The smell hits you when you clear the last "checkpoint" -- the Air Force Association has filled the lobby of the Sheraton Washington with "checkpoints" where they check your ID before you can go look at their weapons show: tons/billions-of-dollars-worth/state-of-the-art of airborne death -- planes, guns, missiles, with stuff like "zero-zero ejection seats" and language that starts to blend into one stream of abstractions as you wander through the crowd: hands-on target acquisition posture with ring laser inertial strapdown generation payload for a high-threat defense environ- ment . . .
Anyhow, the smell: It rolls up the escalator, a smell which at first is being in a tent, that funky canvas smell, but it's not, it's too chemical-y. It gets stronger, and then the wild blue yonder of the thermochromic multiple-kill low-bypass air-to-air future spreads out at the bottom of the escalator, and the scent of American war in 1981 assails the senses: the scent being not the tang of blood or the pungence of cordite but the smell of thousands of square yards of wall-to-wall carpeting. It's like a town house the size of a football field down here, padded and pet-proof, in beautiful decorator colors -- blood-lust rose, dawn-patrol cerulean, command-decision fawn, and the smell is the gunk they use to lay these things, the same smell it takes about a million years of Italian cooking to get out of your Heritage Harbor living room.
All of which goes with the sound, the sound of living rooms the way surf is the sound of the beach. What it is, is there are about a million television sets going down here, showing missiles wobbling off into the distance, F16s locking onto targets while the background music, that flutes-and-brass Lalo Schifrin sound, DANDADANDADANDA car-chase music, hammers away at patriotic sentiments, beneath the euphonious baritones of announcers, a sound like ball bearings swilling around inside French horns: "For a closer look at this ground-based radar system . . ." Television and wall-to-wall carpeting; and Air Force officers sitting on couches, on molded plastic chairs, as if they were sitting in the living room of America itself.
"Yeah," grunts one captain, as the filmed gun sights of an F16 lock onto a target on the screen in front of him at the General Dynamics display. It's as if all those demonstrators of the Vietnam era finally succeeded in making good on their threat of bringing the war home, home being the amber waves of nylon pile, from sea to shining TV.
Two days before, outside the Sheraton Washington on a drowsy Sunday afternoon, there's a Joan Baez sound-alike singing a hymn in that curious white-girl diction that makes all the vowels sound the same: "Ahs wahnce wahs prahmised Abraham," which is a nuance that none of the deaf people in the audience will pick up -- one assumes there are deaf people in the audience because standing next to the Joan Baez sound-alike is a signer, writhing about with Balinese sinuousity and a frozen smile.
"Oh sure, there are five or 10 deaf people out there," says Mernie King, who is pastor at Sojourners Fellowship Church, and one of the organizers of this demonstration to "Stop the Arms Bazaar," as all the placards and buttons read. The rest of the crowd tends toward faces of noble puzzlement at the failure of the world to LIVE SIMPLY THAT OTHERS MAY SIMPLY LIVE, as one Quaker says while giving away balloons stenciled: "Bread Not Bombs." There's a sense of fierce and wistful sanctimony behind the beards of the young men holding a red "Bread Not Bombs" banner; a preoccupation that seethes with patience among the folks selling the pear juice and the pemmican.
And all the clerical collars: there are even Presbyterians wearing collars, along with "Lotta Catholics, lotta Catholics," says Father William Woodard, himself the Episcopalian pastor of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church. "Kinda reminds you of the '60s."
There is an extraordinary number of clowns in face paint and sponge rubber noses. They are not so much buffoonish as beatific, wandering about blinking huge and innocent eyes, as if to signal that they are not about to attack you, as if, somehow, it were necessary for them to signal that. After the singing stops, the clowns take the stage to put on a mime show for peace. No televisions here. No wall-to-wall carpeting. The audience sits on the street and on the grass. It's hard to picture an Air Force general sitting on the street. Maybe this is the point. The mime show features an Uncle Sam and an Ivan (belted shirt and cossack hat), along with the clowns bipping about (they play the respective publics of Russia and America) and an announcer who says: "Phew! It's hard work learning about one's enemies! And learning how to respect people!"
The Israelis. Everybody here in Fort Wall-to-Wall talks about the Israelis. One of the problems with all this equipment, this world of real-time multiple redundancy hotline retarded bombs (either direct or with offset point) is that nobody knows if it really works or not. Except the Israelis.
