Gormenghast, the Cave, and the Chair


There is the phrase “well read”, which has been used to describe a person’s intellect or mental bearing. I’ve never been comfortable with applying the phrase to myself for the obvious egotistical reasons. First, I think the suggestion that with all the possible choices of reading out there, it is quite unlikely that any of the readings are “well”. Second, I’m certain that most of my choices are not “well”.

I have on occasion described myself as an eclectic reader, with shades of being a schizophrenic reader. Maybe just bi-polar. The reasoning behind this is that I have very set standards for my reading material. 1) it has to be entertaining and historical. 2) it has to be thought provoking and bubble-gum for the mind. This is a very wide range.

Looking back, I see that the most interesting results of my literature choices are the connections made to my everyday life. Many people have experienced that phenomenon of having an event that closely matches a scene from a book. And if you happen to have read many books, then that occurrence repeats itself many times. This is the real value of being “well read”.

One of my favorite books, or trilogy of books, is by an English author, Mervyn Peake. It is often known as the Gormenghast Trilogy, three books that tell of the lives of the royal Groan Dynasty, the Castle Gormenghast that they live in, and the never-ending story of duty, responsibility, and destiny. I’m very fond of the books, although the third book is one of the most confusing books that I’ve read. The BBC did a very good job of creating a DVD of the first two books, but didn’t even try to tackle the third.

Of the many interesting creations in the books is the concept of the Castle. It comes across as very old, typically functional as a Castle, but immensely huge. So large, in fact, that it goes on endlessly for days. Vast sections are closed off, empty corridors filled with dust and nameless rooms. It is the perfect expression of how a child may experience a large complex building, but the experience continues even after the child grows up. Titus Groan, the young son of the Duke of Gormenghast experiences the Castle as an immense, unknowing thing.

In 1970 I was drafted by the US Army, and through a complex thought process, I re-enlisted in order to receive training in a field that would make it unlikely for me to go to Vietnam as cannon fodder. It seemed like a rational decision with a high likelihood of success, but flawed foundationally. You can’t outthink the US military.

In any case, I was well trained in the Signal Corp, responsible for what was commonly known as the Hotline. I installed, repaired and maintained the encrypted voice telephone system used by the President and all the higher political and military commanders throughout the world.

It was pretty cool, it was digital, it was secured in high tech safes, and it was very secret. As we got closer to graduation, each of us reflected on where we might be stationed. We knew that every military installation had a need for secret communications, but also every embassy in every country would have this need. I hadn’t realize that Vietnam was another obvious need, and of course the Front in Vietnam didn’t exist, the war was everywhere. So much for out thinking the Army.

So with some concern, I awaited my orders for my permanent post for the rest of my military experience. The orders came for Fort Ritchie, Maryland. I was going to stay stateside for the entire time. Relief that I was not going to Vietnam was soon followed by the curiosity of … why Fort Ritchie, and why had I never heard of it?

It is actually two physical locations. The fort topside is in Maryland, right across the border from Pennsylvania, and the work post, which was almost two miles underneath a solid rock mountain, was located a few miles south of Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania. Interestingly it was also a short helicopter ride from Camp David. Yep, it was the Cold War secure retreat for the White House, government leaders, and all the staff.

More than that, it was also the underground Pentagon, with room for all the essential staff of every branch of the military. The Pentagon is one of the largest buildings on the planet. Site R, or Raven Rock is the underground facility. I hadn’t heard of it because it was a secret. I had seen it because it was in several movies, at least in concept, movies like Dr. Strangelove, and others, where the elite survivors from a post-apocalyptic nuclear meltdown huddled in a safe dark cavern, while hot radioactive ashes swirled in a desolate landscape outside.

I was going to be safe in an end of the world scenario. This was interesting because I was also a big fan of science fiction. I was living “Earth Abides” by George Stewart, or “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson, and many other end times disaster themes. Only this wasn’t fiction, this place was very real, very well thought out, and very very large.

My first few weeks was filled with “other duties as assigned” type of work. I spent days learning the extent of the facility, miles of empty corridors, hundreds of living quarters that were empty at the time, but would be filled to capacity in an emergency. I made a lot beds and dusted a lot of living room spaces.

A rough estimate was that we only staffed about 2% of the actual facility. There were thousands of empty rooms, and miles of empty corridors. And most of the higher end rooms had secure telephones that had to be serviced and maintained. I had an interesting shift of six days of working days, two days off, six days of swings, two days off, and finally six days of graveyard and two days off, then it repeated over again. My weekends were very rarely the actual weekend. And of course all this took place in a huge cave, with every connected building in a separate cave, so the concept of day shift was very iffy. Mostly I could tell it was day shift because it was the time when there were more people about.

