Sam McManis

Discoveries: Long Beach submarine tour takes one back to Cold War

LONG BEACH – A few weeks back on the NPR quiz show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" – my main source of news, sadly – the panelists were riffing on how nostalgic it is, in the wake of the G8 Summit tensions and the Edward Snowden affair, that the Russians once more are giving us the Cold War shoulder.

"It was fun having the Russians as our enemy," host Peter Sagal joked. "Everybody had a good time. Can you imagine, for example, beating al-Qaida in Olympic hockey?"

If you want to really immerse yourself in warm and fuzzy Cold War memories, to relive those fretful days when the erstwhile Soviet Union was an "Evil Empire," get yourself to Long Beach harbor and walk the 65-foot gangplank down into the belly of the beast – a by-gawd actual Soviet submarine, nicknamed "Scorpion," that trolled the depths of enemy waters conducting stealth espionage in the 1970s and '80s.

Mothballed in 1994 at the breakup of the Soviet Union and sold garage-sale-style a few years later, the Scorpion (official name: Povodnaya Lodka B-247) today serves as little more than a tourist attraction literally in the shadow of the Queen Mary.

The sub is merely another capitalistic enterprise now, as the sign out front proclaims: "Communism sank but look what surfaced!"

It has resided in Long Beach since 2011, after a stint at a maritime museum in Sydney, Australia. But this may not be the Scorpion's first trip to our neighborhood; the tour implies that the 300-foot sub may have patrolled the depths of Los Angeles Harbor back in the day, though its maneuverings "remain shrouded in mystery."

What is clearly evident, even before boarding the sub, is that our fascination with the Cold War has heated up. The gift shop is chock-full of hammer-and-sickle trinkets and gewgaws from that era.

You can buy blood-red shirts with CCCP emblazoned on the front for $20, a Soviet gas mask for $29.95, a hip flask imprinted with the Soviet crest for $24.95, and a coin commemorating Joseph Stalin's death for $39.99.

If you really want to delve back into commie-fearing paranoia, you can buy copies of Tom Clancy's seminal Cold War novel, "The Hunt for Red October." Thumbing through the pages is like returning to those heady Reagan-Gorbachev days.

Check out this overheated excerpt from page 459: "I will tell you what has happened, Comrades. An imperialist spy has sabotaged our ship. They were waiting for us, Comrades, waiting and hoping to get their dirty hands on our ship."

Enough retail browsing. What say we save our rubles and kopeks, and join a few comrades for the self-guided tour?

Making your way down the cramped, creaking metal stairs into the claustrophobic hallway linking the seven compartments, you first encounter the torpedo room. These were not nuclear warheads – at least, we hope not – but still, these 22 metallic tubes with stars painted on the ends look menacing.

Then you read this: "Caution! Submarine is still in operational condition. Please do not operate any equipment."

You are tempted, I must say. So many buttons, dials, knobs and switches are just asking to be pressed, turned and flicked.

But you refrain because the motion-activated "Big Brother" recorded tour narrator reminds you to keep your grubby American paws off the machinery.

About that recorded docent. He is hilarious in both his delivery and grammar, speaking in a clipped, clichéd broken English, where articles like "the" and "a" are absent. It calls to mind the Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff.

Snippet: "This is control room. Hub of submarine. Nerve center. Conning tower and bridge are up above. They are only used when Scorpion on surface. This room, spy room. Holds secret classified military documents and instructions. It is always guarded, and there are alarms. Only captain and political officer may enter room. But there is another room even more secret the spy room. Come with me."

As we comrades follow instructions and make our way through the seven compartments, the cramped living quarters are suitably Soviet spartan, not even as large as a capitalist-pig American walk-in closet. The largest space is the officer strategy room, where a long table is looked down upon by a giant portrait of former Premier Leonid Brezhnev, his caterpillar eyebrows menacingly arched.

The mess hall, too, is relatively spacious. And the voiceover intones, "Four meals a day. Food is quite good. Best in navy. Or so they tell us. Food is very important to men, da!"

Da, indeed. Alas, there was no borscht or caviar for us to snack on, nor was there vodka to put in those hip flasks on sale in the gift shop.

Still, the tour was both culturally educational and nostalgic to many tourgoers, such as the Ewin family of Pittsburgh.

Father Paul is a Navy reservist who had been aboard U.S. submarines from the same era and wanted to see if they were comparable. (They were.) He and his wife, Tammy, also wanted to show their 4-year-old son, Nicholas, whom the couple adopted from Russia in 2009, a slice of his native culture.

"It definitely does take you back," Paul said. "When you grow up in the Cold War era with a movie like 'Red Dawn' and all that, you don't expect to someday find yourself in Russia adopting a child. Moscow is now one of our favorite vacation spots. It's beautiful over there."

The couple lingered in the gift shop after the tour, ogling the Soviet swag.

"The old Soviet stuff is a big market over there, too," Paul said.

"But it's more of a proud history," Tammy added.

Not Cold War kitsch, in other words. Maybe Russians are stocking up for a comeback as our primary political antagonist. Hockey – and submarine – fans might hope so.


Address: 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily

Cost: $10.95 adults; $9.95 seniors and children

More information:

The Bee's Sam McManis takes "Discoveries" requests. Call (916) 321-1145. On Twitter: @SamMcManis.