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Mike Vouri: The Real Thing: October 1973

  • Written by Mike Vouri

Author’s note: The following story first appeared in a different form in the November 1977 edition of Klipsun, a student publication of Western Washington University, for which I was a writer and production manager. I have cleaned up the dates as well as some florid prose. Nothing will ever change the fear of the “real thing” I experienced that night.

Original artwork by Kathryn Joan LeMieux.

It happened on October 24, 1973. I was listening to the 11 o'clock news on Seattle’s KING-TV, which led, as it had for nearly three weeks, with the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East, expounding on how Israel had bounced back from devastating surprise attacks by Egypt and Syria. Its armored forces were now closing in on Cairo and Damascus, and another crisis seemed a foregone conclusion.

At the moment, though, my attention was on more immediate matters. My Volkswagen bus was in the shop with a blown engine, and I was trying to divine how I was going to pay for a new or rebuilt replacement. On top of that, my mother was passing through on her way home to California, and while she was glad to see me, she didn’t much care for my loaner 1961 Beetle with the errant spring in the passenger seat. My domestic concerns outweighed the international news. Then the phone rang.

It was the Canadian sergeant with whom I worked at the blockhouse. In sympathy with the Arab states, the Soviet Union was contemplating dispatching a fleet to the Mediterranean and dropping paratroopers as a “peacekeeping” force, to which President Richard M. Nixon had reacted by declaring a “DEFCON (Defense Condition) Three, Round House.” Yet another Mideast crisis was bubbling over, the fourth of five in my lifetime, including the violence and suffering unfolding today—50 years later. 

By 1973 we were anything but distant observers.

The Semi-automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) Center at McChord Air Force Base processed information from outlying radar stations to detect enemy aircraft spilling over the horizon.

“You've got to come down to the blockhouse immediately,” the sergeant said. “It’s a total recall." The blockhouse was the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) Direction Center, located at McChord Air Force Base, south of Tacoma. It was a tombstone-gray, four-story, windowless hunk of concrete in which 400 U.S. Air Force and 40 Canadian Forces people worked side-by-side scanning the skies for manned bombers attacking North America.

Of the five alert levels established during the Cold War—the higher the number the lesser the threat—DEFCON Three means war is a distinct possibility, and the armed forces status is elevated to “increased readiness,” in this instance, worldwide. We had not seen anything above a Four since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when at DEFCON Two those manning the Minuteman missile silos literally had their fingers on the button.

As it was in 1973, the official DEFCON level today is known only to those in the federal government who make such determinations, including, but not exclusive to, the armed forces.

The first image that comes to mind today is the actor Slim Pickens, playing Major T.J. “King” Kong, riding a hydrogen bomb down from his B-52 over sub-arctic Russia in the 1964 film, “Dr. Strangelove.” But that was a DEFCON One (“nuclear combat, boys,” as Kong exhorted), and also a Hollywood black comedy courtesy of mad Stanley Kubrick. Closer to home for Boomers such as myself were the “duck and cover” drills in the classroom and President John F. Kennedy on the black and white screen declaring that he was prepared to incinerate the world if the Russians didn’t remove their missiles from Cuba. But my fears of a nuclear holocaust went back even further, when at age six I dreamed that I’d found bombs under my swing set. The things you learn in kindergarten.

By 1973, I was hardly a Cold Warrior. I was an Air Force staff sergeant, serving out my second enlistment as a magazine editor for the 25th Air Division, a subunit of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), which bore the responsibility of providing early warning and air defense for the United States and Canada. I had two years left to serve, and I couldn’t wait to get out and start college. Suddenly that was on the back burner.

Considering the gravity of the information he was dispensing that night, the Canadian sergeant was sotto voce, other-worldly calm, which made me immediately suspicious. Was this a practical joke perpetrated by the guys in the mail room who seemed never to have enough to do?

"What do you mean? The exercise isn't until tomorrow," I replied. We usually had quarterly exercises to practice scrambling interceptor aircraft and count simulated cadavers. No “world-wide” alert had been reported on the news broadcast. Bear in mind, this was long before the round-the-clock updates and blather of the internet and even CNN, but it was all there was, and we tended to trust in what we heard.

His voice dropped another octave. "This is the real thing, Sergeant Vouri. You need to drop whatever it is you’re doing and come in now!”

