Reunion with a vanishing past

History: Happy memories and a sense of loss accompany plans to re-create `Bainbridge Sunday.'

April 18, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

PORT DEPOSIT - Jackson House, one of the few buildings still standing at the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center on a plateau overlooking Port Deposit and the Susquehanna River, produces a flood of emotions for Michael Miklas Jr., a 74-year-old Charlestown resident who was stationed at the base in the early 1950s.

"It was a real good life for three months," Miklas said of the time he bunked with three other guys in a room on the second floor of the stately structure that was once part of the prestigious Tome School.

"I was 21, and this place was so beautiful. It was like a country club. There were flowers planted all along the stone walks. It smelled so good."

Today, he admits that he gets teary-eyed when he returns to the former Navy boot camp where he spent two years and three months of his youth.

Jackson House has not aged gracefully. The windows and doors are boarded up. The roof looks as if it is about to cave in. The paint has peeled off the woodwork and the grounds are overgrown, a result of nearly 30 years of neglect.

The structure is surrounded by a 15-foot-high chain-link fence, and a sign warns: "Absolutely no entry permitted. This building has been condemned."

"It's so sad," he said. "So sad. This is part of my youth."

Despite the decay and the disappearance of most of the buildings from the base that once housed 55,000 people and ranked as Cecil County's largest community, Miklas has many fond memories of his days at Bainbridge.

He remembers Hall of Fame baseball player Stan "The Man" Musial washing windows at one of the supply buildings.

He remembers when Yogi Berra and Johnny Mize were there and the base team would play exhibition baseball games against the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators.

He remembers Jack Benny, Count Basie and the Andrews Sisters performing at the amphitheater.

He remembers taking his wife, Jeanette, who worked as the commander's secretary, to the movies. It cost 12 cents.

One of his fondest memories has to do with something they called `Bainbridge Sunday.'

Every Sunday at 1 p.m. the main gate would open and several thousand happy and excited moms, dads, wives, husbands, sweethearts, brothers and sisters would rush in to reunite with their military loved ones.

The preparation would begin several days earlier, according to a 1943 article in The Sun. Women from all along the East Coast and the Midwest would don their prettiest clothes and crowd into Baltimore-bound trains. They would arrive at Perryville as early as 7 a.m.

"It was the best part of the week," Miklas said. "It was so emotional. They would fill the big chow hall and take up all of the picnic tables. Families would spread out their blankets on the grass."

Miklas is hoping to re-create something similar to Bainbridge Sunday this summer by holding a reunion of former base personnel and people associated with the base.

He thinks there are "thousands and thousands of people who were stationed at Bainbridge or who participated in Bainbridge Sundays who would like to have a nostalgic look at this part of their lives."

Miklas, a retired insurance salesman and president of the Bainbridge Naval Training Center Historical Association, says he gets hundreds of calls a year from people who want to return to "an important part of their life."

"People want to come back," he said. "They want to relive their youth. They want to share their sea stories. The Navy was part of their lives. Bainbridge was part of their lives."

"I had a big tour Sunday," he said. "It was a bus tour of about 25 people. Most of the time they come in small groups - a couple or groups of three or four - and we go in the car."

Walter E. Buck Jr., a Port Deposit resident and retired District Court judge, understands the emotional attachments many people have to the training center.

"I used to work at Bainbridge," said Buck, 82. "I worked in the Memorial Hall, which at that time was the administrative headquarters of the base. I was an auditor."

Buck remembers his parents converting part of their home to apartments to help house the large number of people who were based or employed at Bainbridge.

"We had five apartments in our house," he said. "It's something that just about everybody in town did. I remember, in our house we had three guys from Texas and every time the song "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You" would play on the radio they would stand at attention."

He remembers sailors filling up the bars and restaurants in Port Deposit. The overflow crowd would move on to taverns in Perryville, Rising Sun, North East and Elkton. "The bars were filled," he said.

There are few signs of all of this activity on the base today, which is on the verge of being redeveloped as a business park and residential community.

The baseball and football fields are overgrown with weeds and trees. The boards of the bleachers have rotted away. Only a few of the light towers remain.

The big drill hall building, where Miklas can remember eight basketball games going on at the same time, has been reduced to rubble.

"I don't go on base any more," said Buck. "It's heartbreaking. It would tear me up."

Miklas concedes that there very likely will be tears at his planned reunion, scheduled for Father's Day, June 20. "A lot has changed over the years. The people have changed. The base has changed."

He said the reunion would take place on the paved parking lot off Route 222 where the main gatehouse used to be. The reunion will feature a portable museum with displays from the base and bus tours of the 1,600- acre complex.

"I won't be able to show them their barracks," Miklas said, "but I will be able to show them where their barracks once stood. Maybe there will be a bit of the foundation still there."

For information on the Bainbridge Sunday reunion or to make arrangements to attend: Michael Miklas Jr., 410-287-9172 or 410-287-5311 (fax).

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