Poison in the Ink: Visiting Trinity

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

–John Donne

I arrive a little before 10, two hours after the gates have opened. From the parking lot, it is a quarter-mile walk along a dusty dirt road to the spot where the atomic bomb was exploded. Ground Zero is a large shallow depression, about 500-yards across and oval-shaped. A tall chain-link fence topped with lines of razor barbed wire rings the perimeter. It is loneliness couched in desolation, a remote forbidden place abandoned for most of the year. Scattered thickets of saltbrush and gray-green clusters of desert grass dot the arid landscape. Beyond the fence, bleak desert terrain stretches out toward jagged horizons where the mountains meet the sky.

Inside ground zero, a squat obelisk made of volcanic rock stands to the right of center. Its stones are dark and porous and a large bronze plaque, weathered and dark, adorns one of its four sides. The inscription reads simply:

TRINITY SITE

WHERE THE WORLD’S FIRST NUCLEAR

DEVICE WAS EXPLODED

ON JULY 16, 1945

Beneath, a smaller plaque identifies Trinity as a National Historic Landmark.

To the left of the obelisk juts a small outcropping of rock. Embedded within are two metal bars, each as thick as a man’s wrist. They are all that remain of the 100-foot steel tower that held the bomb; the rest of the structure was vaporized by the blast. Trinity’s scientists assembled the bomb atop the tower in hopes of reducing the amount of radioactive dust raised by the explosion and because they needed to simulate an air-drop.

Near the edge of the site, a model of Fat Man—the second and last nuclear weapon ever used in war and an exact replica of the bomb tested at Trinity—sits alone on the trailer of a flatbed truck. To the far left, a low-roofed metal shack covers a part of the original blast crater. Small pieces of Trinitite, the green glass formed at the moment of the explosion, lie exposed on the ground for visitors to see.

Here, people walk slowly, heads lowered, eyes searching. A woman kicks repeatedly at a spot on the ground, whipping up a small cloud of dust. Children scamper about and return to their parents with unearthed treasures.

“Is this trinitite?” a small boy asks hopefully.

“No, that’s leavitrite,” his father says. “As in leave-it-rite there cause it ain’t worth a thing.”

A series of weathered photographs hang evenly spaced along a curving portion of the fence. Among them are images that trace the evolution of the blast, captured at haphazard intervals with a high-speed camera. At .006 seconds, it is a ball of concentrated fury, an enormous dome of searing white brilliance that outshines the midday sun. By .025 seconds, a murmur of rising dust has formed around the base of the dome. By .100 seconds the murmur has become a shriek as shockwaves from the blast fling clouds of swirling dust outwards in all directions. The fireball rises, expands, and cools. As it cools, liberated particles of dust and debris begin to fall away and rain to earth. By 15 seconds, the classic mushroom shape is clearly visible. Far above the clouds now, it stops and hangs suspended, like a sculpture made of ash, until blowing winds sweep away its form.

Peggy Shephard saw the blast from her home in Roswell, 90 miles away. She was 21 at the time.

“I was filling up a kerosene lamp to light the fire, and when I turned around, I saw something, and you can’t believe it, you could never describe it, not if you lived to be a hundred,” she says. “But if you would take a rainbow and put it in a little strip like that,”—she gestures with her hands—“and put it in that cloud and mix it like that, you’d get sort of an idea—the colors… oh ….” Her voice breaks in aching remembrance.

Shephard is standing outside Trinity’s entrance, in front of a bungalow that serves as the information center. She has a shock of unruly gray hair, and her pink floral print dressing gown flutters gently in the wind. “It was beautiful,” she says. “I mean purple and orange and blue and black and green, it just walked around like this in the clouds.” Her voice becomes shrill, exasperated. “I could never describe it.”

In 1905 Albert Einstein forever changed our views of time and space, proved the existence of atoms and linked mass and energy with his Special Theory of Relativity. His famous equation, E=mc2, stated that an enormous amount of energy was contained within a tiny amount of matter. This revolutionary idea was only theory at the time, and remained largely unproven until 5:29am on July 16, 1945. On that morning, the first atomic bomb was exploded in the sands of New Mexico, on a patch of barren desert known as Trinity.

Trinity is located within White Sands Missile Range, a private military base and a testing ground for some of the world’s most advanced military equipment. The V2 rocket and the B-2 stealth bomber were tested here. At almost 3,200 square miles, the site is the largest military installation in the country. In centuries past, it was part of the King’s Highway, a road that connected Mexico City and Santa Fe. Spaniards had another name for this place. They called it the “Jornado del Muerto,” the Trail of Death, in grim reference to those who perished from thirst along its route.

Ker1Twice a year, on the first Saturdays of April and October, and for only six hours at a time, Trinity opens to the public. No tickets or reservations are required, and there is no major effort to advertise the event. People typically hear about the open house through word of mouth. Many show up on the appointed day at the fair grounds in Almagordo, New Mexico, and from there drive 170 miles to the test site, snaking across the desert in a caravan lead by military vehicles. Others arrive by different routes, alone and unescorted, or they come as part of packaged tours.

