I was walking into the Atomic Age, but all I smelled was fossil fuel and something very, very organic.
The stale air of what used to be an ultra-secure subterranean government facility, was permeated with the faint, but inescapable, odors of diesel fuel and something like a stopped-up toilet.
This was a few years ago, outside Ottawa, walking around the underground “Diefenbunker,” the 1961 fallout shelter for Canada’s government.
A shelter for government officials, but not their families. Not even the Prime Minister’s wife. They did however, find room for the gold.
The first picture is a huge vault, down on the lowest level, to keep Canada’s gold reserve warm & safe, in the event of a nuclear war. The country held over 1,000 tons of gold ingots at the time.
The vault is now quite empty. I checked. Great acoustics though! Almost no one had ventured out on the cold, wintry day we visited, so my inner Pavarotti could be unleashed, with no fear of bothering other tourists, or bringing the roof down.
(Canada, like every other nation on earth, has since abandoned the gold standard, and completely liquidated the reserve. The U.S. currently is maintaining the largest hoard, of over 8,000 tons.)
“Diefenbunker” is a nickname, of course, after the Prime Minister at the time the facility came online. The real name is “Central Emergency Government Headquarters CEGHQ Carp”.
(Carp refers to the town in Ontario where it’s located, and not to “complaining querulously about Armageddon.”)
The underground facility, roughly 100,000 square feet, was kept supplied and staffed for decades, until the mid-90’s. It is now deactivated and just a weird sort of tourist attraction.
One level is mostly diesel generators, for the TV and radio gear, etc. which explains the stale fuel smells. The toilets were all rubber-mounted, so they wouldn’t shatter from concussive waves, and I have no idea how they work, so far below ground level, except to say, apparently, not that well.
Ugly office furniture, filing cabinets, typewriters, rotary telephones, and old computers with tape drives. Fluorescent strip lighting, ugly linoleum floors, a sea of brown, beige, gray, and plastic wood-grain.
We wandered around at will, going downwards floor by floor. Basically, it is not a particularly creepy place, just homely and banal.
Some of the computers and gear that’s only the over-50 crowd could identify, like telex machines, still seem to be plugged in.
At one point, we were surprised to hear voices and static, and found a ham radio club operating down in one corner. They’d gotten permission to hook into the antenna system. The bunker had a complete radio and TV studio.
It’s not a cheery place. The medical facilities looked pretty primitive.
A notice informs you that the food storage area, would also serve as a morgue in a pinch.
My parents have always talked a lot about their childhoods, and The Way Things Used to Be. Their childhood anecdotes have all blended together in my mind: brands of automobiles that no longer exist, idiosyncratic pets, bygone relatives, the incomprehensible loss of 45’s & 8-tracks, and the decline and probable extinction of the woolly mammoths, etc.
Sometime during these Old Times, but after the invention of canned goods, because they figure into this, there was something called the Cuban Missile Crisis, and my father’s story about his family’s fallout shelter.
People built a lot of things in the old days. We’re always having to trim the grass around pyramids, coliseums, playhouses, obelisks, garden sheds, Parthenons, and so forth. Apparently, in the days before internet and cable and DVD’s, they were just looking for things to do, once the woolly mammoths weren’t around anymore to entertain them. People went from playing with Lincoln Logs and building blocks, directly to actual building. Carpentry and masonry, in those days, was considered to be a form of entertainment, like Canasta and Yahtzee.
So when the Russians shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba, the immediate response in 1961 Middle America was obvious…let’s get some bricks, and build something.
At my dad’s childhood home, in an excavation under the front porch, there was soon a brick room, equipped with folding beds, canned goods, and carbide lanterns. The lanterns, if you could cajole a parent into testing them, would usually spit sparks and small jets of incredibly dangerous acetylene flame – pretty cool, right?! The canisters of calcium carbide, which somehow fueled the lanterns, through a process involving chemistry or physics (algebra?) were kept under much closer supervision than our nuclear secrets.
A battery-powered radio, sorry, I meant to say, a Transistor Radio. Food, water, waterproof crackers, toilet paper, buckets, blankets, Readers Digest. Check.
Little known science fact: Velveeta, if kept sealed, has four times the shelf life of strontium!
Of course, then and now, there are people who just are not do-it-yourself’ers, and there are people who invent things, and there are people who want to make a buck. Do a websearch and take a look at how many prefab shelters are being peddled. Some are convertible to wine cellars.
