This is a story about a man and a hole in the ground. Specifically a very large hole dug in the middle of Cheyenne Mountain, which overlooks the southern part of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Back in the day, when Russia and the US began pointing missiles at each other in earnest, generals and other important people decided they needed a really safe place to hide decision makers and control panels. This way, if a nuclear war started they could still strike back even if hell-fire rained upon the nation. So they decided to hollow out a mountain, and Cheyenne Mountain had the right kind of granite for the job.
Flash forward to somewhere in the early eighties, and this hole in the ground teemed with officers and airmen keeping watch on the skies, making sure we would know when missiles were incoming so we could send a bunch of them back. There was a war on at the time, but they called it a cold war. This meant that, while no real fighting was going on, two great powers were investing massive amounts of energy and money to ensure they they both had the most cutting edge weapons. Enough to destroy each other many times over. The threat of this was supposed to keep either one from throwing the first punch. "Mutually Assured Destruction." MAD. Absolutely mad. The constant threat acted like an unreleased slow trickle of corrosive adrenaline across the country. Pent up anxiety caused a national case of hypertension, affecting even those who couldn't understand the politics.
From my boyhood window I could see a row of white-hot lights midway up the mountain, and I knew that men were in there, buried under a hollow mountain, keeping an eye on things. Somehow this did not reassure me; I still recall as a boy, with some measure of anxiety, hearing jet engines while I lay in bed. Now, jets flying overhead are commonplace when surrounded by Air Force installations and rationally I knew they were not missiles. But given the tensions at the time and realizing that the hollowed out mountain was priority target #1, my stomach couldn't help knotting up at times. Even the well-meaning tradition of NORAD reporting on the position of Santa Claus around the globe, dutifully reported by local radio stations, still gave me the brief thought that the missiles were on the way. "NORAD reports that an unidentified craft has departed the North Pole." These words, evoking chuckles from parents, sent quick electric panic through the hairs on the back of my young neck.
Resuming our story back in the sixties, they dug, chiseled, blasted, and scooped out solid granite until the cavern could swallow fifteen buildings, six generators, three subterranean lakes, and all the electronic eyeballs and doohickeys they needed. Once they did this they needed some people to write the manuals to use all this stuff, calibrate exhaust doors, and various other duties as assigned. This is where the man comes in. His name was Cliff, and he was my grandfather. Much later he would tell me stories, declassified of course, of the great technological accomplishments of the mountain. For example, the air vents for the facility on the mountain exterior, built to blend in with the terrain (painted like rocks, I imagine), which could detect and respond to sounds as soft as a hand clap. They were the width of a man's arm span and could slam shut in less time it would take you to blink.
By this time, Cliff was already a pretty accomplished guy. He had served in several wars as a ground soldier, pilot and, when he was tasked with writing manuals for this high tech hole in the ground, a civil engineer. Quite a journey to this point. The most visible project he worked on stands North of Colorado Springs. The Air Force decided to build a big, important school and on that campus they built an iconic, multi-speared chapel that thrust seventeen sharp spires toward the Lord. He served as an engineer on that project and I have no proof, but I suspect that Cliff's insistence to the brass that the high-profile "son-of-a-bitch" was going to leak led to his remaining a Lieutenant Colonel, never to reach "full bird".
The Air Force brought Cliff to Colorado Springs to write manuals and create impressive things, and it doesn't get much more impressive than hollowing out a mountain. As I mentioned before, they put fifteen three-story buildings inside, seven massive generators to produced power, and the aforementioned reservoirs. The buildings inside are all mounted on springs, so they can ride out the blast of nuclear detonation. Fed by a reservoir of diesel fuel--an unignited lake of fire--the generators were constantly maintained to provide uninterrupted power. The other lakes were mundane H2O; one for drinking and the rest for cooling and other such things. The staff inside would inspect these subterranean lochs in rowboats. If their sense of humor was anything like my grandfather's I can imagine they called themselves the "Cheyenne Mountain Underground Yacht Club.
For decades the men paddled around underground lakes and kept watch on the skies. Cliff, having finished helping write instructions for this nerve center in the ground and erecting an iconic chapel that reached to the heavens, managed to raise a family at the same time. While his legacy remains in the steel spires and the hollowed out granite of Cheyenne Mountain, the most profound of his accomplishments are busy raising families of their own in Oklahoma, California and Colorado. Myself, I ended up here in Fort Collins with my wife and daughter, Alison and Athena. I have yet to build my cathedral, but I'm working to that end everyday and this little endeavor is the foundation for the spires that will stretch towards the heavens. And no matter how high they reach, I'm fortunate enough to have my most meaningful accomplishments under the same roof with me.
In honor of the folks that dug that hole in the ground I created the "Cheyenne Mountain Underground Yacht Club" t-shirt. Get yours here!