Twenty-four years ago, we crossed over the mountains from Las Cruces into the White Sands Range, noted the existence of the Missile Range Museum on the south end of the vast off-limits government testing facility, and on the northern edge, the New Mexico Museum of Space History in the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico—then set them aside for the future. On this visit, our Silver Submarine would target, so to speak, the W.S.M.R. Museum, and at the base of the pass we swung onto the entrance road. All highways in America share a common culture, that is, signage and layout, but immediately we noted the change of vibe. Could it have been the altered speed from that of a barren, straight-as-an-arrow country blacktop that reduced in half-mile increments? Perhaps postings announcing federal military codes of incarceration if proper identification could not be presented? Regular pullouts with posted displays stating that each was a numbered gathering spot in the event of emergency tweaked our questioning minds. Yes, we quickly recognized that we were not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, and normal rules of the road didn’t apply.
Looming ahead was a massive guard station which seemed a bit out of the ordinary for a museum entrance, but hey, the normal rules of the road must not apply to a special museum. Our Airstream is eight feet wide and standing in front of us in full military regalia and armament, the grim gate guard held out his hands, and slid us into a nine foot space. I pushed my cowboy hat back, dropped my sunglasses off my eyes to demonstrate friendly intentions, and informed him that we were museum bound. He broke into a grin, informing us that we could proceed ahead only if we were willing to subject ourselves to a thorough cavity (inside Airstream that is) search, which could take some time, or pull out, drive to a wide intersection, swing back in a U-turn, pass through a series of narrow slalom curves back out the gate to a gravel shoulder, and then enter a visitor building to be “processed.” Strange museum indeed!
Choosing the path of least resistance, we parked and entered the building, facing a wall of thick plate glass with tiny speaking portals that didn’t match up with the seated officer requesting us to state our business. It would make it difficult to pull out a weapon and shove it through that hole (why would I think this?), and there was no doubt we had already passed through body scan sensors. A sign on the entrance door made clear that no weapons were permitted in any form unless authorized by the chain of command whose smiling pictures lined the wall separating the entry from a probable hidden computer identity network.
Drivers’ licenses were requested and slid though the bank teller-like document slot, and we were told to stand on the line on the floor to be photo ID’d. Had we made a careless mistake? All we wanted to do was look at some rocket and military weaponry, and hopefully some nuclear detonation artifacts and data. Why would that require such careful scrutiny? I was beginning to regret embarking on this excursion and the fear that we wouldn’t be able to complete this investigation in time to drive to our next camping destination, rang klaxons in my head.
Pictures taken, licenses returned, we were asked to have a seat while our identities were screened. Thank you NSA (National Security Agency). Minutes ticked by. Uh oh: There was that time in 1968, while attempting to hitchhike into Canada, I was denied entry as a probable hippie vagrant (hippie, yes; vagrant, no). Would they discover this? Or would they find evidence of spying for the CIA on Khmer Rouge movements along the Thai-Cambodian border in the ’70s? Would they suspect me because I’d never gotten a moving violation on my driving record, and was too clean to be an average citizen? There was that approved application for a concealed-carry pistol permit, and of course the gun purchases . . . my heart beat like a drum in my chest.
Our security guard exited the walled-from-view room, reached into a printer, then returned to the window to hand us our clearance documents. With a strained smile, he announced we were free to walk across the street to the open-air museum—in the specific pattern marked on the sidewalk. Photos could be taken of the outside rocketry, planes, jets, helicopters, and assorted weapons of mass destruction only on one condition: that said photos are taken facing toward the mountain side of the range and not into the depths of the secret spread of low lying buildings scattered across the desert horizon.
Was it worth it?! An acre of every size rocket imaginable, from tiny tubes the width of an arm to five-story behemoths, sub to supersonic rocketry from the inception of the rocket age, technology smuggled to America from Nazi Germany’s fledgling, innovative, and leading engineering visionaries. Wernher von Braun and his close cohorts, having developed the V2 rocket, gained a free pass into America’s war effort and soon-to-be Cold War space race.
A massive remote control jet squatted over the New Mexican sand, some of its lower bays open allowing observation of the spaghetti of wires and plumbing necessary to control this bombing target at Mach 2–3 (two to three times the speed of sound: 767.269 × 2/3 = 1534.538-2301.807 mph).
Mind you, this technology from the ’60s and ’70s sits in open public view. A question always on my mind is, 60 years later, what don’t we see? The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane was commissioned in the early ’60s—from Area 51, incidentally—and one report had it flying over Russia, and by the time it was spotted and MIGs were launched, the Blackbird had flown back to California, landed, and the pilots were having coffee. At that time, it could fly around the world in less than two hours.
