Back to Town …

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 copyright© 2009 by Charles M. Glassmire 

(Stories as true as my memory recalls)


Nov. 3, 2009

 Back to Town

         The workday was nearing its end at the Nuclear Testing Site, and I needed to quickly get back to Las Vegas. There was no bus for another hour so I walked to the front gate and stuck out my thumb to try to hitch a ride back via the Widow Maker (also known as U.S. 95). There were many site workers who drove their own vehicles to work each day, and I hoped to find one going towards town.

          After several pass-bys, I was beginning to give up hope. Many of the workers lived in small towns like Lathrop Wells, located in the desert around the test site, but they often didn’t speak well of Vegas. There was little to do there for the permanent residents. In those days the town didn’t even have a movie theater. It was all about bright lights, gambling away your money, and the girls. Prostitution was not illegal in the state of Nevada, and, if you didn’t want a professional, the town was loaded with shapely show girls who danced in the many casino free shows. They had to stay in excellent shape for the physically demanding and very competitive chorus line positions. The shows were elaborate affairs, with full orchestra music and dozens of brightly lit colorfully dressed dancers.

        The town operated 24 hours a day; you could go into a drugstore at 3 a.m. and change a one hundred dollar bill (which was BIG money in those days) and the clerk wouldn’t blink an eye. One late night I was browsing the aisles of a drugstore, and I looked up to see large blue Ostrich feathers bouncing in the air and visible above the shelves in the next isle. I rounded the corner to inspect this apparition, and saw a tall, bright sequined and very sparsely dressed showgirl. She was in gigantic headdress, high heels and full costume, bending over to inspect the make-up containers on the shelf; her feathers brushing the items on the top shelves. She seemed to rustle and sparkle like some surreal apparition in blue, materialized at 3 a.m. from someone’s dream dance, into the empty aisles of a drugstore. She said a friendly hello.

          But on this day I stood in the scorching desert sun without transportation. Finally in the dusty distance, I spotted another vehicle coming towards the gate. It was a 1950’s black Ford pickup truck, whose dented paint job had long since been polished away by the blowing sands. It bounced and rattled in the rutted road, but the driver stopped at the hopeful sign of my raised thumb. He threw open the passenger door.

          Sitting in the driver’s seat looking expectantly at me was a tall thin man wearing dusty blue jean farmer’s overhauls with buckled shoulder straps. His boots were old brown leather with the tops folded down – standard footwear for engineers at the test site. His bare shoulders revealed skin which had long since turned to wrinkled brown leather. He sported a scraggily black unshaven stubble and he wasn’t smiling. I asked if he was headed to Vegas and he simply said “come on.” 

          At first there was just an awkward silence as we rattled down the dirt road. Suddenly the truck swerved wildly, and I looked out the side mirror to see a seven foot rattlesnake lying unmoving stretched across the roadway. He had swerved to miss it but someone else had already laid it to rest. The snakes called the desert sands their home, but the traffic on the roads took a grim tool of the slow moving creatures. He mumbled something about “…damm shame.”

           Somehow this broke the ice, and I asked him what he did at the site. This was always a delicate subject, as many working on the military projects were instructed to keep quiet about what they did. It was still a World War II mentality of “loose lips sink ships.” Surprisingly though, he began to talk slowly, still staring out at the horizon as if he wasn’t really there.

          He was an explosives specialist, he said. I knew the Plutonium bombs were packed with special shaped explosives. Plutonium fissions so fast that one has to compress the material into a tiny ball instantaneously to achieve efficient chain reaction. At the original wartime Los Alamos project, this proved difficult if not impossible to do. The bomb blew itself apart before the chain could form. One researcher suggested using a new science called shaped charges. He suggested forming the explosives with hollows which acted like lenses to “focus” the explosion inward instead of outward. My driver turned out to be an experimental Physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT.

          But the desert winds and the timeless days had transformed him into one of those creatures who lived and worked in an endless cycle of days which gradually took their toll on the mind and body. He was headed to Vegas for the weekend, he said, to get screaming drunk, spend a lot of money, and then to see his “girl”, Kimberly.

          When I asked if he was married his body jerked as if hit, and he almost shouted a loud “NO”. Well,  only for one week. And he never would again, he allowed. One could see there were a lot of bleeding wounds still buried inside this lonesome soul.

          Suddenly an animal head popped up behind the dashboard and looked around quizzicly.

          “RAT!”, I shouted, jumping towards the passenger door.

          My friend didn’t react.

          “Naww, that’s just Willy,” he said. He reached into his jean pocket, pulled out a peanut and handed it to Willy. The creature sat up on the dash on its hind legs, took the nut with its hands, and sat there flicking its bushy tail, taking bites and chewing, all the while watching me for any threatening moves. It turned out Willy was a brown squirrel, and constant companion to my nameless friend.

          Eventually Willy went back to his sleeping spot behind the dash and we all settled into the monotony of the ninety-five mile per hour ride back to Las Vegas. My friend became silent again but soon quietly began to hum to himself. It was some old Christian hymn from his childhood. Eventually the humming got louder and louder as the sound filled his existence and flooded into all of us on this pilgrimage together towards the only civilization we knew.

         Vegas was like some giant magnet, sucking the life from the surrounding desert, draining it dry and then discarding the bones into the empty dunes. Slowly the civilized souls were grabbed by the town, dragged into the lights, and twisted into something old and worn and weary before it let go. They’d chosen to live an existence of radionuclides, bomb designs, explosives calculations and pre-dawn detonations to light up the night sky. It was a life of empty desert wind; they hitched up their jeans and touched base in town to stay sane. But soon they had to return to the only life they really knew.

        The truck rattled off, leaving me standing watching this prairie schooner float away still humming into the distance, as the heat waves turned the image into a shimmering shrinking mirage. It was heading into the future of who knew what, carrying my nameless friend and Willy the squirrel, for his only companion …

 (to be continued)


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