Geezin' in Scotland
Karl M. Petruso
Dr. Petruso passed a milestone during the Honors College study abroad program in Scotland that he directed in June 2009.
He suspects that passing a milestone is not as painful as, say, passing a kidney stone. But this particular passing was a memorable event nonetheless. The milestone was his sixtieth birthday, on June 25: The Big Six-Oh.
The Scotland program was winding down in late June, and our long sojourn to the Highlands, the Orkney Islands and the west coast was mercifully over. Dr. Petruso had scheduled a day off, back in Edinburgh, to permit the students to catch up on their laundry and mainline some more McDonald’s burgers and fries. Then we hit the road again for a daytrip to St. Andrews. The curriculum featured visits to the majestic ruined cathedral there, as well as the even more ruined castle. The extant architecture of the castle is pretty disappointing, truth be told, but its bottle dungeon—an exquisitely nasty place constructed by a Catholic bishop to house the more reprobate and noxious Scottish Protestants (those zany Covenanters) for a few years—made our stop at the castle worthwhile. Here is a photo of the group in the castle yard, courtesy of Mr. Brian Tainsh of Glasgow, our intrepid driver:
(Front row, left to right: Paula Dickson, Hannah Davis, Andrea Russell, Krystal Craiker, Emmelene Fernando. Second row: Dr. Lynn Peterson, Dr. Stanley Palmer, Paul Blankenship, Aaron Elkins, Philip Dunn, Isabelle Smith. Back row: Dr. Petruso, Daniel Scott, Ashley Jameson, Andras Bodolai, Ian Sutherland)
That day, his 21,915th on this earth, provided Dr. Petruso with an opportunity to reflect on the course of his life. He marveled at the very fact that he had survived for six decades, especially given some of the rather dangerous and otherwise ill-advised activities that had occupied him during his younger days. But that’s a story for another time. Come to think of it, strike that last sentence:
But that’s a story for another time. That particular material is embargoed. Don’t even ask.
So anyway, the last time he and the current Mrs. Petruso were in Scotland (in 2005) they had driven past a road sign in Fife advertising something called “Scotland's Secret Bunker.” He had no idea what this was, but he subsequently tapped into its clever website, and he resolved that a visit to this place would be educational for UT Arlington students next time he did the Scotland program. A little exposure to the Cold War, he had decided, would give these whippersnapper twenty-somethings a valuable perspective on a period when life really had an edge to it, when certain events unfolded—like, for instance, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962—that took the planet to the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Let us make a brief digression at this point. Dr. Petruso, long before he became a Dr., was a military brat. His father was career Air Force, and he spent much of his childhood (1950s and ‘60s) at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, which was the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command. The logo of SAC (an armored fist clenching both lightning bolts and an olive branch) had given him chills as a kid:
It was an impressive emblem, though, juxtaposing a white-hat desire for peace with a black-hat threat of death. Offutt was the alternate command post for the whole country—that is, in the event that Washington was taken out by your godless Russkies, all American military responses, civil defense activities, indeed the whole federal government, would be run from that base. Of course, the Sovs knew this, and thus Omaha was the number two target for their ICBMs. In order to outfox those wily commies, there was at every hour of every day from the early 1960s until the early 1990s a KC-135 packed with state-of-the-art communications gear flying high over the Midwest with a general officer on board. The plane was called the “Looking Glass”:
(There were actually, of course, several Looking Glasses, in rotation.) One of them took off every day precisely at 8:00 a.m., 4:00 p.m., and 12:00 midnight. You could set your watch by that event, and the future Dr. Petruso often did. This was also the era of the jaw-droppingly inane film shown in schools, “Duck and Cover”.
The future Dr. Petruso watched with interest as his anxious neighbors dug fallout shelters. His more realistic neighbors didn’t bother, of course; anybody living there who understood the grave geopolitical situation and had a map of the Omaha area realized that we would all be toast if and when The Big One arced over.
And so it was a warm nostalgia that Dr. Petruso felt when he discovered Scotland's Secret Bunker. This was the bargain-basement equivalent of the Looking Glass—cheaper, to be sure, than keeping a command post airborne 24/7, but every bit as desperate and pointless. Officials entered the bunker through an unassuming, nondescript Scottish farmhouse:
The Brits obviously figured that the Russkies would never suspect London of building a backup nerve center in remote Scotland—what a clever feint!
As our crack coach driver Brian pulled into the parking lot of the Secret Bunker, past a Cold War-era tank and a disintegrating half-track, Dr. Petruso was positively giddy with anticipation. After presenting their museum admission voucher, he and the students scampered down a stairwell, 40 meters below the surface, then walked down a long corridor with concrete-and-tungsten walls three meters thick into the eternally on-call nerve center of the U.K. during the Cold War.
