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Departure Leaves Hole in County’s Heart

Adieu, El Toro. We won’t forget.

I felt its importance each time I drove through its front gate and past the deep green ficus, a radiant arbor row that eventually gave way to winding roads lined with scores of drab brown buildings. Working centers, where assignment and duty outweighed attention to decor.

Born of war before midcentury, El Toro Marine Corps Air Station always was bustling with labor of consequence.

Most of us came to Orange County in search of sun and sand. The leathernecks came on business.

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Their training jets were a daily part of our horizon. The camouflage green of their uniforms became a routine sight on local roadways. We sensed from their demeanor that, in times of conflict, they’d be ready when called.

How you feel about the military doesn’t matter. Or whether you agree with the base’s long-planned closing. Not even your views on the future of its grounds--international airport, yes or no? It’s not important whether you ever visited there--many here never have--or if you depended on the base for your livelihood.

El Toro is significant to us all. More than just a vital column in our county’s history, it became a part of our fabric.

El Toro was hardly a busy neighbor with no time for the rest of us.

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It opened up its vintage planes to our schoolchildren. Its spacious Officers Club hosted legions of dinners for Scouts, the Pioneer Council and groups with special causes. Its research library became a critical source of Marine information for journalists, veterans and historians.

And its annual air show--that was the biggest spectacle in town, anyone who’d been there can tell you.

But the past year, El Toro has been swiftly closing shop, the permanent end to arrive ceremoniously Friday. A small city at its peak--15,000 at a time, 50,000 a year as Marines moved in and out--El Toro this month has been a shell of itself, a few scattered hundred helping with the shutdown.

I drove to El Toro the other day for a final look. My own goodbye to a place that’s been important to me as a newspaper reporter, and a citizen of Orange County.

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A green federal sign on the Santa Ana Freeway still notes its Command Museum. Now gone. A squadron of World War II planes in a front field made its entrance distinctive. Now all gone. In previous visits, I had to show I.D., car registration, and even proof of car insurance. That routine’s now gone. This time the gate guard waved me in with barely a nod.

I stood near its vast tarmac, saw the weeds now growing in the cracks, and thought back to the moving sight of jets streaking in at lightning speed, one after another, as pilots prepared for war in the Persian Gulf.

At the parade grounds, now empty, I remembered the colorful drama of a change-of-command ceremony I’d witnessed there.

At the Command Museum’s old grounds, the only planes left were an observation piper cub, its wings already loosened, and a C-14 transport plane, wingless with its belly on the ground. Both awaited a transfer truck. I recalled those very same planes once on splendid display, surrounded by large groups of school classes.

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To the children, the docents who told the planes’ stories may have seemed slow-talking men in old bodies. To most of us, they were warriors, ex-pilots who braved enemy firepower to carry out duty. They worked for the museum, without pay, to help preserve the memory of what they and others had done.

Revisiting the empty hallways of the closed Command Museum, I thought of the Veterans Day I had spent there, listening to World War II vets from all branches retell their times of combat. They had come to El Toro, most said, just to soak up the atmosphere on that important holiday.

Despite this nostalgic stroll of memories, I have to confess being among those who applauded the decision in Washington to reduce our number of military bases. I don’t have the expertise to know if El Toro should have been on the closure list, but we had to start somewhere.

Doing the right thing, however, doesn’t preclude an overwhelming sadness that Orange County must now turn past this vivifying chapter and move on.

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Fortunately, others have the foresight to know such significant passages should not be forgotten. If you never made it to El Toro’s Command Museum, you missed an enriching experience. But you haven’t yet missed it completely.

The museum is moving--25 trailers worth--to the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego County, a 75-minute drive just off Interstate 805. It will be renamed the Flying Leathernecks Aviation Museum. But the heart of its material will reflect El Toro’s history. El Toro’s planes are being reassembled there.

Tom O’Hara, a 35-year Marine veteran who was curator at El Toro, will be curator at Miramar. Architectural plans show more museum space there, with wider grounds and larger hangars for the plane displays. It will be worth a Sunday afternoon drive.

El Toro as a property will remain alive in some fashion; you well know the brouhaha over what its future should be. But whatever it is to become, we shall never forget what it once was. A grand scale response to war that grew from a bean field and stayed intact to become a dependable neighbor.

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I left that day thinking a paraphrase of the words of the writer John Gregory Dunne, on the parting of a dear friend:

Regards, El Toro. Regards, regards, with love and affection.


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