I also found a dozen news articles around the country, where renovations of schools, courthouses, stores have turned up forgotten public shelters in basement rooms, still stocked with drums of water and vitamin-enriched crackers. New York gave tax credits to parking garages, if they’d simply designate some subterranean space in this way. Some years ago, NYC auctioned off the outdated supplies. An upstate farmer bought them to use as animal feed, but he then found out, there was never any organized effort to identify and list these shelters. Local civil defense committees were long gone, and no one could tell him where the shelters were.
This is an interesting place to visit. You can pose in the press room, and look for your home on the fallout maps. But after two hours, I was glad to get into the fresh air.
I do not like being underground. I do not like Velveeta. And I do not like the idea of creating hidey-holes or bunkers for politicians. They need to be kept out in the daylight as much as possible.
“Memory believes before knowing remembers.” William Faulkner
Visiting an art museum in a new city, I saw this little statuette, and liked it.
I also had an immediate and very strong feeling…like I ought to know her from somewhere.
I’d never been to Pittsburgh before, so it was surprising to run into someone familiar.
There are countless statues like this, drawing on Greek and Roman religion and images, around the older cities of the U.S.. Our museums, public buildings, squares and galleries are pretty much an endless toga party in stone and bronze. But somehow this one caused an instant sense of familiarity.
I don’t usually hang out with people dressed this formally. So where had I met up with her?
A protest march against palm oil production?
A militant vegetarian crosswalk guard?
An advertisement for Ivanka’s new “Agent Orange” line of radioactive spray tan?
It was closing time at the museum, and we were hurriedly hiking out of the back forty, having wandered way out there, out of our comfort zone, way past the post-Impressionists, lost in the surrealist and abstract boonies. Footsore, and in my case, eyesore.
There are never any restrooms in the wings with the more avant-garde art, have you ever noticed? And when there are, I always worry that the fixtures are just some sort of ironic statement, and not meant to be used. I don’t want to get arrested for relieving myself on the priceless “Empty Black Suicidal Despair & Soulessness of Modern Life,” thinking it was a toilet.
Anyways…it was closing time, and we were being flushed out by the security guards, and didn’t have time to read the little sign. So a quick photo with my phone, and two days later, saw the the picture, it instantly popped into my head, where I’d run into this lady, years ago – – walking in the park.
She’d looked bigger then, a bit more weather-worn, but it was definitely her.
We’d met at the southeast entrance to New York’s Central Park, near the Plaza Hotel.
On that busy corner, called the “Grand Army Plaza,” which holds memories for many people of chestnut vendors and horse-drawn carriage rides through the park, she has a companion. Two, actually, if you count the horse. She’s walking in front of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general from the Civil War.
She symbolizes “Victory” or “Peace” depending on what tour guide you read.
The turn-of-the-century monument was created by Saint-Gaudens, and was his last major work — a middle-aged William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback, almost sixteen feet high. It’s an excellent statue, like everything the artist did. He’d met with Sherman, and liked him. But by the time the monument was dedicated, on Memorial Day 1903, Sherman had been dead ten years, and Saint-Gaudens had only a few years left himself.
Sherman is famous for pointing out the obvious “War is hell.” Well, the climate in New York ain’t such a picnic, either. Winters can be rough, even if you’re tough and brassy. At the time I took the photo, years ago, both figures looked like hell. Or I should say, like they’d been through the wars — peeling, patchy, leprous, badly in need of re-gilding. The ugly blotched look seems like a distraction from this post, which is about memory, but just as statues are a form of memorial, I suppose loss of memory is a type of corrosion.
My first impression when I saw this scabby-looking statue, was that she was Moira, Goddess from the Department of Health, warning of the oncoming Pestilence on Horseback.
The artist incorporated pine branches under the horse’s feet, to symbolize Sherman’s March through Georgia. Richard Brautigan wrote (with irony, I think) that the Civil War was “the last good time this country every had…” but perhaps the gold-leaf keeps flaking off, as a sign that the war was not all that shiny and happy an experience for some folks.
Periodically, the bronze statues are restored to golden radiance, waxed and buffed, in celebration of civil warfare and burning stuff.
In its distressed state, where the gold leaf had come off, the bronze underneath had oxidized to a very dark color, closer to black, than verdigris.
Turns out, under the Greco-Roman robes and gold paint, Victory was a black woman. The primary model for the statue was a southerner, named Harriette Eugenia Anderson. She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, although she lived most of her life in Harlem.
Anderson also posed for the figure of “Liberty” on the beautiful $20 double eagle, created by Saint-Gaudens at Teddy Roosevelt’s request, and minted the year the artist died, 1907. I saw on a coin collector website, that it is often reckoned to be the most beautiful coin this country has ever created, but almost all of them were melted down, when we left the gold standard.
