CORDELE, Ga. — Brake lights brighten and heads turn as motorists slow to stare at the rusting rocket that rises unexpectedly beside Interstate 75 in middle Georgia.
Perched in the parking lot of McBryant's Chevron gas station, next door to a Krystal hamburger restaurant and just down the street from a Waffle House and a miniature golf course, the Titan 2 rocket cuts a most peculiar figure on the modest skyline at the highway exit just outside Cordele.
A Stuckey's on the side of the road in the heart of cotton and peanut country would surprise no traveler motoring down the main highway from Canada to Florida. But a nuclear missile is a different story.
Of course, the folks in Cordele, a town of 12,500, are quite accustomed to this tribute to military flight, which they affectionately dubbed "Confederate Air Force Pad No. 1."
En Route to Romance
"It's become quite a landmark for us," said Don Sims, executive vice president of the Cordele Chamber of Commerce. "I was courting my wife years ago--she was from Cordele and I was from Lookout Mountain (Tenn.) on I-75--and I came down here to meet her folks. Her directions to me were, 'Go to the rocket and turn right.' "
Next summer marks the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the 100-foot Titan 2, a rocket originally developed by the Air Force as an intercontinental ballistic missile--ICBM--to carry a 9-megaton nuclear warhead a distance of 10,000 miles, then later used by NASA to launch two-man Gemini space capsules in the mid-1960s. The rockets have been retired from active service, but the Air Force is in the process of converting some Titan 2s to launcher status to carry military satellites into orbit.
Air Force Veteran
The Cordele rocket came to town as part of a project undertaken by the local Rotary Club and its president, John Pate, who served in the Air Force for 10 years and used his military contacts to secure the rocket.
"I checked with some people I knew and found out I could get one," said Pate, who now lives in the north Georgia town of Gainesville. "We just did it to get a community landmark. Our slogan was 'Meet me under the missile.' "
The missile itself was free--straight out of Air Force surplus. The Rotary and other civic groups raised the $5,000 for the extensive support system to hold the rocket and businessman Anthony LaPorte Sr., owner of the Holiday Inn down the street, provided the patch of land.
There was a fleeting moment, back in 1968 when the rocket arrived, when a few folks in middle Georgia wondered if the enemy had politely air-mailed a missile attack to Cordele.
"We got it flown here from California through some special arrangements . . . and it arrived at Warner Robins (a nearby Air Force base)," Pate said. "The problem was only me and the base commander knew it was coming. When it landed there, nobody knew whose it was. The newspaper ran a story, and it was just a big mess. We finally got it on trailers and hauled it to Cordele, and I put it up myself with a crane."
Gordie McGinnis, 62, remembers when the missile arrived. He helped build the frame that still supports the rocket. Now retired, he still works part time pumping gas at McBryant's Chevron.
"People stop all the time to take pictures and ask about it," McGinnis said. "I guess we get 50 people some nights who stop and want to talk about it."
While the missile is unrivaled as a landmark, it also has become something of an eyesore in recent years. The rocket has dulled to a fading gray, its markings barely visible running down the side. A sign that once gave the missile's history is nothing more than an empty board, its paint long since peeled. A chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, surrounds the small plot of land that has grown up in neck-high weeds and overgrown shrubs around the base of the rocket.
"They finally had to put a fence around it because people were stealing parts off it for souvenirs. I've seen people with wrenches taking off pieces this big," said McGinnis, holding his hands a foot apart.
A rocket renovation project is under way. Sims said community officials have spent the last two years lining up the materials and the people to perform the work.
"I know it seems like it would be an easy thing to do," Sims said. "But it's complicated because not many people know how to paint ICBM missiles. You know, they're not supposed to be reused."
Even in disrepair, the missile remains a source of civic pride in Cordele. "With the Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park just east of here and our high veteran population, we're a pretty militant bunch," said Sims with a laugh. "We've got a lot of retired military people over at Lake Blackshear. We've probably got enough captains from the Navy and colonels from the Army to equip our own little banana republic down here."
Of course, Sims hastened to add, he was only kidding.