The preliminary photos of our revamped airport terminal at Timehri, remind me of the time I spent there after I graduated from Saint Stanislaus College in Georgetown. It was our only international airport, and while the name of the place was actually Atkinson Field, from the time when the Americans created a base there during World War Two, Guyanese didn’t refer to it that way. To us it was “The Base” and it became a coveted place for a weekend visit (providing you got the precious visitor’s pass). I had been introduced to it while I was still at Saints; my eldest sister Theresa had married Joe Gonsalves, the Fire Chief at The Base, and I visited them often, and ended up living with them when I got a job at B. G. Airways, working in the office and occasionally going on flights to the interior as a Flight Clerk dealing with passengers and cargo manifests.
The major American presence there was over when I lived on The Base, but there were still some of their military personnel around, most of them staying in the hotel that the Cossou family had opened up there to accommodate those Guyanese weekend visitors. The Atkinson community was an unusual one, made up largely of civilians working in the airport, and living in the cottage style buildings the Americans had put up in their time; to deal with the tropical climate without air-conditioning, they designed very open houses, with no windows, but rather an arrangement of open spaces, allowing wind to pass, and with screening to keep out the insects.
There was a numbing similarity in design – all the buildings looked exactly the same – but it made for comfortable living virtually free of mosquitos and other bugs.
Although prized to Georgetown folks for a weekend visit, The Base was actually a close-knit community – there were two areas with these residential buildings created by the Americans (memory says we called them “cottage areas”); one was immediately across from where our present airport terminal is (some of the original buildings are still there), and the other one was a short distance from there in the direction of the Demerara River.
The American-style buildings aside, what set The Base apart from most Guyanese communities was the collection of individuals living there. For some reason, perhaps the air travel component in the mix, they were an eclectic group but generally close-knit (Atkinson was a long way from town and fairly isolated) and there was a lot of energy in the place. I had worked at B. G. Airways and later at International Aeradio Limited (IAL), and after my previous home at Vreed-en-Hoop, this was a very communal place; everybody knew everybody else, often by the first name. While I don’t recall any of the outdoor parties common in town, there was a very spacious swimming pool there from the Americans’ time with some kind of activity almost every afternoon and on week-ends. We had a range of Guyanese living there – mostly employed in the airport – the likes of George King and his wife, and the resident physician Doc Richmond, along with some foreigners including Dennis Crooks, a Trini, heading up B. G. Airways, two Barbadians, and several Georgetown folks including many working in telecommunications in the airport proper. In the latter group, for some reason, there was this range of personalities. One of them was Hilary London, who was a bit of a radio nut and technical man in one package, always fiddling with equipment, and not very interested in small talk, but full of outbursts when he solved some radio equipment problem, or, much worse when something failed. Frank White, on the other hand, tall and stately, was total decorum. Being very sandy, Atkinson could be very hot in the day or freezing cold at night, but FW always looked as if he had just stepped out of the shower and nothing seemed to bother him or hurry him.
In the area of drama, although the afternoon volleyball matches would provide some, nothing could match the night-time Monopoly games (folks in the cottage areas would take turns hosting them) which would often deteriorate into shouting matches, with accusations being hurled, fingers being pointed, and things becoming so intense that sometimes families would stop speaking to each other for several days. George King was a master at this, but there was also a Bajan there (his name eludes me) who could hold his own especially when the Barbados accent came into full play.
Frank Nascimento, however, was a special case. Labelled as Foxy (from his aeradio call letters Fox Nan) Frank was a dynamo in a small wiry body housing an unusual character. Mercurial and impulsive are words that describe him. In the second-floor aeradio station where we worked there was a zinc sheet outside, covering the first floor below, and the radio guys would stand outside onto that area to check the cloud formations for weather reports. One day, about to do a weather report, instead of stepping onto the shed, Foxy took a short run in the office and jumped to the shed outside. I was watching, with my mouth open. However, he had forgotten the rain shower an hour earlier, and when his shoes hit the wet zinc Foxy went flying off, landing in the yard below. What saved him from injury was the sandy surface, common to Atkinson, which cushioned his fall. The guy was a maverick. Going for a swim in the pool, Foxy would leave home, fully clothed, and pass under the houses in the area; he would cop the first swimming trunks on a line he found and change into that when he reached the pool. The amazing thing is that folks were aware of this behaviour but Foxy got away with it with no reprimand, as far as I know.
The Base was a place of characters: the Trini Rudy De Bruin, head man of Shell, who had Carnival blood in his veins and behaviour to match; Hilary London, the mad electronics fanatic; Frank Nascimento, the swimming trunks thief; the fashion plate Frank White; and yours truly…going to town, on a motor bike I borrowed from London with the guitar hurriedly slung on my back, ground down on one side in the long journey; or Jerry Goveia, from PanAm, taking off his motorbike’s air filter at full throttle to get more speed on the main Atkinson approach road and losing it in the process. The gem, though, was the late George King in a Monopoly row – Shakespeare material, non-stop. The Base – what a place! Ask the folks who were there.