By Michael Currin
Roswell, New Mexico in the early 70s was just another rural (very rural) community. The closing of Walker Air Force Base in the mid-60s had consigned Roswell to a bleak future. Decay and poverty were everywhere, and abandoned homes and dilapidated buildings were commonplace.
It was in my junior year in high school that my passage into the adult world took place. I was working part time in the afternoon at a gas station and attending school in the morning. My friend James worked the station in the morning and attended class in the afternoon. We also hung around with a kid named Alan that we nicknamed Squirt. Squirt was taller than either James or I, but his whole nature, well, suffice it to say he was Squirt.
Squirt was a year younger than us and was, I guess, a nerd. But he was likeable, and took no offense at our ribbing. He seemed proud of his new nickname, never having one before. Squirt was hanging out one day after school, when he asked James and I if we had ever been inside a missile base. Though I was a lifelong Roswell resident, I was only vaguely aware of the missile bases. James had lived in the town for less than two years, was completely unaware of the cold war legacy left by The Strategic Air Command: 12 abandoned Atlas F Missile bases.
Squirt said he had maps to the bases and had heard that one was open east of town. We were always looking for something new to do. James was the only one who had a girlfriend (to be truthful, the only one who had been on a date) but this Friday she would be out of town, so it was agreed Friday night we would go to the missile base and see if we could get inside.
We made little preparation for the trip to the missile base, about a half tank of gas in my old 52 Chevy, and a few candles to light our way. According to the map, the base we were going to was about 30 miles east of town. We thought it best to go after 10p.m. to have less chance of being seen. We also thought secrecy was best, so no one knew what we were about to try.
The bases had not been in use for a few years and the last thing I could recall was that they had been "salvaged" or stripped of the equipment and valuable metals. Squirt and I had discussed the issue of breaking in. We had agreed that we would not "Break in", but if it was open, as he was told, then we would go.
About 10p.m., James and I picked up Squirt and the three of us headed out. It was November and the desert air was very clear and cold. The fall night sky in New Mexico with no moon can justifiably be called beautiful. A pure blackness broken only by the stars, many, many stars. It was nearly 11p.m. when we came to the road that turned north into the base. A car was coming so we had to pass the road and wait several minutes until the car was out of sight.
The road to the base was short and we soon came to the front gate. It was locked securely, but we could see where others had driven to the left and around the front fence. The base was surrounded by an eight-foot chain link fence with razor wire on the top. Following the rough road around the fence we found ourselves behind a large mound of dirt, completely blocked from view of anyone passing on the road. This was good, as I had been worried about someone seeing the car.
We got out of the car and even though there was no moon, we could see fairly well, our eyes adjusting quickly to the dark. Slowly walking around the mound of dirt we could see the back fence. There was little traffic on the highway with only an occasional car passing. When one did happen by, Squirt, James, and I would get very still hoping we wouldn't be seen. After a few minutes of walking along the fence we found a breach in the chain link, where someone had cut the fence. It was large enough for us to squeeze through. Now we were on the base. If caught now, we would be trespassing at the very least.
Crossing the distance to the aboveground bunker carefully to avoid various pipes and concrete that could trip us took several more minutes, what with stopping every time a car passed. Other than the fence the bunker or entry to the base was the only thing visible from the road. It stood about nine feet tall, square on the end you entered, and sloping on the opposite side. It was made from concrete that looked to be about nine inches thick. In the darkness it was only a shadow.
The door to the bunker was broken open. It had been welded shut, but someone had cut the welds. James opened the door and one by one we stepped in to the blackness. Nervously James struck a match, lighting a candle. A staircase led downward.
"I don't know about this, guys," I said. "You know we're breaking the law."
Squirt remained silent, but James was adamant. "We've come this far," he said. "No one cares that we're here. No one knows we're here and no one will find out. Hell, they probably wouldn't care if they knew. It's plain someone else has broken in before us, and took their time."
"Okay, okay," I said. "Let's go."
From where we were in the entryway we could not see how far the corridor led down. The dim light from James' candle showed a narrow corridor leading down. After a few steps we could see a landing, but nothing beyond that.
