Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Fires Around Los Alamos. Shadow of Chernobyl

Sometime in the early ‘90s, my plan for a small prologue to a larger book on the American cultural landscape from World War II to the present went awry. I had been working on a number of chapters at once—a chapter on Yogi Bear franchise campgrounds; a chapter on the tourist experience at Yellowstone; a chapter on The Donna Reed Show; a chapter on the architecture of fallout shelters and another on the architecture of the counter culture (none of which ended up in the final book, Outside the Gates, to be released by the University of Chicago Press in a year or, with luck, six months)—and while giving one of those general-audience presentations that’s as much a declaration of turf as a statement on research, a question from the audience had caught me up short. Your last book ended with the beginning of World War II; this one begins with the postwar years: what about the war?

For a historian of significant American spaces and places, forgetting about World War II was pretty unforgivable. I began researching redolent wartime sites, and had settled on a few—Fort Hood, Texas, an assembly plant in Detroit that switched over from cars to tanks, a research facility staffed almost entirely by women, a black labor camp—when a friend suggested the Manhattan Project.

I had grown up fascinated by the Project; it had the combination of scientific complexity (with visuals! Pictures of atoms, photographs of cloud chambers, illustrations showing white-coated scientists hunched over huge machines) and military drama sure to enchant a ten-year-old whose allowance money was spent on model rockets and plastic kits from Revell of destroyers and aircraft carriers.

The initial research went relatively slowly. I read all the secondary literature, from the recently-released skim-und drang of Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb to the far more engaging and useful books by real scientists or real scholars—books like the still hilarious Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann to Paul Boyer’s brilliant By The Bomb’s Early Light.

Rhodes’s book was particularly infuriating. I quickly came to see that while he trumpeted his deep archival research, in fact he’d just read over—or had an assistant read over—the microfilm released by the government declassification office. I, too, had read that entire collection of microfilm, and I’ll grant him—or his assistant—some credit. It wasn’t easy; often you’d find me standing on the chair at the Northwestern University microfilm facility in order to get the projection at such an angle that the ill-photographed, faint document might yield some information.

But that microfilm was so obviously redacted, and so thin on the homely details, that I despaired of writing the book I wanted—and by now my friend Bob Bruegmann had explained to me that a 400-page study of the landscapes of the atomic bomb was emphatically not a prologue. That collection of official narratives (The Manhattan District History) and its attached and microfilmed appendices of documents and statistics, was perfect for Rhodes’s melodramatic, tendentious celebration of military and scientific indefatigability. You wouldn’t have known from it that colored people had first been integrated into the Project, and then resegregated at the urgings of military officers of a certain geographical and class background. You wouldn’t have known there were waste sites strewn around Los Alamos and never secured or even demarcated on maps. You wouldn’t have known the single-walled waste tanks beside the Columbia River at the Hanford Facility were supposed to have been double-walled and triple-inspected, but that was too laborious a project for a military intent on redeeming its investment with some really big fireworks. You wouldn’t have known that the lands once belonged to others, and would belong to others again, after the war—with or without notice of the poisonous legacies underfoot or under water.

I came to despise Rhodes; it was childish, intemperate, and ungenerous of me—after all, I didn’t despise his equivalents in television or the movies, the makers of The Gong Show, or the misogynistic mysteries of John D. MacDonald, both of which I loved. Mainly I was frustrated because I wasn’t finding what I was looking for. Weeks in the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, in the humid heat of summer, when the air conditioning of federal buildings encouraged marathon 14-hour sessions, yielded nothing.

Then an archivist suggested perhaps I was looking in the wrong place. What about the Regional Depositories? Some years before, in part as a savvy political move, the NA had dispersed many of its documents to regional sites where the local senators and congressmen might develop a sudden affection for government document storage. I went to the depository where Los Alamos should have had its records, but there was frustratingly little.

Then I went to the Southeast Regional Depository, in Georgia. I had talked on the phone to a laconic Southerner, name of Charlie Reeves, as he had said. Oh, there’s a lot of stuff here, he said, with a little chuckle, and then silence. You can come on down.

