"Since flesh can't stay, we keep the breath aloft. Since flesh can't stay, we pass the words along." --Erica Jong

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

China Lake

"The base at China Lake lies 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles, just off U.S. 395. Founded in 1943, it was originally known as the Naval Ordnance Test Station, or NOTS; in 1967 this was changed to Naval Weapons Center (NWC). It's different from every other base the United States Navy runs. It operates under Navy command, but its history connects it to outside, civilian institutions, especially the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena. Most of the population is civilian. Moreover, these people are all scientists, engineers, and technicians, "damned professors," as they were called in the beginning. But their achievements are undeniable, for China Lake has produced some of the most effective military ordnance in the world, from the
barrage rockets used in the 1943 invasion of North Africa to the explosive lens charges in the first atomic bombs and a vast array of guided missiles and bombs, Zuni, ASROC, Shrike; above all, Sidewinder (AIM-9, as it's known officially).

Most of these weapons are launched from aircraft, and this has dictated a good deal about the base, especially its remoteness and its size. China Lake is huge--more than a million acres, 1,800 square miles. This immense territory is divided into two great tracts, separated by a narrow civilian corridor running up the Panamint Valley through the town of Trona. THe range south of this line has been used to develop "stealth" technology and electronic warfare countermeasures, but its the northwest section that's the more important, for the airfield, the laboratories, and the community itself are all located here. THe upper northern half is tableland, rugged hills, and valleys where wild horses and burros still roam, and high up on the faces of the cliffs, which have names like Renegade Canyon and Cactus Peak, one can still see the strange etched drawings, called petroglyphs, made by a long-vanished race of Indians. To the south the hills give way; the land becomes flatter, merging with the desert; and finally, in an abrupt slope, it runs down to the depression that is China Lake itself. Of course, there has been no lake here for ten thousand years, although once this part of the Mojave was covered by a chain them. Now only the dried-up beds of these lakes remain, hard and hot, and gleaming white with deposits of borax, calcium, and silica. China Lake is perfect for the base's test ranges."*

* "CHINA LAKE," by Anthony Hyde

The petroglyphs are protected by the Navy. The coyotes weren't. We used to hear them howling at night, but now they're gone. My Uncle Frank and Aunt Lauree, and my cousins Burt, Jimmy, Frankie, Gary, and Delsa lived on the base. When I was little, and we used to visit them often, there was a big billboard just outside "the gate" that warned: Loose Lips Sink Ships. Uncle Frank was an engineer. Whenever any member of their family had an upset stomach resulting in quick trips to the bathroom, they always said they had "NOTS Trots." I thought that was funny!

Between the time I graduated from the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theater Arts, the the time I went on the road with a repertory theater company called The Bishop's Company, I worked for the Navy tracking missiles on film (I once tracked a speck of dust on the film, mistaking it for the missile, for a whole day), putting pilot's statistics into a computer, and inputting scientific articles about the "effects of radiation on living tissue." I sort of liked watching the Sidewinder speeding along on its desert sled, but the burnt "living tissue" falling off its bones stuff I just couldn't take, and I quit. Sometime after this, the High School was moved from the base to the town of Ridgecrest. A good move, if you ask me.

1 comment:

Kenny said...

I have never been to china lake, But I have been to Edwards afb a couple of times. I like the desert always have. By the way you do have a nice blog. I love the slide shows. They are great.

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