John Palen/Voices | My security clearance

John Palen/Voices | My security clearance

By JOHN PALEN

As a college student nearly a half-century ago, I worked a summer job for a government subcontractor on the Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile project in South Dakota.

In my job, I became privy to the classified locations of launch silos and buried cross-country cable routes.

In fact, it was easy to spot the silos by driving two-lane highways and rural roads and looking for construction in the middle of nowhere. Some of the sites were even identified by roadside signs.

Nevertheless, I needed a security clearance to make sure I wouldn't tip off the Soviets. I filled out the forms for the subcontractor, a small-town engineering company that specialized in rural telephone systems. I'd worked there since high school.

Because the folks at the company had known me, my parents and everything else about me for years, I had my clearance within a matter of days.

I was sworn to secrecy and started work. Basically, I turned surveyors' field notes into maps of cable routes and launch sites in 13,000 square miles of rough, largely unpopulated terrain.

It bothered me that I was working on a project designed to kill millions of Soviet civilians.

One day, over open-face hamburgers and mashed potatoes in a downtown Rapid City diner, I asked the company president — what a level society we lived in back then! — how we could justify doing this work.

"We just do the engineering," he said. "We leave the rest to them."

I needed the money for another year of college, so I dropped it. Soon after, I started work as a journalist.

My security clearance lapsed long ago. The silos are empty or demolished now, a result of a 1991 treaty. In fact, you can go online to a history of the Minuteman project and find the exact coordinates of each site.

But I did learn a few things that summer.

One is that maps are neat, but the world is messy.

Those straight, rational lines I drew did a poor job of representing surveyors' scribbled notes of detours around such inconvenient truths as rattlesnake dens and the outhouse pits of abandoned farmsteads.

Another is that the representations we make of the world are not neutral. Whether a map or a piece of writing or a line of research, each has a purpose, and purposes are value-laden.

A map of missile cables and silos in South Dakota has aims different from a map showing the route from Pierre to Sturgis, or a mapof the demographics of poverty or suicide or police stops.

I learned — or began to learn — that the maps you make, the projects you undertake, the work you choose to do reflect lived values. There's no "leaving the rest to them."

John Palen is a retired journalist and journalism educator. He lives in Urbana.