Conscious survivors of the 1980s remember the uneasy Cold War days, when tensions between America and the USSR were at their peak. Each side had their credos, their agendas, their grudges against each other, their spies, their cross-purposes, and their active, massive, scary nuclear arsenals in case the other side got any deplorable ideas. Movies like WarGames, Fail-Safe, The Day After, Dr. Strangelove, and 60% of all post-apocalyptic sagas mined our fears of mutual assured destruction for cautionary tales, humanist allegories, and disturbing visuals, all the more frightening to us youngsters because we couldn’t be sure that the adult politicians in charge wouldn’t do something stupid and trigger the end of the world.
Both countries still have their differences today, but relations aren’t at anywhere near the same state of hateful paranoia, so everyone’s cut back on their standby nuclear stockpiles. Out in the middle of the North Dakota flatlands, there’s one distant, decommissioned hideout codenamed Oscar-Zero where the U.S. military once stationed a handful of men 24/7 to oversee the controls and prepare to throw the world’s deadliest switches in case the American President declared Game Over.
Today you can bring in the whole family for a visit. There’s a guided tour and a gift shop.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Each year from 2003 to 2013 my wife, my son, and your humble writer headed out on a long road trip to anywhere but here. Our 2014 road trip represented a milestone of sorts: our first vacation in over a decade without my son tagging along for the ride. At my wife’s prodding, I examined our vacation options and decided we ought to make this year a milestone in another way — our first sequel vacation. This year’s objective, then: a return to Wisconsin and Minnesota. In my mind, our 2006 road trip was a good start, but in some ways a surface-skimming of what each state has to offer. I wanted a do-over.
The Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historical Site is located two miles north of tiny Cooperstown and 90+ minutes northwest of Fargo. Once you exit I-94, there’s not a single restaurant franchise to be seen for dozens of miles. The missiles and their keepers weren’t meant to be immediately accessible to visitors, traveling salesmen, or lazy spies low on gas. After the 1991 signing of the Strategic Arms and Reduction Treaty, several missile command HQs were decommissioned throughout the ’90s, but in 2007 Oscar-Zero was revamped as an official historical site fit for tourism dollars. A few nuclear command stations remain in service today near Minot, Cheyenne, and Great Falls. Civilian tours are presently not offered.
Oscar-Zero looks from the county highway like a small house with a tall, unmanned gate, a basketball hoop in the yard, and signage that confirms you’re not on some crazy hermit’s private property. Inside, the front room holds a cash register, a small selection of Cold War merchandise, several stackable chairs, and a TV and DVD player where guests watch an intro for context before proceeding into the inner workings. Past the admission point, the ground level is the Launch Control Support Building, a benign, preserved living space with 1980s decor, bunks where personnel stayed, an industrial kitchen, and a sort of receptionist’s office equipped with the computer and other paraphernalia of the times.
The centerpiece of the complex is sixty feet underground. On-duty personnel could take the long, spooky ladder or the slow but convenient elevator.
Down in the depths are two rooms: the Launch Control Center, where men each stayed underground for 24-hour shifts in rotation to supervise ten of Americas innumerable missile silos; and the Launch Control Equipment Building, which was all about power, life support, and environmental systems, but also contained nominal living furniture for moments of relief. Both rooms have four-foot-thick concrete blast doors weighing 107½ tons. Just in case.
This, in so many words, was the control panel. If America had gone DEFCON 1 and all human reality had plunged into genocidal chaos, this is where the switch-flipping, key-turning, code-reciting, and other steps would commence.
Each room is full of machines with important functions, many weighing hundreds of pounds, all serving important purposes in the event of World War III. Some of them look like authentic Starfleet equipment, but then you have to stop and remind yourself Star Trek was the fiction and this was our reality.
Obviously we had no idea what any of these controls did. Our tour guides were probably under strict orders not to offer nuclear launch training to visitors, not even as a deluxe admission package.
The bunker is decorated in a few spots for the sake of human psychology. Stone walls do not a hospitable work environment make.
We appreciated the tour as well as our young guides, and I bought a copy of Dr. Strangelove as my souvenir of the experience. On our return trip to Fargo, we made one more stop along the way at an off-road area we’d overlooked earlier: November-33, one of the missile silos Oscar-Zero oversaw. Back in the day, those voluminous doors covered one (1) fully functional Minuteman missile weighing dozens of tons, stretching several feet in diameter, capable of striking targets thousands of miles away, and armed with an upgraded payload that would’ve made Fat Man and Little Boy look like Red Ryder Air Rifle ammo.
There’s nothing for tourists to enter here. Mostly you can just walk around the surface, read an informative sign, see remnants of the security fence and vent systems, gaze upon the mighty blast doors, and maybe do a happy dance to celebrate the fact that America and Russia never called each other’s bluffs.
To be continued!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]