Embark on a nostalgic journey of Military Boomer Movie Confessions, reliving cinematic tales from Air Force bases.
Military Boomer Movie Confessions: Growing Up in the U.S. Air Force Base Theater System unveils nostalgic tales of cinematic experiences within the unique setting of Air Force bases.
This personal journey delves into the impact of military life on film appreciation, creating a shared cultural connection among those who came of age in the supportive yet transient community of Air Force bases.
The silver screen becomes a vessel for cherished memories and universal camaraderie in this captivating narrative.
Military Boomer Movie Confessions Growing Up in the U.S. Air Force Base Theater System
To begin with, this article delves into my autobiographical account of the unique way I experienced watching movies during my upbringing.
The distinctiveness arises from being an Air Force dependent, specifically the son of a Chief Master Sergeant E-9.
In 1967, upon his retirement, my father, the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in the Air Force, provided an intriguing perspective on movie-watching.
I believe that fellow ex-service dependents may find resonance in this narrative, having possibly similarly encountered movies.
I will discuss the military movie system operated globally, yet its documentation appears scarce. This piece also touches on aspects of our lifestyle.
Coming from the background of a non-commissioned officer’s dependent, my upbringing was not extravagant.
We secured more decent housing when my father’s rank and commendable service record, including notable contributions to the Texas end of the Berlin Airlift, earned him prestigious assignments.
Between ages three and nine, I resided on base in relatively comfortable quarters.
By 1955, my father’s skills were in demand to oversee Flight Lines for commanding officers aiming for impeccable efficiency records.
However, duty at a specific base typically lasted only three years.
In The Right Stuff, Edwards, California, portrayed with a certain level of accuracy, served as the hub for flight testing.
Notably, the skilled pilots depicted in the movie didn’t reside in particularly appealing houses.
The enlisted personnel below them had housing comparable to low-grade public housing blocks – two bedrooms for a wife and three kids, no yard, and the like.
Through an arrangement with his commanding officers, my father secured housing equivalent to that provided for a Major.
This secured us a decent house in a highly secure on-base neighborhood. Residential street speed limits were strictly enforced at five or ten miles per hour, with vigilant MPs (or Air Police, possibly) on patrol.
A minor parking infraction by my mother led to the suspension of her driving privileges for a month.
This meant my father took the car to work, and we had to walk a mile to the shopping area, partly across the desert – an experience I thoroughly enjoyed.
In Kindergarten, I was a typical ’50s dinosaur enthusiast and considered myself competent because my beloved older sister had already taught me to read. I must have been an unabashed teacher’s pet.
Edwards is where I had my initial exposure to movies, likely around the age of four.
I later discovered that the inaugural film screened at the newly opened Edwards Base Movie Theater in 1956 was a quasi-premiere of Toward the Unknown, which had been filmed at Edwards.
When I eventually watched the movie, I didn’t recognize the military testing area, as children were restricted from that area.
However, William Holden and Virginia Leith did stroll through a neighborhood identical to ours, featuring modest houses and no curbs.
My mother took me to my first movie, which I believe was Oklahoma! Depending on their popularity, Hollywood films reached us anywhere from three months to a year after civilian releases.
My memories at the age of 5 aren’t perfect. Still, the theater is relatively spacious, with a broad screen positioned on a stage, allowing the auditorium to be used for various presentations, ceremonies, and meetings.
The building, constructed from cinder blocks and glass bricks, was possibly part of a new shopping area. It was an immediate success, given that the nearest town with theaters was Lancaster, almost forty miles away.
Additionally, Base Theaters featured a two-minute film with images of the flag and the Star Spangled Banner on the soundtrack – everyone, even children, stood at attention for this.
I have vivid recollections of watching Sayonara, reissues of Perri, the Flying Squirrel, and my first Disney animated movie, Peter Pan.
I recall just one scene from Friendly Persuasion. A little later, I had the chance to watch an actual episode of a Republic serial.