I didn’t spent all the time under the mountain. I had a trailer to live in about ten minutes away. When the emergency siren went off, I had fifteen minutes to get in the mountain and go to work. Someone had calculated that we had fifteen minutes warning from Russian missiles arriving over Canada. I suppose a Russian or Chinese submarine off the Eastern coast could change the timing a bit. I always knew it was just a test, but the last few miles driving to the site had me looking out the window up to the sky, looking for missile contrails.

Walking or taking the bus into the mountain was quite the experience. At the deepest portion of the tunnel, there was a large door in the wall on the left side of the tunnel. The tunnel continued on, turning left, and climbing until it emerged outside. The possibility existed that I could be trying to get into the facility, but then a nuclear tipped missile exploding outside one of the exits would blow me through the entire tube, ejecting me, flying through the air, until I evaporated as a nuclear spit wad as I flew over the Pennsylvania valley. Another reoccurring thought every workday.

That door opened only when someone rang the buzzer and presented identification to the Marine guard. The door itself was over two feet thick and took several minutes to open completely. Once inside I was in a chamber with an identical door at the other end. Both doors were never opened at the same time. After exiting there were showers to wash off the nuclear ash, and shelves upon shelves of new clothing to don after disposing of your radioactive fatigues. After being dressed in a crisp new uniform, I entered the main tunnel or cavern, with all of the separate buildings in connecting caverns. Oh yeah, there were lakes at either end, one with a rowboat, water storage for the duration of an attack.

I could tell quite a few stories, but most would be classified, and perhaps what I’ve said so far is still classified. The site was decommissioned a few years ago and there were tours for the local populace for several years, but after 911 the site went active again and is closed to the public. Let’s just say the the President was up in Air Force One, and the Vice President was safe underground, and I know where.

I remember one incident very clearly. I was charged with developing a wiring diagram of the facility. We had phones in all the right rooms, but we weren’t quite sure where the wires went to get there. I was tracing one line that appeared to go up to the sixth floor and up through the ceiling. I asked my sergeant where it went and he shrugged and he said up on the roof. I had never considered that the building had a roof! We were in a cave, but the building was in the cave and it made sense it had a roof. I found an access door and continued tracing my wiring conduit. The cave ceiling height only allowed me to stand upright in the center of the building. I did go to the edge and look over, yep, the building was built inside a cave, with only a few feet clearance to the side walls. I continued my conduit trace.

After a couple of hundred yards I came upon a chair. It was a simple wooden chair, sitting pretty much in the center of the roof, with a view of… Nothing in particular! Why on earth was this here? While I was pondering this, and of course sitting in the chair looking at the rough hewn ceiling and the few bats flying around… I suddenly heard the command “Freeze!” To the left and the right, hatches had popped open and there were MPs leveling M16s at me. It seems I had walked over the top of the Joint Chiefs War Room, setting off motion sensors. I had been in the War Room hundreds of times and it had never occurred to me that it had a roof.

It was bad being on the roof, and it was worse that I was caught sitting on the chair. This was first in a series of mishaps that didn’t further my military career.

Years later I was looking up several sites using Google, to look for Raven Rock. Surprisingly there was quite a lot of information. On one short site summary there was mention of this “Gomenghast like building.” What?? Someone had been to Site R and had likened it to Gormnghast? I was dumbfounded that I hadn’t seen the connection: the unending Castle and the hundreds of empty rooms. And interestingly both were buildings of power.

I had to contact the writer of this post and ask about his time under the mountain and also to congratulate his choice of literature. It took a little research but in a few weeks we had an email relationship. He was there about ten years before me, and was one of the MPs that pushed the doors open. I told him that I was a technician on the hotline and I briefly mentioned my trespassing on the Joint Chiefs roof. He then asked me if his chair was still there. He had been stationed on the roof top because there was a concern that a foreign agent was attempting to bug the War Room. He was up there for three weeks, so eventually he brought up a chair.

Thus the title of this particular rant, Gormenghast, the Cave and the Chair. It is a strange world we live, and the connections vast and complex. If you were to bet on the connections that can be made, some would be so impossible that the odds would be incalculable, yet they do occur, and more often then seemingly possible. The MP never caught the fellow that was going to bug the War Room; I did, ten years later. But that’s another rant.

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