Sunday, September 2, 2007

Childhood Memory of Trinity Site

While I was sleeping peacefully in my crib at age two in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico, the first atomic bomb was being tested at the other end of the valley in 1945.
Locals did notice the brilliant flash to the northwest and speculated. Everyone knew top secret testing having to do with World War II was going on, and speculation very logically connected this to some new kind of war weapon. No one was very surprised when the truth was revealed.
Throughout my childhood, I kept hearing about a little girl in Roswell, I think, who happened to be looking out her window at the moment of the brilliant flash, and she was permanently blinded. There is absolutely no proof such a girl ever existed, but I heard the story over and over growing up.
My mother was a seventh grade history teacher the year we took advantage of one o the two open house days at Trinity Site when I was in early elementary school. It took about an hour from Alamogordo, I think. There weren't so many of us--30 people in seven or eight cars, perhaps. There was a brief greeting and welcome by a high-ranking Air Force officer.Being a sensible young girl used to the interminal boring rituals of adult ceremony,, I paid no attention. The site was secured all around with tall, chain-link fence. There were some sparse walkways, and a small,low, one-story building with a few informational pster boards explaining the difference between fission and fusion and basically giving some sparse info on how the bomb worked.
Outside, there was a not very impressive depression of bare earth in the ground.where the bomb actually detonated. Some kind of debris nearby. And not nearly far enough away, this 4-6-inch concete barricade maybe three feet tall (it may have been taller; I'm working on really old memories here) where the scientests and techs hunkered when the bomb went off.
Everywhere, the ground was covered with one and two-inch clods of pale bluish green, melted earth. It felt rough, but slick and almost ceramic. There were bubbles in it. I may be wrong about where the scientists were; after all, the melted earth also extended beyond that concrete wall.
It was deliberately a small bomb, so the area of melted earth was not much more than 200 feet in circumference, if that.
Was I scolded for picking up this radioactive earth to look at it? Oh, no. At that time, geiger counters hadn't even made their debut. The idea of any peril from that melted earth didn't enter anyone's mind.
In fact, my father approached the Lt. Col. in charge and explained my mother's profession. He asked if there might be a box and if she could take home souvenirs of the site to give her students. The officer agreed, and himself went off to find a smallish cardboard box for Mother, who probably collected 100 pieces or so. And we brought them home. Wish I knew where one of those pieces was today.
Dad stored the box in the pump house, and sure enough, for several years Mother did give her students pieces of the melted earth to give them a true feel (pun very much intended) for the heat and power of that small blast. She kept several pieces to at least show later students what the very small bomb could do.
The men at Trinity Site changed the world. When they did it, some of them were afraid. They weren't quite sure what would happen.They all died, I think, before any of the positive uses of atomic energy began to come into being. I will research that again, but I remember several wrote correspondence where they expressed dispondency over their great success.
Trinity Site is this ordinary, unussuming place surrounded by chain link with a simple little building in the middle, the whole sitting in the middle of nowhere. Twice a year, someone comes up early and shovels out the dirt and spider webs since the last open house, and they do it again. I have no idea how many people come today. I have heard from others that about the only change since I was there in the early 1950s is that every piece of atomic earth has long since been picked up, making the site even more unprepossessing.
I rather like the idea that it is available to the public on a limited basis, but it hasn't been spruced up or fancied up. It is as it was when the initial explosion occurred, pretty much. The presentation fits the history.


DW said...

I could be wrong, but I think the comtaminants on those pieces of glass were fixed. Most falout is low level alpha or beta stuff, low dose and penetration. Not good for you, but not too dangerous.

night lightning woman said...

You are right. When the geiger counter craze came in about 1954, we got one. The melted earth clattered, but really low. Matt G. always teases me that this exposure is the reason he has such big feet (he wears a size 18). I don't think so! He;s just pure-D lucky.

Merry Jelinek said...

Wow, I would love to have seen that and it's amazing to think they were letting people take pieces home to classrooms! Even if it wasn't dangerous, they wouldn't allow it today...

Thanks for sharing this story.

Anonymous said...

Back in the early 70s I drove down from Albuquerque to see the site, but the roads had washed out the night before in a heavy rain. Never had the chance again.

Randy in Arizona