October 08, 2006

Guided By The Beauty Of Our Weapons

It's Fleet Week, and both the Blue Angels and the Red Bull Air Race are in town. It's hard not to be seduced by the spectacle of the Blue Angels practicing twice a day over downtown San Francisco and Fishermens Wharf (and I mean over — a lot of the maneuvers are done above the City rather than over the Bay), and passing a few hundred metres away from the building I work in, a few hundred feet above the ground, silhouetted against the buildings… (it's aerobatics paradise to someone who's had enough aerobatics training to know what G-LOC grey-out means first-hand). And the sound's astonishing, it's loud enough to occasionally set off car alarms in the streets around us, it reverberates in the canyons between the buildings, it creeps up on you suddenly in the back alleys. That distinctive dopplered shrieking roar is the loudest thing most of us will hear for weeks.

But we're supposed to know better, to try hard not to forget that for many people in the world that distinctive sound means only terror, death, invasion, supression. And that's true as hell, and there's something deeply troubling or unnerving in just how thrilling a lot of the sight and sound is, how effective the seduction is at short-circuiting the empathy. Those chills down your spine are aesthetic, not terror. It's one of those dirty little secrets some here have trouble openly admitting to.

(Low-flying military jets are so much a part of the Californian landscape for me, whether over the Bay or on the ramp at Stockton, or above the Trona road in the Panamint Valley or deep in the desert heat of Saline Valley. I've watched F-14s or F-18s come straight up the canyon at me at Big Pine or next to Mt Ubehebe in the middle of nowhere north of Death Valley, I've had them buzz me on the road to Darwin or along US 395 in the snow. You never hear them until they're already past you, you see them first out of the corner of your eye or as glinting shadows against the desert floor and in a few seconds there are these terrifyingly-beautiful dark sharp-edged shapes arcing silently towards you only a few hundred feet above ground (if that). And then the noise, the dust…).

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