The following memoir excerpt was first published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Volume 60, No. 2, Spring 2021
Cold War Prairie
After my best friend’s grandfather died in June, the rest of 1961 crawled toward death of another form. It wasn’t the loss of people I knew but a gray, slippery dread that wormed its way into my eleven-year-old mind as I began to grasp two truths—that all living things must die, and that death can visit on an obscene scale, in an instant and without regard for the natural order of things. If the demise of my friend’s grandfather had led me to fear that my dad, now sixty-four, might be next in line, the events of the coming eighteen months would make me wonder if all of us in my Kansas home town could be, too.
I’d finished fifth grade in May that year and started working summer mornings for my father at the State Bank of Conway Springs, where he was president and one of only two full-time employees. The business operated in a 1,200-square-foot, one-story brick building at the corner of Spring Avenue and Highway 49, our town’s only paved link to the outer world.
For a boy my age, there was no better place for taking the season-driven pulse of rural Kansas. Through the lobby’s east window, I could see much of Spring Avenue as it ran past the Garretson Grain Company elevator to the wheat fields on the edge of town. I also had a full view of north- and southbound highway traffic, which most of the time was sparse: a few locals headed in cars to Wichita or Wellington, an occasional trucker moving cattle or grain in an eighteen-wheeler, and, every now and then, a Fuller Brush salesman in a van, doglegging his way south to Oklahoma.
But in early July, strange flatbed trucks began to roll by the bank, one after the other. The men who drove them wore hardhats and reflector sunglasses. The monstrous, heavy equipment they hauled came within an inch of smashing Conway Springs’ lone traffic signal, a flashing yellow light strung over the highway just a few yards from where my dad and I worked. As the trucks passed, the bank’s floor vibrated with their weight and the high-torque growl of their engines.
From customers’ talk in the lobby and my parents’ conversations at home, I learned that the U.S. government was building an intercontinental ballistic missile base south of town. Its in-ground silo would house a Titan II rocket aimed at the Soviet Union and armed with a hydrogen bomb, the United States’ most powerful weapon. The ICBM base would be built on the east side of Highway 49—a mile from our house, a quarter of a mile from the pasture where my grandfather used to slaughter cattle and hogs, and six hundred feet from the empty farmhouse where Pete Linnebur, longtime bootlegger, used to live.
For days, I watched as the out-of-town crews and their hulking machinery passed by the bank. Nothing like them had ever travelled Highway 49, the same stretch of road over which my dad and his father used to drive cattle on horseback, over half a century earlier when the highway was nothing but a two-rut wagon trail. Now, in 1961, construction gangs bulled their way south to the chosen site under low, black clouds of diesel exhaust. Something unnatural had begun to trample our prairie.
In August that same summer, my parents took my sister and me to Colorado for our annual vacation at Stead’s, a dude ranch in Rocky Mountain National Park. At breakfast one morning, Mr. Evans, an elderly guest who had befriended us the previous year, came up to our table.
“Say, Homer,” he said to my father. “What do you think of those damn Russians puttin’ up the wall in Berlin?”
Mr. Evans tossed down that day’s issue of the Rocky Mountain News. Dad scanned the bold, ominous headline.
“It doesn’t look good,” he said. “Think this could mean war?”
“Hard to say, Homer. Depends on how we handle it. They say the Russkies might even try to strike first, knock out our missiles before we can launch ’em.”
Mr. Evans shook his head and walked back to his table.
The next day, we made the five-hundred-mile drive home to Kansas. Over long stretches of empty prairie, in every heat-seared town along the way, I thought of Conway Springs and the ICBM base that would soon put our town on Soviet maps. I couldn’t get Mr. Evans’s voice out of my head. Knock out our missiles before we can launch ’em, he’d said. As we pulled into our driveway just after sundown, all of Conway Springs—the houses that sheltered its one thousand inhabitants, the kids playing in yards, the Chinese elms and catalpas planted by settlers along its streets, the weathered barns and garages that lined its rutted alleys—seemed to flicker in the yellow-orange light of an unseen candle burning its way to darkness.
