Thursday, August 12, 2010

Los Alamos

(This piece completes the triptych. Posts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared earlier.)

Forgive me but the entire world was conspiring to make me think of mushrooms. On the drive in, huge clouds stacked up with weather above the mountains, including a tall mushroom shaped-cloud rising from the Jemez. After tracing a line rising diagonally long the edge of the Pajarito plateau, we arrived in Los Alamos, and immediately sought out lunch. The Hill Diner is an old favorite, though not quite as old as the d├ęcor would have you believe. It speaks of woodsy roadside diner, the paneling hung with photos from a half-century gone, with old neon beer signs, and garage sale items like skis and snowshoes hanging from the walls. Mushrooms showed up again here, batter-fried and flanking my chicken fried steak. This place is popular with both the locals and those working at the labs. The ‘good ole’ lost America’ theme attempts to whitewash some of the threat that hung in perpetuity over those ‘gentler times,’ a threat birthed less than a mile away. In a conspiracy of irony that only the universe can craft, I noted Asians at about a third of the tables here this Saturday morning.

After lunch, Miki and I wandered around town, a pleasant place like a small New England college town, trees shading dormitory-style housing for the lab families constantly revolving in and out of their temporary assignments at the Labs. It would be a pleasant place to live but for the work going on across the canyon. We stopped off in the tourist info center to see what this town had to offer. I desperately wanted to find something attesting to the local character, to draw my attention away from the obvious. As a fan of history, I find that I visit places with a fair amount of projection, scanning the landscape and residents in an effort to find connections with those events that brought them onto the world stage. I’ve done it in Vietnam and Cambodia, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, using tragedy as an information sieve, until time and the locals present me with a different face that allows me to let go my stereotyping. Then I can finally accept the place on its own terms. I’d done it earlier in the day with the cloud formation, and in coming upon the ruins of an elementary school in mid-demolition. This latter caused me to exaggerate the presence of tragedy here, but what else could I think, being presented with such an obvious example of the decline in education spending in the town which, again, started the arms race and the current blank check approach to military spending?

Scanning the walls of the tourist center, I so badly wanted to find mention of an ancient Native American festival, or a photo of a ruined Spanish church, or read a about some Anglo bigwig who’d established a modest ranch which eventually grew into this town. But all I could find were T-shirts and coffee mugs tastelessly emblazoned with pictures of an exploding bomb, hung above bags of “Atomic chili pepper.’ A sign on the glass door listed events held during the summer in this, “The Atomic City,” including a concert being held, without any apparent irony, next Friday, August 6. The view beyond the poster and through the glass door revealed a town whose history began with the atomic age, and seems stuck there, both in architecture and in mindset.

A short walk took us to a series of lovely buildings that look as if they belong in an Alpine town. Had I visited them prior to November 1942, I’d have found that history I’d been searching for, in the form of the Los Alamos Ranch School, whose alumni include the CEOs of a few major corporations, as well as William S. Burroughs and Gore Vidal, though these two latter names inevitably escape mention. On an autumn day less than a year after the US entered the Second World War, the grounds were bought by the military for a top secret project. Some of the buildings are now being used as the Los Alamos Museum. The actual place where the bomb had been designed is now a large open space with a pond in the center. It was here that we’d meet up with Pax Christi for the peace march. Along the way, I stepped over a patch of mushrooms, barely noticeable amidst the neatly clipped grass.

The peace march was to begin at Ashley Pond, site of where the first atomic bombs were built. There was a picnic going on, children running after balloons, and the adult members of the local YMCA queuing up to buy BBQ from a red trailer with a flaming pig emblazoned on one side. The Pax Christi people weren’t far away, their banners with anti-nuke slogans spread across the grass. In a pile was a collection of burlap sacks and dozens of small bags of ash that we were expected to drape and decorate ourselves with for the march. This was inspired by the biblical story of Ninevah. When threatened with Divine destruction, the inhabitants of the city repented, putting on sacks and smearing themselves with ash. Sacks were traditionally seen as a sign of deep repentance and humility. Ashes were often included as a further symbol of personal abhorrence and chagrin.

The organizer of this march, Jesuit priest John Dear, was being interview by a TV station from Albuquerque. We’d met John months ago when he gave a rousing talk on Gandhian non-violence at Upaya Zen Center. He’d really motivated us there in Santa Fe that day, so it was very disappointing that the only attendees who’d actually turned up for this event were Miki and myself. Prior to setting out John led us in prayer, where, he neither accused those involved in the making of nuclear arms of being evil, nor asked God to forgive them. (In keeping with the Ninevah biblical story, where God states He is showing pity for the population who are ignorant of the difference between right and wrong ("who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand"). Instead John simply asked us to repent our own complicity in violence, and to beg the god of peace for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Then we marched, moving down Trinity Drive, crossing with the light at Oppenheimer. Through breaks in the buildings lining the road, we could get glimpses of the Labs standing with a certain majesty through the trees. They’d been built in the 50s, when the one-off Manhattan Project had spawned a child that had grown with the arms race. Along the way, a couple of people stopped to collect apricots that had fallen from a tree. One woman nearby nodded her head toward the labs and said bluntly, “You sure you want to eat those?” The apricot collectors quickly dropped the uneaten fruit back onto the grass.

