If these industrial-grade plastic cylinders were on display in a sex shop in Portland, Bellingham, or San Francisco, they would go unnoticed or even be viewed ironically. But here in Tacoma, a city that boasts the largest military bases in the Pacific Northwest, they are loaded, burdened, charged with extra meaning. Army bases are, of course, in the business of training soldiers for war; building their muscles and courage so they can dominate their enemies. This is why one can't laugh when coming across a rack of penis pumps in Tacoma.
The presence of big military bases (Fort Lewis, McChord Air Force Base, Madigan Army Medical Center, and Camp Murray) affects not only the perception of equipment in sex shops, but every aspect of life in the city; from the sky with its brooding, gray planes to the streets themselves, where one finds military bars, an abundance of military surplus stores, and dispensers for papers like Shop Talk (which is written "by services wives for services wives") and The Fort Lewis Ranger, an Army weekly. One could argue that the Ranger is the best weekly in Tacoma. It offers entertaining film, music, and restaurant reviews; an excellent advice column authored by a voluptuous "goddess" named Amy Alkon; long essays on serious questions such as "Is duty, honor, country, being replaced by me, me, me?"; and informative interviews with local soldiers who spend the majority of their time "taking care of soldiers."
The bases are also responsible for such big and expensive public events as the annual Air Expo, which draws thousands of Tacoma residents each year and features the stars of air defense--the F-117 Nighthawk, the F-15E Strike Eagle, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, and the B-2 Stealth Bomber--along with machine guns that are so powerful they can kill a man without hitting him. "The bullet just has to pass by his head and [the head] will explode," a very handsome young solider with bright blue eyes bragged as I held the heavy weapon. Ironically, Air Expo 2000 was held on the very weekend (June 24-25) that Seattle held the grand opening of the Experience Music Project, which featured the stars of the rock world--Metallica, Dr. Dre, and James Brown. So, while I was interacting with powerful machine guns and night-vision glasses in Tacoma, others were interacting with guitars, turntables, drums, and keyboards in the futuristic Sound Lab in Seattle.
Indeed, a close analysis of the mythic substance of either big event reveals that two distinctly different realities, cultures, and identities made them possible. They are site-specific events: The EMP could never happen in Tacoma, just as the Air Expo could never happen in Seattle. Seattle doesn't have the cultural, historical, and linguistic materials needed to produce (or appreciate) an Air Force event with dazzling jet planes that turn the sky and clouds into a playground. In fact, when the much-smaller-scale Blue Angels show comes around each year, Seattleites walk the streets with their hands over their ears, complaining. Nor does Tacoma have the resources (or desire) to host an event dedicated to a dead rock star who imbibed huge amounts of drugs, wore bright clothes, and played his guitar with his teeth. In fact, the codes that structure these events, that form their meanings, are completely opposite each other on every level. The EMP stands for Microsoft (private) money; the Air Expo stands for military (public) money. The EMP says Seattle is soft; the Air Expo says Tacoma is hard. The EMP says Seattle is virtual; the Air Expo says Tacoma is physical. The EMP says Seattle is the brains of the region; the Air Expo says Tacoma is the brawn.
This pecking order, this diametrical structure, was in place long before software engineers made a dime in the Emerald City or the United States Army set foot in the City of Destiny.
THE CITY OF DESTINY
In the superb, and, regrettably, out-of-print book South on the Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County, the recently deceased local historian Murray Morgan tells the story of a rivalry between two Tacoma papers that turned ugly. One paper, called The News, ran an editorial implying that Samuel W. Wall of the competing paper The Telegraph "worked secretly in the interest of Seattle." Upon reading this inflammatory accusation, Wall rushed over to The News, confronted the "offending editorialist, Herbert Harcourt," and shot him in the chest "point-blank." By some impossible miracle, Harcourt lived. Wall was captured and charged with attempted homicide, but the case was never brought to trial because "the prosecutor felt no jury would ever convict a man for defending himself against the charge that he had something good to say about Seattle." The year was 1886.
What this early Wild West incident demonstrates, and what Morgan emphasizes again and again in his book, is that the rivalry between Seattle and Tacoma was (and still is) serious business. Nowhere else in the state of Washington could this incident have happened--if you shot a man in Nooksack because he said you were working in the interest of Bellingham, you'd go to jail. Only because it was part of "the war," as Morgan once described the heated contest between Seattle and Tacoma, was it justified. Why is the rivalry between Seattle and Tacoma so intense and bitter? Because both cities were born at roughly the same time, both saw that they were at the very end of the American enterprise, and both wanted to stake their claim as the climax city. So, there ensued a game with extremely high stakes: One city would be the absolute winner, the other the absolute loser. There would be no third way, no neutral point for Seattle and Tacoma, for what was at stake was meaning itself.
