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Love at the missile base

Meet Judy and Tom, the parents in the picture. Judy was raised on a cattle farm. Tom was raised on a tobacco farm.

Tom and Judy and family

They grew up in a place called Broadford, Virginia. You can’t call it a town. It’s just a crossroads with a few houses and a church doubling as a school.

 Broadford, Virginia aerial

Tom and Judy went to the little church/school together but didn’t talk much, until Judy started walking to school with Tom’s sister. One day Tom came by, turned around and said, “Hi Judy.” She was tickled to death that someone knew her name. They started sitting together at the little church, then started dating in the eighth grade, and simply never left each other.

When they held hands, Judy did some strange maneuvers. She was so accustomed to milking cows that she subjected his hand to her milking motions without thinking about it.

After high school, it was time to become productive adults. Judy was ready for the working world. She took some typing courses, so of course she performed new maneuvers on Tom’s hand. “She kept putting her fingers in the ASDF position like they teach you in typing class,” Tom says.

Judy went off to Radford College, but Tom didn’t do much of anything. This wasn’t acceptable. Judy gave him an ultimatum: “I told him either get a job or join the military or I’m through with you.” That last option, the military, scared her a little. “I was so afraid something would happen to him, and I would have forced it.” 

Military service was mandatory at the time anyway, so Tom was on the list to be drafted. But with Judy on his case, he volunteered to bypass the list and get it over with. It was easier than dealing with her. He caught a bus to Fort Jackson in South Carolina the next day and joined 434 other men in basic training.

One day, while they learned how to shoot their M1 rifles at a bullseye far away, the sergeant offered a prize. The top 10 sharp-shooters would get a weekend pass to go home. Tom wanted to see Judy badly. He focused. He shot. He scored eighth best, so he got to visit Judy!

Then it was off to a place called Quincy, Massachusetts. There weren’t many major highways back then, so the ride to Quincy took 14 hours. From there, the guys were assigned to different missile batteries all around Boston. Tom was assigned to Burlington. He arrived February 1, 1956.

This was after Korea and before the Vietnam draft, so America was not really at war — but it was locked in a cold war with Russia. The US feared that Soviet bombers might suddenly pay a visit, so the military built missile defense sites near all major cities, 255 sites across the USA. The brand new Route 128 formed a strategic semicircle around Boston, so several sites popped up along the highway. For detail about the Burlington operation, click here. The missiles were tucked underground at what is now the Northeastern University campus parking lot on South Bedford Street.

Nike Ajax launching area 1959 photo 3, Burlington MANike Ajax launching area 1959 photo 2, Burlington MA

Nike Ajax launching area 1959 photo 1, Burlington MA
Nike Ajax launching area 1959, Burlington MA. Ed Thelen photos.

The buttons to fire them, and the radar to guide them, sat atop Winnmere Hill at the upper end of Edgemere Avenue. That’s where Tom was stationed.

Nike Missile site Burlington, MA
Tom guarding the gate from Edgemere Avenue (He’s inside the facility). No dogs allowed, apparently.
Nike Missile site Burlington, MA
Tom (left) and Ken Hickman, the chef at the radar facility at Edgemere Avenue.
MIssile-mover Burlington, MA
This vehicle was used to move missiles around at the launch facility off South Bedford Street.
Nike missile facility Burlington MA
Tom about to go on leave, wearing a suit borrowed from buddy James George. The building behind him still stands today. Note the guard shack and facility entrance on the left. That’s where Tom was standing guard in the first picture.

But where to live? Burlington didn’t have apartment complexes in 1956. Tom managed to find an apartment inside the former Butters farmhouse, a big, yellow, multi-family place on Cambridge Street at the corner of today’s Terry Avenue. His housemates hailed from all over the place: Shirley and Ken Hickman (Kentucky), Debbie and Frank Teasley (Missouri), Jerry and Mary Lowsey (Milwaukee). Tom bought an old Ford Fairlane from a dealer in Needham and kept it in the former auction barn next door.

Joman Auction barn and Sulujian Farm, c. 1950, Burlington MA
This is now the intersection of Terry Ave. and Cambridge Street, most recently the site of Burlington Auto Supply.

When Tom turned 20, he went back to Virginia on leave and married Judy when she turned 18. They got married at the little church, of course. “They cleaned and polished it that day,” Judy remembers. “I’ll never forget that.”

Judy didn’t like being alone. She quit Radford and came to Burlington to live with Tom in the big yellow house. She got a job coating cathodes at Microwave Associates on Middlesex Turnpike. “They started me at $1.15 an hour, but raised me to $1.35,” Judy says. “Boy, was I in high cotton. I’d been working on the farm back home for 15 cents an hour.” High cotton is a southern idiom meaning happy. The women at Microwave Associates often gathered around Judy at lunchtime and asked her to say something, anything, just to hear her talk.