We stopped our march at the hospital that sits beside the bridge leading over the canyon to the Lab’s front gate. About fifty young people showed up about then, all carrying sunflowers. This was “Think Outside the Bomb,” a national youth-led nuclear abolition network. They were here to protest Obama’s policies regarding nuclear strategy. While professing in public a reduction in nukes, the administration was instead going forward with policies set up by their predecessors, yet their proposed increase in the amount of plutonium pits to be constructed at Los Alamos would go far beyond what the Bushies had envisioned. The group was camped out in the hills near the Sanctuario de Chimayo for a week of workshops on permaculture and on non-violent protest. They’d be back on the actual anniversary of the bombing on the 6th, for a protest up at the Labs themselves. (And at which eight of them would end up arrested.) For today they’d settle for a less confrontational demonstration, for we’d go no further than Omega Bridge, and would do little more than sit and meditate.

John gave the word and we all sat down on the sidewalk. While some had smeared their faces with ash, other had simply outlined their bodies. A couple of people had emptied their bags in a clump, tracing with their fingers small pictures or simply the number 140,000, the believed number of nuclear bombing victims. We stayed like this for half an hour, quietly reflecting. A light rain began to fall, and I was reminded of the black rain that had poisoned so many in Hiroshima. Then, after the final signal, we all got up and began walking back to the park. As on the march down, we were exposed to a variety of reactions by the locals. Some flashed peace signs as they drove by, or honked their horns in apparent solidarity. Others yelled out in opposition, words mostly lost in the wind but for the swearing. It was predictable how the reaction of the driver consistently matched the type of vehicle driven. Most memorable was the extended, black-gloved middle finger of a Harley rider.

Back in the park, John gave a closing prayer then introduced a few speakers. One of them was Col. Ann Wright, famous for her resignation from the military when Bush okayed the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, she’d been on the Gaza flotilla that had been attacked by Israel last June. At one point, Ann asked us where we’d all traveled from, and when Miki yelled out “Hiroshima!” my wife suddenly found herself before the mike, giving a brief speech. A couple of folk singers then began to gather the crowd together in a sing-along, but Miki and I quietly slipped away. We did a symbolic circumabulation of Ashley Pond. Two black cranes extended out of the water, their iron material an ironic contrast to the delicate paper cranes of the peace park of Hiroshima.

A few hours later we met again down in Santa Fe, in the wrap-around bar of El Canon, with its million-dollar view down San Francisco street, toward St. Francis Cathedral lit gold by the setting sun. We found ourselves with John Dear and other organizers of the event, in a sort of debriefing. They seemed disappointed at the numbers, a mere hundred when last year they’d had three times as many. They also mentioned that this year’s march had seen the most vehement reactions they’d yet seen. As Miki and I headed toward home in the heavy storm, the group was questioning the event’s significance. According to the local news team that had been there, very little, as they gave us less than 10 seconds coverage, giving no mention of who we were or what our message was. To the average viewer, we’d appear to be just another bunch of loony hippies.

But really, what did they think? I know quite a few couples that live up there, most of whom work at the labs. When I mentioned that I’d been at the march, one woman seemed supportive, mentioning that her husband had been quite active in disarmament work. To which he gave the hilarious quip, “Yeah, disarming the Russians.”

Waning a bit more perspective, Miki and I returned to Los Alamos a few weeks later on a quiet Friday afternoon. We wanted to visit the museums and see how they presented ‘their side.’ The Historical Museum is, as mentioned earlier, in one of the old cabins that once made up the Ranch School. I’d entered with a certain amount of cynicism, but as I made my way through the quaint narrow rooms, I was quite taken with it. Represented was the scientists’ story, composed of the somewhat comedic tales of the civilians who found themselves sudden residents of a town that literally appeared overnight, one that remained in complete secrecy for over two years. I spoke with the curator for a while, telling her how pleased I was to find this place so free of propaganda. Through the words of Oppenheimer and others, I could really see that the scientists were the only ones who saw the real scale of what was going on. They thought that their work in presenting mankind with its complete elimination would introduce a period of enlightenment that would end war altogether. She told me that the scientists themselves had felt so betrayed by the subsequent Cold War behavior of the military and the government.

Their tale is better told across town at the Bradbury Museum. The POV here is pure propaganda, attempting to whitewash history in order to make nukes palatable. (Though it is nowhere near the overt and disgusting self congratulatory displays of the nuke museum down in Albuquerque.) The Bradbury screened a film, “The Town that Never Was,” in which there was a line about the local natives who were “happy to give away visiting right to their ancient ancestral grounds, for the good of the nation, “ that was particularly disgusting. The cold, scientific approach to information here was predictable. As was the sight of the US Government plates on the vehicles out front.

It was a beautiful day on the cusp of autumn, so Miki and I chose to drive home through some of those same ancestral lands, through the canyons that flank Bandelier. I asked her about her reaction to the day and the town. She said that she didn’t harbor any bad feelings toward the US. In the war, both the US and Japan were equally victims and aggressors. The past is done, and it is more important to focus on the future. No one wants nuclear war, so we should all work together to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

I looked out at the soil that had once belonged to the natives, and wondered if they too have such a magnanimous attitude.

On the turntable: Ry Cooder, "River Rescue"

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