By Ryan Pfeffer
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Smell that? Vegetable oil. Nothing in the world smells like it. I love the smell of vegetable oil in the morning. You know it well, that deep-frying grease smell, like... French fries.
Yes, I'm having a Robert Duvall flashback. No getting away from it this time of year. During the "Invasion of the Beach" segment of the McDonald's Air & Sea Show, the landing point for marine assault teams at the corner of Sunrise Boulevard and A1A is also where Chez Mac sets up temporary fast-food stalls. It permeates the beach: the smell of, um, victory, supersized.
It's part of the gestalt that true theater brings with it once a year to Broward County. It comes armed with Coors Lite-filled coolers, a wanking Lee Greenwood "Proud to Be an American" soundtrack, and the sonic boom of punishing gray metal spirited across the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky. And French fries.
For two days, the message is "Get some, get some." Fort Lauderdale Beach is never more crowded than during this gung-ho gangbang, as hundreds of thousands line miles of sand from Port Everglades right on through Sebastian "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Beach northward to Oakland Park and beyond.
On the horizon, Navy and Coast Guard vessels temporarily replace the routine mirage of sleepy freighters and cruise ships. Above, the soaring Navy Blue Angels replace the usual plaintive crop dusters advertising all-you-can-drink bar specials.
Meanwhile, ground-level high-and-tight carnies from Marine and Army recruiting centers bait all who pass into pushup and pull-up competitions. Are you man enough? Are you woman enough? Do you have what it takes?
It's within this tableau that the joint U.S. Marine and Navy beach invasion spreads its cheer. Even with its brevity and singular location at the show's epicenter, the "Invasion of the Beach" is a symbolically huge part of the weekend's overall spirit, an Easter passion play testifying to one of the greatest tall tales ever told: "Mission Accomplished."
Based on viewings of previous years, the passion play will roll out like this: First, amphibious landing craft will head toward shore from the USS Shreveport, followed by a Navy LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion), a hovercraft that can carry tanks and trucks as it rides right over mudflats, sand dunes, and riverbanks.
Securing overhead air space will be Cobra helicopter gunships, their weapon systems euphemistically providing "landing zone fire suppression support," and a swarm of fighter jets.
Once the amphibious assault vehicles hit the sand, Marines in battle gear will stream out of them, like high school football players rushing the field from the locker room, or alternatively, like male dancers introducing an "In the Navy," South Beach, military-themed circuit party.
The "Invasion of the Beach" generally proceeds in slow motion, with lazy bantering of Danny "Sky Talker" Clisham narrating each disjointed scene. The experience is all rather casual, as if there's nothing more natural than spending a day at the beach with fighter jets flying overhead.
Finally, after pointing their rifles up at the Holiday Inn, they'll call it a day. Beach secured, sir! May we now go drinking at McSorleys, sir?
The occasion, though, invariably inspires a raw, gut-level satisfaction that, if not produced by the speed of flyovers, comes from the monolithic threat of the ships' far-off invincibility. Navy ships, if nothing else, display how brilliant the United States can be in designing compact floating cities, even though we still can't figure out how to build reasonable public transportation infrastructures.
But the invasion heightens the disparity between those of us marveling at our firepower and the faceless populace elsewhere in the world that is on the receiving end of our hardware.
In the toy soldier hologram that plays out in Fort Lauderdale, of course, you never truly feel invaded. Because we're never really invaded, we can compare the invasion only with heady beach-invasion references culled from DVDs of Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, Gallipoli, and Apocalypse Now.
The only realness of this experience comes from the very real histories of the show's constituent parts. The Shreveport,for example, was designed just for this kind of amphibious landing exercise, and it has been the executive producer for many other successful productions. In August 1982, it spent four months off the coast of Beirut. And there it was in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, as well as in a 1993 road show to Mogadishu.
Those swooping fighter planes, which on any given Sunday may carry very real missiles like the Sparrow, the Harpoon, and the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (yikes, the HARM) played a big role in 1986 strikes against Libya, and, of course, in Desert Storm.
These histories of conflict bring to the occasion realness by association with past conflicts, in what Italian writer Umberto Eco might call "reassurance through imitation," the instilling of a sense of security and authority as you realize that elsewhere, on some other beaches somewhere, we kicked ass and took names.
But then you have a disturbing thought. That sense of security and authority produced here is a throwback to pre-9/11 high-tech domination. The old script, the routine invasion of Fort Lauderdale Beach by winsome Marines, may have finally become as outdated as a beach-blanket movie.