Just over a year ago I went road-tripping on a tour of the former 321stStrategic Missile Wing. I wanted to get a good look at the 14 other Missile Alert Facilities (or Launch Control Facilities). I had a few reasons for doing this. One reason was that I was deeply curious—I wanted to see firsthand what had become of the facilities since their deactivation in the late 1990s.
The road trip and discovering the condition of the facilities ended up being much more emotional than I ever could have imagined. And my emotions were all mixed-up. It was a powerful trip. As I drove from abandoned facility to abandoned facility there were overriding similarities. The sites were overgrown with grass and weeds. Siding had been ripped from their sides. Basketball hoops had fallen into rusted, bent heaps. Rooftop security lights were precariously hanging by their last few bolts. Piles of old farm implements and rusting vehicles cluttered the parking areas (left their by their new private owners). Critters and raccoons had set up residence and taken their part in the deterioration. It was an ugly picture all throughout the missile field.
In one sense, I felt perfectly fine with all of this deterioration. In fact, it felt somewhat gratifying. The nuclear weapon is the most powerful and lethal weapon that mankind has ever devised–the deactivation of this missile field meant there were 150 fewer of these most deadly weapons standing on ready alert. Additionally, there is certain victory in their closure–the deterrent force of these sites brought the Cold War to a cold, peaceful conclusion. In other words, it is perfectly fine that these sites are now slowly rotting away because they had done their job and they had done it well—they had brought the long Cold War to an end, and they were no longer needed. There are definite reasons for rejoicing in their deterioration–but those reasons focus on the military and political mission, purpose, and capabilities of the sites.
However, when my thoughts shifted away from the structures of these sites and focused on the people of the sites, the deterioration became deeply saddening. I couldn’t help but think of the many dedicated, hard-working, well-trained people who for over 30 years kept these facilities, this tip of the US nuclear sword, in immaculate and razor-sharp condition. I couldn’t help but think of the countless Air Force inspectors who visited these sites and demanded nothing but excellence and perfection—I couldn’t imagine how their stomachs might turn at the sickening sight of these rotting facilities. I couldn’t help but think of the many young Air Force members who put gallons and gallons of elbow grease and sweat into the maintenance of these facilities. I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of hard-working civilian contractors who built these sites and especially of the seven men who died constructing the sites. I couldn’t help but think of the families and the real impacts that these sites had on their personal lives—the spouses who spent Christmas at home and alone while their loved one fulfilled a duty to the nation at these isolated facilities. I couldn’t help but think of all of the laughter, tears, struggles, and successes that were wrapped up in these facilities—facilities that were now simply and slowly rotting away.
So, while I appreciated the fact that the sites had effectively fulfilled a national military and political strategy and it was gratifying to set aside a tool that was no longer needed, I saw these facilities as much more than tools or objects. When we build structures, we typically build them to fulfill a necessity. But, as we build and use them we can’t help but embed ourselves into them—the structure will always hold countless human stories—that ability to hold our stories is their very real power. And it’s these personal stories, these very real but invisible human connections, that makes me something of an historic preservationist, or a building hugger as some might joke. There is an incredible amount of power in place. This is why I take a great deal of pride in the historical preservation and interpretation work that the staff and I take on everyday at Oscar-Zero.
Well, those are my ramblings. What are your thoughts on the deterioration of these missile facilities? Or your thoughts on the historic preservation of buildings? I’d love to hear your thoughts—I’m sure they’d help us all further shape our own thoughts and maybe even help straighten out some mixed emotions.