Swords to Plowshares, a Cold War memory of Redondo Beach’s Wilderness Park 

Members of the South Bay Parkland Conservancy have devoted 20 years to restoring the native plants at Wilderness Park with the goal of providing food for native pollinators, including birds and insects. Photo by Kevin Cody

Wilderness Park To open

The stunning transition of F.E. Hopkins Wilderness Park from a barren parcel into a lush nature retreat is [complete]. Redondo Beach’s 11-acre ecological preserve featuring campgrounds, ponds, streams, and an outdoor amphitheater will be open to the public later this month.
— Redondo Reflex, July 6, 1977

by Steve Fulton

Wilderness Park opened in Redondo Beach in 1977.

My brother and I discover it soon after with our mom.

We eat a picnic of Cheez Whiz on Ritz Crackers.

On a bench by the ducks in the pond.

Then we walk the trails.

Along the running stream, up to the overlook.
Down past the amphitheater.

Down to the second pond.

We use leaves as boats and watch them float.

Down the stream that feeds the pond.

We cheer them on as they hit rapids.

The winners make it all the way down.
We hike through bushes and trees on dirt trails.
Up hills and over piles of leaves and acorns.

Soon it becomes one of my favorite places in The South Bay.
Vying for the top spot.
With Castle Golf, and Sand Dune Park.

The 11 acre Wilderness Park includes four ecological habitats: forest, meadows, streams, and ponds.

 

One time as we are getting out of our Datsun 710 at Wilderness Park.

My mom warns us of “bad men.”

They could be waiting in the brush of the winding trails.
“If man asks you to put something in your mouth, run!”

She tells me.

I never do meet any of the “bad men.”
But I never forget her words.

When we climb up to the top of the hills in Wilderness Park, 

I notice what looks like a concrete slab.

It serves no purpose.

It’s like it’s left-over from some other time.

You can see the coast from the hill.

Boats floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The hills of Palos Verdes.

But what was this place?

What was on this slab? 

I imagine it was a lookout in World War II.

But I have no actual idea.

I pretend to spot submarines in the ocean.

Then I wander down the paths looking for answers.

But I find 

only 

frogs 

and flowers 

and blinking turtles.

In 5th grade, 1981 we have a drill.

It’s called the “flash of light” drill.

If we see a big “flash of light in the sky, 

our job is to go inside our school room, 

get under our desks, and put our heads between our legs.

We all know why we are doing it.

It’s not a secret.

This is a Nuclear War Drill.

Ronald Regan thinks we can win a Nuclear War.

So in the case of a “bright flash of light,”

getting under our desks is the last thing we will ever do.
A dutiful performance for our country.

“Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.” 

Someone says as we sit under the tables.

Some of us laugh uncomfortably.

Ms. Nash tells us to be quiet.

I look up at the underside of my desk.  

I see some Bubble Yum stuck there.
At least three different flavors.
Someone has written “Shock’ em” in black ink.

It smells like large crayons.

I certainly hope this is not the last thing I ever see.

As Wilderness Park emerges out of the late ‘70s,

so do Wilderness Park birthday parties.

It’s a perfect place for a celebration.

Kids arrive, drop off presents with parents in one of the day-campsites.

Then run wild for several hours.

Carrion calls make us return for cake, food, games.

But it’s mostly a wild time.
We play games of ditch-em and hide-n-seek.

We have rock throwing contests.
We shoot each other with cap-guns.
We pretend to charge up the hills like we’ve seen in war movies.

The  winner is the one who occupies the concrete slab.

In a place of peace and respite.
We still play the proto-military games.

Drilled into us for as long as I can remember.

But if we go too far in our  missions.

We hit the edges.

The chain-link fence  surrounding the park.

Looking through it, at the apartments that surround it.
The suburban desert beyond.

I stare for a while then quickly look away.
Back towards the grass and hills and ponds and trees.

I want the illusion instead.

At Begg Jr. High we talk about our area having “strategic importance.”

The bunkers, hangers and high-rises of the military industrial complex.

Hughes, TRW, High Sheer, and Aerospace.

We talk about how a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union would target this infrastructure directly.

In November, 1983, they show a program on TV.
Everyone I know watches it.
It’s called “The Day After.”
It depicts what would happen if we had a nuclear war.

There is no defense.

No place to run.

The missiles hit and people just vaporize.

We make fun of the show the next day at school.
We laugh at the TV special effects.

And the weak story.
Deep down,
I’m terrified.

—-

We return to Wilderness Park often.
Even as teenagers.
Not to wreak havoc.

But to get away from it.

A place to slow down.
A place to think.

Some kids drink or smoke pot. 

But they are mostly harmless for me.

It’s a place to watch the streams flow.

As leaf boats run the rapids.

Watch the Koi dart.

The turtles blink.

All of it near the corner of Prospect and Sepulveda. 

I now know the ponds and streams are fake.

Water pumps make the water flow. 

But I don’t really care.

When we wander up the hills.

I still see the concrete slabs.
I’m not a boy any more, but I’m still curious.

“What were these for?”

I forget the question the minute I leave.

Because Wilderness Park is like a portal to another dimension.

In Greek mythology, Nike is a goddess who personifies Victory. 

Victory in any field including athletics, art, music, and  War. 

She is often portrayed in Greek art as Winged Victory in the motion of flight.

 

Wilderness Park paths lead to unexpected discoveries.

