Bitch all you want about Boomers, we do try to stay up with the times. Donna took Polly to watch Barbie on Sunday; yesterday she took me to see Oppenheimer. As you can see, I dressed for the occasion.
We knew the basic outlines of Oppenheimer’s life and I at least have always thought him a fascinating man. I knew a little more about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. The movie fleshed out my knowledge and appreciation of J. Robert … but dear lord in heaven it was loud!
As we left the theater, it hit me I should watch HBO’s Chernobyl again. Oppenheimer is more a collection of impressions than a linear story, parts of it sloppy and overdone. Chernobyl’s tight, and though made for TV the better show. I hope I’ve talked Donna into watching it with me … she’s only ever seen the first episode.
I once spent three months at Holloman AFB in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Trinity Site, the location of the first atomic bomb test, is on the White Sands Missile Range 40-some miles north of the base, and I often flew over it on my way out to the training ranges (no, you can’t really see anything from the air, although the nearby USAF high speed test track, a famous historical artifact still in use today, stands out … probably even from orbit). The Army allows the public to visit Trinity twice a year, on the third Saturday of October and first Saturday in April. I’m hosting book club on the October date, but maybe Donna and I can take a trip out in April … Alamogordo’s an easy day’s drive from Tucson, and we might even be able to stay on base.
We’ve never been to Los Alamos either. The Department of Energy has run the Los Alamos National Laboratory since the 1950s (one of many facts covered in the movie) and it’s still a restricted and secret site (only a little less secret, in its heyday, than the science cities that never appeared on maps of the old Soviet Union) but DOE offers tours of some of the historic buildings three times a year. Los Alamos, for us, is a lot farther away than Alamogordo and Trinity, but I for one would love to see it.
While I’m thinking of it, on a country road near my home town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is an old and battered tin road sign pointing east toward Oak Ridge. By old, I mean it looks like it’s been there since WWII, when everything about Oak Ridge was secret and probably no one had ever heard of it, let alone knew how to get there. Like the national laboratory in New Mexico, there’s a nice town around it now, but the site itself is still secure. Don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Cape Girardeau, but if I do it might be worth a side trip, because as with Los Alamos there are days when DOE offers tours.
Did I ever mention that the F-15 Eagle, the fighter I flew for the USAF, was nuclear-weapon capable? Almost all USAF fighter aircraft are, and have been since the 1950s. Basic carriage and switchology procedures are in the flight manual, but we never trained for that particular mission. Other aircrews, assigned to different fighter aircraft, do, and do it often. I’ll leave you on that cheery note.
Update (8/13/23): When I set out to write this post I meant to include my visit to the site of several nuclear weapon tests in Nevada. That I forgot to write about it is as clear a sign of approaching senility as anyone’s likely to get, and I’d better start taking my Prevagen.
In 1995, when I was assigned to the squadron that operated the ranges at Nellis AFB, Nevada, I visited a portion of the Nevada Test Site, Area 10, located north/northwest of the test site headquarters at Mercury. There’s an extensive complex of ground and air ranges overlying southern Nevada, used by the Air Force for bombing, weapons testing, and exercises. The areas close to Mercury, used for above- and below-ground nuclear weapons tests, were closed and we were not allowed even to overfly them. What happened to prompt my visit was a decision by the Department of Energy to let us overfly Area 10, allowing fighters and bombers to take a shorter route home after test and training missions.
As chief of range ops, I got to hop on a helicopter at Nellis with two of my Lockheed-Martin contractors and fly up to Area 10 for a quick look-see, after which we were allowed to land and walk around a bit. We weren’t allowed to stray far from the helo or get too close to the craters, one of which was from the infamous Sedan test of the 60s, someone’s brilliant idea to test the feasibility of digging a Suez-style canal with a string of nukes buried in shallow graves. We all wore those little radiation counter thingies, and we all managed to stay in the green, even though the Sedan crater’s still hot (and likely to remain so into the 22nd century).
I’m not saying that visit to Area 10 approached the coolness of being at the controls of a fighter jet, but it was a lot of fun … and I can’t believe I forgot to tell you about it until now.
p.s. The title of this post. I’m sick of hearing that goddamn quote Oppenheimer is said to have uttered at Trinity, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” I mean, I’ve heard it so many times, always presented in awed, hushed tones, as if it’s the most profound thing anyone has ever said. Well, if you go see Oppenheimer, you’ll hear it twice. In just the same presence-of-god tones. Don’t wanna tempt fate, but show me this destroyed world you’re talking about, Bhagavad Gita death boy. Because I haven’t seen it, at least where nuclear weapons are concerned. Carbon emissions and global warming are what’s going to do us in, and we need a new Manhattan Project to help save us.