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Return to Fort Davis

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Brussels

Return to Fort Davis 2005

by Bill Phillips

Fort Davis is referred to as “Davis,” or in local dialect, “Dah vees.” Roads into Davis are not marked with American tourists in mind. On the site there are no historical markers. The former military base is still “present,” but, to keep this in military terms, it is “not accounted for.” Former officer and non-commissioned quarters are the homes of Panamanians and some new homes and condos have been constructed. Local residents are, generally, very helpful in giving travel directions but it is always important to remember that you are a stranger in what is now their neighborhood. Our own visit included 88-year-old Colonel Ernie Nelson (ret.), a former post chaplain at Davis in the ‘50s, and his daughter, Karen. I represented my father, Colonel Hudson Phillips, now deceased, the former Protestant chaplain at Davis at the beginning of World War II, and his family. Fort Davis experienced many changes during and since the periods that we had lived on the post and it took us some time to get adjusted.

The old post theater was our beginning point. The movies that I saw there as a child are now hailed as “cinema classics”: Beau Geste, King Kong, Citizen Kane and so many others. The classy art deco building is recognizable today, though in a terrible state of neglect. Some of us remember the days when a special bugle call summoned people to the evening feature from all points of Fort Davis.

Most walked to the movies and that path is ingrained in their minds. Karen realized that, when she lived at Davis, she could see the theater from her house. Though doctored and embellished by landscapers and carpenters, the location of the house is apparent. Chaplain Nelson got out of the car and straightened up to his full 6’2”. It was clear that he was becoming a colonel again. With a little more effort we found Karen’s other home and the post swimming pool. The gym was around the corner. Karen had been in some kind of competition at the time she had lived there so we both peered in and imagined the thousands of basketball games and the oceans of sweat. We continued to push for MORE, MORE.

We drove passed a cluster of old buildings that were grouped together, as members of a bygone generation would be. It looked like a setting from the movie, “From Here to Eternity” --- a squared off parade ground, rows of pre-World War II barracks and the close proximity to the sound of a bugle. Roads had been changed to smaller lanes, giving the impression that this part of the post was now in the margins. At one time this had been the main thoroughfare. I looked long and hard, like a Romanoff family member studying the face of one that claimed to be Anastasia. The long, unattractive building by the road seemed out of place. I didn’t remember anything so shabby and useless looking. But, to my right, several large duplexes and a playground caught my eye. I asked if we could circle round once more.

On the way, we talked with a man who had lived at Davis in ’48. I said, “Too bad that the PX isn’t standing. If I could see that I would know everything.” “Go round the corner again,” he said. “It’s right there.” We whipped back around. I took a hard look at that long “useless looking” building. I reconstructed its façade in my mind. “Oh God in heaven!” My father’s office and the library would be right inside the door. On the left had been the Post Exchange. Other services had been housed here. This spot had been the very center of Fort Davis just prior to World War II.

Davis had been the home of the 14th Infantry-known to some as the “Jungleeers” and to others as the “Dragoneers.” If you had lived here then you would remember that all of the bugle calls ended with a “tag” of six extra notes. This was an indication that you were a part of something special. Your place was at “The Right of the Line.” The notes designated the position of this regiment. The final coordinate was the playground on top of the hill. My father had taken a photo of me on my horse, “Señorita, standing in the midst of the playground with the PX in the background. A fifty-year-old tree marked the spot. I had been there 54 years ago. In the back of our old quarters I looked to where piles of sand had been dumped the week after December 7th. It was explained that this was to help extinguish incendiary bombs. The maid’s one room shack continues to stand next to the row of deep gray basins, where I had often been washed along with the laundry and various caustic substances. I took a long look and then walked down the narrow steps on the hill, as I had in 1941, when my family had been evacuated to the States.

Our drive home was quiet and reflective. Mystery had become history and we were satisfied.

 

 

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