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The Midway Way
Midway has been occupied continuously since the turn of the 20th century when the Pacific Cable Company built homes for its workers, the Cable Houses, with two story encircling verandahs and large windows to coax in cool ocean breezes.
During the Cold War, Midway’s several thousand inhabitants, among other things, monitored Soviet submarines with hundreds of radio antennas and an underwater “listening post” that could detect whale songs for miles. Navy staff and their families lived, worked, worshiped, played, went to school, were born and died on the atoll. For five decades before I arrived, thousands of people at any given time had called Midway home. When I arrived on Midway, I was one of only twenty-five people living on a ghost island.
You know those apocalyptic movies where the world ends in a flash, and all of mankind is gone but for a handful of plucky survivors? The survivors wander around a place where people stopped existing in an instant and left everything frozen in time when disaster hit. An ashtray over flowing with butts, as if they had just been snuffed out. Pens and pencils lying on a desk blotter, the user having had casually gotten up to refresh his coffee when the end came. Files half riffled through on a desk, in the middle of some project no longer necessary, no longer important, never finished.
Midway had been most recently occupied and operated, including the airfield, by Midway-Phoenix Corporation. A cooperative partner with Fish & Wildlife with the somewhat misguided idea to run the atoll as an eco-tourism resort, Midway-Phoenix had had a rocky relationship with FWS. The honeymoon didn’t last long, if there had ever even been one, and the divorce happened almost overnight. About a month or so before I arrived, Midway-Phoenix had pulled it’s several hundred staff off the island, telling them they’d all be back in short order once Mom and Dad worked things out. It was as if they had all been going about their normal workaday lives and were told to stand up, walk calmly to the exits and board a plane for the mainland. Well, Mom and Dad didn’t kiss and make-up, and the kiddies were never allowed to come back and pack up their rooms. Time stood still.
It was an eerie feeling, wandering around the airport terminal. The ground floor was mostly warehouses, some of them almost completely empty and echoing, others overflowing with stock, supplies, bits, parts, equipment, and enough toilet paper to last until doomsday for reasons I’ve never sussed out.
And there was an awful lot of just plain useless crap. Virtually everything that one would use, eat or drink has to be shipped by boat or plane to Midway. So it stands to reason that not much ever actually leaves Midway. Transistor radios, five and a quarter floppy disks, five and a quarter floppy disk drives, dot matrix printers, brick cell phones, televisions and computer monitors—dozens of them—from the 1970s. And that’s just the stuff I could identify based on the fact that I was born in 1968. One day I wandered along shelves and shelves of parts to what—for all I knew—was a trebuchet siege engine.
It all makes for some quality five-finger discount. Scavenging, scrounging and squatting were our way of life. The Midway Way. You need a place to live? Just be the first one in the best place you can find, and you have home sweet home. No microwave? No TV? No couch? No problem. Go harvest one of each or two of each out of a room no one is using. Or be one of the only two single females on the island, and a microwave and DVD player will materialize at your door.
I spent my first couple of days wandering around my ridiculously huge terminal looking for something trivial, like a pencil or pad of paper, and inevitably ended up with an armload of stuff. “Ooh, I need one of those.” “Hey, I could use that.” “An extension cord—score!”
Another aspect of The Midway Way was improvisation. There were hundreds of printers in the terminal, of all different ilks, of indeterminate age, and using different types of ink in limited supply. I would use one type of printer until I couldn’t find any more ink cartridges, then hook up another, and another, and another.
When the FAA ordered us to paint four ten-feet-by-ten feet yellow Xs to mark the closed runway, we scrounged for yellow paint and calculated only enough on island for about a quarter of the job. The Xs also had to be outlined in black and there was no black paint on the island at all. The nearest Home Depot was 1,200 miles away, so I sent my staff to the storerooms with one instruction—figure something out.
What they came back with was ingenious. They found plenty of tar to use in place of the black paint. One problem solved. There was an abundance of a light green paint they could use as a base coat so they wouldn’t need so much yellow. Another problem solved. But we still didn’t have enough yellow so they’d crush yellow bricks into white paint to make enough yellow. Last problem solved.
I spent my first three weeks in a room with no curtains, which I decidedly did not like. So, bath towels to the rescue. But the room had a bed, a couch, and a dresser, at least.
There were (and still are) five-bedroom houses on Midway that had served as quarters for officers and their families. Some of my island-mates opted for a house, but I didn’t. I lived in the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. Back in the day, two Navy bachelor officers would have shared a common bathroom with their individual private rooms on either side, each private room opening up onto a central hallway. When Midway-Phoenix converted the BOQ to a hotel for their eco-tourists, they left the original floor plan in place, and each guest suite became two rooms and a bath. One room was the living room, the other the bedroom, but you had to move between the two through the bathroom.
Eventually I would inherit a larger suite of rooms in the BOQ from a very sweet older gentleman who was leaving in three weeks on the next supply plane. He took me aside one day and told me, on the down-low, that his suite was the largest and most well appointed available in the BOQ, with three rooms and a kitchenette, and that I should literally move into it the moment he vacated it to beat out any competition. I placed one of my suitcases in the suite, to stake my flag, as it were, as we both headed to the airfield, for him to catch and me to work his flight.
My first six months on island were the best. It was Pirate Island. Everything and everyone was new. Professionally, I had the opportunity to build an airport operation from scratch and not many airport managers get to do that. Every manual, every standard operating procedure, every effort at compliance put in place by the previous operator was designed for an airport staff of about twenty and an island staff of several hundred. I had three ops/fire fighters and one navigational aid technician. Beyond that, there was one fuel farm tech, and a handful of guys who doubled or tripled duty as tugboat crew, vehicle maintenance, logistics, and facility maintenance.
But the booze was free and free-flowing, left over from Midway-Phoenix and purchased by FWS as part of the divorce settlement. By 5:30 pm every day I was on a bar stool in a bar with no bar tender, no tabs, no bouncer, and the only music was from my CD player.
I was having a blast.