By Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy
Wind-blown sand still uncovers sun-bleached bones of men and mules dead for centuries along New Mexico's Jornado del Muerte, the waterless hell where Spaniards died traveling between Santa Fe and Chihuahua. Few large areas in the United States can match its barren, flat desolation.
Near the center of this vast expanse lies man's first great insult against the earth - - Trinity Site.
Ground Zero, where a massive steel tower holding the first atomic bomb was vaporized at 5:29 a.m., July 16, 1945, was a slight depression in the silent flatness. For a radius of more than 100 feet melted sand in the form of green glass covered the desert like a splotchy carpet shining in the light from above, dull by night, bright by day. This monument to man's inhumanity to man, the largest blur on the landscape, was surrounded by a high fence, tight strands of barbed wire, a locked double gate and multilingual warning signs.
The gate was chained shut. Three padlocks served as links in the chain in 1951, any one of which permitted entry when unlocked. A large steel lock was stamped AEC, for the Atomic Energy Commission. A heavy brass padlock was stamped War Dept. The third padlock, a new one hardly larger than the links it secured, replaced one of these links recently melted in two by Jesse Petty's gas torch. Jesse, my best friend and fellow draftee army buddy, from Carrizozo, New Mexico, had snapped the chain back together wit the little lock during his trip to the site.
Jesse had volunteered, I'll go out there and cut the chain for you and put on a new padlock, but I won't go in there, not for anything,"
He had given me the keys when we each returned to Guided Missile School at Ft. Bliss, Texas, from our weekend trips to different home cities.
My plan was to drive a truck to the Trinity atomic bomb site, use my keys to pass through the unguarded US Government gate remove the radioactive glass called Trinitite and transport it close to Los Alamos for a proper burial at its spiritual origin.
Federal agencies had been sponsoring an annual trek to worship the bomb site every October. Six years after the Trinity explosion the atomic afterbirth, the green disc of radioactive glass, was still there for innocents to pray over. While living in the remote desert of northern New Mexico I had seen an aerial photograph of the radioactive site in a popular magazine. It looked like a giant scab. It was an impurity waiting to be taken away. Writers wrote about it. I was determined to remove it without a trace of publicity. My self-appointed task was to gain entry to the government glass and haul it off for burial, to repair the desert, clean away this radioactive afterbirth.
I bought a used red pickup truck at El Paso Dodge. For money, I used my Army pay and profits from weekend sales in Santa Fe of silver filigree jewelry and other items bought in Juarez, across the bridge from El Paso.
One Saturday, after electronics lab at the army missile school, the truck took me north through Alamogordo and Carrizozo, then west. I followed Jesse's map and turned south off the lonely highway onto a tin blacktop road speckled with deep chuck-holes. The sand blown on the road showed no sign of tire marks. There was nothing, no one, for many miles. I slowed down and gripped the wheel tightly to steer around the pits in the road. I shifted to second gear. The first hint of caution rose from the rattling floorboards. I was used to the army the noisy barracks, months of technical lectures, hundreds of men. Where was everyone? Was I crazy?
I scrolled through memories. Did I have a chip on my shoulder about anything that would land me in this authentically Godforsaken place? I loved the desert, its quiet cleanliness, but so did almost everyone who had seen much of it. Here I was in the middle of nowhere driving this little truck; what was driving me?
My apprenticeship in weaponry had been in war-time defense plants during high school. Beginning at fifteen, in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, I had worked wiring, soldering, assembling and testing sonar systems to detect Japanese submarines entering western U.S. waters. The most exciting times were weekends and summer months finishing the ten-buoy array to protect San Francisco Harbor. Then came a job at seventeen as apprentice electrician in a 105-millimeter shell factory in Euclid, Ohio, where too few of us produced thousands of shells around the clock. Finally, still a teenager in the last months of the war, there was Brush Development in Cleveland, where we manufactured the wire recorders used during the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
These had been years of excitement and progress. There were no regrets. After 1945 1 had traveled and worked throughout the west in one great adventure after another. I couldn't imagine any man in his early twenties having lived a better or more exciting life.