There can be no meaning in sharing; meaning derives only from difference. In his book The Raw and the Cooked, the cultural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss explains that binary pairs form a fundamental classification system: We know what is cooked by what is raw, what is black by what is white, what is here by what is there. More importantly, as Vincent Michael Colapietro points out in his wonderful Glossary of Semiotics, binary pairs in the West are usually "conceived in a hierarchical way.... One member of the pair is construed as higher or of greater value than the other." The game that Tacoma and Seattle knowingly and energetically entered into during the second half of the 19th century, before either city had any "significance" or meaning, was for the sole and exclusive possession of the future.
As everyone knows, Tacoma took the lead in this race when it landed the North Pacific railroad terminus on July 14, 1873. Indeed, at that point, Seattle's outlook turned so bleak, historians are still puzzled as to why the majority of its residents didn't pack up and move south. "No news could have been worse," writes Morgan in his masterpiece Skid Road. "Seattle would be deprived of the terminus, but the hamlet of Tacoma, with two hundred residents, a settlement barely two years old, would swiftly grow to challenge Seattle's industrial leadership. The new town... would undoubtedly dedicate itself to the economic destruction of its nearest rival." Tacoma was so high on its success that it came to see San Francisco and New York as its competitors rather than lowly and laughable Seattle, whose sewer system was in such disrepair that the city was famous for its aroma. True, Tacoma was still in the gutter in comparison to established Eastern cities, but its eyes were now staring up at the stars.
The Yukon gold rush in the late 1890s changed all that. The gold rush was the first in a series of economic booms (from ground, to air, to cyberspace) to launch Seattle into the realm of world-class cities. Even in the first year of the gold rush, 1897, Seattle reaped an estimated windfall of $25 million, mostly from sales of dry goods and equipment to those headed up to Alaska. Seattle made the most of its last-stop status by conducting the loudest publicity campaign in the region. The city's fathers and mothers inundated the world with press releases, articles, letters, brochures, and official bulletins, all calling Seattle the "gateway to Alaska." Tacoma desperately tried to compete with Seattle's deafening marketing machine, but failed miserably.
Twelve years after the discovery of gold, booming Seattle celebrated its triumph over slumping Tacoma by hosting the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which drew during its five-month run nearly four million people, including President William Howard Taft. "The fair accomplished two major purposes," writes James R. Warren in his book King County and Its Emerald City, Seattle, "to prove to the people of the world [and Tacoma] the enormous value of Alaska and the greatness of its main entry port, Seattle." As Seattle continued to boast and succeed, Tacoma's fortunes necessarily continued to decline. But Tacoma's demise was brought on not only by economic factors, but three crucial symbolic factors as well.
The first occurred in the early 1870s, when Tacoma asked the great American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.--famous for designing New York City's Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace--to design a plan for the city. It was a brilliant idea, giving the reins to an American legend and champion of public space, and Olmsted did submit a plan, which Morgan describes in these dreamy terms: "Olmsted's grand design was to emphasize open space. The principal avenues were all curvilinear, sweeping gracefully along the contours of the hills, with parks crowning the crests, and much of the waterfront reserved as a parkway for carriages and a promenade for the citizenry." Tacoma foolishly rejected the plan and instead hired an unknown lighthouse specialist, William Isaac Smith, to design a standard grid system for the city. This missed opportunity cost Tacoma dearly! Had the city been designed by Olmsted, the city would have reveled in world-class prestige forever.
The second self-imposed blow was Tacoma's infamous expulsion of Chinese immigrants on November 5, 1883. Granted, every city in the Northwest experienced sometimes-deadly anti-Chinese riots, but the government in other cities stepped in at some point to restore order (Seattle declared martial law and issued warrants for leaders of the Chinese-expulsion movement.) Tacoma's officials, on the other hand, helped force most of the city's Chinese community onto a train headed for Portland. Tacoma faced national embarrassment because of the incident, and its backward way of settling racial disputes became known as "The Tacoma Method." It has yet to recover from this humiliating recognition: Recently, the Tacoma News Tribune published an article titled "Tacoma faces up to its darkest hour," which posits that Tacoma might have turned out differently had it not booted out its Chinese population. "First, it is the only [city on the West Coast] that doesn't have a large Chinese American population," says the article. "[The last] census figures suggest there are fewer people of Chinese descent in the city now than there were in 1885."
