TABLOID NEWS SERVICES, INC.
Editor's Note: Mr. Greinke is an ordinary citizen currently taking a few months' vacation to drive around the USA on a rather unordinary historical tour: a tour of the Cold War. His objective is to visit the many "Battlefields of World War III" that lie scattered across our great land. These "battlefields" include anything and everything related to the Cold War and the long-promised nuclear Armageddon that never happened.
Barney Greinke, Nuke Tourist: Part II
Use of Deadly Force Authorized
[Sept. 21, 1998] -- I didn't really need to call the Air Force base to ask about tours. I had made that call a couple of weeks earlier when I was in Portland:
"Hi, I was just calling, wondering if you have any sorts of tours or anything available of your missile silos."
"We don't give tours click!" is pretty much how the call had gone.
Obviously, if I was going to see some missile silos around here, I'd have to find them myself.
My first stop was a local bookstore, to get a Montana road atlas. They had several, but the choice was easy: only one had latitude and longitude marks for use with GPS. I'm a big fan of GPS.
The next stop was the Air National Guard base, up by the city airport. I had passed by there before, eight years earlier, when I was in the area. I remembered seeing rows of F-15s and F-16s. These weren't really nuclear aircraft (though, carrying the right ordnance, they could be), but they were definitely Cold War.
"Great Falls International Airport," read the sign.
"'Cuz they have flights from Canada?" I wondered. Great Falls is about 100 miles from the border.
I followed the road along the edge of the Air National Guard base. From outside the fence I could see that the tarmac was empty. No F-15s or -16s today. They did have a few old planes on display inside the base fence. These were old interceptors of the sort that were important decades ago when the Russians were going to go to all the trouble of getting into their gigantic, lumbering, propeller-driven Bear and Bison bombers and come over here to drop atom bombs on us. But the Russians got lazy and decided that missiles could do the job in less time with more mess and we stopped building interceptors.
I drove up to the guardpost at the base entrance. They had a big sign reading "Security Alert Con A," the "A" being one of several letters on a flipbook-type mounting.
The guard, looking a bit menacing with his hand on his holstered walkie talkie, was already approaching the vehicle as I came to a stop. He was slightly pink, medium height, and a bit on the large size. In his uniform he actually bore some resemblance to John Candy in "National Lampoon's Vacation."
"Sorry folks. Park's closed. The moose at the front should've told you that."
I asked the guard if I could go in and see the planes. No, he said, that wasn't allowed. I could take pictures from outside the fence, though.
"Just don't approach the fence too close," he said. "The security guys won't like it."
"Well, I wouldn't want to upset them. What's the deal with this 'Security Alert Con A?'"
"That's 'cuz of all the terrorist things that've been happening."
"That cruise missile attack stuff?"
I hadn't seen a newspaper in a week. With the speed of modern events, those cruise missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan already seemed like ancient history. Not just ancient history, an obscure piece of ancient history that would never be a question on "Jeopardy." Alex Trebek would not be asking who Osama Bin Whatshisname was.
I drove over to the fence near what I thought was an F-106 and parked. I whipped out the digital camera and started shooting. Don't approach the fence too close, I remembered. I wondered just how close I could get away with. I Safely and Prudently held the camera far away from my body, and right up against the fence.
One other thing that the guard had told me was that Malmstrom AFB had a museum and an aircraft display. Malmstrom's Public Affairs office hadn't mentioned this when I had called. Of course, they hadn't mentioned much of anything.
I drove across town to Malmstrom and pulled in at the Visitors Center. "Security Alert Con A," whatever that meant, was in effect here too.
The guard, who bore no resemblance to John Candy, was just as pleasant as his counterpart up at the National Guard base. He checked my ID, wrote me my pass, and told me how to get to the aircraft display. The museum itself was closed, but I was welcome to look at the aircraft display all I wanted.
I walked the 50 yards to the display park and started taking pictures. They had an interesting mix of Cold War aircraft: an F-89, F-101, KC-97, EB-57, all in beautiful condition. They also had a Minuteman III ICBM on display, towering over the rest of the collection. The missile was painted a brilliant white, like a NASA moon rocket, a color the real ones are not painted, I've been told. Parked next to the Minuteman was a Minuteman transporter vehicle, a low-slung tractor-trailer designed to carry the 60-foot-tall missile out to its silo and insert it gently into its concrete womb. The Minuteman transporter is also capable of removing a missile from its silo, and under the provisions of the START treaty these vehicles had gotten a lot of that sort of work lately.