James went first, Squirt second, and me following. James went almost gleefully down, while Squirt and I followed more slowly. James was the daredevil, always looking for excitement. I think that's why I liked him. At the landing we could see at the bottom of some more steps a wall and a right turn in the corridor. We were obviously below ground level at this point, but just so. James led the way around several corners as Squirt and I lit our candles.
"Man, it stinks down here," said James. About that time the strong musty smell caught us. It was getting warmer, too.
James had moved into what appeared to be a small holding area with steel doors on either end. Squirt, now our resident missile silo expert, said, "This was a security area. One door was always locked, and the area monitored from below, by closed circuit television." After that he kept up a running dialog about the missile bases. I was skeptical that he knew what he was talking about, but I didn't know enough to challenge him on it.
We passed through several more areas on the same level before heading further down the stairs. I noticed that the air was getting heavier, more humid, but we were getting used to the smell. The stairs were metal and were showing some rustiness. Two more flights down, we came to a large room. The candlelight flickering past pipes, plumbing, electrical conduits, bare wires, and vents made for lots of shadows, making the ceiling, still high above us, seem perilously close. It was clear to us that flashlights would have been much better than the candles. The candles were only making the place seem more sinister, like a crypt or mausoleum. It occurred to me that this was more like descending into the world of the Morlocks in The Time Machine than going into a cave.
We took the stairs down another level, passed through a blast door and entered a tunnel made from what looked like a corrugated drain pipe about seven or eight feet in diameter with a narrow concrete path poured in the bottom. At the end we found a closed blast door. It did not look to be welded but the latch was closed. Turning the wheel that lifted the latch was not hard but made a horrific screeching sound in the quiet of the missile base. The sound echoed from both beyond the door and behind us. We stopped and listened for several minutes, I guess expecting someone to catch us and stop us from what now appeared total folly. We were all shivering, but not from temperature. For my part, fear. Squirt, undoubtedly fear. James, I think, from anticipation.
|The welded-shut blast doors had |
been reopened by past visitors.
This door did not move so easily. We all had to pull it, a few ear-splitting inches at a time. When we entered the next area, thinking it would be the silo, we were met by yet another blast door. It was unlatched and wide open. Beyond it all we could see was more of the awful blackness. This area also had the metal grate, and below the grate was water. Unusual in the desert, to have water standing in an abandoned building. "The silo must be in there," said James. Thinking back on it now, James suddenly did not seem so anxious to go in, but go in he did, and Squirt and I followed.
Now we were in much larger room. The ceiling was a full 30 feet up, and barely visible in the flickering candle light. The massive doors that opened to fire the missile were visible, as were the mounts for the gigantic hydraulic cylinders that opened the doors. Everything in here was huge. The far wall was not visible. We stood there silent for a time, then moved to the left. As we walked the floor set into a slight thrumming vibration, just from our movement. As we rounded the silo we found the shaft for a service elevator, marked Level 2.
I wanted to leave, but James and Squirt wanted to find a way to go down. With all the candles held a certain way we could just make out a spiral staircase leading down, on the other side of the silo, on the level just below us. The floors or "levels" did not extend across the silo, only extending about 15 feet into the silo, and going about two-thirds of the way around. The empty space in the silo was for an Atlas F Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
"How do we get down to the next level, guys?" asked James.
"I don't think we can," I said. "Maybe we should leave and come back later with a ladder or something."
"Let's keep looking. If we can get to the staircase we can go to the bottom," said James.
"James, there is no way to get down there, if we jumped down to the next level we couldn't get back up," said Squirt.
"I agree, James, there just isn't any way."
"Look, if we find a way will you guys go with me?" asked James.
Confident there was no way, I said "Sure" and Squirt also agreed.
"Okay, let's look around," said James. I went back toward the elevator, James was looking at the silo wall, and Squirt was looking down near the right hand side of the blast door.
