Pardon Me, General, Do You Have Any Grey Poupon?

FEW pieces of the Defense Department's real estate holdings equal the Presidio in San Francisco for grand beauty and enviable setting.

It is called a country club equally by the upper brass who yearn to be stationed there, and by the critics of Pentagon waste for one reason: It is a country club. Its lawns glide above the Pacific where the Golden Gate bridge lofts off into the fog. There are tennis courts, walking trails, ball fields. Everything is tended, clipped, managed, protected, and staffed by people on the government payroll. Those paying for all this, the taxpayers, are generously allowed onto the base to use the fields or, if they have official business, pick up some colonel's laundry perhaps.

Obviously this installation was foremost in the fight against communism, which regretfully ended some time ago. It was headquarters of the Sixth Army. For the five minutes that anyone believed there might be a peace dividend, there was hope that the property - sylvan glades, Pacific views, and all - might be turned over to the public as part of its reward for underwriting the cold war. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended that it be turned into a national park. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California fought off Republican attempts to sell it on the open market. The Army, the branch that has run the Presidio since the 1800s, was ready to leave.

Then the generals thought it over. Several times. The Presidio, a term that sounds so much nicer than ``fort,'' has 10 tennis courts, miles of trails, a full golf course, and baseball and football fields. The buildings are comfortable and well-maintained and, most odd for a military installation, they are attractive. It is nothing less than a jewel of an assignment. You could leave your heart in San Francisco, or at the Presidio just as well.

Luxuries for top brass

In truth, Americans would probably be amazed to know of the official luxury provided for officers in the upper ranks at some bases. The defense budget currently supports 200 golf courses. My own experience in military luxury includes membership in the officers' club at Fort Belvoir, Va., where I was stationed in 1969. It was called the Engineers' Club since Belvoir was the headquarters for the Army Corps of Engineers. I wasn't an engineer, and I didn't want to be a member - or in the Army for that matter, but it seemed mandatory.

The club grounds overlooked the mouth of Potomac, a setting as lovely as the Presidio's. It had not only a good golf course, but a boat basin with full services for sport fishermen. The clubhouse was an immense palace of solid stone, protected by a phalanx of graceful old trees. The swimming pool (members and their families only, please) was perched on a bluff, a safe distance from the comparative squalor of enlisted life. The upper ranks could disport themselves and call for refreshment as the purple shadows lengthened. Officers' children splashed in the pool, and the soft thwock of tennis balls being hit floated through the balmy tidewater air. War was hell somewhere, but not there.

Every base has officers' clubs and golf courses, though few as lovely as Belvoir or the Presidio. A certain myopia sets in as officers rise in rank. The need for luxury seems a part of the order of battle.

Reinventing the rental clause

Given the alternative of moving to the sun-baked asphalt of Moffet Air Force Base, the Sixth Army did some quick military logic. It was hard to imagine ordinary people walking around as if they owned the place. And the Interior Department was hardly flush. So, under the guise of helping two-thirds of the Presidio's 1,500 acres be developed as a national park, the Army has offered to retain the best part of the land. Officially, the Pentagon will pay ``rent'' of $12 million. The money will go from one of Uncle Sam's pockets to another, and things will remain largely as they always have. Rep. Ron Dellums (D) of California called this ``reinventing government,'' which means that ordinary citizens may play golf a little more easily.

Sixth Army headquarters will remain at the Presidio, in case Marxism breaks out in Oakland. As Karl von Clausewitz said, you can't have a headquarters without a golf course. It may not have been Clausewitz. It may have been Bob Hope. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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