I had lunch with my daughter a couple of days ago and, concerned about traffic crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, I left for home early. There wasn’t any traffic, so I took a detour up to an old Nike Hercules battery overlooking San Francisco. Standing there, looking at the view, I remembered one warm summer morning in 1965, when I drove a general up to this battery.
I was a Sergeant – a buck sergeant, E5 – teaching Germans at Orogrande, New Mexico, when I met General Lolli. He had recently taken over the 28th NORAD Region – I thought it was the Eighth Region, but Google tells me, No, it was the Twenty Eight NORAD/Western NORAD Region – and Lolli was on a tour of various training facilities. Since I was from the Bay Area, he asked me if I wanted to be stationed in Sausalito and be his driver. I said something like Yes! Sir! and told my fellow teachers and my commander that I would soon be transferred to San Francisco. Then…nothing happened; for just long enough for everybody to think I had become slightly delusional. It wasn’t until about two weeks later, on a Thursday afternoon, that I was called into my Battery Commander’s office and told to report to Major General Andrew Lolli at Hamilton Air Force Base by 8 AM the following Monday.
While we were stationed at Hamilton Air Force Base, Lolli was an Army general – the only Army commander of a NORAD region – and I was his Army driver so I had to live at an Army facility. Fort Baker was the closest Army barracks and I had a private room near the entry (General Lolli lived at the Fontana West in San Francisco). Almost every morning, he would drive across the Golden Gate bridge and pick me up at Fort Baker, I would salute him and then drive him to Hamilton. On this particular morning, Lolli told me to drive him up the hill to the Nike Hercules Missile Site overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
As an aside, this was the height of the Cold War and the country was in full, paranoic, war hysteria. Schoolkids would practice hiding under our desks when the air raid sirens went off outside; F 101 Voodoo fighters, would take off out of Hamilton Air Base, looking for nuclear armed Russian TU-16 Badger heavy bombers; and our final defence was a series of twenty four Nike Hercules Surface to Air Missile – SAMs to the cognoscenti – sites around the Bay Area. I am not sure if this battery had missiles armed with nuclear weapons but the system was designed for nukes. End aside.
As we drove up to the site, Lolli called in a mock attack and, when we got there, the klaxon was going off and everybody was running to their battle stations. The missile site had probably been at DEFCON 5, but Lolli had now called it up to DEFCON 1, Air Defense Warning – RED. I don’t know if targets had been assigned, but the blast doors were opened and the missiles were brought up on their elevators, ready to launch.
I was standing way out of the way – way out of the way, not being nuclear cleared – next to a guard, and, to make conversation, I asked him how he liked being stationed in Sausalito. I was shocked when he said, It is terrible duty, nobody likes military people in the Bay Area, San Francisco is too expensive, and the weather sucks. It was hard to not agree about the weather. It was a warm summer morning almost everyplace but here; here we stood in a cold wind that was pushing the wet fog past us and then through the Golden Gate. The pavement was wet and slick and, in the distance, we could hear, but not see, lonely fog horns. Waiting for the All Clear, I thought, The weather may be crummy but this is San Francisco and my dating prospects are much better here than Orogrande or Korea.
When the All Clear finally did come and General Lolli got back in the car, he was furious. It had taken about fifteen minutes too long to come up to DEFCON 1 and Lolli has just relieved a full-bird-Colonel of his command. As we drove down the hill, the General said, If this had been real, I would have lost San Francisco.
Now, almost 49 years later, we are in a warm spell, the only fog is across The Bridge, the Nike Hercules Missile Site is no longer operational, and San Francisco is still there, sparkling in the sun. I watch a freighter go under The Bridge and a Raven joins me. Maybe she wants me to give her – and I am saying her with no idea if it is a him or a her – some food, maybe he is just enjoying the view like me, maybe she wants to chastise me for all the harm my race has done to the planet. I tell her, Hey, it could be worse, we could have fired off those missiles, we could have destroyed everything in a flash, more than 10,000 flashes, actually. But since you are here, just stay still and look over here, let me get your picture.