In Sunflower Fields

The fields stretched away like a yellow and brown tablecloth, the heads of those sunflowers nodding toward the sun, and on the edge, there by the missile silo, the stalks were visible, a green fringe that rose from the dirt to support the crop. Four telephone poles stretched above the plains, creating a tunnel toward Russia, a gun barrel to direct the flight of the Minute Man missile. Like grooved rifling in a barrel, the poles were the boundaries, the path toward the end of the world.

The fading brown poles of silo November 43, were once dark with creosote, once held the giant floodlights that illuminated the site while we worked below. They helped me find the place again that day, just as they had thirty years before. The land was green there, yellow and flat, and I saw those poles from three miles away, as I had in the old days. Across mile wide fields of potatoes, sugar beets and winter wheat, the poles made shortcuts possible. We could leave the main roads of the maps and cut across on dirt roads where we expected the silo to be. If we missed by a few miles, the poles, standing close together, would show us the way.

Back then we drove beat up, Dodge pickup trucks to these hundred and fifty silos, pickups painted Air Force Blue. We drove them in the bug splattered summers and in the coldest winter blizzards when someone should have known better than to send us out. In the staleness of a prairie fall, when life turned brown and when no breezes blew, and in wildflower springtime we drove those pickups through showers that could never quite wash us clean.

The ground security system, three satellite dishes that faced each other like a circle of fun house mirrors, stared back and forth, alien growths in this agricultural experiment. No alarm sounded in the launch center, twenty miles away, fifty feet underground, when I walked between the dishes today. No one cared when I crossed the cement to the coded entrance plug, a round, hinged manhole cover that used to be the first to getting inside. I wondered how many times I had set those alarms off in my three years serving as a missile specialist for Uncle Sam. How many times had I walked into one of these silos? A hundred? More. 

The eighty ton door was rolled back. A six-sided concrete and steel monster, it was three feet thick and fifteen feet across and slid into a formed hillside, like a walkout basement, flat on top but cut away below for opening. I peered into the maw of the ninety-foot silo and couldn't see the bottom for the darkness. I didn't need to. I knew.

The cumbersome door had been rolled open on its own railroad track now. Time was it could have been blown free by a built-in explosive charge when the launch crew turned their keys. Two men sat in a concrete capsule buried under the ground miles away and waited for a coded message telling them that it was all over, we had tried, but we just couldn’t make mankind work. All day and night men sat there, every day and on Christmas, when people celebrated the birth of the savior, they sat and thought how they might have to undo everything. Order a launch, turn the keys and she blows. Then the world ends.

But it didn't.

Here, in North Dakota, I fought the war as a young man.  I loaded target tapes into sixty-foot missiles with three nuclear warheads on each one and I told those missiles which hundreds of millions of people to kill if Richard Nixon said I should. I did it everyday for three years.

I was twenty. We all were.

I drove past green potato fields and acres of sugar beets back then. I once chased a car off one of the missile access roads, in which two naked young lovers had thought they found sanctuary for the night. I listened to a preacher and his flock as they encircled one of these silos, joined hands, and prayed for giant gophers to rise up from the ground and gnaw through the wires that ran to the power company.    I watched as friends came and went, married and had children; I watched them grow into adults in a world designed for annihilation and I saw some of them die.

And I won that war.

The commies never fired their missiles at us and we never fired at them, and when it was all over, we counted everything up and the United States had more money than Russia and so they let their missiles fall apart and we kept ours working.

Until now.

I walked to the other side of the site, thirty feet from the entrance to the underground Launch Equipment Building, the LEB, where the diesel generator was housed. A twenty-by-thirty-foot raised platform, covered with diamond plate steel stood above the gravel. The entrance hatch had been ripped off, exposing the deep room in front of the capsule, buried thirty feet. The big blast door was sprawled at the bottom of the entrance room next to the ladder, torn from its moorings in the concrete wall. The electronic guts had all been stripped away, to be melted down by a salvage company from Minot. Nothing but the steel floor and those curved inner walls were left inside.

I was afraid of climbing down that ladder when we first arrived here, Terry Sirbain and myself, fresh from missile training. 

The entrance was a cavernous room with a twenty-foot ladder that ended on a landing pasted on the wall halfway down, then another fifteen-foot ladder to the bottom. By the time I was discharged, we would grab the outside of the ladder and fling our feet out, gripping the steel frame, letting the pressure of our feet control how fast we slid, slowing at the end to break the fall. We lied about the scrape marks on our combat boots when safety officers accused us of the very thing. Everyone knew.

Everyone did it.

The guys in the hard hats finished up with the charges and used the bulldozer to shove the door back over the silo. They checked all the wiring harnesses and talked to their bosses on cellular phones. They told me and an airman from the base, a public information officer named Randy, that it was time to go. We all drove to a little rise a half-mile away and they blew the thing in. Imploded it.

I imagined what it would be like inside. Rows of electronic racks that hadn't reported status in years, that no longer kept the temperature at 58 degrees, that no longer searched their memories looking for that code that would match the one I put into the system; they would take the punch and crumple in on themselves. The big shock absorbers that suspended the floor, that would let it bounce back and survive if a nuke went off topside, those big rusted preventative shocks would bounce for the last time, give way, and end up at the bottom of the lower floor that wrapped the silo like a fist around a metal pipe.

When the charge was finally set off, pieces of concrete and dirt rifled the air. The top of the silo rose in a dusty dome, then settled back into the dirt.    A smoke ring puffed out of the LEB and it was all over. The silo was gone, the years of my service to the country were gone, the turbulent years that needed more meaning, were gone and somehow, when the dust had all settled, a little of me was gone too.

I don't understand it. I didn't like the service. I thought, like most of the guys in the Air Force, that being stationed in North Dakota was about as bad as it could get.

It was the time of Vietnam and hippies and long hair, and we "basers" stuck out in town like the smell of rotten sugar beets that filled Grand Forks each fall. I shouldn't have cared if it ended. While I was there I fought with my conscience about maintaining doomsday. Now that it was over I should have felt better somehow, as if my culpability was buried under a dirty rug. The sunflowers didn't hide the secret anymore. This land can never be pure, but now it could start to forget. That's how I should have felt.

But I didn't.

I drove five hundred miles to watch them cave in November 43 because there was something sad about the whole thing, something that I was going to lose. I hadn't faced the rice paddies and automatic fire of Vietnam, hadn't been spit on when I came back to the States, hadn't been called a baby killer. These were things I thought of myself instead, things I had internalized about myself. But it was still part of my identity, part of what I did for my country. Maybe, like the vets who wore their fatigues to visit the wall in D.C., something inside me made me proud to have been there. That's how I won the war.

Jim “Scout” Petersen is a retired college professor who lives in Mankato, MN.  He served in the U. S. Air Force from 1971 until 1975, stationed mostly in the missile wing of Grand Forks Air Force Base, ND.