Wars, whether fought by King Arthur or General Eisenhower, tend to displace people. For those who are taken away from a place, there will be others who move in as replacements. Graham Air Force Base created a period of change for Marianna. It gave Marianna a brief period of economic hope and optimism. It also changed lives and families.
My first contact with the municipal airport that later became Graham AFB, was a fifth- grade friend, Algene Bell. Her mother died very young, and following her death, Algene was flown from Miami to Marianna’s municipal airport, where she was welcomed by her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Abe Holland. It was unusual for a town the size of Marianna to have its own airport, but the airport was an impressive 635- acre plot with a 4,600 foot long runway.
Algene spent her summers in Marianna with her grandparents, and we formed an unlikely friendship. Her father was from an old, prominent Coral Gables family, and her other friends were nothing like me. Together, though, we kept ourselves in stitches. She was the comedian, and I was the straight girl who fell for all her stunts. We had our own language with which we annoyed our families, who couldn’t tell what we were talking about. It resembled pig-Latin, but she called it the “G language.”
In 1942, in support of WWll efforts, the U.S. government acquired Marianna’s airport as an Army-Air Force training facility. During the war, Marianna’s population increased, as did local housing. The federal government subsidized a city bus system, which meant a lot to me. Previously, I’d had a long hike between my piano teacher’s house on one side of town and our house on the other. Even I could afford the ten cents per trip.
There was a chapel on the base, which was handy, for romance between local girls and pilots in training was thriving. This loss of local girls continued after the war, when the Air Base was returned to Marianna and civilian control. In 1953, the property was reactivated as a civilian operated flight school, Graham Air Force base. Again, Marianna enjoyed new growth. Bachelor officer quarters, cadet barracks and other facilities were built. By the next year, military personnel and 700 civilians were employed at the base. Home building boomed. Even my mother joined in, and managed to build a two- story building on our property with an apartment upstairs and another on the first floor. Jane and Thayer McCoy and Mrs. McCoy’s mother Lillian Gross occupied the downstairs apartment, and Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Allen, and their daughters, Regina, Jarvis and Lynda, occupied the upstairs apartment. In no time, the two families became part of ours. The McCoys unofficially adopted my sister, Marilyn, as their only child.
Romances bloomed between local girls and the pilot trainees, who were a combination of USAF officers and non-commissioned cadets. There was a fabulous club at the base, which brought in the best entertainment available. Our family spent a wonderful New Year’s Eve at the club, listening to Louis Armstrong perform. Marilyn also heard the Glenn Miller band play at the club, and met her future husband, Joe Blandford, there. She had a date with another guy, and Joe was with another girl, but he called her the next day, and soon the other guy was out of the picture. Other friends of ours also married pilots in training, and left to live in various other states. In Miami, Algene married a local beau, and moved to a military base in Waycross, Georgia.
My fiancée, Dan, was stationed in Bainbridge, Georgia, but two of his best friends, Dan Curzon from Baltimore and Rudy Cast from Oklahoma, whom he met at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, were stationed at Graham. When he was courting me, Dan and Hannah and Rudy and Peggy allowed him to sleep on their couches on weekends. Dan ended up training in Bainbridge rather than Graham, because Marianna had more housing available for married couples, thanks to the WWll building spree in Marianna. Bainbridge had housing for single pilots only, and there was little local housing available for married couples. From both bases, all of us met at Graham for wonderful evenings at the club.
Dan was thrilled with his location. He wrote his Sigma Chi fraternity brothers a round-Robin letter in which he described it. “Sixty miles away is Florida State University and the prettiest-yet still available- coeds in the South. Ninety miles away are the beautiful gulf beaches, which are within easy range of a weekend’s travel. For longer, and better planned weekends, we are just a couple of hundred miles from Daytona Beach, St. Augustine, and Tampa. The first weekend here found us roaming the FSU campus, playing a little tennis, but principally in search of a few beautiful females. By that time, I had teamed up with an SAE, two Phi Gams, and a Kappa Sig from Ohio Wesleyan. We had pretty good luck with most of our dates, and needless to say, we enjoyed them more than all the flying in the world.”
Camelot has been defined as a place of idyllic happiness, but it is not guaranteed to last forever. In 1960, Graham AFB closed, and Marianna’s economy reflected the loss. The military and civilian payroll that was spent in Marianna had been around six million a year. The city bus system gradually disappeared, and the Junior Chamber of Commerce converted the base property to an Industrial Park, and its use as a municipal airport resumed.
Algene and I wrote each other, but as her husband and mine were regularly being transferred to other bases, and we were both busy caring for babies, at some point, we lost touch. Her grandparents passed away while I was living in California, and I didn’t get news of their deaths in time to get there for the funerals. I have tried in vain to find her, and have no idea if she is even still alive. Even so, I’ll always remember those years of our youth in Marianna, those years that were for us, our own Camelot.
As King Arthur famously said: “Don’t let it be forgot/ that once there was a spot/ for one brief shining moment/ that was known as Camelot.”