The astronaut suits are falling apart. Those somewhat beautiful space suits that several generations recognize as the gear worn by the courageous space pilots who walked in space and even walked on the moon are being preserved by the Smithsonian. They are history, they are cool… but they were never meant to last 50-plus years. So at the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Facility in Maryland, technicians are working full days to try and save the deteriorating suits. Tough and reliable in space, the suits were never designed to last forever.
When I saw a story about the space suit rescue on a news broadcast I was struck by the realization that, while those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, those who neglect the artifacts of history are doomed to not having that history around for future generations to study and understand. Maybe this brings us to Paul Conrad’s “Chain Reaction” sculpture and this past week’s vote by our City Council to complete further testing and a long-term restoration of the art work.
It didn’t come easy. Activists, artists, community leaders, and Conrad’s surviving family members all worked in concert to gather restoration funding. Now, because of a vote this past Tuesday night, the City will add funds to save “Chain Reaction.”
The effort has its heroes. Jerry Rubin and his wife Marissa Rubin began a campaign two years ago and never blinked. When funds raised by donations and events reached the $100,000 mark, City Manager Rod Gould and City staff made a recommendation that Council should get behind the effort and preserve “Chain Reaction” for future generations.
Veteran TV producer Norman Lear made a particularly generous donation as did other well-known entertainment figures. And it’s here that we should pause and recognize that the sculpture was initially gifted to Santa Monica through a $250,000 donation by Joan Kroc. Her late husband was the founder of McDonald’s hamburgers. From a double with cheese to a symbol for stopping nuclear annihilation: Ronald McDonald can move in mysterious ways.
The Conrad sculpture, essentially a nuclear mushroom cloud made of large chain links, can arguably be questioned at the level of artistic subtlety. But then, so could the 1966 poster by Lorraine Schneider that plainly states “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Ah, but to have some of these statements simply live on as nostalgic pop culture. Instead, tragically, they never go out of style.
And that was the strongest argument for the efforts to save the Conrad sculpture. At the very moment that the City might have given up on preserving Conrad’s overt symbol, the world was eager to have Iran give up its nuclear program. Syria was bombing and gassing its own children. And there were U.S. drone strikes that were taking down targets along with “collateral damage.”
Jerry Rubin may have come to his activism as early as the Vietnam War, but his insistence that mankind find a way to live in peace has unfortunately remained stoked by continuing war violence over the decades since.
Some might call the struggle to save “Chain Reaction” at some level naïve. But when the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945 at the Trinity test in New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer – the key architect of that dark moment – was said to have remarked later that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
His second thoughts, if that’s what we want to call them, didn’t stop deployment of the horror machines near the end of World War II.
America’s nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are historical chapters that too often seem to have life only in a book most of us would rather not read.
The closeting of these particularly unpleasant passages in American history, similar to our turning away from such things as the genocide of Native Americans or Teddy Roosevelt’s Philippine-American War, makes one think we possibly need more blunt artistic statements like “Chain Reaction,” not fewer. We ingest public service announcements night and day about things we know we should contain or curb or stop; certainly we could have a few more messages placed out in the open reminding us that nuclear war would be the zenith of organized insanity.
Visitors to Santa Monica will view just such a reminder, and that’s due to all from our community who were involved. The effort to save “Chain Reaction” will allow a very important transaction to continue: Families will walk past the sculpture, and inevitably a child will wonder aloud, “What’s that all about?” Let’s hope there’s always someone nearby, ready to offer a thoughtful response.
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