“Can I have a volunteer?”
I didn’t raise my hand. But after Greta’s eager arm shot up, awarding her the title of Crew Commander and one of two keys required to launch the Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, I wished I had. I was 35 feet under the Sonoran desert in Sahuarita, Arizona, in the control room of Titan II ICBM Site 571-7. Besides Greta, I was with my girlfriend Karleen and Fred, our tour guide for the hour. Karleen lived in Tucson, just 25 miles north of the museum; she had visited the site as a child, but her only memory of it was the rattlesnake warning posted in the elevator. When she presented me with a menu of touristy items we could sample in the desert, I made sure that visiting the last Titan II Missile was the first thing we did.
I’ve always made humankind the victim of imagined nuclear holocaust. I blame it on my parents choosing the Eastern shore of Lake Ontario for our annual summer vacations. Every inner tube float, lake bath, and rocky beach bonfire was punctuated with the silhouette of Nine Mile Point, the nuclear power station in nearby Oswego, NY with its hourglass cooling tower embedded on the horizon like an oversized sinker.
Each evening we watched the sun set from our rocky beach, and I skipped stones toward Nine Mile Point until my shoulder hurt. If I cocked my head to the side, the lake would flatten into a thin line and it looked like it was possible to skip a stone all the way to the cooling tower. It felt so hopeful at first as each stone skipped sharply along the surface of the water, then tragic as it inevitably plopped along in smaller increments before it finally failed and sank to the inky lakebed. Maybe even then I could sense that our fates are written. But I would try and try anyway, imagining maybe just once I could launch a stone all the way to the power plant, the direct hit followed by the sucking in of space and time and a single muted thud, the blasting outward, down and upward of megatons upon megatons of blinding hot whiteness, the radioactive tsunami rushing toward my exposed body and the roiling wave that devoured me in a magnificent whooosh, my skin calcifying in the undertow like a photograph held over a candle. I imagined who might have found me in the fallout, the researcher in a plastic suit scouring the shore for clues to the catastrophe only to find a shadow of a boy seared onto the beach next to a pile of skipping stones and the outline of his outstretched arm.
“Alarm goes off, two notes rapidly,” Fred barked and shifted his eyes to the glossy white cinderblock wall behind him. I cut my breath. I knew they were coming, but the blare of the two sharp alarm bells made me wince. “Next, Missile Combat Crew Commander and Deputy Missile Combat Crew Commander take out their code books, write down the 35 digit structured messages that comes from that phone there,” he pointed to the stacks of cabinets with switches, gauges, and other impractical looking knobs to the right of the alarm. “They trade their books, and repeat. When both are convinced they heard the same thing, launch has been authorized.” Fred looked at us with grave eyes and I knew what that meant.
There wasn’t a television at the camp we always rented, so our first stop whenever we headed to Lake Ontario was the library. I usually chose dystopian science fiction for my beach reading. Alas, Babylon, Cat’s Cradle, The Long Tomorrow— my mind slipped easily among the post-apocalyptic settings of those novels and the footage I’d seen in documentaries of desert island test detonations and grainy bird’s eye footage of Hiroshima vanishing like a puffball mushroom, its spores exploding outward in a cloud faster and further than I could believe after I’d stomped it. If the dangers inherent to the possible futures I read and fantasized about were the analogues I needed to the seismic shifts of my pubescing body, the cultural critiques they offered were the whispered sweet nothings to a growing awareness that my fate was at the whim of patterns I couldn’t influence.
And standing years later in the control room of the Titan Missile Museum beneath the Arizona desert, I knew I couldn’t initiate the nuclear holocaust of my grim pre-teen fantasies, but I didn’t care; I was moving through a space that was once the most secretive and secure in the world, where a 9-megaton nuclear projectile waited for decades to rumble into the sky with a turn of a key. And Greta, Karleen, Fred, and me, we were all there in a preserved cross-section of mid-century military technology, gathered to imagine unleashing an apocalypse on the world like never before.
“There are 12 authenticator cards inside that safe,” Fred rattled off. “There is a seven digit string on the message that came in that tells us what card to take, if the 35 digits on that card match exactly, it means the launch has been ordered. Then it’s 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”
Four crew members operated the Titan II ICBM Site 571-7 from 1963 to 1984: the Missile Combat Crew Commander, the Deputy Missile Combat Crew Commander, the Ballistic Missile Analyst Technician, and the Missile Facilities Technician. This crew was on high alert for 24 hours at a time before a replacement crew of four crew members would arrive to relieve them and begin their own 24-hour cycle. If Fred was the de facto Crew Commander and Greta the self-elected Deputy Commander, then I quietly nominated Karleen and myself to be the Missile Facilities Technician and Ballistic Missile Analyst Technician, respectively. I wasn’t sure what my responsibilities were as the BMAT, other than to not turn the key.