"The Israelis have tried a lot of it out," says Col. Larry Krull, who's just climbed out of the cockpit of a Fairchild video game, where he scored only one tank kill, despite the cheers of fellow colonels: "You're sure getting his tail feathers!" and so on. Krull used to fly Phantoms in Vietnam, but it's a whole new world now. He fights his dogfights on a television screen.
The Israelis don't.
"We believe the most important thing is to make it work, because we have to use this stuff more often. Our sortie and reliability rates are so much better than other air forces' because we've been able to combat test," says a representative of Israeli Aircraft, which is looking for a maintenance contract to take care of U.S. planes in Israel.
And over at the Lear Siegler display, which is selling the Stick Force Sensor with which you fly the F16, marketing man Larry Carotti points to the little toy F16 that the Air Force officers are lining up to fly with the Stick Force Sensor and says: "Neat airplane -- that's the one the Israelis used on the Iraqi reactor."
Has the change in American attitude toward the need for defense and the worth of our fighting men made a difference to Lear Siegler and Larry Carotti?
"It's made a difference to the defense budget. Back a few years, the little guys were willing to kick us and even our friends weren't all that impressed."
Over at the Rolls-Royce booth, the audio-visual system is booming Beethoven's Fifth over the wall-to-wall. At Rockwell International, whose booth is set up with couches and coffee tables, an actual living room, the television shows a B1 bomber coming in low over a target, which the announcer says is "further proof."
Of course, the Israelis haven't tried it out yet.
You wonder how the Israelis would do, if you gave them 1,500 rounds of 50mm ammunition and six air-to-air missiles, just like the computer gives the colonels taking the stick at the Fairchild video game, tanks hopping across the screen till it makes some music BLEEYOODODUT just like in the video games you can play in your very own living room, and the colonels cheer.
Out at the mime show, there's a guy in a lumberjack shirt arguing with a guy in a suit and necktie. Arguing in mime, that is, while an announcer reads couplets over a loudspeaker. The guy in the lumberjack shirt is the good guy, and he's clearly disappointed in the bad guy with the necktie:
"Selling weapons like a game!
Don't you folks have any shame?"
Nearby, Shirley Hines, president of the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union, says, "More bread and housing, not bombs -- that's why we're here."
"There's Kitty Tucker," says organizer Mernie King. "She did a lot of work on the Karen Silkwood case." (Karen Silkwood being a worker in a nuclear plant who died in a mysterious car accident after she began to protest about safety conditions, thereby achieving a lukewarm martyrdom in the late '70s.)
And there's city Council member Hilda Mason, and there's the gospel choir of the Sts. Paul and Augustine Church, and there's Father John Steinbruck of the Lutheran Place Church, sitting on his Suzuki 650 motorcycle.
Johanna Brewer, a Quaker convert, stares vexatiously through the clowns and balloons, the beards and the righteous languor of people sprawled on the grass, proud to be hearing it all for the thousandth time.
"The manager of this hotel is a real macho guy, very militant. I've had some dealing with him. We tried to talk to him and tell him that the community doesn't want this arms bazaar here, but he wouldn't listen."
"We'll be here till they move," says her fellow Quaker, Bob Simpson.
"They have a contract till the year 2000," says Johanna.
"We've got a great band coming on," says Mernie King.
"We ain't gonna move," sings Luci Murphy, who is a local folk singer.
Wall-to-wall and sitting on the street; television and mime shows; hawk/dove, war/peace, Caesar/God.
"Together we stay here, right where we belong," she sings.
The closest the war and peace folks will come to finding a common ground is the Pratt & Whitney exhibit, where you get the feeling somebody said to himself: Those peace types outside, they're intellectuals, right? Public-television types, right? Hey, let's give them a little public television . . .
Sure enough, watching the television in the Pratt & Whitney living room is an actor dressed up as Leonardo da Vinci. He is surrounded by drawings of turbofan engines in the Leonardo style, along with a copy of the portrait of Ginevra de Benci. The actor shouts things at the television, like "A man after my own heart" when some hero of aviation comes on.
Very classy. On the outside of the display are Chinese scrolls (Hey, we don't just drop bombs on those people, we appreciate their culture) and a couple of modern paintings (Hey, we're not a bunch of cave men with clubs).
Leonardo is barking: "The mechanical science is the most useful and noble of them all."
And the television says: "The F100 is the world's most advanced operational military aircraft engine . . ."