The Last Camelot - US Navy’s ‘Secret City’

The Last Camelot - US Navy’s ‘Secret City’Bruce Auld, a former Sierra Sands Unified School District Superintendent, is writing the history of Burroughs High School. The articles that are being published are excerpts from his upcoming book, exclusive to The News Review. (Excerpted with permission of the author and publisher)

John C. Martin (BHS 1966) has recently penned the above titled book about “growing up China Lake.” His parents, Charlie and Mary Martin, are Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake “pioneers.” John and his many siblings are China Lake “legacies.” In 1949, Charlie and Mary, with sons David, Steve, Roger and eight-month-old John, left the mountains of Huntington, West Virginia for the “Oasis in the Desert.”

Charlie Martin, a licensed civil engineer, had been recruited to support the immediate creation of the Navy’s largest “research and development, test and evaluation” organization, including a unique “full service” integrated military and civilian community. John asserts that the years of 1950 through 1970 at China Lake were “Camelot.” I believe he is right. John and I lived parallel lives at China Lake. John lived on the south side and I lived on the north side. Yet, I have to admit that John was more “experienced” in many ways!

Consistently throughout the book, John’s “voice” is that of a group of “old” friends reminiscing about their youthful years at China Lake over a couple of beers. This book includes what John describes as “baseball dugout (profane) language” and includes some of his “coming of age” experiences. Don’t judge the book by its unique historical cover! Buyer Beware!

Raised by the war weary “Greatest Generation” and to the beat of 1950s and 1960s Rock and Roll, the youth of China Lake were afforded every amenity. They lived in “The New America,” in a community full of adventure, sports, faith and educational facilities with a great school system. This nourishing environment led to cherished lifetime friendships.

Developing “the base” and the “village,” was a constant struggle. Workforce outpaced housing and students outpaced school construction. Both the housing and the schools had to be higher quality than typical military housing to recruit and retain high quality civilian scientists and engineers and legions of support staff and trades.

John describes in great detail the various “Street Territories,” typically elementary school attendance boundaries, and can recall hundreds of names and relationships of many of the residents. John tells of an interesting feature of growing up China Lake. The telephone system was based on “party-lines.” Essentially, four to five homes in a neighborhood sharing the same telephone line, yet with distinct phone numbers. When trying to make a call, one always hoped to hear a dial tone to make the call, but often one would hear a conversation, meaning a wait was in order.

Squarely in the middle of these neighborhoods was Bennington Plaza. All of China Lake’s essential services, except medical, were located on Blandy Avenue. Starting with the restaurant just west of Schoeffel Field (baseball), moving east across Dibb Road to the indoor pool and gymnasium complex. Next to the east were the post office (interesting story there), a snack bar, the 1500 seat station theater, directly across Blandy from the All-Faith Chapel.

Continuing east was the Navy Exchange, Commissary, library, barber shop and shoe repair. A short walk east, just beyond the Bank of America, was the Officer’s Club, pool and “Barefoot Bar.” All of these services, except the Officer’s Club and related facilities, were open to all residents, both military and civilian. I have read elsewhere that this integration of civilian and military within neighborhoods and within social settings was by deliberate design to advance China Lake’s mission. Sadly, most, if not all these historic facilities were lost to the July 5, 2019 earthquake.

John writes extensively about his school experiences. Those of us who arrived at China Lake by way of car (John) and those of us who were “dispensed” at China Lake in 1948 had very similar school experiences. We all started in kindergarten on the west end of the Burroughs (later Murray) campus in 1953, then moved on to our neighborhood school. With the completion of the new Burroughs, the China Lake district was converting the former Burroughs campus to house 6th through 8th grades, but the campus wasn’t ready.

As such, all of the China Lake sixth graders (BHS class of 1966) were temporarily housed at the Rowe Street Dallas Hut Campus for the better part of the year. Four of those classrooms are located on the south side of the District Office campus.

John tells a great story about discovering the bomb shelter beneath the Murray classrooms: “So Gordy, me and Albert…waited until Mr. Willie went to lunch and unscrewed the vent…dropping about ten feet, landing on a concrete floor” and ultimately landing in the principal’s office. Those of us on the north side knew the basement stairwell door could opened with a pocket knife!

Likely the largest youth celebration held at China Lake was the Little League Baseball opening ceremonies. Annually, nearly 20,000 spectators would gather at Schoeffel Field. “In early June, China Lake celebrated ‘Little League Opening Night’ and the parade of teams.

Some twenty players per team, all wearing matching team uniforms, marched across home plate, tipping their hats while they were introduced to the large crowd, and then proceeded down the first base line, around the infield to line up team by team.” There was always a celebrity master of ceremonies, either a Hollywood star or a professional baseball player, often from the LA Angels. Miss Little League Queen would draw the names of two teams in each division to play a three-inning game in front of this sold-out crowd.

John’s encyclopedic memory of growing up China Lake is truly impressive.

“I still shed happy tears. I still raise my beer to cheer when together with so many others from those wonderful years, to these great Americans who unselfishly provided us with such a wonderful, happy childhood. Our own Camelot…” (John C. Martin)

Courtesy photo: John C. Martin (BHS 1966) author of the book about growing up China Lake.

Story First Published: 2021-10-29