I've been meaning for quite a while to write about a strange experience I had in August of 2018. It will be kind of hard to explain, which is one of the reasons my heels have dragged.
I was raised by a Boomer dad whose father fought extensively in the European theater of WWII. Like most males of that generation, his childhood was a steady stream of WWII-related pop culture output and history. Accordingly, when I was very young in the early 1980s our house had among its bookshelves an ample supply of those kinds of "Jane's Fighting Aircraft of the World" and "Atlas of WWII Battlefields in Germany" type books that one always found lying on the Discount table at Crown Books / Waldenbooks / B. Dalton Bookseller / a bunch of other book retailers I've forgotten that used to be everywhere but since went bankrupt.
As a devoted enthusiast of G.I. Joe action figures (and of course the cartoon) by about age six, I spent many evenings thumbing the pages of those books. One thing that is hard to communicate is the sense of ~*~mystery~*~ that surrounded everything about the Eastern Bloc before 1989. Photos of Russian aircraft were always grainy and highly surreptitious in tone. Information was always qualified as "allegedly" or "reportedly." It was all very cloak-and-dagger and I fucking loved it. What, after all, was G.I. Joe vs COBRA but the Cold War in animated form for kids.
Of all the things that captured my attention, nothing amazed me quite as much as a little-known airfield in Yugoslavia (now in Bosnia) called Zeljava. One of these encyclopedia-style books wrote a short piece on it, in hushed tones of danger, including a single photo:
Zeljava Air Base was – imagine being six in 1985 and learning this fact – cut into the side of a mountain. The planes would wait safely under the bulk of an enormous mountain while the nuclear warheads fell and then emerge (from a PLANE-SHAPED HOLE IN THE MOUNTAIN) to do air battle with Tom Cruise in an F-16. That was the most James Bond, COBRA, Secret Agent Man thing I had ever heard. I asked my dad repeatedly to confirm that it was real, and not just a story. The picture looked real. It was real. Whenever I saw a book from this genre in a bookstore, the first thing I did was flip to the index to see if it contained any information about this mysterious spot. Many did, and included this, its most widely-circulated photo. Look at how grainy it is! Like it was taken IN SECRET by a real SPY.
I just could not get enough of it. It was, at that point in my life, the coolest thing in the world.
Fast forward several decades. Last summer, at age 39, Question Cathy and I were on vacation in the Czech Republic. After a few days of castles and beer and museums, I tentatively brought up the prospect of using our rental car to take a drive down unpaved, remote Bosnian roads to an unmarked and now abandoned Yugoslav Air Force Base. Since she is always indulgent of this type of thing on my part, she agreed. A few hours later, thanks in no small part to the miracle of Google Maps, I took this picture:
That's me, standing in front of the airplane-shaped hole in the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere in Bosnia.
Also present that day were a cop ("Remember the Dumb American routine I taught you, tell them we thought this was a mall and we got lost!") who was chatting with a friend, obviously looking for an out of the way place to stash himself so as to avoid working, and a pair of young men using the 2500m runway to do quarter-mile tests with their very obviously prized Skoda Fabia. Nobody appeared to care in the least that we were all at what, as of 1980, must have been one of the most secretive and restricted places on the continent.
It was, and is, difficult for me to explain what it felt like to close that loop. Think of the changes that have taken place to the world we live in between the time this was built (at an enormous cost its society probably could ill afford) until today, when the investment has been declared superfluous, abandoned by the MiG-21s of a country called Yugoslavia and left to young men racing their hatchbacks in a place called Bosnia.
It goes without saying that plenty changed for me between the ages of 5-7 and 39. I can't say I thought about the air base in the side of a mountain every day, obviously, but it was a thing I never quite forgot due to how completely it fascinated me when I was very young. There's no way 1985 Ed would have believed, looking at the grainy picture, that he'd be able to visit it someday, nor can Present (now 40) Ed fully appreciate that, for all the things he has failed badly at in life, he has also done some pretty cool shit that a vast majority of people will never get an opportunity to do.
Anyway. It was a good trip.