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Retirement Day

by Catfish Russ

part 1 of 2

Senior Master Sergeant Ron Murray awoke at 10 pm, as he had most nights for almost thirty-one years. He was the only member of the Air Force outside of the Air Force Band to have held the same post for such an extended time.

Murray was fifty-eight-years old and only a Senior Master Sergeant. Then again, that’s about the highest rank you can have in the air force without going to OTS — Officer Training School. Twice Murray had applied, and both times the Air Force was cutting back, and both times he was denied.

After a while it mattered little. The Air Force took care of him, sent both his son and daughter to college and provided a free four-bedroom two-story home on Belmont Avenue right off the base for thirty-one years.

The Air Force wanted Murray here, at this post. It was easy, routine, and except for the constantly changing lock codes, it was the very same thing day in and day out. The Air Force trusted him and he loved the Air Force.

He began to think that missing out on OTS had been a blessing in disguise. It was located in redneck Alabama. Not interested he thought. I am thoroughly a Midwesterner, Murray reminded himself. Not suited for the Southern mentality. He never had liked his Southern commanders or the smooth-talking Southern tanker pilots that rotated in and out of this post, and drawled things like “Ahhh rally lahked that coffee, ma’yam.” Murray realized he was also rationalizing being denied a chance for promotion. He acknowledged it but didn’t dwell on it.

Murray was paid at the same grade as a lieutenant colonel. He held a specialized job: guarding a missile silo at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Today was his last day in the United States Air Force. Like any airman with such a long career, he would put in his full day, be honored at a luncheon, and later, by a chat with the base commander. Perhaps they’d even have an honor guard there for him.

Then, he would drive off the base, and for now, head into town to a condo that he and Arlene had rented. Base housing was often offered to commanders for free in bountiful budget years. But these days, it was leave the base, here is your pension, and your country thanks you.

Murray put on his BDU’s —battle dress uniform, grabbed the lunch Arlene had packed, bent down to kiss her on her carpet of hair, sprawled across her face, and then climbed into his Acura and headed down to the Fire Control Center.

A full moon was out tonight. Too bad I’ll be a hundred and forty feet underground, he thought. He could always look at the moon through a security monitor. Often a post guard would point the camera at a beautiful sunset and alert Murray. Not quite the same, he thought. That’s like kissing through a screen door.

He drove through the gates, saluted a young Airman toting an M-16.

“Last day, huh, sir?”

“Yes sir, in thirteen hours, I will be retired.”

“Congratulations, sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.”

The air was cold and his walk from Security Level 4 Parking to the Battery Launch Building was dark and quiet. The steam of his breath trailed him and the klieg lights did not allow him to see the stars even on his last night.

A door opened into a concrete hallway. Two Marine guards stood and watched and made no chit chat. This was not allowed on Level 4; one would rarely have small talk in high security clearance areas.

Murray placed his right eye in an ocular mounted on a retinal reader. Another door opened, this one from a spot on the wall one would not have expected. No one, that is, but Murray. A keypad mounted on a wall required a 50-code sequence. This was not a QWERTY pad either. It was random, made new every single time you walked through the door, and the process took time.

The 50-digit sequence code changed irregularly. But one thing Murray did well and took pride in was learning his 50 digit codes. He rarely locked himself out of the firing sequence room. Murray tapped in the latest code:


A new screen appeared. He laid his left hand across it and it read his palm print. The room spun left, and the old door now opened to a new chamber. In this chamber sat an E-Z-Go golf cart. He sat, and pulled an eye mask on.

The lights went out and the cart, by itself, drove him for ten minutes through a labyrinthine catacomb structure under the base. Another distinction Murray felt was just a consequence of secrecy. Murray could never have found his own office by himself even after thirty-one years on the job.

The car stopped in front of a vault door. It unlocked itself, and Murray picked up his lunch, and his magazine, Field and Stream, and headed in to the Firing Chamber.

Only twice since he began this post had the room itself been remodeled and upgraded. The last time was in 2001, and he loved the look. Soft pastel colors of display monitors and buttons lighted the room. The harsh fluorescent overhead lighting was gone.

