On Ground Zero

updated 12/23/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/23/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

For at least a few days in November, when President Reagan met Soviet leader Gorbachev at the Geneva summit, the world seemed a safer place. Whether their brief exchange will lead to a more prolonged lessening of tensions is anyone's guess and everyone's hope. Certainly—and incongruously—for citizens of a fishing village on the coast of Maine, such negotiations are a matter of life or death. While for most of us the threat of nuclear annihilation is abstract, these townspeople live with a daily reminder of superpower suspicion. What follows is a report on the village whose condition is the global condition, whose fate may be the fate of us all.

When Cutler, Maine turned 200 years old this summer, the seaport town's 500 citizens celebrated its bicentennial with a bash that featured such traditional Down East antics as a crosscut saw contest, a biscuit-eating contest and a race over empty lobster traps that were tied end-to-end across the harbor. Cutler is that kind of place. It has no policemen, no doctors, no clergymen, no crime and no unemployment. Cutler is a rugged, taciturn village with a five-room schoolhouse and a general store that still sells penny candy. Its solid but weather-beaten wooden houses are occupied by solid and weather-beaten people, many of whom live by going down to the sea in ships to pull fish and lobsters from the cold waters of the North Atlantic. "There is," says Robert Kord, 44, the town's unofficial historian, "an everlasting quality about Cutler."

But not everything in Cutler is quite so timeless, so bucolic, so peaceful. The town is also the site of one of the most beautiful and frightening symbols of the atomic age—the United States Naval Communication Unit (NCU). Built on a spit of land that juts into Machias Bay just on the east of town, the NCU consists of a series of 26 interconnected red and white towers that rise 800 to 1,000 feet into the heavens. At night, lit up like giant red flares, the towers are breathtaking—a man-made aurora borealis—but they were not erected to improve the scenery. Completed in 1961, the 15-million-watt NCU is the world's most powerful radio transmitter, the mechanism by which the U.S. Navy communicates with the fleet—including nuclear-missile-bearing submarines—in the North Atlantic, the Arctic and the Mediterranean. Which means that in the event of nuclear war, tiny Cutler would be—along with the Pentagon and the Strategic Air Command headquarters near Omaha, Nebr.—among the very first targets for incoming nuclear missiles. In other words, this fishing village, which seems a part of an earlier century, is sitting smack in the nuclear bull's-eye. Some Western analysts estimate that as many as 400 Soviet nuclear warheads are targeted on Cutler and about 16 other command-system centers. That's many times the explosive power expended during all of World War II.

The citizens of Cutler are well aware of this dubious honor, of course, and the overwhelming physical presence of the towers ensures that they never forget that fact. Grocer Ray MacKeen, 59, sits on his sun porch and peers across a mile of water at the towers. "Yeah, they're pretty at night, all lit up with red lights," he says. And if the Russian missiles should fall? "Oh, boy, what a view!" he says. "But it wouldn't last long." His wife, Joan, 47, offers her own apocalyptic addendum: "These wouldn't be the cheap seats. These would be the front-row seats."

Living at Ground Zero, the people of Cutler, one might expect, would have been intensely interested in the mid-November Reagan-Gorbachev summit, eager for news of progress in disarmament. One might suspect that, but one would be wrong. Cutler pretty much ignored the summit. "I haven't heard a living soul mention' the summit in this store, and this is the place they would discuss it," says Phyllis Springer, 61, as she stacks the hot dog rolls in the village market. "Hey, Ray," she calls to her brother, who owns the store, "you heard anyone in here talk about the summit?" Ray MacKeen shakes his head no. Ray hasn't been paying it much mind. "Nuclear arms negotiations are a farce," he says. "Let's say they come to an agreement. How are you ever gonna check it?"

Like the rest of the human race, the townspeople are at any time only minutes from the fall of nuclear night, but they live as if the day will never end. The town has no fallout shelters, no air-raid drills, no emergency provisions, no evacuation plan and no antinuclear activists. "If there was a war, we'd never know what hit us," says the town postmistress, Isabel Cates, 61. "That would be good. I'm just too busy livin' to even think about that."

Most Cutlerites would agree with Cates. In fact, the most controversial aspect of the NCU is not that it is a nuclear target but that the Navy restricts the public's access to its bowling alley, gymnasium and social club. "At times, we can't use their facilities, but they come over and use ours any time," grumbles Lori Davis, 24, the town clerk.

One fisherman, Stillman Fitzhenry, 59, is a bit more reflective than his neighbors about the issues of nuclear war, no doubt because he has seen the results of it. "I was on the USS Tyrrell that docked in Nagasaki just after we dropped the bomb there," he says. "I'm the one person in this town who knows what nuclear bombs can do. It looked completely devastated, nothing left. You can see all the pictures you want, but until you've smelled the stench from all the dead people and seen all the flies it just doesn't sink in." Fitzhenry has seldom talked about his experience before, but it left him with a deep conviction: "Nuclear disarmament is the only way to go." Still, he isn't complaining about the towers. "The antenna has to be somewhere," he says, "and I'd rather be at Ground Zero than somewhere out on the fringe."

Town Selectman Frank Rebhan, 73, agrees with Fitzhenry. "Why worry about it?" he says. "It's not an issue at town meetings. If something did happen, all of us in Cutler would go at once." Rebhan's wife, Mara, is less confident than her husband. "Maybe we're too dumb here," she says. "We figure it's not gonna happen. But it could happen...." Her voice trails off as she thinks about the unthinkable.

Her husband chooses not to join her in such melancholy contemplation. He smiles broadly and lifts his beer in a silent toast to life—however much of it is left should summits fail and the missiles fly.

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