One realization, one memory, haunted me:
"We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely calm. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed; a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture,
"Now I become Death,
the destroyer of worlds
I suppose we all thought that, one way or another"
Those were the words Robert Oppenheimer, Director, Los Alamos Laboratory, wrote about the first minutes after the blast. Perhaps these words drove me, were the guiding force behind my mission. I could remove the obvious signs of the first destruction, clean up the mess, do more than just leave tire tracks in the sand.
A long line of stubby telephone poles appeared ahead of me. The cross ties were only four or five feet off the ground instead of the usual thirty or forty. Wires sagged between them; many lines were lying broken on the ground, abandoned to the wind and fiercely-blown sand. I spoke out loud to my windshield. "They've thrown this place away, left it to rot, to fall apart."
I thought of pulling the poles out of the ground and burning them, but that would take days and would have to wait until the glass business was cleaned up. About fifteen parallel wires made up what I had read were over one thousand miles of arming, power, firing and information lines stretching between the distant control bunkers and whatever lay ahead.
The road and the poles led to the fence, to the locked gate. I parked and fished the keys out of my army fatigue jacket pocket I examined the chain and visualized General Groves, Manhattan Project Manager, confidently snapping the army padlock shut. "Sorry, General, to go around you, but we're not quite finished here." My key worked. Good old Jesse. I swung the two gates open and drove in.
There was the green glass!
It looked like a scattering of dull, hardened goop, certainly not attractive. I drove to the center of the green disc. The sound of my tires on the virgin glass was like breaking soda crackers. The small depression at ground zero was maybe a foot lower than the surroundings. I saw a concrete pier sticking out of the sand. It was the stump of one of the four tower legs. No other trace of the 100-foot heavy steel tower remained. The steel had literally been turned into vapor. The concrete would easily have been shattered with a stick or two, maybe three pounds, of sixty percent blasting dynamite. But the 15 kiloton (thirty-million pound) fireball didn't get all of it that morning in '45.
One interesting question: how long could I stay here and not be affected by radiation? The best answer right then was "not long." I grabbed the shovel out of the truck and scooped up enough glass to fill a cardboard carton. I drove to the gate, closed and locked it, and peeled out of my boots. They could have been radioactive. I tossed them in the truck bed and drove away. An El Paso rock shop was my next stop in the Trinitite Project. The owner tested my box of green glass with a Geiger counter. The radioactivity was mild, too low to be harmful during my hours of nearness, lower even than his samples of high-grade uranium ore. I would not need to dress in shielded clothing when I go back.
One thing I would need was a screen to separate the sand from the glass. If I shoveled onto a screen hanging steeply off the side of the truck, the glass would slide into the truck bed. The sand should fall through the screen onto the ground.
I drew up the plans for a folding screen attached to the truck and visited an El Paso hardware store for the parts. A rake would come in handy to make little piles of glass for the shovel.
My second trip to Trinity Site had a ride along, Ralph L. James from Dallas, a fellow draftee student at the Guided Missile School, rode shotgun. I needed a camera operator at the site. James, an astute insurance agent before the Korean draft, agreed to go as long as I'd put him up overnight in Santa Fe. His comment when he first saw the poles and wires was, "Hey, this looks serious."
When we got to the gate and I pulled the chain apart, he balked, "I'm not going in there. You're out of your mind." "Could be, R L, but there's something to do here" "Listen they' won't ask any questions. They'll just shoot us." "There's nobody around here, not for thirty' miles." "There could be long-range guns aimed at us right now. These people were smart enough to do this. They can do anything. Were nothing?" "I'm going in., R L., driving in. I'm going for a truckload of the glass. You can wait here." "Can we just park it here outside the gate for ten minutes to see if anyone shows up?" "Sure, buddy. I'll re-lock the gate while we wait if it'll make you feel better." "No. That's okay. I just think this is the wildest thing I've ever been involved in or even heard about. I'm shocked. I've known you for over six months night and day and never suspected you were this wacky."
"Once we get inside, the photos you take will prove it." "You're funny. Okay. I'm ready. Let's get it over with."