The SR-72 prototype (if there still is one), is reputed to fly at Mach 6, but all this fuss is kind of a moot point in the age of advanced rocketry and secret black ops satellite technology that can probably pick up the golf ball that the president plays on his greens . . . but I digress . . ..
There next to the plane that piloted von Braun from one testing site to another, was my old buddy, the Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopter that I flew in a number of missions while serving as a medic on the border of Thailand and Cambodia. We took off and landed carrying injured and triaged citizens from the war zone, doors open to speed our jumps. I have burning memories of sitting astride the 50-caliber door machine gun that I luckily never had to fire, being on a humanitarian mission.
Just across the street from the outdoor assemblage the indoor exhibits engage visitors with a historical diorama of the early settlers to the region and, in particular, the plight of the native American tribes that fought valiantly for the rights to their lands against a wave of European immigrants. Promises, treaties, and friendships were constantly made, and broken, and countless native Americans were massacred under the banner of Manifest Destiny. Strange how the drama of today’s so-called immigration “emergencies” appear in contrast to the slaughter of the original people of North America by European immigrants!
There are many stories, myths, and legends of massacres that occurred on both sides of the Indian Wars that come down to us from the Old West. One particularly strange one that leads us to the possible origin of one of our common words comes from the book, Tales from the Journey of the Dead, by Alan Boye. According to his research, an Irish emigrant, James Kirker,
arrived in America in the early 1800s, worked sundry jobs including as a privateer on the eastern seaboard, and eventually moved west to discover a special skill in supporting the government efforts to “eliminate the Indian problem” by scalping “no fewer than 487” natives for a bounty paid in pesos. I might add that authenticity was guaranteed by the inclusion of the ears. He became famous among the people of the region for his cruelty, and was known by the moniker of Santiago Querque. According to Boye, Kirker’s name became “used as a common, fearful, and derogatory label for men who killed merely for the money placed on a human life. They were all quirky; they were all querque.” This, by the way is the same Kirker that the Kirker Pass in the San Francisco Bay takes its name from, as he once settled his family in Contra Costa County near there.
The heart of the Missile Museum contains samplings of the emergence of guidance, control, tracking, and development of space weaponry. Images of movie stars flown into White Sands to put a good face on our “secret” development line the walls. One photo of John F. Kennedy standing at a podium to celebrate the advent of the nuclear age, and our rise as a cold war power, sits above the actual thing now in front of me. I look at his famous face in the picture, then reach out and lay my hand on its smooth slanted top to see if I can travel in time and feel his spirit. This is as close as I’ll ever get to JFK, that and his image on a half-dollar.
Different rooms in the museum are dedicated to specific themes. One that captured my eye explored the assembly and test of the first atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project brought together some of nuclear science’s greatest minds behind Robert Oppenheimer from 1939–46. Once theory morphed into site testing, the team moved to White Sands, New Mexico to today’s Trinity Site, with their bomb prototype they named “The Gadget.” In order to explode a bomb with such enormous power, the military needed a vast amount of land to hide and contain the infrastructure necessary to pull off this and other events. It just so happens that the Macdonald family owned a ranch that satisfied the proximity to a blast site centrally located in such an area and could securely stage the team to deliver and assemble the bomb. The family valiantly fought the government that gave them an ultimatum to accept a cash payment and be gone, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. They left under duress to continue their attempts to reclaim their property up through the 1980s. But the Manhattan Project moved in and used their master bedroom as a clean room/construction site to assemble The Gadget. The ranch, 10 miles away from the blast, barely survived, laid in ruins until the mid-’80s. It has now been reconstructed as a national monument that can be visited by the general public once or twice a year under strict military lottery and pass.
While reading the history of the bomb construction and explosion, I walked up to a slim box with a Plexiglas cover held safely down with two small dimestore locks in a strangely unmanned and unguarded museum. In this case, which sits below a radiation warning sign, are hundreds of small pebbles now called Trinitite, the result of the bomb’s extreme heat melting the desert sand into a glassy radioactive mass. This is also as close to nuclear that I ever want to be.
As it turned out, it was difficult to walk away from this museum. Strange. Looking at the building from the front door, it seemed unassuming. But after walking through it for several hours, it manifested a size expanding in informational awareness to take on the appearance of the huge warehouse that housed the Ark of the Covenant, in the closing scene of the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.