It's been a long time since I first heard about underground missile silos in Colorado. It was the Cold War and we were ready, so the story went.
Twenty years or so ago, I became friends with Gregg Merrick, who, during his time in the military, had done missile silo duty. Gregg was a Texan, and in his post-military life had gone over to the dark — or light — side, depending on your perspective. More on that later.
As far as I can gather, many missile silos are still active in Colorado. They are mostly in the northeast corner, the same area that talks of secession, a stronghold of right wing politics and the attendant anger that passes for patriotism. People who regard themselves as the “real Americans,” and regard liberals as communists bent on destruction of the American Dream. There are over a hundred silos scattered around northeast Colorado, southwest Nebraska and southeast Wyoming, ready for a “preemptive strike.”
Funny thing about areas of military concentration and those who live around them. In the late 80’s, in the state of Washington, there were two incidents of cross-burnings in the yards of interracial families Both closely adjacent to Navy bases — Poulsbo in sight of a nuclear weapons depot, and on Whidbey Island by the big naval air station. Coincidence? I tend to doubt it.
When I met Gregg in 1990, he was kind of a freewheeling hippie who liked to spend his days drinking coffee and hanging out on a public bench in front of a grocery store, talking with friends and passersby. He usually wore a baseball cap with silver wings sewn on and was regarded as a local street character in Port Townsend, Washington. Sometimes he wore clown shoes. He had come to the west coast in the 60s bringing 50-lb. bags of methamphetamine purchased from chicken farmers in Texas. The meth made the chickens lay more eggs. He and his brother sold the stuff in San Francisco.
After a long period of drug-and-alcohol dissipation and self-destruction, Gregg cleaned up. He took up juggling and professional-grade hanging out. He went to AA and told gruesome but entertaining stories. One story he did not tell at meetings was about his experience in the missile silo, this was told to me personally. Deep underground, two soldiers sit at opposite sides of a small room. Each of them has a key, firing the missile required them both to turn the keys together. Each also has a gun. If one refuses to turn his key, the other is ordered to shoot him. It was after his military stint that Gregg began his long drug odyssey.
Some years after cleaning up he was diagnosed with liver cancer and went to the VA for help. I was a witness as they delayed and procrastinated, a bureaucratic process moving at the pace of cold molasses. By the time he went for treatment, the tumor was too big, it was too late. They put him on a morphine drip. He spent his final days in Oregon calling friends and shooting the shit like the old days on the sidewalk bench. The last time he called me in Wisconsin, 2004, he was pretty much out of it, incoherent and he knew it. Not long after, one of his relatives called to tell me he was gone.