Saturday, February 6, 2021

Saturday Snippet: Of missiles, buzzards, mice, and men


Gary Paulsen was an enlisted missile technician in the US Army during the late 1950's, and later a missile research assistant in the defense industry.  He wrote a book, "Some Birds Don't Fly", about the lighter side of his experiences with the early missiles of that era.

Sadly, it's long out of print, and very expensive when you can find a used copy.  It's very entertaining.  This morning I've chosen two excerpts, one from his enlisted military career, and one from the early 1960's when he was working as a civilian at a missile tracking station.

The scene is the interior of a Nike Ajax fire-control van at a missile firing range in New Mexico.  A captain, a lieutenant, a sergeant, and yours truly, a private first class, are seated at their respective consoles.

The mission:  Annual Service Practice - to seek, find and destroy a radio-controlled drone with a fully "hot" Nike Ajax antiaircraft guided missile.  The procedure normally followed is quite simple.  The drone is launched and made to circle at a specified altitude and range from the firing battery, somewhere out over unpopulated desert.  The radar of the Nike site then begins searching.  When target contact is made, all circuits are placed on "automatic", the firing button is pushed, and at some later time, depending on the range, the radio-controlled drone is turned to powder in a consummate blast of high explosive and shrapnel.

. . .

The three of us jumped up and peered over [the sergeant's] shoulder.  Sure enough, about halfway out the orange-colored scope a tiny pinpoint of light flashed in the sweep.

"Transfer all stations to automatic," the captain commanded, and I flipped the switch that controlled my station, the manual plotting board.

"Stand by to fire."  His voice filled the van.  While we in the fire-control center had little to do, I knew that action at the launch site a mile distant would be feverish.  At the order to stand by, the launcher crew had to remove close to a dozen different safety interlocks located on and about the missile.  These would arm the various circuits on the needle-shaped killer.

"Five," the captain began counting, as soon as the launcher crew checked in, "four, three..."

"Sir!" the sergeant cut in.  "The target is acting funny."

"Eh?"  The captain again leaned over his shoulder and looked at the scope.  "What do you mean?"

"Well, he's circling, sir."

"He's supposed to circle."

"Yes, sir, I know that."  The sergeant's tone was apologetic.  "But it's only making about ten knots.  And it's circling too tight - less than five hundred yards.  The drone's supposed to make three hundred knots."

"Hell, Sergeant, she's just running out of gas."  A gleam had come into the captain's eyes.  "She's due to pop her chute pretty soon.  We've got to get her first.  Two, one, fire."  And his thumb raised the safety hood on the big red fire switch and mashed it.

We heard the blast of the missile's solid propellant igniting, and I watched the clock.  Burst on target, I knew, would happen in less than ninety seconds from lift-off, or not at all.

At exactly sixty-five seconds the radarscope blossomed as the missile burst, completely obliterating the pinpoint that had been the target.  A perfect shot!  Had that target been an enemy plane bound for New York with a bomb in her belly, we'd have been heroes.

Everybody shook hands, as is the custom when a missile happens to work.  The lieutenant even stooped to slapping me on the back, and the captain promised to buy all the beer that night at the PX.  But the sergeant remained at the scope.

"Sir!" he said, after the blast debris had fallen out of view.  "I have a target contact."

"What?"  The captain stopped shaking my hand and looked at the scope.  "Where?"

"Here," the sergeant pointed.  "In the middle of the blast area.  And it has drone characteristics."  Just the faintest touch of triumphant smugness crept into his voice, and I thought he was very brave.  I would have turned the radar off.

The captain took it quite well, however.  He studied the scope quietly for a few minutes, then sighed.  "Yes, that's the drone, all right."

"But, sir," said the lieutenant, typically, "if that's the drone, what did we shoot?"

I am convinced that a whole crew of supernatural beings somewhere, working hand in hand with Fate, are employed twenty-four hours a day just saving lieutenants.  At that moment the main communication line, the line connecting the firing battery with the main range command, buzzed loudly.  The captain jerked the headset down.

"Yes," he spat.  Then, more quietly, "Yes, sir.  No, sir.  We did what, sir?  Begging the colonel's pardon, sir, but that is impossible.  Sir?  Yes, of course, put him on at once.  I'll take care of it."

