Whenever Memorial Day rolls around, I sometimes think of the time when I, too, "Did My Bit." No, not military service-- even though as a youngster there was a hankering for becoming a WAVE. But there did come a time that my eyes were Keeping America Safe.
It started like this. A gentleman came in to study hall at East High School. He explained how, even though our country had defeated Japan and Germany, there was now another threat to freedom: The Red Menace!
Low-flying bombers could sneak over the Arctic Circle and elude our radar systems that were only able to detect higher-flying planes. That's where the Ground Observer Corps came in. Used during World War II, it fell out of use briefly but was re-organized in the 1950s. Thousands of observer posts were put on active duty on a 24-hour schedule and manned by volunteers for Operation Skywatch.
With this briefing, the gentleman in study hall asked for a show of hands for those seniors who would like to help keep America safe. I thrust my hand immediately into the air. Then I looked around me. Some of my classmates were flat on their faces, napping. Others were studiously-for once-examining textbooks. My hand was the only one raised. Well, I would represent those OTHERS who had no patriotic spirit!
The gentleman appraised me, and I just know he detected my earnestness and aptitude for this task. He handed me a slip of paper that gave me a time and place to appear for training. I can't remember if my mom had to sign a parental consent. If she did, she probably thought it was just another fool thing I had gotten myself into. She was at the age where she just didn't understand.
Training, training, training. Recognizing all types of planes, silhouettes from side views, calculating altitude, correct use of binoculars, logging plane sightings correctly, calling in any sightings to a central command for tracking. After three grueling hours of training, I was prepared to save my country. I raised my hand again, took an oath, and received a GOC badge. I reported on Sunday afternoons for my four-hour shift.
Some volunteers worked in pairs. They had no one to pair me with, so I worked alone. Apparently Sunday was a difficult day to fill, and as a newcomer, I didn't have seniority to choose. Sundays worked for me, though. Try as I could, none of my pals wanted to stand in the cold of winter, the heat of summer and other types of Cleveland weather for four hours of anything, much less looking up at the sky.
I rode the bus from Cleveland to nearby Euclid. Practically at the corner of Chardon road was a school, and smack in the school lawn was a structure going up about a story and a half, with an enclosed 5X5 room with windows all around, a door, and an outside platform walkaround. It would be my Sunday afternoon home for a year. I called myself in to Central Command. Ready and at Action Station!
Planes flew over--mostly airliners heading for Cleveland Hopkins airport. Mostly twin props (that's techie talk for propellers, you know). A lot of single engine private planes. They were harder to identify, except for the Beechcraft Bonanzas with their V for Victory tails. On cold days, I stood inside, listening for a plane sound. On rainy days I stood outside, because the roof overhang protected me. That was the time an enemy bomber could sneak over, in bad weather when no one was expecting.
Summer was hard, not because of the heat and sun, but because my friends were going places and I was perched on a platform saving the country from disaster. I consoled myself with the lines, "…they also serve who only stand and wait."
I never saw the dreaded hammer and sickle on a plane. I finished my senior year and worked the summer before college in an office. My GOC days had ended. I was given a little certificate and a little tag to hang on the bottom of my badge that said "250" for my service hours.
I did learn a little, though. Aside from the plane identification and all that (most of which I have forgotten) I learned that being alone and watching for something can be both deadly dull and somehow spiritual.
Blue skies, white clouds, thunder, lightning, rain, hail, snow. Watching the skies for…what? Maybe bombers. Maybe enlightenment. Maybe daydreams. Whatever it was I was watching for, binoculars weren't always needed. Over and Out.
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