Departures: NM99: Part I

Approaching Zero...

Back to the NAM

1999.04.03 SAT (the first Saturday in April)

This was the day of the tour of the Trinity Site. I was supposed to join the tour in front of the National Atomic Museum at 5:30am or 5:45. My original plan had been to walk but the recent snow and rain made a coward of me.

At 4:50, I called up the Albuquerque Cab Company, asked for a cap. "We'll send one out there right away." I opened up my curtains and looked outside at the dark parking lot. Someone was wandering around down there. Now he was going into the hotel office. Weird.

I saw a taxicab go by on Central Avenue. It was with the Yellow Cab Company.

I saw another taxicab go by on Central Avenue. It was with the Yellow Cab Company.

At 5:20, I called up the Albuquerque Cab Company to ask where my cab hat got to. The dispatcher said that she remembered me, not to worry. I asked if the cab was likely to show up in time to get me to the museum by 5:45. She said that the cab wasn't likely to pick me up for another hour. I said not to bother to send it, then. The dispatcher said that this was one of their busiest times. I looked outside into the pre-dawn dark. "Uh-huh," I said. I hung up.

I wondered how I'd missed the implication of a 1.5 hour wait in the sentence, "We'll send one out there right away."

I called up the Yellow Cab Company. I asked for a cab, nervously asked the dispatcher if I could expect the cab soon. She said it would be picking me up within 15 minutes. Actually, it was 10 minutes.

I alit from the cab in the parking lot of the museum as hundreds of my fellow tourists looked on. They were stamping and shivering to keep off the cold. I'd shown up about as late as I could without being left behind. Soon the buses were loading.

Another Bus Ride

I asked Joyce (her name turned out to be Joyce) if it was okay if I sat next to her. She said yes.

She asked me if I was the guy who'd gotten out of the taxi. I said yes. She said it had been a glamorous entrance, breezing in at the last second. I 'fessed up about about the unintended cause of my last-second arrival. If everyone else on the tour had seen my "glamorous" entrance, my celeb reputation was secure; I was safe in disillusioning one witness.

Joyce was easy to get along with, and no wonder-she was from California, from Sacramento of all places. Now she lived in Jemez Springs, NM, but at least she'd been raised right.

We talked about the differences between Albuquerque and Sacramento. The main thing she liked about Albuquerque was the lack of traffic jams. Driving in Sacramento had turned into a nightmare over the last few years. Albuquerque was much easier to get around--perhaps because it was less crowded, perhaps because its growth was better planned.

Joyce was able to find things to do in the area--she visited friends, went dancing with her boyfriend, got out and about. I figured that If she was used to Sacramento, maybe that would be enough.

At this point, our tour guide spoke up. His name was Gerry Taylor; he'd done a lot of work at the Trinity site, helping to run cables and assemble devices. Gerry had flown with the seventh, but I didn't know exactly what that meant.

He told us about "Deak" Parsons, a major player in the development of the atomic bomb. Parsons had also been involved in inventing the device which, Taylor claimed, had won the war: the proximity fuse. According to the book Target Hiroshima: Deak Parsons and the Creation of the Atomic Bomb, by Maj. Albert B. Christman (who, coincidentally, was on our bus), Parsons was the first servicemember to recognize the military potential of RADAR.

That day, I heard from a few sources that RADAR and proximity fuses had won the war.

Old MacDonald had a Ranch

We came to the MacDonald ranch, where engineers and techs had assembled the Trinity gadget.

Joyce was glad for a chance to smoke.

There was a ramp which led up from the desert floor to the floor of the house's front porch. Before letting us in, a curator picked up a rock and used it to hammer some nails into the porch until they were flush.

[Photo: ranchhouse]

Photo: View of tourists from the clean room window

The techs had had a "clean" room--it was still just a wood-walled room in a wooden house, but they'd taped up the gaps around the windows to keep so much dust from blowing in and had painted some graffiti above the door admonishing enterers to wipe their feet.