He motioned the lieutenant and the sergeant to pick up two other headsets.  I stretched his permissiveness to include pfc's (it's all one Army, isn't it?) and grabbed the one on the computer.

"Is this one of them missile men?" a nasal desert drawl asked shortly.

"Yes," the captain answered.  "I'm the commanding officer of the firing battery."

"Well, I just got a few words to say.  That's all.  Just a few words.  I'm with the state game and fish commission - one of their field workers.  And I wouldn't want to be the one to say you guys ain't doing a good job or anything.  I mean.  I know you missile men are keeping them," the voice dropped two octaves, "from coming over here.  But, dang it all, I was watching him!  I mean, I had this scope out and I was watching him.  Just aflying and aswooping so free and easy.  It just ain't right, that's all.  You didn't have to go and smear him out like that.  I mean, I know buzzards ain't the nicest birds.  But, just like you missile men, he's got a job to do.  You know what the highways would look like if it weren't for buzzards?  Why, you couldn't stand the stink - "

"Sir, excuse me," the captain interrupted him.  "Are you trying to tell me that we just shot down a buzzard with a Nike missile?"

"Trying, hell!" came the answer.  "I seen it.  One minute he was there, looping around, then wham - gone.  And not ten minutes after I tagged him up here at Alamo Peak Station.  Maybe you think it's easy, catching and tagging buzzards.  Well, let me tell you, it ain't.  You know what a buzzard does when you grab him?  He - "

"Tagged?" the captain cut in again, fortunately.  "What kind of tag?"

"Why, just one of them little aluminum tags with numbers on it."

The captain looked at the sergeant inquiringly.

"Yes, sir," the sergeant answered.  "With this new magnetron in the radar, I could track a dime turned sideways at that range.  Just so it reflects energy, and aluminum would."

"Jesus."  The captain sagged and hung up the headset, cutting off the conversation.  "A buzzard.  Jesus, Jesus, Jesus."

"Well, there's one thing to be thankful for," chirped the lieutenant, stretching his saving graces to their absolute limit.

He took the captain's silence to mean a query.

"There'd be the pure hell to pay," he said, "if it had been an eagle."

* * *

Regardless of how much man progresses scientifically, the animal kingdom will never be far behind.  Indeed, if it's true that we are able to prove mathematically that a bumblebee cannot fly, the animal kingdom is somewhat ahead.  We build a mighty, space-conquering rocket, then use a monkey to fly it.  And at the sled track at the White Sands Missile Range we manufacture million-dollar high-velocity sleds that are piloted by beagles.

But the animals have divided themselves into two definite schools of thought where scientific man is concerned:  those that will help us and those that will not - emphatically.

The Ripper was against the advancement of man.  He was also against the advancement of gopher snakes, but that isn't too important because gopher snakes haven't really ever done much, scientifically speaking.

We first noticed the arrival of the Ripper one afternoon in the fall of 1963.  He came on strong.  Halfway through a simply beautiful pass, the antenna, 110 tons of steel and drive motors, stopped dead and lost the bird.

Naturally, there was some concern and not a little screaming, but heads were saved when we found a cable parted in one of the underground cable runways.  The cable had been chewed through, neatly and cleanly, and everybody but the project supervisor laughed.

The cable was quickly spliced, though not in time to save the track, and several mousetraps, baited with sausage and cheese, were scattered around the tunnel.

Three nights later, again in the middle of an operation, the antenna went berserk and drove itself into the limit bars, bending stress bars and framework and shearing off cables.

This time, when we found the chewed-apart cable, there wasn't any laughter.  It took four days of hard work to fix everything, and an exterminating company was called in.  They filled every nook and cranny of the tunnel with rat poison, smiled, gave assurances, took their government check, and left.

The next night the antenna drove itself into the upper limit bars, reversing the previous bends in the stress bars and framework, and causing a two-week stop in operations while a special team of structural inspectors went over the antenna from top to bottom.

That's when the government went after the Ripper, as we'd named him, in earnest.  Another, bigger extermination company was called.  They evacuated the building for twenty-four hours, sealed off all the doors and cable tunnels, and fumigated the place with cyanide.  They also filled the tunnels with a new Super X-29-or-something-worse rat and mouse killer that was guaranteed to annihilate any rodent that came within two feet of it.  The place smelled like a morgue when we finally returned and started checkout for a new operation, and nobody would go down into the cable tunnels without a dust mask over his nose.  Cockroaches, ants, all were dead, even spiders hanging inside the computer racks.