All I can remember is a shot of one of their tin-can robot monsters walking down a hospital corridor and menacing a nurse – quite frightening, especially considering I had never even heard of a robot before.
In my reviews, I often portray myself as a sheltered ’50s child, a reality shaped by growing up on serene military bases.
Sheltered from common conflicts, I recall little diversity among airmen. Raised in a non-religious household, discussions about life beyond my aspirations were minimal.
Books on Natural History filled my world, shielding me from harsh realities like death and crime.
Sex and profanity were unspoken topics, making movie content thrilling, as I never knew what surprises awaited on the screen.
Movie trailers, like the colossal grasshopper epic “Beginning of the End” and the plaster-monster-man film “Curse of the Faceless Man,” fascinated me at the theater.
Television commercials for monster movies like “Rodan” and “The Blob” intrigued me, but guilt prevented me from seeking them out, fearing repercussions on my limited TV privileges. The guilt’s origin remains a mystery.
The first thing I found genuinely terrifying was a jeep blown off a highway by Rodan’s supersonic shock wave, possibly connected to the frequent sonic booms over Edwards.
Just before departing Edwards in 1958, I caught a glimpse of a trailer for Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, or perhaps even part of the feature itself. While I wasn’t fully grasping the narrative, the scene where Julie London was compelled to undress at knifepoint left a lasting impression on me. It triggered some dormant part of my brain. Suddenly, there were more reasons to go to the movies, each one carrying a hint of guilt.
By then, my father’s rank and service standing had further elevated, partly because many non-commissioned officers at his rank and pay grade were leaving the service to pursue more lucrative careers.
The aerospace and civil aviation industries were thriving, fueled by the arms race.
As military dependents, we were essentially living in a communal bubble – enjoying billeting, food allowances, and a few other perks, but saving money on the pay was challenging.
For my father, the service was everything; he wasn’t driven by financial considerations and remained oblivious to the costs of things in the real world.
Aiming to retain experienced airmen, Hollywood produced another film at Edwards during this period, titled Bombers B-52.
I was later astonished to learn that it revolved around the family and career challenges of the top-ranking Sergeant on the Edwards Flight Line – my father held that position.
Technically, the movie depicted our family and our lives. However, Bomber’s B-52 was a comically distorted portrayal.
The young boy portraying “me” had a minimal role, but there was an older sister, mirroring my own, who became the film’s focal point.
I playfully remind my sister to this day that Natalie Wood played her character in a Hollywood movie.
In Bombers B-52, Karl Malden portrays the Sergeant/Father character. He finds time to fret about his wife, micromanage his daughter’s love life, and even appear on a Los Angeles quiz show.
The character takes his family on a genuine vacation and showcases a two-fisted persona, catching a government agent attempting to breach the flight line to test Base security.
Most amusingly, this Sergeant’s father unwinds at home in a dressing gown. The honest Sergeant I knew consistently returned home after shifts between 18 hours and two days, collapsing in bed in his underwear and sleeping for 14 hours.
I might glimpse him looking sharp in his uniform once more before he returned to duty, disappearing again.
His sole hobby, which he pursued when time allowed, was maintaining his old Ford pickup as part of Edwards’ Model A Club. That was the reality. As his eldest son, my duty was to keep quiet and stay out of the way.
From 1958 to 1961, my father’s next assignment marked a significant improvement in our family’s lifestyle – he assumed command of the Flight Line at Hickam AFB, still colloquially known as Hickam Field among flyers.
This meant living on Base in Hawaii, a substantial change from the arid desert scenery I had known since Age four.
The transition felt like Dorothy Gale stepping into Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz. After an 11-hour plane flight, I woke up to see purple flowers outside the window, peculiar tiny birds chirping, and a fragrant perfume-like scent in the air.
Our residence was on officers’ row on 9th Street, facing acres of lush parade ground. A tall water tower adjacent to our elementary school stood at the end of the block.