Our private quarters were directly above us: one floor with a kitchen and one floor with cots and a toilet. But we weren’t really crew, and visiting those areas was not included in the One Hour Guided Tour that Karleen and I sprang for. The Beyond the Blast Door Tour allowed visitors to see the crew’s quarters, and the Overnight Tour—the penthouse of Titan Missile Museum tours—allowed visitors to sleep in the crew’s quarters.
My relationship with Karleen was still too new to suggest we sleep together in a Titan II launch facility. But I would have relished role playing with her in those crew quarters trimmed with sea-foam and chrome, feeling my pulse quicken as I ran my hand along the tight corners of the wool on my riveted and polished steel cot right next to hers, the mid-century san serif fonts labeling my ivory white and thick glass personal items, to dig in the closets and rifle through my fallout survival kit, to ogle every lead-plated hinge, clasp, and knob, to feel the weight of every 4-ton blast door between me and that giant rocket-bomb down the hall for which I was the Ballistic Missile Analyst Technician for God’s sake, to make a feast of MRE and Tang and serve it up on the finest pastel plastic for my fellow crew members—for that Missile Facilities Technician—to impress her with my domestic charms even while charged with analyzing the missile that could end us all, to prove that even there, in an underground tuna can, we could start over, pursuing what’s left of the American dream once the ground above us had ceased to glow.
“Has the American nightmare paradoxically become the new American dream?” literary critic Paul Cantor asks. “Is there some weird kind of wish-fulfillment at work in all these visions of near-universal death and destruction?” Cantor argues that the current of apocalyptic scenarios in popular entertainment bloomed from dissatisfaction in the late 20th century with the idyllic “American dream” of the 1950’s and the distrust people felt with the American institutions it was founded upon. “Looking at the world around them,” Cantor writes, “Americans may be excused for concluding that the financial-medical-educational-government complex that was supposed to help them achieve their dreams has failed them.” In post-apocalyptic scenarios, “The dream of material prosperity and security is shattered, but a different ideal comes back to life—the all-American ideal of rugged individualism, the spirit of freedom, independence, and self-reliance.”
Three Strategic Air Command Bases—Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona—maintained and operated the 54 Titan II Missile Sites in the United States, 18 missiles buried in the land surrounding each of them. The Titan Missile Museum houses one of the 18 missiles in the Sonoran Desert surrounding Tucson, now the only one left in its original form. Most are now abandoned and sealed up like sepulchers, and some have been repurposed as storage facilities and remodeled as homes. According to Karleen, Tucsonan teens would seek out the abandoned missile silos under the cover of night. I can’t imagine they were accessible, or that the US military would just leave them fallow for anyone to spelunk into, but it’s not impossible to imagine. The locations of the 18 missile silos are far from top secret; maps of all 54 Titan II ICBM sites are a click away on the web, and the Titan Missile Museum sells commemorative maps of the 18 Titan II ICBM sites scattered throughout the valley around the Old Pueblo.
But even if a high schooler with cool hair and a joint could find an abandoned silo and enter it, the missiles aren’t there. While some were simply dismantled, many were repurposed by NASA for space travel. Which makes sense for a rocket as ungodly as the Titan II. A Titan II ICBM can hit within one mile of a target over 6300 miles and destroy a 9000 square mile area of earth. It can launch in just 58 seconds, and the choreography of its movement while traveling 15000 miles per hour, the predictability of its rise and fall from launch to detonation, is a shape replicated in a peony when it sprouts, blooms, and bows, in the arcing bursts of a Barn swallow’s flight, in the pattern of each breath beneath my ribs. Even civilizations trend up until they reach the point of diminishing returns and then trend down—Sumerian and Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Aztec and Inca, Mongolian and Ottoman, Spanish and British—each rising and falling one after another on a timeline like a stone skipping across still water until it sinks.
“The American Dream as we know it is dead,” Keli Goff writes in The Daily Beast, “and good riddance.” Citing research that shows that six figures are now necessary for families to fulfill the material prerequisites of the American dream—owning a home, a nice car, and educating two children—she sides with Cantor and observes that the form the American dream took in the mid-century is now unachievable for one out of eight Americans. “When we talk about the American Dream,” Goff observes, “we often find ourselves talking about marriage, children, mortgage debt, student loan debt, stuff, more stuff, and even more stuff (to fill up the house you owe the mortgage debt on).”
