Ranger Kathryn's Arches

October 9, 2010

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

I couldn’t quite make it work in my head. Having just come from the interpretive sign that described the Badlands wilderness as a “geography of hope,” I arrived 15 minutes later at the site of our strongest Cold War deterrents: Minuteman missiles in their South Dakota silos. The government decided that it was a good idea to preserve one of the 1960s launch control facilities and an underground silo for posterity, so that we would always remember the threat averted and the ICBMs that accomplished that.

Here I was, looking at a weapon designed to carry a 1.2-megaton nuclear warhead and kill millions of people — while still wrestling with a puzzling turn of phrase that wouldn’t leave me alone. What does fear — the fear that caused people to build personal bomb shelters, and prompted unavailing duck-and-cover drills in every school — have in common with hope? Do they exist simultaneously? Does hope dismantle fear, temper it, put it in perspective?

About fear: we leaked our own secrets to the Soviets. There was such significant concern over their inferior missile safety mechanisms that our government used the straight-up approach and printed top-secret details in Aviation Week & Space Technology, and then made sure copies got into Russian hands. Wanting to minimize the chance of an accidental misfire, we handed them the instructions for improving their own weapons. We also let their satellites observe the construction of the 450 silos across the northern plains, making no effort to disguise what we were building — or how maintenance-free they were once constructed. We WANTED them to know what we had.

About hope: every mother and father hoped they could raise their children in a world free of the threat of nuclear devastation. Our military hoped that the Soviets would notice our powerful missiles and move very thoughtfully and carefully over the knotty political/ideological landscape. I, as a young child during the Cold War, hoped I could jump rope, cut out paper dolls, play jacks and listen to my “Puff, the Magic Dragon” record each day after school.

Could something that travels over the North Pole to its intended target in just 30 minutes, with the equivalent of over a million tons of dynamite, be compartmentalized in my brain alongside the Mesohippus and Leptomeryx that lived here 30 million years ago? Earlier mass extinction scenarios danced around my synapses; I shuddered.

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