Early in the summer of 1961 I was between jobs and camped on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska, killing time, waiting for a forest fire to start. Emergency firefighters get paid only when they work, so I wanted to stick by the telephone. Gerry Miller had the answer as to how we could make some money until the fire season began. He had snagged a short job at Eielson Air Force Base and needed a pump operator/hose handler, and since this gig would take only a couple of days, I agreed to help him.
The job consisted of Gerry’s cleaning and repairing a device that cleared the water intake on a power plant’s cooling pond. One morning I drove up to the main gate and, after our foreman showed some papers to the guard, we were authorized to go inside. This place was (and still is) a Strategic Air Command base, a taking-off .md landing place for bombers destined for Eastern Russia should World War III become reality. There were “weather planes” with dull black paint jobs hidden away in the hangars.
We bounced along in the boss’s pickup on the base’s main road, which paralleled the several-mile-long landing strip. Then I slowed the pickup because we were overtaking a lumber carrier that took up the middle of the road. Lumber carriers look something like a table on four wheels. While the vehicle is a clumsy arrangement and can’t move fast, it’s useful for picking up lumber, plank by plank, loading wood onto a flat-bed truck, and then unloading at the job site. This morning it was carrying not lumber but something long and round like a propane tank, and that’s what we guessed it was until the canvas slipped to the side and we could see the blunt end of an H-bomb.
Now, we’d always known that this was what this place was about. As I think back, it was what the country was about in those years. Directly after high school, I had enrolled at a college in a Texas Panhandle town known for its cotton and oil, for being the forty-fifth target in the event of a nuclear war, and for its football team, the distinctions listed in order of importance. And in that summer of’ 61, I’d look up at the contrails of our planes flying high and fast, west toward the Bering Strait and wonder if this was the beginning of the Real One. The formation would split, then split again, like figure skaters do. It all must have looked beautiful on a Russian radar screen. Just practicing.
I thought about these things, while the bomb rocked a little in its carriage beneath the lumber carrier. A week or two later, I hitched a ride from Fairbanks out to our campsite. The driver felt like talking. He had a part-time job in town but in real life he assembled and disassembled the bombs at Eielson. I told him the story about the lumber carrier. He burst out laughing. “Oh, that was a dummy!”
“What on earth does a person need a dummy hydrogen bomb for?”
“Its weight gives the plane the proper balance. It’s for practice.”
“Well, something else happened the next day,” I told him.
Gerry and I had finished our job on the water intake, packed up our gear, and were heading home using the same road. There was a line of traffic ahead, and everyone was pulled to the side of the road. Someone flagged us over and immediately said, “Turn your motor off. Do you have any transmitters or receivers, regular radios, anything like that?”
Gerry said we didn’t.
“Don’t start your motor unless I tell you to.”
The road paralleled the runway; the other side was all hush that had been cleared back a couple of hundred feet. A dirt road came out of the willows; we had driven past it a half dozen times and had never noticed it. Men were walking back and forth, into the willows, which hid what was going on. It got awfully quiet. After a while Gerry got out of the pickup to stretch.
“Please stay in your vehicle.”
Gerry got back in.
The fellow I’d hitched out of town with listened but now broke in.
“How’d you get out of there?”
“After about fifteen or twenty minutes—those guys kept walking in and but of the bush on that dirt road—we asked the man who had pulled us over if we could double back and take the long way out of the base. He asked us about the route, I guess to make sure we knew where we were going. Then he looked up ahead and gave us the O.K. Gerry started the pickup and did a U-turn.”
I turned to the man who was giving me a lift and asked, “What was going on? Why did we have to turn off the radio and motor?”
He said absently, “They’re touchy.”
“Who? Those guys?”
“No, the arming devices.”
“They’re sensitive to radio waves. Those guys must have had some kind of trouble. This is a different story from what you told me about happening the day before.” He wasn’t laughing, or even smiling. “You see, this time ... off out there in the brush . . . that was a real one.”