Monday, September 14, 2015

Frolicking Under the Sword of Damocles

One of the Nike Missile radar tracking towers looms over arctic Valley on Mt Gordon Lyon (elevation 4134 ft.) The "clamshell" on top protected the radar antenna and was designed especially for the harsh environment of alpine Alaska.
In Alaska you have to cultivate a joy in Winter. Without it, the cold, dark months feel like endless weeks of cruel and unusual punishment. Playing hockey, figure skating, camping (Hey! No bugs!) Fat-tire trailbiking, ice climbing, and cross-country or alpine skiing can turn dread at the approach of the black tunnel of Northern Winter to anticipation.

My family looked forward to Winters at Arctic Valley, a modest ski area clinging above treeline to the side of the Chugach mountains. "Arctic" was served by a combination t-bar/poma lift, a couple of rope tows, and eventually two chair lifts. It was said to have earned its name from the freezing winds that tore through regularly, but we didn't mind. We were too busy swooping down the face of the mountain, modeling our skiing on the precision of my father's elegant technique. This not only kept the blues of Winter at bay, we eventually developed confidence and even grace in our pell-mell runs down the hill. The only thing I can compare it to is the sensation felt in flight dreams.

Across the valley from the ski area, atop Mount Gordon Lyon, was an unusual collection of buildings with a futuristic air that literally threw a shadow over the slopes where we frolicked during deep Winter. White towers that jutted from the mountain peak and a long, two story barracks were surrounded by cyclone fences strung with concertina wire. A plethora of signs in the area proclaiming it a  "RESTRICTED AREA" reinforced the installation's air of forbidding mystery. We knew it was a missile site, but beyond that the details were thin. I often wondered what went on up there, and what it was like to work in that remote setting.

What went on was the day-to-day work of sharpening the sword of Damocles. The missiles were armed with nuclear warheads, their job was to protect Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson by knocking Soviet bombers, flying 500 miles per hour, out of the sky with a nuclear blast. While we practiced our stem christies and parallel turns, the Nike crews maintained the missiles and even test-fired them in the early years of the program.

The tests were spectacular when seen from the city. The Nike Hercules was the type of missile poised on the remote mountain. Its top speed during a launch was 3000 miles per hour. One can find the remains of the first-stage boosters of the test rockets that fell to the high tundra near the ski area.

At sites in the USA the missile almost exclusively carried a nuclear warhead. According to Wikipedia "The W-31 warhead had four variants offering 2, 10, 20 and 30 kiloton yields. The 20 kt version was used in the Hercules system."  With a range of 80 miles, the missiles were, I suppose, preferable to a Soviet direct hit, but even if successful at destroying their targets, it's hard to imagine they would not have left fallout and radiation over a significant swath of South Central Alaska.

The end of the Cold War brought the shutdown of the site in 1979. according to the historical group Friends of Nike Summit. "After maintaining Nike Site Summit into the early 1980s the U.S. Army abandoned it. Following the end of the Cold War in 1989 interest in preserving the site grew. In 1996, the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an outstanding example of a Cold War era Nike Hercules missile site.  Efforts to preserve the site continued, with limited success, throughout the late 1990s."

Friends of Nike Summit has made great headway since on restoring much of the original site. There is still much to be done, but they deserve great credit for rescuing this reminder of how close we skated to nuclear disaster in the 50's, 60's, and early 70's.

Here is a short animated film I made about Alaska and the cold War

"How Alaska Won the Cold War" - Peter Dunlap-Shohl from LitSite Alaska on Vimeo.

More photos from the Site Summit tour.

A view to die for. Uh, let me rephrase that...

Rust has invaded the formerly meticulously maintained plant. "The army has a saying," recalled our guides, a veteran of Nike Summit, "If it moves, salute it, if it doesn't move, paint it."
The bunker where missiles were kept, at the lower site.

 The area was patrolled night and day by a handler and a dog. This picture is of handler, Tom Namtvedt, and Shadow, a ferocious German Shepard who would bite the man who trained him if given a chance. They used to do attack training with a protective suit similar to thee pads worn by a hockey goalie. Everything but their work boots was covered. The dogs went straight for the vulnerable boots every time. Mr. Namtvedt still lives in the area and helps guide the tours put on by Friends of Nike Summit.

The tracks leading from the area the missiles were stored to the staging area where they were stood upright and launched.

One of a line of anchors that ran the length of the barracks to hold it in place during 120 knot winds.
 Concertina wire surrounding the upper site.



Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Peanut M&Ms, President Obama, and the Heavy Hand of the Vast Vending-Machine Conspiracy

I put a dollar in the vending machine at the laundromat and pushed A6. The machine stirred, hummed and pushed my bag of peanut M&Ms out maybe three quarters of the way. There the bag, as if aware of what awaited, refused to drop. I raged impotently while in spite of my best efforts, the bag refused to budge.

Imagine my surprise when a calm yet commanding voice said "Allow me." Yes! It was Barack Obama. He struck the machine once, his fist carrying just the right combination of force and delicacy. The obstinate bag miraculously plummeted to the collection chute. Nearly reduced to tears, I offered the President a few of the candies. He smiled, and declined, pointing to a large sack of Snow City cinnamon rolls slung under his arm. Then he and his heavy security detail melted away, like a moose disappears in the undergrowth.

I stared after them, cursed myself for not taking a picture, hefted my laundry from the dryer, and headed out, marveling over my unexpected encounter with greatness.

I reached home, went in the kitchen and flipped on the radio. There was Senator Pete Kelly (R) Fairbanks, condemning the President's actions on my behalf as "The heavy hand of federal overreach in Alaska." The Senator gathered rhetorical momentum as he went, condemning me as a passive, neutered victim of the nanny state, and wondering who was going to retrieve my M&Ms for me when the federal government wasn't around.

Of course the story went viral, and before long John Boehner was condemning the President for "Literally assaulting the private sector" by swatting the vending machine, and Sarah Palin was mocking him for not shooting it open "Like a real Alaskan woulda." Naturally Donald Trump got into the act, along with the Fox network and the Koch brothers.

Now I've been outed as the wimpy Alaskan who accepted what Fox is calling a "Government handout" and an angry mob is surrounding our house, setting my dachshund to yapping.

I don't blame you Barack, you only did the decent thing, and now the vast right-wing conspiracy has twisted it somehow into something vile and un-American. As if there could be anything more in line with our values than punching a vending machine.

So I don't blame you Barack, but I have to ask you for a favor. In the name of God, send a black helicopter to bail me the hell outta' here. The crowd keeps closing, and my damn dog won't stop yapping.