I drove in and got to work while he operated the camera. I raked little piles of trinitite to the center of thirty-foot circles and shoveled onto the screen. The glass slid into the truck, The sand fell through the screen. I did ten circles with about fifty pounds in each. While I shoveled, two fighter planes from White Sands flew high overhead. At 500 pounds the little truck had a load. There was plenty of trinitite left for future trips. James took a picture of me standing on Jumbo, the shell that was built to contain the plutonium in case fission failed, it was cast aside before Zero Hour. There was a shot of me at Ground Zero, and one at the gate on our way out "Boy", he said, "I was never so glad to leave anyplace in my life. I'd almost rather stay in the army than go back in that creepy enclosure."
"WelI, we're outta there." "The only thing worrying me s those fighter planes flying around. If they saw us they may call some security outfit." "They were pretty high up there. Now what?" James asked. "North to Albuquerque, then Santa Fe, maybe four or five hours with this heavy load."
"Who gets the glass?" We turned west on the blacktop highway to Socorro. 'it'll end up 'with Verne Byrnes, a mining engineer in Santa Fe. He's in charge of the burial detail." "How do you know him?" I could picture Verne with his little pot belly. "He owns the Pennsylvania Mine in the Cerrillos Mountains. I was working a mine nearby and helped bail the water out of the Penn shaft two years ago. You get to know everybody. Santa Fe's not crowded. You'll see."
We went through Albuquerque and continued north. Santa Fe was my favorite city in the U.S. There was nothing remotely like it. We dropped off the trinitite, spent a wonderful night in Santa Fe, and drove back to the base Sunday night.
The Oscuro Mountains far to the east of the site may have had some kind of spotters for aircraft or for the German V-2's being tested at White Sands. I decided to go in for the rest of the glass after dark. Raking and shoveling in the dark would be a problem. I thought a flashlight taped to each handle may do the trick. I fashioned a hood and slitted mask out of cardboard for each headlight. Late on a Friday night I began my first nocturnal trip, alone and anxious.
I turned off the highway at 2 am and taped on the headlight masks. The truck didn't like the potholes at night. I changed the headlight slits to direct more light on the road. We crept along carefully. About two miles south of the highway I got my first big surprise in this Trinitite Project.
A herd of small antelope dashed across the road in front of me. Then a large mound in the road ahead turned out to be a tortoise I had to drive around. A minute later there came a coyote who skittered almost sideways when he got close to the truck. Along the pole and wire line I saw a shiny log that turned out to be a porcupine. Jackrabbits sat on the black tar sucking up yesterday's heat The place was alive with wild animals.
My tire tracks from the previous week were the only ones in the sand at the gate. I entered and got to work. The flashlights guided the rake and shovel. The second load was about 600 pounds. I was back on the highway at four a.m. and in Albuquerque by seven. I unloaded in Santa Fe a few hours later.
Two more trips were needed to remove the bulk of the glass. I did these alone in the darkness. I preferred it. The stress was minimal. I liked the cool night air. Seeing the wild animals in this place recently dedicated to total destruction gave me some hope for the future. It was almost as if they knew something.
A few days after the fourth trip a telephone call from Santa Fe warned me that my destination in the city-was under observation, possibly by federal authorities. The word was out. That ended my Trinitite Project. At about that time I graduated from Guided Missile School and got my orders to go overseas. Radioactive glass became the least of my concerns. There wasn't much left to rake up anyway. The stuff was buried in 55-gallon drums near Los Alamos, the home of the atomic bomb, where it belongs.
Exposure to the radioactivity had no noticeable effect on me, my children, or my grandchildren. I still go to the desert. When I look at the photos I see someone else. I was never that crazy, even fifty-some years ago. But I'm glad it happened. I wish everyone knew that man's greatest shortcoming is in the pride he holds in his weapons and that these instruments of death wouldn't be needed if we all got along better.
If we fail to practice international brotherhood, what remains of Trinity Site, this speck of a surface scar, this atomic afterbirth, may someday become the most hated place on earth.