The next afternoon an Atlas-Agena satellite launch was held up for five hours while our receiver crew repaired a nibbled cable.  They said they recognized the Ripper's tooth marks, and two engineers quit because of harassment from other sections.  (When the pad recognized us on the com-net, they'd always start the countdown with:  "Assuming the Ripper is go, tracking station pick up the count, please.")

An air of defeatism settled over the station.  Men would go into an operation like hens into a chicken coop full of weasels, sure they were going to be had.  And they usually were.  The Ripper hit the computers, gnawing off a main memory cable so that a whole new program had to be initiated.  He tore wires out of the transmitter, burning out their final amplifiers.  He hit the receiver section again and the computers again and the antenna again.  He even chewed off the wire to the water cooler, and we had to drink warm water for a night.

One man came through with what he thought was a solution.  He brought in a four-foot gopher snake that his son had found in the yard and put it in the tunnel.  As anyone knows, the main staple of a gopher snake's diet is mouse.

And it worked - for two days.  We got by with forty-eight hours of happy tracking before the Ripper hit us again.  This time he nailed a digital line, and when the digital crew went down to fix the line they found the gopher snake.

His head had been chewed off.

That's when we decided to capitulate, to recognize the Ripper as an integral part of the tracking station, to plan and build for his happy life.  We reasoned that the Ripper was chewing cables off not for the food value - they were, after all, only plastic and aluminum wire - but because he lacked anything else to chew.  After sweeping out all the poison, we filled the tunnel with goodies:  old boards, rope, used cable, cans, cotton balls, empty peanut butter jars, lemon peels - anything we thought he might like.  (The site mess hall reported us for going through their garbage.). Then, carefully keeping a record, we'd go down daily and mark what he liked best.

It was lemon peel, we found after a week or so.  Close second was grapefruit, slightly mildewed, and third was pine - which shows how widely indiscriminate a mouse can be.  We quickly removed everything else, and to this day (assuming that the Ripper is still alive, and he must be), every time you hear of a successful missile shot from California, it is not just a technological advance.  It is also a sign that the Ripper got his lemon peel.

We may like to think we're masters of all we survey, but animals - domestic pets or in the wild - have a habit of proving us wrong, don't they?



Skwab said...

I have a copy of this book about 25 years ago at a swapmeet for 50 cents. It is wonderful. Paulsen is now a Famous YA Author and doesn't much acknowledge his first book.
But, it is, as you say side-splittingly funny. I have my favorite's but all are great. First Time I'd ever read about Red Fuming Nitric Acid! Those early Missilier's were some stout Souls!

Steve Sky said...

@Skwab mentioned Red Fuming Nitric acid. Let me offer Ignition, a very funny book from the propellant side of the house, and their search for a good fuel and oxidizer. Fortunately, it's been re-released on Kindle, as it was also out of print.

Reading about Chlorine Trifloride was also worth it, as was Derek Lowes's analysis:

Old NFO said...

Sounds like an interesting read, but as you said, good luck finding a copy!

Peter said...

@Steve Sky: We excerpted that book here last December. See:

Sam L. said...

I was a missileer, with 8 years in 33 different holes in the ground, in two states, 18 in Titan IIs and 15 in Minuteman Modernized (basically, a MM2). It's relatively quiet down there. Got to carry a 2" .38 S&W on duty. They're all gone, now, except for the Titan Missile Museum ( south of Tucson, and the only MM capsule that's underground on Whiteman AFB, MO. Well, there are other MM museum sites, but they're up north.

Old 1811 said...

I seem to recall one of your commenters mentioning this book when you wrote about "You're Stepping On My Cloak and Dagger." Oh yeah, I remember now. It was me!
You're welcome.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Wait, YA author? This is the same Gary Paulsen who also did a low-budget entry in the Iditerod in the 1980s and wrote a book about it called WINTER DANCE?

I took a class from him once. Interesting guy.

HMS Defiant said...

half moon bay springs to mind. hey, they worked hard for their dollars.

Bibliotheca Servare said...

Tried to find a digitized I could do was this, from via a library, but you have to check it out, apparently an hour at a time:

Wish I could read it.