Part 3, The Shipyard, The Ships, Living At Ground Zero
I was born in Vallejo, California, a small post-WW city that grew in extent and population as I grew older. During WWII, Vallejo, home to Mare Island Naval Shipyard, had boomed to over 100,000 people, but had then busted back to about 25,000 right after the war's end. By the time I left town for college, the population had climbed back to around 70,000, and lots of new housing developments covered once open, oak savanna hills.
Between Vallejo and Mare Island Naval Shipyard, the Napa River flows into San Pablo Bay just West of the Carquinez Strait. Two bridges and a little flotilla of small wooden ferries joined Vallejo to the shipyard across the wide section of the river called The Mare Island Strait, or The Channel, about a half mile wide, dredged to a low tide depth of 40 plus feet. Deep enough to float the ships.
Vallejo was then the federally-owned and operated counterpart to the company towns serving a variety of privately owned heavy industries--steel, petroleum, chemical, automotive, equipment manufacturing, and the like. The industrial complex was about 3 miles long, and housing, administration, and school buildings occupied additional space. A series of large cranes, building ways, dry docks, barges, sheds, and docks dominated the shipyard waterfront. Larger buildings rose inland from dockside.
The city revolved around the shipyard, its schedule, its needs, and its economy. When, for whatever reasons of efficiency or bureaucracy, the shipyard changed the start and finish times of its shifts--day, evening, graveyard--the whole rest of the city shifted its business and play times.
After WWII, the U.S. Navy found itself with a lot of ships on its hands, many more than the post-WW II navy could crew and use. The Mare Island dockside included a mothball fleet, ships and submarines modified for long-term storage against future military need, whose numbers gradually shrank as new ship classes replaced the old and the old were given away in foreign aid or expended as targets or test beds.
But there were always flotillas of mothballed ships--the medium and smaller classes of blue water warships--destroyer escorts, destroyers, the odd cruiser, and lots of submarines--floating across the channel. All painted some shade of grey, all slightly rusting, all carrying the bright aluminum bubbles that sealed away their guns, all reminders of WWII naval combat that ravaged the Pacific.
And combat that ravaged the lives and bodies of the parents of many of my friends and schoolmates. Some bore scars. Some had lost family or friends. Some had fled their homelands for a new chance in America. Some had nightmares, recurring terrors, wounded souls painted over by postwar prosperity and the hope of a better world for the next generation.
The combat, in the form of the Cold War, took on a new and more haunting form.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard was a high technology heavy industrial enterprise whose purpose was to build warships. When I was a little kid, not much ship construction took place, only a few small mine warfare vessels. A lot of shipyard activity was FRAM--fleet rehabilitation and modernization--work on WWII vintage destroyers and GUPPY--greater underwater propulsive power--work on WWII vintage diesel powered submarines.
Then, as the Navy's submarine force changed, as new missions, weapons systems, ship designs and technologies emerged, Mare Island became one of the few shipyards in the world building the new subs, both attack and missile carrying. Almost all of them nuclear powered.
A hoary old make-out excuse goes: We were out watching the submarine races! I am one of a relatively small number of people who could honestly talk about submarine races without stretching accuracy very much. On any given day, I could go down to the waterfront and watch submarines being built on the ways and submarines being repaired or fixed or stocked up at dockside.
Me, the FBI, various intelligence agencies, and a host of Russian observers based in the San Francisco Russian consulate. (Taking local reality for reality across the country, I imagined that all small U.S. cities had their own FBI office. Not until I got to college did I get that this was decidedly not the case, that the FBI was in Vallejo because the subs, hence the Russians, were.) We all ate hamburgers and fries at the same shore side restaurants, looking out the same big plate glass windows, watching the subs.
In addition to rubbing elbows with Russian spies, (to be clear, I did not know who, exactly, was a Russian spy, but I knew that Russian spies were almost always around watching the subs) my friends and I used to row kayaks across the channel and in among the moored subs. Sometimes a pair of subs would be tied dock/sub/sub with enough space between the ships for a small boat like a kayak to go right between the two hulls.
