Growing Up Nuclear
A Meditation From Ground Zero.
By Gregory McNamee
JULY 31, 2000: IN THE PREDAWN morning of July 16, 1945, a half-mile-long freight train labored up a winding grade between Deming and Las Cruces, New Mexico. As the train topped a tall hill, a flash of light burst high above the eastern horizon, widening and deepening against the blackness of the sky, spreading in all directions, roaring. The light hung in the air for a few seconds, then faded away, leaving on the clouds an eerie imprint.
At first the train's conductor thought that the blazing light was heat lightning. But the winds blew from the wrong direction, and the steadiness of the fire did not match the impetuous here-and-there of a desert electrical storm. He then thought, for a panicked moment, that the light might have been artillery fire aimed at Japanese aircraft, for, rumor had it, the Japanese were about to mount a last-ditch, desperate invasion from nearby Mexico.
In the railyard at Las Cruces the conductor compared his impressions with those of other workers. None of them had a ready explanation for what they had seen. After a few beers and some talk back and forth, they decided it must have been lightning after all, if lightning of a ferocity none of them had seen before.
Standing in his front yard in downtown Tucson half a century later, the conductor, my next-door neighbor for 15 years, remarks, "It wasn't but a few weeks later that we dropped the A-bombs on the Japs. That's when we figured out that what we saw was some kind of test." He pauses for a moment, remembering. "I can still see it all these years later, that light in the sky."
The Trinity atomic-bomb test, which the conductor had witnessed that night, was one of many the government had been conducting over the gypsum sands of central New Mexico. Most of those tests were not nearly so visible; most were instead kept as closely guarded secrets. In one, scientists working for the U.S. Army Air Corps attempted to develop a weapon employing hundreds of incendiary charge-laden Mexican freetail bats. When released in midair, these bats, the scientists hoped, would take refuge in the rafters and rooftops of Japan's major cities and, when ignited by delayed fuses, would set off a huge firestorm to visit an inferno on the enemy. The experiment was short-lived; the bats instead burned down the laboratory that held them.
But this experiment was of an altogether different magnitude, and it would change history. With it, death left the battlefield and traveled freely everywhere. As former president Herbert Hoover remarked just a few months after the Trinity test, "Despite any sophistries, we have introduced to the world a weapon whose only conceivable purpose is to kill women, children, and civilian men of whole cities." The new weapon unleashed its own firestorm, one whose center was four times the temperature of the sun's at a pressure of 100 billion atmospheres. That storm was visited on Japan, where one eyewitness, a woman named Michiko Ichimaru, reported, "There were dead bodies everywhere. On each street corner we had tubs of water used for putting out fires after the air raids. In one of these small tubs, scarcely large enough for one person, was the body of a desperate man who had sought cool water. There was foam coming from his mouth, but he was not alive."
Far though it lies from the Fulda Gap and the 38th Parallel, the American West took its place as the chief arena in which the Cold War was waged at home. Today, something like a million Nagasaki-size explosions--a large portion of the 50,000 or so nuclear warheads still extant worldwide--lie in atomic embryo throughout the region, squirreled away for another time. That war made of the desert West the Free World's unwilling proving ground, the laboratory for the subterranean thermonuclear explosions and other avatars of what Robert Jay Lifton has called our culture's millennial "immersion in death." Other deserts suffered the same fate. Russia and China tested their thermonuclear arsenals in their drylands, to which hundreds and thousands of leukemia-stricken Central Asians bear witness, while Britain visited its fledgling nuclear might on the deserts of Australia. But nowhere has the Cold War been so manifest as in the American drylands, where it is now being converted from daily reality to nostalgia, enshrined as yet another commodified artifact, turned into a sideshow of living memory in our postmodern circus.
In 1984, an old, blind Hualapai Indian man looked out toward Spirit Mountain, a sacred peak not far from Las Vegas, and spoke, sobbing, of children and grandchildren dead of leukemia and thyroid cancer in the wake of secret nuclear testing the government had conducted for years against enemies half a world away. The old Hualapai's face twisted in pain as he spoke. He had been betrayed, he said. His very faith had been shaken; he was a Mormon, and here in Mormon country, people have a hard time believing that the divinely inspired government of the United States could poison its own people.
But Americans have been poisoned, and burned, and visited with disease because of these tests. Nearly half a million of them will have died by the year 2000, the victims of the thousand nuclear explosions set off at the Nevada Test Site in the last half of the 20th century.
