Stranded at Moton Field

Recently, we moved the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit from Hangar One to the Scott Exhibit Hangar. The exhibit is open to the public now, though we haven’t had a formal opening yet. We have some work left to do but it’s getting close. Come and see it!

The Museum of Aviation’s Tuskegee Airmen exhibit during installation in the Scott Exhibit Hangar.

While we were installing the exhibit, I reflected on an experience I had a few years ago. During the summer of 2006, I went to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, for a week of training. Late on Friday afternoon I got on the interstate highway to head back home.

For some time I’d wanted to stop by Tuskegee, Alabama, to see the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field, where the Tuskegee Airmen did their initial flight training. Since Moton Field is close to the highway, I made the detour even though I knew the visitor center would be closed. I pulled in and parked.

As I reached for the key to turn off the engine it occurred to me that I might leave it running. I’d had problems for some time with my car not always wanting to start, though it had worked perfectly the entire time I was at Maxwell. But I thought, “What if I’m more than just a couple of minutes? The car worked perfectly all week.” So I turned off the engine.

I walked around the site for about 20 minutes. A few original buildings, including a hangar, were still standing, and at the time, the National Park Service was in the early stages of constructing a museum complex. I went back to my car. It wouldn’t start! I had a bit of a sinking feeling.

I called the Tuskegee Police Department on my cell phone and asked if they could recommend any mechanics who could come out and give my car a jump. I was told that Tuskegee is a small town and everything was closed. The dispatcher recommended I call a mechanic in Montgomery but that sounded really expensive. I was on a tight budget.

I decided I’d just sleep in my car and find someone to give me a jump in the morning. It was hot and humid (late July in central Alabama) and I was sweating just sitting there with the door open.

As it got dark, I climbed into the back seat and used some clothes for a pillow. It started to rain and I had to put the windows on the driver’s side all the way up. As I lay there, I thought about the young men who lived in the barracks at Moton Field and nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field nearly 70 years ago. They endured the same heat and humidity and a lot of much worse things, too. I felt a certain closeness to them. There I was, getting ready to sleep at this historic site where young heroes were learning to fly! It was neat, in spite of the physical discomfort. I fell asleep and slept surprisingly well.

Diorama in the Museum of Aviation’s Tuskegee Airmen exhibit showing an aviation cadet studying.

Around 12:30 AM I woke up. As I lay there thinking about how sweaty and gross I was, I heard a car and saw the light from headlights. It was a police car. I climbed out of the back seat and the officer asked what was going on. I explained and when I said I needed a jump he said he could help. Within a minute, I had the cables hooked up. My car started right up. I thanked the officer for his help and hit the road. Let me just say that the air conditioner felt really good.

I thought about that experience often when we were working on the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit. I’m glad it happened. And in case you’re wondering, when I left the car with a mechanic the following week, he wasn’t able to find the problem because the car started up every time.

– Mike Rowland, Curator

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