My wife and I go to Wilderness Park in the 1990s.

And we take our kid there often in the aughts.

One day in 2007 we decided to go to Wilderness Park.

We plan a whole day around it.

We began our drive from North Redondo to South.

But as we cross Anita on Prospect, 

we see a plume of smoke in the Southern South Bay Sky.

In the general direction of Wilderness park.

As we drive down down Prospect, 

the smoke plume gets bigger and bigger.

A block from Alta Vista school, we realize 

the smoke is coming from Wilderness Park.

It is on fire.

I pull the car around to the far side of Alta Vista school, and take a video.

I cannot believe Wilderness Park is engulfed in flames.

It’s teenage arson.
Maybe not so harmless after all?

The park closes for months.

I did not know how much I’d miss it.

Until it is gone.

 

Cement pads are all that remain of the Cold War era Nike missile site located in what is now Hopkins Wilderness Park in Redondo Beach. 

After the fire my interest is piqued.

I research Wilderness Park.

I go to the library, look at old maps, and ask everyone I know.
But no one seems to know much of anything about Wilderness Park.

Then, in an old newspaper I find what I’m looking:

In story by Debbie Zahn, staff writer for The Redondo Reflex.

In story named “Explore The Wilds Of Redondo Beach” from June 7, 1978

She wrote:
“The land the park stands on was formerly a Nike Missile Radar control site” 

Bingo.
My boyhood thoughts were correct.

Wilderness Park was once a military base.

There is a coin-operated video game I play first at Foster’s Freeze.

On the corner of Aviation and Manhattan Beach Blvd in 1980.

It is named “Missile Command” from Atari.
In the game you man three strategic missile sites.

And try to defend California from Nuclear attack.

The cities in the game were meant to represent
Eureka, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

I find a map of Nike missile sites.

The area of Wilderness Park was part of this system.

As a strategic radar installation.

Its’ job was to locate the incoming enemy aircraft, and guide the Nike missiles to their targets before they could transform a South Bay summer. 

Into a nuclear winter.

The Nike system formed a ring around Los Angeles County.

It also used Nuclear Warheads.

The idea was to explode in the air to have maximum effect 

on a squadron of incoming enemy aircraft.

The Nuclear Warheads were hidden in the South Bay.

In places like Palos Verdes.

They were kept secret for decades.

There were Nike missile sites to the North, near LAX and Malibu.

To the South, at Wilderness Park, Point Vicente, and Fort MacArthur.

To the East in Brea, Stanton and El Monte.

We lived right in the middle.

The Center.

The South Bay.

Smack-dab in the middle of all of it.

I look at the map again, and think.

They were not targeting the bunkers, hangers and high rises of the military-industrial complex.

They were targeting the families of workers who fed the aerospace machine. 

The scientists, math wizards, draftsmans, machinists, fabricators and mechanics of the South Bay.   

The target was us.

My best strategy in Missile Command is to only protect a few of my cities at one time.

In the game, you don’t fire directly at the warheads, 

but instead fire in their general direction.

As the warheads stream down,

you time your shots to explode into a circular shaped nuclear flak cloud. 

To take-out multiple warheads in the general area.

It’s basically a Nike missile simulator.

However, the game gets so frantic.

As you try to fire missiles at other missiles and planes.

The exercise becomes futile.

Very quickly.

All is lost.
Like most early video games.
There is no win-state.
You keep playing until  you lose.

Then the  screen turns blood red.

And says “The End.”

When ICBMs replaced aircraft as the main delivery system for nuclear warheads.

Nike missiles became obsolete.

In the early 70’s the system was dismantled.

A few years later we got Wilderness Park.

But It was all an illusion.
The equivalent of getting under a desk and putting your head between your legs.

The Nike missiles could never save us.

They would have just staved off the inevitable.

If the bombs didn’t get us.

The fallout from their warheads would have.

They were as fake as the streams and ponds of Wilderness Park.

But they served a similar purpose.

To give people some peace.

Respite.

An illusion of something simple and controllable.

Among the chaos.

 

Turtles and other wildlife are supported by Wilderness Park’s man made ponds.

 

In 2018 my youngest kid ask me to go to Wilderness Park.

We’ve had a decade of family tumult.

Almost since that very day we tried to go in 2007.

And found Wilderness Park was on-fire.

They are 12 years old now.

Their childhood on the precipice.

We go to Wilderness Park one more time.

They tell me they’ve always wanted walkie talkies.

It’s silly they know.

They are too old for it.

But they still want to do it.

So we buy them at Target, and head to the park.

We talk to each other as we traverse the pathways.

We report to each other as our leaf boats run the tiny rapids. 

But we also get off the mic.

To not scare the blinking turtles.

We climb to the top of a hill at Wilderness Park.

Pretending to be on a mission.

I see the concrete slab again, after so many years.

But now I know its history.

It’s an unmarked grave marker. 

To a past no one cares to remember.

From the top of the hill I can see the eucalyptus trees, 

Palos Verdes, and the ocean.

The wind is blowing through the grass and dandelions. 

The stream is trickling down to the pond.

I’m transported to a different place.
I look at my kid.

They are smiling.

Holding their walkie talkies.

Enjoying Wilderness Park for what it is. 

Just as much as I. 

Fenced in or not.

Illusion or not.

There is so much beauty here.

It’s almost too hard to take. ER

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