To Be A Knight, 1976

When we think of Star Wars we don’t think of a parking lot near the Van Nuys airport. Such was the state of special effects in 1976. 

Industrial Light and Magic was invented on the fly for the purposes of making the film. It’s remarkable to look back on the mother of all action sequences improvised with rope pulleys and animation cameras mounted on the back of pickup trucks.  In the analog shire that was Van Nuys…

There was so little air circulation inside the warehouse a single kleig light would raise the temperature to 130 degrees, necessitating outdoor filming.

This is how the popcorn was popped, how Luke Skywalker, patron of fatherless boys everywhere, torpedoed the Empire like a womp rat.

Meanwhile, over in Burbank, also in 1976, Lockheed was developing Have Blue,  the prototype for the F-117 Stealth Bomber. This also was an improv of sorts, in response to the rise of Russian surface-to-air missile technology  utilized in Vietnam and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Nighthawk would prove a decisive tipping point in the fall of the Soviet Union.

GM was cranking out Camaros, the terrestrial equivalent of a tie fighter. To drop into the bucket seat was to cross into a kind of knighthood,  to aspire to greatness in your own life, however modest it may actually have been.

The Valley was badass, without apology.

When The Valley Was Cold

The Nike Family: Hercules, Ajax and Zeus
The Nike Family: Hercules, Ajax and Zeus

From 1954 to 1974 these rockets were parked in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, armed and ready to launch, as part of our deterrent capability against Soviet attack.

Ready to launch as soon as the bombers crossed into radar range. On 24/7 alert for two decades running.

Where was this, you say? Where exactly?

The Launchpad
The Launchpad

Right here, between the Japanese Tea Garden and the Orange Line bus stop. There? Really?

This nondescript concrete pad we’ve driven past so many times is the former LA-96 Battery. The opening volley of WWIII was slated to start a short bike ride from my house.

The vertical rectangles were once openings through which hydraulic elevators raised the missiles from their underground bunker.  A single launcher site normally held twelve missiles. In case of a prolonged attack, they were transferred to the surface one at a time, pushed along rails. Launch crews lived in catacombs, Dr. Stangelove-style, in shifts, alongside stores of distilled water and canned food should things go badly and the Russian bombers evade our defenses.

The Radar Station
The Radar Station

The other half of the Battery was up on San Vicente Peak, off Mulholland. Radar beacons here swept the horizon perpetually, seeking the first blips on the monitor, moving at supersonic speed.

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I imagine the people who worked the radar site had a different memory of the Cold War than the guys down in the launch bunker.  My father in his youth spent two years as a Russian translator posted to a radar station in a ski village near the East German border.  The time of his life, he always claimed, despite being a lifelong anti-war leftist.  I doubt he would say the same had he been given submarine duty.