It’s one of the dark marks of the U.S. Government in the 20th century — a complete willingness to expose unwitting citizens to dangerous substances in the name of scientific advancement. It happened with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, with the MKUltra mind control project and with the atomic bomb testing of the 1940s and 50s. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) knew that dangerous levels of fallout were being pumped into the atmosphere, but didn’t bother to tell anyone. Well, anyone except the photographic film industry, that is.

Up And Down

Here is the front of the garage.

They’ve started work on raising the floor level. First step: raise the masonry! See on the left side, how the blocks only come up about 2′ above the ground. Now see the pillar in the center, which has been detached from the garage framing (see the gap at its top) and extended to about 6′ above the ground. The wall on the right, which you can’t see here, has been extended. They’re going to do something similar with the other walls, then bring in several dozen tons of gravel and fill dirt to raise the ground up to the new level.

And here is the core of a giant oak tree we had cut down from in front of the house. It’s close to 3′ across. It was a beautiful old tree, but it was leaning over the house. We never understood why the first builder left it there when he initially cleared the lot. And now that it’s down and we can see the rot in it, I’m doubly glad we took it out. A tree that big with that much rot in it was going to fall, soon – right through the middle of the house.

Met all our new neighbors at a Super Bowl party last night. They seem nice, and include an equine surgeon, a retired musician who is building a recording studio in his back yard, a bunch of people retired from IBM and a couple of triathletes. Yipe.

Big Hole, Deep Secret

I was thinking the other week, when this app started making the rounds, about how our little town would probably not be on anyone’s nuclear bomb target list. Turns out that’s probably still true. Instead of the town being a target, a spot two miles up the road from our house is likely to be one.

Ask Pittsboro Mayor Chuck Devinney what he did when he worked for AT&T, and he offers evasions straight out of an X-Files script. “I wiped it all out of my head,” he says. “When I went out the door, I never looked back.”

Coming from a public utility employee turned small-town public official, that might sound pretty melodramatic. Unless, that is, the door walked out of was the secured gateway to Chatham County’s underground enigma, the Big Hole. That’s where Devinney and dozens of other AT&T employees holed up for much of the Cold War, soldiers in a hidden battle to safeguard a U.S. command and control system in the event of nuclear war.

The system, called the Automatic Voice Network (AUTOVON), was put in service in 1964 by the Defense Communications Agency; the Chatham facility came on-line in 1966. About 60 AUTOVON relay and switching centers were built across the country. Of those, 20 sites, including Big Hole, were underground, hardened facilities, engineered to withstand anything but a direct hit by an enemy missile. AT&T won the classified contract to operate domestic AUTOVON centers, while the U.S. military manned those established in other countries.