People visit Trinity for different reasons. They come to remember, to give thanks, to pay penance, to make peace, to see a wonder of the modern world: the birthplace of the atomic age. There are older visitors who helped develop the bomb and military veterans who believe that Trinity set off a chain of events that ultimately spared their lives by sparing the country an invasion of Japan. Middle-aged visitors can still recall the duck-and-cover drills from their childhood and the fear of sudden annihilation that pervaded the cold war era. Others come because they are curious, drawn by the knowledge that what happened here helped shape the world in which they live.

“I think a lot of people come here because in one instant the test that happened here changed the world,” says Monte Marlin, a docent at the event. “They want to just appreciate that and try to understand it.”

Marlin sits perched on a wooden stool off to a side within ground zero, conspicuous in a bright orange vest. “A lot of this is also just tourism,” she says. “It’s a site in New Mexico that is rarely open to the public, and they want to have a chance to come see it.”

Around noon, I spot Ben Benjamin standing in front of the bungalow. Benjamin is 73, his hair and mustache are white and the shoulders on his tall frame are slightly stooped. Today, he is wearing a black cowboy hat and a light blue denim jacket that matches his jeans. Benjamin’s large hands are stuffed partway into his jean pockets, and he is gazing around at the crowd, looking like an uncomfortable cowboy surrounded by strangers .

Last night, after a five-hour flight from New York, I drove down to Albuquerque’s National Atomic Museum to hear Benjamin give a talk about Trinity. Benjamin is a military veteran and a member of the engineering division that was responsible for taking pictures of the blast. Approximately 150 people attended the talk, most of them part of a Trinity tour arranged by the museum.

Benjamin began his talk with a photographic transparency of a black-and-white aerial shot of Nagasaki, taken shortly after the city was leveled by Fat Man. In the center of the photograph, a lone shack stood undamaged amidst a sprawling sea of rubble and flattened buildings. No people were visible. The photograph was the first and only reference in Benjamin’s talk to the devastating effects of the bomb. The rest of the lecture was devoted to the story of how Benjamin joined the army and his role in the bomb’s development. After the talk, I discovered that Benjamin was going to be at Trinity the next morning and we arranged to meet again.

Seeing him now, I go up and say hello and we retreat to a patch of shade behind the bungalow to talk. I ask Benjamin to recall the moment of the blast.

“Oh my god, it was the most impressive thing I had ever seen in my life,” he says. “It was incredibly bright, it was just staggering, and the heat on my body, I could just feel the heat from that thing even from 6 miles.”

Benjamin was 23 at the time, and was sitting in a rotating gun turret that was modified to take photographs when he saw the blast. “I’ve witness a lot of atmospheric blasts since then, but none of them were as impressive as Trinity,” Benjamin says. “Nobody knew what was gonna happen here, the physicist weren’t sure what was going to happen and they certainly didn’t know how big it was gonna be.”

I ask Benjamin if the people at Trinity knew how the bomb was going to be used. “When this test went off, the Germans had already unconditionally surrendered,” he says. “So it was obvious that the Japanese were going to be the recipients of it.”

Ker2_2 How did you feel when you heard that Hiroshima had been bombed, I ask. Benjamin doesn’t answer me directly. Instead, he tells me that on August 6, 1945, the day that Hiroshima was bombed, he was visiting his parents in Duluth, Minnesota.

“I said to my mother and father ‘Now, I can tell you what I was doing in New Mexico, I was working on this project.’”

I try again, but this time with a different approach. What were people’s reactions like when they heard the news, I ask.

“Most people felt ‘gee, that’s great, they used the bomb and a few days later the Japanese surrendered,’” he says. “Everyone had been worried considerably that we were going to have to invade Japanese islands and millions of our guys would probably get killed, and millions of Japanese.”

But did people know that the bomb was dropped on civilian centers? How did they feel about that?

Benjamin shrugs. “Everybody was elated as far as I could tell,” he says. I take a moment to let this sink in, and then I decide to drop it. We move on and he begins to describe in detail for me the specifics of the blast.

Later in the day, I speak to Jim Eckles, the public relations manager for White Sands Missile Range and Trinity’s unofficial historian. “A lot of people say that this is the event that ushered in the atomic age,” he says. “There are some people that say this is the most important event of 20th Century or in the history of mankind.”

Eckles is tall and lean and is wearing the same bright orange vest that all the docents wear. He has a silver beard and mustache and wears a black cap. A blue bandana is tied around his neck. For most of the open house, Eckles sits in front of the bungalow entrance, entertaining visitors and answering their questions. As we talk, a number of people stroll up.

“If I were to read all the stuff that you’ve read and know what you know, what is the most jaw-dropping-drop-dead-fact that I would know?” one man asks.