Now James was the daredevil of the group, I fancied myself to be the reasonable one, and Squirt was the "scientist" of the group. Well he solved the problem of how to get down to the next level, much to my dismay. He found an I-beam that led off the level we were standing on, over to one of the main support vertical I-beams, about six feet away. On the other side of the I beam was a conduit rack, that roughly resembled a ladder. It clearly did go to the floor below. The problem was that the "ladder" was between the silo wall and the steel. To go down the "ladder" we would have to walk about six feet on an I-beam (falling one way 15 feet, the other way unknown), then crawl around the vertical I-beam and onto the conduit grate. We could then crawl down the grate to the next floor from which the bottom would be easy to get to down the spiral staircase.
|An I-beam provided the route to the |
conduit ladder leading down.
"How are we going to get down with the candles? This is stupid," I said.
"What, are you gonna chicken out now?" said James in a very accusatory way.
"No," I said "But going down without the light is stupid."
Squirt then came up with the logical plan. "James, you go first with your candle in your pocket. Mike and I will light your way. When you get to the floor below, light your candle. You and I will light Mike's way. When Mike gets down, I will follow with you guys lighting the way. Simple!"
I said, "Wait a minute, we don't know how deep this thing is. If we fall it could kill us."
James said, "Look, we are already three storeys down, it couldn't be that much deeper. The floor below is probably the bottom. If we fall we might break a leg. But no one is going to fall. It's simple, like climbing monkey bars, okay let's get on with it."
With that he blew out his candle, put it in his pocket, and stepped onto the I-beam. In three easy steps he was to the vertical beam, easily he stepped around it onto the conduit "ladder" and began to descend. In short order he was standing below lighting his candle. It was my turn. Leaning against the wall of the silo I was able to steady myself walking across the I-beam. Not wanting to be outdone I shifted onto the "ladder". Sticking my fingers into the grate and catching it with my shoes I also descended quickly. I comforted myself along the way in the sure knowledge that if I fell it wouldn't be so bad, after all it wasn't that deep.
When I got to the next level James patted me on the back, saying "See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" I just nodded and lit my candle. Squirt was already on the beam, and soon he joined us without comment. The nervousness that had permeated the group now seemed to be gone, and a new sense of the explorer spirit was ours. We walked briefly around to the elevator shaft, and finding nothing except a sign reading Level 3, we headed to the spiral staircase. The staircase was narrow, allowing only a single file. James as always went first, me second, Alan third. Down we went to the next level. Again we went around to the elevator shaft finding nothing new, except Level 4.
Down we went Level 5, Level 6. Each level we went down raised my awareness that indeed it was "that deep". Down we went even another level, except there was no floor. Our poor excuse for light was becoming more and more apparent. It was like descending to the depths of hell. But we couldn't stop. We had decided to get to the bottom, and we were going to give it our best try. I found myself hanging back from James, and likewise Alan from me. Our candles showed nothing of the bottom.
"James, don't you think we've gone far enough?" I said. "This staircase is beginning to move!"
"Yeah," said James. "It is moving quite a bit down here."
Just then I noticed the staircase no longer was bolted to the steel, but only tied on with what appeared to be baling wire. "JAMES STOP!" I yelled just as James yelled himself.
I couldn't make out his first yell, for my own yelling, but the next I heard all too well: "SHIT! HELP!!!"
"What's wrong?" yelled Squirt.
My heart racing, I went down to find James hanging by one arm.
"Help me up, Mike," said James, but he was already pulling himself up. I positioned myself on the stairs to help him up. By this time the stairs were actually swinging, not much but some. We retreated to the level above.
"What happened? What happened?" asked Squirt.
"I was going along like always," said James "Then Mike yelled so I tried to stop in mid step. But there wasn't any step. My foot just kept going. I fell on the steps, grabbed at the railing, but slid off. The stairs just ended! Damn, I dropped my candle, too."
"You're lucky you're not dead, Stupid! You're supposed to watch where the hell you're going!" I was losing it.
Trembling more than ever now, Squirt was visibly shaken, and so was James. I was both scared and angry.
"Why did you yell, Mike?"
