In the city park of Langdon, North Dakota, just a few miles down the road from the sleepy town of Nekoma, sits a sharp-edged painted missile. Flowers are planted at its base, and not too far from this armament are the swingsets and slides for small children, with the city pool a few hundred feet down the way. Both the elementary and high schools are located nearby.
Few people probably even think about what is jutting out of the ground at the center of town, proudly displayed and frequently receiving fresh coats of white and black paint. I’m not sure it really crosses anyone’s mind that the centerpiece of the park is a weapon of mass destruction.
Not what you’d usually find by a swing set, generally speaking.
This isn’t North Korea, but North Dakota, a state that has a past love/hate affair with nuclear missiles. In fact, in the early 1970′s, the old line people used to joke about was very nearly true: if we were to become our own country, we’d be one of the top nuclear powers in the world.
The two Air Force bases, both Minot and Grand Forks, played a huge role in the manned and unmanned Minuteman missile system spread out across the state, creating the incongruous picture of idyllic farmsteads, pasture land and farmers plowing around nuclear sites a few hundred feet below the burgeoning wheat. The bread basket of the world was also to be the shield of the United States.
The manned missile site a few miles south on my father’s land, with its bunks and kitchens and basketball games out on the concrete late into the evening made possible from the huge, bright lights surrounding the fenced compound, is abandoned, part of the Grand Forks system.
The buildings surely are falling apart inside, but I, because my father was a landowner with such a site on his property, remember being allowed to tour an identical site and know how very comfortable they once were. The blue cloth sofas and chairs, the sparse but clean bunk rooms, the large and friendly communal kitchen. The seemingly wasted expense to build and then implode such an expensive and far-reaching state-wide system can no better be seen than at Nekoma, North Dakota.
During Nekoma’s Centennial this year, the public was allowed into the fenced perimeter of the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, and given a chance to see up-close the chopped-off “pyramid” and its surroundings. We were allowed to walk up to the pyramid, around the pyramid, and listen to our guides tell us about the history and the capabilities of the site.
Though not as large as its still very much functioning counterpart at the Cavalier Air Station, whose pyramid is monstrous with a radar so sensitive in cataloging space debris that it once overloaded Cheyenne Mountain, Nekoma’s pyramid rises from the plains like a prairie iceberg. Most of it’s cyclopic structure is buried below ground, leaving only the tip to poke through and be seen. According to our tour guide, one of the few men still taking care of the abandoned site, the interior of the structure has been stripped bare, but is so huge and cavernous that many of the hallways and passages deep inside have their own atmosphere. He told of how, on certain days, some hallways have fog rolling about inside. There is also much water, particularly since the water table in the region has been high since about 1993.
Just to the north of the radar pyramid are bunkers and a flat area of weedy concrete with two types of white hatches. Housed here were the Sprint and Spartan missiles. These missiles functioned as interceptors, one long-range (Spartan) and the other in case the Spartan failed.
The huge concrete towers to the south are the remains of exhaust stacks from a massive power plant capable of making the entire site self-sufficient and then some. There was a cooling resevoir deep underground, if I understood correctly, visible as a large hill with a concrete slab on top.
To the the west, of course, was the community. Barracks, a community center with a theater and stores, a church…it was all there. In fact, nearly everything was built and functional, except the planned officer’s quarters, before politics, protests and the powers that be pulled the plug.
Our guide talked of how most people in the United States wouldn’t sit quietly and let nuclear missiles be buried in their back yard, but North Dakotans would. It’s true that I never thought of it, growing up. It was always an understanding that there were missile sites all around me. But it isn’t true that there were no protests. On May 15, 1970, International ABM Day, some people let it be known that the Nekoma site wasn’t welcome.
But was it truly not welcome?The people in the towns of both Nekoma, and especially Langdon, still talk about the glory days of the missile site. You can hear it during meetings, when someone will carelessly refer to a past event with the tag “that was back when the missiles came.”
I still hear of how nice the county road became when a Minuteman went in along it. Good roads are gold here, and to some, if it brought about good roads, there wasn’t much to complain about.
People still talk about the military, or some group, coming back to the abandoned Nekoma site and what that would mean for the region as if it were to really happen despite most of the housing having gone down the road to be used for homeless and on reservations. And despite the fact the military is more interested in downsizing rather than upsizing. Despite the fact that the large Grand Forks Air Force Base is going to take a hit from the latest round of base closings.
If only, people think, as they drive by and see a ghost town with a huge pyramid rising from it.I admit, though, that I miss the bright lights of the missile site on my father’s land.
I remember the first night I drove down the road towards home, and suddenly realized the lights were off, and off for good. The night sky was black and there was no eery glow to help remind me where my township road turn was.
I had to relearn the horizon without those lights being there. They’d been there my entire life. Now I, along with many other people here including my father, wonder what the plans for the buildings on this much smaller site are, and if we’ll get a crack at them since it was on our land. I know of more than a few farmers who have inquired about the metal quonset-like structure. The realization is, unfortunately, that by the time the military gets around to the issue, the buildings will be fit for the bulldozer and not much else. They’ve been empty for about ten years.
Nostalgia. It can even make you miss nukes.