U.S. submarine Scorpion calling Edmonds

60 years ago, Edmonds played a role in a blockbuster novel about the end of the world
By Brian Soergel | Jul 20, 2017
Courtesy of: Sno-Isle Libraries This image, taken in 1955, shows what Edmonds may have looked like when the crew of “On the Beach” first glimpsed the city. The photo is an Ellis aerial postcard of Edmonds and the Edmonds waterfront, looking north from above the Union Oil Company.

Sixty years ago, a chilling book explained how Boeing’s guiding missile defense helped save Edmonds from total destruction after Egypt attacked the U.S. with Russian bombs.

Edmonds’ structures remained intact, but residents succumbed to the spread of deadly nuclear fallout.

We’re all still here, of course. It was just a story: “On the Beach” by Nevil Shute, a Briton who had moved to Australia, where much of the action takes place.

The dystopian novel gathered universal acclaim from critics, sold millions of copies worldwide (it pushed “Peyton Place” off the top of bestseller lists) and was serialized in nearly 40 U.S. newspapers. Its shocking ending disturbed many, and its brief description of what happened in our city – one of the more poignant passages – put Edmonds on the map, at least temporarily.

Today, however, “On the Beach” is largely forgotten. No one walks into the Edmonds Bookshop asking for a book in which Edmonds had a pivotal role, owner Mary Kay Sneeringer said.

James Spangler, owner of Spangler’s Book Exchange in Edmonds and the Beacon’s Art & Appetite columnist, said “On the Beach” is always hard to find in his store. (I found my copy in the used-book section of the Edmonds Library, a cast-off from the old Lynnwood High School. I gladly dropped two bits into the donation box.)

“Once, about 10 years ago,” Spangler said, “an old guy came into the store and read the book until he got to (the Edmonds) part. We talked a little, he spent $1.95 plus tax, and climbed back into a $40K car and drove off.”

In “On the Beach,” it’s 1963, and radioactive wind riding prevailing currents has reached much of the world, killing all except those Down Under and terrified souls awaiting the inevitable in the far southern hemisphere.

It was clear that World War III’s aftereffects meant World War IV would not be necessary.

But after authorities detect sporadic radio signals from Seattle, the American submarine Scorpion, in Melbourne, makes a silent run across the Pacific to search for life. Traveling up the West Coast, the crew sees no evidence of it.

The Golden Gate Bridge lies in San Francisco Bay. Oregon is quiet. And still nothing as the Scorpion enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca and steers south into Puget Sound.

“In the early afternoon, they came to the mainland at the little town of Edmonds, fifteen miles to the north of the centre of Seattle. … From the sea the place seem quite undamaged, but the radiation level was still high.”

The captain decides to “lie off the jetty, and hail for a while.”

It just so happened that Edmonds is the hometown of radar operator Ralph Swain, anxious to have a look. He peers through the telescope: Ken Puglia’s drugstore’s doors are open, but the nighttime neon lights still burn. He spots a broken window in Mrs. Sullivan’s home at the top of the hill.

Swain can’t see his own house. “You just can’t see that from the sea. It’s up Rainier Avenue, past the Safeway.” (In reality, there was never a Rainier Avenue, and Safeway was built next to the ferry dock in 1966).

An officer grabs a microphone and broadcasts the following: “This is U.S. Submarine Scorpion calling Edmonds. U.S. Submarine Scorpion calling Edmonds. If anyone is listening, will you please come to the waterfront, to the jetty at the end of Main Street. U.S. Submarine calling Edmonds.”

Silence.

It was all too much for Swain, who slips through the sub’s escape hatch and swims to the jetty.

Not wanting to risk contamination by bringing Swain back, the sub departs for Seattle. A crewmember, on shore in a protective suit, learns that wind gusts force a broken window sash to occasionally land on a transmitting key – the one heard from Australia.

The sub returns to Australia, where radioactive winds swirl on the horizon. Crewmembers steer the sub out to sea and sink it. Others remain on shore with their families and swallow cyanide pills.

When “On the Beach” was published, the world had already seen the effects of nuclear explosions, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Seventeen years after those devastating bombs, in 1962, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Maybe, just maybe, a few generals with the launch codes had read “On the Beach” or seen the 1959 Stanley Kramer movie starring Gregory Peck.

Nevil Shute never had to worry that his novel might actually come true. He died in 1960.

Today, “On the Beach” remains as scary as it was 60 years ago.

 

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.