Ground zero

A writer discovers the resiliency of life in the atomic testing grounds of the American southwest. An excerpt from Ellen Meloy's "The Last Cheater's Waltz.

By Ellen Meloy
Published February 24, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Before dawn on July 16, 1945, a summer monsoon soaked a remote dry-lake basin, or playa, in southern New Mexico. Burrowed beneath the valley's normally bone-dry sands, a scattered colony of dormant spadefoot toads detected the moisture, unburied themselves, and in the darkness launched a scramble competition for mates, a search made successful by olfactory and celestial cues but mostly by the acoustic trigger of hundreds of toads, whose muscular vocal chords filled the desert with a concert of sound. Scaphiopus are explosive breeders: after rain forms ephemeral pools on the desert floor, they congregate in large, lovesick numbers for an intense period of reproductive activity that ends in oviposition, the release of eggs in free-standing water.

Thunderstorms rolled over the playa known as Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of Death. Puddles formed. The toads found the pools and one another. They straddled in a mating embrace known as pectoral amplexus and writ themselves into history in flagrante delicto. Toward dawn the monsoon collapsed, as tropical storms will do when heat from a day-warmed landmass no longer feeds them. A few stars broke through the cloud cover. An eerie strain of a Tchaikovsky waltz from a distant commercial radio station crossed wavelengths with the only radio on the Jornada del Muerto, where on this day, at 5:29:45 a.m. Mountain War Time on the site known as Trinity, an elite tribe of scientists spawned the primary death anxiety of the rest of all time.

Trinity's progeny obviously was not tadpoles but a nuclear arsenal equal to a million Hiroshimas. Trinity is simultaneously a geography of nihilistic lunacy and passionate beauty. It is the locus of my century's strange confluence of deserts and physics, and I am standing on ground zero.

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I arch my back and tilt my chin into the clear cerulean sky over this magnificent and awful piece of Chihuahuan Desert. I look like a parenthesis in a baseball cap. Directly above me are the ghost images of what was known as the Gadget and the underbelly of the sheet metal shack that held it atop the hundred-foot-high steel tower that was its one-night stand. The Gadget, a series of spheres within spheres, weighed five tons, including steel, explosives, uranium, gold foil, facial tissue, Scotch tape, and nearly the entire world's supply of plutonium, all of it pushed and joined, slipped and fastened into its metal skin by the hands of young men in their intellectual prime.

The Gadget was elevated to lessen the chance of its fireball sucking up too much dust, and it was stationary when it exploded. It did not drop. But it was a bomb, positioned in the same posture in which its twin, code name Fat Man, would ride over Nagasaki, Japan, less than a month later. Where I stand is where no one stood once the bomb had been hoisted into place and wired to its detonator cables, and the countdown had begun.

The Gadget's core -- two hemispheres of plutonium joined in a single, grapefruit-sized globe -- ticked away its half-life of 24,360 years. People, not nature, produce plutonium by reorganizing the atomic composition of uranium. Plutonium can be soft and plastic or as hard and brittle as glass, depending on conditions. It quickly crumbles when burned but slowly disintegrates at room temperature, undergoing five or more transitions on the way to its melting point. Inhaling or ingesting plutonium is a serious health matter. You can, however, hold metallic plutonium next to your heart without harm. Plutonium's steady alpha radiation produces a fertile, tactile energy. A lump of plutonium in your hand, it has been said, "feels warm, like a live rabbit."

Going backward from the atomic bomb in its tower to its rawest of sources, the plutonium core followed this route: to Trinity site from a converted icehouse in Los Alamos, New Mexico, secret headquarters of the Manhattan Project. To Los Alamos from the plutonium production works at Hanford, Washington, another Manhattan Project facility. To Hanford in the form of concentrated uranium oxide, or "yellow cake." The yellow cake came from raw uranium ore mined in Africa, Canada, and the Colorado Plateau.

I, too, have followed a reverse geography. In this particular foray I feel as if I have fallen entirely off the Map of the Known Universe, the Colorado Plateau, and landed in esoteric territory, this windswept expanse of Chihuahuan Desert several hundred miles away. By coming to Trinity first, I appear to be approaching home from the outside in.

A winter has passed since my visit to the claret cup ledges. Now I am in the Jornada del Muerto to chart the origins of Trinity's plutonium. By chart I mean not only the simple chronological lines of historical record but also a greater fullness of place. I have come in search of alien pebbles. I want to explore the desert that might have inherited them. Is my home inside the lethal heart of Trinity?

Three ravens cross my field of vision, erasing for a moment the images of the shot tower in my mind's eye. Strands of hair lash my cheeks in a wind from which there is no shelter. The broad alkali plain lacks vegetation with the height to slow the gusts, and there are few structures on this northern end of the White Sands Missile Range. This is wide-open Chihuahuan Desert, and this is also an enormous industrial complex of the keenest technical sophistication. In the San Andres Mountains along the military reserve's eastern periphery lives a rare and precious strain of bighorn sheep and, some claim, ecosystems more pristine than national parks.

The wind kicks up dust devils. Twenty miles across the basin from where I stand, military technicians explode something very frightening with a name mollified by a weighty burden of acronyms and loosely categorized as a "large blast thermal simulator." Except for two days a year, in a caravan tour under military escort, Trinity National Historic Landmark is closed to the public. The rest of this 3,200-square-mile military reserve and its airspace are restricted as well. On this February day, not a Trinity open-house day, the U.S. Army has opened the site to a poet and me. We are in the company of a Department of Defense public affairs officer and wildlife biologist, two gracious, unsentimental, delightful people in a business whose center is death.

Today on the Jornada del Muerto I will watch pronghorn antelope, falcons, and other icons of western wildlife, and later I will nearly be shish-kebabed by an out-of-place, spike-horned ungulate native to Africa's Kalahari. The stark beauty of the nearby Oscuras, serrated and dry and reminiscent of my home rock in Utah, fills me with pleasure, and the entire spiny chunk of desert gives me the creeps. This deranged jungle of ironies coinhabits my skull like feathers and fireworks. My heart fills with stones. I am the mad aunt who laughs her head off at the funeral. There rises in me the most inappropriate hysteria in this most somber of places.

It is said that history gave meaning to this desolate New Mexico basin, as if, until 1945, it was innocent of its own. The sterilization of landscape allows its reinvention; only at zero can there be a beginning, a blank slate to fill, even if the story that fills it -- an apocalypse -- itself becomes nothing again, in an instant. Land considered barren and empty of life cannot be stripped of life.

In my mind the terrain of strategic death will forever be desert. When I see a photograph of northeastern Kazakhstan, ground zero for the former Soviet Union, I smell the sands of the Mojave Desert and the saltgrass and shadscale of the Great Basin. The Cold Warriors attacked Nevada, New Mexico, and the Colorado Plateau, Australia's Maralinga, the African Sahara, China's Lop Nur west of the Gobi Desert, the Rajasthan in northwest India -- regions whose isolation, aridity, stable weather, and exceptional visibility provided the geographic equivalent of "neutral" laboratory conditions for the largest physics experiments of the time. Common to these lands is a consensus of their worthlessness and the assumption that local populations were invisible, expendable, or relocatable. Paramount objectives throughout the era were weapons production and the utmost secrecy. A land dominated by silence and sky, dust and time, held those secrets well.

Ellen Meloy

Ellen Meloy is a writer and artist who lives on the San Juan River in southern Utah. She is the author of "Raven's Exile: A Season on the Green River," which won a Spur Award for contemporary nonfiction.

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