My husband had business to do in Puerto Rico and as I try to do as often as possible, I tagged along. This trip was different than the ones I usually tag along on because I had a reason for wanting to go other than hanging out with my darling hubby. I lived in Puerto Rico, Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station to be exact, from 1974-1977 and I wanted to visit the places I remembered. My dad agreed to go along with me so on Tuesday, January 26 we got our little rental car and headed east towards Fajardo and Ceiba.
The roads have changed considerably since my dad made the frequent trips to San Juan (a highway now where it used to be a two-lane road) and so we were uncertain as to which exit to take. The base closed in 2004 and we were not quite sure what to expect as far as entrances go. We decided to exit at the first Ceiba exit and after driving around the town a bit we got on a road headed south. We passed by a church that dad thought was our old church, Grace Bible Church, so we turned around and went back. Sure enough! That was the church I was saved at in second grade! It is now a Spanish speaking Baptist church but a young man told us that it indeed used to be Grace Bible Church. We explained to him that we used to live here 33 years ago and we were here to visit the base. He told us that parts of the base were closed off but that he had visited a few years ago and he had simply gone around the blockades. He permitted us to take a few pictures and then explained how to find the front gate.
The gate was just like any other military gate and after dad flashed his military ID we were on base! Oh, it was so exciting! The road ahead of us was blockaded (later we figured out it led to the hospital and golf club house) so we made a left hand turn. Nothing was looking familiar until we climbed a hill and rounded the bend and passed by the water treatment plant! That stirred some vague memories. Another bend and a road to the right, also blockaded, and we almost missed it but then I saw the sign…Roosevelt Roads Elementary School! I backed the car up, went around the blockade and entered the parking lot and stopped the car right in front. I had attended second and third grade here, Miss Feely and Mrs. Minor’s class. We walked down the covered walkways to both classrooms. Miss Feely, my second grade teacher, had died in a car crash the year I was in third grade and Mrs. Minor was my favorite teacher of all time and the reason I wanted to become a teacher! I had some strong emotions walking into that class. The tables and chairs were all still there. It was so strange to be there…such a ghost town.
After walking around and peeking in classrooms and restrooms we got back in the car and continued our exploration. We drove past the middle and high school, planning on exploring them later, because I was antsy to find our house! We turned on Coral Sea and then found Ranger Road!
At this point my heart was racing and I was really getting emotional! We drove up the hill that seemed so enormous in my memory. I had learned to ride a bike down that hill and my knees still carried the scars. I also remembered when Hurricane David came through and the bottom of the hill flooded and all the kids in the neighborhood played in the puddle like it was a huge swimming pool. And before I knew it, I had pulled up alongside the house: 60 Ranger Road.
It was exactly as I had remembered it and then again not. The yard was all overgrown, the hibiscus hedges that lined the left-hand side of our yard were gone as was the tree I used to climb there. Of the three coconut trees in the front yard only one was still there. We quickly moved to the back of the house.
We both really wanted to see the beach! When we first moved into this house, the beach was overgrown and full of seaweed. Dad had chopped all the bushy trees and cleared the beach and even had cut steps into the hillside and cemeted them with cinder blocks. He used to mow the hill by letting a lawnmower down with a rope and pulling it back up. On the beach my parents had planted a garden right in the pile of seaweed we had raked from the beach to fill in a low area and we had planed coconut trees all along the beach. I was curious to see how tall they had gotten in 33 years. Imagine our dismay to find that the beach was GONE! It must have eroded away over the years with summer storms, maybe even during the hurricanes of 2005!
My brother and I used to play on these rocks, looking for crabs and little fish but where the water is now, lapping up by those trees, it used to be white beach! We were absolutely stunned! I did find a hermit crab crawling among the seaweed on the beach, just like I used to.
We climbed back up the hill and we marveled at the size of the trees in the backyard. I had spent so much of my time in Puerto Rico up in those trees!
We walked all around the house, peering in windows. When we got to my old room, dad was able to swing the window open so I climbed in and unlocked the door for dad. We walked all around the house, remembering and reliving our time there.
After a while we continued driving. We drove all through officer’s housing trying to remember where some friends used to live but couldn’t. We saw the CO and XO’s houses (boy did they have a sweet deal!) and stopped by the Officer’s Beach. We passed by some guys mowing but just acted like we were supposed to be there and no one said anything. We explored the middle/high school. I found my 4th grade classroom (Mrs. Wilson), the art room, the library. Termites had gotten in and eaten away at cabinetry. They had 6 uniterrupted years of feasting!
We then went to the “new” housing, following Patty’s directions of going past the pool (where I took Red Cross swimming lessons). After driving all around, wondering at all the families who had lived in these houses (more than 500 units!) we decided to move on. We drove past the bowling alley (don’t remember it), the NEX and commissary stores (dad said they were new) and we came to the marina. I remember my mom had sewn some cushions and curtains for a couple who lived aboard. After pulling out of the parking lot, I got pulled over by security! The reason? I didn’t come to a complete stop! For crying out loud, there was NO ONE on the base!!!!! We must have seen 5 cars the entire time we were there! After apologizing, dad asked him a few questions about the base. We found out there was ONE person stationed there, the Officer In Charge (OIC). Everyone else was civilian. He told us that most of the base was closed off and not accessible. We were allowed to go down the road to two beaches and visit the marina and the “ball field” (overgrown field of weeds). We didn’t tell him we had already visited the housing area! Sometimes it’s easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission!
We did drive down and see the beaches (I even went for a dip), passing the land fill (which I remember going to to dump stuff). We finally saw all there was to see. We never did find the old pier we remember swimming at or the old abandoned housing I remembered visiting. But that was about all we didn’t see. (Well, we also didn’t get to see the airfield or the hangers where dad used to work as that was part of the PR side.) Leaving RR we visited El Yunque which I also remembered. It was amazing to see the rainforest again. We went for a nice hike to see La Mina falls and saw La Coca falls (which were the ones I remembered). I took lots of pictures to show the kids. It was an absolutely amazing day. I’m so glad dad and I got to relive that period in our lives. We had a great time remembering and telling stories.