The Southeast Regional Depository is supposedly in Atlanta, but it’s actually in a giant military-surplus Quonset hut in what was then the far hardscrabble exurb of East Point. During the entire period, months, on and off, that I spent there, it was just me and the Mormons. They huddled around the microfilm readers doing their genealogies, zealously finding and then switching various of my family’s ancestors or their ranching neighbors or their handcart fellow-travelers, from hell to heaven.I was polite to them, helpful; I was also very careful not to let them know of my intimate connection to Provo, Springville, Spanish Fork, or of my grandfather's appointment as the Mormon Bishop of Los Angeles. They saw me as I was-- an infidel.

Charlie showed me where the files were; he brought a forklift over to the makeshift desks where he’d put me—hop on, he said, and we rode down vast corridors of metal shelving with boxes floor to ceiling. I’m sure he had a cheat sheet, but—well, actually, the truth is, I don’t believe Charlie did have a cheat sheet. I believe he knew where every box was.

The problem, however, was the finding aid. There really wasn’t any. Reagan-era slashes in “useless” areas of government—like, for example, knowledge—had put the kibosh on that. What we had were the original file folder and file cabinet descriptions. You see, when they closed down Los Alamos as a military facility, they emptied the file cabinets—one drawer took up about two boxes, and on one of them they’d tape the label that had been stuck into the little receptacle on the front of the drawer, and on the other, they’d tape a tag on the top, with the name and number of its twin.

I was almost faint with anticipation opening the first boxes; here was a near-perfectly preserved archaeological site, and the last hands to have touched those files were employees of the Manhattan Engineer District.

Except they weren’t. The last people to handle these documents were the declassification officers, and they were in a hurry. As far as I could determine, they’d opened the boxes, spread the documents on the table, dumped the file folders on the floor, and gone to work stamping them with their new Highly Sensitive status. When they’d done a tableful, they’d scoop up a bunch of the documents, and stuff them into a file folder—any file folder. Then they’d put the folders in a box. Any box.

There were, I think, 482 record boxes in total, and Charlie retrieved them all for me. He had to, because I couldn’t countenance the possibility that some box I’d not plumbed had in it some secret that would languish forever if I didn’t dig it out. Charlie helped me, patiently, because he was the perfect archivist. He wanted me to have everything I wanted to have.

And the truth was, about every third box contained some explosive fragment of history. Here were the photographs of the hardscrabble farms in Tennessee that the District expropriated, with the notes from the appraisers on how to screw down the price, further impoverishing the farmer and raising the reputation of the appraiser for shrewdness and efficiency. Here was the record of the removal of Negroes and Colored People from the relatively posh worker’s recreation center in Hanford, Washington, and the opening of a tumble-down, ill-kempt, replacement. Here was the record of the movies the white workers saw— and the receipts for the cheap low-quality prints of the films the Negroes got to see.

And here were the medical records of the workers at each of the plants—not just the heroic scientists Richard Rhodes adored so undiscriminatingly, but the women who cleaned out the particle accelerator “race tracks” with rags and no protective clothing, and the baffling medical symptoms that began to appear on the maps of their bodies.

Atomic Spaces ended up taking something like nine years, from first inkling to final publication back in 1997. During those years, I was more like a homeless psychotic than a responsible historian, professor, father. I carried the shopping bags full of materials everywhere with me, and I typed madly on an old Toshiba laptop with 256k of ram and a miniscule screen that showed about a quarter of a page at a time. I tried not to begin to talk about it, even with my friends, because, once started, I couldn’t stop. The monstrous effort of that book wasn’t the research, or the writing and rewriting—11 drafts—or the waiting for a publisher. It was the restraint that it required of me: not to shriek, not to preach, not to rave or hold up these small bits of evidence in my trembling hand and shake it in the faces of those around me.

Though my agent hoped it would become a national bestseller, buying him his first Mercedes or Audi (sorry, David!), it had a more modest success. It became what’s called an academic bestseller, and it won some prizes. One of them took me to Iowa, to a black-tie dinner at which Maureen Reagan gave me a thick heavy medal encased in polymer; a year later, dusting my office, I found there was an envelope taped to the bottom and in the envelope, a check for thousands of dollars.

I didn’t really care about that. I was immersed in the struggle to emerge from the hypnosis of the project and the Project. I had long ago learned not to expect reward from this work—except, that is, the reward of the work itself, which was more than enough, more than I deserved.

