While growing up, my days after school and on weekends consisted of building forts in the woods where my friends and I would defend the forests and valleys against invading soldiers.
Then I discovered a real army fort deep in the Meshomasic State Forest in Portland, and I've been drawn to it ever since.
Once known as HA-36, it was a Nike missile base, or at least the remnants of one after it was abandoned during the early 1970s.
From the late 1950s, the missiles once provided an "iron ring" around the "Hartford Defense Area" protecting cities and industrial areas from attacks by Soviet bombers, one of 300 sites across the country. But with the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the bases faded into obscurity.
Earlier this week, I found myself returning to explore the ruins to see how much more of the base has vanished.
It seems every time I return, another piece has been reclaimed by the encroaching New England forest or has become a victim of vandalism. Maybe I'm just a lone voice in the wilderness, but I wish someone would preserve this for my children and grandchildren, a way to convey a flavor of a dangerous time in our past.
After a wild ride along the icy and unplowed North Mulford Road from Glastonbury, I reached the yellow gate marking the entrance to the launcher area. After climbing a concrete flight of stairs that looked out of place in the middle of the woods, I followed old chain link fence posts to a rocky outcropping with an overlook of the now barren area. The fence followed a huge berm marked with occasional brick manholes disappearing into the earth.
Frozen footprints in the snow from other visitors led to areas where metal stairs disappear into walled chambers where a half dozen "Ajax" Nike missiles were once stored below the forest floor. Access is blocked, but many of the chambers still exist and are buried underground. When the site was operational, soldiers affectionately known as "launcher rats" prepared to fire missiles within a 15-minute window.
The command center is directly to the east on Del Reeves Road. Both sites have yellow iron gates that block traffic. Both facilities are also on the highest hills in the forest with commanding and panoramic views of the Connecticut River Valley. The fire control area on Reeves Road, where soldiers monitored the sky with radar, is littered with abandoned water towers, a broken parking area is slowly disappearing under the advancing forest and rusted fuel tanks barely remain upright on their crumbling supports. And more vandalism and more pieces of the past disappearing.
"Whatever tomorrow brings ... Nike will be watching, always ready" was the slogan used by Nike manufacturer Western Electric. I'm hoping tomorrow brings some sort of preservation of a site that recalls our Cold War past. A past we should never forget.