Tales from the Nuclear Age:
Copyright © 2009 by Charles Glassmire
Oct. 10, 2009
The old miner’s town of Mercury, Nevada “jus’ growed” in the Nevada desert, over a century ago. It was named for the many mines located in the area whose denizens pried the dangerous chemical from the secrets of the desert hills. Situated in Nye County, there the local miners gathered in the town, to indulge in drink and an occasional bath, and a brief escape from the rigors of the desert heat. The town began to grow during World War II and it became the main entrance to what is now the Nevada Test Site (NTS) known then as the Atomic Testing Grounds. (in the fifties the Army called the town “Base Camp Mercury”.) Situated about five miles off the main federal Highway U.S. 95, by the early ‘60’s it was experiencing unparalleled growth, due to an influx of engineers from around the United States. They had come to light up the early dawn skies with light shows such as the desert creatures had never before seen. Even the citizens of Las Vegas began to anticipate these light spectacles, which were visible on the horizon some 70 miles to the north in the pre-dawn darkness.
I first encountered the town after the government-run Greyhound type bus turned off the main highway for a bumpy ride into the desert. Pulling up to the main gate, a Wackenhut guard entered the bus and walked the aisle, inspecting each passenger’s special badge worn on a lanyard around his neck. Each passenger in turn held up his badge for the guard to inspect, and the photograph, color codes and words on it had to be just right before admission to this highly classified area.
It was a rough and tumble government run “town” in those days. I later heard they even erected a movie theater and a school there; but in the 60’s there wasn’t much to do in the chill desert nights except drink government beer. Off to the side of the main buildings there were acres filled with rows of government trailers. US Army Olive drab in color, they sat in the sun, lonely and unoccupied during the day. If you didn’t want to tolerate the long evening ride back to Las Vegas, workers at the site could rent a trailer for the night at the government rate of one dollar per day. It was considered a real bargain. Not being a fan of hour long rides in the morning and evening, a co-worker talked me into trying the overnight stay. So after the day’s duties, I dutifully plunked down my dollar and was given a key and a trailer number by the bored attendant.
I began to have misgivings as I trudged the rows looking for number 147 in the early evening light. Desert creatures scuttled away from my boots leaving trails in the sand as they ran away under the trailers. The trailers were wheel less now, resting high off the ground on cinder blocks. These were World War II vintage, designed for use near the battlefield and far from the luxurious models issued today in national emergencies. These units were showing much the worse for wear, the olive drab paint peeling from the sides and the heavily screened windows starting to resemble prisoner cells to me as I walked.
There were a few permanent residents of this Mercury trailer camp. Workers who had abandoned the civilized lights of ‘Vegas, who got into the rhythms of the desert, allowing the cycles of sun and chill darkness to accustom their bodies and minds to the cold clear emptiness of the desert nights, and who settled in to experience a kind of security and perhaps even peace in the olive drab rows of sameness. Their skins were colored a uniform leathery tan from months in the Desert sun. They mostly work faded blue jeans and dusty shirts. Occasionally I passed one of these denizens, sitting on the wooden plank stairs of a trailer, awaiting the night. Usually they stared off into some middle distance of their own peculiar vision, seeing who knew what demons or angels awaiting them. They did not speak, and mostly didn’t even seem aware of my passing presence. They just sat mute, each locked into his own desert reverie, silent and alone in this empty land.
Finally I walked up the two rickety gray board steps to number 147, inserted the key and entered into a dusty interior. A shaft of early evening sunlight broke through the screened window, throwing a crisscross pattern onto the single army bed, which took up most of the space inside. The trailers had all been wired for electricity, so I switched on the overhead light. It provided a dim orange glow suffusing the small quarters. Mounted in the ceiling was a wearily rotating exhaust fan, turning far too slowly to bother the air inside, and misshapen enough to provide a slow gentle “clank clank” on every turn. On the bunk, neatly folded and wrapped around a two inch mattress, was an army issue wool blanket, of course, olive drab in color. Off on the side wall was a GI sink of sorts. A dented metal bowl with one spigot (no hot water) provided warm drinking water from a tank on the roof. One chair filled the final bit of space in a corner. At the far end a latrine hole provided for necessities. It emptied into a half fifty gallon barrel below the trailer. It had been recently burned so luckily there was only a slight odor of petroleum.
As I pulled down the covers, I wondered about radioactive fallout from the testing. Rumors said that if the wind changed, the fallout went in unpredicted directions, and that occasionally even Mercury got dusted. I decided to sleep in my clothes that night, and accompanied by the repeating “clank clank” from the ceiling fan, I stared up at the sky visible through the rotating fan, and drifted off into a restless sleep, resolving that this would be my last night spent at the Nevada Test Site in Mercury…
(to be continued)