The underground facilities were cold, damp and musty (this being the preferred environment everywhere in Britain), so the 300 or so occupants at any given time must have felt very cozy there. Every room was lit with fluorescent tubes, which created an eerily lifeless ambient light. As if this were not unsettling enough, some of the tubes gave off a bilious chartreuse cast, as in the main corridor:
Dr. Petruso made his way through the facilities, drinking it all in, and several times flashed back to the war room scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 flatulent black comedy Dr. Strangelove:
Digression no. 2: Just when you think you might have seen the weirdest website in the world, you stumble across one that takes your breath away. Here is one Dr. Petruso found while searching Google Images for an appropriate still from Dr. Strangelove.
Bathroom Guy. His website is a truly grotesque piece of fetishism, even by film buff standards. He must be scintillating company at dinner parties: “And what do you do for a living, Bathroom Guy?” “I collect movie scenes that show people in bathrooms.” On Bathroom Guy's MySpace page, he lists a grand total of only one friend. See if you can guess why this might be. (Dr. Petruso has a theory.) It's cringe-producing websites like this, created by tasteless persons with far too much time on their hands that make Dr. Petruso wonder whether maybe we do after all need some laws to govern use of the Internet. And maybe the federal government could develop SWAT-type teams of professionals armed with warrant authority to intervene with such persons before their websites reach DEFCON 2 on the humiliation scale. Just a thought. Perhaps, as his current wife teases him from time to time, Dr. Petruso is beginning to turn Republican.
But to get back to our story: in its heyday, the Secret Bunker was a no-frills, no-nonsense place—all business, Mister. It was chockablock with room-filling, impressive computers, each of which had lots of blinking lights and all the mojo of a VIC-20, with a full 3 kilobytes of robust, screaming-fast computing power; radar devices; radios and other communications gear; and all manner of weather forecasting equipment (the better to predict the fallout dispersion patterns if the cities of the U.K. were nuked), etc.:
(Note the creepy mannequin hand on the joystick of the radar scope at lower left and the hat casually plopped on the bank of switches at right.)
As we look back on the Cold War at the remove of a couple of decades, perhaps the most amazing thing about it is how the American and British people were sold a comforting but ultimately false sense that MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), an apt acronym if ever there was one—the strategic doctrine that held that the specter of an unstoppable, all-out thermonuclear war would itself be enough to deter both sides from striking first—was not only rational, but a rationale for stockpiling insane amounts of megatonnage. There was a pissing-contest dynamic at work here, as inevitable as it was illogical. In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick lampooned the then-prevailing dread among our military brass that a missile gap might develop (i.e., that the Russkies might build more nukes than us) by having General Buck Turgidson (played to scary perfection by George C. Scott) exclaim, after rapidly weighing postapocalyptic survival-of-civilization scenarios as dozens of Sov bombers were coming into U.S. airspace, “In short, Mr. President, we must not allow a mine shaft gap!!”
Let us explore the MAD scenario a little more deeply. Dr. Petruso is an occasional collector of Cold War memorabilia (you know, Civil Defense shelter signs, canned water, Geiger counters, books and ephemera, etc.). Among his fave specimens is a circular slide rule that would enable one to determine when it was safe to come out of the family fallout shelter. Check it out:
Any marginally numerate junior high schooler in the Kennedy era knew how to use a circular slide rule: just set the cursor and the scales as instructed, taking into account the transmission factors for your particular shelter architecture (see table on reverse), and presto! You will learn when the fallout has reached non-life-threatening levels so that you can emerge into a brave new world. Sure, you might eventually develop diarrhea and skin lesions and lose clots of your hair, but hey, you’re a survivor, and you'll be able to take your place on that New Frontier, with its much less crowded, much less noisy environment—the silver lining in the mushroom cloud, as it were.
That this little plastic artifact would have been designed by some Army Corps of Engineers physicist is, at one level, simply matter-of-fact: a useful task-oriented product generated by our hard-wired human will to survive. That it would have been stocked in a family fallout shelter, on the shelf with the checkers game and the kids’ crayons and coloring books, on the other hand, is absolutely grotesque.
OK, sorry. I should have labeled that Digression no. 3. It sort of sneaked up on me.
But the weirdest aspect of Scotland's Secret Bunker was the attempt to humanize it (if that’s the right word) with mannequins decked out in heavy woollen Cold-War-era military uniforms that fit them, it must be noted, incredibly badly. And their hair (with all the softness and shine of moth-eaten corn silk), coiffed in "styles" that were clearly an afterthought, is risible. They stand around the retro-tech instrumentation, war-gaming boards and fallout dispersion maps with that vacuous smirk one finds plastered on the faces of all mannequins. One of our students, Daniel Scott, nicely captured the silly staginess of these tableaux:
Only later, when he was just about to ascend to the Secret Bunker souvenir shop to pick up a few stay-at-home gifts for his comely daughters back in Texas, was Dr. Petruso able to pull the whole experience together.
