I can remember when I first started obsessing about the bomb. It was Nov. 21, 1983. The day after The Day After. The fulcrum of the so-called X-Generation, those of us who experienced puberty in the ’80s under the tenure of President Reagan had inherited the Cold War in full bloom, like an atomic hangover. Its then-most popular exegesis was a made-for-TV thriller about a nuclear attack on middle America starring Jason Robards and marketed with a weapons-grade tagline that read: “Apocalypse: The end of the familiar, the beginning of the end.”
Everybody in my sixth-grade class had seen The Day After. They drifted into class the next morning as traumatized zombie children.
I went to an experimental school comprised of multigrade “quads” in which teachers often led discussions about our feelings and topics of the day. That morning we discussed being nuked. A kid raised his hand and asked, “What do we do?” Ms. J, our instructor, mulled the question over, the ubiquitous mantra of the 1950s educational films, “duck and cover,” surely echoing in her mind. After a moment, she simply said, “Nothing. There’s nothing you can do,” as her eyes misted over.
On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Last month, 60 years later, the University of California won a renewal of its contract to manage the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory, where it helped inaugurate the first nuclear weapons lab to devise the bomb. It was a matter of academic prestige. UC’s relationship to the lab and the bomb is a feather in its cap, a quill plucked from the wings of the angel of death, with which buzzwords like “weapons of mass destruction” and “dirty bombs” are writ large on anchormen’s teleprompters. No wonder MGM Home Entertainment hastened a DVD release of The Day After last year (several months overdue, having overslept the 20th anniversary of its original broadcast). It was relevant again–or so it seemed.
I rented the DVD. I had to. I had missed the original broadcast, which in retrospect probably caused me more anxiety than if I had seen it in tandem with my classmates. The implications of The Day After that I had gleaned from my classmates had mushroomed in my wee skull. The result was a kind of preteen Thanatos. Was it possible? Could this happen? Could the falcon not hear the falconer? Yes. The president seemed to have his finger permanently grafted to the button, and clearly he was an idiot. After all, this was the guy who had once declared ketchup a vegetable worthy of our school lunches. Even at 11 we knew better. Ketchup comes from tomatoes, which are technically a fruit.
Nuclear nightmares figured heavily in our sixth-grade curriculum. A class archeology project, in which we devised fictional cultures for others to exhume and analyze, was rife with homemade postapocalyptic artifacts like burnt toys and melted Michael Jackson records. The following summer, I participated in an all-ages drama class at the Cinnabar Theater where we were encouraged to create our own play. We ended up with a loose narrative dubbed There Is No Bigger Bomb that found us, for reasons mercifully lost to time, wearing animal-print jumpsuits and chanting aphorisms about an early demise. Our leftie parents, of course, beamed with pride.
As kids, we accepted death-by-nuke as an inevitable rite of passage, the denouement of our youth that bypassed adulthood and took us straight to hell. To wit, we would have to fit all the other rites of passage in ASAP. So we smoked, drank and experimented with drugs and sex only a few years into our double digits. I won’t attempt to recall the number of “orgies” scheduled to take place in the neighborhood cemetery in order to usher in the end of the world, or how the graveyard itself came to be eroticized as the symbolic nexus of teenage sex and death. More to the point, we had to keep changing the date of the end of the world due to all the no-shows. The end of the world never came, and neither did we. President Reagan made sure of that.
“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge . . . that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil?” Reagan asked a wary citizenry during an address to the nation in 1983. The resulting program, of course, came to be known as “Star Wars,” to the awesome chagrin of George Lucas and a generation of fans who had incorporated its archetypal precepts into their own blacktop mythology. Not even our ersatz belief systems were immune.
Bored of the Bomb
In some ways, my experience was more keyed up than that of my friends, many of whom, ironically, had fathers who worked for Lucas over the hill in West Marin. When these kids were doffing their collectible Revenge of the Jedi T-shirts and climbing into their bunks, I’d lay awake contemplating the fact that my own father had a passing association with “Star Wars” by way of Optical Coating Laboratories Inc., a government contractor tucked amongst the rolling hills of Sonoma County, a mile off Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa. Reagan was playing “Star Wars” in our own backyard.
