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Nuclear War Should Not Hinge on the Reliability of a Rotary Phone

Answer the phone. Turn the keys. Push the buttons. Watch and wait for the world to go boom. The classic 1980’s Cold War suspense scenario.

You read that correctly; #8 informs us that from the missile silo elevator we can dial ‘22’ for the Sauna.

Today we tolerate a computer-screen progress bar to convey suspense in action thrillers. The hero impotently watches a few percentage points at a time pass as the incriminating evidence is copied to a flash drive.

But back in the day we used to sit in on defense authorities staring at a big board with lights arcing between the US and USSR, denoting nuclear missiles slowly making their way over the ocean to end civilization. We relied on a young Ferris Bueller to save the day.

All of it came down to a couple military dudes locked in small compartments with lots of buttons. Today, in a former nuclear missile launch facility 45 minutes outside the central Ukrainian town of Pervomaysk, I got to be one of those dudes.

The history tour was nice, the clamshell silo door far out, but exploring the executioner’s underground, computerized death lab was definitely the highlight.

I got to sit in a room jam packed with rows of little, square, backlit buttons; flashing lights; and blank monitors. The kind of consoles I thought only existed in 1960s movies that take place in the year 3000. Where cars hover by without wheels, cranking out electronic music on an eight-track stereo system.

And with a long spin of the heavy wheel, they were gone. They had no way to know if it was safe yet. They only knew they could no longer go on below. However many days or hours they'd have did not matter; the world they were given would always be better than the one they had created.

Obviously I have no idea what any of these buttons do. As I sat in the controller’s chair (photo at top), sealed 20 meters below ground, it seemed like there were simply too many buttons and knobs. And a rotary phone? I hope there’s no need to call anyone back urgently. “Sorry, can you give me the coordinates again for Washington? I can’t find mine.”

Two CC tvs. Hopefully one has Pong. Is that an equalizer from a Technics component stereo system on my left? I wish the red and white lights on my left had some damn labels. And, most importantly, why am I wearing a racecar seatbelt? Wait, am I actually in the missile? That’s not what I was led to believe. They said there were two parallel shafts; one for the missile, one for the control room. Maybe I’m in the wrong one.

I could’ve spent an hour or so hanging out down there, but it only fits four people and other tourists were waiting above and it was getting time to conclude my tour.

During peacetime, two men would get to spend six-hours at a shift staffing this split-level, one-bedroom, one-bath facility (comes complete with a phonebooth elevator, two telephones, and what the hell, I’ll even throw in a samovar).

During wartime, shifts could last 2-3 days, or longer should there be nobody left on earth.

I really wanted to cast our guide in a role as a Soviet bad guy.
"Soul Finger"...by the Bar Kays.
The biggest ICBM the Soviets ever built. Though it was never housed in Pervomaysk’s silos, it’s fun to tinker with on the front lawn like an old Thunderbird.
Also known as the “We’re All Gonna Die” light.

One Comment

  1. sarah

    Yes, it SHOULD, so you have time to think about the implications.

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