One of the favorite, ageless stories at Bolling Air Force Base in Southwest Washington is about the captain who arrived there late one evening from a base in the Midwest.
The man hadn't eaten dinner, and all the restaurants on the base were closed. So, knowing nothing about the surrounding neighborhood, the captain drove around until he found a fried chicken carryout on nearby Martin Luther King Avenue SE.
Lounging in front of it, under the neon glare, the captain also found a group of young men, sucking on toothpicks, eyeing him coldly, sizing him up. "He'd never seen anything like it in his life -- all those guys standing around there, looking like they were ready to mug him," says one veteran Bolling major. "I don't think he's been off the base since."
Sgt. Larry Leonard can almost literally say the same.
Assigned to Bolling as a personnel administrator since April, Leonard goes home to Pennsylvania every weekend to visit his wife and daughter.
But between Sunday night and Friday night, in his four months in Washington, Leonard has left Bolling only five times -- twice to go to a liquor store in Prince George's County and three times to visit a cousin in Alexandria.
"I guess I could take advantage of being in a big city that's the nation's capital," Leonard said, "but I just don't. All I do at night is sit in my room. I'm not a city person. i
"Do I care about the neighborhood? I don't even know if there's a neighborhood out there to care about."
Leonard isn't all that rare at Bolling, a 604-acre base that houses 6,500 people on the flats between the Anacostia River and Interstate 295. It shares a zip code with the Congress Heights community outside its main gate -- and not much else.
Lt. Col. Dick Betts is a rarity. He not only knows the surrounding community, he is an enthusiastic part of it.
Assigned to Bolling since 1974, Betts, 42, bought a house on Newcomb Street SE, where he lives with his wife and 4-month-old daughter. He bikes to and from Bolling every day. He served on a community educational advisory panel, and, furthermore, he plans to stay in the neighborhood after he retires.
"I can't see why Bolling should be an island," he says, "or why I should be."
But even its commanding officer admits Bolling doesn't come highly recommended to his people. "I can't say there are a lot of my people asking out," Col. Thomas T. Tamura reported. "But this base isn't very high on most people's priority lists."
Quality of schools and fears about safety in the surrounding neighborhood are the reasons cited by many Bolling personnel. Others point out that, in Air Force terms, Bolling isn't where the action is.
An administrative support base for the Pentagon and for Andrews Air Force Base, Bolling has no runways and no planes. To be precise, there is one, mounted on display. But only helicopters have actually flown in or out of the base since 1962 when fixed-wing flights were shifted elsewhere for safety because of Bolling's proximity to Washington National Airport.
But the chief reason for Bolling's low rating on the Air Force grapevine is the cost of being stationed there.
Like every Air Force base in the world, Bolling does not provide on-base housing for personnel in the four lowest ranks.
"If Bolling was in Pokealook, Mississippi, that'd be no problem," says Sgt. Ben Lindsay, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the public affairs office. "You'd just go rent an apartment."
But in Washington -- the only major city on the East Coast to have an Air Force base within its borders -- apartments big enough for personnel with families rent for $300 a month and up. In the suburbs, they cost even more.
Personnel who are forced to live off base receive tax-free housing allowances that average $165 a month. But their base salaries range from only $440 to $519 a month, before taxes.
To add insult to injury, Bolling personnel were included last fall in President Carter's thou-shalt-pay-for-parking policy for Washington's federal workers.The parking cost at Bolling is now $12.50 a month. It will double in 1981.
Nor is "living on the economy," as Air Force jargon refers to it, strictly for Bolling's lower ranks. Waiting lists for on-base housing are between 15 and 24 months long, depending on rank, which has forced officers to search for apartments, too.
In all, 417 of Bolling's 1,500 men and women live off-base, the great majority of them in Prince George's County. More than 200 of the 417 are officers.
"It doesn't matter who you are. You look at the numbers, and it's damn near impossible to make it," says Joe Elder, a 35-year-old sergeant who makes $916 a month as the editor of the base newspaper, but who must work 20 hours a week as a bowling alley mechanic to make ends meet.
More than 450 of the men and women assigned to Bolling hold second and third jobs. Although exact figures are unavailable, perhaps 100 enlisted men and women receive food stamps. "Many of my junior enlisted personnel are in dire straits," Col. Tamura says.
