Missile Base Bachelor Pad
Fifty years ago, while Cold War kids cowered under their school desks -- calculating atomic flash-to-blast wave time lag and gamma particle penetration -- America was ready. Not to save those children exactly, but at the very least, to make sure Commie kids were scared, too. With a little notice, American missiles could be dispatched to the other side of the world, if need be, to get even.
The Strategic Air Command constructed hundreds of intercontinental missile silos in under-populated parts of the country. One cluster is near Abilene, Texas, where the 578th SMS, based at Dyess Air Force Base, operated 12 Atlas F missile bases from 1961-1965. Five of these are along a road officially designated in 2001 as the Atlas ICBM Highway -- FM 604.
Bruce Townsley, private owner of a decommissioned site in Oplin, conducts an Atlas Missile Bunker Tour. Arrangements for a visit must be made in advance, and the hardened nature of the bunker discourages just dropping in.
A straight, dusty drive off FM 604 leads to the Oplin site. From his entertainment console deep underground in the Command and Control Center, Bruce can watch visitors via video cameras as the enter the front gate. For some reason, when we roll in security is lax, and we go unnoticed. We peer down into the Atlas missile silo -- we'd heard Bruce managed to open one of the multi-ton, 3-ft.thick blast doors in 2002 for the first time in decades. We shout into the 180-ft. deep pit.... no response. Then we spot a small concrete blockhouse with a door, perhaps leading down to the bunker. We open the door and shout "HELLO" down the stairs... still no answer.
Fifteen minutes later, we are detected by the surveillance system, and Bruce appears. We head over to the open silo door, which Bruce considers his greatest accomplishment to date on the site. A crane provided by local volunteers eased the giant metal and concrete slab open, allowing him to install a "ram" -- similar in principle to the hydraulic lifters that used to muscle the hatch open for missile drills and maintenance. The missile is long gone. "The Feds took it."
Bruce was a home remodeler in Chicago when he first pondered the virtues of bunker living. "I saw a fellow (Ed Peden) on Johnny Carson, in about 1985, and he talked about owning a missile silo. I thought 'Wow... America is a great country. You can buy your own missile base.' And that just sort of stuck in my head." Over time, the notion grew. "I had modeled a lot of houses, and kind of got bored with it. I always remembered the missile base and thought it would be a great challenge as I got older."
In 1997, Bruce found his dream silo in Texas. "I moved down here from Chicago just to do this." Though he knew nothing of savvy silo shopping at the time, his turned out to be a fortuitous selection. The site is in better shape than most, more stable, and in a pleasant setting of slight hills and woods. Most of the work has not required any sort of building permits, something a big city guy had to get used to. And the local community pitched in to help him get the place back into shape. There's plenty more to do. "There's always something that needs work. It could keep me busy the rest of my life."
We head down into the control center, descending a steep flight of stairs. Everything echoes down here, footsteps boom ominously, thick metal doors clank into thick metal latches. It's very crypt-like. An arrangement of photos and artifacts in display cases sit on the first level. Bruce knows all the local silos; he points at a map and rattles off status: "This one is owned by the school district, and it's filled with water...this one has been completely stripped... this one has been turned into a reception hall....this one is a dive site....this one is a toxic waste site..."
Bruce says the Oplin Atlas site isn't as elaborate as the Titan Missile Museum site in Green Valley, AZ. "That was built a year after this one, and by that standard, this site is primitive. It was 'get it done, put it together, we're not making anything special.'" (...other than a launch site for a nuclear weapon that could travel 6,000 miles).
Before we enter the Command and Control Center one half flight further down, Bruce asks us to remove our shoes so the carpet won't be soiled. This floor is where he resides, a circular studio arrangement with a kitchen, living room, den, bedroom and dining room. The floor hangs away from the concrete walls on suspension rods, originally designed to minimize motion damage if the Russkies lobbed in a close one. Bruce had help renovating the suspension system, so that it now just sways slightly horizontally, not the original up and down missiliers endured. Above the kitchen serving island is an escape tube that exits on the surface.
The space is tastefully designed, with an oriental motif, quietly paying homage to evil geniuses and their underground lairs.
The lower floor, where the command consoles were arrayed, is scraped clean and under construction. Part of a future B&B, perhaps?
Next, we head down a corridor -- really, a steel culvert -- and enter through another thick door into the missile silo. This multilevel chamber goes down 185 feet from the surface. In contrast to the command center, the silo is, well, trashed. The walkways and superstructure are rusted and graffiti is everywhere. A metal staircase spirals to the bottom. Local teens used it as a party haven and vandalism zone for many years after the government moved out. During his restoration, Bruce pumped water out of the bottom that was 50 ft. deep at one point.
This will likely never be completely restored, but it is impressive, and not all that secure feeling. Did we mention all visitors must sign an injury disclaimer? And no children under 12, please.
But Bruce feels secure in his missile base home, if only from the weather. He doesn't think it would hold up under a ballistic onslaught today, and even in its prime it only had to last long enough to allow the missiliers time to turn their launch keys. "Back then at least you knew who your enemies were. Now you just don't know."
"I didn't buy this as a survivalist strategy. Really, it was a remodeling thing."
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