[written March 23, 2004]
Students at the Defense Language Institute have a long time to think about their futures. Since language courses last upwards of a year, consisting of non-stop classes for seven hours a day plus extra studying, it doesn't take long before students want nothing else than to... just... get... out... as... quickly as... possible...
But this desire runs counter to the reality of living in Monterey, California. First, the damn place (2nd most expensive area to live in in the country) is free to live in! Plus, there are beaches everywhere, including the Carmel side of the peninsula, and there's a certain feeling you get when you get on the freeway and see signs which direct you either to San Francisco or to Los Angeles. It never gets too hot or too cold in Monterey. Yet students are overcome with dread for the place, and want to move on with their lives. They feel like their lives are put on hold. There are quite a few suicide attempts on base, and people often talk of a half-dreamy, half-nightmarish place called San Angelo.
San Angelo is where DLI students go when they graduate. San Angelo is a small city of 90,000 people in Texas which is home to Goodfellow Air Force Base, one of the only intelligence training posts and home of the military's firefighting training course.
DLI students talk of San Angelo with such disdain. Oh, there's nothing to do there. You'll be in class all day and drill sergeants will be tossing your barracks room while you're gone. When you want to relax and unwind on the weekend, there's not even a Best Buy or Gap to go to. All there is are steak restaurants, dives, and a bunch of smalltown hicks who speak with funny drawls and hate colored people.
On the other hand, there was an optimistic view of San Angelo as well. One step closer to getting out of military training, which lasts more than two years for many of us! Some people have photos of the entrance sign to Goodfellow posted on their doors at DLI, as if the sign is the welcome sign to Las Vegas. It's a rite of passage for training peons. People at DLI would eagerly pass on news from friends who had made it to Goodfellow, receiving mixed reports of life in Texas.
San Angelo is very small, and remotely located. There's no interstate that runs through San Angelo, so you have to take a two-lane road to get there. There is nothing near San Angelo. It is many hours away from Austin or Dallas, and there's little reason to go to Abilene or Midland-Odessa, which are closer. Cellphone service is spotty on the drive in, and you see a lot of deer.
Goodfellow AFB is located in the northeast of the city. The city is growing in a southwest direction, and all of the chain restaurants and stores are in the southwest, mainly on two roads, Knickerbocker and Sherwood. Lake Nasworthy and the airport are in the southwest as well. While the city is growing a lot, it is still resisting having an interstate built, and long-time San Angelo residents are still scattered throughout the present-day city.
The outskirts of downtown consist of what you could not describe as anything else except sprawling sprawl. It's just blocks and blocks of desolation. Even downtown has empty storefronts and little traffic. It looks like no one's been in some of those parts for twenty years.
What makes up for it is some attempt by the city to revitalize downtown's appearance. San Angelo was first founded around Fort Concho, which was built to secure the region and to take advantage of the merging of the three branches of the Concho River. The city participated in all of Texas's economic booms, but also fell victim to them. It was a military post, then the second oil-boom town in Texas, then a cattle/sheep center fit with a railroad station, and now a city with an identity crisis after the busts all fizzled out.
San Angelo's visitor center was just opened about two months ago, designed by the same architect who did the art museum. Both buildings are beautiful. Both have an organic design, with a rolling roof style that's all the rage these days. The visitor center overlooks the Concho River, with a rock garden, falling water, and footpaths connecting the two. Across the street from it is a playground, which, according to one of the very helpful people inside the visitor center (who's lived in San Angelo all his life) was built in a week all by volunteers.
