Thursday
Jan102013

Our Nuclear Age

Rachel Marston


 

I am no physicist.

I can give you operation names, operations over islands and desert landscapes, bounded by the bare mountains, where giant clouds emerged from the earth, born from the brilliance of hot red light touching the ground, and then it spread across the sky.

Ranger: Able; Ranger: Baker-1; Ranger: Easy; Ranger: Baker-2; Ranger: Fox.; Buster: Able; Buster: Baker; Buster: Charlie; Buster: Dog; Buster: Easy; Jangle: Sugar; Jangle: Uncle.

 

This is a question of nomenclature. Do we call it: Science? War? History?

 

Each recounting of the nuclear age includes a history of the science. Wilhelm Roentgen (pronounce: Rent-gen) with his cathode ray tube, exposing bones, enhancing medical technology. Prepares the way to shine light right through our skin, expose what's underneath. 

Wilhelm, show us your shadow pictures. 1896.

Marie and Pierre. Curies (no longer the international standard for units of radioactivity), discover elements in their lab, a little like Adam naming, for the first time, radioactivity. Marie surrounds herself with radium, unlocking its secrets, sealing her fate. At the edge of stability, these elements, these words: transformative. 1898.

Ernest Rutherford. To understand atomic structure aims radiation through gold foil, discovers that atom is solid, positively charged. 1911-1919.

Bohrs, Einstein, Hahn, Meitner.

Szilard, Teller, Bethe. There are so many names.

 

The US practices a policy of isolationism. We are not involved in the European conflict.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. This is history we know. An attack on American soil means that we will go to war. History always repeats itself.

History unfolds first in fiction, in H.G. Wells' novel The World Set Free, in which he describes "atomic disintegration," a source of both power and destruction. Wells predicts a dangerous future, this atom splitting suggestion, prescient in 1912 of Germany physicists achieving nuclear fission in 1938.

We also have the parallel story of the Soviet Union.

Lenin says, "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole county." 1920. 

1921: the Communist Party of America and Communist Labor Party join, creating the American Communist Party.

1922: The USSR officially formed.

A chain of events happening simulaneously, seemingly unconnected until one looks back in time. A revolution, an invasion, a threat to world peace. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. uneasy allies, emerging at the end of the war as uneasy enemies, but still tied together, locked in a pattern of threat, escalation, display of power, uneasy peace.

 

During World War II, my grandfather was stationed in Hawaii, years after Pearl Harbor, assigned to repair planes. He almost didn't make it to Hawaii, catching spinal menegitis at his training camp in Idaho, almost dying before he ever reached his post.

I don't remember his exact trajectory from rural Southern Utah to Provo to Salt Lake. Then Los Angeles, then Idaho, then Hawaii. Or he may have gone to Los Angeles after the war.

While he was stationed on Maui, the silver sword plant, growing on Haleakala, the only place in the world it grows, was imperilled by the swelling goat population. Residents had set their goats free and now they bred and ranged and roamed over the high elevations of the volcano, consuming the silvery plant in their wake.

My grandfather volunteered to shoot the goats, familiar from years on a family farm and ranch in Alton, UT, with shooting rifles. He helped save the silver sword. But who would save the citizens of Alton and Panquitch and Teasdale and other small Mormon communities? Who would save their livestock, save the vegetation, from the radioactive ash, falling from the sky like rain?

 

Brigadier General Leslie Groves and Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford, Washington: These are our first sites, our secret nuclear project, code named Manhattan. Bring in the physicists. Enrich the uranium.

Uranium-235 is less stable than Uranium –238. Therefore, Uranium-235 is more fissionable, an atom more ready to split.

We usher in the Atomic Age, the Nuclear Age—the beauty and promise of nuclear power. 

 

Tumbler-Snapper: Able; Tumbler-Snapper: Baker; Tumbler-Snapper: Charlie; Tumbler-Snapper: Dog; Tumbler-Snapper: Easy; Tumbler-Snapper: Fox; Tumbler-Snapper: George; Tumbler-Snapper: How.

 

Today when I drove down 200 South in Salt Lake City, I wondered if the color of the sky, with the sun setting behind the fog and pollution, if the particular color of orange red, reflected through the tress onto the ashphalt and sidewalks, if that was a nuclear shade of red.

