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Oceanside, Spruce Goose (and the CIA?)

by Logan Jenkins
SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE

It’s a soaring season for biopics.

“Ray” (musician Ray Charles) and “Kinsey” (sex researcher Alfred Kinsey) have drawn great reviews. “Alexander” (as in “the Great”) is epic in scale though historically lame, according to critics.

Flying high above competitors at the Academy Awards may be “The Aviator,” director Martin Scorsese’s anticipated film about Howard Hughes, scheduled for release this month.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes (Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn; Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner), “Aviator” charts the billionaire pilot’s turbulent life from 1927 to 1948, beginning with Hughes’ first movie, “Hell’s Angels,” and ending after the one-mile test flight of the Hercules HK-1, the wooden flying boat commonly known by its derisive nickname, the Spruce Goose.

I’m reminded that a dozen years ago Oceanside was in the running to create a nest for the suddenly loose Goose, five stories tall with a wingspan of 320 feet.

Why, if it hadn’t been for the machinations of the CIA, Oceanside might even have cashed in on the Goose’s golden eggs.

Well, that might be a bit of a stretcher.

The CIA part, I mean.

Truth is, I wanted to pique your interest with a conspiracy theory. But I swear, everything else is God’s honest.

In 1992, Councilman Don Rodee warned the residents of Oceanside that there was no time to lose. Fortune favors the daring. “This community has the opportunity of a millennium passing before it,” he said at a council meeting.

For months, Rodee had been touting the purchase of both the flying boat and its 3½-acre, six-story-high hangar, located in Long Beach next to the Queen Mary. Rodee had his eye on a spit of land just north of town, on Camp Pendleton. But other sites to the east of Interstate 5 would do.

Tourists traveling down the highway would flock to the visible Goose, he predicted. A commercial pilot with almost 200 combat missions in Vietnam, Rodee was dreaming like Cecil B. DeMille, in Technicolor.

Mayor Larry Bagley expressed the skepticism of many O’siders when he dismissed the Goose as an albatross.

At one meeting, Bagley scoffed, “If Rodee will fly it down here, I’ll back him.”

Rodee was undeterred by the sarcasm. He plotted how to transport the seaplane on the ocean, possibly under the power of its eight 3,000-horsepower engines.

“National Geographic was going to pay us for the rights of a documentary program of the event,” Rodee e-mailed me recently. “The dome was going to come by large barges and sectioned up here for a movement to its final position. . . . The Smithsonian (Museum) backed the position of the plane here in Oceanside because it was a big part of the aircraft industry era of WWII.”

In the end, O’side finished second in the bidding, beaten by Evergreen International Aviation Inc.

“The issue turned into a moot point,” Rodee recalled, “as Delford Smith of Evergreen Airlines – the CIA’s (contract) airline that replaced Air America of the Vietnam era – worked an insider deal with the Aero Club of SoCal (the Goose’s owner) and came out as the first choice on their list.”

Not surprisingly, McMinnville, Ore., Evergreen’s headquarters in the wine country 35 miles southwest of Portland, welcomed the Goose with open arms.

The plane was separated into 38 pieces and shipped on trucks 980 nautical miles to the new Evergreen Aviation Museum, which displays 60 other aircraft next to the Evergreen airstrip.

Still, the Goose is the museum’s star attraction, housed in a graceful hangar-like structure that also serves as a restaurant. Visitors enjoy dinner under the outstretched wings of Hughes’ wooden folly.

“Aviator” is likely to create a surge of interest in visiting the Goose, agreed Katherine Huit, director of collections. The museum’s vintage color footage of the Long Beach skyline has been blended into the end of “Aviator,” Huit said. The museum also helped with the creation of a Goose model as well as technical support.

Rodee – these days, he’s hanging out in New Zealand, “taking a long break and enjoying life” – said he’d heard a rumor at another air museum that the CIA secretly underwrote the building of the Evergreen museum, offering a financial edge to McMinnville.

Well, that wild goose shall remain unchased.

I’d rather go see the movie.

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