A Lesson Passed On

Published October 31, 2013

My wife and I spent a couple of months in the American Southwest last winter. We stayed out on the edge of the desert near Tucson, Arizona. It is dry, hot and utterly unlike where I live, in Halifax on Canada’s Atlantic coast.

Our two married daughters, twins, came down together to visit, bringing one’s 9-year-old son. The three women were keen to explore shops and galleries and a mother-daughters expedition was formed. I was designated as official entertainer of the grandson.

We went south from Tucson toward the Mexican border. First was an obligatory stop at San Xavier del Bac Mission church on the Tohono O’odham reservation—a must-see. Then it was on south toward the art colony village of Tubac, about 20 kilometres from the border. We had lunch at Wisdom’s in Tumacacori (where everyone gets their picture taken with Wisdom’s greatly oversized decorative chickens out in front.) and then it was off to the snares of Tubac. I had thought  about taking my grandson to the Titan Missile Museum nearby. It would take a couple of hours, and let him see something that is unique in the world.

The museum dates to the early days of the Cold War, and the Soviet-American nuclear arms race. During the late 1940s and 1950s, the Soviets managed to develop their own atomic and hydrogen bombs, negating the American advantage. Their launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 symbolized Soviet ability to deliver a nuclear-tipped missile anywhere in the world. Out of all this evolved the MADD doctrine: mutually assured destruction deterrence, which nullified the power of nuclear weapons. MADD was tested in the 1961 Cuban missile Crisis: the two sides came close to war, but backed off.

About the same time, the American government developed underground launching sites for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM)s, able to launch weapons in the case of a ‘first-strike’ from the Soviet Union. Tucson was one of three United States cities ringed with these sites; 17 were built around Tucson. 

Each site included a single launch tube in the ground with a Titan ICBM inside. The fuel would ignite once firing buttons were pushed, then the missile would rise out of its tube and head for its destination. The missiles were never used, obviously, and in 1982, as part of a US-Soviet treaty, the sites were decommissioned and all except one were destroyed. The sole exception was the site in Green Valley, south of Tucson, that was rendered inoperable and turned over to a local group as a museum and a reminder of how close the world had teetered on destruction.

The museum consists of a large metal building, and the missile site occupies an area the size of a couple of baseball fields. The building houses the admissions area, a small gift shop, an exhibit area and a ‘briefing room.’ Every hour, a group of visitors is settled into the briefing room where ex-military volunteer docents take them through a video of the history. Then, it’s off outside to see the site.

The group follows docents down some 55 metal steps into the ground. At the bottom is a tunnel with an airlock feature, and steel doors some 60 centimetres thick, mounted to allow quick movement. (My grandson was impressed that even he could move such a huge door.) Visitors then move along a tunnel to the control room and kitchen-dormitory, all of it mounted on huge coil springs, the metal as thick as my wrist. It was expected that a first strike would be made upon these sites, and the springs were there to absorb the shock of a nuclear blast. 

The site includes observation points to observe the Titan missile in its tube. The docents led us through the routine that led to pushing the firing button, explaining how two people were necessary to initiate firing; one rogue madman could not do it alone. Though our guides kept referring to the ‘computers,’ in the 1960s there were no such things as we know them: computers were house-sized, air-conditioned monsters. All of the flashing lights and sounding horns in the control room were pretty much like the stuff in Doctor Strangelove. 

The guides told us that if the missile were fired, the site was planned to provide the crew with a month’s supply of food and water and air before they had to emerge out onto the radioactive ground above. One docent, however, allowed that he did not understand how there could be a month’s air supply and that the crew would have been forced to choose between suffocation or radioactivity.

My grandson took all this in. In the car, he worried what would have happened to his family if everybody had shot off their nuclear missiles. I explained that his mother and dad had been kids like him when all this had been active. He thought about it as we drove back to Tubac.

“That’s horrible. I wouldn’t be here now,” he said. Then he went back to his Super Mario.

I figure that what he saw and imagined will come back to him as he gets older, and it becomes his turn to keep others safe.

Copyright © 2013 James D. McNiven

Further reading:
Titan Missile Museum
Wikipedia page on the Cold War