Seeing the Minuteman transporter reminded me of a toy a childhood friend had had. It was an electric train, with a Minuteman missile car. The roof would pop open, and a little plastic missile could be shot out. Like any good action toy, the Minuteman missile system had lots of accessories available; and just like real action toy accessories, Mom and Dad wouldn't ever buy me any of them. Congress never approved the real life the train-based Minuteman, and it was never deployed. Over the years, Congress had considered numerous elaborate basing schemes for the Minutemans: road-mobile launchers, railway cars, subways under the desert, ships, barges, even dropping them out the backs of military transport aircraft and igniting them in midair. It was thought that making our ICBMs mobile would help to ensure their survival against a Soviet first-strike. In the end, though, Congress always decided to keep them in hardened concrete silos in places like Montana. It was the Safe and Prudent thing to do, I suppose.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
I checked out the aircraft and missile display for about 45 minutes. It was nice. I took a lot of pictures. But it wasn't what I had come all the way to Montana to see. What I really wanted to see was a real live Minuteman III missile silo, with a real live Minuteman III missile in it, carrying three real live 335-kiloton thermonuclear warheads. I had come to see something that could end the world.
And I hadn't come to see just one, either. I had come to see as many as I possibly could. I had come to get a real sense of just what 500 missile silos meant. Five hundred. I wanted to drive around looking at missile silos until I was numb.
Not that there's really much to see. You stand a fair distance away from a chain link fence and stare at a concrete slab with a couple of metal rails and some antennas on top. There's a white, obelisk-shaped pole and a very serious sign that reads: "Do not enter! Use of deadly force authorized!"
I left the air force base and drove northeast on state highway 87 looking for silos. I knew there wouldn't be any within a few miles of the base; that would've given the Rooskies two targets for the price of one. I drove for about 20 miles and saw nothing but Montana prairie. Maybe, I figured, they keep them off on the side roads; out of sight, out of mind. I pulled out my map, checked the GPS, and turned down a side road that paralleled the highway.
I followed the road for about 10 miles until it looped back and reconnected with the highway. No missiles. Maybe I'm just not in the missile fields, I thought. Then I realized that the state highway followed the Missouri river valley. Duh. What kind of an engineer would put nuclear missile silos in a 250-year flood plain?
The plan was obvious now. I had to cut west, away from the river. I looked at the map. There was a state road that cut north and intersected another state road that ran due west. I could follow that second state road halfway to the National Forest, where I could camp for the night. I examined the topo lines: good missile country.
- - - - -
In the flat part of Montana, on the side roads, you come across a 4-way intersection once a mile, every mile. One road runs exactly north-south, the other runs exactly east-west. Montana, you see, was divvied up and issued out under the Homestead Act. It makes navigating the backroads real easy, until you lose count.
"Let's see, I needed to make the 11th left. Was that last one eight or nine?"
There are no road signs on these backroads and, in most cases, no landmarks either. I imagine that during the winter, at night, even the locals can get lost.
I wouldn't get lost. I couldn't get lost. I had GPS.
The state road north proved fruitless. I began recalculating my math of the previous day. I really could drive around the missile fields for a long, long time and not run into anything. And that was assuming I was even in a missile field; they aren't exactly the kinds of things that get plotted out on most road atlases. There was nothing to do but head west and keep looking.
I drove about 10 miles on the state road going west. Still nothing. I began thinking of other ways to hunt for missile silos; maybe I could download some satellite imagery off the Internet or something.
Then, just as I crested the top of a rise, I passed by a big concrete slab surrounded by chain link fence. I nearly kept going before I realized what it was. I turned around and came back for another pass. Yup, there was the white, obelisk-shaped pole next to the unmistakable blast door on its two metal rails. Missile silo!
I drove down the road beyond the silo and parked. "Finally!" I thought to myself. I got out my digital camera and slid in a fresh disk. I checked my map. I checked my GPS. I checked my camera, map, and GPS again. And again.
I was sweating. I was nervous. I was stalling. The paranoia I had been infected with back at the motel was starting to creep up from its deep dark hiding places. My adrenaline started to rise as the paranoia began its sinister whisperings inside my head:
"How do you know they won't come get you?"
"They won't care if you have nothing to hide."
"Watch out for the helicopters."
"Makin' big ones into little ones."
"They could make you disappear."
"I have nothing to fear," I told myself. "This is America. I'm just gonna take a couple of pictures from the highway. I'm doing nothing illegal I think." The law, I knew, could get a bit nebulous when it comes to matters of national security. Sometimes, maybe, there is no law.
I took a quick look around for helicopters and drove slowly over to the silo.