Another artist relied on her for the 1916 “Walking Liberty” half dollar, and again for the “Victory” in Baltimore’s “Soldiers and Sailor Monument”.
Anderson was almost forgotten for many years. Hard to understand now, but apparently her identity as the model for these beautiful golden works of art was kept hushed up for many years, because she was a person of color.
When I saw the statuette in the museum, and got that strange sense of something akin to “déjà vu,” it got me thinking about what exactly happens, when we rack our memory. We say, “if memory serves…” but sometimes, it just doesn’t. Like a bad waiter, you can snap your fingers, slap your forehead, wave your hands in the air, but it continues to ignore you. And yet, somehow, even when Memory has knocked off early and gone around the corner to have a drink, there remains a nagging sense of recognition and familiarity.
People used to use the term “familiar” for witches’ little supernatural helpers, often disguised as cats. And there is a sense, when that nagging feeling comes over you, of something hovering near you, but unable to be grasped. Like a ghost of a memory, invisible but nagging at you.
Studies of the brain find a real difference between our sense of “familiarity,” and our “memory”. They actually are completely different parts of the brain. So what I was feeling when I saw the statuette in Pittsburgh, was technically not déjà vu, because we’re talking about a delay in recovering a little-used memory, rather than a separate brain function altogether.
Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and psychiatrist, described a man who had lost the memory of his wife, but who somehow still retained a strong sense of familiarity in her presence. (Sacks himself suffered from “prosopagnosia” or “face blindness,” the inability to recognize the faces of familiar people, even those he saw frequently.)
Sacks wrote: “Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”
Proust’s version: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
Random Factoid: In reading about this sensation of déjà vu , one site indicates that the people who experience it the most frequently, are age 15-25.
I’m fascinated by the scientific exploration of memory, but don’t know enough about it, to discuss it intelligently. All I want to suggest in this post, is that the next time you feel a sense of familiarity, or déjà vu, take a moment. Pause, look around, breath in the air and its scents, identify the sounds you’re hearing, do a 360, treat yourself to a break from business & busyness for just a few seconds, to see if a memory floats to the surface.
Or “percolates” might be a better term. Like spring water that’s picked up minerals as it passes through the soil and rock layers, our thoughts flow through that mysterious, porous gray matter, and sometimes little particles of memory enter the stream.
For me, the little glinting crystals of memory in the flow, are generally images.
Déjà vu literally means, “already seen,” and based on my limited understanding, it is generally a visual phenomenon.
Music, on the other hand, is preserved in our central brain, right down at the core, and long after all our phone numbers are disconnected and our passwords have passed away. An old tune may bring back memories of a specific time and place, like the theme song from your high school prom, or that high whistling call a red-tail hawk gives, that evokes walking across the farm fields of Seneca County.
My father always talks about a particular train whistle, he’s never known which type of locomotive, that has a cast-iron association with childhood visits to a grandmother in Pennsylvania. Not so much the usual whistle blast, more of a deep hooting horn, echoing along the Lehigh Valley late at night, when he was in an attic bedroom. The vibration from the long trains, or from a thunderstorm, was always joined by a faint chiming sounds, a very musical reverberation from old metal coat hangers, hanging on a hook on the back of the bedroom door. That train horn summons up a dormant memory, but not a mysterious one, since he knows the time and place.
Our sense of smell is supposedly the most powerful prompter of memory, like Proust and his famous madeleines. Personally, I love sponge cake, but the baking smell mostly brings on a mind-clearing “YUM!” and instant salivation, more than a seven-volume remembrance. But every time I open a jar of thyme in the kitchen, the scent instantly carries me back to my grandmother’s house, where it grew in the cracks of her brick walkways.
Other sights may create a more diffused, vague sensation, not tied to a specific incident — the times when we never do recall or recollect a memory, leaving us with that puzzled or even spooky familiarity.
One article suggested it may be your brain discerning a visual pattern it’s seen before, even if you haven’t consciously identified the pattern, and aren’t conscious of the similarity. Another article discussed our brains experiencing something like a computer’s processing delay, so that by the time the thought is complete, it registers as a memory, rather than happening in the present moment.
Well, that’s all I can remember that I wanted to say.
I’d be interested and appreciative, if anyone has a déjà vu experience to share. If you happen to remember one, I mean.
I re-watched a movie recently, that reminded me of a walk I took, in the early morning hours, around Valparaíso, Chile, a couple of months ago.
