“Flight 75, you’re cleared for take-off.”
“Roger that. I’m rolling.”
Wednesday, Feb. 6, was the last time that once-familiar conversation was heard at Mendocino Transit Authority (MTA), and it was spoken with deep affection between Jacob King, MTA’s operations manager who long ago manned MTA’s dispatch center, and Vernon McNamee, former Vietnam helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft pilot and more recently MTA south coast bus driver.
They recited the old mantra over cake as McNamee rolled into formal retirement from his third career after 19 years at MTA. He was honored by MTA staff and fellow crew with cheers and many stories. The cake was festooned with toy aircraft.
“He’s an amazing man with many talents; he’ll be missed,” said Candy Lodge, MTA’s south coast supervisor. McNamee served as back-up supervisor when Lodge was out of town.
“It’s been a fun job: I don’t do anything I don’t like,” McNamee said of driving for MTA. He turned serious for a moment and allowed that there were a few white-knuckle times during Vietnam when he didn’t like what he was doing.
Vernon is known for a steady hand on the wheel and clear-eyed view of the world and its people. “You never leave anyone behind,” he said. That’s why when the Navarro and Garcia Rivers flooded a few years ago when McNamee was training new driver Richard Spencer, they drove the MTA bus over Greenwood Road to Philo and on to Ukiah. Then to get passengers back home, they drove from Ukiah south to Santa Rosa and then west to Route 1 and up the south coast. It was a 15-hour day, but no one was stranded.
McNamee has led a charmed life shaped by his 22 years of active duty in the United States Army, many interests, and a great sense of humor. He earned an undergraduate bachelor of science degree in agricultural engineering while in the ROTC, survived two tours of duty flying in Vietnam, and worked all over the world for the Army. During those years, he flew reconnaissance aircraft for the InterAmerican Geodetic Survey that mapped south and central America. On his second tour with the geodetic survey in Brazil, McNamee met his wife, Rosa, a Registered Nurse in Brazil and California. They’ve been together 32 years. He and Rosa have raised, shown and rescued Basset hounds. He speaks three languages and a smattering of several others.
After he retired from the Army, McNamee earned a second BS degree, in law. That second BS was earned by “learning to never say in seven minutes what we could say in an hour and a half,” he jokes. He worked for 12 years as a trial attorney in Brazil and retired a second time.
When Vernon and Rosa settled on family land in Anchor Bay, McNamee embarked on a third career piloting MTA’s Route 75 bus that carries passengers from Gualala to Point Arena and Navarro before turning right onto highway 128 to Philo and Boonville then left and downhill on the Highway 253 “Boonville grade” to Ukiah, returning the same day. The bus runs the curvy 200-mile roundtrip route once daily Monday through Saturday and tallies more than 5,000 passenger trips a year.
His passengers “are great people,” McNamee said. When he gets the occasional trouble-maker on board, he asks himself why the person is like that. If he can’t figure it out, then he asks the troublemaker to explain why he or she is like that. He’s heard some interesting answers and often the question quiets them down, he said.
On his last trip behind the wheel of Route 75 on Wednesday, McNamee picked up regular passengers Estella and Antonio on the south coast. He greeted the couple as they stepped aboard and, as always, Estella gave McNamee a piece of candy wrapped in waxed paper.
A while later, as he started down the Boonville grade toward Ukiah, McNamee called into MTA dispatch, “Flight 75, descending. Estimating library three five.”
ED NOTE: Mr. McNamee was a favorite of the AVA and well-liked by Valley residents in general. We were particularly impressed with his calm ability to deal with unhappy riders and cool them out diplomatically. Sorry to see him retire.