Ghost tower.

Let’s play a little game of free association. I’m going to give you the word ghost. What comes next?

For me, the first thing I think of is, somewhat surprisingly, Ghost Pain, a book of poems by Syd Lea.

Next comes a ghost story, followed by a phantom limb. Then Ghostface Killah. Closer to the end of the list I come to ghost crabs, something we see on the beach every day. They camouflage themselves quite well in the sand but we see their skittery sideways tracks and if you catch one unawares – or when he thinks you haven’t noticed him – he’ll brandish his little claws at you.

One of the last things I think of is what some Fort Walton Beach natives call the ghost tower. To me, it’s just the tower.

There are water towers all over the island, but on the restricted part of Santa Rosa Island, where the Air Force does so much of its research, if you say “the tower” everyone knows what you mean. You aren’t allowed to take pictures of things on air force bases, but apparently the engineering firm got a special allowance. When you see what the tower looks like, you’ll understand why it’s so unmistakable.

After working on Eglin Air Force Base for a month and driving by the tower at least twice every day, we had gotten used to it. Which is why we were surprised and elated that on Tuesday, my boss, Margo, told us that she had arranged a tour of the tower. It’s 300 feet tall and has a deck on top covered by a retractable dome. What did the air force do up there? We were about to find out, and it was awesome.

We had my boss’s sister Marlies to thank for the tour, because she had come down to help on the project and Margo wanted to at least show her a few interesting things instead of work, work, work (mostly it was work, work, work). Without Marlies, we might have gone our entire time without making it inside the tower. Wahoo!

The tower staff had been booked to help the air force with a mission that day, but the mission had canceled, and so they had nothing to do. Instead of lounge around in his office all day, a very nice, talkative man met us in the parking lot and explained the tower’s history. We took an elevator up – slowly, as it’s main design feature is that it can carry up 20,000 pounds, not necessarily quickly – and watched the ground drop away below us and the island flatten out. By the time we reached the top, the views were incredible.

Thanks to Marlies for the photos, too; she had her iPhone, which was lucky because none of us had brought our cameras. I, for one, assumed they wouldn’t let us take pictures.

We learned a bit about what sort of testing they did on top of the tower and how they helped coordinate missions, which was pretty cool. We work on the island every day (literally, every day) but I know next to nothing about what actually happens there. Much of the time, the only other people we see are the firemen washing their trucks or testing out the lights. It’s often at night that the excitement happens. We’ll set up a site and come back the next morning to find fresh ordinance or casings all over the ground.

The guys in the tower also keep track of when they see sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, or other interesting critters in the water. It was pretty cool to hear a guy switch from talking about radar and missiles to showing us video of two sea turtles playing in the surf.

After we had toured the inside of the tower, we spent a long time out on the catwalk, reveling in the views and the breeze. What a treat! My trailermate/coworker Jamie is afraid of heights so she didn’t even come out on the deck, but the rest of us had a great time. It was quite a thrill to look down on the parking lot. 300 feet is serious business.

After the tour, it was pretty hard to go back and finish our day’s worth of fieldwork. But the work had to get done, so we sucked it up and reluctantly returned to manual labor. Play time was over, but at least we got some in the first place. Thanks Marlies!

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