Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Skunk Works

Area 51, Dreamland, Paradise Ranch, Groom Lake, The Box.
It is not on any official map. It is barely officially acknowledged:

It is there.

In ’82, a wildfire brought us to the Nevada Test Site.
Out of Las Vegas on 95, skirting the North edge of Death Valley.
At the end of a long dirt road, a small guard shack
stands in the middle of endless desert. All cameras and binoculars are confiscated. IDs must be shown, information is recorded. “Personnel Checks” are conducted. We wait impatiently for hours in the desert heat.

We are issued radiations badges and an escort is provided, two serious young men in black BDUs; no insignias or name plates, carrying H & Ks. The only answer to any question was, “I’m sorry, that’s classified.”

Long dusty roads across Frenchman and Yucca flats, miles and miles of barbed wire, warning signs guarding baked desert scrub, grass and dirt, landscape a palette of contoured mountain and ridge in brown and tan,
blasted by nature and man alike.

At the northeast corner of the Site, a base camp in the middle of nowhere.
Desert sun pounds everything. Camo netting over tables and tents,
a field kitchen, a silent and surly camp staff. It is all commanded by a man who looks like Lt. Hunter from Hill Street Blues. In the blinding heat, he wears a camo poncho over spotless nomex pants and shirt. He does not have a name. He smokes a pipe dramatically and incessantly. He is cordial in a hale-fellow-well-met Ivy League way, but says nothing of substance. His one cogent offering is an aside that, once we get to the fire, we “Might not want to breath too much of the dust.”

Our helicopter arrives, piloted by a cocky Viet Nam vet;
I luck out and sit beside the pilot with an excellent view.
On route to the fire, we come over a ridge, and suddenly
there are long runways and a large complex of buildings.
At the same moment, in my headphones I hear a voice calling us and identifying themselves as “Dreamland Base.” The pilot grins at me, his expression clearly dubious. He is given an alternative heading and told
to go there without delay. He is amused and hesitates in complying.
He is told a second time, with an added caveat to “Follow your escort”
As he asks, “What escort?” Two black, unmarked Cobra attack helicopters appear on either side of us, close enough for me to see
a front seat gunner gesturing angrily at where we are to go.

We land and offload with our omnipresent and armed escort and the chopper departs. Our escort paraphrases Lt. Hunter’s warning that we “Might not want to dig around too much,” so we sit and watch the desert burn for ten hours.
When our chopper returns, our pilot is cocky no more; he is quiet and angry and scared.

For three days, we watch the desert burn by day and return to camp by night. Our last night, we are given trailers at the Test Site. Huge doors in the side of a mountain, huge tunnels retreat into darkness. Each trailer has
instructions for response in the event of nuclear attack; on the pavement outside, glow-in-the-dark footprints lead to the tunnels. We are allowed into the rec center; no one speaks to us or looks our way and no one recreates.

The next morning, we turn in our radiation badges, retrieve our cameras, and leave confused.

Twenty five years later, I refinance a retired Lockheed Martin engineer. Conversation leads to the Skunk Works. I tell this story and answer some questions about what I saw. The engineer stares at me, fascinated, and says.
“My God, you were there.”

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