American Impressions, Chapter 3: North Dakota
A Life in Missiles
An icy rain pelts the car sideways from a driving wind. We almost hydroplane on the rutted pavement then begin skidding from left to right after turning onto a narrower gravel road, the car a ping-pong ball between the ditches. Violent October rains are rare in northeast North Dakota, but Kate Stevenson is not driving me around in her muffler-challenged Nissan to show me the prettier side of her native state. She’s hunting for B-13, one of the 150 missile silos she grew up with, near her mother’s house.
A map shows the location of every silo in the Grand Forks missile field, a peppering of round black dots more numerous than towns that stretches in an uneven band from the Canadian border down to I-94 near Fargo. As if on cue B-13 appears out of the gray, its cluster of light poles the sure give-away. Farmers don’t light up their fields. The military does.
Kate, an habitue of missile paraphernalia—she’s writing a novel about life in the missile field—parks the car and invites me to have my first near-silo experience.
From one side the site looks nothing more than a patch of grass with a concrete slab in the middle and a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire around it. It could be mistaken for a neurotic septic tank. But as we walk around the square, one of those sights symbolic of the nuclear age begins to appear—the slab that is in fact a hexagonal lid several feet thick, engineered to slide or be blown open the moment its Minuteman missile has been targeted, ignited, and set loose to deliver a payload of M1 destructive power measured in euphemisms, because it no longer fits the human imagination.
”The deep culture of this area is potlucks and hunting,” Kate had just told me. Not neighboring the seeds of thermonuclear war. How, then, had life been lived for so long in the company of weapons capable each to inflict—let alone attract—regional replicas of Armageddon? Finding the answer to that question is what had attracted me to this corner of North Dakota, where Kate, now 42, had grown up, and where her mother, Virginia Lillico, had lived for 82 years, predating the nuclear age, outliving the Cold War, and caring very little for either: I was too busy raising kids and taking dinner out, she’d say.
The Lillico house, sheltered from the bitter Dakota winds inside an arc of old oaks and cottonwoods on 60 acres of farmland near Walhalla, is as warm and inviting as the missile site was cold and forbidding. Instead of the “Use of deadly force authorized” sign found on active missile installations, the Lillico welcome mat announces that “One nice person and one old grouch live here.” It was difficult to pick out the grouch. For most of the weekend I spent with the family, Conrad Lillico, 81, rested on the living room couch, his congestive heart acting up, and Virginia engaged Kate in duels of self-deprecation, a family sport as favored as story-telling. Whenever Kate wasn’t taking me to the geographical subplots of her novel or correcting papers—she lives and teaches at Jamestown college, a three-hour drive due south—we talked around the kitchen table, interrupted only by Virginia’s cooking and card games.
The family was in Florida five years (on the road to Auburndale, as Virginia remembers it), returning to Walhalla when Virginia’s grandfather died, leaving land to be tended. Married in 1935, mother to four kids, widowed in 1963, remarried, employed among other jobs as a postmistress and a checkout clerk, life for Virginia was a mix of ups and downs she recalls factually and jokingly, never sentimentally, as if to honor the pragmatism of her Icelandic ancestry. She had listened to H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” when it came over the radio in 1935 but hadn’t for one second believed that Martians were invading earth.
”That probably is a precursor of mother’s opinion on the cold war,” Kate says.
And so the talk turns to missiles.
”I don’t know what year they started putting those silly things in the ground,” Virginia says. “Most people didn’t really give a hoot one way or the other. They thought they were being defended. I don’t think I really paid any attention. I was too busy raising a family to worry about it and I figured I was safe in North Dakota because we were in the middle of the country. I didn’t figure they’d go hunting for us.”
”I’ve always been conscious of it. It’s not something you don’t know about when you’re growing up as a kid,” Kate says. “There was that myth of North Dakota being the third nuclear power if we seceded. People get real proud about that sort of thing around here even though it wasn’t true. It’s even less true now. Then you read articles about people building bomb shelters. You worry about it.”
