Delta-Bravo-Zero-Four-Black were our code words in Moscow that summer of 1954. The Cold War was on, and, despite our adolescence, we were right in the middle of it. Armed with Defense Department charts that showed the silhouettes, names, ranges, and blood-red stars of Soviet military aircraft, we scanned the skies and reported any unidentified sightings to our uniformed handlers at Fairchild Air Force Base. We peered through government-issue binoculars, watching for a sneak attack on Moscow—a small, rural, college town surrounded by contoured wheat fields in the panhandle of northern Idaho.
We belonged to the Air Force Ground Observer Corps, and were among 375,000 Americans who, in organized shifts, monitored horizons all over the country, reporting directly to the Air Force. According to the promotional materials from the Defense Department, the Soviets had the bomb and the planes to drop it, but America’s DEW line—the distant early-warning radar system—could not reliably detect low-flying bombers and their escort MiGs, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where we lived. With the United States so vulnerable, the Air Force operated the Ground Observer Corps for some nine years in the 1950s, enlisting private citizens to operate observation posts and act, it was said, like modern-day Paul Reveres.
Between the seventh and eighth grades, when Doris Day was singing “Secret Love” on the radio and adults were talking about the Army-McCarthy hearings at the dinner table, members of my Boy Scout Buffalo Patrol took our first loyalty oath, promising not to overthrow our government, and were formally inducted into the Ground Observer Corps. From the Air Force recruiter came promises of shiny silver wing pins, a subscription to Aircraft Flash magazine for photos of military jets with billowing contrails, and viewings of fun Air Force movies about the earth slowly turning red, like a Sherwin-Williams paint commercial.
A more effective pitch came from veteran sky watchers in our scout troop. Hidden behind the Soviet-aircraft identification chart in the observation shack was, we were told, a legendary book containing unprecedented carnal scenes not found in any available literature of the day. But that was not all. Supposedly the fastest girl in the eighth grade had signed up for the Ground Observer Corps, giving titillated Buffaloes all manner of sexual double entendres to snicker about when discussing the observation shack.
Because of where we lived, it didn’t take much to recruit us. According to adolescent folklore, Moscow, Idaho, was unquestionably the number-one Soviet bombing target. Although the town’s high school team was the Bears and one of its colors was red and there was even an annual May Day parade led by obscure Hollywood actors almost everyone pretended to have heard of, there were not, to our immense pride, any real similarities between the Moscow in Idaho and that other one. After all, we were the free Moscow, and that comparative fact was always cabled to the Kremlin as part of our May Day festivities, baiting the Reds and brazenly giving them yet another reason to obliterate a small Idaho town first. There was another crucial difference: Unlike the Russian Moscow, ours openly celebrated Christmas and did so once with a large banner over Main Street that read, with undetected irony, “Put Christ Back into Christmas—the Moscow Chamber of Commerce.”
We began our patriotic observations after a perfunctory training session at the volunteer fire department, and once a week we climbed three flights of stairs, up a ladder, and through a trap door into an unfinished plywood shack on top of Whitworth Junior High School, one of the highest points in town. Overlooking an orderly grid of wide streets, thick maple trees, and quiet middle-class homes, the shack came furnished with one set of perpetually unfocused binoculars, a Soviet-aircraft identification chart, a log book for sign-ins and sightings, and a direct phone line to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane.
On duty for the first time in the observation shack, the Buffaloes hastily found the dirty book beneath the Soviet-aircraft identification chart. Even more quickly, we riffled straight to the dog-eared pages, which, though utterly unremarkable by current standards, were enough in those days to draw pubescent patriots up three flights of stairs and a ladder and into four hours of weekly service to their country. To the collective regret of all the Buffaloes, however, the other sign-up incentive proved to be a hoax: except for brief glimpses of her in a rakish Chevrolet driven by a high school boy with glistening black hair, we never saw the alluring eighth-grade girl anywhere that summer.
Once, after weeks of tedium atop Whitworth Junior High School doing nothing more for America than watching crop dusters drone overhead, it happened: I spotted what had to be a Soviet MiG, streaking low across the distant wheat fields. Frantic to confirm my sighting, I grabbed the binoculars, slammed them to my sockets, and furiously twisted the infernal focus knob. Sure of what in reality was only an indistinct, fast-moving speck, I called Fairchild Air Force Base, blurted, “Delta-Bravo-Zero-Four-Black,” and reported my observation with as much technical jargon as I could hurriedly read from the Soviet-aircraft identification chart, which was not, at the moment, hiding the dirty book.
“O.K., kid, we’ll scramble,” came the laconic reply. Hyperventilating, 1 leaped outside to the railing and watched intently for the F-94C Lockheed “Starfires” that our trainers had promised. Squinting, listening, straining, 1 waited. But, as the minutes dragged on, the Starfires never came. Neither did anything else, except for some wounding stabs of humiliation. After slowly putting the dirty book back into its well-publicized hiding place and then signing the log book without any mention of the debatable MiG or the promised scramble, I left the observation shack and the Ground Observer Corps for good.
A few weeks later I returned to Whitworth Junior High School, not to read dirty books or to watch for Soviet aircraft but to attend eighth grade. Back in school, I read in my issue of Junior Scholastic about a revolutionary new Supreme Court case that had banned something called racial segregation. There was also a newsreel about a Communist military victory over the French in a part of the world that I had never heard of before: Indochina, at a place called Dien Bien Phu. My personal Cold War was over. Other, more difficult, battles loomed unseen.