The officer who refused to launch the missiles was LEO!

"Turn your KEY, sir!"

“Turn your KEY, sir!”

Yes, this is about as insubstantial as a blog post gets, but I enjoy life’s little coincidences.

Friday, I was at one of the Relic Room’s monthly Lunch and Learn sessions, which I help publicize (and y’all should come check them out, because they’re all interesting). The speaker this time was Sumter attorney Frank Shuler, talking about his experiences as an Air Force officer serving in a nuclear missile silo during the Cold War. (Here’s a release about that.)

At some point, someone asked him about the sidearms he and the other guy down in the capsule buried 60 feet under North Dakota were required to wear while on duty — originally .38 revolvers, later changing to 9 mm semiautomatics. He said that they weren’t really for the purpose depicted in the movie “WarGames.” He was referring to this, the opening scene.

Well, this morning I was looking for something new to watch on the Roku during my workout on the elliptical, and I noticed something new on Amazon Prime: “WarGames!”

Actual missile silo blast door.

Actual missile silo blast door.

So I started watching, initially to see how accurate the depiction was, after what I had learned from interviewing Shuler and writing that release. And a lot of it was pretty much on the money — but one thing was wrong for sure: They showed the guys closing the massive, vault-style blast doors by pressing a button. In reality, someone had to pump the hydraulics on those doors, by hand, and it was a strenuous, tedious process — both opening and closing.

But then I noticed something that delighted me: The officer who refused to turn his key to launch the missiles was my hero, Leo McGarry!

Well, not really Leo, but the actor who played him, John Spencer. I’d had no idea, because when that movie came out, “The West Wing” was far from even being a twinkle in Aaron Sorkin’s eye.

It’s sort of bittersweet to see him unexpectedly. John Spencer was only 58 year old when we lost him and Leo simultaneously. But it was a treat. Especially since, as I think about it, what else did I ever see him in, but this and “West Wing?”

Of course, you know that Leo himself served in the Air Force, but not down in a bunker. He flew the F-105 Thunderchief with the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing out of Thailand during the Vietnam War. Which is the personal experience from which he was able to ‘splain military service and national security to President Bartlet…

8 thoughts on “The officer who refused to launch the missiles was LEO!

  1. David T

    I never fully understood the whole sidearm thing, the guy turning the key has a pistol and so does the guy not turning the key. If one decides not to turn the key, he knows the other guy is going to pull a pistol on him so he’d have the advantage. The other guy turning the key wouldn’t know the second key wasn’t turned until he had turned his key. So we’re at a Mexican standoff.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, that’s not what the sidearms were for. But I’m embarrassed to say that after writing this, it suddenly hits me that I don’t remember what he said they WERE for — except maybe for defending this high-value facility from intruders.

      Of course, intruders would have had a tough time getting within pistol range. To even get to the site, Shuler and the other guy had to ride 2.5 hour out from the base onto the frozen tundra of North Dakota. Once there, they had to go through multiple elaborate security procedures before riding an elevator 60 feet down, then having to get past that blast door, which some obliging person had to laboriously pump open for them.

      The firearms seem, in light of all that, something of a redundant precaution. Assuming they were for defending the facility, that is…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thai sticks were more than that. They were dipped in opium.

      Of course, Leo wouldn’t be into this. He’s more of a scotch and valium guy.

      Hearing that dialogue reminds me of a story a friend (and probably a friend of Burl’s) told when we were in high school in Hawaii. I don’t remember who told it; I just remember the story.

      The teller claimed to know a guy, a little older than us, who was in the Air Force stationed at Hickam and had a very sensitive job: He sat at the center of some sensitive facility staring at a bank of surveillance cameras. No one could get anywhere near him without him seeing them coming.

      So, the tale went, he sat there and smoked dope with impunity all through his watch.

      I’ve always had my doubts about the story, as appealingly ironic as it might have been to tell. Sure, you can dart into the john and flush away the joint when someone’s coming, but what do you do with the cloud bank of smoke?

      Sure, tobacco smoking was permitted everywhere then, but the difference would have been noticeable. By that time — we’re talking about 1971 — I think most NCOs and officers knew what it smelled like…

      1. Bill

        Rare to find any dipped in opium in the states back then;hash oil(not that strong),maybe,but in those days the rarity,strength and novelty of seedless pot (almost nonexistent in 60’s/70’s USA) was the seller.Opium was usually the “black tar” variety and smoked on its own.Imported pot is what you wanted,then;Vietnamese strains were Killer(!!!).Now the best stuff is grown in the good old USA…
        The future WAS plastic,now it’s pot…

        1. David T

          I say let’s let the drug users have all they want, let Darwin straighten this mess out. 2-3 years and it’ll be resolved.

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