Sunday, January 3, 2016

In Which an Obsolete Nike Missile Triggers Gratitude

I had an interesting discussion with a friend during our New Year's Day walk.  Talk turned to places where one might move, and she mentioned Orlando.  I said it was too fake for me, a town based on fakeness.  When asked to elaborate, I said, "Well, there's all those theme parks"--to me, the epitome of fakeness.  She disagreed.

I've been thinking a lot about our different outlooks on theme parks and the fakeness/reality of place.  She sees theme parks as a legitimate expression of creativity, and she's right.  I see them as places designed to give me a safe experience while separating me from a lot of my money, while promoting popular films and other vehicles designed to separate me from more of my money and to anesthetize me so that I won't venture out into the wider world.  I'm right too.

We're both right, and we're both wrong, and whole books have been written on this subject.  It's an interesting question in this world where more and more of us live more hours online than we do in what we used to call the "real world." 

Yesterday was one of those days when I had a real experience--and I'm reminded of why lots of people prefer to go to Disney World.  I spent much of the day feeling a bit (or a lot) terrified--and then, exhilarated, educated, intrigued--while circling back again to terrified with stinging rain and shivering leg.  Yes, another motorcycle adventure.

I began the day with my nerves feeling jangled.  I was tired and sad about the end of the holidays.  A very large part of me wanted to stay home, drink wine, and laze about the pool again.  But we had agreed to meet my brother-in-law and his wife for a group motorcycle ride to the Nike Missile Site in Everglades National Park.

I spent the first part of the ride, when it was just me behind my spouse as we zoomed to the Turnpike and down to the meet up place, feeling nauseated with fear, like I had never been on a bike before.  What was that about?  I thought back to SCUBA training, to the caution that even the most seasoned divers can succumb to panic.  I kept focusing on deep breathing, and eventually we got to the meet up point.

The panic returned as we sat in stop and go traffic waiting to get off the Turnpike where it ends.  Grrr.  It occurs to me how much of the past 2 months I've spent sitting in traffic jams/slowness that I didn't anticipate.  I hated the zooming and the stopping, plus the sun was at its hottest beating down on us and the fuel smells were close to overwhelming.

Happily, all of my icky feelings evaporated as we got onto the backcountry roads headed to Everglades National Park.  I love the expansive way I feel as the landscape stretches out into fields and vast skies.

We went to the Nike missile site once we got to the park.  Lots of people, including me, say that South Florida paves over its history (see the discussion of fake--above--I've felt distress about the funkiness of Hollywood Beach, which I first loved so much in 1998, and much of those interesting buildings have been bulldozed for faux-Tuscan condo enclosures and beach resorts with closed off spaces).  It was great to see a piece of preserved history, even though it's history that's barely older than I am.

I had decided not to take my camera, and frankly, the pictures wouldn't have been all that interesting.  We saw a cinderblock building here, a dog kennel there.  One lone missile remained.  It seemed small and lonely, although it had been freshly painted.

Our guide reminded us that the missile was designed to bring down aircraft, not another missile, not to go to Cuba.  But it did have 40 megatons of nuclear fissile material onboard, which was double the amount of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  A commander in his 20s at the site had a letter signed by the president of the U.S. giving him the authority to use whatever means necessary, including that warhead, to protect the nation with no further instructions.  Yikes.

I've seen lots of missiles and other types of weapons, most commonly in museums, like the Air and Space Museum, or on military bases, as a display.  It was fascinating to see it on the site where it would have been used, with the 10 x 12 bunker nearby where the 4 servicemen (gendered term used intentionally) would have hidden once they sent the missile into the air.

What kind of incinerated world would they have emerged back into?

And then, there's the question of sea level rise that's never far from my mind.  At one point, our guide pointed to the plaque that designated the site one of historic significance.  He said, "That means this site will still be here in 50 years when someone younger and prettier than me will be giving this same tour to people younger and prettier than you."  My spouse muttered, "Or it will all be under water."

Again, I had this image of future generations SCUBA diving through the wreckage of our lives.  And it won't just be the southern tip of Florida--much of the edge of the east coast will be under water in the next 100-500 years.  Imagine swimming around Williamsburg and other colonial sites.  Imagine much of Manhattan under water.

But I digress.

We walked around the site for a bit, and then we headed out.  Both bikes were having some trouble starting.  Our bigger bike that we were on (not the slightly smaller bike I've been learning to control) spews gas when being started--not good.  But we made it back.

On the way back, we rode through a brief downpour--the rain on a motorcycle feels like it's stripping off bits of skin--a very stinging experience.  And my lower left leg got more soaked than the rest of my body--and then it started shivering.  Very strange to have just one limb shivering.

I thought back to my discussion of what's real and what's fake.  At a theme park, I could go on a "motorcycle ride"--but it would be a controlled ride.  I could be sure that my bike wasn't going to crash.  I would ride with people similar to me.

Yesterday at the missile site, I was surrounded by all sorts of people:  a variety of motorcyclists, a variety of tourists, more veterans than I would have anticipated, several park rangers.  I was surrounded by buildings of real history, not representations of buildings that were on film or real buildings across the globe.  I saw a real missile.

Of course, we could have a rousing conversation about these points too--was the missile real, even though it was disarmed?  Why should buildings that were actually used at a historic point count for more than representations of those buildings?  My friend and I didn't have  chance to hash out those points on New Year's Day. 

The larger point from history also interests me.  The world was so close to nuclear war at that point in time, from 1962 to 1992.  With so many itchy fingers on so many triggers, what has kept us safe?

Or is safety just the ultimate illusion too, much like those theme parks?

As we rode home, I noticed that my panic had eased, which was strange, in a way--after all, I knew we were on a bike with a hose leaking fuel.  But we've been in many a vehicle that leaked combustibles, and we've lived to tell the tale.  So it is with many a disaster saga.

I breathed in the rain-freshened air and said a prayer of thanks for the atmosphere still above us, the land below us yet to be incinerated or sunk beneath the sea.  And later, I sat down to my supper of turkey and dumplings, I felt much cozier than I would have if I had given in to my impulse to stay home and loll around the pool.

Cozier and luckier.

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