This same water tower, situated on the edge of Pearl Harbor, appeared in several shots in Tora, Tora, and Tora.
The water tower and our ‘front yard’ briefly featured in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor as fighter planes zoomed down the length of the parade ground.
The administration building and hospital at the opposite end of the grass strip bore scars – giant pockmarks from machine guns or bomb shrapnel on the granite exterior.
It all happened less than twenty years before, and I felt like I was living on a genuine battleground with my family defending the country.
The highlight of this setting was the proximity of the main Hickam Base Theater, just about a block from the clinic.
With all cars restricted to a strict 5 mph speed limit, at the Age of seven, I could ride my bicycle anywhere on Base and walk to the Theater by myself to watch movies.
Child admission cost 15 cents; three pennies in a vending machine bought a bag of salty, dry popcorn.
The auditorium was spacious, and the picture quality was excellent – it felt like heaven. I believe the first film we watched there was South Pacific.
I quickly deciphered the Theater’s operational routine as I biked there daily, examining the posters.
The movie lineup changed four or five times weekly, and by circling the building, one could preview posters for the next seven’ attractions.’
There was an extensive film circuit at these Base theaters, as film prints were picked up and exchanged every couple of days. Posters and trailers were also circulated.
While there were at least two other theaters on the Base that we didn’t frequent much, one was entirely outdoors, providing the opportunity to watch movies under the Hawaiian stars.
I had the liberty to attend movies on my own because I was interested in watching films that no one in the family wanted to see.
This worked well, considering my mother’s tendency to cover my eyes if she anticipated a distressing scene on screen.
However, her attempts to shield me often backfired, like when she covered my eyes during a beheading scene in Inn of the Sixth Happiness, giving me nightmares.
For years, I imagined what a beheading might look like, only to discover later that the event wasn’t shown at all. I was permitted to attend matinees alone and, eventually, evening shows.
Consequently, I watched The Mysterians, Caltiki the Immortal Monster, The Atomic Submarine, and Battle in Outer Space.
The two Japanese space movies featured stock shots of American planes unloading secret anti-alien weapons in Japan, proudly bearing the MATS (Military Air Transport Service) symbol of our fathers’ squadrons.
Air Force-dependent kids like us enthusiastically cheered any display of U.S. military hardware, but when our planes unexpectedly appeared on screen, we erupted in excitement. At Age ten, we were all fervent supporters of our fathers fighting the aliens.
Each week brought something remarkable. At Age seven, I witnessed Gigantis the Fire Monster and Teenagers from Outer Space within a few weeks; the latter left me emotionally moved.
The details of how I managed to watch The Mummy are unclear, as movies with explicit horror themes or ‘adult’ content were generally off-limits.
I was informed that Village of the Damned was restricted due to advertising mentioning something about bastard demon children from outer space. Similarly, The Tingler, The Brides of Dracula, and The World, The Flesh and the Devil, were also off-limits, although the dramatic trailer for the latter lingered in my mind for years.
As of 1960, many kids in the civilian world were already well-versed in film. However, I remained in a complete information vacuum concerning movie history.
Despite enjoying The Lost World, a lizards-only version, I was oblivious that it was a remake.
I read Conan Doyle’s book and H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds without knowing about existing thrilling screen adaptations.
Although The 3 Worlds of Gulliver left a significant impression, it took several years before I discovered the works of Ray Harryhausen.
My awareness of King Kong was limited to overhearing older kids talking about it; all I gathered was that it involved a monster.
I refrained from sharing this world with my parents, fearing they’d perceive me as delinquent and cut off my access.
Meanwhile, I maintained a secret life as a ‘movie expert.’ I kept a small file with titles and one-sentence opinions for several years.
An attempt to sit through The Time Machine twice in one afternoon resulted in being pulled out of the Theater by an usher and my mother, who had come looking for me.