“That’s just one small piece. It was all over the place,” my father once revealed to me. He is the only person I know to have actually witnessed an actual atomic bomb detonation. He watched it from his living room window, though his address wasn’t Main Street, Hiroshima–it was Las Vegas.
In was 1951, when my dad was, by his own account, a bright if retiring seven-year-old amid his second attempt at first grade. Dennis Robert Howell was often disciplined for not following directions in an era when coloring outside the lines might have been forgiven had he at least used the correct palette. Though such knuckle-wrappings ceased after it was discovered that he was color blind, a kind of leery diffidence has persisted into his adult life.
My father once diagnosed himself with Asperger’s syndrome, a vogue affliction among the ranks of engineers he would later join. Those afflicted cannot properly engage socially, which apparently confers a sort of savantlike genius. (My father, however, does not have Asperger’s syndrome; he’s just shy–either that or neurologists have overlooked the miracle cure of single malt scotch, which allays most of his symptoms.)
“I remember being awakened and told, ‘Get up, get up, there’s going to be a test,’” he recalls of his first atomic bomb. “So we all just sat around the living room looking out the window. The effect, essentially, was as if somebody was outside our window with one of those great big old flashbulbs that they used to have. It just lit everything up. Then stunned silence. A few seconds later, it was like a single clap of thunder. Boom!”
The actual site of this particular atom bomb test was Nevada’s Yucca Flats, about 60 miles north of his family’s modest home in downtown Las Vegas. My father’s stepfather was a laborer at the site and was advised of the early morning bomb test, which he thought would make for some inexpensive family entertainment. Enough such tests occurred that my father eventually became bored.
“Think about that for a second,” he says. “A flash. A couple of seconds later, a boom. Well, OK. This is worth getting up at oh-dark-30 for? For a seven-year-old kid? Not really. After that, I wouldn’t even bother. In fact, I got a reputation for being ‘the kid who could sleep through atom bombs.’ The adults had some idea what the implications were, but I didn’t. I knew what a bomb was and knew that this was a really, really big one. But you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I remember laying in bed and the flash woke me up. I just rolled over and went back to sleep.”
Duck and Cover
When the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89 and the threat of nuclear annihilation was ostensibly mitigated, a kind of generation-wide case of posttraumatic stress disorder set in. This may account for why we had to endure the slur “slacker” in the early ’90s. None of us had expected to live long enough to require a life plan stretching past adolescence. Prozac was there to help the transition, but the best elixir seemed to be the Glasnost promise of the Internet, at least for those of us who sold out before the dotcom boom fizzled. Was this the “boom” that we had been anticipating? Not I, though I did briefly have a stake in an online music label called, of all things, Atomik. (Post-bubble, I sold the name to a U.K.-based printing firm for a pittance.)
I eventually moved to Hollywood, a place itself in a perpetual state of near-apocalypse, where I would hack scripts and turn 30. The only problem was that I was repeatedly dogged by panic attacks anytime I went above the fourth floor of a building. I would stave off the panic with various pharmaceutical elixirs and tonics, specifically gin and tonics, but to little avail. Something was ticking inside me, prodding me toward the mother of all panic attacks. I knew it was coming.
What I didn’t know was that it wouldn’t come until I found myself squarely on the ground, under a canopy of endless blue sky, grinding my Beatle boots into the once radioactive wasteland of the Trinity Site, the birthplace of the bomb.
I elected to undergo cognitive therapy for my new fear of heights, and was assigned a student shrink on the cheap, a baby boomer inaugurating her second career. Her rates were low because, technically, I was her homework. She deduced that my problems were “existential in nature.” I was flattered. Finally, I thought, I’m living in a Woody Allen film. But I really just wanted to beat the vertigo.
“You have a fear of death and inconsequence,” she elaborated.
“Well, yeah, I grew up in the shadow of the bomb.”
“So did I,” she countered.
