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Daughter of the Antelope Valley

December 3rd, 2008  |  Published in Featured, Military-Industrial, Photography

Even though I am at my father’s side, I feel like a spy.

Armed security guards stand at the entrance of the Eliopulos Hellenic Center in Lancaster, Calif., as hundreds of Lockheed Martin employees swarm the ornate banquet hall. Inside, business-casually clad engineers, administrators and their families mingle over glasses of wine and finger foods.

Booths display scale models of the company’s fighter jets, submarine rockets and reconnaissance drones—the ones the public is allowed to see, anyway. I am reminded that there is so much more I can’t see.

“How are you, Bill? What are you working on these days?” asks one engineer.
“Good, busy, you know. Traveling here and there,” answers my father.
“Oh yeah? What are you working on now?”
“On lots of things. Mostly from hotel rooms and airplanes.”

As I munch on a stale pita triangle at my father’s side, I realize that this was the third time he has given the same non-specific answer to a seemingly innocent question. I’ve known for a long time that he is prohibited from telling friends or family where he goes on his business trips and my brother and I have given up trying to figure it out years ago. But I learned that the need for secrecy doesn’t stop at friends and family, but was apparent even with fellow engineers and coworkers.

Today was the first time I was provided a glimpse this professional life. Since I was a child I have come to view his work as something too important for my eyes and ears. Much of what he actually did for a living was shrouded in secrecy, and his job security depended on his ability to keep his mouth shut – even to his family.

“Here is something I worked on,” says my dad as he points to a scale model and wall-sized poster of a mach three missile. A calming gray in color, the missile doesn’t look menacing, especially with a Disney-like cartoon skunk that emblazoned the weapon’s tail, indicating it was part of Lockheed Martin’s top-secret development program, labeled Skunk Works.

Taken from the name of a moonshine factory in the Al Capp cartoon series “Li’l Abner”, the name skunk works refers to a place employees operate without the usual constraints of management rule. Here in the AV, its also known as the Lockheed Advanced Development Program, which has given birth to legendary fighter jets like the SR-71 and the F-117, the latter on which my father worked.

Popular Mechanics eloquently analogized Skunk Works as “to aviation what Edison’s Menlo Park was to electricity, a place where the daily pursuit of the impossible produces technologies indistinguishable from magic.” I just knew it as the place my dad spent most of his time, but couldn’t talk about at the dinner table.

The event turns from a meet-and-greet into something akin to a state of the union address. After an hour of casual chatter, the heavyweights of the company get on stage and begin their presentation.

But first we are led through a Christian prayer. As everyone in the room bows their heads, I look back at my father. He looks at me with a ‘who knows?’ expression and shrugs his shoulders. As I turn back around I realize that he and I are the only people in the room not praying.

When that awkwardness subsided, another man took the microphone. “Ok everyone now we’re going to say the Pledge of Allegiance,” he said. This was odd as well. Granted there’s nothing wrong with the Pledge of Allegiance, hell I had to say it all through elementary and middle school, but I’ve never had to say it at a casual work function.

Finally, Frank Cappuccio, vice president & general manager of the Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Program takes the stage. He is short, stout and jovial and his rotund hands vice-gripped a full glass of red wine throughout the night.

There is an anticipatory hush over the crowd; the financial crisis is in full swing and many people here tonight are waiting to hear how the company is faring.

“O.K. everyone, I just want to start by saying your 401Ks are safe,” says Cappuccio. “Not worth very much, but safe nonetheless.”

Nervous, but hearty laughter erupts from the crowd. Aerospace engineers are no strangers to layoffs, and any downward trend in the economy is reason for unrest. Cappuccio quickly changes his tone to something more serious.

“Given what’s going on with the global War on Terror, its an ideal environment for classified programs and for us to do what we do in a very quiet manner,” he says.

I have always known my father’s work had something to do with defense and weapons technology. But for the first time I realized how closely his industry, and my hometown, are enmeshed with the military. A military enmeshed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My Home, The Aerospace Valley

The view from Highway 14 entering the Antelope Valley is strangely beautiful. Hills of sandy brown are traversed by a snake-like aqueduct and the shore of a man-made lake is adorned with a single ivory-colored wind turbine.

Just 80 miles outside of Los Angeles, it looks like any small, desert town in California. But hidden away from the main thoroughfares and behind towering retail superstores are the world’s largest manufacturers of war weapons.

The Antelope Valley is an area with deep roots in the aerospace industry. There is an Aerospace Walk of Honor that runs down Lancaster Boulevard, honoring test pilots from the nearby Edwards Air Force Base.

The minor league baseball team is called the Jethawks, complete with a cartoon mascot of a fighter jet with a menacing eagle visage. The scoreboard is flanked by vertical space shuttles and a replica McDonnell-Douglas FA-18 Hornet guards the entrance to the stadium.

