#517: Zouaves

August 17th, 2015

Past the pimped-out muscle car in the foyer and the flash and neon of a man-sized “Gas For Less” sign, up the stairs and past four interactive windows of Lincoln assassination relics, past a stately, chandeliered room of arches, columns and Civil War portraits is the Chicago History Museum’s Chicago Room, where an old janitor and a young security guard watched out the window and narrated each other the death machines.

The room itself is long and thin, with stained glass windows taken from 1800s mansions acting as decoration along the back wall and the two far ends. Its length is set along the museum’s back end, windows and glass doors looking out onto Lincoln Park.

In the park, families with coolers, cyclists and a picnicking woman in a black bikini also watched the Blue Angels’ Boeing F/A-18 Hornets rock the skies at the Chicago Air & Water Show.

The window ledges on the room’s north end were filled with flowers, bundles of differcolored roses and silver-gray dusty miller in glass centerpieces waiting to be put on tables for whichever event booked the room next.

I asked two workmen pushing carts and an angry-looking woman in a black dress if I should get going. They told me the party didn’t show.

“They called off the wedding,” one of the men piped up before the angry-looking woman silenced him with a glare. She had long curly hair piled elegantly atop her head.

“We cashed the check, that’s all I care about,” she said, dropping the angry facade and casting me a friendly if weary smile, waving it off. “We cashed the check.”

Outside, four jets totaling $116 million of military surplus made a loop-the-loop.

The janitor and guard chatted together, comparing notes on the spiral smoke helices the fighter jets made over the lake. A few museum patrons toddled in the room to investigate the roars and whooshes from outside.

When they convert a fighter jet for the Blue Angels, they replace the nose cannon with a smoke machine. The smoke comes from where the bullets did.

The last question on the Blue Angels’ 60-question FAQ is “I am in school right now. What should I be doing now if I want to be a Blue Angel one day?”

The answer is to study hard, stay physically fit, join some extracurriculars and don’t do drugs. They end by telling the children to contact their local recruiter.

I realize the world is nastier and more nuanced than bumper stickers about giving schools all the cash and holding bake sales for fighter jets. But blank-check patriotism is for ghouls and assassins. I’m selective in my support. When the military does good, that’s good. When it does evil, that’s evil.

I’m also not above the Blue Angels’ charms. I even wrote a story about it once. I too have gasped and gaped at the precision and power of these fantastic machines, allowing myself to forget for a moment what they were designed to do.

But I can’t pretend this is anything other than a show of force.

If these machines of power, grace and killing precision were people, would we cheer? Would we line the streets, lazing in bikinis and with a cooler full of pop for the kiddos if platoon after platoon of soldiers marched through a peacetime American city in drill step formation, rifles glinting in the sun?

The slow sound of “Taps” filled the room, a broadcast trumpet from outside. Day is done. Gone the sun.

I left the parkfront Chicago Room, stepping back into the stately, chandeliered room of arches, columns and Civil War portraits.

There, the old janitor with the stand-up dustpan chatted with the two female members of the cleaning staff who had joined the air show watch earlier. They were discussing one of the paintings, “The Chicago Zouaves at Utica.”

The painting shows the Zouave Cadets Drill Team resplendent in bright red trousers, blue shirts and black jackets. Bayonets thrust to the skies in port arms unison beneath a waving American flag, the drill team wowed the assembled crowd and brass band in Utica, N.Y., on July 10, 1860, “showcasing their dazzling skill and precision,” the placard beneath the painting said.

This is an older game than I thought.

Read another tale of history

See “The Chicago Zouaves at Utica”

Boeing on the Hornet

The Navy on the Hornet

The Marines on the Hornet

Lockheed Martin on Hercules

The Blue Angels FAQ

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