The nuclear missile next door
by Eli Saslow
WINIFRED, Montana — Ed Butcher, 78, tied up his horse, kicked mud off his cowboy boots and walked into his house for dinner. He’d been working on the ranch for most of the day, miles away from cellphone range. “What did I miss?” he asked his wife, Pam, as he turned their TV to cable news. “What part of the world is falling apart today?”
“Russia’s aggression has gone from scary to terrifying,” the TV commentator said, as Pam took their dinner out of the oven.
“We’re talking about a war that involves a very unstable nuclear power,” the commentator said, as they bent their heads over the venison casserole to say a prayer.
“This could escalate,” the commentator said. “It could explode beyond our wildest imaginations.”
Ed turned the TV off and looked out the window at miles of open prairie, where the wind rattled against their barn and blew dust clouds across Butcher Road. Ed’s family had been on this land since his grandparents homesteaded here in 1913, but rarely had life on the ranch felt so precarious. Their land was parched by record-breaking drought, neglected by a pandemic work shortage, scarred by recent wildfires, and now also connected in its own unique way to a war across the world. “I wonder sometimes what else could go wrong,” Ed said, as he looked over a hill toward the west end of their ranch, where an active U.S. government nuclear missile was buried just beneath the cow pasture.
“Do you think they’ll ever shoot it up into the sky?” Pam asked.
“I used to say, ‘No way,’ ” Ed said. “Now it’s more like, ‘Please God, don’t let us be here to see it.’ ”