My old uncle Dan—my pops’ older brother—skipped this mortal coil while I was there. He’d had esophageal cancer and went through some pretty dramatic surgery and treatment, so it wasn’t a big surprise, but nobody expected him to go quite so soon. His two sons, John and Drew, were closest cousins and long-time playmates to me and my sister Natalie growing up. I still remember the phone number that they had forty years ago—haven’t used it in decades—don’t expect anybody will be answering it now. 887-7807...it was kind of musical—as was our home number 887-3377. Somewhere along the way we turned into adults, although it still doesn’t feel quite right. The four purportedly grown-up cousins now co-own our family lake cabin. Weird.
In related news, I happened to be out driving with my mom one day and we drove past the old industrial park where Mr. J. Herbert Orr founded Orrtronics—later Ampex—later Quantegy. Texted my buddy Marc Chevalier, figuring he would know something about the history of magnetic tape. He asked if I’d taken any pictures. I had been camera-less on the day, so Miss Anne and I drove out another time to see if there were any signs of the old place. Hopefully a big, beautiful, literal, vintage sign saying “Ampex.” So, right there on the corner of Orr Avenue and Marvyn Parkway, a piece of the history of how music was recorded is now...a giant moonscape of strewn rubble.
(Marc, I brought you a nice bit of souvenir rubble)
The related news part is that uncle Dan worked years ago as an engineer at Ampex, and I think years after that went back to work for a brief stint at Quantegy before it went bust.
Where does Erwin Rommel the “Desert Fox” (die Wüstenfuchs) come in, you might ask? Well, my favorite lunch-box as a kid was from the old Rommel-era TV series The Rat Patrol, but that’s another story. Turns out the property on which Ampex etc was later built was a P.O.W. camp during WWII! Crazy... Nazis!! Right there where I was a kid—of course I wasn’t a kid yet, but my parents were. Seems like I had some very vague memory of this, but it was very vague, indeed. My mom told me that my great-uncle Sonny and his wife briefly lived at this camp after he got out of the military, when it was turned for a time into housing for returning G.I.s. I actually found what seems to be the only remaining bungalow from the P.O.W. days, when I got out to photograph an old Quantegy sign, overgrown by some holly bushes.
From the historic marker:
“Camp Opelika—World War II Prisoner of War Facility—Located on this 800 acre site was an enemy prisoner of war camp. Construction of Camp Opelika began September 1942. The first prisoners were part of General Erwin Rommels’s Africa Corps. The camp prisoner population was maintained at about 3000 until the end of World War II, in May 1945. In September 1945, the camp was deactivated and deeded to the City of Opelika. For a brief period the camp quarters were used for veteran’s housing before the site became an industrial park.”
(FYI, for those not familiar, Auburn-Opelika is sort of like Minneapolis-St. Paul, only much smaller)