Stupefied, I hung up, moved in a daze toward the bedroom and perfunctorily changed into uniform. The real thing? I began to tremble, just as I had in October 1962. However, I soon discovered that in my dread I was part of a select circle. No one outside of the armed forces apparently knew what we knew. On the way to the base, I noted life going on as usual in town. Tavern parking lots were full. People were folding mountains of clothing and thumbing through magazines in the laundromats. High school kids in jacked-up automobiles were gunning off the line at traffic lights.

They were blissfully ignorant.

The guard hut leading to the NORAD blockhouse at McChord Air Force Base, c. 1973-75.

I drove through the main gate of the base and down the perimeter road to the blockhouse. There, it was obvious that everyone knew. A security guard in a white-crowned, billed service cap stood sentinel in front of a hut flanked by a cyclone fence. Instead of the usual perfunctory wave-though, he blocked my path, assault rifle at the ready, to perform an unusually stringent inspection of my restricted area badge. He looked intently from my face to the photo on the badge, then back to my face.

"You don't have a mustache," he barked, narrowing his eyes.

"I shaved it off a few weeks ago, and besides, you know me. I’ve been passing through here for more than four months!” It was a half-hearted stab at indignation. He took it that way and shook his head.

"Go on, get lost. Everyone’s already in the briefing room."

The massive IBM vacuum tube computer processed information to identify enemy aircraft.

The SAGE building was actually a complex of three windowless structures. The old combat center in the three-story C-side, where I worked in the information office, now served as an administration center. The four-story D-side housed an IBM vacuum-tube computer that covered an entire floor (in fact, it was the largest ever built) as well as a “big-board” gallery on the order of the one seen in “Dr. Strangelove” and other Hollywood nuclear films. The third structure was a concrete generator house with six diesel engines the size of Peterbilt tractors flanked by dual swamp coolers that kept the massive computer from melting down. This nerve center connected a network of radar sites, which enabled the computer to detect enemy aircraft—though not ballistic missiles--approaching our shores. 

The SAGE building was like a warship inside, with green linoleum floors buffed to a high gloss and lighter institutional green (or maybe beige) walls. It’s hard to remember after all these years, though I recall the smell of fresh paint and floor wax. By the time I entered the briefing room a couple of floors up via elevator, the air was stale from sweat and cigarette smoke. The briefing officer, a major who never had a hair out of place and reeked of aftershave, was concluding his briefing when I walked in.

". . . that's right, ladies and gentlemen, everything's armed and ready to go the minute the President gives us the word. It's the real thing and now we're going to see our training pay off!"

He was smiling. I couldn't believe it. But he wasn’t as bad as the lieutenant colonel who during an exercise at the height of Watergate suggested aloud, in front of an assembled multitude, that what we really needed was a coup d ‘etat. I couldn’t help thinking of Nixon. Was he escalating the crisis to divert attention from the scandal that would force him to resign his presidency 10 months later?  Or perhaps he had finally gone off his rocker and was getting even with us at long last. 

From the briefing room, I went directly to my position at the Battle Staff Support Center (BSSC). My job was to take nuclear detonation information over special phone lines from our outlying radar sites in the U.S. and Canada. In essence, the job entailed counting the dead and dying on what was called a NUDET form. I’d filled out plenty of those during exercises, calling counterparts at the radar stations along the coast and in the mountains of the U.S. and Canada. As you would imagine, gallows humor was the order of the day.

“How many crispy critters out your way?”

But that night, I couldn't bring myself to slip on the telephone headsets right away. Somehow, I felt I'd be giving in if I did, and I wasn't about to resign myself to nuclear combat—not until I was absolutely certain it was going to happen. Hoping to escape the grim atmosphere of the BSSC, I strolled into the break room and found several airmen distracting themselves in a game of stud poker. “Ah, normalcy,” I thought. But the feeling was short-lived.

Perry, a burly black Army master sergeant, was intently applying a compass square to a map of western Washington, something I'd never seen him do before. With a red marker, he inscribed a fat dot and then graphed a series of circles running out from the center.

"Hey, Perry, what's that you're doing?"

“Charting the explosions," he said without looking up.

"Explosions? What explosions? No one has reported any explosions.”

"No, there haven’t been, not yet anyway. I’m plotting the ones that'll likely hit around here."