That culture was in turn defined by cartoons and symbols and shorthand, by the pointless exercise of clambering under wooden hingetop desks for protection from a thermonuclear blast, as if that would help. "Don't get excited or excite others," Bert the Turtle, the icon of civil defense, instructed us. We did not, as children, disobey him, although nuclear dreams troubled our sleep and nuclear realities brought us endless disappointments. One of them came when I was 11 years old, living in Germany. I waited breathlessly for summer to arrive so that I could attend a Boy Scout jamboree in Bavaria. Our troop made elaborate preparations for the trip, while I raced to complete the requirements for my First Class badge so that I could take part in advanced exercises. At three in the morning on the day we were to leave, my father came into my bedroom. He was dressed in full field gear, a pack on his back, carrying a sidearm and rifle. He told me that the jamboree had been canceled, that the two-and-a-half-ton trucks that were to take us into the Alps were needed to transport his unit to the Fulda Gap. The Russians, he added on the way out the door, had just invaded Czechoslovakia.
I have never, I suppose, outgrown my disappointment at missing the jamboree; as I say, I take these things personally. But I coped, and when I went to high school, right outside Washington, D.C., I made a pact with a few friends. When the news of the Bomb's impending arrival finally came over the radio, we decided, we would drop a couple of tabs of LSD, don steel helmets, climb on the nearest roof, orient ourselves toward the Washington Monument, and wait for the moment when our faces melted, saluting all the while. We agreed with Jim Carroll, the author of the then newly released memoir The Basketball Diaries, who wrote, "After all these years of worry and nightmares over it...I think by now I'd feel very left out if they dropped the bomb and it didn't get me."
The face-melting moment never came, although we practiced the hallucinogenic portion of the drill with regularity. Weaving the Cold War and the Bomb into our odd private mythology, we watched the movies--Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, Them, Night of the Lepus, Tarantula--and watched the skies, and we waited.
We had long since stopped obeying. We were excited, and we excited others. We grew more excited in 1982, that year of Ground Zero, a time when Ronald Reagan saw fit to joke that American bombers were poised to rain fire on Moscow. I wrote a cycle of death-haunted songs that I am happy to forget now--although technically they were good lyrics, if I do say so, they are by now hopelessly anachronistic, and only a hot revival of the Cold War could make them relevant.
I took it personally, for the Bomb, the culture of the Bomb, deprived me and my agemates for years of a vision of the future. Instead, we had commodity capitalism, production as destruction, an intolerable work world of lies and waste. (And what waste it was. The Czech energy economist Vaclav Smil observes that the development of nuclear weapons has consumed a tenth of the energy used worldwide since 1945.) Ours was a generation looted of its patrimony, as Dwight Eisenhower said in a famous speech of April 16, 1953:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
We hung there on that cross for the duration of our youth, certain that we had no future. We comforted ourselves with nihilism, with the easiness of seize-the-day philosophies and other spiritual black holes, while our elders proved to us that our hopelessness was well grounded. All we needed for proof was the folly of Star Wars, another bit of mass-produced symbolism overlaid on the face of horror. All we needed was to watch our country, as Edmund Wilson observed in The Cold War and the Income Tax, lurch about the globe, "self-intoxicated, homicidal and menacing." All we needed were idiotic slogans like "duck and cover." All we needed was a nightly session with the nightly news, on which an army officer, asked to name the most effective weapons for the next war, replied, "I really can't say. But I know what weapons they'll be using in the war after next--bows and arrows."
South Asian leaders, evidently, miss the Cold War. Vladimir Zhirinovsky misses the Cold War. Pat Buchanan misses the Cold War, and so does Gennadi Zyuganov. Ronald Reagan misses missing the Cold War.
To judge by attendance records at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, near my Tucson home, plenty of regular folks from around the world feel a little lump in the throat when the atomic era comes to mind. Nearly 50,000 of them come each year to this decommissioned missile installation, Complex 571-7 on the Pentagon's roster of death-dealing real estate, a stone's throw away from another piece of death-dealing real estate, the bustling retirement community of Green Valley. Deactivated on November 11, 1982, but still owned by the Air Force, the installation is the only place in the United States where the interested traveler can get a close-up look at the weapons that once troubled the sleep of millions of people around the world.
Eighteen such installations--glorified holes in the ground, 146 feet deep, once stuffed full of expensive computer equipment and rocketry--dotted the desert around Tucson during the Cold War's boom years. Built in 1961, this one, called the Copper Penny because of its proximity to a nearby copper mine, is the only one that remains. The others were blown up in 1982, following strategic-arms limitation talks conducted by Ronald Reagan and a succession of Soviet leaders after much bellicose prelude. Here four-man crews would sit 24-hour shifts, awaiting the day when the Reds went a step over the line and all hell would break loose, in the meanwhile babysitting a 330,000-pound, 110-foot-long Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile targeted on one of three cities inside the former Soviet Union. Just which ones, no one outside the war room in Washington can say. "The targets," said a museum guide to me, "were known only as 1, 2, and 3. I don't think the boys inside really wanted to know what they were going to vaporize."