Digging for the ICBM silo began in earnest in the fall of 1961. The operation destroyed several acres of good wheat ground. The heart of our earth was clawed open, and a long mound of dirt began piling up next to Pete’s old place. At its bottom lay the topsoil that pioneers had broken out eighty years before, the same black earth that once nourished endless seas of grass, countless bison and the bison’s swift shadows, the Kiowa and Comanche. From Showman’s Pasture, a patch of virgin prairie just south of our house, I watched as the mound swelled on the horizon and became a low hill. By winter, it was visible from the Sumner County line near Viola, a distance of seven miles. It was a blister all could see, a false moraine dredged up by humans, not glaciers.
Sometime in early 1962, Air Force contractors dragged in the Titan II missile with its nuclear warhead and installed it in the base’s fresh-poured silo. Some claimed to have seen the missile as it made its way down Highway 49 late one night. They said its long body, though concealed under heavy tarps, was unmistakable. Conway Springs’ ICBM base was now an official, preemptive-strike target of the Soviet Union.
When the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted a few months later, in October, I knew we were in the Soviets’ crosshairs. Every night, my parents would watch the CBS Evening News after Dad came home from work, and I was with them several evenings when Walter Cronkite delivered his dire reports to the nation. While Mom fretted and prayed, Dad hewed to routine. If I looked to him for reassurance and comforting gestures, which I must have, I had to cull them from his silence and the clockwork of his shuttle to and from the State Bank.
At school, my seventh-grade math teacher, Merle Stinson, spoke with candor about developments as they unfolded in Washington and Moscow. When fear and tension spiked, he suspended instruction and assembled us in his home room. Each day, his face grew darker, more drawn. His voice softened, as if he knew we kids needed sheltering. He seemed to understand that we hadn’t found it in the school’s basement next to the boiler, where the teachers herded us during civil defense drills and showed us how to place our heads between our knees and ball up in case of nuclear attack. We followed their instructions, but we’d seen too many pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We’d watched on TV too many film clips of H-bomb tests in the South Pacific. If the Communists ever fired one of their missiles our way, we knew that our curled, pubescent bodies would char and vanish like marshmallows dropped in a roaring fire.
Twelve days later, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev came to their senses and found a way to step back from the brink. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended, and Conway Springs’ ICBM base began to slip into the shadows of an eerie routine. Each day, launch crews from McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita drove up and down Highway 49 in government pickups as they changed shifts. Weeks and months peeled into 1963 and another gusty, south-wind spring. Nothing happened. Although my friends and I knew the base remained on around-the-clock alert, we pushed it to the edge of our lives. We never forgot the big bomb was out there in its silo, never stopped thinking some trigger-happy Russian might try to take it out. But we couldn’t see it and didn’t want to. We stopped talking about it.
I was eleven when missile base construction began, twelve and on the burning cusp of puberty when it ended. I did homework and played driveway basketball. I wondered how and when girls would enter my life—in a future I was eager to claim.
At the end of May 1963, when I was thirteen, I returned to the State Bank for a third summer and found the nerve to keep pushing my father for a raise. My best friend and I played our first year of Junior Babe Ruth League baseball with fervor. We talked about moving up to Senior Babe Ruth ball and tried to figure out who would be on our team when we turned sixteen in another three years. We lived our lives and looked down the road, a road that seemed to run to the rim of our flat earth and into possibility—far beyond the missile base and its Titan II.
Decades later, I would ask myself about those Cold War years. How did I cope with a hydrogen bomb nestled in a silo a mile from our house? How did any of us deal with the fact that Soviet nuclear missiles were targeted to a precise point on the edge of our town and could be launched anytime as a result of misunderstanding, mechanical failure, or rogue behavior?
I compartmentalized, I suppose. I severed myself from the unthinkable—at least while I was awake.