Going to Grand Bahama Island


Living in the Bahamas Islands is a dream many people have. Today, it is a tourist destination. But, I lived in a three-room shack on the beach on Grand Bahama Island from 1958 until 1960 without any conveniences. We used kerosene lamps, a hand pump for water and an outhouse.

I grew up reading about Flash Gordon and dreaming of other worlds. In 1950, I saw the movie, “Destination Moon” and dreamed of the day we could actually travel to the moon.

In 1957, the space race began with Russia’s launch of Sputnik I on October 4 and Sputnik II on November 3. One evening our newscaster on Channel 7 in Lawton, Oklahoma announced that we could see Sputnik I as it passed overhead. I rushed outside and saw it for myself.

 The U.S. orbited the Explorer I satellite  on January 31, 1958 and the Vanguard I Satellite, about the size of a grapefruit, on March 17, 1958. A string of islands with tracking radars and other electronic equipment extended from Cape Canaveral to Ascension Island. RCA provided technical personnel for these missile-tracking stations.

I was working as a contract radar instructor for RCA at Fort Sill, Oklahoma when we lost our contract at the end of June, 1958. I accepted a transfer to the RCA Missile Test Project in Florida to go downrange to a missile-tracking station.

About two dozen of us transferred from Fort Sill to Florida, with four of us going downrange. We four flew to Orlando on Saturday and proceeded by bus to the Cape Canaveral area on Sunday. We found the Starlite motel on Cocoa Beach with a few vacant rooms and checked in. The basic room rate for two to a room at the Starlite motel was $12 or $14 a day. We were drawing $12 a day per diem.

After the first two days, we were able to move into little one-room cabanas around the swimming pool for $4 a day. The cabanas were not air-conditioned or heated, but did have a good airflow through them. They were about 6 feet wide and 12 feet long including a tiny bathroom with a shower. Each cabana had a single bed, a small chest of drawers, and a place to hang clothes at the end of the bed.

The room rent plus tax took a little over $4 of the $12/day we were getting. That left us nearly $8 to eat and take care of laundry expenses, etc.

The rooms were too hot to stay in until near midnight. Two of us spent most evenings in the lobby or cocktail lounge. The manager of the Starlite, Henry Landwirth, knew our financial situation and would come into the lounge and introduce us to various people who were on large expense accounts.

We would get drinks from them and the manager would come by and move us to some other group. We spent many nights floating between tables without spending our own money.

One evening, we met Martin Caidin, the writer. At that time, he was writing for the Missiles and Rockets magazine. Later, he wrote the fiction story and movie, Marooned and many other fiction books. He was the creator of the “Six Million Dollar Man.”

We were in the bar and Marty introduced himself to us. While enjoying a drink and getting acquainted, he stepped away to use the telephone. A few minutes later, he asked us if we wanted to see the bird go.

We had no idea what he was talking about. He explained missiles were called birds and a missile launch was scheduled. It had been in a hold. The count had picked up and it was due to go within a few minutes. We went out on the beach and watched a ballistic missile launch about 9 p.m. I never knew what it was.

We often wondered how he knew, since he did not work for any of the range companies. We had been thoroughly indoctrinated to not talk about launches for security reasons. Apparently, Marty had contacts on the Cape who let him know when a launch was scheduled.

One man we met was on a very loose expense account and hosted several parties. He invited us to some of his parties. The night before I left for downrange, I scheduled a taxi cab to pick me up the next morning. The cab never arrived and the clerk called our partying friend. He had just returned from a party and drove me to Patrick AFB for my flight.

I traveled to the first downrange tracking station, Grand Bahama Island during early August, 1958. We lovingly called the island GBI. I was on a contract with RCA to support the Air Force in tracking the early missile launches.

The base at GBI had about 300 men, mostly civilian contractors, and 3 or 4 military men. The only women were native housekeepers except for seven wives who lived in various trailers or houses off base. My wife and two small children were in Dallas.

Although we were civilians, we lived in barracks on GBI. The first barracks for newcomers had four men to a room and a large open toilet/bath facility. No modesty there; similar to the military at that time.

The next level of barracks had two‑man rooms with one large toilet/bath facility, which had doors on the stalls so there was a little privacy. The rest of the barracks were two‑man rooms with a bath between two rooms. These were nice rooms.

There were also Quonset huts laid out similar to a 1950s military barracks (large room) and the toilet/bath facility in another Quonset hut. The Quonset huts were used for people downrange for just a few days on temporary assignments. Several years later, during a trip to GBI, I spent two weeks in one of those Quonset huts.

I missed Billie very much. I found a place about a mile from the base on the beach. It was a one-room camping trailer with a two-room cabana attached. The cabana was built with 2x4 framing and plywood, setting on the ground. The cabana had glass windows on two walls in the living room and a door. The other wall had a screen window with a wooden shutter the length of the room. The kitchen had two exterior walls with screen windows and a wooden shutter the length of the walls.

This place was under a large almond tree, about 100 yards from the high tide mark. Another trailer was between our trailer and the beach. A small dirt airstrip was on the inland side of us. We used the airstrip as a road to the trailer. Later, two more trailers were brought in to our area. One of the two trailers was our manager, Dave.

We had a small butane stove and butane refrigerator. A hand pump was in the kitchen over the sink. The sink drained about 20 feet out from the kitchen. An outdoor toilet was about 50 feet in another direction. We did not have any electricity, only kerosene lamps. We later bought Aladdin lamps that put out a lot of light and heat.

I bought the place and started making plans to get Billie and the kids. I had to get permission to bring her downrange, since there was not any medical facilities for families. The earliest I could get a few days leave would be in October.

As the date neared for me to go on leave, I had not heard of any approval. I asked out manager about my request. He told me that I would have to bring her down there on a trip and if she thought she could live under the rustic conditions, reapply for approval. I had two children at home in Dallas. I could not afford to bring her or them to GBI on leave and travel back home, then move them down later.

Dave explained that one man had moved his wife to GBI and a few days after moving in, she could not stand the rustic conditions and had left. The man had also quit.

I told Dave that my wife was a sharecropper’s daughter from Oklahoma. Her family had only gotten electricity on their place a year before I met her, in 1954. We had spent most weekends after marrying at her parents and had to draw water out of a well with a bucket for the laundry, etc. I told him that I had to move her and my children in or I would leave and go back home. Dave made some calls and I was given approval to go get my family.

 Copyright © Jerry Blackerby 2009

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