The San Angelo Fine Arts Museum looks like a saddle from the outside. At first I thought it was a rodeo barn or something! The art museum features works by Texan artists Frank Reaugh and Mary Margaret Pipkin. Reaugh captures the Texas landscape (although if he's in there, then my dad could probably get his paintings in a gallery somewhere, because my dad's style seems similar, I think) and Pipkin's flowers couldn't appear any more lifelike. The art museum also has some super hot chick who watches the patrons. =P
San Angelo has a hockey team, the Saints, in some non-NHL league. The great thing about it is the parking's free and you get 50 cent beer and hotdogs before the game starts. This is a welcome change from paying $2 million to park at the Hangar in Dallas, along with the $5 million tickets to sit in the nosebleeds just to watch Mark Cuban rail the officials and see Sean Bradley meet his season average of 5 falldowns/game. After the hockey games, you can usually skate on the rink for 50 cents, and most of the San Angelo Saints' hockey team members will be down there helping kids to skate and taking pictures with fans. It's very nice. The players all seem younger than me, and they're all missing their front teeth!
San Angelo also has an arena football team apparently. They're called the Stampede. The season hasn't started yet so I don't know much about it.
Military and college students like to go to Graham's Central Station, which is this big bar/dance club with different rooms for different music styles. It's the Mucky Duck of San Angelo. Which means I always run into people there who I avoid on base. One room has your typical Coyote Ugly theme, which girls dancing on top of the bar. Other places to go include O'Brien's, the Scrub Pub (built in with a laundromat for some reason), and Cheddars for their awesome mojitos! O'Brien's is often empty, even on the weekend, so you can go chill outside in the patio area with your buddies. Also, they have free hotdogs with fixins, which makes it even better. I hate loud bars so O'Brien's is a favorite.
More about Goodfellow. Our commanders keep telling us how good the relationship is between the base and the locals. I didn't really believe this at first, but then again, Texans are pretty supportive of the military. I asked the guy at the visitor center about this and he corroborated -- there's no shortage of military members going out to do volunteer events for the community, like Christmas in April (where we renovate someone's house) or the Relay for Life (charity running all night long) or highway cleanups. In exchange, the city rushes to Goodfellow's defense when the Pentagon or whoever up there threatens to close the base down. I'm sure the city also likes all the money that these young soldiers and airmen bring to the stores around here.
The weather is usual Texas fare -- hard to deal with. It's really windy out here, which affects our running. (a common exercise in the Army) What's worse is that when the wind blows in from the southwest, a foul odor of manure blows through the base. I don't know where it comes from, but it's really hard to deal with. Combine that with a barracks where no one will switch the heat over to A/C, and we're sitting in our rooms, sweating our balls off, with a manure smell blowing into the room. Ugh!
One of the safety tips we soldiers get before we go off for the weekend is to stay out of the Concho. Supposedly, the river is so polluted that merely drinking it will give you a kidney infection, make you puke, or even kill you! Perhaps that's where San Angelo's famous pearls come from -- there's so many pollutants in the water that they consolidate into mini trashballs inside oysters. Disgusting!
San Angelo has very low unemployment. The figure is in the 2% area.
San Angelo seems to be big on locally-owned businesses, which is nice. There's two Wal-Marts, but only one McDonald's. The chain restaurants have had some problems breaking ground in the area. They've also kept out of downtown. There aren't 7/11's. There are Town-and-Country's. There seems to be a lot of pawn shops, dry cleaning, and storage businesses. The city seems like a place people mainly pass through.
My initial impression of San Angelo still remains -- the city has been hit hard so many times economically, by the oil and livestock busts, and now what keeps it going are Angelo State University and Goodfellow AFB, which bring in young people, but young people who are quick to move away. The city itself is like a husk. How can a city have an identity with a core group being temporary and fleeting?
I think the best thing for a city like this is to embrace tradition and find something the city's good at. The worst thing to see is when towns do something like building the biggest horseshoe or whatever, put a big sign next to it, and hope that brings in the tourists. But San Angelo seems to be trying to encourage a cultural outgrowth in the form of sports entertainment, interesting building design, and artistic events like its own ballet and symphony. In this way, the city will become more palatable to live in, raising the quality of life. At the same time, not selling out to the highest bidder keeps the town's growth in check, so that it doesn't turn into a commercial cesspool. People come and stay because the city means something to them, because it's close to their hearts. Talking to some of the locals, they're aware of many who've come back to San Angelo to retire, because they love living here so much. I think San Angelo may be on the right track.