The third and final factor was Tacoma's failed attempt to rechristen Mt. Rainier (named after British admiral Peter Rainier, who fought against America in the war for independence) with what some local historians say was the "Native American" name for the mountain, Mt. Tacoma (or Takhoma, which according to historian Nard Jones means "the mountain that is god"). Though the attempt happened in 1926, 30 years after Seattle's success was sealed, Tacoma evidently saw a psychological advantage in having the great volcano share its "melodious Indian name," as early settlers and boosters described it. The symbolic weight of this (Mt. Tacoma!) would have been enough to initiate Seattle's fall from grace, in a way that only words can. This had to be the sole reason for pushing so hard to rename the mountain (the issue went all the way to Washington D.C., where it failed to pass in the House of Representatives), because really, are we to believe Tacoma's leaders had the indigenous folk in mind? This was 1926, remember.
By all accounts, Tacoma is a failure. Every day it lives failure, sleeps failure, eats failure; this is part of its charm; this is why it is, in many ways, a better city than Seattle, whose success has now reached vulgar and even cancerous proportions. Indeed, the very fact that Tacoma is a failure means it is a real city. It played a high-stakes game and refused to take the middle road to mundaneness. The Tacoma Dome, the (now dead) Tortured Artist Film Festival, the Tacoma Museum, the University of Washington Tacoma Extension: These all show that Tacoma, crazy as it may seem, has not yet given up the race. Real cities never give up, never surrender, even if they have failed a thousand times.
There is one thing Tacoma successfully accomplished in its 140-year-old war with Seattle: It persuaded the U.S. Army to set up a base near American Lake in 1917, by donating 70,000 acres of land to the project. This land became Fort Lewis, which was "the first military installation in U.S. history to be created by an outright gift of land by citizens," says McChord's website with pride and amazement, even after all of these years. Had Tacoma not done this, had the Army made Olympia or Mukilteo its home, Tacoma would be nothing today but a total failure. With the presence of the military bases, however, Tacoma is a failure with big muscles.
THE BRAINS AND THE BRAWN
In 1991, The Economist described Tacoma in these terms: "A Smokey [sic] industrial Sparta next to the high-tech Athens of Seattle." Here, two binary opposites are employed to explain what Tacoma is. The first pegs Tacoma as representing the past (industrial) and Seattle as the future (high-tech). Tacoma has not rejected this order, but has, in fact, embraced it. Take, for example, this passage from UW Terrain (A UW Tacoma newsletter): "Tacoma has experienced a renaissance in a dilapidated district of its downtown, not because of an infusion of retail, sports or entertainment facilities--a common approach to revitalizing downtowns across the nation--but by the establishment of educational and cultural institutions. UW Tacoma campus preserved and readapted abandoned historic warehouses into a university campus." In terms of "the war," Tacoma's commitment to history, to preserving the ways of wagons, steam engines, and grand hotels, allows it to represent old money, aristocratic ways, and tradition in the face of Seattle's new money and vulgar habits.
The second and more significant binary order laid out by The Economist is the distinction between Tacoma's brawn (Sparta) and Seattle's brain (Athens). Sparta, as everyone should know, was famed for its obsession with discipline, athleticism, and the art of war. The 1993 Columbia Encyclopedia says, "Spartiates [Sparta's ruling class] gave themselves wholly to war. At birth a boy was inspected by the elders, and if he appeared too weakly for future military service, he was taken into the mountains and abandoned. If he was fit, he was taken from his mother at the age of seven to begin rigorous military training. He became a soldier at 20, a citizen at 30, and continued as a soldier until 60." Athens, on the other hand, is known for philosophy, the arts, and for being the birthplace of democracy. Sparta was its chief rival.
Like Sparta, Tacoma is packed with military muscle. It can deploy troops anywhere in the world, and wipe out whole nations as if they were mere sticks. Fort Lewis soldiers are trained to fight in arctic, jungle, and desert conditions. No terrain can resist them. All hills, valleys, lakes, and forests surrender to their tanks and weapon systems. When Fort Lewis flexes its muscles (like when soldiers are blowing things up for practice), the very boom of it sets off burglar alarms, shakes homes, and drives scores of Tacoma residents from their beds, thinking the big earthquake has arrived. Recently, Congress gave the already mighty Fort Lewis $100 million dollars (it plans to give $800 million more) to create an even faster and more lethal attack force that can be dispatched anywhere in the world in 96 hours. Commander Lt. Gen. James Hill of Fort Lewis says this new breed of high-tech soldiers will represent "the tip of the spear" for America's armed forces.
