From Staff Reports
Back in 1975, when a 20-year-old Tom Kelley was stationed at Grissom Air Force Base as a security police officer, rumors began circulating that a B-58 Hustler, armed with nuclear weapons, had crashed, burned and been buried at the base years earlier.
Kelley said he and his friends at the base believed it was just an urban legend. Even so, Kelley thought it would make a great story for a novel.
After leaving the Air Force in 1978, he worked briefly as a deputy sheriff in Miami County, then landed a job as a patrol officer with the Kokomo Police Department, where he worked for the next 32 years.
But through all his time in law enforcement, Kelley never forgot about the B-58.
“The story had been floating around in my head for years,” he said during a recent interview.
About 12 years ago, while working as a patrolman, he said he decided it was time to put the story on paper, and in March his new novel, “Guardmount,” hit bookshelves across the country.
Kelley will present the novel from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Logansport-Cass County Public Library, 616 E. Broadway. During his presentation, Kelley will discuss some of the social and cultural issues that influenced his story, including the crash of the B-58.
The bomber crash at Grissom sets the background for the novel, which Kelley described as a humorous crime drama.
“I like to think of it as a ‘Rockford Files’ kind of funny,” he said. “I hope the characters are believable enough that readers will see humor in recognizing how they react to things.”
The plot runs like this: The year is 1975. The place is Grissom Air Force Base. A bomber is unearthed with a body inside. A female security police investigator and state police detective are assigned to solve the cold case.
Kelley said he invented a colorful cast of characters for his 350-page novel, including a pair of federal agents with an uncertain pedigree, an ex-staff sergeant unsure of what he wants to do with his life, and a cunning, wily ex-stripper.
He said all the characters are composites of people he’s known and worked with over the last 40 years.
“I hope the reader will love the characters as much as I do,” he said.
But while Kelley was writing the book, a stunning discovery was made — the bomber crash wasn’t an urban legend.
Officials at Grissom unearthed a buried B-58 Hustler in 2007. Just as the story went, the plane had crashed armed with nuclear weapons.
Kelley said 18 bombers were cocked and ready to go as part of a “doomsday plan” during the Cold War. On Dec. 8, 1964, military personnel took one of the bombers on a high-speed taxi to simulate a take off. The plane slid on a patch of ice, the landing gear snapped off and the fuel tank caught fire.
Two of the operators inside survived the crash, but one was killed when he tried to eject.
The consequence of the accident was a fire and destruction of five nuclear weapons on board. The explosives in the weapons did not detonate, but melted and burned, leaving some residual radioactive contamination in soils adjacent to the runway.
The contaminated area was excavated and buried, along with the aircraft wreckage, at a different location on base.
As it turned out, what Kelley thought was the fictional backdrop to his novel was, in fact, a fact.
“The plot of the book is complete fiction, but there’s historical facts in the background that I think anyone who lived at the time would recognize and everyone will find interesting,” he said.
That also includes the culture, politics and issues of 1970s America.
“I tried to get as much culture pounded into it as I could. There’s a lot of subtle references to ’70s music,” he said with a laugh. “... But the ’70s culture was more than just beads and shag rugs. There was a lot of important social issues that were being considered in those days.”
Some of the issues Kelley wrote of include pollution, women’s growing roles in the military and a changing America that returning war veterans couldn’t recognize.
“It’s a fun story, but I like to think people will learn a little something from it, too,” he said. “I think the book will be of particular interest to people who live here and the Peru area.”
“Guardmount” can be found at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.
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