“We have a large retail base here, but aerospace has the best-paying jobs in town,” says Mel Layne, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. Crunching on a French fry at Marie Callender’s, he continues, “If aerospace were to leave tomorrow, this place would become a wasteland.”

Layne is the president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance, and it is his job to entice businesses into the area and to measure its economic growth. Every 10 minutes during our hour-long conversation, Layne stops to say hello to passersby. Having lived in the area for more then 30 years, he knows everyone and is the local expert on business in the A.V.

Lockheed attributes 84 percent of their annual sales in 2007 to the U.S. government and the Department of Defense. Of the remaining 16 percent, 13 percent is attributed to foreign sales, including those funded by the U.S. Government. At the start of the Iraq War in 2003, the U.S. government constituted 75 percent of the company’s sales.

Since then, shareholder profits for the company have increased by 150 percent, based on official reports. In the company’s 2007 annual report, the company boasts about successful client relationships with the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense and undisclosed “intelligence agencies.”

The Antelope Valley is unique in that the five largest aerospace companies can all be found within its borders. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, NASA and BAE Systems are all a short drive from one another. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier at Lancaster-based Edwards Air Force Base in 1962, solidifying aerospace as the area’s claim to fame.

Defense contractors are enjoying the increase in government spending, but to what cost? During peacetime, specifically during the Clinton years when I was growing up in the 1990s, the industry, “went through a period of contraction,” says Layne. “Plant 42 out here had about 12,500 employees back then, but it’s down to about 7,000 employees now.”

Because of the fluctuation in the industry, my father, and many other A.V.-based aerospace workers, had to commute to the Los Angeles area for work. I was 10 when my father moved out of our house in Lancaster to be closer to work in Los Angeles.

Brief weekend visits followed. My mother, who worked full-time as a registered nurse, packed my younger brother and I into our white Ford Taurus to spend 48 hours with our father.

“It was so weird not knowing anything about what dad did for a living,” said Bill Lanz Jr., my brother and the fourth William Aloysius Lanz in our family. “He couldn’t tell us anything about his job, so I feel almost like I don’t know him that well.”

This brief separation only lasted a year, but all I remember is wondering why my father had to live so far away. The move also caused a rift between my parents, and their fighting and bickering began to become louder and more frequent.

“Those were hard times and it was a difficult decision to make, but I had to do it for you kids,” my dad recently explained, nearly two decades later. At the time I didn’t understand why he had to be away for so long. I also didn’t understand the weight of the position he was in, financially and professionally. I wouldn’t understand until years later.

Sea Change

Over the span of one year, I went off to college, turned 18, voted in my first presidential election and watched the World Trade Center towers crumble to the ground.

Until 2000, when I was away from the suburban bubble of my Lancaster, where aerospace is king and many of my friends’ parents also worked for defense contractors, I had no opinion about the morals of the industry or the strain it put on our family.

But after starting my adult life in the tumultuous years beginning with Bush’s first term in office and the start of the War in Iraq, I quickly began to form strong opinions and began asking questions. It was in Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling For Columbine that first sparked my curiosity to my father’s chosen profession.

In Moore’s film, he interviews Lockheed Director of Communications Evan McCollum and asks what the company’s presence as the preeminent manufacturer of rocket technologies could mean to the community. He also argues that the normalization and acceptance of violent weapons could have contributed to the mindset of the boy involved in Columbine shootings.

In one poignant exchange, Moore asks McCollum whether the children of Lockheed employees might think, ” ‘Dad goes off to the factory every day, he builds missiles of mass destruction. What’s the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?’ asks Moore

“I guess I don’t see that specific connection because the missiles that you’re talking about were built and designed to defend us from somebody else who would be aggressors against us,” answers McCollum.

Though this logic is impossible to measure, Moore exposes the inherent problem involved in the military industrial complex. Our society has normalized the manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction. In the A.V., aerospace plants, where fighter jets and laser-sighted missiles are made, lay a mile from housing tracts and the Antelope Valley Mall. Many of my friends also have parents who work for or have worked for Lockheed, Northrop or one of the other aerospace companies in the valley.

As I got older I started to wonder how my father could work for a company that profits from the manufacturing of weapons used to kill people? I know casualties are a fact of war, but what if it is for a war you don’t agree with?

“Most people don’t think about that,” answered my father. “Its not something we are faced with on a daily basis, so its easy to forget that its happening.” I have heard him express his disagreement with the War in Iraq in the past, but he doesn’t like getting too deep into a conversation on the topic.

Its not surprising that he doesn’t want to talk about his job much. He would jokingly refer to working at the “bomb factory,” which always seemed kind of funny when I was a kid.

My father’s position demands a high-level security clearance, meaning he can’t do anything or be associated with anyone that may pose a threat to the company. His very life and career depends on how well he can keep his mouth shut and his closet skeleton-free.

There was no “bring your daughter to work day,” for what is probably a multitude of reasons. One being that I didn’t have the high-level security clearance needed just to get through the gates.

All Photography by Michelle Lanz

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