Saturday, November 21, 2009

Walking at Marconi in Search of History

This week my friend Virginia invited me on a morning walk through the woods behind the Marconi Station. She was trying to locate a drivable road, part-way to the old army camp, in order to bring some friends, too feeble to walk from her cottage. The walk turned out to be more of a hike. We walked for two full hours. Still, I’m glad to have come along. Our destination? Camp Wellfleet. To be more exact, we were looking for the old airstrip.

The terrain was quite flat, with pine trees growing on either side of a windy road. There were tracks of coyotes and deer in the sandy roadbed. We also saw evidence of a struggle, between a coyote and a quail, no doubt. Not surprising who won! I was relieved to know these woods still have bobwhites. My children used to love seeing them in the 1970s, when the plump birds would strut their stuff through our garden. Recently I read about a boy in Brewster who raised a family of quail and released them into the wild.

My thoughts turned back to the matter at hand when Virginia said, “I can remember the convoys, out on Route 6. As kids, we loved to ride behind them.”

We went deeper into the woods, having found, at last, the right path. The faint sound of waves crashing had reached our ears. Soon it became a roar, like a freight train. The road narrowed to five or six feet across, with abundant underbrush on either side, new growth dating from the time the army stopped clearing access to the cliff. Pine needles crunched underfoot.

“So, where’s this airstrip?” I asked finally, looking around for a break in the pines that might lead to what I imagined as an abandoned runway, made of concrete.

“This is it!” Virginia said and led the way to the edge of the cliff. “The drones took off from here. Mike Parlante has one of the propellers in his restaurant.”

From the Camp Wellfleet site, I learned these small metal planes were used in anti-aircraft training. The site even has a message board where a soldier named Jack Chitwood wrote about his memories of Camp Wellfleet, 1955-56: “My duty time there was like a vacation. I will never forget the beauty of the countryside as I traveled to Hyannis, Provincetown, and Orleans to walk town patrol. My duty on the Cape was an adventure to an 18-year-old kid from Memphis, TN whose only look at water was looking at the Mississippi River. I have always wanted to take my wife (of 47 years) to the Cape but it hasn't happened for various reasons. Our unit was always treated well by the people of the Cape.”

Once home, I told Sven about my morning adventure. Of course, the propeller became our main goal that afternoon. We found the shellfisherman at the bar of his restaurant, The Bookstore, warming himself prior to spending the rest of the day out on the flats. Sven ordered a bowl of clam chowder. When I asked about the propeller, Mike took us upstairs.

“Got it off of eBay,” he said proudly. “Guess nobody else knew what it was.”

The propeller was way cool. It seemed to be made of two different types of wood. There was still red paint on the tips. Sven got a big kick out of holding it. How historians do love to touch an object when real history is involved!