656th Radar Squadron, Saratoga Springs Air Force Station
The first thing I see is a hill.
It swoops up lazily, sandwiched between a sad grove of trees and an empty field. It looks like it’s headed nowhere.
At the bottom of the hill stands a sign.
The hill above was the location of a Cold War early warning radar site built as part of a system designed to defend the United States against enemy air attacks. This marker erected by and dedicated to the men and women of the 656th Radar Squadron who served here.
I feel disappointed because I didn’t anticipate this quest to feel so curated or organized.
This feels staged.
Am I going to a protected monument?
Is this a museum?
But I reach the top of the hill and quickly realize my presumptuous thoughts are in error. The base appears, almost out of thin air, unassuming. I can’t really see any complete buildings except a small gatehouse that sits behind a tattered chain link fence, adorned with rusting barbed wire. A quick passerby might not realize there’s something beyond the threshold, though the padlocked gates hint otherwise. I laugh because the large gap between the bottom of the gate and ground screams, “Aren’t you glad you’re only 5’5”?”
I used to hate being short. Sometimes I still do. But at this moment, I recognize my power. Easy access. I squish and squirm into nooks and crannies with ease. Have you ever seen those videos of octopus escape artists? Short reels of slippery creatures maneuvering themselves through even the tiniest of crevices and holes, to break out of — or into — wherever they please. I drop down onto the gravel and concrete and begin my roll-in. As my face smudges up against the bottom of the fence and my back scratches the dusty ground, I think two things:
One: I am an octopus.
Two: Did I just catch Covid-19?
I stand to face another giant incline that feels never-ending. It swerves up in a circular motion, winding skyward, boasting several decaying buildings that are tucked into the hillside. I couldn’t see them from behind the fence because nature is in the middle of a reclamation process. She’s taking back what’s hers.
And I think to myself, “There are ghosts on this road.”
It’s Memorial Day Weekend in 2020, the year of perfect vision, and I can feel the spirits of airmen and airwomen and airpeople all around me. I glance to my right, at the crumbling gatehouse. It’s engulfed in vines and decades, sporting shattered windows and metal awnings hanging on by the skin of their teeth. I poke my head inside, careful not to touch anything because I’m terrified of germs. The walls are soaked in graffiti. I will come to realize that this is a defining characteristic of most of the abandoned wreckages that I will ultimately find myself exploring, a new hobby I’ve procured as I naively wait for the Covid-19 pandemic to end. I LOVE YOU and RADAR ROAD are all I can make out, spray-painted on top of the crinkly and moldy teal-blue paint that maintains much of its original, emboldened palette. Seeing the color releases of a flood butterflies (or serotonin) into my stomach.
I am a spy, peeking into the past.
I am a time-traveling window shopper.
I am a fly on the wall.
I take stock of relics in the room, notably the tan speaker scrunched up in the upper-backhand corner. I hear the commander making today’s announcements, the movement of metal swivel chairs. Today, I’ve landed in 1965. A new watch shift has begun. A group of fresh-faced cadets enters the gatehouse, grumbling that they have to work into the night. The guards who retiring from the previous 12-hour post yip and yack about going out tonight.
I don’t think I remember what “going out tonight” feels like.
I leave the gatehouse following my newly freed comrades. As I begin my ascent up the concrete and gravel path with the ghosts, I turn around and look back at the chain link and barbed wire entrance again. I see my 10-year-old self standing on the other side, shooing me onward with pride and excitement, a defining moment for the both of us, considering this venture into the wiles of the abandoned Saratoga Springs Air Force Base in Stillwater, NY effectuates my failed plans from youth to sneak onto the Air Force base that shared a border with my childhood neighborhood.
Growing up, I thought I lived in the Wild West. Miles and miles of open, mountainous territory where it was nearly impossible not to get lost. Long, extensive days where just a little bit of wandering could lead to a full adventure.
There was, of course, the abandoned dairy farm (no longer standing), the instigator of the anemoia in my bones. The Sehnsucht, the vicarious nostalgia for a place and time that wasn’t my own.
There was the giant, vacant lot of dirt and weeds down the hill on one side of my house that I transformed into a movie lot where I would produce short films with my friends, on sunny Sunday afternoons after church, using my father’s old Panasonic camcorder.
There was Mount St. Francis, a mystifying, coveted holyland, site of a former tuberculosis sanatorium, jutted between a massive ridges of sandstone in a vast valley, surrounded by forest on all sides, where I talked to god and spied on the nuns who floated like phantoms, aimlessly around the property. I made tree trunk rubbings on computer paper with broken crayons and collected decaying pinecones and small fragments of granite and drew my name over and over in the expansive plots of gravel that dotted the property.
Then, there was the imposing, seemingly impenetrable line drawn between my neighborhood and the United States Air Force Academy, the southern border fence, dotted with signs that said things like
NO TRESPASSING: PROPERTY OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT
which only incited further curiosity. But I never would’ve dared to cross that line. I imagined secret agents had set up security cameras and alarms, up and down the border fence, so that it was practically impenetrable, though in reality it was only about three feet tall and didn’t even sport any barbed wire or electricity. Just a regular old, hoppable chain link fence with a couple of imposing warning messages. And a lifetime of invented curiosities about what they were hiding.
