Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Roar of Freedom Gives Me a Headache

On Sunday morning, I had to force myself out of bed at 6:30 a.m. because S and Em wanted to go and see an air show close to San Diego. I'm supremely disinterested in airplanes, but Em is passionately in love with them, and S thinks airshows are cool. So we drive down to San Diego and suddenly realization dawns on me (after checking maps and directions) that the air show is actually being held at the Miramar Marine Base. I've never been on any sort of military base or cantonment area in any country before, so this was a strange experience from the start.

But first, some background. California's economy has benefitted immensely from the presence of the defence-industrial complex. Indirectly, the defence industry generated a large number of jobs in the region, and companies like Boeing, Northrup Grumann, Lockheed Martin have a major stake in the state. However, there has been a lot of direct employment generated by the location of a substantial number of army, navy, marine and air bases in California. At the end of the Cold War though, there was some major rethinking about the need and expenses involved in running such massive bases (with huge expenditures on personnnel and equipment), which resulted in the recommendations of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) in 1993 to close down the El Toro Marine Base, resulting in the shifting of the Marine Corps Air Station to Miramar, which was housing a Naval Air Station at the time. Details regarding base closures can be found here and here.

The Miramar Base has not been without controversy, as the surrounding community grapples with the issues of noise and air pollution, urban expansion and rising home prices and the need for a new airport to accomodate San Diego's growing air traffic. There was concern that the BRAC 2005 might recommend the Miramar MCAS for closure. However, this didn't happen, and fairly low-key recommendations were made regarding shifting a few of the training personnel to a base in Florida. Within this context, the Air Show acquires a different meaning. Not only was it celebrating the 50th anniversary of its existence, but it was also trying to engage the local community, convince them to have a stake in the continued presence of the Base in the area, and of course aid in the recruitment drive of the military.

We reached the Base, and were directed to our spot in the parking lot by polite but stern Marines. One of them looked barely 18, his face covered with acne, delicate wire frame glasses perched on his nose. His slim body was overwhelmed by his uniform, and his boots were strikingly visible, dirty brown, perhaps suede or sheepskin. After our bags were checked, we walked along the barbed wire fence, as Em told me that the fence reminded him of his military service days. On the other side of the fence were the finest that the military of the United States could commission or buy, handsome hacks of metal welded together with precision, the exposed fusillage indicating the strength of the engines that were to shatter my peace of mind in a few hours' time.

A strange sight where a few South-east Asian style rickshaws (or pedicabs), which some of the Marines were using to give rides to the visitors in return for tips. We walked into the main area, to find many of the planes put on display and the general area resembling in appearance a county fair (minus the rides). There were hot dog and hamburger stands, BBQ chicken sizzling on grills, impossibly tacky souvenirs and "VIP Chalets" for corporate sponsors. Many of the visitors seemed to be Marines and their families, many a little boy dressed up as a soldier, clutching a little B-2 model plane between his fingers. A Base is a self-contained world, what could be more natural than a Marine's son becoming a Marine. We found our seats, which were in the very first row, right next to the runway, just the way the Pumpkins had ordered them. And then the show started.

With commentary by those whose skills had been honed doing sports commentary for middling small town American footbal teams. Lots of "Yeehaws" and "I'm lovin' it" peppered the shrill insistent drone. And music by those whose home fires are kept burning by military music commissions. Except for the curious inclusion of the 3 Doors Down song "Kryptonite". Either no one paid attention to the lyrics, or it was the work of some disgruntled Marine. There were many Marines continuously patrolling the fences that separated the staging area and runway from the audience. Many of the boys looked very young, and certainly many must have been destined for Iraq. Some looked oblivious, some flippant, some pensive. Mostly indifferent to the tribute to patriotism that was being enacted around them.

And then it started. Aircraft after aircraft, tearing down the runway with a thunderous roar, doing impossible spins, flips, manouevers, stretching the machines to the maximum even as the noise reached a crescendo. My ears were enduring a double pounding, the noise of the jets compounded with the incessant commentary. The commentator called the roar of the aircrafts the "sound of freedom". My ears were begging for an escape from the sounds of freedom into the arms of the silence of tyranny. I tried to shape two piece of tissue paper into ear buds, but to no avail. The sound just wouldn't stay out.

And then stray snatches of conversation started to filter in, that froze my blood to my finger tips. Like little boys who rushed to the fences when a mock battle scene was enacted to say "Wow, that was so cool!". Or when I heard a child's voice behind me say, "Oh cool, they have the B-2, but where's the Napalm bomber?" I turned around to see a little Polynesian or Filipino looking boy with his father, the little model B-2 by his side, eyes glued to the planes. Suddenly I realized that there were way too many children at the venue. Children have sensitive ears. Soft and ductile and malleable and impressionable. Very delicate ear canals, that do not filter the noise well, that cannot make the association of noises with physical substances, red, viscous, plentiful and scarring.

I told S I had had enough. But we had to wait, because Em and the Pumpkins had gone to get some food. But my heart was already pounding. And then more jets took off crisscrossing the sky with ropes of noise suffocating me to the point that I felt choked and was in tears. S took me out as soon as the others returned, and we got out of the Base and headed towards San Diego to see the Greek Orthodox church that had been built by S' grandfather during his stay in the US. It even has the same name as S, because it is also the name of a patron saint. We couldn't get inside the Church because it was closed, but I saw a glimpse of a fairly traditional altar inside.

My spirits had settled after leaving the Base, not the least because the area that we drove around to reach the Church was pretty, close to the campus of UCSD, with little cafes and handsome houses. S and I then met some relatives of his briefly and later drove down to the San Diego seaside, to meet the others for dinner at one of the area's oldest restaurants. The others though were not too keen on a fish dinner and decided to let us eat dinner there before taking us to Old Town San Diego, a touristy little part of town with faux-authentic Mexican restaurants (oh my God! they make real tortillas). Em and the Pumpkins had dinner there, and even though the Pumpkins raved about the food, I didn't think it looked very interesting (very cookie cutter Mexican). Actually I don't really rely on the Pumpkins for food recommendations, since their tendency towards the lowest common denominator is very high. Not that Anthony's, our restaurant, was any good, but at least it had fresh fish.

7 Comments:

Blogger Adagio For Strings said...

Ayyo! You to have taken my comment totally seriously wonly! Two posts in 1 day! Ammaa be praised! As for my post status. Having writers block! Cant come yup with yenything virginal! (in keeping with the rest of my comment which is fake south indian accent virginal translates to original). But soon ....

12:12 AM  
Blogger K said...

Hey, I love airshows and airplanes! I would have loved to be in your place.

2:20 AM  
Blogger Vijayeta said...

Wow! I envy u... I love air shows too :(
And i agree with yr comment abt why should there be a premise. It was just to prove what i was trying to say, and finally i've managed to start a little debate, courtesy Lash. An evil desire comes true ;) Would love yr input too!

5:04 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Hi Adagio, in this case I was having the opposite of writer's block. Why virginal, what's wrong with same old, same old :)

K, the air manouevers per se weren't really the problem, the seating was, and the commentary, the cheesy music, and near war hysteria atmosphere. In fact I'm glad I got to see some very fine planes, including the B-2, F-117A and a bunch of F22s, Hornets, Harriers, etc.

Hi Vijayeta, so as I explained to K, the air show wasn't really the problem, the other factors impingin were. I'll check out your blog right now, what fun!

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