Military Stories #16

Just because we could sleep inside the mountain, it doesn’t mean that we lived like moles. We had a ten hour day six days a week, two days off, then we we shift to swings for six days, then two days off, then we would go six days of graveyard, two days off, then start the cycle all over. 

We also had practice or exercises where the military stayed underground for a full six days. The civilians went home as usual. This happened twice to me. Once when I was on Graveyard shift, and once while I was on swing shift.

The actual effect was almost like continuous jet lag, with a bonus that you only had a normal like shift every three weeks. For two weeks there were no officers, no one looking over your shoulder, and the site was pretty empty. 

One of my random readings were books by Mervyn Peake, an English writer who was friends with J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. All three had created fantasy worlds with castles and epic battles. Peake’s world was a castle called Gormenghast. It was a castle so large and vast that no one really knew the end. Hall after empty hall went on for days. There was an active living part that was known but it was a very small part considering the vast size of the castle. 

It remains one of my favorite books. So much so that I googled any mention of Gormenghast in order to read other reviews. I found a letter written on a veterans website. It was comparing Site R to Gormenghast! I just had to write to this person. How many people have read Gormenghast and also served at Site R?

It took a few weeks and several emails, but another personal mystery had been solved. There was a continuous maintenance log of equipment that demanded attention, but in general that took about two hours of each day. The remainder of the day was playing pinnacle or reading. While I did both, I also tried to be production. 

I found that there were great schematics for the machines, but very little information of the wiring throughout the site. People knew where the phones were, but didn’t really know how they got there and where the conduits were.

I started a very long project to map out all the wiring in the cave. Various people knew parts, so I collected the known data and at one point I asked where it went from there. The sergeant point his finger up. I was already on the Fifth floor so I asked what he meant. “Up, on the roof”.

Now I knew we were in a building with ceilings, I guess I never considered that we would also have a roof. It was a building in a cave by itself so I suppose it made sense it had a roof. It took several days to locate the access ladder. I popped the hatch and immediately saw several dim lamps showing the raw rock roof of the cave arch over a mostly flat roof of the building. It’s true, the building was in its own cave. I could walk upright in the center, but if I were to look over the edge of the building I could see five floors down. 

After looking around, I found the conduit I was chasing, and I was following it down to the next dimly lit spotlight. Then I saw a remarkable thing. There was a chair placed right at the ridge of the roof. A wooden ladder back kitchen chair all by itself. I went over to examine it, then I sat down. The view wasn’t remarkable, it was just the roof and the cave. I was trying to figure out the purpose of the chair, when suddenly two hatches exploded open, both of them filled with several MPs who had trained their weapons on me. Everyone yelled freeze! I would have yelled freeze as well if I knew that was the word, instead I just yelled. 

It turns out that I had unknowingly walked over the Joint Chiefs War Room and I had set off some motion sensors. I knew the War Room was on the fifth floor but it didn’t register. I was in the War Room everyday on my rounds. Most of the MPs knew me very well so they didn’t shoot me. One if them said he should have shot me because he knew me. 

I walked a bit shakily back to my shop. Years later I talked to the writer about Gormenghast. He said that he was at Site R about ten years before I was, and that he was an MP. I immediately thought about the guards pushing the doors open. Yes, he had done that. Then I told him about my rooftop experience with the MPs. He then asked me if his chair was still there? What!? His chair??

Apparent he was detailed to watch for Russian spies who were crawling up the walls in the cave, so he brought up a chair to sit and wait for them. That was in 1963, and my guess is that it is still there. 

Even my normal duty time had its surreal moments. I noticed one day that a call had come into the shop. Someone’s secure phone didn’t work. I watch the order tag bounce around from person to person. Actually always going down to the lowest rank. After six bounces it was given to me. Okay, as usual, everyone was too busy playing pinnacle. I got my toolkit and headed to the staff living quarters area. That was odd, no one usually stayed there. 

I met an MP who ushered me into an inner office. The nameplate said General Westmoreland. That was the name of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Hmm, he was sitting at a desk with a telephone in his hand, my telephone. He said it didn’t work and he had to make an urgent call. 

Okay, this was an officer, the highest officer in charge except for the president. I didn’t salute because we were inside but I did get a little panicky. I went to the large grey box that held the electronics. I had an idea the some capacitance had built up because of not being used. Basically my plan was first to unplug and then reset all the circuit cards. If that didn’t work then I would really panic. 

The first problem was to open the combination safe in order to get at the electronics. I had the combination in my logbook. I hadn’t been here in several weeks but I knew the combination hadn’t changed. I tried it the first time. No luck! I tried the second time much slower. No luck! By the third time I was starting to sweat and the General started to watch me closely. The fourth time I collected my breath, I readjusted my body to block anyone from observing the numbers, as I was trained, and magically the safe opened. I heard a small chuckle as I think the General found it humorous that I was concerned that he might see the combination. I can’t believe I did that!

Anyway, I slammed the cards home, reset, and the general made his call. Some years later at a job interview someone asked me if I could work under pressure. I said that I had been in the Army, hoping that would be enough.