“But you had ‘duck and cover.’”
“Sure, and the Tooth Fairy, too. You’re obsession with the bomb is how you express your fear of death.”
“And you don’t you have a fear of death?”
“No. I have a fear of airplanes.”
“But aren’t airplanes just how you express your fear of death and inconsequence?”
“No. Sometimes an airplane is just an airplane.”
In lieu of a fistful of Xanax, my shrink took me to every tall building in Los Angeles, every rooftop swimming pool, every high-rise that would let us ride its elevator to the t-t-t-top until I no longer had a fear of heights. It worked. Kind of. With her help, I was able to transmute my fear of death from expressing itself as vertigo instead into agoraphobia–the abnormal fear of open spaces–a fair trade when living in Los Angeles, where every square inch is paved.
Me and the Bomb
In the Martian landscape of the American Southwest, however, there is nothing but wide-open spaces. I discovered this geographic reality on July 14, 2005, two days before the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb detonation, when cameraman Abe Levy and I made a grueling 16-hour drive from Los Angeles to the White Sands Missile Base, New Mexico, to visit the original Ground Zero. We were special guests of the public affairs office, which had permitted us to shoot a segment dubbed “Me and the Bomb” for a show we were then calling, for lack of a better title, the Daedalus Howell Show.
The next day would find the historic site swarming with thousands of people, everyone from Good Sam tourists to candle-toting Japanese Buddhist monks, a crowd that would turn the site into a kind of A-bomb-themed Burning Man. We were the only visitors attending the day before.
Crossing the Arizona-New Mexico border, I drove with the sun visor down to eclipse my view of the stratosphere. I could no longer fathom that much goddamn sky looming over me like a great, blue void. My existential crisis was in high gear: death plus inconsequence equals inconsequential death. In my weaker moments I couldn’t shake the thought that the earth was indeed flat and that we weren’t driving across it so much as sliding down its face headlong into infinity.
I tried to distract myself with conversation, but Levy and I have known each other nearly 20 years, which leads to a kind of conversation in absentia, like those between the very old or the characters in Waiting for Godot. The best moments on tape sound like rejected DVD commentary, which is entirely my fault, the result of being “on” for the camera, which Levy rolled sporadically throughout the trip.
“Really, sci-fi as we know it today was brought on by the atomic bomb,” Levy absently suggested.
“When they detonated the bomb, that’s when man crossed over and started playing God in a very legitimate way, because he had attained a way to destroy not only himself, but the world as he knew it. Which is a very godly place to be, I’d imagine,” I said.
“That too. Using the Frankenstein model of sci-fi, when you play God, the monster comes back to smite you. The atom bomb, so far as we can tell in popular culture, had a kind of retribution, wherein mutations would come back and fuck with you.”
“That’s not his Japanese name, by the way. That’s his American marketing name.”
We would fall silent for hours at a time. Night came over the desert and the deep black sky swallowed the planet whole. The road was as straight as it was endless, a monotony broken only by the glowing oases of strip malls that would emerge from the horizon like chimeras.
“This is where they should test the bomb,” I observed. “We’re in the middle of the desert and there, looming on the horizon, are the Golden Arches. It’s terrible. When we get to the Trinity Site, I bet there’s a big sponsorship sign, like a big Nike swoosh on the monument. Man, who would sponsor a bomb?”
“Sony,” Levy deadpanned. “You know, in Japan, if they like a movie, they don’t applaud. They’re just silent. That’s their highest sign of respect.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“You heard ‘silence’ in Japan?”
“It’s different than American silence,” he said, then attempted to re-create the two different types by slouching in his seat and closing his eyes. The Japanese version was indeed quieter. Levy was asleep.
When the sun rose, the windshield looked like a super-sized microscope slide from an entomology lab. An hour past Socorro, N.M., the last pit stop of civilization before entering the realm of Ground Zero, I exhumed my Portage brand “Professional Reporter’s Notebook.” I had optimistically labeled it “Trinity and Beyond.” Inside, a page read: “Call Debbie.” Debbie worked in the White Sands Missile Range public affairs office. She was tasked with escorting us the 17 miles into the interior of the missile base.