The Navy wasn't too happy with kids rowing up close to the subs, but they never took any serious measures to stop it. Whoever noticed us would just yell and get us to move to a greater distance from the subs.
When submarine construction resumed at Mare Island in the mid-1950s, the first, the Grayback, was diesel-electric powered, designed with a large hanger forward to carry Regulus cruise missiles. It had a streamlined hull yet looked much like older WII submarines overall.
The next submarine, the Sargo, and subsequent ones were all nuclear powered. The Sargo had a streamlined hull, but again looked more or less like the WWII subs in mothballs moored up channel.
The next Mare Island sub, the Scamp, and all the following ones, had Albacore-style hulls, long streamlined cigar shapes with a sail and a single propeller at the very end. The attack boats were small and sleek compared to the ballistic missile subs, which had a long superstructure behind the sail, part of the housing for the 16 missiles in the silos, each missile armed with a nuclear warhead (or, later, more than one).
All of these submarines were painted black. Their black color added something to their sinister appearance. Even tied to the dock, Cold War vintage nuclear subs look fast, deadly, and destructive. Like outer space ships, they venture into dangerous environments. With powerful weapons.
It was complicated growing up at ground zero. Mare Island Naval Shipyard was a primary target in any foreseeable nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the U.S.A.
I did not live each and every day in constant dread of nuclear attack, but did live with a nagging awareness of the chance, however slim, of nuclear attack.
During my elementary school years, when fleets of Soviet bombers posed the greatest threat, we students were advised to duck-and-cover under our school desk, to stay far away from windows during an attack, and to wait for our parents to collect us after one. Officials developed an evacuation plan that would have had us forted up in the Sierra.
Good on paper, doable as a mostly imaginary sort of drill--we did drill evacuations!--but preposterous in real life. The evacuation route, I 80, goes from military base to government center to military base on its way to the Sierra, from target to target to target.
Another reminder of the nuclear threat--The entire San Francisco Bay Area was ringed with Nike anti-aircraft missile sites. Nike sites consisted of a tracking radar installation located on hilltops paired with a launcher installation, usually located on lower ground a mile or two from the radar installation. The radars were quite prominent features of the skyline, their construction sometimes taking dozens of feet off the peaks and the radar domes futuristic in appearance. Plus, we school children got tours of the sites.
Later, when guided ballistic missiles with a perhaps 30 minute flight time became the nuclear weapon of choice, even token efforts at fleeing and surviving were tossed aside. Drills ceased, and the Nike air defense sites were closed up.
Even though I did not think that a Soviet attack was all that likely, I did not want nuclear warheads to detonate over my hometown. I did pay attention to whatever I could learn about nuclear blasts and their effects, radioactivity and its effects, and what happens to survivors. I started to think about who the mass was in the term weapons of mass destruction, and it seemed to be, mostly, the ordinary, civilian world.
Then there was the other funny side of preparing for nuclear war.
My father worked at the shipyard, helping to build these submarines. My relatives worked there. Fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of my friends and schoolmates worked there. Each made a contribution to the construction and operation of awesomely destructive weapons systems.
Some of the missile submarines were commanded by the fathers of my friends and schoolmates. These polite, pleasant, professional men who told us about submarines at school assemblies and cooked up hamburgers at backyard BBQs were, equally, the ones who, were going to launch the missiles intended to turn targets in the Soviet bloc into radioactive hell holes.
I had a difficult time reconciling these roles. Who wants to see his father, relatives, neighbors as making nuclear warfare possible? Who wants to see a schoolmate's father as a conscientious destroyer of cities, worlds, even?
I didn't have a good answer then, and I suppose that I don't even now. A military technology came into being that, if we were to survive, mandated that it not be employed. Yet it appeared culturally, socially, politically imperative that the technology be developed and held against possible need. This required, among other things, that for ordinary people, doing a shipyard job brought into being a chance that many of the world's jobs and much of the world's population could disappear in a nuclear cataclysm.