In 1961, significant movies for me were Gorgo and Atlantis the Lost Continent. At the time, I thought Atlantis was flawless in every way – you’re only young and impressionable once.
I missed my little Base Theater when we moved to Norton AFB in San Bernardino, California, in late 1961.
I stayed in that town until heading to college nine years later, essentially never returning home again. We enjoyed one year of beautiful desert climate in San Berdoo before the smog became permanent.
Our yard was teeming with lizards and ‘horny toads.’ My mother must have had some illusions about my independence because, at age 11, I was allowed to take a bus downtown to see matinees, often alone when my friends were away.
This was when I finally became aware of how actual movie theaters operated, in contrast to the strict discipline at the military Theater.
Downtown shows involved waiting in line, battling for a good seat, cheering during the show, and scrambling again to buy candy at the intermission.
Like every movie-enthusiastic kid, I scanned the paper every Wednesday to decide which show would be the best bet for the Saturday noon slot.
I typically opted for science fiction monsters over horror pictures. Space films had unfortunately dwindled, but there were several seasons of Japanese monsters and the more in-your-face Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, featured in a double bill with Mysterious Island.
At Age eleven, I also went alone to see Hitchcock’s The Birds, an experience that kept me white-knuckled.
When I exited the Theater, I was transformed. The world remained the same, but I would never take it for granted again – chaos and catastrophe could strike at any time.
This is when I finally made friends who shared similar interests with me on the school playground of Hunt Elementary.
Instead of engaging in vices like smoking or talking dirty, I would listen as Arthur Gaitan and Bill Harris educated me on the entire genealogy of classic Universal monsters, such as “So, Frankenstein falls in a well at the end of this movie and is found frozen underground in the next one.”
They also lent me copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and showed me the grungy liquor stores where they could be bought.
As the monster magazines were always placed next to sex-oriented magazines, one had to navigate in and out quickly.
San Berdoo was a blend of Mormon repression and sleazy license, and you never knew which blue-nosed adult might call the cops and label you as a delinquent – or so we heard stories about.
Through Famous Monsters, we learned about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Hammer films, A.I.P., Paul Blaisdell, and Ray Harryhausen. We saw stills for rare movies we would spend the next forty years waiting to see.
Downtown offered amazing matinees. The 1964 double bill of Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had kids yelling and cheering, while The War of the Worlds returned linked with Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, reigniting my interest in ’50s sci-fi.
Unfortunately, the peculiar stuff only played at drive-ins, which were beyond my reach. My parents had stopped going to movies altogether, and if by chance they did, they wouldn’t take me to see Gorath or Atragon.
Although we didn’t live on Base at Norton, we bought a small house in Del Rosa, an Eastern extension of the city being carved out of orange groves.
I saw ad flyers from Norton’s Base movie theater but couldn’t attend, as the only way to get on Base was in a vehicle with the proper pass decal, and I wasn’t even driving yet.
Thus, I’d look at little ads for things like The Time Travelers and Planet of the Vampires and shake my head. My idea of an impossible dream, something I knew would never happen, was a home movie machine that would allow me to see Our Man Flint projected on my wall in ‘Scope.
I even dreamt that the ‘film’ would be in some cartridge roughly the shape of a VHS cassette.
On the drive home from the Base once, I remember reading a theater flyer while, outside the car window, one could see long lines of troops boarding cargo planes destined for Vietnam, just as in the movie Hair.
I assumed they were all gung-ho soldiers eager to fight without considering that I’d also be eligible for the draft in a few years.
I was still a military kid — that was how the world operated. I considered myself intelligent, but I wasn’t thinking for myself nor giving much thought to the real world I’d be living in.
There was my schoolwork, my friends, and these marvelous movies to occupy my mind. “How to Become a Lifelong Dreamer, Chapter One.”
I acquired my license in 1968 and soon became a frequent visitor to the Base Theater. As standard ticket prices downtown were at least two dollars, the 35-cent admission on the Base was a great deal.
