According to Defense One, the U.S. air force “is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991.” Although the alert order has NOT yet been given, preparations are underway “in anticipation that it might come,” according to a report.
I wrote this poem years ago when the B-52s were over Afghanistan (as they have been again in 2017) — but I offer it today as I once again see that iconic (and frightful) shape on my screen. Imagine seeing it in the sky over your home.
As it happens, I was also, as a cold war teenager, a huge fan of the band, The B-52’s. I’ll never forget hearing Quiche Lorraine for the first time. I treasured each of those albums. I loved their sound, their look, their snark and sass and odd, bubbly optimism. I still do.
This is how my memory, and much of my poetry, works — a mix of tones — the bomber and the band, the beauty and the anguish. I see the plane, and so many memories — mostly not about planes — surface from the murky depths. This poem is about warfare, but also about a band I loved, about adolescence, mine and maybe yours, too.
A Navy brat and vinyl geek, I smugly broke
the codes of INXS, XTC, Run DMC, U2,
as swiftly as I untangled all the military acronyms—
CO, OPM, CincPacFleet, SNAFU, OpSec—that spelled out
a whole corner of my world. Why did it take me longer
to translate “B-52,” via an obscure fifties slang incarnation
(a southern lady’s big beehive hairdo)
back into its original language, from the band to the bombers’
gray bulk so utterly un-evoked by Fred Schneider’s
Technicolor spasms? Maybe because Fred was more aptly
a boltbucket Soviet MiG, an experimental rocket ship,
a stunt-flyer-slash-cropduster-slash-crooner. Or was he
Slim Pickens, straddling the nuke, yee-hawing?
In poster-papered bedrooms across the globe, I fixated
on Fred’s beatnik vaudeville, was pulse-thrilled
by the jangly, knockabout guitar, homegrown sound effects,
the amped-up pout of Kate and Cindy’s backup routines,
the dangerous shimmy of their leads. “Rock Lobster”
was the staple of school dances where girls
like Nancy Foster with her punked up blonde spikes
writhed on the floor in the center of the gym. I watched
from the fringes of vague circles, with girls like me,
girls who only punked up our hair in private, quietly
collecting vinyl, amassing libraries of intellectual and musical
superiority. What currency did I imagine for myself
as I gently dropped the needle on the disk’s black
edge? I did wear a black trench coat, hand-me-down
from dad, decorated with a hesitation of safety pins.
It was how we communicated for several years, via surplus,
him accidentally fashionable, passing along an old pea coat
or duffel, gifts of shifting and unexpected value.
Years later, I wandered through the SAC museum
where they’ve got a B-52 corralled among the others
in the gargantuan hangar — I stroked their flanks
in awe, weirdly nostalgic for the cold war,
the constantly patrolled skies, the stark, theoretical
shadow of mutually assured destruction.
The cool gray skins of the grounded planes
made me sweet on what I used to know: as a kid,
living on the hill above the naval air station, I learned
to identify planes by their bellies and wingspans against the sky,
or sometimes by the sounds they made as they tore
or lumbered through, unseen, above the clouds:
the stout triangle of the F-14, the slender dart of the F-16;
the pregnant, rumbling silhouette of the C-141.
Why do I need to know the names of everything?
These days, it’s birds I’m tracking—squinting
and listening, with a soft spot for troublemakers and villains:
the jays and woodpeckers, the soft brown cowbirds
with their song the sound of falling water. I learn them
with books and photos, a little Latin on the tongue.
Tonight, from Afghanistan, scratchy eyewitness radio reports
the telltale signature, back after a lengthy, peaceful absence:
four impossibly distant, wispy contrails,
claw mark of the B-52 bomber whispered against the blue,
belly full of apocalypse, miles above what I imagine
are brutally beautiful mountains.
As if they were fading tracks in week-old snowfall,
I follow these faint lines into odd confluences
of history and memory—blurrings of music
and machinery, of adolescence’s cold war standoffs,
the names and acronyms we make and say.
The war reporter’s voice is vintage crackle as he describes
what he sees. I remember the silhouettes of planes,
the scream of them against the atmosphere,
the writhing bodies of kids at school dances;
I remember both the old and more recent perils
of kids in black trench coats; I remember
the hiss of the needle against vinyl, one breath
before the music that saved me began.