When I first visited UC Irvine, I was already committed to going to grad school there. I thought I should take a look around. We drove down from Los Angeles for the afternoon and spent the entire time lost. Irvine, both the campus and town, were meticulously planned for maximum disorientation. Sinuous, circular streets. No grids. On campus, I asked a few students for directions to the English department. They frowned and scurried away. It was like I had asked where Mordor was— an apt metaphor because Irvine has a dorm called “Middle Earth,” and the students all know where that is. I later discovered that the parking lot we pulled into, the one where we did the asking, was directly behind the Humanities Instructional Building. We were basically looking at the English department. I park there all the time now.
On that day, we gave up. I gazed forlornly out the windshield at some derelict looking bungalows labeled “Graduate Student Housing.” And then we were driving in Orange County again. We passed housing developments with vaguely British names—Windsor Village, Bristol Manor, The Inns at CuteBridge. The landscape seemed to repeat itself, as if on a slow loop. We drove past rows of identical pastel townhouse apartments, fronted by the same formation of sidewalk-hedge-groundcover-wall, sidewalk-hedge-groundcover-pine tree… over and over. I started to panic. It felt like Stepford housing, built to give the impression of human habitation, but soon the robots would attack.
Then we drove past the blimp hangars in Tustin. Two massive closed tunnels rose out of what looked like an abandoned field. They were so big, they didn’t even look like airplane hangars. They looked like spaceship hangars. No English department, I thought. Just quonset huts for aliens. OK. Bring it.
The hangars are 1,088 feet long and 18 stories high, which doesn’t really capture their utterly inhuman scale. They were built of wood in 1942, engineered to protect blimps during WWII from the Santa Ana winds. The blimps gathered intelligence. About submarines. They have shot film there sometimes, like X-Files or Austin Powers. Building 29 was condemned in 2007 when the City Council rejected proposals for “a motorcross facility, a culinary complex, shops catering to the elderly and a futuristic airship building center” to be housed inside (shops catering to the elderly?). In 2009, Tustin Magazine reported that its parent company, WaterMark, had bought the building for one dollar in exchange for a promise to maintain and repair it. A photograph showed the word “TUSTIN MAGAZINE” painted along one thousand foot side. I can’t tell you whether these words are still there. I see the hangars all the time. In my mind, they’re blank and silent.
On one end of the base, just southwest of the hangars, developers built a mall, years ago. It seems to feature a lot of surf and BMX gear shops. It’s unclear to me whether the new plans will follow through on any of the many ideas for sports and entertainment inside the largest wooden structure in the world. What can it be like to golf or dine in a blimp hangar? It’d be like hitting the putting green on a moon colony.
I see the base every other day, now, from the train station in Tustin. I particularly like the way it looks backlit at sunset, when the sun is a low-hanging blood orange and the distant skyscrapers look like a handful of Legos between the hulking silhouettes of the hangars.
I never thought, when I first saw them, that I would still be here this many years later. I started graduate school thinking it would be three years, at the outside. Somehow I signed on for another degree, had a kid, was influenced by some things at the expense of others… We build colossal structures, thinking we have an eye on the future, but then it turns out we have planned for the need to accommodate zeppelins.
On my way downtown in Los Angeles, most days, I drive under Bunker Hill, and on days when everyone forgets to turn on their headlights, it’s dark in the tunnel. Then someone slows down and the red brake lights shoot up over the reflective tiles, like blood into water. I think about what it must have looked like inside the hangars when they were full of blimps, twelve of them at a time, sighing and outgassing helium. I wonder, without wanting an answer, how many hours I’ve spent daydreaming on the train to Tustin. I wonder what it would be like to go shopping on the moon.