When we finally arrived at Stallion Gate, Levy was instructed to keep his camera off until our caravan to Ground Zero was complete. There we would be introduced to Jim Eckles, who helms the base’s public affairs department.
Just a Place
Garbed in summer apparel that included shorts and a Panama hat, Jim Eckles looked like a man on permanent vacation. His attitude was likewise relaxed and his conversation easy. This was in stark contrast to me trying to keep my mind planted in the moment so as not to soar off into the wild blue yonder which was making me more buggy by the second.
The site itself would make sore eyes sorer. It’s a dustbowl surrounded by a cyclone fence with an a lava-rock obelisk planted in the middle with a plaque that reads:
THE WORLD’S FIRST
WAS EXPLODED ON
JULY 16, 1945
During the course of our interview, Eckles was kind enough to run off facts and figures. The uranium necessary for the first A-bomb was the size of a baseball, which yielded 21 kilotons of power, the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. I asked, “Is it still radioactive?”
“Yes, but you’re exposed to more radiation from cosmic rays while on an airplane than you are here,” Eckles said flatly as Levy discreetly looked over the bottom of his shoes as if checking for dog shit. I thought, perhaps my shrink’s airplane fears are justified.
Then in a moment of utter demystification, Eckles casually said, “Ultimately, it’s just a place where something happened.”
The wellspring of my anxieties, if not those of a fair portion of my generation, “just a place where something happened”?
“It was a science experiment.”
Eckles smiled wryly. After a moment, he left Levy and I so that we could do some pickup shots without him in frame. I stood momentarily stultified. I made the mistake of looking into the sky and a sudden unease began to creep over me.
“Oh, shit,” I wheezed between the deep breaths my shrink encouraged me to take in such moments. But this was going to be different, I thought. Were not my mind and body headed for mutually assured devastation? Was this not my own private atomic meltdown, here in the desert where the ceremony of scientific inquiry drowned its innocence in sand? Surely some revelation is at hand. But like the nuclear holocaust promised during my youth, the panic never came.
In the resulting footage, you can hear Levy snap his fingers and, like some midmarket media personality, I turn on again. “In the end, it’s just a historic landmark,” I say glibly. “All of these things we’ve projected upon it, and all it is, is something that happened a long time ago.”
I stand alone for a moment. Levy pans around and I continue sotto voce: “I can’t believe they left us alone at the Trinity site.” Then I jokingly pantomime like I’m a vandal shaking a spray can. Unfortunately, the shot is cropped so that it just looks like I’m jerking off out of frame.
When we were done with the pickups, Levy reminds me, “You’re leaving the Trinity Site,” and goads me to say something more poignant, more significant before we leave the location for good.
I could only shake my head in silence, though my mind flashed to Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist often considered the father of the bomb, and his alleged quote of the Bhagavad-Gita upon the first detonation: “Now I am become death, the shatterer of worlds; / Waiting that hour that ripens in their doom.”
Too overbearing, I thought. Another quote briefly came to mind, the closing stanza of Oppenheimer’s favorite William Butler Yeat’s poem, “The Second Coming,” which concludes in a remarkably similar cadence: “And what rough beast, its hour come ’round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.”
Too maudlin. Then I remembered an apocryphal tale about the Movietone newsreel sound engineers who were at a loss to create an appropriate audio track to accompany footage of the bomb’s billowing mushroom explosion. Without any source sound available to them, they improvised. They considered creating a sound effect, they experimented with music, but finally, their deadline looming, they settled on silence. Anything else would have been pat, they thought.
When I recently rescreened our footage, I was taken aback by my moment of silence. I’m standing next to the obelisk. Levy says we’re running low on tape and again encourages me to say something significant. But I don’t say anything. I just look into the lens, which on the monitor is tantamount to looking into a mirror. I say nothing. I realized, watching it again, that my sudden muteness was not for a lack of anything to say. In fact, there’s too much to say. But those who need to hear it most aren’t listening.