The silo was about 150 yards down an access road, off to the side of the main road. I pulled over at the mouth of the access road, shut the engine down, and marked the position on my map. No sense in visiting the same silo twice, I figured.
I dropped the map into the passenger seat and sat still for a moment with the window down, staring straight ahead. I was listening. Not for helicopters, but to the wind. Out there on the prairie, in the middle of nowhere, there is no sound but the wind. I took a drink of water and closed my eyes. The air smelled like grass and dust, and I could tell it had rained in the last day or so. Inside, I fought the paranoia down far enough to where its whispers disappeared into the constant, gentle shush of the prairie wind. "Those guys were paranoid talk radio loonies," I thought to myself. "And I've watched one too many X-Files." I got out of the Trooper.
There, a hundred and fifty yards away from me, was what I'd come a thousand miles to see. There, under maybe 100 feet of earth and 20 feet of steel-reinforced concrete, were three thermonuclear warheads sitting on top of a rocket that could deliver them to within 500 feet of any desired target within 7,000 miles. Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Pyongyang, Baghdad, Tripoli...
Most people don't know too much about nukes. They know about nukes like I know about Montana: a few distorted images taken from television. They think that if you drop The Bomb on Los Angeles it'll take out everything between Tijuana and San Francisco. It's not true. Nukes are destructive, but they're not that destructive. I had taken the classes. I owned the books. I could do the math. I knew exactly what the missile in that hole 150 yards away could do.
I stared at the silo for a few minutes, contemplating it. I thought about the missile inside. I thought about its capabilities. I tried to understand just what those warheads meant... It's one thing to study deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction, the balance of terror, the calculus of Armageddon; it's another thing to look right at something that can vaporize three cities full of people.
My plan had been to just take a picture from here, "Me and Silo #1" I'd call it. Hopefully there'd be a few hundred more pictures just like that one. But there was a sign about halfway down the access road that I was curious about. The signpost was blown over and the sign it held was now pointing in the wrong direction. I was going to have to walk up the access road to read it.
The paranoia inside started to claw its way back up, its whispers rising above the wind. Is it OK to walk up the access road? How many sensors have I tripped already? At what point do they decide to send the helicopters? Does anybody know where I am? I decided to leave the camera in the truck. It was better to approach empty handed. I looked around for some sort of Air Force Rapid Response Team, then started the 75 yard walk up to the sign. I listened for helicopters the whole time. How Safe and Prudent was this?
My Police Escort
I was 75 yards from the silo now. 75 yards from three thermonuclear warheads. About as close as you're ever likely to get. I could read the sign now: "DANGER - UNDERGROUND ANTENNA - STAY BACK!"
I knew enough to know that when people tell you an antenna is dangerous, they usually mean it. On top of that, I was dealing with nuclear weapons here; this antenna was designed with enough power to operate in the electromagnetic turbulence of a post-nuclear environment. And because this was nuclear stuff, national security and all, there was no telling just what kind of special allowances had been made to bypass any sort of OSHA antenna regulations. I decided I had no desire to have my fillings melted or my insides cooked. I turned around and walked back to the truck.
Besides, I'd seen all there was to see here. And you can't ignore little paranoid voices in your head forever. I took a couple of pictures, got in the Trooper, and left.
I continued west. The map showed that the highway ran for about 10 more miles to a town called Conrad. I could look for silos the whole way. There just might be one more between here and the end of the road.
It was only a couple of minutes later that I noticed the Air Force security vehicles behind me. Two dark blue Blazers or Broncos or some sort of american-built SUVs. Perfect for these gravel backroads. They had light bars on top, like cop cars, but they weren't pulling me over. They were just following me.
The paranoia jumped back up full force. "How long have they been watching me? Is this the part where I get stopped and questioned? Taken away? Beaten? Disappeared?!"
There was nothing to do but drive. I maintained the nonexistent speed limit of 55 mph, a speed in Montana so Safe and Prudent as to be almost suspicous. The two vehicles continued to follow me. I could see the driver of the closest vehicle pull out a map. "Be cool, Barney," I told myself. "Maybe this is just a coincidence. Maybe they're just going to Conrad too. I am on the main road to town around here. They are following at a reasonable distance. I'm not being pulled over."
Next: Barney has a chat with his new friends from the OSI. Write to the Nuke Tourist at:
||Also in this issue:
BARNEY GREINKE: Cold War Tourist
Black-Masked Goons Arrest Malaysian Leader for Sex Crimes!
Mom's a Man, I'm a Witch -- And I Just Got Suspended!
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