ATWATER, Calif. --
Smack-dab in the center of the Golden State, not much was gold save the crisp and cloudless twilight coloring an armada of gray helicopters refueling on the ground.
One after the other, the Sea Knights and Sea Stallions lifted off, tanks full, rotor blades fwop-fwopping off into the dusk.
Dan Schrole watched it all through a chain-link fence April 3 outside Castle Airport. He listened to the fleeting cacophony until only a steady, northerly wind filled his ears and continued blowing down the flat, expansive San Joaquin Valley where he grew up.
Shortly after the aircraft left, the winds died.
And then silence.
That quiet -- a post-Cold War stillness -- swept this city after Castle Air Force Base shut down in 1995.
“When the planes were gone, it left an ominous silence,” said Schrole, who grew up here.
Hearing more than the usual buzz of piston-powered two-seaters, some came to see what the hubbub was.
The Marines were in town. Thirteen helicopters -- eight transporting infantrymen en route to a simulated raid site -- had landed at Castle for a rapid refueling by a KC-130 Hercules.
The hour-or-so stop was part of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s 20-day air-ground task force exercise held at various military and civilian installations throughout California.
Six CH-46 helicopters and two CH-53s from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166 (Reinforced), the unit’s aviation combat element, lined up on the runway. Scores of camouflaged warriors from the unit's ground-combat element -- 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, aka the Magnificent Bastards -- exited the aircraft and walked off the tarmac.
Schrole said watching the Marines was fascinating, and it gave him pride in being an American.
“It says something about this country -- our military -- when a young man would go over there and fight and risk his life for somebody he doesn’t even know,” he said, remembering his neighbor, Cpl. Joshua D. Pickard, a 20-year-old Marine killed in Iraq in December 2006. Pickard died while conducting combat operations in Al Anbar province.
The helicopters, one by one, pulled up to a fuel hose extending from the KC-130’s wing, and aircrew from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352 pumped the fuel.
Two AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopters and two UH-1N Twin Hueys filled up at a separate pump.
The Magnificent Bastards got back in their aircraft and off they went.
Within that hour, a handful of locals had gathered outside the airport fence. Former chief warrant officer Julio C. Rodriguez Rivera, who flew CH-47 Chinooks in the Army, brought his 8-year-old son Julian, who brought his own helicopter, a die-cast version from a nearby drugstore.
Schrole, who works at a distributing plant for an area grocer, said the sound of a dozen military helicopters, virtually in his back yard, harked back to the days when the two-mile runway roared with B-52 bombers and KC-135s flying operations in and out of the city.
Nowadays, there’s less bustle. Many of Castle’s buildings are unoccupied, and acres of asphalt lots are overtaken by wild grasses and the occasional stray cat.
Not a godforsaken place, Castle's austerity added challenge and realism for Marine expeditionary units training to live and operate out of any landscape.