Kind of a strange title, I’ll give you that. But I don’t know how else to cram a bunch of things together that might not necessarily belong.
In two days I’m heading off to Paris to get married, then travelling down the Rhine over twelve days, wrapping up in Vienna on my birthday. I’ve gotten most of the things done that I need to—no easy task when also faced with a barrage of engineering exams. Seven of them, to be exact. Yet still, I feel the need to crank out one last post to both of my readers before I take off, even though I should probably be organizing our trip.
Why the hell am I thinking about the Distant Early Warning line at such a time? Well, I had spoken too soon in the earlier post where I’d assumed that I had missed the boat on a co-op position. I snagged a summer student position with Defence Construction Canada, which is the public corporation that manages construction projects and maintenance for the DND. This is the organization that played a major part in constructing the DEW line during the cold war. Now, I grew up at the tail end of that period, and I was also obsessed with aviation, so naturally this is something that fires me up.
I have to remind myself, since entering college with people a generation after me, that a lot of people might not even know what a cold war is or why establishing a line of radar stations across the arctic is an impressive feat. I don’t remember a lot of specifics from before the cold war ended, but I do remember the exact day the USSR collapsed, and recall the general vibe of the era. I was 8 or 9 when the USSR fell, and was at home with my grandmother. That side of my family is Russian—doukhobours who immigrated to Saskatchewan in the early 20th century. They spoke Russian up until my mother’s generation, and even then they learned a little, and might even still be able to pick up some words here and there. Given that, my grandmother had the news on when it happened. I remember watching her become riveted, and had no idea why.
I thought it was boring. There were a million other better things on TV than a bunch of old people in suits talking about stuff a kid didn’t even understand. The weather was crappy outside and we were a little stir-crazy, and this was before everyone had twenty televisions in the house. After an hour of this—okay let’s get real, it probably was ten minutes—I spoke up. I protested. What’s the big deal? Why are you watching this? Whatever it is, it sucks!
My grandmother just gave me a solemn look and said that it was “important.” This did nothing to help me understand it, but the sheer gravity did strike me. I shut up. And obviously, I remembered.
Even now, it’s only just striking me what exactly I had witnessed—the opening phrases of a tired narrative’s epilogue. An eight-decades-long modernist experiment crumbling, the driving force behind so much industry seizing and buckling and falling in a hail of rust.
The DEW line was of course built give advance warning of Russian bombers and ICBMs coming over the arctic circle. If you can believe it, we actually used to think that was likely to happen. And it was. The only thing that stopped such things from happening was the never-ending chess game of weapon buildups and countermeasures. Even now, we’re still reminded that a countermeasure like the DEW line is viewed as a de-facto weapon—the NATO missile shield proposed a few years back was enough to get Russia going again.
At that point, Canada’s air force looked quite different to now. The height of the cold war brought us sleek, fast-as-hell interceptors with internal weapons bays, designed for the sole purpose of scrambling within minutes to deliver long-range A-A missiles to take down Russian bombers or ballistic missiles, or equally as fast (and sometimes at the expense of manoeuverability, like the “Lawn Dart” CF-104) nuclear strike aircraft. My all time favourite was the CF-101 Voodoo, which came with a bizarre situation regarding its nuclear weapons. Obviously the politics surrounding nuclear weapons in Canada was complicated, and ended in Diefenbaker’s fall. Canada never officially acquired the nuclear missiles carried by the Voodoo, instead claiming that they remained property of the United States. We tend to think that Canada never really entered that game, but apparently we had jets carrying these things.
The terrorism narrative younger people brought surreal measures with it for sure, but I think we’ve already forgotten just how bizarre and intense the cold war actually was, and it dragged on for decades.
After all that, what was the point again? Well, my new employer, I guess. They’re currently in the process of decommissioning the DEW line. That’s nowhere near what I’ll be doing, but it’s still really cool to be involved with DCC. I lucked-out big time with this one. I could have ended up testing dirt . . . no offense to my friends who are pretty much all testing dirt for their work term. And if I am lucky enough to continue on with DCC, maybe there’d be a chance to see one of these radar stations being dismantled, or at least talk with someone who knows about it. I think it would be important to be able to witness the physical end of something that had such a huge impact on us all during that time.
With so much military hardware ready to go off at a second’s notice for decades, we’re still here. We no longer worry about mutually-assured destruction or build bomb shelters. We’re now legitimately afraid of pipe bombs filled with nails made in someone’s basement—and they’ve killed more people than nuclear weapons ever did when they were at the height of fashion. It’s crazy to think about.
Enough of that though. I’m off to Europe to get married and unwind after a crazy year in college. I’m going to make a solid effort this time to write about it—the last time I travelled, my writing was garbage and I put it in the round file. Hopefully it’ll turn out, but even if I never write anything good again, at least I’ll have the greatest wife in the world!
Oh yeah, it would be asinine to write the words Distant Early Warning without bringing Rush into it. It’s one of my favourite songs, and I love Alex Lifeson’s Floyd Rose equipped Les Paul in this video!