The Theater was little more than a converted barracks with a screen probably less than thirty feet wide.
But the projection was good, and the audience of young airmen was always enthusiastic.
One of the first shows I saw there, in standard 35mm and mono sound, was 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When I saw it again three years later at the Cinerama Dome, it was quite a different experience.
The Base Theater screened many films that were not shown locally, and almost everything was released by a major studio.
Politically challenging films like If…. and Medium Cool fascinated me. In my junior year, some progressive schoolteachers took us students to a strange new ‘art theater’ in neighboring Riverside to see Cassavetes’ Faces and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.
The bookstores in the new mall downtown suddenly had a fat movie section. I bought Raymond Durgnat’s Films and Feelings, and a thoughtful girlfriend gave me the Truffaut: Hitchcock book. It became my bible, even though I hadn’t seen Psycho yet.
Meanwhile, the downtown theaters suddenly became oppressive to teenage moviegoers, presumably in reaction to the ‘permissive garbage’ Hollywood was putting out under the new ratings system. 1969, I was turned away from The Wild Bunch because I wasn’t 18.
I excitedly pointed out that I was 17 and that the manager’s posted regulation for “R” movies said that an adult must accompany children under 17.
It was a go — the theater manager wouldn’t budge. I’d have to settle for going back to the Base Theater, where I could bring some friends to see the “R” rated Wild Bunch, as well as M*A*S*H and even the rare Age of Consent, with its eye-catching Helen Mirren nude scenes. Yes, the “repressive” U.S. military was the most liberal entity I encountered in my teenage years.
In my senior year, I learned about a film class on Base at Norton’s gigantic, high-security Air Force film center.
Some officers wanted their sons to be indoctrinated in film and so pushed the weekly class through the bureaucracy.
With the draft on, my parents liked the idea of my qualifying for a photo outfit, as they thought I was so un-aggressive that any other kind of military duty would be a disaster.
Considering they were such hawks, I’m grateful my parents didn’t pressure me toward a military career.
The film club was fun, and our teacher, Ray Ussery, was a great guy. We shot 16mm with a new Arriflex.
We were impressed by the high-tech building, a giant concrete block. Its maze-like interior was suitable for the underground bunker of a James Bond villain… or Adolf Hitler.
We got to view some pretty awful films that the Air Force propaganda people were making. One montage of jets taking off on a bombing mission was synchronized to a Moody Blues song (“Dawning is the Day”) about realizing one’s dreams.
A terminally lame informational film imitated the style of the TV hit Laugh-In. Then, we were told that the club would give out a pair of scholarships that included two semesters of college tuition.
The anointed officer’s son didn’t bother to fulfill the requirements but won anyway. I got the second prize because I dazzled them with my enthusiasm and turned in a full script (for a terrible film idea).
I must have looked like a giant chipmunk that wanted to make movies. That good experience led to my giving an uncharacteristically upbeat performance at a general school scholarship interview, and suddenly, I was on my way to UCLA.
Add that to the list of personal contradictions — the Military Industrial Complex helped send me to a hotbed of radical political activity… which I quietly observed from the sidelines.
In 1970, UCLA provided an excellent environment for exposure to new ideas.
Fortunately, I was never drafted. When I reported to my induction center to get my card, I discovered that I was the only white individual in a room filled with Latinos and African Americans.
My student moratorium remained in effect until the Big Draft Lottery. Fortunately, my birth date was drawn 307 out of 365, ensuring I was exempt. I frequently returned to San Bernardino from UCLA until my gate pass for my Volkswagen expired.
However, by that time, I was deeply involved in the vintage movie culture of Los Angeles, attending Film School screenings, receiving passes from professors, attending special series at the County Museum of Art, participating in celebrity-hosted screenings at the Director’s Guild, and, of course, enjoying FILMEX.
I still feel like that kid who had the privilege of walking to his private movie theater at seven.