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Column: Encounters reawaken passion for museum, veterans


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Longtime military veteran advocate Gordon Lake gestures as he makes a point during a meeting at the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Base museum, where he has been a volunteer for almost two decades. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Longtime military veteran advocate Gordon Lake gestures as he makes a point during a meeting at the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Base museum, where he has been a volunteer for almost two decades. SUBMITTED PHOTO


Gordon Lake has been guiding visitors through the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum almost from the time it opened in 1992.

Being a tour guide that long can get old. The stories start to sound the same, and the tour groups can become indistinguishable.

Not for Gordon. He can recount the history of the museum and the Air Force base it represents from memory. The difference is that he has picked up other stories along the way. Some of them come from the visitors he’s shown through the building.

He picked up a new one Saturday. It came from a 91-year-old gentleman named Dave Linder, who came into the museum with two younger men who had flown into Columbus Municipal Airport just to see the museum.

“He said he was with the 434th Troop Carrier Wing and the 71st Squadron during World War II,” Gordon wrote in an email to his fellow volunteers at the museum. “He flew CG-4A (glider planes) and L-5s during that time.”

The former pilot’s visit to the museum in Columbus was not happenstance. During World War II the then-named Atterbury Air Base was a training facility for glider pilots.

Much of the museum is dedicated to the story of the glider pilot period in the base history, including a video about the role played by the “silent planes” during World War II, most particularly the D-Day division in which gliders landed American forces behind enemy lines.

“He (Linder) really enjoyed that video and was able to explain to his friends what they were seeing,” Gordon said. “There were others watching the video at the same time, and I told them that they were sitting next to a glider pilot. They treated him like a celebrity.”

So did Gordon.

Linder is not the only celebrity Gordon has encountered as a museum tour guide. A couple of weeks ago he was on duty when the son of the late Lt. John Bakalar came into the building that bears his father’s name. Bakalar was killed in a mission during World War II, and several years after the war’s end the Air Force affixed his name to the Columbus air base.

Encounters like those delight the former Indiana Army National Guard first sergeant, who served 33 years with an artillery unit, but they’re even more special because of his interest in the causes of military veterans.

That dedication goes back a long way, but it really was demonstrated around the time of two events in the 1990s that galvanized the community and fed a resurgence of old-fashioned patriotism. One was Celebration 95, the community’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the other was dedication of the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans.

Both events struck a chord with local residents. In a sense, it was a reawakening for a spirit of patriotism that had fallen flat in the previous years.

Out of both events sprang modest efforts to revive interest in programs such as those for Veterans Day and Memorial Day observances, which in the years immediately prior to 1995 had become skeletal affairs, attended mostly by a handful of aging but dedicated veterans. Gordon and a small group of like-minded residents took over planning for the events, and the results were immediately apparent. That handful of onlookers mushroomed to several hundred on each patriotic occasion.

The group went beyond the traditional observance programs and created one of their own, the Honoring Veterans Banquet. Veterans weren’t the only ones honored. Special attention was paid to other people in the community who supported those who served, people like Alice Curry and David Bowden of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, who put together the annual Salute concert; Janie Gordon, who lent her voice and spirit to veterans events; and Sandy Watts and her Parkside students, who championed the cause of the USO.

At the same time, Gordon had become active with the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum. He went beyond the work details and tour guide assignments that had been put together by the volunteer group that has been the core of the museum staff. They were called the 95ers in recognition of their efforts in organizing Celebration 95. Gordon took it upon himself to set up and be the webmaster for the museum’s website (www.atterburybakalarairmuseum.org). It would just take a single visit to this site for anyone to recognize it as one of the most detailed and thorough histories of a community institution.

Gordon has been pivotal in the development of all these veterans-related activities. In some instances he’s almost a one-man show, handling even the most minute of details.

The thing is that while his efforts are recognized by those around him, he’s almost an invisible man to the public. He prefers to let others take center stage, instead standing in the background to deal with details both big and small.

I suspect that’s the way he likes it. After all, he gets to do what he wants, and he enjoys the stories he picks up along the way.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at harry@therepublic.com.

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