 

The dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Little Boy and Fat Man respectively, was a nuclear end to a war. But it wasn't an end to anything, only the beginning, a stunning fiery entrance, full of burning flesh and fabric patterns seared into skin, of demolished acres of buildings, of layers of black dust, of leukemias and deformities (see babies with teeth outside of mouths, and livers outside of bellies, of fused fingers and toes) of nuclear proliferation, a demonstration of power (see this Soviet Union, see this Joseph Stalin, see our fire in the sky).

My grandfather believes that the war would not have ended without the dropping of the atomic bombs. I was not alive, only see this history through the lens of the present, the history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for me inextricably linked to the history of nuclear testing, my family in Las Vegas, Reno, and Utah.  Bombs dropped and dropped again not on cities, but in the desert a little more than sixty miles from my hometown, when the wind was blowing northeast.

Even with time, history offers no right answers. The bombs were dropped. The war ended. All we can do now is plan for the future.

 

 1949: The USSR explodes its first atomic bomb.

There is Stalin with his Five-Year plan and Leninesque beard, taking control of the economy of the USSR. The plan: proliferation of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. 

He does not want to be left behind.

 

Upshot-Knothole: Annie; Upshot-Knothole: Nancy; Upshot-Knothole: Ruth; Upshot-Knothole: Dixie; Upshot-Knothole: Ray; Upshot-Knothole: Badger; Upshot-Knothole: Simon; Upshot-Knothole: Encore; Upshot-Knothole: Harry; Upshot-Knothole: Gamble; Upshot-Knothole: Climax.

 

Yes, inhabitants of Middleton, Pennsylvania and Pripyat, model city of Ukraine, but you come later. 

Yes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are shadows etched into your sidewalks, bodies once present, then disappeared.

I cannot do justice to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I cannot send a thousand paper cranes.

 

The United States conducts the first peacetime nuclear weapons tests over the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands in 1946.

The Marshall Islanders are evacuated and the area is contained. Many of the Marshall Islanders now live in Las Vegas, Nevada, sixty-three miles from the Nevada Test Site, formerly the Nevada Test Center, home to over one hundred above ground atmospheric tests between 1953 and 1960.

 

The soldiers are secured in their trenches, mouths covered to reduce exposure to dust, ears plugged against the explosion, eyes closed against the light.

They wait, 1.8 kilometers from the Hotpoint, the place on ground where the bomb will touch down, ready to maneuver, perform their operations, in preparation for the threat of a Soviet Nuclear attack.

They cannot move because of the dust. The dust settles and they start slowly toward the buildings. Their dosimeters register radiation readings too high (too high, too high and too quickly moving through the air and over the land, seeding storm clouds, and scattering ash for miles and miles).

There will be contaminated wheat fields, and cows with radioactive milk, and herds of sheep covered in lesions. In Southern Utah, a boy is born without a face.

 

Teapot: Wasp; Teapot: Moth; Teapot: Tesla; Teapot: Turk; Teapot: Hornet; Teapot: Bee; Teapot: Ess; Teapot: Apple-1; Teapot: Wasp Prime; Teapot: Ha; Teapot: Post; Teapot: Met; Teapot: Apple-2; Teapot: Zucchini.

 

This is where I grew up, this Nevadan desert, these aching blue skies, this dusty landscape. 

This is where the testing was done—sixty-three miles of asphalt run through the desert. You cannot get lost.

This is where grandstands were set up and platters of champagne passed around, people cheering for that precarious red-hearted flower blooming in the sky.

This is where Miss Atomic Bomb stood, in all her leggy beauty, mushroom cloud bikini and all.

This is where my grandfather had his winter wheat farm, Grandpa Roundy, two-time prostate cancer survivor, healed with brachytherapy, the planting of radioactive seeds in the tumor. Quiet grandfather, speaking slowly while chewing on his rounded toothpick, driving down from Reno every summer to Alton, harvesting those slender golden strands.

He tells me he remembers watching the tests. He remembers being told to go and watch. To take his family. To see the fire in the sky.

They told him it would be beautiful.

He tells me that it was.