12/23/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
AIR FORCE CAPT. DAVID CLEARY, 27, still gets carded in bars. "Nobody believes I'm even 21," he says with a laugh. But do not let appearances deceive. Once upon a time, Cleary might have helped bring about the end of the world. On the lonesome, wind-blasted high plains of North Dakota, he and scores of other officers on the Minot Air Force Base were on seemingly perpetual alert, ever ready to fly 244-ton B-52 Stratofortresses out of the branching runways of the Christmas Tree, as Minot's tarmac is called, to deliver doomsday to the Soviet Union. Equipped with thermonuclear windshields to protect the pilots from the blinding flash of exploding enemy missiles, the planes would have breached Moscow's airspace to drop their lethal payload. For Geary and his friends, one week out of every four was spent entombed in Mole Hill, the nickname for Minot's windowless, concrete Bomber Alert Facility. There, they would be poised on the edge of apocalypse.
But no longer. On Sept. 27, George Bush ordered the Air Force to stand down from its 30-year-long alert at all 11 Strategic Air Command bases. The cold war was over; the bad guys had self-destructed. Since 1959, Minot air base had been one of the most secure places in the world, guarded by dogs, electronic sensors and soldiers wielding M16 rifles. Suddenly, the Bomber Alert Facility was virtually obsolete. Mole Hill was padlocked, and an anonymously written sign hung on its door: WE HAVE WON THE WAR. NOW WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE BUILDING?
And not just the building. "I go, 'Gee, what's going on? This is unbelievable,' " says Cleary. "It was like when you graduate from high school and you think, 'What do I do now?' " For some at Minot, there will be no more nightmares. Col. David Young, 47, who commands the 16 B-52s at the base, recalls a computer malfunction in 1973 that nearly set off World War III. "The Russians are coming," Young, a pilot at the time, recalls thinking. "They really are this time." Only when planes had reached the end of their runways was the mission aborted.
The idea of pushing the button also had its honors. Says Capt. Kevin Gardner, 30: "You'd be thinking about how your family would already be dead because the Soviet missiles would already have landed there."
Now it is a matter of living full-time with the family—and with the real problems of a post—cold war world. "Like your AIDS and your homeless people and that kind of stuff," says Young. He adds, "For the bomber crews, if the kids are crying, they can't get out of the house for those seven days." Says Cleary's wife, Victoria, 26, who is expecting their first child in January: "A lot of women had their babies while their husbands were on alert, and I wasn't looking forward to that. It's only been a few months, and you still feel it's not happened." But it is happening. And for the B-52 crews of Minot, the season will be filled with real Christmas trees—not strategic ones. There will no longer be a mountain to be made of the Mole Hill.
HOWARD G. CHUA-EOAN
BILL SHAW In Minot