nike air max command leather When Nike Meant More Than ‘Just Do It’
AT the east end of Fordham Street on City Island, adjacent to a harbor where the sailboat riggings chime in the biting January wind, Donald Bender waits for the ferry to dock.
If the ferry is late, it may be because its pilots are more accustomed to shuttling passengers who have nothing but time: Its destination is Hart Island, which since 1869 has served as the city’s Potters Field, the place where each day trucks bring the unclaimed dead from the city’s five boroughs to be buried.
But Mr. He has come to visit another graveyard of sorts: the underground Nike missile battery, once known as NY 15, which served as the last ditch defense against the presumed attack of a supersonic, nuclear armed Soviet bomber at the fevered apex of the cold war.
Unveiled as early as 1953 in response to the Soviet development of nuclear weapons and long range bombers, Nike missile batteries were a fixture during the 1950’s and 1960’s on the periphery of major strategic industrial cities. While a number of decommissioned sites nationwide have been turned into everything from school buildings to low income housing, most of them sit abandoned, covered in underbrush and graffiti, blandly industrial and purposely self effacing relics to the war that never happened.
Hart Island is one of the loneliest places in New York, a wind swept outpost rife with beauty and decay. There are very few living visitors to the island and even fewer who ask to be taken to the north end, where the Nike site resides. But Mr.
His obsession, which he has channeled into a Web site and other projects, was launched when he stumbled upon a local site in Franklin Lakes.
”I thought it was just amazing that they were out there, that almost nobody knew much about them, and that nobody was doing anything to document them,” Mr. Bender says. He has thus become an ad hoc historic preservationist; despite being historical relics, the Nike sites are not much loved by historic preservationists.
”It’s an industrial aesthetic, with a rusting tower or a concrete foundation,” he adds. ”Preservationists think it’s ugly.”
As the truck pulls up to the site, it is clear that an abandoned Nike battery offers little for the untrained eye. A few rusting vents, akin to those atop the roof of a factory, jut from the snow, surrounded by sprigs of rustling goldenrod. The missile silo doors, typically welded shut, are blanketed with snow.
Mr. Bender, though, excitedly points out details of the site like an architectural historian gazing upward at a compelling cornice. He notes the faded insignia of the missile squadron painted on the side of the vent and points to a nearby hatch, down which the crew would descend to service one of the 20 surface to air Nike Ajax missiles contained below.
Walking a few hundred feet to the island’s rocky shore, he points across the sound to Davids Island. Connected by underwater cable to Hart Island, the island’s Fort Slocum held the brains of the Nike: the ”Integrated Fire Control” center, a three pronged radar installation that could detect both the target and the missile during its flight. For practice, Mr. Bender says, radar crews would lock onto and follow commercial aircraft as they entered and left the city.
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A cold war variant of the various coastal defenses forts like Slocum, Jay and Totten that have stood sentinel over New York’s harbors for centuries, the Nike Ajax base at Hart Island opened in 1956, built for roughly $1 million and manned by D Battery of the Army’s 66th Antiaircraft Artillery Missile Battalion. It married the push button age of Bell Labs and other cold war contractors to the increasingly abstract concept of strategic defense, the grand forts of yesterday replaced by self effacing underground silos built both for security and to save precious real estate.
In 1956, an editorial in The New York Times observed, ”The modern Nike represents a triumph of electronic science, a winged messenger of death to the attacker and a symbol of ultimate victory over aggression.”
It is difficult to recall those duck and cover days when Nike meant more than ”Just Do It,” when stories in magazines like Popular Science asked anxiously: ”Will Nike Protect Us From Red Bombers?” The arrival of potential intercontinental nuclear attack brought the concept of war squarely home, as Nike bases sprung up on the edges of suburban towns. Suddenly, bucolic communities were cheek by jowl with nuclear weapons boasting total kiloton yields often larger than the Hiroshima bomb a prospect satirized in Max Shulman’s 1957 novel ”Rally Round the Flag, Boys!”
”The Army had a major public relations effort in communities to engender goodwill,” Mr. Bender says. ”They invited people to the bases, they had their baseball teams play with local leagues, all kinds of things to encourage good community relations.”
Like the military architecture before it, the Nike base at Hart Island was outmoded by advances in weaponry, albeit much more quickly. The Nike system as a whole was rendered obsolete as the onset of ICBM’s and the strategies of nuclear deterrence and massive retaliation made stopping a single bomber a moot point.
And among the many mementos mori of Hart Island sits another, this not to a person but to a time when nuclear war was still thought winnable. As a poignant counterpoint to the Nike base, a large white memorial, erected by city prisoners in 1948 (well before the base arrived), stands opposite the former silo, a single word etched across its north flank: ”Peace.”
As the Nike vistors return to the Hart Island mess hall, itself once part of the missile battery, Captain Ruppert phones the ferry crew for the return voyage. The Michael Cosgrove, a battered, decades old warhorse, has engine trouble. Jokes are made about spending the night amid Hart Island’s many ghosts.
”I sprinted for the nearest fence,” he says. ”I thought it was an old gray German shepherd that had escaped from the Army and was living off hikers the Ghost Dog of the Nike Site.” Finding shelter from the storm in a nearby ranger station, he told his hosts of the noise.