Airman 1st Class Cheryl Navarro was so strapped for money earlier this year that, when she finished her second job as an officers' club waitress at 2 a.m., she would hitchhike to her apartment in Suitland.
"Of course it was dangerous," says Navarro, 23. "But there was no way I could afford a car. Some months I'd run out of money before the end of the month, and the only way I'd be able to eat is if someone asked me out. You do what you have to do."
Because of his low rank, 18-year-old Airman Earl Waddell was forced to look for an apartment for himself, his wife and his newborn twins when he was assigned to Bolling in June.
But he did not own a car, "and I couldn't have afforded the gas anyway." So Waddell borrowed a bike and pedaled 20 miles to and from Alexandria to look at one place.
"What else was I going to do?" asked Waddell, a member of the honor guard.
Some Bolling families have found the cultural adjustment to Washington every bit as difficult.
After nearly 20 years of Air Force service, most of it at sleepy bases in Illinois and Kansas, Sgt. Zeb Young, his wife and two teen-age children were assigned to Bolling a year and a half ago. The Youngs immediately enrolled Quanni, 16, and Eddie, 15, at Ballou High School.
"My daughter came home the first day and asked where the white people were," Penny Young recalls.
"Then it was, 'Mommy, mommy, they were smoking in the halls,'" she said. "Then she came home a couple of days later and said it wasn't cigarettes they were smoking; it was marijuana."
Shortly afterwards, Quanni stumbled in Ballou's halls and dropped her purse. "It was gone before she got up," her mother said.
"My son is learning quite a bit, but like he says, it'd be easy not to learn," says Young, a 37-year-old cable traffic clerk at the Pentagon. "They know they can't give up -- but they can't help but wish they were back in Illinois."
Even if Bolling personnel wanted to become more a part of Washington, they'd have trouble. Under federal law, Bolling personnel cannot vote in Washington or declare Washington their legal residence. Personnel assigned to Bolling do not pay D.C. income tax and can avoid D.C. sales tax by shopping at the base exchange and commissary. Obtaining a D.C. driver's license or license plates isn't necessary.
Although Bolling has a swimming pool, several playing fields, a gymnasium and an arts and crafts pavilion, groups from the community are not invited -- or allowed -- to use them.
"We don't encourage it," says Maj. Horace Thomas, Bolling's chief of morale, welfare and recreation. "It's our policy that we just don't do it. Our first priority is the military man and his dependents."
And how does the community view that attitude?
"I wish we could go in there and play," says Calvin Brown, who runs a boys' softball and football program in Southeast, "but what can you do?"
Several officials at the D.C. Recreation Department said they do not even try to schedule activities at Bolling or to involve children living on the base in Recreation Department programs."Too big a hassle," said one official.
In the early 1970s, District government officials appealed to the House Armed Services Committee to close Bolling and turn the land over to the city so it could build badly needed housing. But the committee refused and, according to Col. Tamura, such a proposal wouldn't stand a chance today. Nor has it been seriously suggested.
In fact, the wind is blowing the other way. A proposal is now before Congress to construct a $10 million Defense Intelligence Agency office building on unused land along Bolling's western perimeter. The facility would bring nearly 3,000 more employes to the base each weekday, "which would make this Pentagon East, I suspect," Col. Tamura said.
But Dick Betts doubts the DIA facility -- or anything else -- will make Bolling a full-fledged part of Washington.
"I try to get people to get off the base and see the community. I tell them about sitting in the galleries of the House and Senate. I tell them about the Circle Theater. And I get nowhere," Betts said.
Even natives are not sold. Sylvester Dixon, 23, a graduate of Cardozo High School, was reassigned to Bolling from California two months ago. He lives with his parents on Clifton Street NW, which is saving him lots of money, and he is one of the few Air Force enlistees anywhere who rides three buses to work every morning.
"That part isn't bad. You can see the ladies looking at the uniform," Dixon said. "It kind of makes you lean back a little further, know what I mean?
"But Bolling isn't a part of the city somehow.
"I wish it was. But it isn't. Everybody I know at Bolling wishes they were in California. And even though I know the scene here in D.C., I wish I was in California, too."