Naval Air Station Cecil Field, Ghost Signs and Poison

by Tim Gilmore, 12/31/2014

Some summers, before I was born, when our mother was on her first deathbed, the one she survived, Wanda and Katie and Janet came to the officers’ pool five days in a row, especially after Katie got her driver’s license.

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photograph by Wanda Glennon Canaday

Long after Cecil Field was decommissioned by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s (so many Jacksonville residents had already called him anti-American, a “Commy”), Wanda snuck off from her husband’s round of golf at Cecil Field’s Fiddler’s Green—he was in on it, part of her wicked design—to sneak into the woods where I found barrels of toxins a few years back. She was looking for that swimming pool.

Even when she realized it was no longer there, she thought she just needed to look in the right place, the one area of the recently sprouted woods, thick with gangly adolescent pines that carpeted the ground with fragrant needles, and surely she would see it, or see where it had been, or see what grew up from it.

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photograph by Wanda Glennon Canaday

For almost 60 years, the nearly 23,000 acres of air base was its own town, separate from Jacksonville, but deeply and heavily influencing Jacksonville’s culture. Some housing’s been privatized, hangars corporatized, but almost everything that was physically here is gone. The former chapel’s empty. The movie theater’s a neglected conference center. The parks are barely maintained and abandoned. Nobody comes to the 1974 POW MIA Vietnam War Memorial where dedicatory signage lies, “You Are Not Forgotten.”

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Even in early winter, Wanda and I sweat as we walk through the woods. We’re looking for any sign of what was. Anything. And we see them. Signs.

Signs with no more purpose. Signs with young woods so recently grown up around them. Signs effaced. Signs that warn us against the very ground on which we stand. Signs too ominous to mark as obsolete, though the pavement that once surrounded them now lies deep beneath forest floor. Signs for roads not on maps or GPS. Swamp now covering roads with no sign of their former existence but the street signs that still stand dumbstruck and stupid in pine-needle-laced thickets.

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photograph by Wanda Glennon Canaday

So often our language keeps the words that once referred to things long after the things to which they referred are gone. You might say the words that have lost what they signified are “ghost signifiers.” Literary theorists, linguists, and semiopticians call signs without referents “floating signifiers” or “empty signifiers.”

The French surrealist artist Rene Magritte played with these ideas, most famously in the painting The Treason of Images, in which he wrote beneath a drawing of a pipe, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”—“This is Not a Pipe!”

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Poststructuralist philosophers like Michel Foucault and Edward Said playfully extrapolated on Magritte, with Said writing in Orientalism in 1978 that any representation of a thing is automatically a misrepresentation, since the representation can never become the thing represented.

Whereas Continental philosophy and literary theory too often seem abstract to English Department undergrads, Wanda and I note the pine saplings rising from the front of the guard shack, where erstwhile visitors to the base would be questioned and papered or sent to a side parking lot.

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The arrows painted on the pavement in exit lanes past the guard shack point toward concrete barricades and new copse. Now exit signs stand in tall weeds and young trees and point uselessly into the woods.

Along Residence Avenue, we find no residences at all, just the remnants of a concrete driveway or two disappearing into the detritus fallen from spindly trees, the desperate carpet of leaves and needles quickly forming new earth.

Then the sign stands before the brown field, skinny pines behind it. “NO SOLICITING     Invited Guests Only.” You might say there’s nothing and no one left to invite us, but we feel invited nonetheless.

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photograph by Wanda Glennon Canaday

Though the officers’ housing along this avenue has vanished from the earth, we peek into old industrial bunkers, through broken windows down into

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a basement, the signs on the doors nearly illegible but bearing the words “Caution” and “Hazardous” and “Air” and “Gas” and “Fire.”

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Hiking through dead bracken and metallic palmettos, we find a wooden post our height leaning back casually with a metal sign bearing no message yet visible. The sign shines white and blank against the hot winter sun.

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In a park with wooden picnic tables and a volleyball court, broken benches facing the gunmetal-gray of the marsh and almost absorbed in swamp bracken, not a soul around, we walk out onto a short pier, its ends falling into the muck and dead branches, nearby signs warning, “NO SWIMMING” and “WARNING DO NOT FEED ALLIGATORS FLORIDA STATUE 378.667.”

The signs are faded and there’s no one here to warn but us.

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Short rusted poles at either end of a sagging chain block a road we can barely tell ever existed.

The pines here are pencil thin and tall, suspiciously new, and the red carpet beneath them sinks under and absorbs my steps.

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Finally I come to the sign Wanda saw with its back to our drivable road. Coming around from behind the sign to the palmettos and urgent pines before it, I wonder what once faced it, not so many years ago, toward which it so urgently said, “WARNING     NO TRESPASSING     WASTE SITE STUDY AREA     AVOID CONTACT WITH SOIL AND WATER.”

I’ve trespassed this soil and water just to get through the woods and around to the front of the sign to find its warning.

Again and again, we find signs without referents. Sometimes signs stand physically stripped of messages.

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There’s the large tin sheet nailed on either side to short dead trees, geographies of rust at its center, but no message whatsoever, the barest hint of a road that once existed to its right.

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There’s the pine-needle-covered metal ramp with the little corrugated shed on one side, and the brown sign on the other that points to the shed and says, simply, “BUZZER.” There’s a buzzer in that shed. What might happen if we pushed it?

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There’s the memorial plaque before the dusty F-18C Hornet fighter jet identifying it as the “Spirit of Cecil Field.” It’s bomb hatch is open underneath. Its circled star is faded. Its cockpit is clouded. It bears the name of Scott Speicher, a pilot shot down in 1991 in the United States’ first invasion of Iraq under the first President Bush. Local conspiracy theorists continued to believe Speicher was alive and the federal government knew it, well into the United States’ second invasion of Iraq under the second President Bush.

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We walk Parkland Road, with street signs at either end, though Parkland’s not on maps or GPS, and little but concrete slabs and swamp exists between street signs.

Almost everything once here, that once meant all the world, that once meant living for if only to die for, has disappeared, though all these off-limits roads are acknowledged as loaded with toxins, and every now and then, a footbridge has

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photograph by Wanda Glennon Canaday

yet to collapse entirely into contaminated water, and a sign warns you that all the woods around you are full of poison in this murky desperate growth.