One memorable night, I turned the launch key on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and sent it roaring off toward a target thousands of miles away.
No harm done.
That was in 1968. I was the commander of a two-man Minuteman missile combat crew, and this was just a test. We had been shipped along with a missile, chosen at random from our base in Wyoming, to Vandenberg AFB in California. Then, for a month, Steve Simmons, my deputy, and I monitored our missile from an underground silo just like the real ones.
Over the radio came a launch command from “Looking Glass,” the airborne command post for the Strategic Air Command. Just like the ones we’d heard in training, evaluations and rehearsals. Except this one was the real deal.
“Skybird, Skybird, this is Looking Glass,” the radio intoned. And then he gave us our order, with the launch code and the specific time we were supposed to turn the keys. Steve and I went through the steps of the pre-launch checklist, checked the go-code and found it was valid.
And then, at the set time, we turned our keys and watched the multi-colored monitor screens light up to signal a launch. But next, the part that wasn’t real: We hurried out through the vault entrance door to the capsule to watch the missile, a mile away, thunder out of its silo and blaze through the night air on its way toward the Kwajalein Atoll 4,000 miles away .Fortunately, Kwajalein was safe; our missile was armed with a dummy warhead.
Unlike the missiles that a couple of real-life dummies are talking about right now.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un are flinging around words like a pair of schoolyard bullies. Fed up with North Korean threats, Trump threatens “fire and fury” if they don’t stop. From North Korea, more threats: an “enveloping fire” on the U.S. territory of Guam, where we have an important Air Force Base.
Oh yeah? Well I dare you to do that. Well then, I double dare you. Oh yeah? Well I double dog dare you. Jeez. Will someone please stick their tongues to an ice-cold flagpole?
Fortunately, I spent my 3½ years of missile duty during a time when cooler heads were around. It was during the time of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. Of course, Johnson led us into a quagmire in Vietnam and Nixon — well, you know about him.
But neither of them was the kind of scary, irresponsible, and unprepared leader we have sitting right now uncomfortably close to the nuclear launch codes.
In all my years of sitting in underground launch silos, playing nursemaid to the ten nuclear-armed Minuteman missiles under my command, I never had to wonder about the sanity of the men who might order me to turn the key. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the guiding principle of the Cold War; now it's Maniacally Angry Dialogue being hurled back and forth by a pair of reckless provocateurs.
I wonder what the men and women who make up missile combat crews now are thinking. Those aren’t dummy warheads on top of their sleek, shiny white missiles, after all.
Our leader and his aides need to keep that in mind.