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Thursday, February 4, 1999

Hole in the ground--

Atlas missile fanciers go ballistic in abandoned silo

By Bill Whitaker

Buddy King is the only person I know who's invested time and money in a big, empty hole in the ground and still smiles about it.

Fact is, Buddy's been smiling nearly three decades now.

Just the other day, local historians -- both seen-it-all professionals and passionate amateurs -- braved venomous snakes and specially rigged shotguns to see the mammoth hole in Mulberry Canyon that's become, more than anything else, "Buddy's place."

The simple fact this rural hideaway also housed a nuclear-tipped Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile during the early 1960s is what brought the historically curious to Buddy's underground lair. But there's no denying Buddy has added his own unique aura to the place.

For instance, a wooden box Buddy says houses albino rattlesnakes is booby-trapped to unleash a very real terror on the unsuspecting -- though what's inside isn't necessarily albino or even reptilian. To say anymore would be to give away one of Buddy's most imaginative security measures.

"It's his private thing, and I do mean private," Larry Sanders, head of the locally based Atlas ICBM Historical Society, reminded me after we'd emerged from the depths that night. "Buddy's hospitable enough to share it with friends and guests, but it's something he's very protective of."

You get that feeling, too, the moment you enter the silo complex, whether it's due to the real snakes he keeps around or the rubber ones.


Well-mannered and low-key, Buddy regards the old silo complex as his private sanctuary and does his best to discourage trespassers. When I first met him 15 or so years ago, he and best pal Norman Painter cordially showed me around the place but also made it clear uninvited guests were not welcome.

And the way Buddy has the place booby-trapped with surprises, anyone would have to be crazy to venture in uninvited.

That said, the old haunt is also one that conjures up, for him, fond recollections.

"It's not a house, it's more like a hunting cabin," he said of his home away from home. "It's a place and, well, it's also different. I don't sit out here and dwell on what it was in the past or anything. Rather, it's just like you had a cabin out at the lake.

"You might go out there on weekends but you wouldn't live there."

From left, Dr. Don Frazier, Buddy King, Steve Reynolds and Casey Dugger contemplate a utility tunnel leading to an abandoned missile silo.

The old missile silo was one of a dozen dug around the Abilene area during the height of the Cold War. Work on the 180-foot-deep silos -- each designed to house an Atlas missile -- brought folks from throughout West Texas in the early '60s, each anxious to work on construction.

But while missiles were in place in 1961, the entire system was deemed hopelessly obsolete by 1965. The missiles were quietly removed and other uses for the silos sought. In the case of the silo Buddy now owns, a small rural school district was given the property.

The federal government later took the gutted silo complex back when school officials frankly admitted they had no earthly idea what to do with it. Uncle Sam then offered it and the surrounding acreage for sale, which is when Buddy King got involved.

A quality control foreman at a nearby plant who was raised several miles from the silo, Buddy said he wasn't sure what he was getting into when he bid on the silo in 1969: "I just heard that anything you bought from the government was generally a penny on the dollar as far as worth."

To Buddy's surprise, his bid of $3,050 for the empty missile silo was accepted, contingent on Buddy's agreeing to certain conditions: "You had to sign that you weren't going to use it for any communist-type purpose."

Buddy still remembers the ownership papers arriving, notifying him he was, in the government's words, "the owner of one each Atlas missile silo."


For years, Buddy joked how he turned the abandoned missile silo into a "worm farm," which was true enough. But he and chum Norman Painter -- who, sadly, died just last month -- did far more, converting the crew quarters of the launch control center into a laid-back quasi-bachelor pad.

So what if both men were happily married?

"I used to call it my game of golf," Buddy said. "Now, I do not play golf. This is what I do instead of golf. It's a place to go and relax and get away from the stresses of the day. Of course, when I come out here, I often end up working!"

Old campaign signs and faded prints cover control-center walls, including a picture of Judge Roy Bean's courthouse as commissioned by Pearl Beer. On one wall is a gargantuan photo of a B-1 bomber flying above the mountains. A shark's jaws hang suspended in front of this picturesque scene.

"Step right up here and look through those shark teeth," Buddy tells baffled guests. "See? Now, where else can you look through a shark's teeth and see a B-1 bomber?"

Nowhere else, of course.

As far as the cavernous silo that actually housed the missile, it's partly full of water now. Even so, the mere sight of it -- the highlight of any tour Buddy conducts -- is chilling, especially when one considers how the Cold War almost erupted into nuclear confrontation in 1962.

Even those who know local silos well -- men such as 62-year-old "Fal" Falcioni, then a General Dynamics engineer involved in the missile program, and 58-year-old Loren Gardner, now a Methodist pastor but then part of the program's security detail -- registered plenty of awe the other night.

"It really complements all the recent emphasis on our Texas Forts Trails," said historian Don Frazier of McMurry University, part of the entourage visiting Buddy's place that windy night. "I mean, when you think of its role in history, it's the most unique 'fort' out here."

Of course, Buddy King doesn't ponder such nuclear notions all that much. Few folks in this stretch of West Texas do. But he does know one thing about the giant hole in the ground he paid $3,050 for.

"I've had a million dollars worth of fun in it," he said.

Anyone interested in the Atlas ICBM Historical Society's endeavors can contact it at 802 Green Valley, Abilene, 79601 or phone 673-6216. And anyone interested in Bill Whitaker's endeavors can contact him at 676-6732 or e-mail him at WTWARN@aol.com.


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