A practical demonstration of the creepy doublethink of nuclear warfare. In order to remain safe from devastating attack, ordinary workers must help make possible equally devastating attack. The ordinary civilian world must be hostage to nuclear cataclysm--in the name of national security.
Growing up with Mare Island Naval Shipyard has left me with some ambivalences.
Submarines, for instance, are a life long hobby of mine. I find the technology and the entire submarine subculture fascinating. I'm proud that my father, my relatives, and neighbors built excellent ships, many of which passed the severest tests of combat with distinction. I'm pleased to have met a number of brave, even heroic people, who lived and worked in or around Vallejo.
At the same time, a large high technology industrial complex has great effects on its surroundings, often polluting them. The waters of the Channel were always dirty and oil slicked. Building and repairing nuclear submarines brings along the dangers of radioactive contamination. Each and every one of these submarines could fire torpedoes with nuclear warheads, and the missile boats could take out cities, each sub more than one. And the Shipyard, a primary nuclear target, brought me and my little world into ground zero.
Some of these nuclear submarines were crewed and commanded by the fathers of my friends and schoolmates. The men who were going to turn huge swathes of the Warsaw Pact nations into radioactive hell holes were, equally, guest speakers at school assemblies and hosts of birthday parties and neighbors and generally pleasant, polite, professional people. It was difficult to reconcile the two roles, for me, certainly, and for them, maybe.
Science and technology, even big science and high technology, made itself well known all over the San Francisco Bay Area. Mare Island with its nuclear subs, nuclear power school, and cutting edge materials and assembly techniques was just a part of this, but a part that spread itself through ordinary goings on in Vallejo.
Lots of people who worked at the shipyard were highly skilled in a range of technologically advanced endeavors that they carried over into their hobbies, garage businesses, and personal education. Others, like my father, took up innovative-for-the-times projects in order to take advantage of some of these high tech, advanced materials opportunities.
The backyard of the house where I lived included some fruit and nut bearing trees--kumquat, pomegranate, mission fig, and almond. Plus, several vegetable beds, a camellia bush, and a number of decorative shrubs. It also included, for many years, a substantial compost pile and a very productive earthworm farm.
The shipyard supported a vigorous underground trading network, moving stuff and services among workers and their families. My father, although a pretty good all-around handyman sort, did not have the high tech skills or access to the advanced materials machining to participate from that side. So he turned to advanced backyard organic agriculture, trading fruits, nuts, and earthworms for shipyard-related goods and services.
The across-the-street neighbor, in contrast, was a welder. In his garage he had the same high tech welding rig that he used on the shipyard to weld advanced metal alloys. He traded in welding services.
My father liked trolling for salmon. So we had a small fiberglass 14 foot runabout powered by an outboard motor. I learned just about everything I know about small boat handling piloting this little runabout. I learned a lot, enough many years later to surprise a Navy jet boat skipper with how well I could handle his craft.
Anyway, in order to troll for salmon, which swim at some depth and so place a considerable strain on the fishing gear and the fisher person, a boat requires a set of fittings--very strong rod holders, holders for navigational equipment and a spare motor and odd gear, a bunch of stuff that didn't come standard with the boat.
The fittings on our little runabout were, thanks to this underground trading network, all made of HY 80 steel. I didn't think anything of it at the time, HY 80 steel just being a material that a lot of trade goods were made of. But HY 80 steel was, in fact, an advanced steel used to make very strong submarine hulls that could endure the pressure of deep dives.
Looking back, one of the chief motivators for me to take up Neo-Pagan Craft had to do with this unusual (in that most of my cohort did not grow up in and around ground zero as everyday life) stew of marvelous, complex geography, advanced technology heavy industry, nuclear submarines, nuclear warfare in both the here and now, pollution, and commonplace uses for advanced, maybe even classified, materials. the world that I grew up within nudged me to think about creating, sustaining, and destroying on a global scale.Magic is, after that, no sweat!
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