301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently


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Cold Comfort

At 16, Gil McElroy wanted to be a hippie living in a geodesic dome. Only years later would he learn about the dome’s political ties to American propaganda. From Cold Comfort: Growing Up Cold War.

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It’s 1972 and I’m sixteen years old. I have on near-permanent loan from my high-school library The Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of information on living alternatively in the world. I desperately want to be a hippie. Part of it stems back to an incident in the summer of 1967, when we lived with my grandparents in Windsor. Every summer of our time in Tacoma my father would take me down to a barbershop when school let out for the summer break and have my head shaved. I spent those summers in hateful crew cuts my father forced on me during our summers in Tacoma. When we moved and my father left us in Windsor with my grandparents, I saw my chance. I asked my mother if I could let my hair grow out. She agreed, and I went to a barbershop by myself for a trim, where the barber didn’t listen to my instructions but instead sheared my head. I left the shop in tears, and outside, sitting on a wall, encountered my first hippies. I remember only one of them vividly: a young man with long, shoulder-length blond hair and round metal-framed granny glasses. I vowed that would be me someday. It was. Cut back to 1972 and my dalliance with The Whole Earth Catalog. By then I was determined to be a writer, and I was going to be a writer who lived an alternative lifestyle as a hippie in what all hippies lived in: a geodesic dome, of course.

By the mid-1960s, the dome had become, for a lot of us, synonymous with the back-to-the-land movement. We’d forgotten—or more likely never knew—that the dome had a previous life as a piece of military technology. Oh, Buckminster Fuller didn’t devise the dome for the military per se, but he quite successfully marketed it to them. The geodesic dome entered the world of the military via the Marine Corps, who first showed interest in its military application, and moved along the chain to the Strategic Air Command of the US Air Force. Not long afterward, the American State Department took a great interest in it as well, and domes ended up being used as American pavilions at international trade fairs, like the one held in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1956, where the dome erected there (a last-minute replacement for the temporary tents usually employed) became wildly popular with visitors. The US government saw that Fuller’s dome could be used as propaganda—could be contextualized so as to be rendered synonymous with the idea of American freedoms and ingenuity—and so domes began to sprout up everywhere. The most famous was probably the American pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, a dome which still stands. I would argue—and I’m in no way the first—that Buckminster Fuller’s clever engineering of geometry is itself a pretty potent symbol of all that was the Cold War.

So in 1972, at the age of sixteen, I sit on my bed with the library copy of The Whole Earth Catalog resting in my lap dreaming of dome days. I would sit in my own dome, and there be a writer. And while I did this, my father was several thousand miles farther north in the Arctic, there essentially because a geodesic dome made the ideal shelter for the radar that was keeping an eye out for anything Soviet and incoming across the polar ice cap. It was an irony I wouldn’t appreciate—or even notice—for another thirty-seven years.

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