Fort's 'Irregular Guard' Time: A group of old-timers meets regularly at Fort McHenry for walks and to swap stories and observations. At this stage of their lives, time is the one thing they have in abundance at least well into the afternoon.

March 05, 1997|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Retired men have a passion for watching the labor of men who have not yet put work behind them. And the misty riverbanks of Fort McHenry are a magnet for retired men.

Every morning, a bunch of old-timers shows up to walk the grounds (many on doctor's orders, although they've yet to see a doctor out for a walk); to talk about stuff that people don't seem to care about anymore; and to keep a close eye on life inside Baltimore's star fort.

Favorite topics include visiting geese from Canada, middle-of-the-workday lovers tumbling beneath trees along the sea wall, and which version of the American flag may be flying on any given day. Their current obsession: the snail's pace of construction of a 60,000-square-foot maintenance shed a stone's throw from the statue of Orpheus.

"They tore down a perfectly good garage to build that monster [shed]," says Jim Nolan, a 66-year-old General Electric pensioner from South Baltimore who doubts that the workers welcome "a bunch of nosy old men."

But the gentlemanly busybodies can't help themselves.

"It's like when they're building something up in Atlantic City," explains Bob Kagle, 70, who drives from Brooklyn to walk the fort with a piece of driftwood tied to his wrist for a walking stick. "They put up plywood around it, but there's peepholes so you can watch. It's natural."

For months, the curiosity of Fort McHenry's "Irregular Guard" has been fixed on the progress of the shed, a government structure dismantled in Gettysburg, Pa., for reassembly here.

The men pass the work site with each 1.1-mile spin around the fort's perimeter. Much talk has centered on 19 tractor-trailer loads of brick that seem to be moved hither and yon without reason.

An idle crew of self-appointed foremen -- many of them World War II veterans who spent their lives working with their hands -- the seniors weren't aware that the bricks are a 10-to-15-year supply for restoration projects and have nothing to do with the shed.

"They like to question what we're doing and why we're doing it," says Greg McGuire, facility manager at the national monument. "We got the shed for free and only had to pay to get it here and rebuild it. But we don't have the time to make it our premier project; we just work on it as we have the time."

At this stage of their lives, time is the one thing the Irregular Guard has in abundance -- if not stretching into the future, certainly well into the afternoon.

"When you're my age, you get up in the morning and if you don't feel like going no place you don't have to, but down here it's easy to make friends. People walk toward you and greet you and you start talking," says Tony Traglia, a 76-year-old retiree from the Social Security Administration who drives over from Catonsville.

Traglia stops by a path of bronze markers indicating when each state was admitted to the Union and points across the lawn to the USS Constellation in a Locust Point dry dock.

"Nobody sees these things but us," he says, especially keen on noting low tides that reveal a river bottom strewn with filth.

"I would love to get down there to watch them work on the Constellation, but you can't get permission to get anywhere near," says Kagle, who met Traglia and the rest of the gang by hanging out at the birthplace of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

If the building of the shed has been assisted by the knowing comments of Kagle and his buddies, imagine how the restoration of the Constellation might benefit if the old boys could get close enough to pass judgment.

"I got tired of walking around Lake Montebello with all the cars and the fumes," says Charles "Kip" Chapple, a retired grade school principal and, at 74, the dean of the group, with a dozen bombing missions over the Pacific to his credit. "We watch the tugs bring the ships in. This is a gateway to the world."

The one who sets the pace among the older men is James Nagel, a 66-year-old dead ringer for Earl Weaver who walks a 14-minute mile around the perimeter and puts in about five laps a day.

"I used to play down here when I was growing up in South Baltimore, and I see a lot of people down here I ain't seen in 45 years," says the Pasadena resident. "This is the best place in the state of Maryland. It's always pretty, and it's always pleasant."

In the coming months, the Irregulars will be able to keep tabs on repairs to the fort's walls, walkways and powder magazines. They will see the state help the federal government clean up the littered marsh on the Southside.

And, one day at a time, they will see a skeleton frame become a $150,000 maintenance shed.

"It's government property and they have their own way of doing things," says Nolan. "But I say it's gonna be done by September."

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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