'They just took everything away'

June 25, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

It took only three minutes and 45 seconds for the Base Closure and Realignment Commission to change the rest of Ginger Baylor's life.

"No one knows what to do. There's no future here," said Mrs. Baylor, 26, sipping a beer at the American Legion Hall in the town of Cascade, in the shadow of one of the Army bases selected for closing by the commission Friday.

"The younger generation is going to have to move away," she said.

There was little Mrs. Baylor or her friends could do yesterday but talk about the decision they had hoped the Western Maryland mountain town would never see. The ruling was swift when, with little debate or fanfare, the commission announced Fort Ritchie's doom and with it the likely removal of 2,500 jobs from the region.

Mrs. Baylor, who just left a job as a bartender at Gus and Ted's Tavern and Restaurant in Cascade, said the town needs the base to survive. Almost half the business at the tavern comes from the installation, and many people who work there also hold day jobs at the base.

Some, like William Ganoe, 45, don't know where to go. Mr. Ganoe punctuated nearly every thought yesterday with a shrug of his shoulders.

"You kind of expect it but when it happens, it's just like a death in the family," said Mr. Ganoe, who has lived in Cascade for a decade and works at the base commissary.

Like many people in town, Mr. Ganoe and Mrs. Baylor were in moods as dreary as the drizzly overcast day yesterday. Scores of civilian employees, local residents and retirees wondered if they would be forced to leave their families, work in fast-food restaurants, invent themselves all over again.

Others tried to be optimistic and suggested turning the military campus into a retirement community, a college, a business park -- even a resort. "Anything but a prison," one man said.

"It's a deluxe place," said Martin P. Senn, 71, a military retiree who sat next to Mrs. Baylor at the bar. "They spent millions of dollars on it, and it's all just wasted, wasted, wasted."

The base -- which has a golf course, pool and bowling alley -- is a 638-acre campus of gray stone buildings with two lakes and plenty of crab apple and cherry trees. In recent years, the Army has spent $4.8 million building a new 42,000-square-foot commissary, a $1.7 million armory, a $3.5 million dam by one of the lakes and a $1.7 million fire station.

"That fire station looks like the Taj Mahal of India," said Mr. Senn, who lives near the base so that he can collect his benefits and mingle with other retired soldiers. "That costs more money than I'll ever see."

Mr. Senn said there will be nothing keeping him in Cascade once Fort Ritchie closes, particularly if he can no longer use its commissary, recreational halls and doctors. More than 7,000 retired military personnel live in the area.

"I got all my teeth worked on, didn't cost me nothing," he said. "I'm leaving if I don't get my bennies."

At the bar at lunchtime, where locals hunker down over cups of chili, the conversation dances between topics. The U.S. government, they say, spends far too much money on foreign aid and overseas military bases. One day, they warned, there's going to be a war and people will miss Fort Ritchie.

"What happens when Clinton gets out of office and the next guy wants to reopen it? Democrat, Republican, Democrat, Republican -- it's going to switch all the time depending on who's president," Mrs. Baylor said.

"You got a good question, honey," Connie Vickery, 65, answers in a smoky voice, nursing a tall drink. "It's potent," she said. "But we feel pretty terrible. We're having a funeral."

The base itself was almost empty. The movie theater, which tonight was scheduled to play "Village of the Damned," was locked and deserted. The bowling alley was quiet except for a couple of workers drinking coffee and a television blaring a Liberace concert. The headquarters building, which military personnel said was open 24 hours, was dark inside.

"All those people," said George Aikerson, a retired sergeant at Fort Ritchie, as he hid from the rain under the Military Police station awning. "I hate to see this happen. No one will arrive here. No one will come."

The region is suffering a double hit. Last week residents heard that the commission would slash 2,500 of the 3,500 jobs at Letterkenny Army Depot in nearby Franklin County, Pa.

"I don't think the people in Washington even gave us one second's thought. They just took everything away," said Mrs. Baylor, who was born and raised in the area and now lives in nearby Zullinger. "Now it will never be the same here."

There are some in Cascade who remember the town before there ever was a base, when it was just a rolling slope of farmland.

Roy Bowman, 84, saw two large ice factories set up shop there when he was a boy, and watched steam trains take the ice blocks to Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. He remembers 1921, when the state began building Camp Ritchie, and the 1950s when the Army established it as a federal installation. He lives a couple of blocks away and can see the base from his home.

For as long as Mr. Bowman and his friend, Arben "Toppy" Harbaugh, have known each other, there has been a military base in Cascade.

"We went there in the summertimes and most every night," said Mr. Harbaugh, 66, who remembers lying on the lawn and watching Laurel and Hardy movies sponsored by the National Guard. "The gates were always open, and we swam in the lakes, fished, ice skated. Don't you remember that, Roy?"

Mr. Bowman gave an answer that could have been uttered by almost anyone in Cascade yesterday.

"Them days," he sighed, "is about over."

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