437. Helicopters, Atomic Cannons, Khrushchev

February 19, 2015

This post is the third installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

7. Helicopter Ride. In the Army, I was stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany, as a Signal Corps photographer during the Cold War. My unit was the only Signal Company (Photo) in the U.S. sector of occupied Germany at the time, so its still and motion picture photographers were assigned to cover events anywhere from Bremerhaven to Munich. On one assignment, I covered all the territory between those two cities.

In the damp spring of 1957, the first U.S. Helicopter Company deployed to Europe arrived in Bremerhaven on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, and I was assigned as the still photographer to document its journey south along the Rhine River and then across Southern Germany to Munich. Helicopters? What role could they play in the Atomic Age? It took the Viet Nam War to set me straight on that.

I began by photographing the readying of the helicopters on the flight deck of the carrier, then views from the open door of my designated craft during the short flight to the Rhine, on to various landings along the route in plowed farmlands, and in one case, a municipal soccer field.

The stop that caught my attention was the one in a rural field where, on takeoff, the generator of the helicopter I was in cut out when we were forty feet in the air. Craft, crew, and single passenger with 4 x 5” Speed Graphic abruptly fell like a downed duck into a bed of black mud. Powered by inertia, the rotors kept turning as we hit, the sudden halt forcing the tips of the sweeping blades down to the ground, where one crewman had the luck of his life in darting between those blades to get away from the explosion sure to follow. But there were no sparks this time to ignite the magnesium-alloy skin, and the rest of us waited in a sort of daze for the rotors to calm down so we could seek higher ground with whatever gear we could lug.

We had to wait for the wrecker that was following us by road to reach the site of the crash and pick up the fallen bird. In the meantime, a crowd of local residents came out of nowhere to comment on damage to field and helicopter both, and I struck up a conversation in German (I’d had two years in college) with a sprightly man wearing a dark green loden coat and Tyrolean hat.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. The helicopter company made it to its base near Munich, and the photo crew took the train back to Kaiserlautern.

8. Atomic Cannon. I knew it was the Atomic Age because as a soldier, I bivouacked with atomic cannon in Germany, all barrels pointing east. On one assignment in 1957, I was sent to photograph Soviet antennas rising above the trees just beyond the cleared boundary through the woods that marked the Iron Curtain. By the time I got there, the antennas had been moved. I took a photo anyway, which showed nothing but trees on a hill.

Returning from another training exercise, during which I had slept in a stainless-steel darkroom sink, and taken night photos using infrared flash bulbs, our company convoy got stalled in a traffic jam in a rural village featuring a right-angle turn in the center of town.

Creeping forward, we at last we came to the cause of the jam. An atomic cannon with transport carriers on both ends was jammed into the right-angle corner and couldn’t move. In the oncoming lane, it was straddling the corner, the trucks at either end, each with its own driver, hung up against stone walls, unable to inch either back or ahead. I’ve never seen a stucker pair of trucks.

Our lane of traffic millimetered past the turn, but while the cannon was in view, it never budged. As far as I know it may be there still as an ad hoc monument to the Cold War.

I remember the engagement with that cannon because until I saw it with my own eyes, I thought bivouacking was just playing soldiers like we used to do as kids during World War II. But this was no wooden gun, and we were no tin soldiers. This was a pointed show of strength against our then national enemy of choice. That realization quickly woke me up because I saw with my own eyes how vulnerable our big guns were in having to depend on roads built for hay wagons.

9. Khrushchev comes to ISU. In early September, 1959, I was hired as the Information Service photographer by Iowa State University in Ames. Timing was of the essence because Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev was coming to town during my first week on the job. He wanted to learn why U.S. farms were so much more productive than those in Russia. His entire entourage of dignitaries—both U.S. and Russian—was coming with him.

I barely had time to get my hands on the equipment (notably one ancient Leica) I was to use before I had to get memorable photos of one of the most famous men in the world.

One stop on the tour was a home economics lab equipped with several rows of gas stoves. A Home-Ec class was to demonstrate the frying of eggs for the Premier and his wife. But at the last minute the Secret Service ruled that said stoves couldn’t be turned on because they might cause an international incident by scorching the person of the Russian leader.

A quick-witted teacher had the students draw outlines of fried eggs on paper cut to the proper shape, with the words “Fried Eggs” written across the drawings. No sooner done than Premier and Mrs. Khrushchev walked in the door, followed by a retinue of high government officials from both countries.

I stood atop a wooden stool to record the delegation’s response. The front row directly facing the stoves, including both Khrushchevs, erupted into hilarity upon seeing the paper eggs on cold stoves, followed by a wave of laughter moving through the crowd behind them. Everyone had a good laugh, except perhaps for the sheepish Home-Ec teacher. I got my picture, even struggling with the primitive Leica I inherited with the job. I was happy, my boss was happy. I was happy that my boss was happy.

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