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Oil executive owns a West Texas missile silo

Oil executive owns a West Texas missile silo

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LAWN, Texas (AP) — Imagine scooping four tons of sand with a potato chip can.

"It's amazing what a motivated 10-year-old can accomplish," said Larry Sanders, the owner of the Lawn Atlas Missile Base.

There were 12 Atlas missile silos in the Big Country during the early 1960s. All were under the command of Dyess Air Force Base and called the 578th Strategic Missile Squadron.

Generally arranged at the points of a clock, they closed by the middle of the decade. The missile bases were gutted of their equipment — along with their accompanying 82-foot nuclear-tipped, intercontinental ballistic missiles — and the sites were sold to whomever wanted the property.

Some, like the Clyde Independent School District, use the property for its bus barn. Another, Dive Valhalla about 20 miles from Abilene on U.S. 277, uses the silo as a diving certification facility.

For a brief period, the City of Lawn used its local silo on Farm Road 604 as a community shelter. But eventually the site became the city dump until Larry Sanders came along in the mid-1990s.

"When I was working for the Texas Senate, I became aware of the fact that there are no Atlas ICBM sites anywhere in America held in the public trust for preservation," he said. "I saw a tremendous opportunity for this region and for the state to be a leader in that preservation effort."

Drafting family and friends, Sanders began cleaning up the Lawn missile base in 1998. That's where the potato chip can came into play, his son Keith at the time was the only one who could fit into the top of the escape hatch.

"We couldn't open it from the bottom and let four tons of sand spill out," Sanders said.

The tube was too narrow to shovel out from the top.

"When you get below two or three feet, there's nothing you can do," he recalled, adding it took his son about four weekends to complete.

"Only a child sitting on his bottom with a potato chip tube could actually move it."

Sanders officially acquired the missile base in 2009.

"I'm a long way from owning my house, but I own my own missile base," he said, laughing. "I don't know if that's something that most people would be really proud of or not, but I certainly am."

I've visited this silo a few times over the years. The first time was in 2001 when Sanders was provost for Texas State Technical College and the Texas State Senate that year officially named Farm Road 604 as the Atlas ICBM Highway.

These days Sanders is vice president of a local oil company. Recently, he hosted the monthly meeting of the Texas Forts Trail inside what was once the Lawn silo's control room.

"It's always been a dream of mine, long before I came a member of the Texas Forts Trail board, that the Lawn Atlas Missile Base would become the first 20 Century addition to the Texas Forts Trail," Sanders said. "That allows a unique juxtaposition of our frontier heritage with our more contemporary Cold War history."

Sanders suggested that the Cold War doesn't get its due when compared to the other conflicts in American history. He hopes to create the Atlas Missile Base Cold War Center at the Lawn site to rectify that.

He drew a parallel between Fort Phantom Hill and the missile base to illustrate his point.

"Fort Phantom was here to protect settlers on a new frontier, to defend them from aggression," he said. "This missile base had exactly the same purpose; to protect America from aggression and to keep its citizenry safe."

During his presentation Sanders described his interview with one of the airmen, Lucius Morgan, who was on duty inside the facility during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

"Airman Morgan told me that for 11 hours he didn't have the urge to smoke, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, nothing," Sanders recalled. "He was just watching the needles on his power controller."

Nearby, his commander had taken his pistol, chambered a round, and set it on the console in front of him.

"He didn't say a word to the team, but they knew exactly what that meant," Sanders said.

No one knew the missile's target, Sanders said it was hard-wired into the weapons guidance system and remains classified to this day. The crew had enough water, fuel and air to survive for three months, though they only brought enough food for 24 hours.

"That's a profound lesson, that means each of the guys that were here who carried that stuff in knew that if they executed the mission, they would never have to worry about the next 24 hours," Sanders said. "Because there's nothing to return to."

April marked 50 years since the Atlas missile bases were shut down. Sanders has hosted different groups over the years, but the one that probably stands out the most is when the History Channel's "Mail Call" came calling, hosted by R. Lee Ermey.

"R. Lee Ermey was of course the drill instructor from 'Full Metal Jacket', such a cool guy," Sanders said. "But he described the Atlas ICBM in the unique way I've ever heard."

He paused for a moment, expressing his admiration for how Ermey, a retired gunnery sergeant and former real-life drill instructor in the United States Marine Corps, excels in firing colorful phrases off the hip. Ermey was also known on his show for blowing watermelons to smithereens using the featured weapon of the week.

"Let me see, I've got to get this right," Sanders said. "He described it as a 'supersecret, stainless-steel can of whoop-ass.'"

Sanders laughed, "I'll never forget that."

Probably a bit much for taking out a watermelon, though.

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