I’ve lived in the same valley my whole life. When I was a child, Santa Clara County was in the midst of changing from agriculture to electronics manufacturing. This valley had a number of things the growing semiconductor industry needed – cheap land, few regulations, several of the best Universities on the west coast providing bright engineers and an impressive industrial military complex hungry for technology to fight the cold war.
As a child I saw orchards torn out to make way for track homes, old canneries were torn down to make way for semiconductor plants, and new freeways were built to transport the workers in the track homes to the new factories. It was a time of expansion and opportunity.
But at the same time in the 1960’s and 70’s, the cold war raged and arrayed around my valley were weapons of war – frightful world ending weapons. On Mt. Umunhum the radar revolved constantly – looking for trace of a feared enemy bomber and an early warning of Armageddon. Daily the P3 sub-hunters flew over my house on the their way to Moffett Field from their long patrols searching for Soviet subs. Further away from my valley were the Navy bases in San Francisco Bay, the Air Force bases near Sacramento, Army base at Fort Ord, Nike missile site in Marin and a Naval weapons station where nuclear weapons were stored.
We didn’t feel a constant thread from the “Red Menace” but it was subtext to life in valley. In school we were told about Civil Defense, had air-raid drills once or twice a year. We were shown films made during the fifties like this one on fallout:
As a teen I developed an interest post nuclear holocaust films and novels. I read Alas Babylon, On the Beach, and while it’s not about nuclear war my favorite book was (and still is) Earth Abides and the post holocaust world. I saw every film that came on with a nuclear theme, On the Beach, Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, Damnation Alley, The Day After and the truly odd, The Bed Sitting Room (where one character mutates into a bed sitting room as the result of being exposed to radiation).
By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 I had been working in the computer manufacturing business in my valley for ten years and change came again. Over the next few years the computer assembly companies and semiconductor fabrication plants started the migration out of the state and in time out of the country. The valley changed again – this time towards engineering. New ventures starting popping up and something called the internet started to take hold.
In 1991 the Soviet Union officially fell and the cold war faded away. By the mid 1990’s America was closing military bases and the icons of the cold war that I grew up with started to fade and weeds started growing among the disused runways and abandoned buildings. The radar on Mt. Umunhum stopped turning. The P3s left the skies. The Navy left San Francisco Bay. The Nike sites abandoned.
Over the last few months another reminder of that age is being attacked by the wrecking ball and demolition crew. Everyone here calls it simply, “The Blue Cube,” and in fact it is just a large windowless blue building in a cube shape. We never really knew what went on inside the building but it had a number of satellite dishes and bristled with antennas. No one ever talked about what went on in there.
Officially it went by several names during the years, “Air Force Satellite Control Facility,” “Sunnyvale Air Force Base,” and since it was right next to the defense contractor, Lockheed, it was also known as Building 100. In 1986 the base was renamed, Onizuka Air Force Station after Lt Col Ellison Onizuka who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onizuka_Air_Force_Station ). It was used for tracking satellites and other related communications as part of the Space Operations Squadron. Few of the people who worked there will tell you anything about what went on there.
And I never asked.
The Blue Cube ceased operation in 2011 and starting a few months ago the heavy equipment moved in and started the process of demolishing the buildings. It’s sad to see this old icon go but I guess it’s outlived its purpose and place in history. Time marches on. Wars come and go. Swords are beaten to plowshares.
The site is to be given over to the local community college for an expansion of their campus and the city gets a new fire station on the site to replace an aging station near by.
I drive past the old cube each morning on my way to work and each day another piece has been smashed up and trucked away. What the nuclear weapons never did, the wreaking ball is doing – smashing the walls and bringing down the antennas.
During lunch the other day I walked down to the site to watch demolition crews for a while. I took some pictures, but I’ve decided not to post them – seem too sad to show the building in this state. The base and the people who worked there did their work quietly and without fanfare.
Perhaps it’s best to let cube slip quietly into the past.
Till next week,
Another great post Andrew—made me think about the Union Cross Radar Base near Winston-Salem NC. Been gone for years—–but not forgotten. Hope your radar tower can be saved!
You got me curious so I looked up Union Cross Radar, I can’t be 100% sure but I think that base and Mt. Umunhum were likely built at the about the same time and may have been largely the same kind of radar.
Precisely! There were the same identical radar …the AN/FPS-24. All part of the same national air defense network.
Enjoyed the read. Sad to see the Blue Cube go. The efforts to save the iconic radar tower atop Mt. Umunhum are still alive and strong. The public is invited to come to learn about the history of Almaden AFS and the efforts to save the tower. Next (free) history slide slide show presentation is June 8th. Visit http://www.AlmadenAFS.org for more details.
I have been thinking about doing a post on Mt. Umunhum. Sadly, I can’t be there on the 8th but hope to make a future date. Thanks for the link.
Good one, and nice ending – I learned something.
Thanks – sometimes I write a post worth reading.