Those familiar with Woody Allen movies surely know “Midnight in Paris”.
(If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this, run out and rent it, it’s great! And this is a spoiler alert.)
A despondent writer walks the streets of Paris, and at midnight, is transported back to the 1920’s, the era he’s longed for his whole life, to meet his artistic idols. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and all the other artists and writers of Paris between-the-wars. He meets a beautiful woman from that time, but then finds that she in turn, yearns to escape the ’20’s to live in an even earlier time, La Belle Époque (what we in the U.S. call “The Gilded Age”).
I would love to visit Paris, or New York, during those long-ago eras.
And it turns out, another great place to stroll around, then and now: Valparaíso.
During the Gilded Age, it was a major world port, called the “San Francisco of South America” — a key stopping point for Europe-to-Asia shipping, for clipper ships and steamers “sailing around the Horn” through the Straits of Magellan.
Valparaíso’s harbor handled a huge volume of lumber, wheat, beef, sugar, nitrates and saltpeter, copper and silver, as well as European cargoes bound for Asian markets, and vice-versa.
Farther back in time, in the 1850’s, there was a huge traffic in guano, at that time, being mined on the coasts and islands belonging to Peru and Chile, and then shipped to farmers in the U.S. and Europe. At that time, guano (the dried accumulation of seabird droppings) was an incredibly valuable soil amendment. Franklin Pierce, reckoned to be one of our worst Presidents (although, of course, he’s moved up one slot recently) displayed a politician’s natural affinity for, let’s say, “fertilizer,” and signed the “Guano Islands Act of 1856,” allowing U.S. citizens to claim any unoccupied island, covered with centuries of bird manure, sometimes hundreds of feet thick, as a new, fragrant part of the United States, at least until we’d mined it out. It was a proud moment for American statesmen, doing that voodoo, and bird doo, that they do so well. But I digress.
This was South America’s single most important Pacific seaport. Immigrants from UK, Germany, Italy, and France poured in. The cosmopolitan community grew and spread up the hillsides, with two dozen funiculars to carry people up the slopes.
Then, as historians like to say, something happened.
It was called “Teddy Roosevelt”.
In 1914, the Panana Canal began siphoning off the ships and trade.
In recent years, the city is awake and bustling again, as a tourist destination, and a center for universities and the arts. This is a vibrant, fun city, with art museums and amazing street art, too. And it’s still a seaport, of course, with fishing boats, and cruise ships, and the Chilean navy is based there, but it has nothing like the cargo traffic of Shanghai, Singapore, or Rotterdam. Nowadays, the lesser ports in the U.S., like Savannah or even the much-diminished New York harbor, handle far more shipping.
A hundred years ago, when the fleets of cargo ships stopped coming, the rich folks started moving out, and in the old downtown, it’s as if the grand city drifted off to sleep in 1914, when the canal opened.
So, here in the land famous for poetry and “magic realism,” a perfect place for a bit of time-travel on a foggy morning.
People compare Valparaíso’s climate to that of San Francisco, basically pleasant and moderate, but also including frequent fogbanks rolling in from the ocean. Whether it’s Yorkshire, Hong Kong, or the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I’ve always found fog to be conducive to a history walk. It quietens the roar of modern life, keeps the crowds indoors, gives an old-painting look to things, and acts as a theatrical scrim for old buildings.
So when I arrived, a bit foggy myself, after an overnight bus ride from Pucón, I was happy to step into a gray, misty morning, just before sunrise. The rain had just ended, the streets were wet, and it was still overcast and half-dark.
Walking through the historic district, down by the port, and the old-fashioned financial district, I was struck by just how empty it felt. When there was a break in the clouds, you could see the hillsides surrounding the city, as everyone notes, like a big amphitheater, jammed with tiers of houses, in beautiful colors, like a box of crayons. There are still quite a few operational funiculars, going up the steep slopes.
But where I was walking, the streets were empty at that hour, the shops still shuttered, and the city felt old, grayed, and even slightly foreboding.
I was happy to see a Kodak sign, a reminder of back home in Upstate NY, and a time when our economy was thriving.
It was around this time I really began to pay attention to the stone-faced buildings, from Valpo’s boom years. A lot of the blocks near the harbor have an early 20th century feel. The Spanish conquistadors established a village here in the 1500’s, but most of the buildings I passed are late-Victorian or from the early 1900’s. Earthquakes over the centuries, and a bombardment by the Spanish navy in 1866, destroyed many of the older buildings. The worst destruction happened around the turn of the last century.
