Way Down Home in a Missile Silo: The Cold War Goes Condo

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Down a dusty Kansas back road, Ed Peden's place has a laundry line in the yard and a barbecue grill in the driveway. But that's pretty much where normalcy ends and Oz begins.

"Come on in," Mr. Peden's voice echoes as a visitor steps through his front door into a dank, 120-foot-long shaft of corrugated metal. At the end of the tunnel Peden opens another door and enters a musty foyer complete with a 1960s missile-base control panel.

As historians rethink the cold war, here amid Kansas milo fields, Peden is remaking a bizarre bit of memorabilia from the US-Soviet nuclear arms race: an abandoned Atlas E missile complex that he has adopted as an underground home.

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"It's strange to think that for four years men sat in our living room around the clock ready to blow up a Russian city," says Peden, a former history teacher who grew up in the era of "duck and cover" drills.

That's not the only strange thing about Peden's experiment in missile-base living: His garage, the old launch bay, has a 47-ton, 20-foot-wide door. "It's automatic," he says.

His living quarters have 18-inch concrete walls and ceilings covered with three feet of earth. "No need for air conditioning." And for claustrophobic guests, a door marked "EXIT" opens to an escape hatch.

Peden admits he bought the missile site for $40,000 several years ago partly to do something off-beat. "I always liked the idea of being eccentric," he says, his angular face framed by wire-rimmed glasses and flowing, shoulder-length hair.

But by hunkering down in a cold-war fortification, Peden says he has also gained a unique perspective on history - not to mention an unusual opportunity for profit.

"Human history pivoted around these structures and their destructive capacity," he says, standing in his cavernous living room. "We now have a better view of what we better not do to each other on the planet."

The US installed more than 110 Atlas missiles - the country's first intercontinental ballistic weapon - in permanent bases around the country in the late 1950s and early '60s. Most of the weapons were located in the Midwest, with a few in California and New York. Peden's home is one of 19 Atlas sites in Kansas.

The Atlas E-type silo was built to withstand a one-megaton blast as close as a mile away. The missile had a range of about 6,000 miles. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Peden's site was manned by a double crew of Air Force missiliers.

Yet these first-generation missiles, which cost millions of dollars each, were not very accurate or reliable, Peden and others contend. "One missile engineer told me only 10 percent would hit the target," Peden says. "This piece of cold- war history is going to ... force us to take a closer look at how the government works."

"The first-generation systems weren't intended to work," claims another missile-base owner in Wamego, Kan., who has compiled an archive of the Atlas E system. "We leaked the blueprints so [the Soviets] would spend themselves into the ground," he said, requesting anonymity.

US missile officials deny such charges.

Still, after only five years in service, the military shut down the Atlas installations and replaced them with new Titan II and Minutemen sites. Labeled FUDS (Formerly Used Defense Sites), about half of the old bases were handed over to cities, counties, and school districts. North of Holton, Kan., for example, Jackson Heights school district bought an Atlas E complex for $1 in 1969. "It was a very economical way to put up a new high school," says superintendent Don Stockstill. Subterranean science, math, and art classes are linked by stairs to an above-ground conventional school.

The rest of the silos fell into private hands. Peden first heard of the Dover base in the early 1980s, when he was teaching history in Topeka. Having learned about environmentally friendly housing during the energy crisis a decade earlier, Peden was intrigued. He had to tour the gutted, flooded, cave-like structure using a canoe and flashlight. Still, he was impressed by its sheer size and permanence. He eventually bought the 33-acre site, which came with an airstrip, and set up a business manufacturing ultra-light aircraft in the former launch bay. In 1994, he finally moved in.

In the post-cold-war era, Peden views his dwelling through a prism of history and archaeology. "I feel my role here is almost one of a steward," he reflects. "These structures will be here for hundreds of years. They are the castles of this century."

Indeed, Peden has created a lucrative business reselling other missile silos, which he markets as "Twentieth Century Castles." He has sold more than a dozen, described in a brochure as "historic, collectible, underground properties." A Texas man even teaches scuba in his flooded silo.

The structures do have drawbacks. For repairs, "You can't just go to the hardware store and buy the typical home products," notes Peden. He is planning to launch a newsletter with practical advice for missile-base owners, such as "how to refurbish the sewage system on an Atlas F."

Peden's teenage daughters sometimes complain about living underground. And no matter how hard he and his wife, Dianna, try - the "Welcome Friends" sign, the lavender hanging out to dry, the quaint kitchen spice rack - the place will never be exactly homey.

"The thing we really lack down here," he says, completely deadpan, "is a view."

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