My Atomic Explosion

October 27th, 2017

My Atomic Explosion

I grew up under the threat of  the Nuclear Arms Race.

In the late 1940’s and early 50’s, I was in grade school. There were “bomb drills” when we either were told to cower under our desks or, later, to move quickly to the basement and squat on the hallway floor, backs to the wall, with our arms over our heads.  Those were not happy times.

I knew what an atomic bomb was: I had read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, knew the terrible devastation and pain and suffering it could inflict — I felt, reading that book, the heat of the explosion, and smelled the stink of carnage after.

Mom was virulently anti-war, and when , in 1951, my 6th grade teacher put up a “Welcome Back, General Mac” poster in our classroom, Mom wasted no time in lodging her outrage with the school administration.  She was outraged at our being forced to cower under our desks or huddle in the basement, as she was well aware that in the event of a real atomic attack, such shenanigans would do no good at all; she felt they served only to induce fear and obedience.

When I was in high school, ETV ( this was in the days when ETV actually broadcast real educational television ) broadcast a series of lectures about the destructive power of atomic warfare.  There was also a series by Leo Szillard, an atomic scientist and veteran in the development of the first atomic bomb, who wanted to ban all nuclear weapons, and another series on the economic imbecility of nuclear power — far more money, resources and energy would be put into nuclear plants than would ever be produced, when the storage of waste and costs of decommissioning the plants were taken into account.

In the summer of 1973, Richard Nixon was still President of the United States, the Vietnam War was still raging, I was invited by the US Government to observe the explosion of an atomic device in Colorado.

I was invited, because I’d asked to be invited, as a registered journalist.  At the time, I was editor of “the Divine Times”, which was an instrument of Divine Light mission, the organization of Guru Maharaj Ji.  I was living in an ashram of Divine Light mission, and editing this basically propaganda sheet for the organisation.  We had high hopes for the Divine Times, that it would evolve into legitimate newspaper like Rev. Moon’s Washington Times.  But at the time, we were just a propaganda rag.

At any rate, I and my two assistant editors, Judy and Dave, had cajoled our way onto the invitation list for a news conference with the Governor of Colorado, at the time Richard Lamb and viewing of the explosion.  A part of the Operation Plowshare (a project originally conceived under the Eisenhower administration), this was to be a test of nuclear devices put to peaceful use — in this case, an underground detonation of a 40-kiloton device ( four times the size of the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima).  The purpose was, it was said, to “fracture” natural gas deposits in the limestone shale, creating a giant, glass-lined bubble full of natural gas.  (This was a precursor of the gentler, non-nuclear fracking used today.)

The event was nominally in Rulison Colorado, which is a small town, just off Interstate 70, on Colorado’s Western Slope.  Definitely cow country, high, arid, suitable for ranches and not much else.  The place was really in a non-entity called Parachute, Colorado, under Fawn Creek, about 40 miles from Rifle, CO, and 20 miles off the interstate.  This was only about a four hour drive from Denver, up the precipitous eastern slope and through the Eisenhower Tunnel along I-70.  Our little VW bus chugged its way up, though slowly.

We spent the night at a motel in Rifle, in my mind a desolate little town, though it might have been a thriving community in the minds of the ranchers in the hundreds of square miles of which it was the center.  I remember having breakfast in a diner there, and feeling way out of things, especially considering that we three were strict vegetarians, and about the only thing on the menu we could eat was toast.  No grits out west.

The morning of the Event (I keep trying to find a better name for it than ‘The Event,’ but keep coming back to that.), we drove to the appointed gathering area, and joined a long line of CBS, NBC, ABC and local affiliated stations’ cars and vans, jammed with reporters and cameramen.

isting, dusty road our caravan drove, to end up at a mesa overlooking the explosion site.  We all lined up along the edge of the mesa.  Before us were an infinity of arroyos, canyons, mesas, cry creek beds, more canyons, stretching to the horizon.

We had heard that there were some anti-nuclear protestors who were occupying the site of the underground nuclear test, but we could see none of that.  We, representatives of the Free Press, were shielded from all that.

There was someone “explaining” what we were about to see, but no one paid any attention to him; we were all just waiting to see what might happen.

There was a countdown of sorts.  Then the moment:  A jolt, then a few seconds-long trembling.  The stretch of canyons and mesas in front of us blurred for a moment.  Then a noise low and rumbling, as if the earth was moaning. When the earth stopped moving, was when we realized it had been doing so.

From every canyon, arroyo, mesa, creek bed for the hundreds of square miles we could see in front of us, arose atomic cloud-shaped puffs of dust, as every poorly balanced rock and stone and boulder in that desert was knocked off balance and tumbled to the ground, rolling down the hillsides, into the rills and valleys of this desert, so that the sky became muted with brown-grey dust that formed a low cloud over us, the slowly lifted and was wafted away by a light westerly breeze.

I think there was some scattered applause from the assembled journalists and dignitaries, but not much.  Rather, there was a stunned silence, a sort of standing-in-awe at the magnitude of what we had just seen.  No blinding flash, no booming roar, no towering pillar of ashen atomic mushroom cloud.  But that near-silent uplifting of the entire earth, the low moan, the silently spuming rock cascade, was an utterly transmogrifying experience.

After The Event, there was a press scrimmage around the Governor, whom I asked a question, and was scared to death by all the microphones and cameras trained on me as I did so.  He had been talking about his discussions with President Nixon about the creation of a cabinet secretary for Energy, and I asked him if he was interested in the job: he brushed my question off. The logical follow-up would have been, “When do you start?” and indeed, he did become the “Energy Czar” shortly after, but I’m such an intrepid reporter that I was completely verklumpt after my first question.





Comments are closed.