Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nuclear Missile Silos Along the I-90

At 10:00am I started driving the i-90, to the 29, to the 80; I drove across all of South Dakota, down most of Iowa, and then carried on some more. At 8:30pm I switched the car off. We'd finally arrived. Now, even taking into account the one hour time zone crossing, that's still nine and a half hour of driving, with almost nothing going on. For what it's worth, at eight we saw an authentic Danish windmill. It was built in the eighteen somethings.

One would think there wouldn't be much to write about today. It's almost as if I could get to sleep early, without staying up into the night typing. But no, while little happened after ten in the morning, those earlier hours were packed with seeing the end of the world as we knew it (and I felt fine.)

Waking up we tried to break our tent down and get out before the camp monitor came around looking for payment. It's not that we were against paying the fourteen dollars so much as it was, m'eh, it's already morning. But – we failed, and were kept honest by the old man with a box, a clip board, and a golf cart.

Once we broken the tent down, we spent twenty more minutes looking at the various rocks in the park. Sharp rocks, tall rocks, flat rocks. There are a lot of rocks in the Badlands National Park.

Once we had enjoyed said rocks to their fullest potential we set out on the road, headed towards Omaha, Nebraska, or some city in Iowa. Somewhere. The destination wasn't really important; today was supposed to help us break up our journey between South Dakota and Chicago. It was the first day there was absolutely nothing planned. No sights to see, no stories to be told.

This lasted nearly ten minutes.

Just outside the gates of the National Park is a sign informing travellers of a national historic monument a quarter mile off. This was a site that I never would have thought America would have made open to tourists, but one that I was pretty excited to see.

Here in South Dakota is the Minuteman II missile silo, and launch centre.

The headquarters to this monument is right outside the park gates. It's free, and worth a visit. Inside the main building we watched a ten minute film about how nuclear weapons have been, and still are keeping America safe, and allowing freedom to survive in a world full of Soviets, and other no-do-goods.

The Minuteman II missiles worked off of solid state fuel, allowing for greater accuracy, and thus lower yield warheads. Each missile carried 75% of the entire destructive power of everything used in World War II. Now, this may still sound like over kill, but compared to the less accurate Russian missiles which had a yield 500% of all explosives used in World War II, the American weapons were barely a kick in the shins.

After seeing the movie, reading the literature, and glazing over the informative displays, we grabbed a ticket to tour the launch centre.

Five or so miles down the highway there was an exit which turned quickly into a dirt road. At the top of the road was an unassuming building that may have been a farm house, or perhaps an auto shop. It's hard to say what it would have been thought of – but a launch centre capable of ending the world as we knew it? That would be one of my last guesses.

The closer we drove the more we saw. There was a fence, barbed wire, around the building. But that juxtaposed the basketball net outside. There was a flagpole, but in reality it was a radio antenna. Then there was the peace keeper parked outside, and the familiar “do not enter” sign, last seen at the boundaries of Area 51 in New Mexico.

This time we were allowed inside the gate. With a metal triangle welded to the top of the gate, we were welcomed to Delta-1.

While we may not have known this was a nuclear missile launch silo, the Soviets did, and this very patch of land was constantly targeted by their own weapons. The farmers, on whose land the missiles were buried, they knew too. This was never a top secret program, but some times the best way to keep something hidden from the public is to put it in clear sight.

Millions of people must drive past the missile silos on I-90 every year. How many know, or even care, what's inside? They went without me even giving a second glance.

Now, here we were in the command centre which saw use up to Desert Storm, in 1991. We made our way inside where the common room looked very much as it once did, with the same couches, and magazines (Popular Mechanics, Byte, Sports Illustrated) still laying around. On the wall is a framed letter from the military issuing precise rules of who can hold the television remote control, and under what circumstances the channels may be changed.

Working in this location there were weeks of boredom punctuated with moments of complete and utter panic. But most of the time the boredom took over, and fights for who could choose the televised program took hold of the young men and women stationed here. At one point the soldiers began to go outside and physically move the satellite dish – this eventually caused six thousand dollars worth of damage, leading up to the official rules about channel surfing now hung with pride beside the television set.