There were a hell of a lot of red dots on that map, and all the circles overlapped. 

“Would this building hold up, if, say,  this one hit?" I pointed toward a dot on the McChord runway.

"Hell no." He looked up then, eyeing me seriously. "This place would crumple like a cracker box."

"Then why build a thing like this in the first place!"

I was aware, suddenly, of the hush that had fallen over the room while we'd been talking. The card game had stopped, and all eyes were trained now on Perry, waiting for him to answer.

"There's got to be a plan. Right?" he offered.

I nodded.

"OK, this is it." And he went back to his map.

"Perry. You don't think anything's really going to happen, do you? I mean, you were around in '62. This isn't as bad as it was then, is it?" 

"Oh yeah," he answered dryly. "It's about the same, but this time they might call our bluff. Breshnev is a different breed of cat than Khrushchev.”

"Then what’s the point of charting detonations if no one is going to see them?"

"Point? There is no point," Perry said. "It's politics."

And I was worried about my Volkswagen? I'd read John Hershey’s “Hiroshima” when I was in high school. I still remembered the descriptions of human skin sliding off limbs like steamed wallpaper. I had to get away from Perry and his professional resignation toward to the inevitable, so I returned to the BSSC.

There, my friend, Ray, was talking to his girlfriend on the telephone. He cupped his hand over the mouthpiece and motioned for me to come over.

"Diane says there's nothing on the radio about this. Nobody knows anything out there. What do you think's going on?"

I shrugged my shoulders. What did I know? I just came down to count dead bodies. Ray resumed his conversation, dropping his voice to whisper endearments.

About half a pack of Marlboros later, an announcement came down. The Canadians were told they could go home. It wasn't their fight, headquarters said. The Canadian sergeant who worked next to me, the one who'd called me a lifetime before, left the room, only to return a few minutes later.

"We talked it over with the commander and among ourselves," he explained, patting me on the back. "We're going to stay. We've gone too far with you to back out now. Besides, anything that hits the states is bound to get us anyway."

Altogether, the 440 of us spent 10 hours in that mausoleum full of black lights, flashing status boards and undertones of doom. Then, suddenly, the status board changed, from yellow to green (DEFCON Four, Double Take). Stand down with caution. Someone, in a wood-paneled room with leather chairs, had come to his senses. The pressure was off. It was over. We were commended for "responding professionally," released from duty and some of us, including me, were told we didn't have to come to work the next morning. That was on October 25. The world-wide DEFCON status wasn’t downgraded until the next day. 

Historians and some defense analysts maintain that Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ordered the DEFCON hike of his own volition, unaware of the forces he put in motion around the globe. As the major had said in his briefing, we were quite prepared, however reluctantly, to put our training to use. The next time the DEFCON level was raised to Three for regional forces was in 1976 during an incident in the Demilitarized Zone of Korea. A world-wide hike to Three also followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In the latter instance, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered U.S. forces to stand by to go to Two, but that never happened. The level was lowered to Four three days later.

The current DEFCON level as of this writing is estimated to be at Three, owing to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and now the war in Israel and Gaza.

Driving home on October 25, 1973, Lakewood and Tacoma were in the midst of the usual busy morning, the traffic stacked up, the parking lots full. I wondered if the civilian world was still oblivious to what had almost happened. They were. This was confirmed when I walked into the house to find my mom sitting at the kitchen table, her bag packed. I was to take her to the airport in a couple of hours, and she had begun to worry and was considering calling a cab. When I explained where I’d been, she found it difficult to believe. Her response:

“I never liked that Nixon. And now he nearly blows us all up.”

The world would survive another day, but I would never view it the same way. In the wake of our assistance to Israel that October, the Arab states turned off the oil spigot, which triggered a worldwide energy crisis, creating lines at the gas pumps, a 55 mph speed limit on the interstate and a sudden quest for energy efficient vehicles. 

Four years later, President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace deal between Egypt and Israel in hopes it would at long last bring peaceful resolution of that decades-long conflict. But the deal left the Palestinians in limbo, and the quest for peace remains elusive in those troubled lands.

The author, far right, with fellow 25th Air Division Information Office staff, c. 1974. He really was that skinny.

Last modified onWednesday, 18 October 2023 09:11