Monday, April 11, 2011

Spy vs. Spy at Sandy Hook

Given the beautiful weather this past Saturday, it was a natural to head down to Sandy Hook for some wandering. It's one of my favorite places to go, because it combines a couple of my favorite things: a great natural setting and a fascinating history. This week's jaunt was a solo Sue expedition, since Ivan had to pull some pretty heavy overtime at work. And yes, I fit in some history with the birds since two of the site's aging weapons batteries were open to visitation.

A squadron of nuclear weapons ringed major U.S. cities during the Cold War, undetected by the vast majority of Americans. Until the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the early 70's, the last defense America had against Soviet incursion was the Nike Ajax missile, and then the nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules. And many Nike bases were located in suburban neighborhoods, not always or entirely known by the residents of the split-level ranches nearby.

Most of the bases have been dismantled, but there's still one in pretty decent shape at Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook. The base was transferred to the National Park Service in 1974 after the Department of Defense decommissioned it.

I've visited the Nike base a few times, on tours run by veterans who served at the base. There are just two missiles on display farther down the road, unarmed, and the golfball-shaped covers aren't on the radar platforms anymore, but the control centers are still there. About the size of a small Ryder rental truck, they could easily be pulled up and trucked to another location, just like an old-time diner. Oh, and they're incredibly ugly and depressing inside, kind of like a submarine.

The Park Service is reportedly working to stabilize and restore the base, but right now they're letting visitors check out the trailers and other parts of the base in their current, crappy condition. Though the electronics have been removed, you can still get a sense of the technology that once tracked and controlled nuclear weaponry. It's pretty wild to think that there's more powerful circuitry in my smartphone than there was in that whole set up. In fact, our guide pulled out a huge floppy disc, the older, bigger brother to the 5-1/4 floppies I remember from my early computing days. Oh, and while there are still plenty of switches and dials on the control panels, someone has thoughtfully removed "the button." I guess you can never be too careful.

I also got a kick out of an old phone booth on the base. It still had a rotary phone with a 201 number, though that area code hasn't been used in Monmouth County for 20 years. It seemed weirdly out of place, a relic of normalcy in a kind of surreal doomsday environment. My thoughts turned to the scene in the satirical Dr. Strangelove, when the one sane officer left on the base is reduced to using a pay phone to contact the Pentagon during an attack ... and Ma Bell won't spot him the 55 cents for the long-distance call. You have to wonder if the Fort Hancock phone booth is there for the one reasonable thinker left. And, of course, there's always Maxwell Smart and the secret entrance to CONTROL. In any case, the Park Service is keeping it there for eventual restoration. Come to think of it, there are probably already kids who don't even know what a phone booth is, having never lived in a world without cell phones.

As I took a few photos, I realized that had I gotten into the base with a camera 40 years ago, I'd have landed in a military jail. Now photos of the equipment are posted here, for all to see, without any penalty to me. Maybe some Russian blogger like me has posted photos of nuke base phone booths, too. Glasnost.

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