Andrews Air Force Base is square, spare, green and clean -- 7,000 acres carved out of Prince George's County, where the wind blows sweet over the landing fields and the bright white back fin of the King of Norway's private jet pokes up behind the shopping mall. On another runway, the plane of President Amin Gemayel of Lebanon is being guarded until he returns from the White House. Late in the afternoon, Attorney General William French Smith will depart on a trip around the world.
For the 6,700 military personnel and their 4,200 dependents who live on the base, the various popes, princes and presidents who flutter around the fringes of their community justify Andrews' primary mission, which is to provide safe transportation for the U.S. government and its guests. But like any neighborhood, life goes on -- on a much lower level -- whether William French Smith is flying around the world or not.
"ATTENTION: Trick-or-Treat will be limited to the hours of 1800-2000 on 31 Oct. 1982. IT WILL NOT BE authorized at any other times." Andrews Air Force bulletin for Oct. 18, 1982.
Please disabuse yourself of any World War II movie ideas of what a military base looks like. The "chow hall" for enlisted men looks like a Marriott motel coffee shop, the commissary has a bakery department that is run by The Bread Oven, and the base shopping mall is modern, Muzak-ed and sprinkled with designer trees.
This is not to say that Andrews is not deadly serious in purpose. At the far end of the main runway, the famous "Doomsday" plane sits brooding like a malignant dove of peace, its belly bulging with all the computers that the president of the United States would need to conduct a full-scale war from the air. But now playing at the base theater is an R-rated film called "Paradise." For $1.25 and a military ID, you're home free.
Eat your heart out, civilian America, but forget about swimming in one of Andrews' three pools, playing on either of Andrews' two 18-hole golf courses or picking up a game of racquetball on one of Andrews' indoor courts. Because you ain't in the Air Force, buddy, and it's too late now.
Pat Wilhelme is the Air Force, as the civilian wife of Technical Sergeant Frederick Wilhelme. They live in a three-bedroom attached townhouse at the end of a cul-de-sac named "Chicago Court." This is the eighth house that the Wilhelmes have moved into as an Air Force couple. Eighteen months ago they adopted a little boy.
The house is small but comfortable, floored with olive green sculptured carpet and filled with the typical flotsam that people pick up at yard sales: a giant plastic terrarium in the hallway, little pictures with inspirational sayings, a Rubbermaid Lazy Susan, rubber plants. All is calm and bright -- inside.
Outside in the Anchor-fenced back yard, five gangly German shepherd adolescents rush barking to the window whenever they see signs of human life inside the house. If you didn't know you were on a military base, you might guess this was a "starter" community in Gaithersburg.
On the next walkway, a young Asian woman's face is totally obscured by a sleek waterfall of black hair that she is brushing out in the sun.
Andrews offers free English and citizenship classes to spouses. It also has a family services unit where recently arrived families can pick up free household equipment until their own things arrive.
Many Air Force wives work, but Wilhelme is content to be a new mother, hitching up crib sides for her baby at nap time, with an occasional "Home Interiors" coffee in the evening, where the neighborhood women peruse catalogues of gadgetry to buy for their homes.
"Tupperware is the big thing on base," said Wilhelme, who seems a little bored with the subject. "But it's usually the same women who go to the parties. We're always looking for someone new."
The conversation drifts along. Wilhelme conveys a low-key acceptance of Andrews. There does not seem to be a razor's edge. It is a sunny day.
On another visit to Andrews, it was raining. The primary colors were dulled by a gray, diagonal drizzle that made the base look like a collection of cardboard boxes that had been dumped out of a van. Even inside the officers' club, where the uniforms are brilliantly gold-braided and flashing with career symbols, there were no ornate silver coffee pots nor waiters in starched white jackets.
Lynn Ridgway, wife of the base commander, does not walk into the officers' club with any particular flourish, even though her husband's rank makes her the equivalent of the mayor's wife.
She is young (39), unassuming and gracefully opaque--like her fingernails, which are clear pink ovals that do not fidget. The daughter of a naval commander and now the wife of an Air Force colonel, she has moved 36 times in her 39 years. Moving, she claims, keeps her from stagnating. It has also taught her to stick closely to the Sears catalogue for bathroom carpeting. "Otherwise, you wind up with rugs cut for toilets on the other side of the room that you can't replace."
The several responsibilities that fall to Ridgway, as wife of a base commander, do not seem to ruffle her hair.
"I always join the officers' wives' club first thing, wherever I am. It's a social welfare organization, but they also have all kinds of different classes, like ceramics, or foreign language." Ridgway is also on the board of the non- commissioned officers' wives' club and chairman of the base Red Cross. The mother of a 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, she says she tries "to get off the base at least once a week."
Somehow the civilian doesn't get any closer to the taste and smell of living at Andrews after chatting with Ridgway, which may have something to do with the fact that Andrews -- for all its historical connections -- is still sterilized, federal soil.
It still seems like a nice place to spend a weekend, when civilian life with all its uncertainties has gotten you down.
"Buckle up" reads a sign at the main exit. Obediently, you do.