I never actually “broke into” the United States Air Force Academy. That dream died when I was 12 and my parents moved us to the east side of Colorado Springs after they filed for divorce. Actually, it was kind of a dead dream from the get-go, considering that, at the time, a large portion of the 18,455-acre property was open to the public. In fact, my brother attended high school on the base. As a family, we went to AFA football games and hiked on the public trails and watched fireworks on the hill next to the Cadet Field House where I sang the national anthem at my high school graduation. The idea of breaking onto the USAFA was more about the rebellion, the act of disobeying invisible authority. I’ve always seen a fence and thought, Hop it instead of Stay on this side of it.
Or, as the case is at Saratoga Springs AFB, Slide underneath it.
I wink at my 10-year-old self as I start to climb the hill and wander the property. I engage my senses and capture everything I see on my little iPhone camera. With every photo I snap, I tumbledown faster and faster into the fantasy I’ve begun to create among these American ruins. Out there, beyond the fence, the pandemic drifts further and further away. In here, the ghosts become stronger and stronger, getting closer and closer.
They’re swirling all around me as I enter what appears to be a service garage. The only good light making its way into the room is from the three busted windows on the single, closed overhead door, barely enough to take a good photograph. I notice a sad hoop attached to the back wall. I hear the sound of a lone basketball being bounced and caught, over and over, on a loop. I crack a smile as I realize that the sound of someone dribbling a basketball all by themselves feels like the perfect sonic metaphor for boredom.
But the real centerpiece of this abandoned buffet is the Limited Edition 1983 Buick LeSabre that stares down anyone who walks in. I’m confused because I know that the property was abandoned in 1979; but this car was manufactured in the raging ’80s, when cocaine was cool and Wall Street raged like a wildfire.
Who left this here?
This only means one thing.
I’m not the first to enter — and hopefully won’t be the last.
The driver’s side is open. I trepidatiously approach the vehicle like a feral animal, afraid that, at any moment, it will jump and go for my jugular with its ferocious teeth and claws. Or in this case, ferocious grill and tires.
I sit in the driver’s seat, likely covered in mold, but it doesn’t phase me. I want to take a moment to relish this time warp. I inhale. The interior reeks of old leather. I remember a cobbler on 7th Avenue in Chelsea when I still lived in Manhattan. His shop smelled like this. I inhale again. The scent of my father’s 1993 Geo Metro comes in, musty seat fabric and day-old chili in a coffee mug.
I put my hands on the steering wheel. It’s warm, as if someone just let go of it. I like how my fingers feel wrapped around the firm leather. There’s an ancient car phone. I drag my pointer finger along the rubber buttons on the front side of the walloping artifact. I dial my childhood home phone number. Whatever happened to house phones? I imagine the illicit or embarrassing conversations that passed through this device.
I leave the car in the garage and enter an adjoining office. The ceiling is caving in. There are piles of objects, boasting the kind of once prized-possessions you’d see lined up on shelves at Goodwill. Books, cassettes, VHS tapes, magazines, trophies, Little League t-shirts, likely all abandoned with the car.
Why did they choose to dump it all here?
How’d they get all this shit through the gates and up the hill this far?
The faux wood paneling indicates exactly when this office was bustling with activity, straight out of an late-60s office drama. I hear the men gossiping about their wives. I exhale, grateful that I live in a time when sexism is (supposedly, not at all) on the decline.
I exit and meander to another part of the base. The sky is so blue. I remember that it’s Memorial Day. This is how I choose to honor the dead, by exploring the worksite where they spent 24 hours a day protecting the country from a supposed missile crisis. I think about the bomb drills my mom told me about, classrooms full of kids across the country, diving under their desks, as if those flimsy pieces of metal would protect them from a giant missile crashing down on top of their elementary school. I remember a video I saw on the internet once called “Duck and Cover,” a propaganda short produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration in 1951, starring an impish cartoon turtle named Bert who, as the title suggests, ducks and covers when he feels impending doom falling from the skies.
I close my eyes and hear the “Duck and Cover” theme song ring out across the property. It echoes down the hill and towards Saratoga Springs, bound for the Hudson River and beyond. The Russians are coming. Hide!
I see a defunct security camera hanging over the front doors of what might’ve been an administration building. I see more ghosts, wandering in and out of the building, reporting for duty, sworn to protect my parents while an invisible war carries on. I don’t know much about the Cold War. I know that when I was a kid I went to see a movie with my mom about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I know that I’m supposed to think Bobby Kennedy was a hero but can’t remember why.
That was the Cold War, right?
I approach another building. I can’t suss out what its purpose might’ve been. The flames of a fire hallowed it out, leaving only a structural skeleton, made up of nothing more than charred pipes and cinderblocks. I find an old bicycle, the brand which I can’t figure out because the sides have been so badly burned. I scour the entire body of the bike, searching for a year or seller or owner or any clues at all, to help me understand the story behind this place. The act of investigating this decaying bike, made of ash and soot, makes me feel peaceful.
