It was 25 years ago. President Reagan was telling Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!" at the same time that Guest Author Michael Lorton and three co-patriots were headed into a top secret government bunker to help with some software programming. When not frequenting bunkers, Michael writes the daily blog Blue Apsara about culture, economics, travel, law, and the occasional giant, carnivorous lizard. Here’s Michael’s tale, as he remembers it.
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine
(From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord)
Funny how even in the egalitarian US, we assort ourselves by rank. Tony, the oldest of us and most senior with the company, was driving; the next most senior, Oppy — David Oppenheimer — was shotgun. The two youngest were in the back, me and David Garfield, inevitably called Garf by analogy.
The little car wended up the mountain road, and we came to a high metal gate. An armed guard came out of the shack and stuck his head in the window. “You have any cameras or recording equipment?” No, we chorused — this was long before cell-phones. “You have any fire-arms or narcotics?”
Another chorus of no. but I muttered “What do you need?” under my breath, amusing myself, being an asshole. The guard didn’t hear me and waved us through, but Tony had better ears.
“No fucking around,” he snapped. Tony might have once had a sense of humor, but it must have been burned out of him in the 20 years he spent in the reactor spaces of Navy submarines.
Once past the gate and a few more formalities, we went down a steep and tortuous driveway, a mile or so. Oppy pointed out his favorite sight: a wrecked Huey helicopter, abandoned among the pines by the side of the road.
We parked in a huge and empty lot cut out of the side of the mountain. There was a huge semi-circular tunnel leading back into the mountain. From the car, it looked like the mouth of a rain culvert, but 20 or 30 feet high. Tony told us, “He’ll be here soon.”
We lounged around the car in the cool West Virginia sun. After about 10 minutes, a zippy little electric cart tooled out of the tunnel. The driver was a chubby man about 40s, wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and a tie. As on every government employee I’d ever seen, his ID badge was hung around his neck on a chain and then tucked into his shirt pocket. The four of us crowded onto the little cart, and we headed into the tunnel.
The floor of the tunnel was flat, level, and paved; the walls, arching up to become the roof, were living rock, white-washed but otherwise exactly what you’d expect overhead when you’re this far under ground.
We rolled along down the tunnel for perhaps half a mile, and came to a set of massive doors, built to completely seal off the tunnel if necessary. They were easily six feet thick, built of steel and concrete and running on railroad-style wheels. There was a gap in the floor to accommodate the tracks the doors slid on, and we gingerly crossed the plywood board that had been laid down as a bridge. We passed a set of free-standing showers marked “Decontamination Center”. Thereafter, every few dozen feet, there would be a door set in the rock of the wall. These were ordinary metal doors, like the door to my apartment. Each was marked with a cryptic sign, a few letters and digits. We stopped at one.
Its sign read “ICC-003” or something like that. The four of us hopped off, and the driver took off without a word. Tony rang the bell, the door-lock buzzed, and we went in. A voice came over a scratchy intercom. “ID!”
We all held up our company ID to the small camera mounted above the door. “Wait!” said the voice.
I felt foolish, standing in that odd fluorescent-lit tunnel, waiting for an unseen person to come to an unknown decision. They were supposed to be expecting us, they invited us. If our identities didn’t pass whatever checks they were running, the cart was gone, so I guess we would have to make our own way to the surface like mine-accident survivors.
Ten more minutes and the door was opened from the inside. A balding, bored-looking man, also in a short-sleeved shirt and a tie, double-checked our ID and waved us in.
The office looked like a lot of computer rooms of the time, built on raised floors so cables could easily be run from place to place, oppressively low false ceiling of acoustical tile, Arctic air-conditioning. Unlike more computer rooms, it was crowded with people, fifty or sixty of them, more men in short sleeves and ties, women in pants suit, working at terminals or walking large displays and making notes on clipboard. And it was loud, not only with air-conditioning and fans, but ringing phones and discussion.
Garf and I had been brought to this office, far under the Appalachian forest, for a rather routine task. Our company had been contracted to write a series of very complex readiness evaluations for this government agency. If the worst should happen and those huge blast doors had to be rolled shut on their train-wheels, did the agency have enough men, enough trucks, enough computers to continue to fulfill its role in what they called “the trans-attack and post-attack periods”.
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