”I didn’t,” Virginia says. “Your dad did. ‘They’re going to blow us up, they’re going to blow us up.’ What are you going to do about it?” “It’s your philosophy, mom. I’m much more neurotic than that,” Kate says, and turning to me: “Mom never wanted to prepare for nuclear war.”
”We got some papers from the post office asking what we were going to do in case of an attack on the anti-ballistic missile site,” Virginia says. “I answered them kind of nasty like, I said we’re two miles from the site, why should I worry? We wouldn’t have time to hunt for anything. Why be prepared? What are you going to come out to? No, Im not hunting for no shelter.”
Virginia hadn’t waited for Carl Sagan to decide that nuclear winter was not her thing.
A week earlier in northeast Montana, near the town of Ledger, I had come across one of the Cold War’s unintentional ruins—an unfinished ABM site the military had stopped building in 1972 when the United States signed a treaty with the Soviet Union to limit ABM sites to one for each nation. The Ledger site, an acre-large mass of concrete once meant to resist nuclear attack, was turned over to graffiti and prairie swallows. The site that was finished sat two miles from Virginia’s house. She’d been unaware of my preamble in Ledger when she called her neighborhood Air Force Space Commands 10th Space Warning Squadron and requested, successfully, that her daughter and I be let in for a visit, although the place is closed to the public except for an annual open house.
There it was, the finished version of what I’d seen in Montana, a windowless box of 58,000 square yards of concrete 120 feet high, 200 feet wide and 200 feet long at the base. And 8,000 tons of steel reinforcement. It’s actually a fancy radar, its slanted north face a collection of 6,800 pin-like antennas that can track a basketball 2,000 miles away. It goes by the name PAR, for “Perimeter Acquisition Radar,” kind of like calling Yankee Stadium a “Baseball Percussion Sector.”
Our guide was Lt. Andy Olsen, a 28-year-old missile crew commander who had just gotten off duty when he met us. He nervously explained that there was to be no pictures or recording devices inside the PAR, that we could not be more than six feet away from him at all times, and that we could ask any question we pleased but that we wouldn’t necessarily get answers.
Once inside, past two 7-ton steel doors, a slow elevator took us to the third floor and the brain of the operation, the radar room. Before entering, Lt. Olsen picked up a phone and told whoever was inside that we were outside, getting ready to come in. He got an OK. Kate and I mentally high-fived each other. I was expecting a large, dark place with immense screens on the walls and several men absorbed in hushed concentration over inexplicably high-tech consoles of silent beeps and scrolling codes. I think so was Kate.
Here’s what we actually saw: A white neon-lit room the size of the average suburban living room occupied by three oversized, outdated, tan-colored but richly-scratched computer consoles, the kind you might see in an air traffic control room of the early 1970s, an entertainment center that included a nice-size TV, VCR, CD player and other enviable equipment, a fridge overstocked with every imaginable brand of soda and frozen, microwavable pizza, a microwave oven, a corner devoted to the “Phased Array Cafe” (boxes of Snickers, Butterfingers, Kit Kat, Twix, Crunch), a magazine rack (Airman, Airpower, Smithsonian), and a few shelves with binders and booklets. The words “secret” or “confidential” could catch your line of sight if you were careful. One wall was devoted to the kind of panel that showed arrival and departures in 1970s airports, except that instead of indicating Northwest Flight 5321’s arrival and gate, it indicated, in green, that we were at Defcon 5 (good news), and that a visible threat was not detected.
At each of the three consoles a man sat looking at a large circular green screen that showed the North American continent crudely outlined in straight white lines. Other haphazard lines appeared with regularity—not missiles, but satellites. Scrolls of data listed the observed object’s launch point, impact, altitude, and range. When Kate asked Capt. Matt Degner, 37, the missile crew commander on duty, whether the range was measured in miles or kilometers, Dregner said, “I believe it’s metric.” He didn’t sound so sure. Degner’s responsibility was to track missiles. Slow day.
