In the early 1960’s, my father drove ICBMs into underground tunnels for a living. My mother knew what he did, but no one else knew, except the people he worked with in the arsenal hidden inside a hill.
Every day during the week he would leave for work early in the morning, dressed in
khaki work clothes and wearing his Top Secret Clearance badge with an atomic symbol and the letters “AEC” on it. Mother packed his lunch in a brown paper bag. He worked very regular hours most of the time, like someone working a shift at a factory. If asked, my sisters and I said, “My daddy works for the government.” That was all we knew at the time.
Daddy was a silent man, dark and rugged, with rather forbidding eyebrows and a stern
grey-eyed gaze. There are black and white photos of Daddy and his best friend
Grissom, dressed in coveralls, posed by one of the flatbed trucks that hauled
the missiles. Grissom was square-jawed and has a buzz cut. They looked straight
at the camera, serious and dependable, the kind of men who could handle a nuclear warhead and not get rattled.
Occasionally, Daddy would be “on call.” On those nights, he would bring home a pistol in a black leather holster and put it on top of the chest of drawers in my parents’ bedroom. We were forbidden to enter the room.
“Don’t go near that chest of drawers,” he would say. “That thing could kill you.”
Then a black sedan would come for him at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. He would put on the holster and leave. And shortly after that a freight train would roar past on the tracks in back of our house.
Periodically Daddy was sent to Los Alamos for training. He hated the desert. Whenever he went to New Mexico Daddy came back with stories of the bone-dry horrors he had seen. “There was a tarantula spider as big as a hat walking along the side of the road,” he
said. “There’s a cave that the bats fly out of at dark, and they look like a thundercloud coming out, there’s so many of them.”
In 1962 Daddy was called out at night more often, carrying the pistol. Mother looked worried. One day Daddy brought home a brochure from work, with a Department of Defense logo on the back. Its title was, “Building a Home Bomb Shelter.”
The booklet had lots of practical suggestions. Food, water, how to dig a latrine in your shelter if the sewage system stopped working—survival skills, A to Z. I was troubled, however, by the booklet’s attitude toward pets. They were expendable. Only people
were important enough to save from nuclear destruction.
I had a recurring dream about my dog, Whitey. I dreamed that the bombs had dropped,
and my family was in the bomb shelter Daddy built in our garage. It was late evening all the time, day and night were gone forever. The sun never rose or set. The sky was the greenish color it gets right before a terrible thunderstorm or a tornado, and it never changed.
I was worried sick about Whitey. When the sirens went off, I had gone looking for him, calling and calling. But he didn’t come. Finally I ran home to the shelter, racing
anxiously to safety.
I peered out the narrow glass windows in the garage door, watching for him. After days of watching, I looked without hope—and he appeared in the back yard.
But he was strange. He moved with an odd, sideways walk. He glowed pale green, fluorescent. But he had come home. I ran to the door to let him in.
“No, honey, you can’t,” Daddy said. “He would poison us all.”
“He can’t help it!” I cried. “We can’t let him die, he’ll starve!”
“He’s going to die anyway,” Daddy said.
And the dog began to cry, a long, low moaning. It went on and on, for days, until he was just a skeleton, still crying outside the door. I woke up with a racing heart.
2 thoughts on “The Cold War in Clarksville”
This makes me recall my freshman year in college. One dinner, the conversation turned to sharing what everyone’s father did for a living. One of my friends said, “My father works for the Federal Government, but that is all I know. He is not allowed to talk about what he does outside of work. It is all secret.” I thought that was the strangest thing… to not know exactly what one of your parents actually did at work. I am still in touch with that friend. Her father died last year. I still have no idea what he did for the government.
The way I found out was, I read an article in Mother Jones magazine about the Pantex plant in Amarillo (my father worked there, too, for a year) when they opened it to journalists for the first time. Then I asked my mother, and she said, “Yes, that’s what he did.” !!!