At dinner time, Tom and Judy frequented the Flying Saucer, a humble truck stop right across the street from their apartment.

Flying Saucer Restaurant, Burlington MA, 1955

So what did the guys do all day at the missile site? After all, no shots were ever fired. They calibrated the equipment daily to ensure accuracy, and they kept an eye on the sky all day and night. Every airplane in the vicinity had to identify itself. Suspicious aircraft caused alarm — literally. A very loud siren would blare atop Winnmere Hill. That meant everyone had to report to the radar base pronto, even at 3 a.m.

One day, Tom thought they were going to have to shoot. An airplane pilot was dodging questions from the local Nike commander as they talked over the radio via headsets. See, every airplane looked the same to the radar technicians. They were just white dots on a black screen. Without a message from the commander, nobody knew whether to be scared or not. At the last minute, the pilot identified himself properly. A message from the commander flashed across the radar screen: CODE FRIENDLY. “The whole crew hooted and hollered” with relief, says Tom. Another minute, and it could have been this:

Nike Missile site, Burlington MA
Nike missile array, Burlington MA. Photo credit: Woburn Library Farino Collection.

The guys inevitably formed cliques. Tom’s five-man clique included James George and Jerry Cannon, who shared a physical trait that didn’t matter around here, but mattered a great deal in Tom’s home state. They were black. The first time Tom and crew went to see a movie, in the Needham theater, Tom was happily surprised that James and Jerry could sit with the rest of the guys without a worry. This was impossible back home. Movie theaters in Virginia always had a sign that said, “Blacks this way” and pointed upstairs.

Meanwhile back at the big yellow house, Judy’s housemates offered her a new kind of food. She had never seen such a thing. It was big, flat, round and cheesy. Yes, Burlington provided Judy’s first encounter with a newfangled thing called a pizza.

In his second year at the base, Tom and Judy moved to Winnmere, in an apartment attached to Carbone’s market. The landlords were Flo and Joe Carbone. If the building looks familiar, that’s because it’s now Domino’s Pizza.

Carbone's Super Market, Burlington, late 1950s

The military guys helped to keep the Carbone’s parking lot clear of snow. One day they buried Tom’s car under so much snow, there was no evidence of a car at all. Pranksters, those soldiers were.

Tom was discharged in October 1958. Just barely. He got out just before the military froze all personnel because of trouble in Lebanon, and just after his first son was born, so he was born under military insurance. That meant the government covered the hospital bill. Good timing or what?

Tom and his buddy James George were discharged at the same time. Since James lived in Tennessee, in the same general direction as Virginia, Tom drove him most of the way. In Virginia, they spotted a little roadside breakfast place. They’d been driving all night, so they were sold on the idea of eggs and donuts. Ah, but there was a problem — remember? James was black. Tom urged him to come inside to eat, but James flatly refused, fearing the worst. So Tom had to bring food out to James in the car.

Tom took James to a bus station behind a little drugstore in Marion, Virginia, where he could catch a bus the rest of the way to Tennessee. Exiting through the back of the drugstore, they were confronted with two separate waiting areas. The one on the left had a little hand-painted sign saying “whites.” The one on the right was for blacks.

Tom drove off but had second thoughts about leaving his friend looking so vulnerable at that station. He returned a few minutes later and offered to take him all the way to Tennessee. No, James said, a bus was inbound in just a few minutes. Tom finally turned and left. They never saw each other again.

Judy and Tom Hess still live near Broadford. Judy finished her education and taught second grade for 32 years. Tom served as a clerk magistrate in the court system for 32 years. 

Tom and Judy outside the little church, then and now.
Laying the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Tom Hess
Photo credit: Humans of Appalachia

6 thoughts on “Love at the missile base Leave a comment

  1. Great story! I went to school on that base when it was a satellite campus for Northeastern. I would also offer a correction in paragraph 6 (lieutenant sergeant) There is no such rank. If he was on the range at Ft. Jackson, it was likely a sergeant that was the range master training them.

  2. A wonderful tale of society and humanity, thank you for it. I was a counselor at the Special Needs summer camp at Winnmere in the 1960’s till 1970. There are lots of stories from that place!

  3. I have lived in the south for 52 years. I first served in the US Army with white, black and hispanic people. For the 1st time in my life I was a minority. However we were all “one”. The only color we saw was the green on our uniforms. This story was like my time in the service.

  4. The 2 Nike sites were part of my life as I grew in a house right outside the Edgemere entry gate. Through those years a lot of changes, fires set and disrepair. Across town, I attended the NU campus, started right after getting my first office job at M/A-COM. These articles are great strolls down memory lane with new perspectives of my hometown.

  5. there were several love stories up there at the missile site between local winmere girls and those young soldiers on the hill……………my sister,claire johnson met an italian boy from nj,, al giambattista……………moved to nj,and had a large family…………………….carl johnson,,

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