The next console was manned by Jim Schwab, 35, crew chief in-training. He was tracking satellites. We looked at Mir’s path 250 miles overhead, a slow jagged line crossing the continent at 2,000 miles an hour just north of the Canadian border from west to east. That was about it for the nerve center of one of America’s 34 such early-missile warning systems. The men explained that their job was not to decide what to do about incoming missiles, but simply to tell NORAD under Cheyenne Mountain, in Colorado, whether any detection of missiles was a verified or false alarm.
Which begged a question. ‘Was this not outdated computer technology? “All I can tell you,” Capt. Degner said, “is that they have punch cards back there that they still use.” The system “back there,” partly built by IBM in the late 1960s, is made up of 48 racks stacked up with old motherboards that look like airplane food trays.
Kate couldn’t resist asking Degner: “PAR site. Computer 2000 problem?” “Don’t go there,” Olsen intervened. He would intervene again when I asked the computer specialist how his 48 racks power compared with my laptops.
My nuclear education began in 1981 as I read Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth the three successive weeks it appeared in The New Yorker. I remember reading at least two of the three installments in my brother’s dorm room at Columbia University, because Schell was describing what would happen to Manhattan in case of a thermonuclear attack, and I could look outside the window and imagine it. Then again, I couldn’t imagine Schell’s descriptions of blast waves, of a city’s population radiated, crushed, vaporized in moments, of “the ease with which virtually the whole population of the country could be trapped in these zones of universal death,” of fallout’s exterminating drizzle, of just “a republic of insects and grass” being left to roam the earth when all is done. And this—the PAR site and its “Don’t go there” mentality—was still the sort of thing that played with our fate.
How was it? Virginia asked, as if we had just returned from the movies.
Virginia herself had never been interested in visiting the PAR site. A waste of time, she called it, and “wasted moneeeeey. If you want anything done and done wrong, you get the government to help you; they’re good at it.”
Virginia saw her neighborhood missile leave its silo several years ago. It was the first and only time she was to see a Minuteman’s shiny-white, 60-foot frame, a $7 million object then equipped with three 335-kiloton warheads, each capable of inviting a republic of insects and grass on three separate targets. It was up the hill from the Lillico house.
The thawing of the Cold War has created the impression that the nuclear danger is over. Yet we spend $35 billion a year to maintain a nuclear arsenal, maintain several active missile fields around the country, and continually upgrade and develop new weapons of mass destruction. Unlike a few decommissioned silos elsewhere—a Kansas silo has been turned into a house—the field around Virginia’s house is still hot, guarded military property. The grass is cut.
Virginia Lillico lives in the middle of a geographic irony, with the PAR site two miles in one direction, the latent missile field stretching for 150 miles in another direction, and, about 90 minutes’ drive to the west, the International Peace Garden.
The Peace Garden is a serene place that sits between the American and Canadian border, an irony in itself since it has been the most peaceful border of the bloodiest century. Dominating the gardens is the International Peace Tower, a multi-faceted concrete structure that was not built with elegance in mind. Half the tower is on the Canadian side of the border, half on the American. A few paces away is the Chapel of Peace, a non-denominational, square alcove of glass and marble walls etched with 59 quotes by the likes of Camus, Confucius, Dante, St. Matthew, Churchill, Einstein, Lincoln, Plutarch . . .
”I believe without a shadow of doubt that science and peace will finally triumph over ignorance and war,” goes Louis Pasteur’s quote, “and that the nations of the earth will ultimately agree not to destroy, but to build up.”
The 60th etch on the marbled walls should be something Virginia said about the men who control places like the PAR site and the missile silos, the men at NORAD and the men at NORAD’s Russian equivalent, in a place below ground called Chekhov: “I just hope they know what they’re doing.”