Growing up on a Cold War air base in the shadow of the big one


“Do you realize there are fifteen hundred babies born a month in SAC?” says Jimmy Stewart, playing a B-36 pilot in the 1954 film Strategic Air Command. I was raised among those babies. I grew up near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, during the Cold War, amid the presence of the Strategic Air Command and the eagle vision of Curtis E. Lemay. I spent the first few years of my life with great silver B-36 Peacemakers flying overhead. “Silver overcast,” they were wryly called. I went to kindergarten on the base, where each morning one student was designated officer of the day, and I attended air shows where the latest planes were on display, like the F-106A Delta Dart. I was surprised that the edge of the F-106’s wing didn’t cut my finger when I furtively touched it. We were carried up in helicopters with open doors and, hovering, looked down on the planes laid out on the tarmac, huge crosses and arrowheads. We passed the “climatic” hangar that could reproduce the conditions of bases in Greenland or the steamy tropics.

Half a century later we have somehow mostly forgotten that SAC (pronounced sack) once occupied the same place in our national consciousness as did the Royal Navy in the British one—and perhaps the same as the imperial legions occupied in that of ancient Rome. Just a few years after military restructuring rolled SAC into the Air Combat Command, we have forgotten what the Strategic Air Command meant.

In the beginning SAC was staffed by a mixture of callow youths and seasoned World War II bomber vets who had pounded Germany and Japan from Flying Fortresses and Superfortresses and gotten the nod in 1948 to deliver the big ones. SAC’s job was to routinize doomsday, to bureaucratize Armageddon. Its planes stayed airborne twenty-four hours a day.

…SAC was the keeper of blue skies, the shield and umbrella under which the normal life of America in the fifties, of Elvis and Hula Hoops and college football and strip malls and tail fins, could proceed without dark seriousness. SAC’s bombers cruising above the earth without pause were aerial versions of the battleships their predecessors had helped make obsolete, back in the twenties, when Billy Mitchell sank the old German Ostfriesland.

Read the full article at https://www.americanheritage.com/dr-strangeloves-children