by Tim Gilmore, 1/21/2014
From the air, in 1943, the Branan Naval Outer Landing Field was a great octagonal wheel. Each spoke was a 4,000-foot runway, and a thin taxiway ringed the periphery of the wheel.
Just to the south, dive bombers soared over the pines and played target practice at the Spencer Bomb Target.
In 2008, developers of a suburban subdivision called Kindlewood—and oh, the name is so ironic!—hired Munitions Management Group, Inc. to recover old ordnance still buried in the woods grown up through bomb targets. Several hundred thousand pounds of practice bombs and missiles had recently been excavated from these forests.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office bomb squad supervisor said digging up munitions sites in the woods was a common occurrence, that the bomb squad did “these things” on “a regular basis.”
I can’t help but wonder whether sometime in the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s, some little boy whose dirt-poor family lived back in the hillbilly woods, while out hunting small game, stepped in the wrong place and had a leg blown off, or worse. Maybe most of what happens in the world never comes to light.
Two planes, a Dauntless and a Helldiver, crashed into this octagonal star of an airstrip in the middle of the 1940s. Sometime in 1949 or 1950 the airfield was decommissioned and left to ruins. In the mid-1960s, a regional sectional aeronautical chart labeled it “Abandoned Airport.” The wheel endured in the ravaged forest.
The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel wrote about how, as a prisoner of war, he saw the “heavens were opened” to show him “visions of God.” He said he saw creatures in the sky, “and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.”
The rings “were full of eyes” and “were so high that they were dreadful.”
The wheels rose up, and “the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.” Then came fire, and a voice that spoke personally to Ezekiel, and a great hand that descended and opened a book, “and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”
Paul Freeman, an engineer and pilot who created a website called “Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields,” from which come this story’s images, says that World War Two airfields in the Southeast contrast dramatically over time with those in the Southwest, because the Western desert preserves things for a time, while the rapid decay and vegetative growth that takes place in Florida rapaciously eats up the past.
Ironically, while the 21st century began with a possible new militarism ignited by a response to the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, the World War Two-era military sites that checkerboarded the North American landscape increasingly disappeared not only into subtropical jungle but new suburban sprawl.
At the beginning of the century, the forests had taken back enough of northern Branan Field to make it look more like a peace sign than Ezekiel’s wheel.
But the contours of the airstrip octagon and the perimeter runway soon approximated loosely to new subdivision roads and repurposed old ones like Branan Field Road itself. New suburban roads were given plantation names that echoed the days of slavery more than the area’s World War militarization.
It hardly matters to most Floridians, who know nothing of the world before they were born. But surely conspiracy-theorists must wonder at the propensity of local governments to locate schools on sites of past horror and present danger.
Jacksonville’s Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, off Moncrief Road on the mostly black Northside, named after one of Florida’s great black leaders, was abandoned in 2001 when investigators confirmed dangerous elements in the soil. The school was built on a site where the City of Jacksonville once dumped all the ash from its garbage incinerators.
In the Orlando area in 2008, the ground beneath and surrounding a middle school built on the former Pinecastle Jeep Range bombardier training site had to be cleared of hundreds of pounds of buried munitions, including one 100-pound bomb lodged in the earth.
Now Jacksonville’s Oakleaf Village Elementary School and Oakleaf Athletic Fields, surrounded by the subdivisions built along Oakleaf Village Parkway and Plantation Oaks Boulevard, cover the former octagonal star that was Branan Field. Companies that recover ordnances notwithstanding, it’s not impossible that some random dormant explosive device lies buried in the earth beneath a classroom, a goal post, or a living room.
If you look at the aerial view of the site from the 1940s to the 1990s to the 2000s, you’ll see the octagonal star decline into the recovery of the earth and its vegetation upon even such a site of great violent power.
You might compare it to those occultists who trace the sites of great points of power in London to ancient pagan locations and the city’s principal cathedrals to pre-Christian Roman religious sites. They say that London is laid out on a series of pentagrams and lines of force between them.
Though I’ve recoiled countless times at Florida’s politics, that statement Paul Freeman made about the vegetation of the Southeast reclaiming everything man-made so much quicker than in the Southwest makes me realize that my particular love of nature, of the muck and its stink, of the fetid compost of everything, of the earth as recycling symbol or lemniscate, sensually and viscerally comes from the way I know and love and respect this subtropical earth as compost and palimpsest.
The prophet Ezekiel saw wheels within wheels in the sky. Satellites captured images of the wheel in the ground here in the 1940s and 1960s and 1990s. Where a swimming pool or a gas station or a McDonald’s stands today, the Dauntless and the Helldiver plumeted into the earth in the middle of the 1940s. Convenient shapes, as can be seen from the sky, persist beneath the ground.