October 20, 2017

The Air Force of Edwards — with feathers!

Bob Alvis
special to Aerotech News

One of the birds that made up the Elisabeth Lake Air force rescued from Rogers dry lake bed.

People found my story about being the “snake wrangler” of George Air Force Base pretty entertaining.

I have been asked many times to tell that story, and have done so with pleasure many times over.

Yes, it was one thing to be moonlighting to make an extra buck and yes, being raised in the desert meant that wildlife has always been an attraction for those of us that understood the danger. Deep down inside, it was a fascination with these creatures that sparked our passion. Heck, for close to a year our squadron at George had a chuckwalla I found one day that was our mascot/squadron pet!

But where did this DNA come from that flowed in my veins, sparking this love for the living things of the desert? Well, we need not look far, as my Dad was the animal lover that carried that passion and passed it over to his kid!

Case in point is an Alvis family story of the Elizabeth Lake “Air Force” of the late 1960s. Dad worked out at Edwards going back to the Douglas days of the 1950s, until he called it quits with Rockwell at the conclusion of the B1-A program. After the loss of the XB-70, he went over to General Electric and was working on a variety of programs.

Dad always had a soft spot for animals. Even in the hangers out at the base, he was always rescuing this owl or a turtle that managed to find its way into a tight spot. But one thing that Dad became a pro at was saving the birds that were drawn in and tricked during the hot summer months by the mirage on the dry lake bed. Finding no water to relieve their thirst, the parched birds would drop on to the taxi ways and tarmacs, as heat exhaustion push them to the limit.

Douglas employees, with Dad the bird man on the right holding the sign in the front row, in 1955.

Dad — or Bill, to his working buddies — always had this box he carried around in the back of his commuter car, a 1962 Ford Anglia. When he would find one of these weary feathered travelers that had not “bought the farm,” he would wrap them up in a wet cloth and tuck them away in a cool spot until they could recover. He would let them go in the evening on his way home from work, on old Sierra Highway near the reservoirs south of Rosamond.  

Sometimes the birds would end up injured and their trip would end at our house, much to my Mom’s good-humored exasperation. Sometimes a duck or some type of waterfowl ended up in our bathtub doing R and R as they were nursed back to health. One duck in particular we named Herkimer and he stayed with us longer than most, for he had the most entertaining quack and he just loved people!  

But the day would always come, usually on a Saturday morning, when Pops would walk out onto the back porch, round up his rebuilt “Air Force” and load them up in the Anglia — They sure weren’t going into the family car, Mom made sure of that! Knowing what was going to happen and after building a relationship with these survivors, sadly we’d pile in and head off to the west. In less than an hour, we stood on the shore of Elizabeth Lake and returned them to the life they were meant to live. Over the years, Dad made that trip many times over the summer months, even after I had left home and was serving Uncle Sam. Dad grew up a hunter in Illinois in the 1920s, but somewhere along the way he ended up with this softer side. I admit as I get older I feel the same way he must have, since now I find myself often moved to help out an animal in peril.

The home of Dad’s wayward travelers -Elizabeth Lake, south west of Lancaster, back in the day when it had plenty of water!

I use to joke about Dad’s Elizabeth Lake Air Force many years ago, and haven’t thought about it very much lately. But recently, visiting the area and seeing that lake now dry and thirsty, I can still see the spot where the Anglia would pull over and a dad and his kid would release the birds of Edwards back to the water and skies to continue their journeys. That, my friends, is what a great memory is all about!

Maybe soon I can share the story about the Edwards tarantulas that used to cover the roads out there in the afternoons — but that, according to my Mom and sisters, is NOT what a great memory is all about!

Till next time, Bob out!

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