And it was all thanks to the mannequins.
He realized that the transformation of this site into a museum had crossed a bright line. Whoever sponsors the place now—and it smacks of being in private rather than government hands—has burlesqued the whole idea of the Cold War. They have sucked all the apocalyptic anxiety out of that unique period, and have presented the bunker as a comic artifact. As Dr. Petruso pondered this unseemly trivialization, he heard giggles from some of his students nearby, who clearly regarded the place as a funhouse of sorts; and he watched an elderly English couple, hobbling along on canes, reliving some of their dire postwar experiences in hushed tones as they read the yellowed, sixty-year-old front pages of the Daily Mirror exhibited in the wall-mounted vitrines. (It took many years for the Brits to bounce back from the terrifying Nazi V-2 rocket attacks and strict rationing that was their lot in WWII; the island remained in desperate economic straits well into the ‘50s.) That Dr. Petruso’s visit to the Secret Bunker took place on the first day of his seventh decade he took as an irrefutable sign that he is now, inevitably, geezing—feeling closer to dodderers than to university students, for the first time in his life.
As if to confirm this realization, Dr. Petruso later read the following entry for June 25 in the blog kept by Ashley Jameson, one of his students, who described her reaction to the Secret Bunker in unvarnished terms:
“What is so secret about it, you ask? Well I will tell you. It was a top-secret bunker the cheeky little British militarians [sic] decided to hide in the middle of a cow field during the Cold War and continued to use into the 1990s. … and it is now Scotland’s ‘Biggest Tourist Attraction’ … Yes. The Secret Bunker was … cold … in the B.F.E. deserts of nowhere … filled with leftover department store mannequins straight out of the 80’s (I did not know the British military wore red lipstick whilst preparing for a nuclear holocaust … Magical. I really should not have been surprised. Dr. Petruso literally eats things like this for breakfast. He cannot get near a bus without visiting ‘one of those’ tourist sites.”
Dr. Petruso could not help but construe this as a somewhat oblique testimonial to his finely-honed, justly renowned appreciation of irony. There is much truth in this young woman's blog post. Moreover, and pertinent to our present purposes, it is the perfect segue to…
Digression no. 4: Not two weeks after Dr. Petruso returned from Scotland, by then well into his 61st year, the current Mrs. Petruso (still pouting because she had been unable to accompany him to Europe on what she uncharitably called his “vacation”) demanded that they head out for an outrageously expensive 4-day weekend vacation at a luxury B&B in the Hill Country of central Texas. Despite his objection to her mean-spirited characterization of his pedagogical labors abroad—which in fact made the 2009 Scotland program only the latest in a long string of spectacular academic successes—he acceded. But his quid pro quo was that they take this opportunity to visit an extraordinary place he had often read about—namely Stonehenge II and Easter Island Heads in Hunt, a small town near Kerrville. This site is featured in every book on weird Americana.
“One of those” tourist sites? I suppose the unwashed, philistine masses might call it that.
Dr. Petruso calls it a pilgrimage site.
Below are photos of the happy couple frolicking in the ruins in the beastly 100°+ heat of central Texas in July. The ersatz Stonehenge is two-thirds the size of the original, and the statue is the height of an average one on Easter Island. Normally we wouldn't touch the antiquities, of course. But no sign was posted that said we couldn't.
SOME OTHER THINGS THAT HAVE LED DR. PETRUSO
TO CONCLUDE THAT HE HAS PASSED A MILESTONE IN HIS LIFE
• He climbs ladders slowly and deliberately—if and when the current Mrs. Petruso lets him do it at all.
• He fills up the dishwasher far more quickly with spoons and bowls than with forks and plates.
• He tends to grunt involuntarily when exerting himself even slightly (lifting, stretching, bending down to rough up the cats, etc.).
• Much to his horror, he is starting to recognize artists on the smooth jazz stations to which the current Mrs. Petruso (who, it must be noted, is only a year and a half younger than he) unaccountably listens.
• A corollary to the above: he feels self-conscious browsing the rock ‘n’ roll CDs at Border’s, and worries that the salesperson will ask him for proof of age before selling him an album targeted at a younger crowd.
• When out motoring, he now follows the vehicle in front of him according to the formula recommended in DMV manuals, namely allowing one car length of space for every 10 mph. (Well, okay, maybe for every 30 mph.)