Sunday, March 11, 2007

The brushstrokes of man (part 37, the New Mexico series)


(NOTE: A couple weeks ago I promised to run through some of the places in New Mexico where unmistakable brush strokes left by man dot the desert landscape. I got my inspiration from the unnatural poppies now colorfully bursting into bloom on the hillsides just above our home that were dropped there by a man from an airplane in memory of his deceased wife many, many years ago.

Basing most of the sites I want to cover here on those experienced by Mrs. Dada and I from a two night trip to Socorro, NM about this time of year in 2002, I'd planned to cover it all in one blog. But I've since decided to break it down into a couple of entries. Unfortunately, all the photos I'd hoped to include were not found. In some cases, I've had to resort to web images other than my own. Here then is the first leg of our unearthing of the evidence of man in New Mexico.)

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I've always enjoyed reflecting upon the influence by man upon the space/time continuum he imposes upon landscapes wherever he goes. It's the result of what I call "people creep" by one of Nature's more successful species. And Homo sapiens, in the midst of the "great" run it's presently enjoying, leaves inevitable traces of its presence everywhere it goes. Somehow in New Mexico, I find the stamp of man on that landscape incredibly vivid. Often it shouts out at you in places least expected.

So our first stop on my tour of man as painter on the landscape is just 40 miles up the road at White Sands Missile Range where the most dominant impact of our species evidenced there had its origins in Europe. Here's an image from Antwerp, Belgium. It was taken shortly after a German V-2 rocket fell there during the latter stages of World War II.


The German V-2 rocket was a weapon of terror envied by the Allies because of the death and destruction it could suddenly rain down upon unsuspecting citizens. Capable of high altitudes, it descended to earth at four times the speed of sound and, because of that, you were dead before you heard death coming. And that was terrifying. There was no forewarning of the mayhem about to arrive, unlike those noisy B-17s one could hear coming seconds, sometime minutes before they arrived with their bombs, permitting one a chance for shelter.

Another nice thing about a V-2 rocket was the fact it was an equal opportunity killer. Because it was terribly inaccurate, it was liable to land anywhere and kill anybody. That in itself was a nice tactic for instilling untold fear in populations anywhere serving as potential targets.

When the first V-2's began landing on England, the government, in an effort to avoid panic among the public and divulge to the Germans data on the accuracy--or gross inaccuracies--of their rocket's trajectories, attributed the ensuing explosions to other things rather than give Germans data on the results of their launch. Things like, "It was a gas leak explosion."

Because of the wonderful future capabilities for destruction the V-2 hinted at, Americans drooled at the thought of having their own fleets of such rockets. As a result, they salvaged between 200-300 V-2's from Germany after the war and transported them to New Mexico where their legacy still grows.
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"It doesn't take a rocket scientist" is an idiom used to indicate something that isn't that difficult to conceive, figure out, or do. In the case of White Sands Missile Range (then called "Proving Grounds"), it did take a rocket scientist. In fact, it took a number of rocket scientists. Chief among the World War II German rocket scientists brought to the US was Werner Von Braun.

The reason rocket scientists were needed is illustrated by the exciting questions asked before every V-2 rocket launch: "Will it fly?" and - if it did - "Where the hell will it land?" (Reference photo of a V-2 exploding upon launch ca. 1951 at White Sands Proving Grounds.)

This is where I must confess some personal affinity with White Sands Missile Range. I spent my three years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war on the desert sands of this somewhat isolated and very secretive base. And like everyone stationed there, we heard the rumors of those exciting early, sometimes unreliable days of errant V-2 rockets.

This past Friday evening while dining with friends offered an anecdote. Mentioning this upcoming blog and one of two V-2's launched from White Sands that went awry, crossed international borders and landed in Mexico, one of our fellow diners recounted a story often heard in his childhood as told by his dad who went to see where one of those V-2's had crashed in 1947.

Only days after exploding in the skies south of Juarez, his Dad recalled, "The landing site was littered with little stands of taco vendors."

When I first arrived at White Sands in the 60's, I was told it was still possible to see the wagon tracks of settlers who had crossed the wide Tularosa Basin on their westward journeys a century earlier. "What wonderful reminders left by those who preceded us," I'd thought.

Here, from the San Agustin pass just west of White Sand's 4,000 square mile restricted area is a Nike Hercules missile erected to America's early prowess in space. It's near here, and at the right angle, you could still detect the horse drawn wagon tracks from the 1800's. Sure, there were the tracks of military trucks and tanks from the missile range crossing them, but the strokes of those earlier efforts were still etched on the valley's floor below!

This missile is very dear to me in another way. That's because I slept beneath it one night during the summer of 1965. It wasn't so much out of trying to tap into some Universal energy unknown to mankind that might be amplified by the formidable space-age metals of this hollowed out Nike Hercules hulk I lay beneath. No, it had more to do with me sleeping there because I was drunk.

Near the 12.5 mile mid-way point between missile range headquarters and Charlie's, the first off base bar just over the Organ Mountains from the Range, I had decided to rest on my long walk home.

It was an eerie pause in the middle of the night, lying there, gazing up through the hollowed out insides of the towering Nike, creaking above me as a gentle breeze raked past the gutted ghost missile.

It was a welcome distraction from the reason I had departed Charlie's so suddenly just a couple hours earlier. A song called "The Stripper" had come up on the jukebox and, forgetting I'd removed my swim trunks earlier because they were still wet from a late afternoon swim in the base pool, I decided to try my skills at dancing. But I was suddenly reminded of my missing trunks by the gasps of some female companions from base when, in sway with the music, I ripped opened my jeans. I'd intended to shock my friends for just a moment before they glimpsed the trunks beneath. But the trunks weren't there and it was I who was shocked.

Missile Park, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico

Today at the foot of the timeless Organ Mountains stands an outdoor museum of missiles erected as a kind of time piece of man's artwork of the last half of the 20th Century.

And all the major dramas, minor ones, and the embarrassments of the men and women aside, landscapes continue to be painted, often unsuspectingly,by those who leave remnants of their presence behind. Whether enhancing or scarring the landscape, White Sands bears testament to some of their efforts--and follies.

Dada rides a Hawk, 1965

1 comment:

D.K. Raed said...

very VERY good subject, Dada! love the way it's unfolding & tying together.

Oh no, you had to sleep it off under a missile! Quite a nightcap for a swimtrunkless soldier. Good thing they were'nt playing The Limbo (how low can you go)! Dada on the Hawk looks remarkably Hunter Thompsonesque -- just lacking a long cigarette holder.

ps, I've seen similar wagon wheel tracks in Borrego Springs CA still visible from over 100-yrs ago. The fragile desert environment has not reclamed them yet. I hate to think of the scars we are leaving. ~~ D.K.