Tacoma also keeps a constant eye on Western skies. From Southern California up to Washington and all the way back to North Dakota, McChord's WADS (Western Air Defense System) radar monitors and identifies any "airborne object" (commercial plane, balloon, UFO); it tracks these objects, and if something is not in order, a fighter interceptor squadron consisting of wasp-like F-15s is dispatched to destroy the intruder with their 20 mm multibarrel guns (with 500 rounds of ammunition each!) and supersonic, air-to-air Sidewinder missiles with high-explosive warheads and infrared heat-seeking guidance systems.
On a more mundane level, the Fort Lewis and McChord military bases are also the biggest employers in Pierce County, responsible for generating over 35,000 civilian and military jobs. The employees at Fort Lewis alone earn over $600 million a year in income, much of which goes into the local economy. And the transfer of troops from closing bases in Germany and other parts of the world means more muscle and jobs for Tacoma.
IN THE REALM OF MUSCLE
The presence of McChord Air Force Base produces yet another important split between Tacoma and Seattle: the types of jet planes that traffic their skies. Though Sea-Tac Airport serves the civilian populations of both Seattle and Tacoma, it is really Seattle's airport, because many of the jets that arrive and take off from there dominate Seattle's sky. Tacoma, on the other hand, has mostly big, brooding Army planes flying above it. Again, this distinction reinforces the identities of the two cities: The planes over Seattle are colorful and come in many shapes and sizes; the planes that command Tacoma's sky are of one color--gray--and are preternaturally huge. One connotes commerce; the other big government. One is open; the other secretive. One carries businesspeople with laptops; the other soldiers with machine guns.
These distinctly different forms of air traffic also impact and structure the lives of the cities below them like magnets over metal dust. Seattle would not be the same urban space if it lived under the lugubrious movements of Army airlifters; nor would Tacoma be Tacoma if its planes were civilian, colorful, and commercial. I happen to live under a Seattle flight path, and the sound of the commercial jet planes that fly over my home inspire in me emotions and thoughts that no military plane ever could. Every time I hear the drag and groan of a descending airliner, I feel the spirit of the global economy. In my mind, images of businessmen and women (astronauts, as they are sometimes called) flying in from Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore appear. I see them arriving in Seattle and firmly shaking hands with potential partners, making big deals with Starbucks, purchasing airplane parts from Boeing, computer software from Microsoft, investing in some start-up. And this activity, this circulation of money, ideas, and information, swirls around my mind until the deep groan of the commercial jet dies in the distance.
Meanwhile, in Tacoma, there is a woman named Lorees Rigsby Jones. She lives near McChord, and is inspired, comforted, and soothed by the sounds of military jets. "There are many nights," she wrote to the editor of the Tacoma News Tribune, "when I have gone to sleep with the sounds of planes overhead, sometimes the wind is such that I hear the planes land and take off." She's not only comforted by the jet planes, but also enjoys the "big booms" from Fort Lewis. "I feel very secure by these noises," she writes, "and when I no longer hear these sounds, I'll really be concerned."
Because this form of pleasure inspired by military planes carrying crucial supplies (ammo, trucks, weapons) to bases in Japan, Hawaii, and South Korea is foreign to me, I called Lorees Rigsby Jones and asked for more detail. What exactly does she feel when military planes roar over her home? "Well, in that sound I feel that the country is taking care of me," she says. "Yeah, there are a lot of people who complain about the noise, but they don't know what they are talking about. All they know is it wakes them from sleep or it wakes their baby up. But all of that is temporary. What is important is that the Army is prepared, that it can protect us, and that is why I like that noise."
But does she feel anything in a spiritual sense?
"It's hard to explain how it makes me feel, but I think it is power. Yes, power. You feel the power of those planes and it makes you feel pretty special." I was amazed by this admission. A feeling of power? I had never felt power when I heard the commercial jets flying over Seattle. They instead inspired something closer to that utopian global village feeling that corporations like AT&T and Motorola like to affect in their TV commercials.
FEELING THE POWER
I wanted to feel this "power" that Lorees Rigsby Jones so loves. I wanted to understand it and appreciate it, so I caught a bus to Lakewood (a working-class neighborhood in south Tacoma between Fort Lewis and McChord) to find an efficacious spot beneath the flight path. When the bus arrived in Lakewood, I immediately saw a large, gray, and dreamy military plane heading toward the Air Force base. My heart jumped! I needed to get as close to that flight path as possible. So I walked up one street (South Tacoma Way) that seemed promising, but I soon realized I was headed in the wrong direction. The planes were not flying over the Déjà Vu strip club I found myself across the street from. I stepped into a tavern for directions and found a few soldier-types (bulky, buzz cut, wearing blue jeans, with tattoos) sitting at the bar. I asked one soldier where to find the best place to watch (feel) military planes. He seemed a little confused by my question, but recommended that I catch a bus to McChord. After two Buds with this somewhat reticent fellow (a Spartan if there ever was one), I returned to the street and caught the recommended bus.