"Because the damn staircase is just tied on with baling wire, that's why! The stairs just ended? How can that be?"
"Yes," said James. "No warning at all. If we had better lighting I would have seen it."
Slowly we began to gather our wits, and stop hyperventilating.
Squirt said, "I'm going to go down a little ways and look." Slowly he headed down the stairs. When he got to where the stairs were tied to the steel he stopped. "How much further can I go?"
"About six more steps." replied James. "Be careful!"
"I can see the end of the steps now. I'm just above about two steps. I still can't see the bottom."
"Come on back up. I want to go back down," said James.
"Come on guys, let's just get out of here, okay?" I said.
James said he had to go and see it. "Come on, Alan, let's go."
"Alright, already, I'm here. Pretty scary stuff, huh?"
"Let me have your candle," James headed down. A few minutes later he came back up. "Okay let's go home."
So we all stood up (I hadn't even realized we were sitting) and headed back up the stairs.
We had not found the bottom, but we now knew it was very deep. Too deep. Unbelievably deep. We were also working with only two candles instead of three. It made the whole thing much darker. Our spirit of exploration was now gone, leaving only a feeling of dread. We all knew that we had to go back up the conduit ladder.
"How long do you think we've been down here?" Squirt asked.
"I don't know but the candles are getting pretty small. Do you have any more?" I asked.
"Yeah, in the car."
"Okay we have to do something fast. I don't know about you guys but I'm scared to climb back up that thing," I said.
"Me too," offered James, "but what else can we do?"
"We could look around for another way up," said Squirt hopefully.
"No," said James. "No good. We're running out of time."
"Well, could you go up and get help?" asked Squirt.
"And leave us here in the dark? No way! And we can't wait for help. No one knows we are here," I said.
"Look," said James, "we came down it no problem. The silo isn't any deeper now. Just don't think about it, and we will all get out okay. Who goes first?"
"James, you've been leading the way," I said.
"I don't want to be last," said Squirt.
So it was decided James would go first, Squirt second and me last. James blew out his candle, swung around the I-beam onto the conduit rack and started up. Our one candle barely provided any light; none to the level above. About halfway up James said, "Hey look. If you get tired you can lean against the wall." We looked up to see him let go of the rack, with his back pressed against the wall, his feet pressed into the rack. Up he went again, making it look easy. Once he got on the floor above, he lit his candle, and the flickering light was welcome.
Squirt was next. I thought he might fall, he was shaking so badly. He too stopped about halfway up, resting leaning against the silo wall. Once he reached the top, the moment of truth had come. I blew out my candle and was thrust violently into the darkness. I placed the candle in my pocket, felt for the conduit rack, climbed around the steel beam, and started up. I was now shaking terribly, so I stopped, afraid my shaking would make me fall. As the shaking subsided I climbed up determined to get to the light and out of this enormous hole.
About halfway I stopped again, leaning against the wall like the others. I was surprised that I needed the rest more than I needed to get out. James and Squirt were calling me telling me to hurry because their candle was burning out. A few more feet and I was at the point where I had to climb around the beam onto the I-beam, and three steps later I joined my friends. Down to one candle, we had to hurry through the blast doors to the launch control area and up the stairs.
The candle went out because we were running. I struck a match while James held the candle so I could light it. Moving more slowly, but as fast as we could, we went up, up, up and out. Once again we were in our familiar world of light. The moonless night now seemed very bright. The candle was gone now but it didn't matter. We were OUT.
Breathing hard, we were euphoric. We were alive, and I think that surprised us. We laughed and talked out loud, not caring if we got caught. We had overcome our fear, we had beaten it back. We had done what had to be done, without help. As the fear left us we began talking of our bravery and how we had conquered the missile silo. We got back to the car, and found our little adventure had taken a mere 45 minutes.
It stunned us.
It had been a lifetime ago, hadn't it?
For me it had been. In many ways, I left my childhood on Level 3 of Site 11, on that moonless, desert night.
This article originally appeared in Infiltration 14 together with articles on Degrassi High and the Fort San sanitarium.