedure imposed at this time of heightened security.

As anything less than full cooperation would surely slow down the process, I happily obliged.

(Trust me. You don't want to mess with a guy in full military uniform, backed up by another with a rifle in his arms.)

* * *

Life on MacDill is much like anywhere else in America now: a little on edge but still friendly.

The U.S. government recently elevated its measure of security risk to the next highest level. Access to important buildings and facilities became more restricted than it had been since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

MacDill is host to two important military units, the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command. Itis a possible target for terrorism.

* * *

For a foreigner like me, MacDill also offers a glimpse into an ordinary American life.

As with any American airport, security is tight. To get inside the base, you need to register your car with the security department, acquire a base ID (for employees or spouses) or a temporary pass (for visitors) and present your ID at the gate, usually after waiting in a substantial line.

Once in, though, you feel welcome, just as in any ordinary American town.

Everybody treats you nicely, no matter where you come from. That's part America, and part due to the broad mix of family and workers the military has picked up from around the world.

* * *

If you live on base, there's almost no need to leave it. It has an elementary school, a hospital, fire station, church, gym and a bowling alley. There's also a food court, supermarket, gas station, even a Burger King.

And there's a long stretch of beach -- not quite the silky soft, white-sand beach of your dreams, but still good for an evening stroll with your loved one or playtime with your children.

There are two clubs for quick and cheap lunches, after-work drinks and Sunday brunches. They're called the Enlisted Club (for, you guessed it, the enlisted men) and the Officers Club.

In recent decades, many small towns in America have shown touches of immigrant influence. Similarly, these clubs offer an occasional touch of the exotic, such as Mongolian barbecue nights.

There's also a seaside restaurant, where the waitress is an Asian immigrant married to an American officer. The sunset view is stunning. But the food, like at any small-town American diner, depends on the chef's mood at the moment you order.

(When I was there, trying to order a chicken Caesar salad, the waitress said she'd have to check to see if the last piece of chicken had been served. The restaurant was also out of romaine lettuce. "Would the iceberg do?" she asked with a pleasant smile.)

* * *

One thing serves to remind that you are indeed on a military base.

The base police officers strictly enforce speed limits and other traffic regulations, a sharp departure from looser tolerance elsewhere.

There's no free ride for going 10 mph the speed limit. The previous base commander insisted people buckle up even in cars going 15 mph.

(During the commander's farewell party last year, some of his staff made a video poking fun at the strict application of speed limits. Guess who was the only one in the room who didn't seem to think it was funny.)

* * *

In general, the base speed limit is 25 mph. Sometimes, base police put a radar checkpoint along Bayshore Boulevard, pairing it with a sign that admonishes motorists to slow down.

And if you're caught speeding, your "driving privileges" can be suspended for 30 days. The police also carefully watch out for proper use of seat belts. Once I was pulled over by the base police because my husband, the passenger, wasn't buckled up.

"We can give you a ticket for that, you know," one of the officers told my husband. We never knew that one needed a license to be passenger.

How else would the police be able to ticket the passenger?

* * *

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining.

But I do wonder if too-strict application of traffic regulations might have an unintended impact on how some military personnel behave outside the base.

When I worked at a restaurant on S Howard Avenue, I noticed that most of the reckless drivers zooming through the busy intersection at high speed sported either a military uniform or a military haircut.

My husband has an even better story.

As he proceeded out of the Dale Mabry gate one night, the driver behind him put a small TV set on the dash (the Bucs were playing), opened a bottle of beer and accelerated to pass, all in a practiced flurry of action.

He must have grown really repressed while following the strict rules on base.

* * *

Other than that, life on MacDill is just as good as life anywhere else in America.

As long as you don't do anything stupid, you'll be happy here. There are worse things than driving at 25 mph or waiting in a long line for ID check.

At airports, being delayed at the gate means losing space in the overhead bins.

At MacDill, the delay for a security check means only a loss of time.

There's plenty of space inside, where people smile and call you "sir" or "ma'am."

-- City Times publishes short sketches and essays on life in South Tampa. Perhaps you'd like to write one. Send stories, with your name, address and telephone number, to pryan@sptimes.com or Patty Ryan, St. Petersburg Times, 1000 N. Ashley Drive, Suite 700, Tampa, FL 33602.

* * *

Do you have a relative serving in the military in the Middle East? Or do you have a relative who is a reservist or National Guard soldier who has been put on active duty during the past six months?

We would like to let our readers know about these men and women who are part of the U.S. military response to terrorism. Drop us a note with your relative's name, branch of service, unit or ship, ties to the Tampa Bay area and job in the service. Also, let us know your name and relationship, address and telephone number. We won't publish your address or phone number, but we may need it to get more information from you.

And if you have a photograph of your military relative, please include it, and be sure to write the name on the back. If you would like the photo back, please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Send the information to: Military Neighbors, c/o St. Petersburg Times, City Editor, 1000 N Ashley Drive, Tampa, FL 33602.

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