Monday, September 19, 2011

The fading ruins among us

A couple years ago the kids and I were watching an old b&w sci-fi movie. At one point a character starts dialing on an old rotary phone on a desk and the kids all asked "Dad, what's he doing?" It kind of surprised me, because we had a rotary dial phone when I was a kid, but I didn't realize they'd never seen one. And just the other day I was talking with my cousin and he said his son told him there was something wrong with the phone when it was making an unfamiliar noise. Turns out it was a busy signal – another of those things I didn't realize had already become part of the past.

When the kids and I watched "War Games" there was a LOT to explain for them to understand the story. That could probably be said of many movies, as well as much of the music I listened to in the 80s (remember "Russians" by Sting, or "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?). Growing up in the 70s and 80s I experienced the increase in Cold War tensions that came during the Reagan years. But the idea that the U.S.S.R. (do younger people even know who that was or what it meant?) would crumble by the end of the decade would have been laughable. And yet it seems the reality we lived in was defined by a contradiction – peace was maintained by the ability of two nations to assure "mutual destruction" of each other within minutes – and it left a mark on society. Some friends near Topanga Canyon actually had a 60s era bomb shelter in their back yard. Kinda cool, but I can't help imagining the puzzlement the younger generation must feel at seeing some of these things.

Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic AmericaIn Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America, Tom Vanderbilt takes us around the country examining the ruins left by the Cold War, a war which did and yet didn't happen. From missile silos being destroyed to ones being turned into homes, from "proving grounds" to backyard bomb shelters, Mr. Vanderbilt uncovers sites which often sit right in front of us and simply blend into our landscape in spite of their obviously militaristic features. But he goes beyond the aging and disappearing signs indicating "fallout shelters" and discusses how the threat of nuclear annihilation shaped our cities and our thinking. Cities became the targets, and today's suburbs – often denigrated under the label of "urban sprawl" – were a reaction to and a defense against the calamities which befell the densely packed cities of Germany and Japan in the firebombing raids of WWII. Attempts to fortify buildings, strategies for minimizing casualties, underground cities, interstate highways, early warning systems, NORAD, massive retaliation... it all walks a fine line between critical and absurd.

While it's not always the most exciting read, I thought the book captured that sense of ridiculousness very well. It ends with some sobering observations on how September 11th relates to this struggle to protect ourselves without falling into a "bunker mentality" (and I can't help but think of airport security). Overall, it's an interesting and reflective look at a fading time, a look at the darker side of the optimism and technological advances of the 50s and 60s, with lots of great pictures (all in stark b&w). And it's a reminder of both the differences and similarities between my children's world and the one I grew up in.

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