It’s not Chernobyl, there are no dust covered dolls sitting on shelves nor ferris wheels sitting eerily vacant. It’s just one spot in the New Mexico desert where the first atomic bomb was tested. The GPS won’t get you there.
While looking up some information on White Sands while in Marfa, I came across some information stating that the Trinity Site, the site where the world’s first atomic bomb was tested, was open to the public twice a year, the first Saturday of April and the first Saturday of October. It fell right in line with my travel plans so I decided to go.
I took one wrong turn that led to a locked gate, fortunately only a few miles in, and another wrong turn that led me onto the property of some sort of cult. I would have liked to have written a story on them, but this wasn’t that day. Once I neared the interstate, the directions I’d read began to make sense.
Looking down the road I could see a gathering of cars and people, so I knew I must be close. These people were still several miles away from the entrance. It turns out there were protesters there, and I guess that’s something I could have anticipated. I listened to their stories, and could certainly understand their point of view. I’ll let you look up the RECA act and decide for yourself.
After talking with the protestors I headed into the site, past a checkpoint where government officials were checking ID’s, and across the sage brush desert. There were many people there, hundreds upon hundreds. I didn’t really think about the radiation exposure, I mean, our government wouldn’t let us go where it’s not safe would they? The protesters I’d met gave me a mental pause, but I decided surely I’d be okay.
I wondered at this gathering of people on this day, what of their motivations, myself included. I walked up the long dusty road, exchanging greetings with a few, and I have to say I was a bit surprised to see a t-shirt stand with many people in line. This is America I thought, and we’re selling t-shirts to commemorate the testing of an atomic bomb? Then again, America was not celebrating, simply acknowledging history. Imagine Kim Jong-un of North Korea celebrating such a thing.
One man, clearly a scientist or an engineer, began to talk with me about the plutonium charges, and how they all had to explode at just the right time. The precise minutiae was utterly fascinating to him, I could tell. In his eyes I could read a hopeful connection. I listened as patiently as possible for as long as possible, his wife finally interjecting, “Honey, that’s enough, I don’t think he’s all that interested.” I could have given her a hug.
Partially, I was there to learn. Just what was it we did out in that desert? Around the site there was a long fence that contained photographs from the time, giving insight not just into the bomb itself, but into the lives of the men who lived there at the time. A handout was particularly helpful. Young Caden and Caleb walked the site with their parents, learning American history first hand, not only from textbooks.
The highlight of my visit was meeting Mrs. Allorah Jo Byrnes. Her husband Sam Levy, now deceased, was a soldier at the Trinity Site. While I’d encountered the intellectual connections that brought people to the site, I now began to understand the many emotional connections that brought visitors there as well. Her husband Sam had been with the Army Corps of Engineers and he worked directly under General Groves. They’d met while she was a teaching assistant for freshman English at the University of Denver. He spent 27 months at Los Alamos and was a witness to the test of the bomb. As she remembered him she said, “The cream of the crop of America was here.”