Cannon loss would tear apart families, friendships

Curtis Roberts of Clovis, right, talks with his mother Nelda Roberts at Mainline bowling alley in Clovis. Some residents are dismayed by the possibility of losing their military friends — and bowling partners. (AP photo: Ben Chrisman)

By Anna Macias Aguayo: The Associated Press

The thought of losing Cannon Air Force Base tugs at the heart of Betty Tiedemann.

It would mean a separation from her 20-year-old daughter and the two young grandchildren. Her son-in-law is stationed at the base.

“My daughter’s really my best friend,” said Tiedemann, 46, her eyes tearing up.

“She’s never been away from home. We talk on the phone about two or three times a day … My grandkids, one is my sunshine boy and the other is my pumpkin girl. My son-in-law, he taught me how to ride an ATV.”

Tiedemann, a bookkeeper, typifies what often gets lost in debates over threatened military base closures: losing a base could leave a community reeling emotionally as well as financially.

Residents of southeastern New Mexico contend that, beyond thrusting the region into economic gloom, closing Cannon would tear asunder families and friendships. Also shuttered would be three public schools where the kids of cattle ranchers and dairy farmers learn alongside children who’ve traveled the world with their uniformed parents.

The void would be felt in social services — from Habitat for Humanity to youth scouting troops — that thrive because of the military’s volunteerism.

“This community is faced with a very unpleasant, undesired divorce situation,” Clovis Mayor David Lansford said. “And that’s not a pleasant thing to contemplate.”

Lansford expects to lose two co-workers if the base closes.

“You can’t measure the emotional impact this would have on us,” he said. “But it’s negative. All over town, in churches and schools, people would be losing close family and friends.”

When Ivonne Haney’s husband was stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in 1985, she assumed they’d move after his tour. Having just moved from England, her first impression of southern New Mexico’s high plains were not great.

The desert landscape was too flat and lacked vegetation, she thought. Two decades later, with her husband retired from the service, she lives in Clovis by choice.

“People ask me what I’m still doing here,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Clovis grows on you.’ In Clovis, you’re only a stranger for about 10 minutes. People are accepting and welcoming of the military.”

Haney, a mother of three, felt embraced at Ranchvale Elementary, a rural campus where at least 75 percent of the students have parents based at Cannon. As a teacher, she now tries to recreate the same nurturing she felt at Ranchvale for transient military families.

She keeps a rocking chair in her classroom where she reads to kindergartners and they read to her. She decorates the classroom in bright colors and personalizes it with students’ names.

“You invest so much energy, not just to make a classroom appealing, but to make it a comfortable place, a safe place,” she said. “My kids see their names in at least eight different places in the classroom.”

The cultural diversity and travel experiences of Ranchvale’s students makes for some neat learning activities, Haney said.

“I can do a Japan unit because I have kids who’ve lived in Japan,” she said. “I usually have a Japanese mom who can write the children’s names in Japanese.

The children take a field trip to a dairy and learn about ranching, too.

“I can do a cowboy unit, because I usually have a child who can bring his horse to school. We’ve had a child demonstrate how to rope a wooden steer.”

Haney said Ranchvale teachers feel ownership in the school and are trying to carry on as if the base will not close. When school opens in August, she said, “The children won’t know that their teachers are watching for a date in September.”

A commission will make a final recommendation on Cannon’s fate to President Bush on Sept. 8. Supporters of the base have bombarded the Base Realignment and Closure commission with thousands of letters — asking them to remove Cannon from their hit list.

Residents of Clovis, Portales and places as far away as Amarillo and Lubbock, Texas, emphasize the many ways they prosper because of the base. They say, for example, that the community benefits when Cannon’s volunteer coordinator matches base personnel with tasks ranging from food distribution at a pantry to mentoring kids.

“The military bring with them a strong willingness and desire to improve what’s around them, wherever they are based,” said Catherine Johnson, coordinator of Court Appointed Special Advocates in Curry and Roosevelt counties.

With CASA, volunteers ensure that abused children are represented in court when a judge considers their custody.

“When it comes to children — the innocent and the vulnerable — their effort is phenomenal,” Johnson said.

Twelve of CASA’s 20 volunteers would leave if Cannon closed. That, would be a “major loss,” Johnson said.

The Clovis and Portales Habitat for Humanity would miss its volunteers, too, said project director Joyce Davis. Ninety percent of the group’s volunteers are military families. They’ve shared carpentry and plumbing skills and have given some 8,000 hours to construct four homes.

“The men and women of the base make a significant difference in how fast we can accomplish things,” Davis said.

Developer Craig Chapman also is in limbo. He bought 84 home lots before the base’s fate was put in jeopardy.

“It’s been very stressful,” he said. “I’ll probably have to lay off people. There will be a ripple effect. The lumber yard is going to slow down. The plumber, dry wall contractors, painters and floor covering people won’t have work.”

Chapman said that lately his nights have been sleepless.

“I won’t be eating out as much,” Chapman said before digging in to a spicy dish at a popular Mexican restaurant. “I feel despair. It makes me take a little bit more time for prayer in my office every day.”

Even the normally jovial bunch at Clovis’ Mainline Bowling Alley wear pained expressions when asked to envision life without their military friends, among them the leader of their bowling association.

“There’s some darn good bowlers at the base,” said Barbara Roberts, an artist and competitive bowler.

Lansford said residents are striving to keep a positive attitude. Leaders have started talking about how they might redevelop the base property.

“This community is not made of a bunch of whiners,” he said. “We’re not saying to government” ’Help us. Help us. Help us.’

“Our agrarian roots have shown us that we’re responsible for our own livelihood. No matter what, we’ll survive.”