Sunday, March 27, 2005

Ghosts of Easters Past

It's Easter Sunday and today I saw a ghost.

Cycling along a trail with no particular destination in mind, I realized I was close to a once-familiar street. I found a way off the path and worked my way back to the building where I'd started my first put-on-a-tie-and-show-up-at-8-am job nearly 30 years ago.

As I approached from the west, I saw a tower and trucks indicating it now housed some sort of corn sweetener business — ironic, because it had been a sugar warehouse before my employer had moved in during the 1950s. I'd interviewed employees who pioneered the move. They remembered playing volleyball in the cavernous space, watching out for rats attracted by the bags of sugar still stored there, and having to hold up an overcoat to shield themselves when using the toilet, before a proper women's restroom was added.

The door where I'd once come in was gone and new, unmatched bricks covered all traces of the entrance.

Around the front and across the street — where once there'd been parking lots and a small park where the bigwigs cooked hot dogs at the company picnic — a row of newer townhouses stretch for several blocks. A sign indicated this side of the building was leasing offices and suites. A mini storage company occupied the east side.

There was nothing to indicate this building had once been the nation's primary lightweight torpedo factory. A few miles away, a sister division ran another giant munitions plant. Today, it's the site of a Home Depot. Farther north, a former Army Arsenal and Ammunition plant is being returned to nature and to developers — as soon as they're confident the pollution has been cleaned up.

I walked the corridors of all these buildings when they were humming. There was no war going on then — a decade after the peak of Vietnam, when national defense consumed 46% of the federal budget and 9.5% of the GDP — but life was still good for defense contractors, so to speak. In addition to the torpedoes, engineers were developing new armor-piercing shells and anti-tank mines to combat the latest Soviet tanks.

This was an era when a company like ours could employ a PhD whose primary job appeared to be contemplating Soviet tactics for attacking Western Europe and devising defenses against a likely invasion led by tanks through the Fulda Gap. His classified duties also involved imagining the countermeasures the Soviets would take to defeat our mines and then how to counter the countermeasures and then how the Soviets would counter the counter-countermeasures, and so on.

It may feel like our world is a less safe place today, that our spending priorities are out of whack, and that we are still too militaristic for the world's good. In current year dollars, our 2004 defense budget was more than 10 times the budget in 1979, when all these factories were full of people, but as a percentage of the total budget (19.9% vs. 23.1%) and of the GDP (3.9% vs. 4.7%), we are spending less. (I can't quite figure how to factor in Bush's extra-budget spending on Iraq.)

True, the enemies our leaders most fear now won't be coming at us with submarines and tanks, so maybe these factories were destined to disappear, even if our military spending continued to expand.

But on this day, I choose to take the Home Depot, the abandoned arsenal and the row of houses facing the office suites as a positive sign. I don't know if we have risen, but we are not here.


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