Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What's in your backyard?

Earlier today, while at work, I came upon an interesting and surprising bit of trivial information. I was Googling “Nuclear Missile AND Vermont” when I discovered that two de-commissioned Atlas-F nuclear missile silos were located in my fair state. I also ascertained the location of the two abandoned sites and - joy of joys - they were both located within a short drive of my home.

Now, as a civil servant, I understand that the tax payers rather not finance my bizarre internet wanders. Before the reader casts judgment, it must be explained that my vocation as a Claims Representative - an abridged job description would include (among its comprehensive list of duties) listening to often fabricated tales of personal tragedy and mishap - can lead to a rare but lethal mental condition best described as terminal ennui. It’s during those oh-to-frequent moments of abject tedium that the siren call of Google is its sweetest.

Sometimes, my searches are job related - like looking for a new one - but usually I just type in random word combinations to see what comes up. It’s escapism. But I should count my blessings- had I been born twenty years earlier and entered the work force prior to the advent of the Internet - I would have fallen to drinking heavily. So, yeah for technology.

A warning to the meek, random Google searches can produce results that are not necessarily appropriate to the work environment. But, if judgment is exercised and juvenile instincts averted, certain obvious results can be avoided. So, in short, save those searches for “massive AND mammary” for home.

During the early ‘60s, twelve Atlas-F missile bases were constructed around the now decommissioned Plattsburg Airforce Base. These bases - arrayed around Plattsburg in a semi-circle that stretched from Swanton, VT to Willsboro, NY - were built as a strategic salient against the Red menace during the cold war.

Each missile base was capable of launching a single, liquid oxygen/kerosene fueled, nuclear-armed Atlas-F intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile measured 81-feet-long and could deliver a 3.75 mega-ton warhead up to 11,500 miles away. These twelve sites - which were operated by the 556th Strategic Missile Squadron - were the only launch-ready nuclear missile silos ever constructed east of the Mississippi river. This strategic location put the Plattsburg based missiles within striking distance of soft targets in the European portion of the now defunct Soviet Union. And, though each base came with a $14-million price tag(that’s what it cost back in the ‘60s) they were only active from 1962 to 1965. By the time the silos were fully operational, advances in solid-fuel technology had made the liquid-fueled Atlas missiles obsolete.

Atlas missiles, because they burned an unstable fuel, had to be gased-up just prior to launch. It took about ten to fifteen minutes to fuel an Atlas missile and get it off the ground - precious moments considering the end game was mutually assured destruction. Whereas a ballistic missile powered by solid fuel could be stored fully-fuel and ready for instant launch.

But, I can‘t talk anymore about scary things like ballistic nuclear weapons while there are two abandoned missile silos just down the road. There is only one thing to do: pack the family into the station wagon and take a little road trip. Of course, I won’t tell them where we are going until we’re there, otherwise, their enthusiasm for this expedition might flag.

Eventually, I would like to see each of the twelve missile sites, however, my schedule will only allow me to visit the sites in Swanton and Alburgh - these being the two closest locations - leaving the others for later exploration.

After the twelve missile bases were decommissioned in 1965 the properties were turned over to the municipalities in which they were located.

Currently, the Alburgh site is used by the town’s highway department as a storage facility for heavy equipment and supplies. The approach to the site is easy enough to locate. On US Route 2 North, a bit past the Vermont Welcome Center and just before the highway bends left toward the Rouse‘s Point Bridge, there is a paved access road that spurs off to the right. This is Missile Base Rd and, comically, the road's name is miss-spelled on the street sign. I guess this creative spelling policy is typical of the area’s population, especially considering that the citizenry voted in 2006 to add a silent ’h’ to the end of the town’s name.

No matter how you spell it, Alburgh is small. About 2000 souls call this 43-square-mile town home. The downtown section -which is a shambles of dilapidated homes and shabby storefronts along Route 2 - is an uninspiring site to travelers crossing into Alburgh which shares its borders with Canada to the North and New York to the West. It appears that only gas stations do brisk business here.

The abandoned missile base is no different. The barbwire-topped security fence that runs the perimeter of the site is rusted and listing outward in places and inward in others. The interior of the site is a chaos of invalided dump trucks and paving equipment. The actual silo doors - which are massive, hydraulically-operated steel-reinforced concrete structures - are completely obscured by a heap of asphalt boulders, tons of rebar, miscellaneous scrap metal and other such rubble. When I visited the site, the main gate was left open and - though a radio blared country music from inside one of the out buildings - not a soul was about the place - save a scruffy woodchuck who scared easily.

Despite the mess, it is obvious that this was once a military installation. Upon entering the site, two, half-tubular metal structures are immediately visible. These iconic buildings, called Quanset huts (that‘s pronounced “kwan-set”) , were a staple of military bases from World War II to the end of the cold war. The Quanset hut, named for the military base in Rhode Island where they were first manufactured, is a light-weight, portable building system designed to provide the military with a universal facility that could be used to house anything from soldiers to dental offices. At the close of World War II, many surplus huts were sold to the general public. So versatile and pragmatic were these buildings that - even today - many still dot the landscape. They now serve as garages, farm outbuildings, churches and even as creative living spaces for certain elements of the counter culture. In fact, there are companies today that produce pre-fabricated, metal structures based on the Quanset hut for commercial and residential storage or manufacturing. If you don’t believe me, just check out the advertisement section at the back of any recent issue of Popular Science. This month the add is just across from the full-page promotion for Magna RX, you know, the male anatomy enhancement pill.

Although the silo doors are covered by detritus, the concrete shrouded entry way is open. A long run of steps lead down toward the control room. The way is dark and the air in the stairwell is earthy and moist. I don’t need to venture in to realize that the site is flooded. Under the water, is the two-floor control room where once a five man crew stood ready to unleash nuclear death upon the world. From the control room, a tunnel leads to the actual missile silo. The silo, at 174 ft deep and 52 ft wide, is a veritable, underground skyscraper. (What would you call an underground skyscraper: a hell-scraper, magna-scraper or a tomb?) This is pretty cool, but, I’m disappointed that the missile doors are hidden. So, it’s time to move along.

The missile base in Swanton, located off of Middle Rd, is the more presentable of the two. The site, owned by a local drilling company, lies amidst a bucolic scene of corn fields and country homesteads. During the ‘60s, the “goings-on” here must have caused quite a stir at the town’s general store. I can’t help but wonder what the locals must have said about the armed, nuclear missile nestled below their pastures.

Just like the site in Alburgh, the perimeter is hemmed by a security fence. Unlike the site in Alburgh, the gate is shut and locked. Sneaking around the fence, looking for another way in, takes me back to high school. Alas, my fence hopping days are over - besides, my records were expunged when I turned eighteen and I’d like to make the most of this fresh start. However, the two Quanset huts - beset by an inventory of drilling rigs - can be seen through the chain link fence. Beyond the huts I can make out the large, square silo doors. These 45-ton structures are standing open - their hydraulic actuators exposed - and it is thoroughly impressive.

Constructed of steel-reinforced, super-hardened concrete, these abandoned Silos (which were designed to withstand all but a direct nuclear strike) are some of the strongest structures ever built. No doubt, these derelicts of the Cold War will remain - like the walls and castles of medieval Europe - storied countryside fixtures for centuries to come. It is sad, though, that our legacy from this age will be a testimony of our willingness to obliterate the entire human race.

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