Tuesday, October 25, 2011


The rooster and the owl were having a jam session. In their best syncopated call and response, they were playing a piece that recalled the epic battle between light and dark. Where the rooster summoned the sun, the owl was calling up death, at least according to the Navajo. The owl seemed to be winning for the moment, as the sun had yet to crest the Jicarilla range not far to the east. The owl called again. "I am become Death. I am the destroyer of worlds."

I recalled Robert Oppenheimer's famous words as I swung on the porch swing, awaiting the dawn. As I swung, I cradled my newborn daughter who was tucked into my fleece jacket as protection against the cold. She and my wife would stay here through the morning, while I drove southeast to Trinity Test Site. The radiation still present there wasn't recommended for an infant or for a nursing mother. As for myself, I hoped that I would receive a smaller dose than that now emanating from the first rays of a sun finally coaxed by the rooster into the eastern sky.

The road rose out of the valley of the Rio Grande that waters the Bosque del Apache not far to the south. The land flattens out eventually, with a few low hills standing as sentinels to the turnoff toward the Trinity Test Site. The true gate is at the Stallion Army Air Force Base, where my ID is checked, and I am handed information about today's event from two people who look like volunteers, definitely non-military. The road then heads south, through a landscape flat and featureless. Now and then an animal crossing sign looms up, bearing the silhouettes of elk, loping with head down, or the pronghorn, forelegs raised and curled, ready to spring into my path.

Besides the signs, the monotony of landscape here is at first broken only by the stands of spiky agave that rise above the dirt and rock. Then comes a nub of a man-made structure which mimics the low, squat shapes of the volcanoes to the east. Other buildings of unusual shape and unidentifiable purpose stand far away from the main roads. It is so vast and open here, the presence of any vehicle would be noticed for miles. The dust alone acts as a low-cost distant early warning system. I remember a friend who once herded sheep on the Navajo reservation over in Arizona telling me that he'd see the dust trail long before he saw the actual vehicle. He'd then go into the house and put on the kettle for the guests who would arrive around twenty minutes later.

Today, however, we are all expected. The test site is only open on this, the first Saturday of October, as well as on the first Saturday of April. As I make the final turn off to the site, I can see the light reflecting off the windshields of a few hundred vehicles down in the parking area.   I wonder how early they got here, as it is still less than a half hour after the main gate opened. I opt for irony for my own final approach, letting Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" fan out loudly into the desert.

I find a place for my car, then walk through a gate that funnels us down a chain link fence to the site itself, broad and circular with a single obelisk at the center. I'm not sure if there is any irony intended to the fact that this whole fenced in area is shaped like a mushroom. There must be a thousand people here, with more arriving by the carload. The majority are the tourist type, of shapes and sizes I rarely see in more health and fashion conscious Santa Fe. It is definitely a short and T-shirt kind of crowd, and many wear slogans that must be inside jokes for scientists. I can understand Trinity's draw for physicists. There are also science fans of a lesser sort here, and I overhear a fair amount of conversations about UFOs.

But I don't notice any of this until later. As I enter the test site proper, my attention is held only by the obelisk standing at the center. It is a short tower of black volcanic stone held together by concrete, and I smile at the irony of Vulcan being the Roman god of fire. I move along to the fence line, hung with signs and photos taken at random points of the blast. The time lapse photographs show the changing shape of the fire that for a few moments turned the pre-dawn darkness as light as midday. Oppenheimer's words return to me suddenly.

Turning back to the center, I notice that many people are hunched over and looking at the desert floor. Probably Trinitite. Existing only here at Trinity, it is a glass-like substance composed of sand fused together during the blast. I hurry over to one man who turns a piece over in his hand. then I laugh. I had long looked forward to seeing this, the newest of our planet's gems, but due to my being color blind, it looked nothing like I'd read. In fact, I'd been walking over pieces since I'd arrived, yet had seen only the dull gray of the usual sort found in the desert. My attention--all of our attention--was then suddenly pulled upward, by a sonic boom, then a jet streaking across the sky, barrel rolling as it passed.

I boarded the shuttle bus to McDonald Ranch, where scientists who'd worked on the Trinity blast had been housed. I could imagine the silence the surrounded them, at the open space filled only with their anxieties over whether or not the test bomb, dubbed "Jumbo," would work at all.  Some of their graffiti still remains on some of the walls and doors, the usual witticisms of a group of bright young people left in close quarters with little to occupy them but their work, of strangers thrown together in an extreme location and situation. I can imagine the permutations that their conversation took, as they drank beers and watched the desert at the end of a long day.

A similar scene had played out on a smaller scale last night at my B&B in San Antonio. There were two other couples there, and our talk took on new life out on the patio after dark, where the air's chill nearly matched that of the ice in the drinks. The other two men were ex-Air Force, both of the Vietnam generation, but with very different characters. One had been a pilot, stationed in Thailand, from where he'd taken off on his missions. He was a nice fellow, with the confident air of an officer. The other man had been an enlisted man, who'd never left the continental US.  He had a warmer, more gentle demeanor, and after the other man went off to bed, I heard more of his story. His job had been to guard the missile silos up in North Dakota, a lot of his time spent passing long nights in the brutal cold of the winters up there. There wasn't much to do but his job, and remember that this was a time when people didn't question, or even seem to think much about, the orders they'd been given.  Then, the health problems began, evolving into a more and more serious nature until the cancers began to develop. In the midst of all this his son had been born, a normal enough kid, but with a few health disorders of his own. As the man talked, he paused often for his tears, waiting out the catch in his voice. The military hadn't offered much, not even answers to what might be wrong. So he began to read, researching every single aspect of what had been birthed here on that July day in 1945. It was incredible the amount he'd read.  But he'd never been to Los Alamos, and this visit to the Trinity Site was a first.  It was a pilgrimage for him, a step toward the birthplace of the thing that threatens to destroy mankind's existence while at the same time defining his own.

His story began to trail off, blown by the soft stirring in the desert night.  He was off somewhere else, away from his wife, away from me.  Honoring his silence, I moved away toward bed.

And as I walk amongst the sites of Trinity, he never leaves me, entwined now by my own experience here.  I'm happy when I see him making his way in, and share the smile radiant beneath the shade of his cap.  We quickly exchange addresses, then I leave him to face what is his alone. 

The final thing I do before leaving is to take a lap around the parking lot, looking at the tables and the food stands. One of them is manned by two scientists, who answer questions more technical than historic. One of the scientists has a question for us. "Of all the things here, what is the most radioactive?" The answer of course is, "We are." Being close to White Sands, the Park Rangers have a table selling books and things educational. This is in sharp contrast to another souvenir stand standing beside it, expressing the height of poor taste. In neat rows are T-shirts and coffee mugs, adorned with pithy saying flanking that familiar pillar of fire imprinted upon our common memory. I'd seen similar items up in Los Alamos and had been similarly offended. I can assure you that nowhere in Japan is there a coffee mug or T-shirt emblazoned with a picture the USS Arizona ablaze.

My Subaru is the only one in the parking lot. I walk toward it, past all the trucks and Texas plates and Christian bumper stickers. The crowd here today is definitively pro-nuke. And as I climb into my car, I turn and look in the direction of Three Rivers, out beyond the mountains to the east. I wonder how many of those at Trinity today are familiar with the thousands of petroglyphs there, reminders of a time when man looked to the sky with wonder rather than fear.

On the turntable:  UB40, "Labour of Love"

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