Living in the Shadow
The buried threat of our nonexistence
by Sarah Hamilton; illustration by John Jennings
In July 16, 1945, the radio frequency that the United States military was using to broadcast the countdown to the Trinity Test suffered interference from a local radio station. As a result of a strange fluke, the commanding officers of the operation heard strains from Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” broadcasted through the control bunker as the final seconds expired and the bomb dropped, six miles away—the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in the United States. Stepping outside, the officers were hit by a wave of heat and pressure from the world’s first atomic weapon. In the first few seconds of the new era that was ushered in that morning at 5:29 a.m., the orchestra played on, but the desert was silent.
We are living in a silence that hasn’t been broken. It is a wordless cry that emanates from the grasslands of North Dakota, Montana and South Dakota and the high plains of Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri. These places are the nuclear heartlands where the steady pulse of blood through veins still beats strong.
In the 1950s, driven by the fear of being left behind in the arms race and the desire to close the perceived “missile gap,” the U.S. military space program was launched in full force, and the first effective Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) was developed. These missiles had the ability to fly thousands of miles into enemy territory, delivering a crippling, fatally precise nuclear blow, all at the touch of a button. They were to be stored in underground silos, with ten missiles grouped around each launch center, placed 4.2 miles apart.
The wide, open expanses of the grasslands and the high plains beckoned. The perfect sponge to soak up a nuclear attack. The original ICBMs carried three nuclear warheads, each with 15 to 20 times more destructive force than the individual bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
1962, the same year my mother was born, was the “year of the big payoff in missiles.” The Minuteman missile, named after the revolutionary war rebels who could be ready to fight in one minute or less, was unveiled. Minutemen missiles could be launched in exactly 31 seconds, reaching targets up to 7,000 miles away in less than half an hour. By July 1975, thirty years after the first atomic bomb was dropped in the desert of New Mexico, the U.S. military had 1,000 Minutemen missiles, rooted like an invasive species in the grasslands of Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Missouri and Colorado. The skin of the land had been peeled back, weapons dropped into bunkers and the incisions stitched back up with a set of nuke-proof concrete doors.
Of the 1,000 nuclear missiles that were once sown into the soils of the Great Plains, 150 are still on active alert today. 49 of these active alert missiles are in Colorado. They lie sleeping behind concrete doors built into the landscape of wind and grass, an unnatural entryway into the heart of the earth. Farmers and ranchers have learned to turn their tractors and run their stock around barbed wire fences that have slowly faded into the yellows and browns of the grasslands.
What does it mean to have 49 active nuclear sites in our backyard?
I was born in 1992 in a green and white house on a peaceful road called Cheyenne Boulevard that winds around the base of Cheyenne Mountain. Looking up, I have always felt held by the round, blue dome of sky, encircled by a ring of familiar summits and ridges. Growing up, I measured the long school days by the bells of a shrine that stands half-way up the mountain, ringing reassuringly every 15 minutes.
The maximum amount of time the President would have to decide whether to retaliate to a nuclear threat is 15 minutes.
It would happen like this: An enemy missile is detected by satellites, which beam the information straight into the heart of Cheyenne Mountain, to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, more commonly known as NORAD, hidden deep beneath the surface. Officers confirm the attack and alert the President, and the clock starts ticking: 15 minutes to decide how to respond, maybe less. If he decides to launch a retaliatory missile, the President sends a message to an underground missile control center in northeastern Colorado. Two keys are inserted into two different control boxes and the launch is initiated.
The concrete doors blockading the entrance to the silo are blown away like rag dolls, and the 76,000-pound, 60-foot Missileman lifts off. It cannot be stopped, called back or intercepted. It will strike within half an hour. The whole chain of command, starting with the President’s order, has taken less than two minutes. In a city far away, everyone within a 2.5 mile radius of the strike is vaporized. At the periphery, fires will begin to rage.
What does it mean to have 49 active nuclear sites in our backyard?
It means that the years between 1945 and 2014 and the mileage between Nagasaki, Hiroshima and our own hometowns are malleable.
It means that the silence of screams turned to vapor echoes across the windy grasslands of northeastern Colorado.
It means the shadows of human bodies burned into walls, roads and bridges by the heat of a 69-year-old atomic explosion are slipping between the chain-links of missile silos turned yard ornaments.
It means that the silence of the wilderness that began to spread on 5:29 a.m., July 16 1945, lingers on today.
But it is not an unchallenged silence. For the past 40 years, it has been pierced by the sound of song, peace prayers, protests and the ringing of hammers beating symbolically against the metal of missile silos, turning weapons into plowshares. It is impossible to mention every act of peaceful resistance that has been carried out, in this community and others around the country, in witness against the horrors of weapons of mass destruction. These witnesses are mothers, fathers, children, priests, nuns, veterans, teachers and students, people who realize that in this new era of radioactive time, both years and geography are irrelevant. They see the spatial and temporal map of the atomic bomb, where each moment is connected to a dozen others, each coordinate’s distance from the next merely an abstraction, a projection of intimate networks stretched across paper.
In 1989, a Colorado Springs-based group, Citizens for Peace in Space, carried out a symbolic action at Falcon Air Force Base, located just 19 miles east of the city. Pulling a stock trailer onto the base, they released two buffalo onto the grasslands, and sprinkled native buffalo grass seed until being escorted off the base property.
For a few short minutes, as the buffalo roamed the land they used to dominate, the silence of the fenced in grassland was shattered. The beating of buffalo hoofs pierced the air and for a brief time, the sounds of life were reawakened.