When pilgrims seek to find themselves, they must first discover their roots—where their life's journey began. For naval aviators, all roads begin in Pensacola, Florida, and all paths seem to cross at Trader Jon's.
The quest began innocently enough when we couldn't find Batt Four. I knew where it stood in relation to some other landmarks, but too many of those were gone and the ones that remained seemed to have moved. We were at Main side, Pensacola, on a beautiful fall day, and Gary and I were trying to recapture our youth.
We weren't doing too well. The two old wooden barracks that housed cadet Battalions Two and Four were long gone, but the formal Georgian brick facades of Battalions One and Three, the academic building, and the chow hall all looked the same. At least from the outside. I didn't have any desire to go in anywhere, even if I could. Too many memories stood in the way.
I remembered running on the broad concrete seawall on a late fall day in 1961, shortly after reporting in: head shaved, wearing stiff, new leather boondockers and a shapeless olive-drab poopy suit, driven by a gravel-voiced Marine drill sergeant, and in company with what seemed at the time like a group of all-conference running backs—every one of us scheming feverishly how to wolf down more than two bites of food, if we lived to make another visit to that chow hall. Civilian life lay across the bay, its blue waters alive with sailboats, and out on Santa Rosa Island, with pelicans wheeling lazily in formation and girls sunning on the white sand beach. On the seawall where we ran there was only isolation, sweat, fear, confusion and the growing, painful realization that we weren't going back to that carefree life again any time soon. Our world had changed abruptly, and it never would be the same.
Pensacola Bay is prettier than ever now, but other images weren't matching up. The parade ground where we graduated is still flat and green and the swim tank down on the seawall looks just the same, but what happened to the grinder, the o-course, and the aviation cadet recreation center? Familiar faces and names came flooding through my mind. Where were the spirits now, who had run beside me on that seawall?
The heavy odor of french fries, soured by an acrid discharge from the paper mill up in Cantonement, and a long line of tourists in the drive-thru were enough to keep us moving.
Saufley Field, where we learned to fly, was worse. A heavy crop of weeds growing in the runway touchdown zone, visible over the fence as we approached the main gate, produced that sinking feeling again. The base now is strictly administrative—coordinating various training efforts, performing some accounting services and overseeing a small, minimum-security prison. We were losing ground here.
Thirsting for a way to set our memories to rest, we made our way downtown. A few stretches looked familiar, but not enough. Navy Boulevard to Barrancas, over the drawbridge, swing right, Garden to Palafox, looking up to the left toward a parking lot that should have been the San Carlos Hotel; turn right, through a renovated, New Orleans-style section, past the little park, down another block or two and we found the bar.
It wasn't quite noon on a weekday and the place seemed deserted. A narrow, rectangular bar ran out into the room toward the entrance. The only light came from a door that lay open to the outside, well behind and to the right of the bar. The pervasive sour-sweet smells of beer and smoke hung trapped in the room like a haze.
Hundreds of photos, with squadron plaques and patches filling the gaps between them, covered every inch of space on the raw brick walls and clambered over each other up several columns. Above the bar, flags covered the ceiling and below them hung dozens of outsized wooden airplanes, some with wingspans of four feet or more. The place had the cluttered look of an old attic. It felt like home.
Something about it was different, though. It may have been the photos. Some were group shots, some formal portraits. New faces and names, women in flight gear, but the inscriptions were all similar: "To Trader, when I grow up I want to be just like you...." "To Trader, thanks for the support...." And mostly, just "To Trader, thanks for all the memories."
A figure appeared in the corner of my eye and moved quickly behind the bar. When he moved, he shuffled a bit, working up speed, then he was off in an energetic, rolling half-hitch, quick and noiseless, like a cat. Balding, with just a fringe of hair, a long face and a prominent nose, he wore a nondescript white t-shirt, baggy tan shorts and sandals. His face held a self-effacing look and, at the same time, an artful grin.
"You open?" I asked.
A short pause.
"Sure," he said. He looked quizzically from one to the other of us, nodded, and disappeared as quietly as he'd entered.
We wandered separately, looking for familiar names and faces. I found some of both: a squadron mate who had made admiral; names that had signed my official orders; names from ready room stories—recounted, embellished, and passed down the line as legend. The faces were all different, but they shared an indefinable quality—something like family.
On the far side of the bar, a table and chairs were wedged in the corner behind a pole and two barber chairs stood in trail with a ragged parade of barstools—no one of which matched any other. To the rear of the bar was an outsized wooden enclosure covered with more photos—you had to look carefully to pick out the men's room sign above a perfectly camouflaged door. Another opening led into the back, where the cat had disappeared. To the right of it was an area framed in fading college pennants that served as a bandstand. Facing the bandstand on the other side of a half wall that divided it from the bar were some tables and chairs, four pool tables, and a handful of pinball machines.
I felt a presence behind me, back inside the bar. "Can we get a beer?" Gary had spotted him from across the room before I did.
Our host nodded, drew two drafts, and set them out as Gary came around to stand beside me. He looked us over closely as we both took long, thirsty swallows. Then he leaned across the bar.
"How long has it been?" he asked without preamble, his tone confidential.
Gary and I looked at each other. The question took a moment to sink in, but we both knew what he meant. The cat had a good eye for pilgrims.
I remembered—who I was with and even why we stopped in that night. Bless me, Father.
"The last time I was here was in 1963," I began. The weight of so many years passing by began to settle in around me. Faces from the sea wall—and from later on, appeared and disappeared. Both war and peace had taken their toll.
"The place looks different, you rearranged it," Gary said, shifting the subject.
The cat grinned. "Never stop," he said proudly, celebrating an obsession. When he spoke, his face seemed to light with enthusiasm; when he finished, he fixed an expectant gaze on one, then the other of us and waited patiently for a response.
"You've been here for a while, haven't you?" I asked, avoiding the faces and memories that kept crowding in. The cat nodded.
"1953," he said, quiet again, smiling now to himself.
I did some quick arithmetic and figured there had to be a little more to the story.
"Where were you before that?"
He shrugged his shoulders, chuckled slightly, and looked to the side.
"Oh, Key West for a while." He offered nothing more on the subject, and it was apparent that was as much as we were going to get. This was his bar and you played by his rules.
"What did you bring me ?" he asked before I could edge away; conspiratorial again, the bemused half smile back in place when I turned to face him.
"Oh, ah . . . nothing . . . didn't plan to be here today ... just in the area visiting my friend...." I gestured needlessly toward Gary, who was lost in his own thoughts halfway across the room. No recriminations, no petitions.
"Next time you'll bring me something," he said quietly. It was a statement, not a request; penance with absolution. I accepted it as offered.
Looking satisfied, the cat nodded, turned, shuffle hitched his way to the end of the bar, paused for a moment, and once again disappeared.
We wandered around for a while. Now and then two carpenters passed into and out of the room, having done no work that either of us could see. No other customers came in; we had the place to ourselves. It was quiet, a time for reflection, and I was happy to draw out the moment.
Shalom, Trader. Thanks for all the memories.
Mr. O’Connor was a naval aviator from 1963 to 1968.