Over several months in 1906, a series of severe earthquakes hit all around the Pacific Rim, knocking down thousands of buildings, and killing thousands of people. Columbia and Equador were hit first, followed by a tsunami, sixteen feet high. Then Taiwan, one of their worst, followed by the infamous San Francisco quake, that leveled almost the entire city.
An even more severe one (8.2) hit this city, and killed almost four thousand people. The cathedral and churches, museums and government buildings from the 1800’s were repaired and reassembled, so you see some neo-classical and beaux-artes styles, but near the harbor, blocks and blocks of buildings had been built on fill, just like lower Manhattan, and had to be created from scratch, so I was roaming around in a substantially post-1906 world. The streets are sometimes curving, sometimes at angles, so there are some interesting angular buildings.
I looked around at the handsome old buildings in the mist, and decided I was taking a stroll in the, say, 1920’s.
The provincial government building, the Palacio Armada de Chile, is from 1910. The national library, 1925. Banks that wouldn’t look a tad out of place in the older parts of Manhattan lined the streets. I passed the Bolsa de Comercio, the 1917 stock exchange, and the offices of El Mercurio. the oldest continuously published newspaper in the Spanish-speaking world.
I stopped to examine the statue of the winged messenger god, perched on the newspaper building. Another reminder of home – there’s a similar statue of Mercury in Rochester, from 1881, that used to be on top of Kimball’s Peerless Tobacco Works. Placed in storage for many years when the factory was torn down, it was then moved to the Lawyer’s Coop building. (Rochester loves the statue, although when this naked man was re-erected over the city, if you’ll pardon the expression, there was an intense, sometime cheeky debate over which part of town his derrière would face.)
A couple of blocks away, I caught a glimpse of a trolley going by. (As I found out later, it was actually a vintage trolleybus, from the ’50’s, rather than the ’20’s, but from a distance, it helped with the time-travel illusion.)
Then something else caught my eye.
Off to the right, I caught a glimpse of a clock. Partially out of curiosity as to the time, and partially because it struck me as sort of familiar, I walked towards it.
If you’ve ever seen pre-WWI pictures of city streets, you’ll remember the webs of electric, telephone and telegraph wires overhead, from poles and brackets on buildings. Each phone and telegraph, was connected to an exchange by its own, individual copper wire, creating a crazy tangle overhead. A century ago, the larger U.S. cities began putting the wires underground.
But in Chile, the overhead wires for the electric trolleybuses, and some telephone lines are still strung over some of the streets, adding to the old-time feeling. Philadephia and Boston are the only U.S. cities I’ve been in, where the trolleybuses still run.
Cities in New York State abandoned streetcars and trolley systems many decades ago, most of them gone before WWII. But in the early ’50’s, Valparaíso bucked the trend, installed this system…and the original 1950’s vehicles are still running somehow.
And, so, when I went around the corner, and saw through the fog, an odd, almost triangular building, with trolley wires crossing overhead, on a street that looked like old-time Manhattan, it suddenly felt like I was walking in a Gilded Age incarnation of New York City. The angular building reminded me of a miniature six-story Flatiron.
(In reality, an example of how we compress and blur events in the past. I checked and found that in NYC, the wires went underground sooner than most places, following a disastrous blizzard in March 1888. So the telephone/telegraph wires were gone before the very modern, 22-story Flatiron went up in 1902. NYC went on to embrace subways, and phased out trolleys.)
The building I was walking toward, as I later learned, was the Reloj Turri, completed 1924, in the French Neoclassical style. Like the Flatiron, it drives a wedge between two streets. It’s one of the city’s landmarks, topped by one of its oldest functioning clocks.
Later in the morning, Valpo began to come to life, and my fantasy stroll through the Nineteen-Twenties was fading out. But next to the tower, I wandered into the café of an old, elegant hotel. They served caffè italiano, instead of the usual instant Nescafe, and had wonderful pastries, and offered lots of newspapers. I wished I had a linen suit and a Panama hat. But seated in the quiet turn-of-the-century hotel, I sat back like a rich boulevardier, eating pastries, drinking excellent coffee, reading the papers, and watching the people slowly strolling by, and stayed immersed in my daydream of the ’20’s for just a bit longer.
I didn’t get to go back in time and meet Hemingway or Dalí, and it was only a few hours, before the city woke up, and got noisy again. But when I think of Valparaíso, it is these images and feelings from that foggy early morning, that surface in my mind. A taste of a city as it once was, and a feeling like nostalgia, for a prior incarnation of Valparaíso, and New York, too, that I would have liked to walk around.