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October 28, 2010

Ghosts of Fort Ord

A few administrative notes before today’s post ...

1) There’s still time to enter the CLIF seasonal bar giveaway contest – until 5PM on Friday the 29th – so if you haven’t done so already, get moving!

2) A handful of people have asked whether my book is available in digital format, and the answer is … Yes! It’s currently priced at $9.99 on Kindle, and $7.99 on Nook. Since these electronic versions are already available for download, they don’t have a pre-publication discount (Sorry). But those prices seem pretty fair, don’t they?

3) Today’s post is another Monterey County ghost story, similar to the one I wrote for Halloween last year. One week ago I reformatted that report for a newspaper column, and was delighted to receive an e-mail from a descendant of the family involved: a Salinas resident who invited me to her house to learn more about the people in the cemetery. I’ll probably take her up on it someday – but in the meantime, another story awaits …


“These are the bad lands, the worst place to fear –
Making place for the ones we left here -
They're calling, calling to say goodbye -

We’re dead in this ghost town -
You’d better let go so let go, let go of me … “
- Shiny Toy Guns, “Ghost Town” (video after post)

During all the years I’ve lived on the Monterey Peninsula, I’ve known the Fort Ord open space as the perfect location for multi-hour trail runs, as well as my son’s favorite area for riding mountain bikes. To generations of people who came before us, however, Fort Ord was something much more significant: one of the most popular and strategically critical military installations in the United States.

Established in 1917, its ideal climate and proximity to the ocean made it one of the most highly desired assignments in the Army, but Fort Ord was better known for its large expanses of land with a wide variety of terrain. It made an ideal training ground for field artillery exercises, and the base quickly became a final tune-up area for soldiers preparing for combat. At one time during the 1950s and 60s, Fort Ord had more than 50,000 troops living in its barracks.

The base was closed in 1994, but voices from its heyday still linger – especially if you follow a quiet trail beyond the eucalyptus trees towards a recreation area that used to be a gathering spot for the military families who enjoyed this location for decades.

Signs of it are hard to see at first – but as you get nearer, you encounter things that seem out of place on normal trails, such as random metal poles …

… or cages that seem designed to trap wild critters, or perhaps protect domestic ones.

Continuing on the trail, you begin to see signs that time has taken its toll here, past structures that have started to collapse …

… or are merely weathered and abandoned. On the perimeter of the recreation area, buildings like this seem to materialize right before your eyes in the middle of the brush as you round one turn or another.

In the main recreation area, several playground structures are packed more closely together – and it’s fairly clear that when this area was maintained and the weeds weren’t growing wild around everything, this would have been a pretty cool spot for kids to play …

… and if you slow your pace and quiet your breathing enough, you can almost hear the echoes of children's laughter in the breeze.

Even the military training structures would have been fair game, as this bunker seems like an awesome little fort for a bunch of young explorers who needed a spot to trade baseball cards, read comic books, or just hide from their parents for a while.

Chances are that Mom would be sitting on the benches under this gentle oak tree, whose branches reached like long protective arms to provide welcome shade on hot afternoons.

A short distance from the playground is some sort of public address tower, which might have been used to coordinate games for the men who hadn’t been shipped off to duty yet. It stands within bullhorn distance of a family picnic area …

… which is next to a basketball court that probably saw a ton of pickup action in the days before a dislodged roundabout was parked there …

… and across a field from a backstop that was likely the site of hard-fought weeknight softball games, or chaotic Saturday T-ball games.

From the top of a nearby bluff you see a sole remnant of the community that once thrived here: a military chapel that was the centerpiece of the barracks village. In the early 2000s, this area was sold to developers, and most of the barracks were bulldozed in anticipation of creating a subdivision of contemporary housing. Thankfully, the chapel was designated for preservation in the new development, which never materialized after the economy crashed.

Now all that’s left in the area thousands of families once called home are a handful of buildings that escaped the wrecking ball, and the trampled memories of all those who lived and played here many years ago.

When I run through these areas today, I find complete solitude, as it’s rare to encounter another living soul on these trails. Consequently, the spirits and voices of the past are more easily perceived, and my thoughts inevitably dwell on the people who used this area the same way I do: as a place to play, to revel in the beauty of the surroundings, and temporarily escape the stresses and rigors of daily life. I can virtually see them in my mind, and hear them saying goodbye as I make my way back through the eucalyptus trees.

From their standpoint, they don’t know if I’ll ever be back to visit again, but from my standpoint I’m certain. If only there were some way I could assure them.


As for the song: it’s probably one of my ten favorites from the past year … but I have to admit that the video is something of a stretch. It’s got a “Japanese manga meets the old-school Heavy Metal movie” vibe to it, and the result is probably a bit more corny than it was intended to be. But that’s just my opinion; maybe it works better for you.

Shiny Toy Guns, "Ghost Town" (click to play):

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page.

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runputt 10/29/10, 5:06 AM  

Did you take those pictures? They're great.

Ewa 10/29/10, 6:40 AM  

Some years ago there were astronomy classes for young kids at Fort Ord and that was the only time we ventured there. Never thought it would be such a cool place for running or biking.
Cool pictures, so fitting to have them in BW.

Donald 10/29/10, 7:00 AM  

Runputt: Yup, they're mine. Thanks!

Spokane Al 10/29/10, 7:27 AM  

Very nice to look back, through your words and pictures, at what was and/or might have been.

jeff 10/29/10, 8:46 AM  

donald! i'm so disappointed! i'd have thought for sure that you'd use the specials instead of shiny toy guns.

RICK'S RUNNING 10/29/10, 10:59 AM  

it's great to see nature take back control! You can't beat it so might as well enjoy it!
Yes The 'Specials@ is a classic :]

Gretchen 10/29/10, 5:21 PM  

Ooh, cool. I can totally see how all those artifacts make you think about who used to live there. Seems like a lot of fun - running and getting to use your imagination. Nice post! And, you really should take that woman up on her invitation to learn about the graveyard. I think that would be fascinating! (And one more thing - that song? Eww. You really like that? I couldn't make it past 30 seconds of listening. Sorry.)

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