Another room had a decoration on the walls, a stencil painted up close to the ceiling. It was a sort of art deco pattern with geometric shapes suggesting half-flowers and stems. Except, really, the half-flowers looked like blasts on a horizon. (I'm giving this textual description because my pictures didn't turn out. This kills me. I don't see pictures of this pattern anywhere. Couldn't just one camera-happy tourist have snapped a picture of them, put that picture up on the web, and used captioned it with some searchable phrase?) [Update: Alert reader Mark Krohn pointed me at a picture of the stencil!]

Soon we were back in the bus, on our way to the site of the Trinity blast.

Parking Lot

Marking the parking lot was "Jumbo," a huge thick hollow metal cylinder, which looked the worse for wear. It dated from the Trinity experiment. Originally, the Trinity gadget was to have been exploded inside Jumbo.

Plutonium was very precious at the time. There was a good deal of uncertainty as to whether this model of atomic bomb would work, uncertainty about how well it would work. (That's why it was tested. There was another type of bomb which was much more likely to work. It was used--without a test--on Hiroshima.) The idea was: if the bomb didn't explode very hard, then Jumbo would contain the explosion--and retain the precious plutonium.

Jumbo was constructed far away and was transported to the site by barge, rail, and a special truck. The truck had 64 tires. Maybe "truck" isn't the word I want. Anyhow.

By the time Jumbo had been created and transported, scientists had a better idea of what the Trinity gadget was likely to do. It wasn't very likely to be a dud which Jumbo could contain. It was probably going to vaporize Jumbo. If the gadget was a dud, it would probably still have enough force to lodge plutonium into Jumbo's walls and explode those walls outward--flinging huge pieces of radioactive shrapnel great distances. They decided not to use Jumbo.

After the Trinity test, General Leslie Groves (military head of the project) ordered Jumbo buried. Groves knew a lot about handling investigations. He knew that if the senate decided to investigate the Manhattan Project's finances, they'd be curious about this $12 million lump of metal which was never used.

Later on, still nervous, he ordered a strange demolitions test. He ordered Jumbo dug up. Large explosive charges were put inside. They were supposed to blow Jumbo into bits, perhaps to remove some embarassing evidence. However, the charges weren't put in the correct places and instead Jumbo's lid was blown off. Now it lies in the parking lot, a monument to... to rapid obsolescence or something.

The Little Carts

Joyce hadn't stuck around to learn about Jumbo. She'd gone over to look at the little electric carts. There were various military folks sitting on little carts. Joyce asked what they were for.

It was a half-mile walk to the blast site. The little carts were meant for visitors who might have trouble walking a half-mile. There were a lot of little carts, but not that many visitors. There would be more later.

Perhaps he was bored without any passengers. The driver offered Joyce a ride. She clambered into the little cart and reclined in back like a movie star, letting the wind blow her hair as she was driven off.

Meanwhile, back in the parking lot, I looked over the purveyors of foodstuffs, t-shirts, coffee mugs, books, and postcards. They didn't slow me down for long.

Soon I started the walk towards the blast site, the ultimate goal of my pilgrimage. Nobody offerred me a ride.

I was walking behind a couple of ladies, one of whom wasn't so mobile. A soldier came towards us, steering a little cart. She asked the not-so-mobile lady if she wanted a ride. The not-so-mobile lady apparently didn't hear so well, because she kept walking without acknowledging the question. The little cart had come even with the n.s.m. lady; the soldier wanted to repeat the question; but if she kept driving, the little cart would get further away and she would be harder to hear; but she didn't want to stop the little cart. Instead, she steered the little cart so that it began a sort of orbit around the n.s.m. lady; the soldier faced the lady to better project her voice and repeated her question.

It was a complicated operation. Really, I don't want to fault the soldier for not realizing that her orbiting course had sent her card trundling towards me. (I was walking behind the n.s.m. lady, you will recall.) She was facing her potential customer and thus it's natural that she didn't see me.

Still, I'm glad that no-one laughed at me as I started hopping to keep from being run down by that little cart. It nearly rendered me not-so-mobile.


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