Off the Airstrip – The Cherry Point Base

While inside the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point base, visitors will view the old barracks, where Dad probably stayed during the Big War and have been converted to offices. The new barracks, comparatively speaking, are very nice. Rather than row upon row of bunk beds in a vast and open space, in this setting Marines are assigned two to each room, four to a bathroom – similar to most college dorms.

On the lawn outside the barracks, several men appear to be wrestling in a black hole. This is MCMAP, or Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, in which all Marines are involved. They earn their tan belts at boot camp and thereafter may opt to work their way up through the belts, through gray, green, brown and black.

“They are grappling on the ground and that is called a grappling pit,” said Corporal Lisa Strickland of the Public Affairs Office. “The ground is like rubber pieces all broken up so it is soft. When they are grappling or doing hip throws to the ground, you would want to do it over there to give a better fall for your trainee. When you hip throw someone they can hit the ground kind of hard,” she said.

Near the grappling pit is an obstacle course that all recruits should be familiar with from their basic training. “The ropes are at the end,” she said. “On this one you have to hop over the first wooden plank, go over the top of the bar, jump on another bar and you have to somehow swing up over, shimmy down or walk down the planks.” And after all that, you still have the ropes ahead of you. Assuming that these activities probably work up a hearty appetite, the mess hall is just across the street.

“It is actually really good. They always have a specialty bar, like Mexican tacos, and I think they rotate four or five weeks so you don’t have the same food all the time. But maybe two Wednesdays later you might have the same thing, grilled chicken or pasta with Italian sausage, and in the morning you can get omelets any way you like.”

Strickland parks the car in front of a nondescript brick building, of the approximate size and appearance of a high school gymnasium. This is the ASTC – the Aviation Survival Training Center – and she announces somewhat dramatically that the helo dunker is in there.

The helo dunker is a big device that looks like a helicopter inside, with seats and seat belts, and trainees are in full gear, carrying packs and rifles. “That’s what it’s famous for. Anyone, pilot or air crew, has to do training there.” The dunker is lowered into the swimming pool and, depending on what kind of scenario the trainer has in mind, it might overturn or roll or what have you.

“You have to do five scenarios,” she said. “Once it hits the water and turns over you can’t unbuckle and get out until it stops rolling. It’s to help you know what to do and be more oriented with where you are if you are in a helicopter that crashes into the water, which can be a seriously scary situation.”

In some scenarios trainees use oxygen, and in others they do not. Sometimes they have to go out certain windows, the one next to them or the one across the seat, and they might have to work together to get out and swim to the surface. Then it could be a matter of hooking up to a rappelling cable that pulls them out of the water.

Other exercises involve the use of an ejection seat that delivers a bit of a jolt and also, believe it or not, indoor parachute training is not uncommon in this facility. Then there is an air tank that takes the pressure down in order to simulate really high altitudes, and with the oxygen in their masks set on low, trainees attempt to communicate and function using various hand motions and signals.

Now some of this stuff might sound almost like fun to a mind with a certain bent toward thrill seeking, but it’s training that all aircraft personnel have to undergo every year in order to stay in the program. It’s also a golden opportunity to learn in advance of an emergency situation whether or not you’re claustrophobic or prone to panic.

And then there is some actual fun in this gym by anyone’s definition, including volleyball and racquetball, and of course your standard workout gear. Here and in the nearby Devildog Gym, it’s called “PTing,” or physical training, and when you see joggers along the footpaths or a soccer game in progress, these are also likely to be pointed out as people engaged in the technical activity of PT.

The Cherry Point Memorial Chapel is on this tour, and holds a protestant service and a Catholic service every Sunday in addition to the occasional memorial service, often dedicated to a local retired Marine or to an active service member killed on foreign shores.

A new headquarters building is under construction, to replace the old one built in 1942 and destroyed by an electrical fire in September 2007. The new building is slated for completion in 2011. From the architect’s renderings it will be a massive structure, considerably larger than the old one, and one of the offices to be reinstalled there will be Strickland’s. For the moment she’s camped out in one of several trailers near the construction site.

It costs fifty cents to see a first-run movie at the station theater, and not much more than that to bowl a few games at the bowling alley. Bargains also abound at the so-called “lemon lot,” where vehicles for sale are parked for all to see.

“It works really well on Marine bases or air stations because we’re deploying and PCSing all the time,” she said. PCS is Permanent Change of Station and vehicle sales are brisk because of it. “Sometimes we go from the east coast to California and you might not want to take your car out there, or maybe you’re going to Japan and you can’t take your vehicle. Or maybe you just got back from Japan and you sold your vehicle before you left.”

Any number of such situations might bring a flood of customers to the lemon lot, coupled with the sense they’ll strike a better bargain here than they would off-base. “It’s like we’re all brothers and sisters and we work with each other. You can sell it faster because people need it and you can get a good deal from the people you work with.”