And it’s at this moment that I suddenly realize that I feel safe. Calm. Even though I’m one of billions of people living through this pandemic, where death feels like it’s constantly on the horizon — right now, in this moment, I feel very far away from any virus (or maskless person) trying to kill me.
I have discovered a sanctuary today.
This abandoned radar station was constructed to protect citizens of the United States from the potential threats of the Cold War, I think out loud.
Another thought follows, also out loud: Are they constructing something similar, somewhere, to protect US citizens from the very-real threats of Covid-19?
Or, at the very least, are they working on a plan?
They’re not. There’s no plan. There’s no structure to warn people when Covid-19 is coming. Maybe that’s why I haven’t felt safe in months. I look back up at the blue sky and imagine sirens blaring out across the country each time another person is infected or dies from Covid-19, the way they would’ve rung out years ago, in case Russia decided to fire a missile, bound for American soil. I remind myself, once again, that it’s Memorial Day, 24 hours of silence to honor the dead who lay down their lives in the line of active duty. I decide that, in addition to paying my respects to our military heroes, that on this Memorial Day, I will honor the dead who my country has turned its back on because they’ve decided that they’re not going to communicate the severity of this virus. They’ve decided they’re going to act like nothing’s wrong. I choose to recognize a modern-day Cold War that the American government has waged against its own citizens through silence and playing pretend.
But unlike the first Cold War, this is not an invisible fight. By this time, May 25th, 2020, there are over 100,000 casualties. The only thing that’s invisible is the enemy itself, floating through and contaminating the air, all around us.
Maybe the real enemy is the Administration, who has decided that they’re not going to fight at all. Any potential federal safety precautions that the government refuses to put in place — those are the missiles that fall and decimate city after city, county after county.
“Because,” they say, “there is no enemy.”
Tell that to the frontline patriots, putting their lives at risk every day to keep people alive, to keep society moving.
Here I stand, in this burned out building on an abandoned military base in Stillwater, NY, just outside of Saratoga Springs, and I feel safe.
I am lucky, and deeply fortunate, to feel safe.
The sun pokes through the holes in the ceiling and presses against my skin.
My lungs, constantly craving fresh air, expand, as I breathe in and tell myself,
I can get through this.
I exhale and walk back outside. Tall, overgrown weeds surround this building, and I have to power through them to get back to the gravel and concrete path. But as quickly as this moment of serenity appears, it dissolves. My imagination takes a hard left turn as I step back onto the road. “Duck and Cover” begins to blare out over the loudspeakers again. Only this time, it crescendoes and feels dangerous. To the nearby observer, I look as though I’m calmly and cooly walking back down the hill to leave this place.
But in my head, I am frantically looking around. The cacophony of “Duck and Cover” continues to build. I see the ghosts are following orders. Ducking and covering. I panic because I don’t know if this is a drill or if this is the real thing, so I begin to run, back down the hill, back to my car. I stoop and roll underneath the fence and turn over my shoulder and look back as I reach for the car door handle.
And I screech to a screaming halt like a Looney Tunes character. The music has stopped. The base is still. The pandemonium of the radar hill soldiers and civilians has suspended.
I can’t see any ghosts.
And I start to laugh. I laugh, at myself, for getting carried away in my own fantasy, as I peer up and spot at an antenna tower at the top of the hill. I must’ve missed it when I entered. I send up an imaginary signal to anyone who can hear it, blasting a message through the radio waves that billow off the tower like silent music. It is my prayer for the fallen.
Happy Memorial Day.
I may never come back here again.
And I may not. I’d like to think I will. But I’ve learned one thing during this pandemic is that I shouldn’t make too many plans.
But let’s play pretend. Let’s say I do go back.
Maybe this time, I’ll go on Presidents Day Weekend. I’ll be thinking about John F. Kennedy because my mom will tell me, after she reviews the first draft of this story, that JFK was also a hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in addition to Bobby Kennedy. “Not an all-encompassing pair of heroes. Just two brothers, two men, who did one thing right.” She’ll have summed it all up by saying that the Cold War was just a big old pissing match, a “staring contest” between the United States and Russia.
“And the United States made Russia blink,” she’ll tell me.
“And now,” I’ll say back, “The United States is in another staring contest. With China. Those rotten communists.”
“Well, joke’s on us: China made us blink.”
- 656th Radar Squadron — Saratoga Springs Air Force Base Veterans
- “Off the Northway: Cold War history at Stillwater site” — Daily Gazette
- Land of Sunshine: Woodmen Sanatorium | Mount St. Francis
- United States Air Force Academy: Colorado Encyclopedia
- Real Rides of Western NY: 1983 Buick LeSabre — BuffaloCars.com
- 1983 Buick LeSabre: Manufacturer Promo — Test Drive Junkie
- “Duck and Cover” — Federal Civil Defense Administration (Vimeo)
- Executive Order 10186 — The American Presidency Project