From the main room, we walked through the security station to the elevator. Thirty three feet down we traveled in an aging elevator, screen being pulled across to keep us in. Rattling and clanking we were lowered deeper into the station itself.

Back when the base was in use, none but the two men who manned the station were allowed down the elevator. Even food was simply place on board, button pushed sending it down, to be picked up at the bottom. Today seven people cram on board the lift.

There was at least one time that other living creatures did reach the bottom however. It's said that one solider kept complaining about the chef's cooking – a terrible idea – claiming he didn't know how to cook a rare hamburger. Being in the middle of cattle country, the cook went out into the fields, grabbed a calf, put it on the lift, and sent it to the bottom along with the message, “here's your rare hamburger.”

We are led to believe no harm came to this animal.

Once at the bottom, a wall mural depicts a nuclear missile bursting through the Soviet flag. Just to the right is the blast door, weight five standard elephants. Painted on it, a spoof of the Domino's Pizza logo, is a picture of the Minuteman II, along with the slogan: World-Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less – or your next one's free.

Crossing over through the door is like stepping into the world time forgot. Yes, it's true the magazines were all two decades old, but everything else seemed as if the people had packed up and left only moments earlier. But here, in the launch room, things were very different.

The base went online in the sixties, and it seems that the technology was never updated throughout the three decades the place was in use. Running off of a 48 computer (think Commodore 64, and then down grade it) the silo launch controls looked like something of a science fiction movie. It was one of those rooms that could have only existed in a military centre. There were buttons, lights, switches – so many that I'm sure their true purpose, if ever there was one, was often forgot.

A red chair screwed to a track which could be rolled around on, sat in front of a console. The room itself was on a shock absorbing floor, and each chair was fixed with a seat belt to keep the soldiers in place in case of an attacking explosion. Only 33 feet underground, it seemed almost pointless. No one here would survive an enemy blast.

A rotary dial phone was attached to a grey metal unit, with red box over head. The box was locked with two padlocks – one for each officer on duty. Inside the box were the keys needed to initiate launch. Countdown timers, status lights for the ten missiles controlled from this location, and numeric switches used to target attack zones, unknown to those with the keys, were all within easy reach of the two railed chairs.

When word came from the teletype machine, or the primitive intranet, each office would confirm the codes, take the keys, insert them into the slots and then – when ordered turn them at the same time. Twelve feet apart from each other, no one person could cause the missile to launch. Two men were required, but never did the time come for them to turn the keys home. On a few occasions two young men in their late teens, and early twenties, sat sweat on their brow – keys inserted, terrified that the order would come to turn, leading to who knew what future for themselves, their loved ones, and the many innocents half way around the world. But never were they ordered to turn.

Hundreds of these bases were destroyed as America and Russia stepped down their arms race. Hundreds still exist. In Canada, we were told, we should be safe from missiles both incoming and outgoing, unless – of course – one of them misfires. This was said, of course, in jest. There's a different sort of humor down here.

And with that we left D-1: QUINN COTTONWOOD Missile Flight D-01.

Our final stop as part of this excursion was a few more miles down the highway. The missile silo, itself.

Located just off the I-90, the silo would once have been watched with state of the art security systems. Guards would have been on hand in moments if anyone came near. Today, missile removed, and replaced with a decoy, the silo is available for all to see.

We could not go down within the nuclear silo, but even from the ground it is a thing to witness. Perhaps, most impressive, is just how beautiful it looks. An azure blue crystalline shape sits in the middle of a gravel lot, surrounded by chain link fence. A large pole-like antenna stands beside it. Like a piece of modern art, the silo stands in the middle of a South Dakota field, looking to all the world as a work of beauty, rather than destruction, yet it was here that all things could have changed.

What once was the most powerful weapons system on the planet, is today a tourist attraction. A piece of living history. And while that may seem strange to some, I can't think of any better way of keeping the public informed, than by letting them get up close and personal.

Today the Minuteman II silos have been imploded, the launch centres destroyed. Weapons like this one are things of the past, no longer used. No – today, armed by men deep beneath the Earth's surface – it is the Minuteman III taking up the fight.

And then, nine hours later we saw the windmill.

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