My relationship with the American dream is complicated. I am cynical of it, but I am also a white male. I am highly educated and middle class. Karleen and I are married now with two children, one boy and one girl. I own a house and a lawn tractor. I have a loyal dog I play fetch with. And as I write this, I am sitting at a chrome and formica table with clean lines in my updated mid-century kitchen in my house built in 1954, on a street separated from our quaint 18th century village by power lines, the first development that sprouted like the rows of corn they replaced in the affluent suburb of my mid-size city to accommodate the baby boom in the decades after World War II. I have chrome canisters and a retro atomic age kitchen clock I bought on eBay, mock Charles and Ray Eames furniture and neon plastic lamps. Karleen has a collection of Pyrex we display proudly. I think Tupperware is cool. I look out my window and my grass is green. I don’t have a white picket fence, but my neighbor does. I still think about the arc a nuclear warhead carves through the atmosphere, but now I want it tattooed on my skin as a tribute to the trajectory of humankind, our hubris that our epic will not end in tragedy, that we will prove the Sphinx a liar and rise to never fall, but we will. As author Dan Wells said, “Humanity will destroy itself, body and soul, before it learns a simple lesson.”
“Two keys need to be turned within two seconds of each other,” Fred barked at us like a drill sergeant. “They need to be held for at least five seconds to initiate the launch sequence.’” He walked toward the side of the control room that was filigreed from floor to ceiling with little blinky lights like the bridge of the Enterprise. He opened it. “Two keys come out of the safe, one key for the Crew Commander and one key for Deputy Commander.” Crew Commander Fred held one key in the air and handed the other to Deputy Commander Greta, who he ushered to the seat at the helm of the controls in the center of the room. I, the jealous BMAT, watched with envy, wishing the drama we were playing would transform into a post-apocalyptic retelling of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where instead of turning into a mutant blueberry Greta would melt into a pile of radioactive ooze so I could seize control of the key and unleash the power of an exploding sun.
“The two key cylinders are positioned seven feet apart so one person cannot reach them both,” Fred said pointing with his chin at the one key slot on the far side of the control panel, then at the other in front of Greta. I watched with what felt like real trepidation as Greta and Fred moved into position. But what was at stake, really? I knew we were faking it.
“In general, we have this fascination about Armageddon,” says Yvonne Morris, Director of the Titan Missile Museum and a former Titan II Missile Combat Crew Commander. “All of these places that have almost become holy sites around the world—Hiroshima, Auschwitz—we’re drawn to them because we feel like we should witness it and pay homage to it.”
But my One Hour Tour wasn’t about paying homage, and based on the giddy arch in Greta’s back as she slid toward the edge of her seat, the way she licked her lips with her key poised to turn, she didn’t seem to be paying homage either. Yet, here we were.
But I have paid homage. It was the year after we visited the Titan Missile Museum, and Karleen and I spent too much of our student loans to travel to Japan together. When I told Karleen about my longstanding relationship with nuclear detonation, she was understanding. When I told her I needed to visit Hiroshima even though it was out of the way of our itinerary, she said she wouldn’t miss it. I knew then she was the one, so I proposed to her on that trip. With our pursuit of the American dream initiated, we hopped on a Shinkansen bound for Hiroshima.
There have only ever been two nuclear weapons detonated as acts of war, and the United States of America is responsible for both: The uranium atomic bomb “Little Boy” dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the plutonium atomic bomb “Fat Man” dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Around 20 American prisoners of war were killed by the blasts. Approximately 245,000 Japanese military personnel and civilians were also killed.
In spite of being a coastal city, Hiroshima does not register as a romantic getaway. But it is a moving and important place to go as an American. I wasn’t sure what reception we would get, but I didn’t care; I figured I deserved the worst and expected it. But since World War II, Hiroshima calls itself “The Peace City,” and it lives up to its name. Karleen and I were greeted with the politeness and generosity that Japanese culture is known for. Even in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the stories of the bombs are brutal, but only because they are factual, accurate, and vivid. There are no words to describe the images and stories of victims that a visitor is confronted with, because alongside the Holocaust, the events of August 6th and 9th, 1945 are as post-apocalyptic as our modern world has known. The stories of casualties and survivors, of the suffering that took place minutes, hours, days, years after the flash are legion, and the museum tells it like it is without political slant. It places blame on both sides. It condemns war, not the acts for which the museum exists. The museum is not designed as a tool of political rhetoric, nor does it condemn the United States as I imagined and hoped it would. If there is any agenda, it is to say that war is bad and peace is good and to tell the story of Japan’s rebirth, how it realigned itself politically and developed economically, a nation in pursuit of the American dream after enduring the American nightmare.
