In this excerpt from a new book published by Johns Hopkins University Press, "Maryland Lost and Found: People and Places from Chesapeake to Appalachia," Washington Post staff writer Eugene L. Meyer visits Andrews Air Force Base, a high-powered minicity where the work is often glamorous but life is often hard. It was known first as the Camp Springs-Meadows, Md., Fighter Command Station. It became Andrews Field in 1945, named for a World War II flier who died in a crash in Iceland, and was renamed as an Air Force base in 1950.
On a clear day, air controllers in the 156-foot-high tower designed by I.M. Pei could see the presidential helicopter ascending 200 feet over the White House. But on this unseasonably warm February morning in 1981, the Washington Monument was barely visible through the clouds.
The Marine chopper carrying President Reagan and his wife Nancy to their first departure from Andrews Air Force base arrived at 9:52 a.m., depositing the California-bound Reagans about 50 feet from the nose of Air Force One.
At 10 a.m., the new commander in chief was airborne.
History is made regularly at the 4,900-acre base 10 miles from the White House. In this high-profile setting, the mechanics who work on Air Force One wear light blue uniforms instead of regular fatigues, and even routine jobs such as refueling the president's plane are considered elite details.
The self-styled "Aerial Gateway to the Nation's Capital" is among the most dramatic datelines of our time, a pastiche of presidential comings and goings, of heroes' homecomings, of triumphant and tragic arrivals and departures. Unforgettable images come to mind: the American hostages from Iran, descending from Freedom One jubilant; a disgraced Richard Nixon and a defeated Jimmy Carter leaving official Washington, their families in tears; Vietnam prisoners of war, home at last, the pope and his ecclesiastical entourage.
"Being so close to the capital, you can almost feel the pulse of the nation," says a fact sheet issued to base personnel. "You may see or even participate in events and operations that directly affect the course of world affairs."
About 10,000 people work at Andrews, half of them civilians. As of 1980, more than 4,800 military dependents, including more than 1,500 elementary school-age children, lived on the military reservation in 2,300 units ranging from the tree-shaded luxury of Command Lane to the trailer park impermanence of Flower Village, across the base.
In this military society, where a homesteader is anyone assigned to one place for more than two years, lived Robert B. Starkey, a civilian who had been around since the beginning. In his late sixties, Starkey still reigned as deputy chief of civil engineering in charge of maintenance and construction. Officially, a colonel was in command.
"When a full colonel comes in, you just don't go and tell him he's OJT on the job training , you know what I mean?" said Sharkey, who had often served as teacher to such men.
Starkey went to work building the base in 1942.
"It was just a country area," he said, "mostly forest, Maryland jackpine, with chicken houses and grape arbors."
Smack in the middle of the base site was Meadows, a crossroads community of a dozen or so houses, a general store, a garage and a church, where the old paths of Pennsylvania Avenue and Allentown Road converged.
The church is still there, used as a base chapel and now called Building 3715. The village's old cemetery, its tombstones chiseled with solid old southern Maryland names such as Duckett, Beall and Duvall, is also intact.
It rained heavily during October 1942, making the base construction work even more difficult, Starkey recalled. But it was wartime, and the workers pushed ahead, finishing in June 1943. There were four small runways, squadrons of pursuit planes, 892 servicemen and women and 200 civilians assigned there. The commander was a mere captain.
One veteran remembered that the base had a relaxed atmosphere that allowed all personnel to be off base from retreat to reveille. German prisoners of war were assigned to KP and cleanup. Two POWs were bakers in the post exchange coffee shop, where a German POW who was an artist was put to work painting scenes of air combat on the empty walls.
"He was good," the veteran said. "I watched him working through more than a few breakfasts. Somebody with a more discerning eye took a closer look at his chef-d'oeuvre and discovered that his mural showed a disproportionate number of allied warplanes being shot down. The artist was banished."
Today, Andrews is a high-powered minicity where the work is often glamorous but the life is often difficult. Here an enlisted man or woman could be detailed to work on a presidential inauguration, and it is considered a career steppingstone for an Air Force officer to be assigned to the base.
But there is another side to life at Andrews. It is, in some ways, more a mirror of nearby Washington than of sleepy southern Maryland. Like Washington, Andrews can be a professionally rewarding place, but those assigned there can pay a financial and psychic price.
The high cost of living and the high-pressured atmosphere combine to make Andrews about as desirable an assignment, one officer suggested, as the missile base at Minot, N.D. From the lowliest enlisted airman to the highest-ranking officer, the story is much the same.
At Andrews, a sense of community comes from the shared experience of working in what is regarded as a hardship post. The kind of off-base bars that often bind servicemen and women (but dismay the locals) are almost nonexistent in the Andrews area. Even on base, the officers club is little more to many than a place to cash checks.
Andrews is even more transient than Washington, with about 1,500 transfers occurring every year. Washington prices strain civilian budgets, but military families on essentially fixed incomes say they are hit harder.
"The Washington area is a place where an up-and-coming officer has to come sooner or later to get to the top, and professionally it's been good for me," said Col. Ronald Bowen, interviewed when he was assigned to the choice job of special assistant to the head of the Air Force Systems Command, the weapons procurement agency based at Andrews. "But my blood pressure is probably extremely high . . . . "
Despite his annual income of $37,000, his wife's part-time job as a nurse, access to the base commissary and other fringe benefits, life for Bowen and his family in the high-cost Washington region had become "hand to mouth," he said. "I honestly don't see how an enlisted man could survive."
Many can't. First Sgt. Ronald D. Shusta, an older enlisted man who was almost a father figure to the young personnel in the base supply squadron, said he received several requests each month for hardship transfers based on the cost of living.
"They want to know, 'How can I get out of here?' " Shusta said. "I just look at them and say, 'You can't.' "
"They say if you can survive in this area, you can survive anywhere," said Sgt. Helen Gibson, who lived with her husband and two children in a second-hand mobile home on the base. For Gibson, a stock clerk, survival meant collecting food stamps and cashing them in at the commissary.
"We asked for Washington state, not Washington, D.C.," said Lois Rice, the wife of a sergeant. She was employed and her husband worked a second job, but they struggled to support their three children. "This is a hard area."
She was in a position to know, for she also ran Family Services, a base office staffed by 28 volunteers who helped the uniformed needy. Among other services, the office lends dishes, dishpans and even beds to newcomers and the hard-pressed. The biggest problem for many is housing; units on the base are hard to come by. Most are forced to find housing on the expensive private market. Those in trouble often flock to the chaplain's office, where eight ministers spend more time counseling than preaching. Whatever spiritual problems afflict other bases, head chaplain Doug Jones said, "the primary need here is financial." And from that need, he suggested, spiritual problems -- family feuds in particular -- flow.