Eckles laughs. “I don’t know.”

“What’s the biggest, the brightest, most important thing to know about Trinity?”

Sheesh , beats the heck out of me,” says Eckles, but he finally relents and tries to give the man something to take home. “I can come up with a lot of things,” he begins. “The interest people have in the site, why they keep coming back, the fact that you can walk on a ground zero area and not die. Those things we grew up with—fearing nuclear weapons, that it was going to be radioactive forever and kill ya—well, that’s not quite true.”

A little while later, Eckles is approached by a husband and wife.

“What’s this over here?” the husband asks.

“Ground zero, it’s where the bomb was exploded. You go down there to get your radiation,” Eckles says.

“And then we’ll glow in the dark huh?” asks the wife.

“Probably not.”

She chuckles. “That would be a good way to entertain grandkids!”

“There you go,” Eckles says.

“I’m disappointed,” says the husband, and he really does look disappointed.

Ker3 Radiation still concerns visitors at Trinity. “Your average American can’t explain their toaster, so they’re not gonna understand this,” Eckles says.

Eckles tells me about some of the myths and theories that exist regarding Trinity. “For instance, some people say that the sands at White Sands were bleached white because of the atomic bombing,” he says. “Well, that’s so nonsensical it’s funny, but there’s stuff like that floating around out there.”

As if on cue, a little while later a guy comes up and asks, “When we were driving in, there were unusual cactus, are they the original…uh…they aren’t mutated cacti?”

Eckles spreads his arms wide. “You mean those giant ones that are normally this big?” he asks. The question is followed by a spurt of wheezy laughter. “There’s no giant cactus down there,” he says finally. “But the yuccas are big.”

A table is set up outside the gates of ground zero to try and educate the public and dispel their fears about radiation. Health physicist Kelly Todd is stationed at the table. “We have a lot of people asking about how dangerous it is and what the [radiation] levels are,” Todd says. “We try to show them that the things that are found here are not dangerous compared to the things found in their own homes.”

Among the items lying on the table are a fire alarm, a dinner plate, a banana and a pack of cigarettes. Todd explains that the fire alarm contains trace amounts of americium 241, a radioactive element required for smoke detection. The clay of the dinner plate, uranium; the banana, potassium 40; and the cigarettes, plutonium 210—an element that nuclear fallout has spread around the globe and which, according to Todd, tobacco plants have a high affinity for. The public affairs office at White Sands maintains that on average, the radiation levels at Trinity are only 10 times greater than the region’s natural background level. They say that a one-hour visit to Ground Zero will result in a whole body exposure of one-half to one millirem. To put this in perspective, a U.S. adult receives 360 millirems on average every year from natural and medical sources .

By 1:15 in the afternoon, the crowd at Trinity has thinned, but John Lyle is just arriving, accompanied by his family. Lyle, 90, moves slowly, aided by a walker. For his first trip to Trinity, Lyle is dressed neatly in a buttoned blue shirt, cream-colored khakis and a brown cap.

A lieutenant colonel in the army during World War II, Lyle had just moved west with his wife when the Trinity shot happened. “The army was forming divisions all up and down the west coast and we were going to get all the ships available and take a military over to Japan,” he recalls.

Lyle speaks slowly, his words spaced by long silences and short shallow breaths. “And we knew that 80 percent—8 out of 10 of us—who made this trip to Japan were going to be casualties.” Lyle laughs, a slightly hysterical, disbelieving laugh.

“I felt sorry for the people,” he says. “It’s a sad thing that it had that devastation, but I accepted it as part of what we had to do.”

A small crowd forms around Lyle as he speaks. “They’ll never put a guilt trip on me though because of what the country did, because we stopped the war,” he says. “We stopped it.”

Lyle’s eyes are wet and his jaw is clenched. “It’s a very emotional experience for him,” says Mary Utrop, Lyle’s daughter. “When my Mom and Dad made that trip across country, they thought it would be the last time they would be together.”

Some historians have argued that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was unnecessary. They say that Japan was already in the process of preparing for peace negotiations, that the casualties America would have suffered had it invaded Japan would have been far less than one million—the number generally cited—and that not every diplomatic effort had been exhausted before dropping the bombs. But I bring none of this up with Lyle.

Trinity is a site filled with contradictions, and perhaps nothing captures that fact better than the name itself. J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead physicist of the Manhattan Project, christened both the site and the atomic test with the single code-name Trinity. When the Project’s director asked for an explanation, Oppenheimer’s only response was a cryptic reference to a John Donne poem that he knew and loved. The poem is a desperate plea by Donne to the Creator in all his tripartite forms. Its lines beg forgiveness from God and invites the Holy Spirit to batter, break, burn, ravage and destroy the poet’s sinful heart in order that he might be reborn. It is a poem about death and resurrection and redemption through violence.

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