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Security fears prompt sad misunderstanding at base

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By Jenna McKenna

A British visitor who has visited Cedar Key several times a year for the past nine years recently told The Beacon of a bizarre incident, which may result in him being unable to visit here again.

Peter White, a widower from England, loves to fish from the Big Dock when he visits Cedar Key. However, he says his attempt to show hospitality to U.S. troops stationed overseas may postpone his next fishing trip, perhaps indefinitely.

In an email to the Beacon, White said he recently sent an open invitation to U.S. troops stationed at a Royal Air Force (RAF) base near his home, making a goodwill offer to the service personnel to spend Christmas Day at his home.

White said he received no reply to his invitation, so he paid a visit to the information desk at the base's main gate, hoping to find a contact to address his invitation directly. He said gate personnel promptly gave him the information.

What happened next started all the difficulty. White said he told the Enquiry Office at the base that he wanted to donate $50 towards a Base Personnel Welfare Fund or the children's Christmas Party. Workers there declined his offer, he said, calling it "tantamount to bribery of a government employee."

On returning to his car, White said he was surrounded by three Air Force policemen and detained for "suspicious behavior." He said he was held for over a half-hour in the rain "spread-eagled over the hood of the car" until an intervention from the British Ministry of Defence proved that he was neither a terrorist nor a criminal.

As a retired British Army officer who performed cooperative missions with the U.S. Air Force at MacDill AFB in Tampa, White said he fully understood the need for security, adding, "The security of all of us is of vital importance and I do not blame the American military for being cautious. It is not what they did that concerns me, but the manner in which they did it!"

"If it is now a crime to enter an Enquiry Office, then I am guilty of a crime. Actions such as theirs, when all I wanted was to give a few dollars to a worthy cause and provide a Christian gesture of welcoming them into my home for Christmas Day, has alienated me."

Reached at his home near the Mildenhall RAF base, which is used by the U.S. Air Force, White reiterated that his concern was more for the continued ability of local residents to show support and amity for the U.S. troops in their midst. It is a very common practice, he said, for locals to invite military personnel, far from home during the holiday season, into their homes for a comforting break.

"I bear absolutely no ill will towards the Americans," he stressed. "It's just a shame that things have got to this stage. We've always had a very good relationship (with the air base)."

White also didn't abandon his hope of donating money to the children's Christmas party, and said, "As for the money, I handed it to the minister at the American Baptist Church near the base on my way home. They were able to give it to the children's party without being treated with suspicion."

Several days after the incident, White said he felt more hopeful about the prospect of being able to visit Cedar Key again.

"I have written a letter to the embassy in London, and I hope to be able to clear everything up," he said. He said he hopes to be able to celebrate the reopening of the Big Dock in person.

For now, he wishes a Happy Christmas and a safe, pleasant New Year to all his friends in Cedar Key.

To correspond with White, or keep up with the progress of his visa, write him at peterwht6@aol.com.