Everything was digital and easy to use, and even a soft woman’s voice assisted him in not pushing the wrong button. Once he had hit a button with his lunch pail and her voice came on suddenly: “The ambient temperature inside the chamber is maintained at three degrees centigrade. Please adjust the setting...”

She even told Murray how to reset the liquid coolant temperature.

Now one would think that missiles need coolant systems maintained. And that is certainly true. And this chamber under Murray’s purview certainly needed to be maintained at a low temperature. But it was not a missile silo at all.

Now, there were missile silos at Wright Patterson. None of them were active. They were advertised as active missile silos in Air Force publications and press releases and even in movies. And yes, three of the four silos actually held intercontinental ballistic missiles. Not actually state of the art ICBM’s, rather these three were old Nike missiles, but no one knew that.

An enemy might attack Wright Patterson, but it would be a wasted attack that would damage the incredible Air Force museum. Or damage contents of the fourth launch tube. The fourth silo held no missile, but its payload was no doubt as explosive as any atomic weapon.

Murray unlocked a wall safe and picked out his Glock and holster and strapped it on. He drew the pistol, held it in his right hand and pressed a green button below the safety. A moment later, the button flashed and beeped. This gun would now fire only in Murray’s hand on this shift. He re-holstered the gun, picked up a clipboard and began his first round and systems check.

This was beyond boring. He read numbers and codes and values and symbols off of monitors, and rewrote them on specific tabs on a form. He did a minor look round every 20 minutes and a full foot patrol and systems check on the hour.

He used a flashlight walking through the coolant hoses and scaffolding that once held tanks of oxygen and freon. The walls of the service chambers were still 1950’s technology: toggle switches and old Bell telephones on the wall with Lucite buttons.

The overhead lights reminded Murray of an old midwestern high school. Stamped metal bulb hoods over the lamps extended straight down; they were encased in old aluminum tubes and were painted in old, thick, cracking paint. Old burnt-out bulbs sat inside wire caging, bulbs that would likely never burn again, because overhead lights would give intruders an advantage.

Murray knew the interior in the dark and chose to patrol in the dark. He liked the dark. He hated bright, garish lighting and the moodiness of light bounced off a wall appealed to him. He liked cool and quiet, and he felt comfortable in absolute silence. He could hear his own breathing, his own heart, and his footsteps thundered across the darkness.

What was the chance of an intruder down here? Zero. Heck, the last President to visit had been Jimmy Carter. He came out of the fourth chamber very pensive and sullen. Murray was on duty then, young, 25 pounds lighter. The President said only, “My God...”

Murray would never own an iPod. No reason to. He enjoyed silences and the sound of his own heartbeat and the sound of his own breathing. He was never one to have the television on for company or a radio on for background noise. The missile silo was his perfect office.

It felt odd. It was hard to believe that he would never see this walkway again. Only a few more rounds, and that’s it, friend, Murray thought. It was especially still tonight. Especially still.

He rounded the corner of the fire fighters’ chambers, a lot of good they would do if one of those old missiles blew inside here. Then he looked around the electricians’ work station and down into the silo chamber, knowing that tonight he would take his Third Viewing. This was his last entry into the payload chamber. His last one.

No one knew why guards were only allowed three entries into the payload chamber of silo number four. Some Psyops guys in the 40s came up with this rule and it just stuck. Just like the stuck thinking that led to nuclear missiles aimed in perpetuity at our enemies, the Three Viewing rule was a rule.

Murray had spaced his Viewings out. Of course, he saved his last entry for his last night at work. That made sense. You get your first entry on your first night at work, and it changes you forever. Had to.

Murray did not actually ask the other guards how it affected them, because he did not know the other guards who rotated in and out of this shift. He might know them personally, but he would never know what they actually did, because all the guards were supposed to have different cover stories. Murray’s story was that he was guarding missile launch.

Proceed to part 2..

Copyright © 2006 by Catfish Russ

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