I compose this in the mountains of New Mexico after subjecting myself to one day’s worth of radiation within one hour.
No cause for concern. My exposure was less than a chest x-ray. But why, you may ask, did I willingly expose myself to a higher-than-normal dosage?
The answer is simple: presence.
Twice a year, once in April and October, the U.S. Army opens the Trinity Site in White Sands Missile Range to the public. Trinity is the exact spot, ground zero, in the predawn hour of July 16, 1945 an event occurred that had never happened on this planet. A second sun illuminated the Oscura Mountains, molted simple sand into green glass and ushered in a new age. For Trinity is the site where Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project tested and detonated the Gadget: the first atomic bomb.
Being born and raised in Halifax, we are exposed to centuries of history, like radiation, whenever we traverse our doorjambs. But this new history, only 76 years young, cannot be found back east. It’s not every day you can stand on the exact spot where humanity thefted fire from the gods.
White Sands is a remote and ancient place. Cell and radio signals are figments of the imagination. The mountain ranges ring a sun snogged, tan and pink plateau of desolation. The Spanish named it Jornada del Muerto, “Journey of the Dead Man.”
Only an ancient and dead language can describe this place. This is the Land of Ceremonies, where the Shaman lived and died.
Driving through the army gate you experience the sense of majesty. From U.S. Route 380, the drive takes 20 miles into the range to reach Trinity. You pass Compania Hill, where many of the scientists witnessed the detonation from 17 miles away.
Various license plates in the parking area signal this site’s Siren call: New Mexico, Arizona, Nebraska, Georgia and Texas to name a few.
Many of these plates adorn Toyotas, Hondas and Mitsubishis.
Signs blaring CAUTION RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS beautify the perimeter fence like sentries standing guard for the mysteries kept within.
A quick quarter-mile walk leads the hundreds of visitors to ground zero. A squat, 12-foot obelisk of lava rock stands where the Gadget vaporized its 100-foot-tall test stand. Only a minute shard of the stand remains entombed in the ground. Not much withstands 500-million-degree heat.
I kneel in front of the obelisk to take a well-positioned photo while other visitors lunged at the obelisk for their photo op. One atomic tourist becomes two, then a nuclear family of four rush up for their opportunity. Dozens more orbit around the obelisk. These people’s motions resemble neutrons bombarding Plutonium or Uranium nuclei, splitting into two atoms and inducing a chain reaction; the exact essence of what occurred out here in the desert almost four score ago within millionths of a second.
For me, this trip is a pilgrimage. Muslims revolve around the Ka’bah. Christians pray at the Stations of the Cross. Jews wail at the Wall. Here I prostrate myself before an Altar of the Atom.
I don’t believe in spirits, but whenever I visit a place of historical significance, I seek what I call the “presence.” Trinity provides it. The scientists’ burdens and hopes linger and blush unseen, but its sweetness is not wasted on the desert air.
This trip fuses my two great passions: history and literature. Accompanying me on my pilgrimage are my copies of Aeschylus, Percy Shelley and John Donne: two Prometheans and one metaphysical poet.
The Manhattan Project scientists embodied T.S. Eliot’s Hollow and Stuffed Men. They recognized their place in history with tragic Greek awareness and sought solace in literature.
I imagine the 116-pound Oppenheimer, the project’s lead scientist, battered by a recent bout of chicken pox, chain smoking cigarettes convinced his creation would be a dud. He found refuge in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and ruminated on the passage: “if the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” As he bathed in the radiance of the Gadget’s detonation, he again recalled the Gita: “now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
Oppenheimer even cribbed Trinity’s name from literature. A John Donne Holy Sonnet inspired him: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”
I envision Edward Teller, disconcerting soldiers and scientists alike, applying sunscreen to his face in the middle of the night 17 miles from the Gadget.
I fancy Enrico Fermi, the first to sustain a chain reaction, terrorizing people around him with his gallows humor, joking the Gadget would ignite the atmosphere and destroy the planet.
I picture Donald Hornig, the scientist who detonated the Gadget, babysitting the device for hours that night during a freak thunderstorm atop the 100-foot test stand made of iron.
My mind also drifts to the two Soviet engineers at Chernobyl in 1986, who gazed with terror at the exposed and burning reactor with their skin already exhibiting red burns. Mere seconds of exposure preordained their deaths before they could run away screaming.
The boundless and unseen power of the atom is Lovecraftian. “Someday,” H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Fear propelled the project scientists. Many of them fled Germany and Europe as the Reich consolidated power. The United States opened her doors to these brilliant men.
They toiled away in seclusion at Los Alamos, terrified Werner Heisenberg and his scientists in Germany had beaten them to a working atomic bomb. The sum of all their fears was a Thousand Year Reich loading a thousand warheads into a thousand of Wernher von Braun’s wunderwaffe rockets.
Not pursuing an atomic device went beyond the pale for these men. The development of an atomic bomb was a foregone conclusion. Some country would soon achieve it. They believed the United States must be first, so democracy would hold the ultimate ace in the hole. Many of the scientists also hoped the advent of atomic weaponry would mean the end of war.
When Germany surrendered in May 1945, all resources turned to a defiant Japan. On Saipan 29,000 of the 30,000 Japanese soldiers died fighting. Thousands of Japanese civilians hurled themselves off cliffs to avoid capture. America suffered 14,000 casualties.
The cycle repeated. One out of three (27,000) Marines became a casualty on Iwo Jima and only a few hundred of the 20,000 Japanese survived. On Okinawa, America sustained 50,000 casualties while the Japanese suffered 100,000 with another 100,000 civilians killed.
When U.S. Army Air Forces converted Tokyo into a convection oven in March 1945 and killed 100,000 people in a single night, the onslaught appeared to not phase the Japanese. They resurrected an ancient saying “we will fight until we eat stones.”
Estimates for the U.S. invasion of Japan turned grim: upwards to 1 million US and possibly 10 million Japanese casualties were expected. The Japanese government demanded every man, woman and child defend the Home Islands and even armed children with sharpened sticks.
How do you defeat an enemy willing to fight to the last? The US Government responded with introducing a weapon of unimaginable power and destruction to end the war.
I also dwell on the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Blinded, melting and charred, they believed the end of the world had commenced. These are eyes I dare not meet in death’s dream kingdom.
Standing amidst the hypocenter at Trinity, these are my thoughts and ruminations. The power of the atom, with its burdens and hopes, is nothing short of delving deep into the sublime and celestial. It’s stupefying, terrorizing, liberating and shackling. I stand in the obelisk’s shadow and ruminate on my favorite line, a Greek phrase, from Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History.
The debate rages, but the use of the bombs against Japan saved more lives than it destroyed. That’s the Faustian Bargain we must tell ourselves. America manufactured 400,000 Purple Hearts in preparation for the invasion of Japan. All conflicts since amount to ~290,000 Americans killed, wounded or missing.
Since 1945, we have not needed to manufacture new Purple Hearts. Due to nuclear weaponry the world is at peace, but in many ways we all stand in that obelisk’s shadow at Trinity.
Oh, I almost forgot the Greek from The Secret History. Khalepa ta kala.
Beauty is terror.