Finding LTA

Why do you care about “L T A”? You don’t. I do.

I’m driving my first sporty car, a white 1962 Triumph Spitfire, on Highway 101 north along the Pacific coast from Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego to LTA. I have “report to” orders with my name on them and a “by such-and-such” time on that same day in 1966. I’ve never been to LTA before. This is the first time in my life I’m independently responsible for being at a certain place by a certain time – or face serious repercussions. I’m thinking to myself, “Myself, this is a long way. It’s getting dark. It will be more difficult to see the signs.”

And it got dark. And it was more difficult to see the signs, especially after I left Highway 101. The low headlights didn’t help much. But I had a schematic road map and eventually wandered through a back gate into Marine Corps Air Station Santa Ana, or MCAS Santa Ana, or LTA for short. You can’t find it now. It’s gone. All except for two entries on the list of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.

The reason I knew I really was on LTA was a big truck with red flashing lights pulled up behind me. I pulled over and stopped. A nice man in a Marine Corps uniform politely asked if I knew where the Hell I was?
I replied I hoped I was on etc. etc.
He said “You certainly are. Didn’t you notice the lights along the runway? You’re lucky you weren’t hit by a plane.”
“Runway?” (So that’s what those lights were!)
“You’d better take that next turn to your right and follow the road to mainside. You report there at Building 1.”
“Sure thing! Thank you!”
The crash truck followed me until I turned right.

LTA was for “lighter than air”, a contraction of the official name of the station when it first opened in 1942 as Naval Lighter-Than-Air Station, Santa Ana. The Navy based reconnaissance blimps at LTA. There were then, and there remain today, two huge wooden hangars which are now visible from Interstate 5 near Tustin, California. I looked into one once. There were small clouds inside. Maybe they weren’t small. I could see a tiny dark dot at the far end. It was the then-current Goodyear Blimp, inside for its annual repainting. Sun damage, you know.

LTA had other claims to fame, as we discovered from our air control computer repair instructors. Former LTA folks included Marines Chuck Whitman, the Texas Tower sniper, and some guy named Lee Harvey something. There was a movie theater. I could afford to go a couple of times a month. Near the theater was a little goodie shop. I tasted my first root beer float there. I was hooked.

One of the instructors was surprisingly portly for a Marine. He had a few sprigs of hair left on top of his head, with a monk-like ring surrounding. He was an E-6, a Staff Sergeant. I figured he’d gotten in trouble and been “busted” in rank. Someone his apparent age would normally be a gunnery sergeant or master sergeant. One day after our instructors versus students volleyball game I said something about “You’re not doing too bad for a guy your age!” Big mistake.
“How old do you think I am?”
I was stuck and knew it. “I don’t know, how old are you?” was the best damage control I could do.
Not only had he not been busted in rank, his promotions had been faster than average.
Again thinking, “If that’s what a guy twenty-six looks like in the Marine Corps now I’m doubly sure I’m getting out.”

LTA, with its brick barracks with blue tile showers and necessary rooms and four-man bed (rack) arrangements with partitions, walking distance to school and later to work, and driving distances to Newport beach, Tustin, and foothill curving roads for a used Triumph Spitfire, was too good to last. It didn’t. Camps Del Mar and Pendleton followed and then Monkey Mountain, east of Danang.

But, just as this afternoon on the way back home from Bloomington, every time I taste a root beer float I’m nineteen years old again, knowing there’s a war calling my name and wondering how I will answer.

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