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Last week’s “Mundane Mystery” about the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) installation at Fort Reno contained all the necessary ingredients—secret transmitters, bombproof bunkers, airplanes, and reservoirs—for readers to cook up some really Strangelovian responses. Yet I received not one mention of precious bodily fluids.
Still, at least Bart McGurds riffed on the New World Order theme. “Unimpeachable sources have informed me that the Fort Reno tower is used by the Trilateral Commission to broadcast messages that are picked up by people who secretly have had receivers implanted in their teeth,” he wrote.
And Daniel Blum, during a long exposition on how the tower is a secret beacon for UFOs, stuck by the NWO conspiracy theorist standard of bashing certain federal officials: “Aliens actually named the site Fort Reno in honor of one of their own who successfully infiltrated a major Earth government in 1993.”
To uncover the tower’s true purpose, I contacted the FAA. For three days, my query was trapped in a PR holding pattern, shuttling between their regional and national public-affairs offices. (Is it conspiracy, or is it bureaucracy?)
As the FAA unraveled the red tape, a couple of locals came forth with explanations of their own for the Tenleytown installation.
“I was born and raised in the neighborhood directly below Fort Reno. My brother used to be a good friend with the boy who lived, with his family of course, in the home within the secured perimeter of the hill,” wrote one reader. “The tower is basically a physical cover for a small antenna farm that resides within. Also, it is part of the venting system for a small, Cold War bomb shelter that was built below the reservoir. I was told it was a presidential bomb shelter that was easily accessible within the 17-minute alert time at the start of a nuclear attack. Perhaps it’s just a good story. However, if you talk to some of the real old-timers in the neighborhood, they remember a flurry of construction just after WWII. I am not interested in your shirt or recognition.”
Accompanied by the reader’s hand-drawn diagram, which showed a shelter hidden below the reservoir because “water shields nuclear radiation,” this submission wasn’t the first instance of a Fort Reno informer requesting anonymity. Others claimed that their phones had been bugged after making inquiries.
Of course, the plethora of nearby commercial transmitters could cause wiggy phones just as easily as they interfere with car radios. But readers’ paranoid notions were lent some credence when Anita Henderson, a teacher at nearby Alice Deal Junior High School, sent me the following excerpt from Tenleytown, D.C.: Country Village Into City Neighborhood, a 1981 book by Judith Beck Helm:
The United States’ entrance into the Korean conflict [prompted] a resumption of anxiety about protecting the target area of Washington, D.C., and its residents in case of a bombing attack. In 1954, an underground defense communications establishment was begun at Fort Reno. Radar and other sound-sensitive antennas, dishes, and horns were installed atop a new brick tower at Reno—the one that does not hold water. The underground communications center reportedly links the White House with other larger centers in the Middle Atlantic states.
So is the tower really part of some secret post-apocalyptic communications system? Maybe. Joan Brown, the FAA’s Eastern Region Public Affairs spokesperson, eventually conceded that the facility is an unmanned remote-transmitter site. Its day-to-day purpose is to boost FAA handheld units (read: walkie-talkies). However, in case of emergency, the site could be “keyed in” (read: activated) from FAA headquarters on Independence Avenue SW. What exact job the tower would then perform, Brown was a bit vague on, except to say that it would “direct aircraft.”
“It’s an ideal site for transmitting!” Brown added.
And as for the bomb shelter? Well, Brown informed me that she was told by her superiors that I’d have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with FAA headquarters for more information.
I’ve begun to draft the letter. Federal agencies are supposed to respond to FOIA requests within 10 days—although they usually don’t. And so I’ll sign off by telling the FAA that we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.
Next Week’s Mystery: Dupont Property Room