Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Visit to the Site: Trinity

We recently visited the Trinity site for the first time. Site of the first atom-bomb blast, at 5:29:45 a.m., July 16, 1945. It's on White Sands Missile Range.

We saw Jumbo, a thick steel bomb-casing they didn't use; and we saw numerous photographs of the blast, and of soldiers and scientists working and playing here.

The bus contained many NMSU students from other countries. Several were Japanese – including one girl who had chosen NMSU partly because she might get to visit the site. (We met some great young students whose life NMSU is enhancing but who also enhance our community; and the tour seemed just the kind of imaginative venture NMSU should be doing.)

There were moments of humor. Warning us not to take pictures, our guide, Lisa Blevins, said, “You may see some very strange animals.” Three of us (at least) envisioned animals made strange by radiation. Lisa dashed our hopes by mentioning orix.

As folks picked up tiny pieces of Trinitite, green glass-like material created in the atomic blast, Lisa warned that there were also little round things we ought not to pick up and show her: rabbit droppings. (People actually do!) She also told us not to remove trinitite, “because we're not making any more.” 

People photographed each other, inside Jumbo or by the obelisk. A recent open-house drew 3,992 visitors.

In the McDonald ranchhouse, the master bedroom was a “clean-room” for attaching the bomb's innards. “The world changed in this room,” Lisa said. True, that.

Four years ago this week we visited Hiroshima. We saw the shell of a bomb-destroyed building. We visited the memorial with kids' bikes and baseball gloves and clothes as the bomb left them, as well as photos from those days of horror, and government documents. And photos from here. It was difficult, but moving, and seemed important. 

Trinity, where a bunch of good-hearted young American soldiers helped build that bomb, was another side of a complex coin. You look at these guys, lounging and laughing off-duty, or swimming in the stock tank, and they're just good kids . . . who happened to be working on something devastating. There's no blame. Not for them, anyway. For Japanese leaders, yes. Maybe some U.S. leaders, too.
My father, a pilot in the Pacific, told me of a father and son he knew pretty well. The son was a pal of my father's. His father was Arthur Compton, a famous physicist. Only after August 6 did father and son learn that both had been working on the same project. (Arthur Compton was so famous he used a false name on the project, “A.H. Comas.”)

The long-finished Manhattan Project spreads tentacles into many of our memories or family histories, particularly here. One acquaintance told us that one morning in July 1945 a guy came into her family's Las Cruces pharmacy, shaken. He'd been driving to Cruces in the early morning darkness. Excitedly he stammered, “The sun came up. Then it went back down!” The military explained the blast as an accidental munitions explosion; but New Mexicans knew better.

The McDonald ranchhouse has such rural simplicity it's hard to realize such momentous work occurred there. It's isolated in the southwestern desert we so love. Lisa said she likes taking her lunch out there and “pretending this is all mine.” 

Walking through the desert I felt the same peace (and the same uneasiness about that peace) as I felt walking the riverbank below that burned-out building in Hiroshima, watching a white heron fishing 70 years later. 

It's important not to forget what happened, there and here.

[This column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, 24 April 2016, and will appear shortly on the KRWG-TV website under "Local Views."  I welcome comments and/or criticism here, on the Sun-News site, or at the KRWG-TV site.   (Actually, since the Sun-New put the column on its website today, Saturday, I'll do the same.)]

[The column includes a link to the column about visiting the memorial and museum in Hiroshima, 
A Painful Past Worth Facing, including a column published August 5, 2012.  This earlier post has more pictures and describes in more detail visiting the Peace Museum in Hiroshima -- and a nearby island so peaceful that deer walk the streets with people.  It was one of the last in a series on our visit to Japan that started with  Japan I: The Cherry Blossoms and continued through May 2012.  (The visit was in April.)]  

[A friend commented, on the newpaper's website, that I should have engaged with the issues, not merely touched on images.  That's a fair criticism. I did stitch together just images.  That's all I wanted to do.  But let's not forget that the result of all this activity here in New Mexico was this:]

the same building, photographed in context, in 1945
 and this man -- understandably dedicated to peace and "no nukes" -- who experienced the blast in Hiroshima from inside his mother's womb:

 and this:
A tricycle as the blast left it.

schoolchildren visit the Peace Dome
Had these girls visited Hiroshima too?
Posing in Jumbo

Photographing Jumbo

Jumbo rests in the desert

The facts

Trinitite -- not rabbit droppings

Jumbo gets unloaded in New Mexico
What's left of the tower's footing

Photos on the fence near the oblisk

Jumbo gets lifted up onto the tower

Jumbo after the blast

A visitor to McDonald Ranch House sees a photo from 1945

Near the ranch house, she photographs him

and he photographs her

and they contemplate the desert together

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