Why Flamingoes?

Banner with cartoon images of flamingoes and the words "You want Flamingoes with That? as told by Jay Davis, founding director of CAMS


The story of how the flamingo came to be the symbol of CAMS is simple, but has interesting side turns and byways.

In the late 70s and early 80s, I was the operations manager for the Tandem Mirror Experiment (TMX) at LLNL. TMX was a very complicated plasma physics experiments. As a result, the experimental physics team and their engineering support staff often met Fridays for beer and pizza.

On one occasion, as we were wrapping up, I happened to remember that one of our number, Bear Hornady, an original CAMS staffer, was on vacation in the tropics, but was due home any day. I suggested that we decorate his home with something tropical so he'd feel comfortable on return. This suggestion lead to the pledge to go instantly to the hardware store and buy plastic flamingoes, the most suitable (and cheapest) object that we could think of.

We drove down town, pillaged the store (flamingoes at that time came shrink wrapped in pairs) and happily formed up in line, checking out. Our bliss was occasionally interrupted by the shriek of a cashier who cried "Here comes another one!" as another of our party emerged from the aisles with package in hand.

We drove to Bear's house, put between 20 and 30 birds on the lawn, and pretty much forgot about it. A couple of days later, I got a call from Bear which began "I just guessed it would be easier to start with you." The birds (henceforth known as the flock) were promptly returned to me in a formal plastic garbage bag. They occasionally came out for appearances on others' lawns over the next few years until they mysteriously disappeared.

Several years later, when I began building what became CAMS, several of the TMX technical staff moved over with me. Their presence, plus our decision to use the TMX color scheme on the tandem lab, made it lots easier to take long term loan of equipment now not needed by the TMX experiment. I suppose an occasional flamingo came along. At the time it was not a big deal.

The joke really took off in July of 1991 when I returned from my first inspection tour in Iraq for the UN to find a flamingo wearing a burnoose perched on the CAMS sign outside our office trailer. I suppose that was the tipping point. CAMS had been set up as a pretty independent freewheeling group, so the pursuit of evermore examples of the ultimate symbol of kitsch and bad taste became obligatory. Every post doc returned from each conference trip with yet another example, clocks, dolls, wall hangings, garden ornaments, pillows, etc.

When I left LLNL to become the Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, acquiring what dignity I could as head of a combat support agency, I imagined that the flamingoes were a thing of my past. In the summer of 1999, I traveled 1000 km. east of Moscow to visit the 35 members of my agency who manned the inspection portal around the SS-20 plant at Votkinsk. When I got to their compound, I found it decorated with flamingoes. I don't know if my military crew had researched my past and the birds were there for me as a gag, or if they just expressed the usual American desire for expressing the improbable and irreverent. In either case, they were a welcome sight. I suppose CAMS is stuck with this symbol in any likely future.