"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

- George Santayana

 

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

- Thomas Jefferson

 

"Never ... was so much owed by so many to so few."

- Winston Churchill

 

I have heard the real klaxon sound and once heard it is a sound that will haunt you for the rest of your life. The ghost of the klaxon doesn't visit me as often as it did in the past and for that I am very grateful. I am a much older man now and my dark nightmares and inability to speak when the ghost visited have, fortunately, slowly ebbed away. But as I compose this letter tonight I can see the ghost sitting beside me once again, my throat tightening up as if being strangled and my eyes welling, reminding me of an almost incomprehensible time in human history that few people ever experienced. A time I hope and pray will never come again.

"Awh-awh-awh" the klaxon would bellow with metronome regularity as I burst out of bed and raced out into the frigid darkness of the West German night. Onward I sprinted, flashlight in hand down the maze of taxiways within the Nuclear "Victor Alert" Facility, surrounded by layers upon layers of tall, concertina topped fences, mine fields, and foreboding guard towers with sentries at ready. Onward I'd run through the bone-numbing cold of the dead black West German winter night, running like all humanity depended on me as I dashed down the tarmac towards the inner sanctum of the blast-protected Hardened Aircraft Shelter (HAS) as the "awh-awh-awh" of klaxon loudly bayed.

Reality strikes home now as I draw closer to the lair that harbors the messenger of the nuclear holocaust. Wake-up and slow down I say to myself as I strain my eyes trying to see the distant silhouette of the small, dimly lit sentry's guard shack through the low blanket of thick icy fog. That young sentry is going to blow your head off without giving it a second thought if you mess up, I say to myself, so you had better start thinking rationally. It doesn't matter if he's your friend; it doesn't matter if you just had dinner with him last night; and it doesn't matter one bit if you've done this a dozen times before together - because nothing matters once the klaxon sounds - nothing matters at all.

I can barely discern the sentry tracking me now through the sights of his rifle as I approach him through the thick, eerie yellow-white fog, the klaxon still baying loudly in the background like a foghorn warning me of impeding danger.

As I slow to a walk I clasp my hands over my head and stop so close in front of the sentry that I am only inches away, looking straight down the muzzle of his charged rifle, staring directly into his keen eyes and watching the frosting breath coming from our mouths as he voices the challenge code to me and I respond correctly. Without hesitation he immediately lowers his weapon and races toward the "line of death," a thin red rope strung tautly across the front of the hardened aircraft shelter which he quickly lowers to the ground.

"I'm clear and alive" my inner monologue rejoices as we both charge towards the monstrous blast doors, where the sentry instinctively helps me raise the long steel tubular handle used to unlock the heavy bulkhead entryway. As it slowly inches open we both shield our eyes from the sunlike brilliance beaming forth from the dozens of forever lit sodium lamps that are bathing the ominous looking bird of war inside its surrealistic cocoon.

The blaring of the klaxon is even more deafening now, the "awh-awh-awh" reveberating harshly against the shelter walls as I run towards the nuclear-armed F-4E Phantom jet fighter. Looking back I see the ever vigilant sentry crouched in the bulkhead door, his weapon now trained directly at the aircraft crew chief standing outside with his hands over his head, the sentry looking to me for summary judgement as to whether he should live or die. With a wave he lowers his weapon and the crew chief dashes inside, grabs his headset and takes position for engine start. Both the crew chief and sentry now stand silent vigil waiting for their orders to start engines and open the ponderous steel blastdoors, each of us knowing full well that if the orders are given that none of us will ever see the light of day again ...

Stepping on the ladder I raise my leg to enter the aircraft and take pause for a moment to take one last look at the underbelly of the beast and the B61-5 nuclear weapon of mass destruction. No matter how much you try you never get used to seeing a real nuke, the deceivingly innocuous gleaming little silver bullet capable of unfathomable horror. And much like the "awh-awh-awh" of the klaxon, the image of a nuclear bomb is something that will be forever etched in your mind, no matter what you do to rid it. Quickly I climb the steps, enter the cockpit and strap into my ejection seat, all the while wondering if this is going to be another "exercise dress rehearsal" or if I am going to be a winged serpent of death raining fire from the heavens tonight in Armageddon.

As I pull my helmet down over my head and drop my visor to shield my eyes from the blinding light the "awh-awh-awh" of the klaxon finally subsides, but the ringing continues to reverberate in my head. It's time to refocus all of my attention now, so I strap my Nuclear Strike Line Flight Plan and Strike Message Card around my thigh, grab a couple of pencils, close my eyes and begin to carefully listen to my UHF radio to hear if the Command Post has started to transmit the Nuclear Strike Message alphanumerics. Silence, great, I'm early, and so I begin to breathe a little easier.

Every second is precious now so I take the time to review the flight plan strapped around my thigh containing the time, distance, and heading of each leg of my Nuclear Strike Line mission, even though I have each segment memorized and have recited it verbatim and from memory in front of senior officers during my Nuclear Strike Certification.

As I finish I look around and see the sealed "cookie" containing the Authentication Code required to arm the nuclear weapon and then look in disbelief at the absurd little one-eyed, pirate style eye patch that I'm supposed to wear to prevent me from getting total "flash blindness" when my nuke detonates on its target. Yeah, right, I think, blindness is the least of my worries ...

Then, the nightmare begins as the headphones in my helmet crackle, "This is the Command Post, standby to copy. I repeat, this is the Command Post, standby to copy. Oscar, Juliet, Zulu, Papa, Bravo, Lima, Charlie, Romeo, November ..."

As I listen, mesmerized, I feel my heart begin to palpitate in my chest and I soon begin to feel the effects of time compression stress set in as I drift into a semi-hypnotic like state as I listen, copy, and begin to transcribe and decypher the Nuclear Strike Message alphanumerics onto my Nuclear Strike Card. And though I have been through this dozens of times before, nothing ever seems to change, as the seconds turn to minutes and the minutes seemingly into hours as the message is transmitted and retransmitted and I listen and recopy it. This is not a game and there is no room for error, no matter how minute, as I check, double-check, and triple check my Nuclear Strike Card again and again and again to determine if this is just another Exercise or if today is Armageddon.

The rest, I am happy to say, is lost in Cold War history ...

Mr. Robert W. Gregorio is a retired United States Air Force (USAF) Major and was born in Waltham. Raised in Framingham, Bob graduated from Framingham North High School in 1972, where he was the recipient of the Key Club International, Thomas J. McMahon (US Army Specialist Four, Killed in action in Vietnam in March, 1969, and Posthumously awarded The Medal of Honor) Scholarship for Civic Duty. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Bob entered the USAF where he flew F-4E and F-4G (Society of Wild Weasels #1787), F-16, and MC-130H Special Operations aircraft. He possessed NATO Top Secret (TS) Atomal and US Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) and Critical Nuclear Weapon Design Information (CNWDI) Clearances while on active duty and served over nine years overseas in the former West Germany, United Kingdom, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Egypt, and South Korea. Bob is a Life Member of The Veterans of Foreign Wars, Life Member of The Disabled American Veterans, and Life Member of The National Rifle Association. He has been an Amateur Radio Operator since 1966 and holds an Amateur Extra Class License, callsign K4SSS. Bob is married to his high school sweetheart, Ms. Susan Tuttle, and they presently reside in Melbourne, Florida, and Wells, Maine. In retirement Bob serves as volunteer veterans' advocate and takes great pleasure in helping fellow veterans navigate the US Department of Veterans' Affairs paperwork claims process.