This bus ran along Pacific Highway Southwest, which has to be the most masculine strip in the Northwest, lined with countless tattoo parlors, saunas, spas, gun stores, car dealerships, military surplus stores, and hotels offering free "adult movies" and "SOS" breakfasts for military men recovering from hangovers and sex exhaustion. When the bus arrived at the majestic main entrance of the Air Force base on Bridgeport Road, I got off and walked to the guard box, where I asked the serious sentinel if I could enter the base. He said no. Not bothering to plead my case with this no-nonsense Spartan, I jumped on the next bus to the Lakewood Park and Ride, and walked along State Route 512. This move proved to be a success, because the busy road magically led me to a large parking lot directly under the flight path. It was perfect! It offered me a clear view of the Air Force base, with its fleet of brooding airlifters and phantom-large hangars, and there was no one around to disturb or question me.
The first plane to come my way was a C-141B Starlifter. This jet is called the "work horse of the Air Mobility Command," because it is regularly used to transport troops over long distances and carry equipment into "hostile areas," according to the Fort Lewis Ranger. It is 168 feet long with a wingspan of 160 feet and 20,000 pounds of thrust in each engine. As it flew over me, shredding the sky to nothing, I felt its raw power and mighty presence near my heart. There was also a strange sensation in my throat. After 30 minutes of watching the same type of airlifter take off and land, and experiencing the same sensations, a C-130 Hercules descended from the sky. This plane is "capable of operating from rough dirt strips and is the primary transport for paradropping troops and equipment into hostile areas," according to the Ranger. It is 97 feet long with a 38-foot wingspan. As it flew over my head, the plane's power hit me in the stomach and upper gut. When the plane passed, the sensation moved deep down into my lower intestines and sat there for a moment like a heavy ball.
The next plane to come my way was the magnificent C-17 Globemaster III. This jet, which is a recent addition to McChord's roster of airlifters, is simply amazing! It can move backward with the ease of a minivan, land and take off from very short runways, and each of its engines has 40,440 pounds of thrust (that's double the thrust of the C-141B Starlifter!). I expected this great jet plane to give me the purest sensation of military power, which would reach the deepest parts of my body and touch my very soul. I couldn't wait! But as this plane flew over me, I felt nothing, except a slight vibration at the tip of my shoulders. A soul, a ghost floated around me, but never entered my body. I was shocked! This jet was smooth and soundless. Indeed, I could see the plane, but could hardly hear it, which, of course, is its strength: the power to obscure its power.
In the old days, jets were loved by generals because their sounds terrified the enemy and let them know death was certainly on its way. These new types of jet planes (the stealth bomber, the C-17 Globemaster III) do not announce themselves; they appear suddenly and silently with the efficiency of a UFO. If this new generation of jet planes represents the direction of Air Force technology and strategy, Tacoma's skies will someday be trafficked by planes that drift about like silent phantoms. Even more eerie is the Army's plan to eventually use robots for combat. "Robots are going to play a critical role for us in taking on future missions," said Army Chief Scientist Michael Andrews recently to Defense Week, a military newsletter. If this happens, soldiers may go the way of bank tellers, and the robots that replace them will make up 10 percent of Tacoma's population. What a strange city it will be by the year 2020, with soundless jet planes overhead and convoys of GI robots racing up and down I-5.
I recently attended a fancy party thrown by AtomFilms, a Seattle-based Internet start-up that provides short films online. The other guests and I chatted casually about the future of cinema, digital cameras, and professional editing software as we sipped reasonably good white and red wine. It was all very civilized and intelligent. But, had we been strafed or bombed by an enemy from overseas, had we been threatened in any way by Iraq or China or Russia, Tacoma--like a muscular, bruising older brother--would have come to our rescue. Tacoma does our dirty work; it not only protects us but keeps markets in Korea and Taiwan open and politically stable for American corporations like Boeing and Microsoft. (Indeed, the bases responsible for that task receive their supplies directly from McChord Air Force Base.) Seattle may think its culture is separate from and superior to Tacoma's, but it's not. If we want to be honest about the wealth that Seattle enjoys and squanders on rock museums and sports stadiums, then we should not look down on Tacoma, but rather, like Lorees Rigsby Jones, feel secure that someone is watching over us.