Most Americans of a certain age know these steelcase gray and institutional not-quite-lime-green bunkers, but only through films like War Games, Fail-Safe, Seven Days in May and Dr. Strangelove. Fine though they are, those films do not do justice to the retro, paranoia-inducing weirdness of Complex 517-7. The nuke-proof burn suits, the glass case full of ignition-switch keys that once promised holocaust, and the red phone, no longer connected, that once rang straight through to Strategic Air Command headquarters are quite enough to make the visitor--again, if he or she is of a certain age--think of taking cover. Even the missile base's motto, peregrinamur pro pace--"we are made to wander for peace"--can make sensitive souls feel uneasy.
As befits an excursion into the Cold War mindset, the Titan Missile Museum is rich with carefully posted statistics, factoids, timelines. A sign near the museum entrance proudly reports the details of construction: the underground silo and command center used 1,100 tons of rebar, 2,100 cubic yards of concrete, 120 tons of steel beams, 200 tons of electromagnetic lining, and 117 tons of steel rings. The sign announces, with weird pride, the statistics of the Titan II itself, a missile that, after attaining an apogee of 450 miles above the surface of the earth at a cruising speed of 17,000 miles per hour, could strike targets more than five thousand miles away from its launch site.
Not many of the aptly named Titans were ever built. "We had 54 when we started," another guide remarked to me. "We had 54 when we were finished. We didn't have to use any of them. After all, we're still here, aren't we?"
The staff of oldtimers who entertain questions with bemused and patient smiles are always good for such comforting sentiments, and even a few strange chuckles, as when one warrior replied, when I asked him whether I could photograph the place, "Absolutely, anything you want," all the while shaking his head from side to side in the near-universal gesture meaning "no." The guide, a retired Strategic Air Command bomber pilot, then pointed out to me such regalia as the "maximum uncomfortable" rocket-fueling suits installation personnel had to wear when servicing the missile, and the retractable radio antennae designed to rise from a case-hardened underground bunker in the event that a Russian thermonuclear missile landed atop the site and knocked out above-ground communications. "Nuclear near-miss?" he crowed. "Failure to respond? Don't look for that in this part of the world."
The high point of the tour came with a hands-on reenactment of the launch sequence that never came, in the case of my tour group commanded by a shy Australian housewife, a tour that comes complete with an eardrum-shattering sequence of bells and klaxons. During this reenactment, the guides shifted disconcertingly from the historical past to the narrative present. On my visit, a guide yelled, "A Soviet ICBM has just obliterated the site above us. We have 30 days of food and water and air left down here. Let's just hope and pray there'll be a world left when we come out."
There was a world left. Stopping for a moment's rest in the shade alongside a radar-equipment trailer, my friend, rock musician and film editor Clif Taylor, grinned and said to no one in particular, "The combination of Cold War fear and modern humor in this place is really weird." A German sugarbeet farmer, born in 1966, rejoined, "In my country, we don't talk about war like this. Maybe things are different if you're the winner."
"This place cost $10 million dollars to build back in 1961," our guide, unimpressed by pacifist sentiments, interrupted to say. "It was supposed to be in operation for only 10 years. Well, it stayed in service for more than 20 years. I call that a pretty cheap insurance policy."
Asked how much punch the fully armed Titan II packed by way of that insurance, he scratched his head thoughtfully and replied, "Well, the Air Force doesn't want us to discuss payload, but I can get you in the neighborhood of a megaton. A megaton. Compared with this baby, that little thing we dropped on Hiroshima was a firecracker. But that's all over now. People in Moscow can sleep soundly tonight."
Or perhaps not. I think of the words of the critic Susan Sontag, who spent her childhood in southern Arizona and who conjured
a permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms, and it doesn't occur.... Apocalypse has become an event that is happening, and not happening. It may be that some of the most feared events, like those involving the irreparable ruin of the environment, have already happened. But we don't know it yet, because the standards have changed. Or because we do not have the right indexes for measuring the catastrophe. Or simply because this is a catastrophe in slow motion.
A catastrophe in slow motion: that sounds about right. It has slowed down to a crawl, strangely so. Rockets are aimed at us from Moscow and Alma Ata and perhaps Urumqi, but they no longer seem real; Pax Coca Cola reigns over the world; and India and Pakistan are so far away.
But for those of us who grew up in its frightening, long shadow, the Cold War will go on forever, like a desert highway. It endures. It is built into the landscape of the desert, and into our minds: Ground Zero, like the kingdom of heaven, will be forever within us.
"Growing Up Nuclear" is excerpted with permission from Blue Mountains Far Away, by Gregory McNamee (Lyons Press, $22.95). Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.
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