December 11th is the eleventh day of the made-up characters calendar and being St Transistor's Day, the day that St Transistor of Bell switched back and forth many times for the very first time, we shall now tell another story of something which switched the course of history.
President Kennedy was dealing with one of the most critical moments in his ultimately all too short term of office. There had been a very real threat of all out nuclear war which had narrowly been averted when the captain of a Russian submarine equipped with nuclear weapons had defied order to retaliate after being attacked by American aircraft. The actions of that submarine captain would not be known for at least thirty years and until after the Soviet Union had broken up.
There was however another group of people who played an equally important role and which would also be as anonymous as that submarine captain and they were stationed at the United States Signals Directorate, in Bethlehem, New York.
The USSD was tasked with the interception and description of foreign messages. Essentially their job was spying but in the most technologically advanced way that was possible in the early 1960s. From the outside it looked like a farmhouse and three red barns. Inside those barns was not the usual farm implements and tractors but the most advanced radio equipment that the 1960s had invented; across a whole range of various bands up and down the electromagnetic spectrum.
Lieutenant Melissa Parker was listening to transmissions being made to and from the Soviet satellite, Kosmos 635, when she heard something strange. The USSD couldn't actually work out what the bulk of the transmission noise was but they did discover that there was a series of pips before details were given, to do with positions that the satellite was targeting. What those positions actually meant was a mystery but the general consensus was that whatever it was, it was bad.
On a December evening of 1962, she heard the series of pips and then a position being rung out in ordinary Morse Code. Morse Code was something that every operator in the USSD could translate fluently and without any hesitation, she wrote down the series of numbers that it communicated. Taking these numbers to a table and then unrolling a map, Lieutenant Melissa Parker then plotted it's position. The address was all too familiar - 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; more commonly known as The White House. Given the cold war was burning hotter than a pot of Mexican chilli with eyeball bleed peppers; boiling away in a pot in a wood fired oven, Lt Parker had to choose her moves carefully. People were nervous and anxious and the people who this would directly affect, might have itchy trigger fingers on the nuclear button.
She told her immediate superior, who told her immediate superior, who told his immediate superior, who then asked Lt Parker to see him in his office. The meeting lasted for less than a minute and Lt Parker was asked it she really heard what she thought she had heard. She went away and thought that if she heard this again, then and only then would she tell someone.
87 minutes after hearing the first set of pips, Lt Parker heard a fresh set amidst the background noise of unintelligible garble. Again, in ordinary Morse Code, the latitude and longitude of The White House came across her headphones. Again she told her immediate superior and again the same response came back. "Are you sure that you heard what you thought you heard?". The third time, this couldn't possibly be anything other than what Kosmos 635; so a sensational of unmitigated terror passed through Lt Parker.
This time, she bypassed the entire chain of command and went to top. She knocked on General Barrett's door and opened it. He was busy on the telephone chewing out some poor soul on the other end. She tried to apologise and leave but he pressed a button which locked the door behind her.
" What is it Lieutenant? This had better be earth shattering."
She explained that she had heard a Russian satellite tap out the same position in longitude and latitude three times and that this meant that The White House itself was the subject of whatever this satellite's business was. General Barrett suddenly had all the blood drain away from his face and he gave an order that she was to literally nothing else for the rest of the evening except listen to this potential Russian menace.
When asked what she was listening to that would be that important, the official reply was that she was listening to "When The Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along". Instantly everyone knew that this was important but exactly how important would remain a mystery.
Kosmos 635 would continue to make sweeps across the sky but its purpose was never truly found out. Whether it was some kind of reconnaissance satellite or perhaps some sort of military testing platform or even something as innocuous as a weather satellite would remain unknown. It would not however be alone.
There would be many similar transmissions from Kosmos and Interkosmos satellites and they would frequently be charted across the United States. When the reports were written up, the USSD would give really strange replies as to what its operators had been listening to. They reported that they had been listening to records on the hit parade, despite not having possession of a record player; they reported listening to radio stations that would have been impossible to !listen to because they were too far away; they reported listening to the sounds of birds, whales and other animals on tape. Eventually United States Signals Directorate station, in Bethlehem, New York, became known as "The House Of Lies" and the information which did come out of it, when it did pass to the appropriate people, was treated with the utmost importance. It would only tell the truth to The Pentagon and The White House and the truth that it told to them was of the gravest import.
It was estimated that when The House Of Lies was eventually replaced with a more modern facility, that it may have averted as many as fifteen hundred instances where the Cold War could have boiled hot. When the facility closed in 1983, few even knew of its existence. Quietly though, it might have saved hundreds and hundreds of millions of lives.
Oh little town of Bethlehem (NY), how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the satellites go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the ever blinking light
The hopes and fears of all the years are still not told tonight.