Death Takes A Holiday (VIII)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

It was a long drive past Wickenburg, Phoenix, and Casa Grande before reaching Marana, where was located our Holiday Inn Express for the night. Pulling into Marana, I stopped at a 24-hr McDonald’s to get something to drink, and saw the first saguaro of the trip – a tall and majestic cactus with its sweeping arms, symbol of the West, towering over me on the median strip of a common strip mall parking lot.

It just didn’t seem right (but more on that magnificent flora later).

Suitably hydrated and arriving at the hotel very late, it was tempting to leave Boney-Dude in the trunk. As had been the case in Vegas, though, I didn’t want to lose him to a random break-in after all we’d experienced together. So I dutifully lugged him upstairs in his pool filter box and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

A sleep, unfortunately, that wasn’t nearly as long as I would have liked. Morning came quickly. Boneman and I still had many miles to go and much to see. We couldn’t lounge in bed (or box).

On the way out of the hotel, I was pushing a luggage cart with my suitcase and the pool filter box when I encountered a gaggle of Little Leaguers swarming around me in the lobby. They were in town for some playoff games, and the group was wound tight on adrenaline and sugar as are only parentless 11 and 12 years olds on an extended road trip. The chaperone was distracted. One of the wee terrorists slammed into my luggage cart while trying to escape from his friends. He turned and looked at me and my box. “Hey mister, what’cha got in there? A body?” By now, several of the other ne’er do wells had caught up with him, laughing and punching and poking, and heard his question. Several more immediately chimed in. “He’s got a body in there!” “Let’s see the body!”

Their attention span disintegrating, they ran off.

It all happened so quickly, but I have never been so tempted in my life.

Once back in the car, my late colleague and I proceeded through Tucson and past the San Xavier Reservation and Mission. The terrain by now was that of a flat dry valley with cacti and other scrub growth, rimmed by mountains in the distance.

And then we came to Green Valley AZ, 15 miles south of Tucson, and its Dr Strangelovian time capsule.

For those of you too young to remember, Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was a 1964 black-comedy satirizing the atomic military-industrial complex and the Red Scare of the era. It was directed, produced, and co-written by none other than Stanley Kubrick, the disturbed cinematographic mind who also brought us A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket.

[sidebar: the Dr Strangelove character, a presidential advisor in the film, is said to have been a composite of three men: Henry Kissinger, Edward Teller, and Wernher von Braun]

At a time when ‘duck and cover’ exercises were commonplace in American schools, silos filled with intercontinental atomic weapons dotted the heartland; Titan II missiles were located not only south of Tucson, but also at McConnell AFB near Wichita and Little Rock AFB in Arkansas. The Titan II Missile Museum at Green Valley – more officially known as ‘USAF Facility Missile Site 8’ or ‘ICBM Site 571-7 of the 390th Strategic Missile Wing’ – was activated in 1963 and fully operational until 1982; it is the only remaining missile silo and complex of that era. As such, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994.

The Titan II – an instrument of war only Dr Strangelove could love – was the largest and most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile ever fielded by the United States. It had a single warhead with yield of 9 megatons, or more than 500 times the explosive blast of the bomb which leveled Hiroshima in 1945.

Not much of USAF Facility Missile Site 8 can be seen from the road – only a tall barbed wire fence, a few small outbuildings and vehicles, and the modern visitors’ center with gift shop and book store are visible. However, once inside the perimeter, one discerns the presence of a much larger world underfoot. Locked stairs lead downward. The silo complex consists of a three-level launch control center as well as the eight story tall missile (103’) with its requisite diesel generators, air filters, antennae, and miles of buried cable, tunnels, pipes, and tubes. The complex was built of steel-reinforced concrete with walls as much as 8’ thick in places, as well as doors resembling those of bank vaults that weigh up to 3 tons each. And the whole subterranean catacomb is situated on massive steel springs to absorb shocks from (those anticipated and hopeful) near-miss enemy explosions up top.

Titan II

Titan II

The extant missile, as you might expect, is now inert, its uranium removed, and the nose with a large hole drilled in the side to allow verification that the cone is, in fact, empty. The silo cover is also permanently fixed half-open and cannot move, a stipulation of the strategic arms treaties with the former USSR to ensure compliance with disarmament.

What is far more interesting than the missile itself is the control and command apparatuses still in place. The original consoles, chairs, telephones, teletypes, intercoms, maps, desks, and computer mainframes have never been replaced. When technology advanced to the point that vacuum tubes and early transistors just didn’t cut it anymore, new computer hardware was installed inside the original metal cabinetry. To walk inside the launch room (1963) is to take a step back to an era before the first hand-held calculator (1967) or computer mouse (1968). When the Titan II went live, the floppy disc, the VCR, Atari’s ‘Pong,’ the disposable Bic lighter, the post-it note, and the Sony Walkman hadn’t been invented. Everyone still used rotary dials, music was on vinyl LPs, and businessmen presented with Kodak slide carousels in lieu of Microsoft’s Powerpoint. It is sobering to think that with technology that pre-dated the 8-track tape (1964), the lives of millions rested.

launch room computers I

launch room computers I

launch room computers II

launch room computers II

computers and console

computers and console

When active, USAF Facility Missile Site 8 could attack one of three pre-determined targets, all of which were unknown and unknowable to the crew. To change the target, all the silo commander had to do was push a different button on the console, almost like changing the speed on one’s blender – thermonuclear technology coupled with primitive consumer electronics! At the time of its deactivation in 1982, the missile’s computer was programmed to fire against Target #2. We still don’t know what was Target #2, as all ICBM targets remain top secret to this day, even though the missiles are long gone and the adversary, by its former name, no longer exists. All we know for certain is that Target #2 was programmed to be a ground impact blast (as opposed to an air blast), meaning that it was almost certainly a hardened underground military facility.

Of note, the highest state of alert ever ordered at USAF Facility Missile Site 8 was on 22 November 1963, only months after it became operational – and the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. At that time, not knowing if the murder in Dallas was the opening salvo of a Soviet strike, orders were issued by SAC to remove the launch keys from their protective cases and keep them at the ready on the consoles. The keys were not, however, ever inserted into the launch switches. Or so we’re told.

Once back up top, what better souvenir to take home… than an original 1960s can of government emergency drinking water from the silo complex’s survival stockpile?

emergency water

emergency water

Water can in hand, I returned to Boney in the parking lot. We had to make it to a nearby brothel before it closed.

[to be continued…]

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