“That? It’s the old Minuteman Missile Site.”
“Well, one of them.”
In my travels, I’ve been surprised to stumble over so many relics of the Cold War, former missile sites being among them. These entrails of our empire are no less stunning than the Assyrian walls reconstructed for our delectation at the New York Metropolitan Museum. The terrifying detail of the human-headed winged lion that was lamassu was designed to reinforce the power of the Assyrian state upon the visiting delegate. The smooth surfaces around the old missile sites are even more awesome than lamassu in their blandness and uniformity – all the power lies in their stunning technology, and not in the fearful imagination of the visitor to Assyria.
I’ve been thinking about the Cold War, having come of age in its late evening shadow. The ICBM was first developed decades before I was born, but the arms race was raging as I entered high school.
Camp Obama (the homeless, hitchhiking version of it®) has afforded me the opportunity to encounter no small number of Cold War missile system veterans, and I’m struck by how their work on these systems affected them spiritually and psychologically. Sitting in the cabs of their trucks, or huddling over cups of coffee at the modern-day equivalent of the diner (Starbucks), they’ve told me in whispered voices their accounts of the most banal tasks at various missile sites, and I’m no less skeptical than I was in hearing out MacNamara’s late-life confessions.
They're sly, these men: they know that I know that they know what they're trying to do with these stories. ("What's a feint? What's a left hook off the jab? What's an opening? What's doing one thing and saying another?" -Jose Torres in Oates' On Boxing.)
But their hands have liver spots. They’re growing frail. For whatever meaningless reason, no one will call them the greatest generation. (And the greatest generation of what, Tom Brokaw? Of all historical time? What makes the sacrifice of U.S. WWII veterans greater than the abject misery endured by those miserable but fearless women soldiers at Stalingrad?)
Frailty. The other sin after poverty. I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve relied on my physical endurance, without realizing that such endurance is nearly a pure product of the Cold War itself. Even though most of us never even made it to State, let alone Nationals, there wasn’t a practice or coaching session that wasn’t in overbuilt reaction to what our jr. high and high school coaches thought the Soviets would send to the Olympics.
(Coach: "how many lanes are there on the track?" You: "There's only one lane, coach. The winning lane." I was not in the winning lane. But as I later learned, neither were those who were in the winning lane.)
I’ve often regretted this time wasted. We could have been reading Flaubert. But the missile sites, and the men’s stories, jolt me back to the weird reality, and unreality, of all that occurred during the Cold War. The veterans have been explaining the technology of the war that I slumbered through in high school, exhausted from training.
Whatever became of our star athletes? Our soldiers? What happened to THEIR soldiers? I usually think of the Cold War as the “small wars” that took place outside our country, in which some of my family fought. Only through Camp Obama (the homeless, hitchhiking version of it®) have I begun to realize that the war was here, too, in smaller, less noticeable ways.
The veteran who once manned the data station for one of the early east coast missile systems told me he was terrified all through the cold war. He’s an old man now, unafraid to express his fears. In fact, I suspect he’s afraid NOT to express his fears. If his fears were irrational (which they weren’t) then the war was for naught. All of it. But the Soviet threat was, sadly, real.
Still, was there another way we could have met the threat? Besides all this metal and radiation? (The birds, they tell me, would drop out of the sky because of the radiation emitted by our acquisition data systems. Proud raptors fried mid-air at thousands of times the radiation of your microwave.)
There must have been. MacNamara says that we only survived the Cuban Missile Crisis because a former ambassador to the Soviet Union dropped by a critical Kennedy administration meeting. This ambassador stated that he didn’t believe Kruschev had any interest in ending the world, and that all we needed to do was to create a face-saving way out for him.
It’s a miracle.
What other miracles are we capable of?
(Ed. Note: The author, a professional writer, was evicted from her apartment this summer when the owners decided to rehab the building into condos for millionaires. She is among the increasing middle class homeless population which doesn't fit the preconception of homeless people: alcoholics, drug addicts or the mentally ill. (See her comments under the Occupation of Wall Street post, below). According to the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, not only do many homeless people work -- very few of them rely on public assistance. Not a few of them, like "Anonymous" belong to the transitionally homeless category -- she has been "sleeping rough" for only a few months, has a (dwindling) bank account, a cell phone, continues to go on job interviews, and even has speaking engagements lined up. Nobody in her immediate circle of professional colleagues or family members knows she is homeless. I am only the third person she has told. Knowing this woman, she will survive this. Knowing this woman, I will no longer take for granted that the well-dressed people I meet necessarily have roofs over their heads).