On Noble Army Hospital’s last day, the staff and volunteers gathered in the lobby to bid a poignant farewell to the building that had cared for so many soldiers and their families over the years. Noble’s workers tended newborn babies, broken bones and bouts of flu common to any community.
And Fort McClellan was a community as much as it was a military post, according to the women who came to northeast Alabama simply because assignments had called their husbands.
They’d been born in other countries, ones that had suffered the destruction of wars and their aftermath.
They came to Alabama and made it home. To this day, some are amazed at how fast they settled in.
When they think about the Army post that brought them here — the one that closed 10 years ago with an act of Congress — their stories trail over memories personal and shared, over a community that they hope finds its way back to life.
They look at McClellan today and see opportunity held in limbo and progress on the verge of being lost.
“I was with the group that locked the doors,” said Barbara Tucker, who volunteered with the Red Cross at Noble and recalls that last day in 1999. “It was sad, seeing it close. You knew something was lost.”
The women sitting with her in the old Post Exchange nod. All three were born in Germany. All three take a keen interest in what’s happening at the old Fort McClellan they were once so familiar with.
It’s been 10 years, and it seems to them as if that time has flown by quickly, in some ways too fast, when they look at decaying buildings.
Their suggestions for what should be done to McClellan — and it irritates them that the “fort” has been dropped, by the way — are simple: Make the most of what’s already there, and do no harm.
“What we need is industry that won’t pollute the environment,” said Sigrit Berth, ticking off a list of ideas. “It is beautiful out here, and so much could be done.”
They’ve passed overgrown grass for years now on their way to use the swimming pool at Truman Gym, but it still seems alien to the neatly trimmed post that was once called the “Military Showplace of the South.”
The pockets that have been renovated have added a little luster, but the deserted swaths leave a hole in the area that is deeper than clusters of empty buildings. One thing people don’t often realize is how far Fort McClellan’s reach extended into the community. Weaver, Saks and Jacksonville had large concentrations of military households, and those residents are still represented today in military retirees.
Therefore, they feel the post’s loss, too, and any absence of its revitalization.
“You miss seeing the soldiers around town, out in the town,” said Jacksonville resident Yun Prater, a Korean native who 39 years ago married a young military policeman named Elzie Prater. “That’s a small thing, but it was there.”
The story of military spouses coming back to the United States is one that dates back to World War II and the post-war occupations in Europe and Asia. Like many communities across the South, Calhoun County saw its language grow from a relative homogeny of accents to one that included German, Japanese, Italian and Korean as those military families came and stayed. Asian markets opened up. Across from McClellan, there’s a Korean church where Prater goes to pray. Downtown at The Annistonian restaurant, German food is served on Wednesdays. And once a month, the expatriate community meets for the simple act of keeping in touch with one another.
The assets that should be able to bring McClellan to life again are the same ones the women noted when they first came to Alabama. They remember friendly people who wanted to help them succeed in their new home and were willing to work hard to help assure that success.
They remember a community that reached out to them — even when some of their relatives back home weren’t so sure about their coming to the Deep South.
European news of the South from the 1950s through the ’70s consisted mostly of race riots, protests over busing and other tinderboxes that fueled the civil rights movement.
Berth’s family was the only one that didn’t discourage the move: “My aunt said, ‘Very good. The next time we lose a war, we will get care packages.’”
The relatives’ dire predictions of culture shock and intolerance didn’t come true. All the women, whether born in Germany, Japan or Korea, were folded into the closely knit Army family.
Even Prater, who has been here longer than most, said the transition from one life, one culture, to another felt natural.
“When people heard we were from Germany, that was OK,” Tucker said, remembering her first days here nearly three decades ago. “We were not from New York.”
Her companions laughed, heartily enough that others in the new Café McClellan glanced over at their table.
In the old days, the café’s dining room was a cafeteria. At lunch, it would have been packed. In the adjacent stores, shelves and coolers were lined with ingredients and products that couldn’t readily be found on local grocery shelves.
Now they go to bases in Huntsville or Georgia to do their big shopping.
Ten years ago, the Post Exchange, Commissary and hospital were the three things military retirees said they’d miss the most after Fort McClellan’s closing. The PX lingered for a few years and has gotten a new start recently as a medical mall and café.
The old medical center — Noble Army Hospital, where Tucker volunteered — also has a fresh start, probably the highest profile at McClellan. As the Noble Training Center, it’s part of the Center for Domestic Preparedness and the Department of Homeland Security.
Nearby, the Cane Creek Golf Course stretches along McClellan Boulevard and back toward the center of the post. The women remember when the rest of Calhoun County used to envy people who had access to play at Cane Creek.
“That — keeping the golf course, keeping the pool, the sports fields — those facilities are excellent,” Berth said.
They’re also part of the McClellan landscape that holds a place in the hearts of people who used to live and work there. Even the quirks of a military installation — vigilant police who’d give a ticket for even testing the speed limit — are recalled with affection and respect.
Karin Drewes, originally from Germany, and her husband were in Tacoma, Wash., when he retired from the Army. Fort McClellan was, she said, a special place. It helped that she liked warm weather and friendly people. She knew they’d be back here one day.
While watching McClellan’s transformation has been painful, it hasn’t changed the way they feel about making their home here for good.
“We’re disappointed that they haven’t done more,” she said. “It was sad to see it go.”
Ten years ago, their drive back to McClellan Boulevard would have taken them past full parking lots or the occasional stand of basic trainees lined up at attention. And if the window was rolled down, the distant chant of jogging soldiers would likely filter through the trees, a cadence accompanying a trip that never went too fast.