But I did expect that there would be a burst of new scholarship on the Manhattan Project. After all, I was the first non-military person to blow the dust off those files, and they were still smoldering with revelations I had neither the time nor the expertise to unpack and present. But so far as I can tell, only Charlie Reeves has spent much time with them since we packed them back up and took them back to their places, the forklift humming as it raised me, and the boxes, to the spots where they had their places.

Last week, the fires raged around Los Alamos, and there were reassurances from the federal government that the radioactivity sites and the waste dumps were safe, protected, diked and bermed, guarded by cadres of dedicated firejumpers. Strewn around those 482 record boxes are notes, memos, letters to the file, reports, on the utterly unscientific, unplanned metastasis of illicit experiments: small manufacturing facilities, one-man labs, burial sites and the like, that formed part of the modus operandi of the Los Alamos part of the Project. When something was deemed potentially too dangerous, scientists and technicians often didn’t want their superiors to know what was going on, for if they did, the bureaucrats would forbid the experiment, or slow it up until it was no longer useful, or require such safety redundancies as to make the entire thing impossible. So they’d take their stuff out into the pine woods a ways, set up, and do what they had to do.

As I write this, I am taken with a sort of shame. For you see, I deeply admired and continue to admire those men and women, with their intrepid scientific curiosity, their commitment to the work at hand, their belief that what they were doing could save the world. I also know that in each of these qualities they were deeply flawed, lacking insight, even dangerously wrong. They believed in a myth of technological and scientific progress that ensured that any mistakes or messes they made now, would be easily remedied with the new technologies, the vastly increased wealth, the humming efficiency of the future. They left their irradiated tables, broken apparatuses, dosimeter-clicking gloves and shirts out there in the woods, or they buried them someplace.

I don’t know if the federal government has done an inventory of all those odd, undocumented waste sites and radiation sinks. But I don’t think so. Just as no historians, journalists, or environmental activists have come to knock on Charlie Reeves’s office door in that Quonset hut in East Point, I suspect that no government agency has been scouring the hillsides and the scrub pine with supersensitive radiation detectors and USGS maps and GPS. As the fires raged, I wished for a moment I was still the incendiary monomaniac of those years, capable of writing a smoky, high-temperature guest editorial for the New York Times. But I know better than return to that grandiose, paranoid past.

So I came back here to the hayfield and the studio and, more importantly, to my current obsession. I am playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. Taylor gave it to me for Christmas, bless his anarchist's heart. It’s a violent, bleak, dystopian video game, immensely rich and complex, and I have been working my way through it for months; it is one of the set-pieces, along with The Sims 3, for the final chapter of Outside the Gates, that book for which the Manhattan Project was once going to serve as prologue. The premise of the game is straightforward: the Zone around Chernobyl has begun to spawn valuable artifacts, and an anarchic society of sorts has grown up within the bounds, avoiding the police and military guardians, and seeking to get rich off collecting and selling these artifacts. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., human kind is venal, hateful, self-pitying; government and military institutions are similarly venal, hateful, and self-aggrandizing. It is Tea Party ideology allowed to play out to its logical consequences. Self-interest reigns, even if it will result in the end of the world as we know it. Without committed action soon, the consequences of atomic disaster will expand from the quarantine Zone to the world. What's needed is a putting-aside of radical individualism, the creation of a new society and state, with higher and longer-term goals and ideals. Good luck with that.

I'm fully on board with it, while I'm in this grey world of rusting technological marvels, failed-state institutions, dangerous anomalies and radiation sinks. Why save this hateful race, this corrupted, collapsing, reeling planet? Time to make an alliance with some wayfarers, use them to draw the fire of the soldiers, leave them to die, and then sneak past to grab the better gun, the more protective rad-suit, the more valuable artifact.

I like this game. Sometimes, playing it, I pretend that the designers had read Atomic Spaces and understood its oblique themes. It’s my own little piece of venality, and vanity, and I am not ashamed to own up to it.

But enough. I have only an hour or so before I have to close up; big storms are coming through in a little while, and all the windows in the house are wide open. I put S.T.A.L.K.E.R. on pause while I wrote this, and I can hear the drip of radioactive water leaking from a pipe that once led from the cooling tower to the recirculation tanks.


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