Hiroshima’s city center is bustling and new, but its most visually arresting structure is also the only one left standing after August 6th, 1945. It is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site also known as the A-bomb dome, and its ruins stand on the bank of the Motayasu River, caddy corner from the T-shaped Aioi Bridge that created a convenient target for the Enola Gay. Formerly Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall, the exposed steel framework of the A-bomb dome’s apex looks intentional at first, like an open-air atrium, but the jagged half-walls and brick rubble that spill from the other side tell a different story. Like the ruins of castles and abbeys in the UK or the forums and parthenons in the Mediterranean, the marred gray stone and blue sky and green grass is arresting and spiritual. But unlike those, the A-bomb Dome’s decay was induced.
Karleen and I stood in awe at the sight of it rising above the river, the fluffy clouds floating calmly behind the silent skeletal dome. When we turned, we could see in a straight line down the expanse of Peace Memorial Park, the intentional line of the peace flame, the heavy stone arch of the Memorial Cenotaph, and the Children’s Peace Monument, its stringers pinned with small drawings, letters, and origami swans seeking shelter from the memory of the bomb.
“Down 35 feet below the desert in our fortified concrete bunker,” Chuck Penson, Titan Missile Museum historian narrates, “we could ride out their first strike and live to retaliate. But the Titan II ICBM site is effective for two reasons: it is the threat of mutual annihilation coupled with the knowledge that there is no defense against something like Titan II. It is a weapon of war but an implement of peace. Peace is never fully won,” Penson concludes solemnly. “It is kept from moment to moment.”
“Ok, you ready? Turn the key,” Fred ordered, “and hold it for 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. A blue light lights up,” he waited a beat, staring at the control panel, “right there. The 760 ton doors now open the silo to the sky above us and 58 seconds later the payload is on its way, and in 30 minutes, it will reach its destination.” Fred turned to Greta. “Congratulations, you just started World War III. How do you feel?”
There is only one Titan II ICBM that remains in its intended form, and it is in the Titan Missile Museum. It is meticulously curated and kept undisturbed like a Pharoah whose tomb is opened to the world daily since the museum opened in 1986. It is an immaculate ruin.
Two hundred and fifty feet down a tunnel from the control center, the 103 foot tall Titan II missile sits poised in its silo, pointing up toward the 760 ton blast doors and the wide open atmosphere overhead. Weighing 150 tons and measuring 10 feet in diameter, this missile is a monstrous thing. The rocket is all white and gray steel and rivets, its rounded nose matte black and heavy. But when viewed close up and in real life, it appears more fragile than it does in the impressive images you’ll find on the web of Titan II missiles zooming through the air, all fire and brimstone. Its spin fins are delicate, its fuselage eggshell smooth, its rockets trimmed with kitchen foil.
There in the desert, buried and protected safe and sound beneath the red dirt and cacti lies the work of our most intelligent and enterprising, the apex of what we are capable of as a civilization, and I am overwhelmed, because to encounter the last Titan II poised and ready for launch is to encounter the sublime. I stare at it like a boy on a rocky beach might a power plant on the horizon, holding the physical shape in place with my gaze as my mind moves toward the task it was created for, the rumble of its ignition sequence quaking in the arches of my feet. I’m taken by its stillness.
The tour siphoned us into the gift shop, where I bought a map of the 18 missiles surrounding Tucson, a postcard with an image of a Titan II test launch, and a Bendix CDV-742 direct-reading pocket dosimeter, a canary yellow instrument the size and shape of a sharpie marker used to measure radiation exposure, complete with shirt clip. To my disappointment, they didn’t sell commemorative keys like the one Greta received.
But my favorite souvenir from the museum is the photo of me sitting in front of the launch panel in the control room. As Fred led us out of the control center, I grabbed Karleen’s arm and had her lag behind in the control room with me. I jumped in Greta’s seat, and pretended to hold a key in the cylinder.
“Take my picture,” I ordered her nervously, afraid Fred might return and scold me. She quickly snapped the photo as I pretended to launch the Titan II, and we scurried to catch up with the tour as it moved down the tunnel toward its conclusion.
I don’t look at all in the photo like I imagined I would. I thought I would look cool and severe, but I look silly. The control room looks more like a movie set than some movie sets, and I look unprofessional in my t-shirt, cut off khaki shorts, and sandals, out of place surrounded by outdated technology. And if you zoom in close enough, you can see I’m not even holding a key.