Atomic Summer

The first weeks of summer, I knew no one in Santa Fe but my coworkers at the newspaper’s culture desk. I covered arts and music and literature, local goings-on, regional history. Quickly a peculiar pattern appeared in the cultural landscape. Everywhere science pervaded.

 

The first tip-off was all the science fiction writers. You could barely take take your dog to the park before he sniffed the butt of a science fiction writer’s dog. The first few weeks of my job, I was sent to interview them in hordes. I asked my copy-editor Joan what the deal was, blessed Joan, who shared my cubicle, who possessed an infinitely replenishing supply of red pens, who  turned her chair around one-hundred eighty degrees for my every dumb inquiry. Joan, when people say Anglo here, do they just mean white? Joan, what is a Frito pie?

 

Sometimes, her answer was not an answer at all. “Joan, where are all the science fiction writers coming from?”

 

“Ah, yes,” she says. “It’s because of Los Alamos. Plus there’s Roswell, where the aliens landed in the 60s. There’s the real science, and the woo woo science, but it all gets mixed up. So, science fiction.”

 

Her answer felt like the delivery of some mysterious package, pulsing with significance.

 

If you walked into a bar or festival or concert or coffee shop in town there was a pretty good likelihood of its being alien-themed or outer space-themed or nuclear-themed. The cultural centerpiece of the summer was the Santa Fe Opera House’s production of Doctor Atomic, set in the nearby town of Los Alamos—one of the strangest locales in America. It is a city of labs, or the labs and the city are one. The labs emerged suddenly and covertly during World War II. Thousands of scientists uprooted their families and relocated to the secret, militarized town. They needed a place to build the atomic bomb. The opera tells the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, but set to music.

 

I went on a few mediocre dates with physics students working at Los Alamos and they unfailingly brought up the extreme security measures. Their favorite was this: “If you leave your bag lying around unlabelled, they’ll blow it up.” It was never clear who the “they” were. The dates said this like a brag. To exist amongst operations of such gravity.

 

Something about this place had drawn the science fiction writers; the alien conspiracy theorists; the new agers. As if a giant magnet sat beneath the city pulling in all who sought a quick spiritual fix. Each visitor wanting something desperately, unsure exactly what, feeling that this place would provide it.

 

Or there was some other mystical entity nestled underground, like a large, shimmering crystal, which, in fact, there was. Henry, who was studying hyper-fission at the lab and seemed to know something about science, told me so. We were sitting at one of the atomic themed bars. At first, I didn’t believe it. It sounded too much too much like what all the gift shops were offering up—salt lamps and star charts and other new age commodities. And it sounded too much like what so many Santa Fe folks were telling me when I first arrived—that there was some buzzy current in the air that made life here different and strange and wonderful, but there was also something out there that might doom you. That this was the price you paid for specialness.

 

Every season, Henry said, the crystal sends up energetic waves into the city. You vibe with the energy or you don’t. Then, the lands accepts you or it doesn’t. If it accepts you, the city gives you little gifts, serendipitous moments, and things go well for you here. If it rejects you, life becomes a chain of misfortune. Sometimes it rejects you then accepts you, or accepts you but then rejects you for a little while and then accepts you and rejects you off and on for a few years, and so on, and it all sounds suspiciously like life.

 

But then I asked copy-editor/personal oracle Joan, and she told me that there actually does exist a bed of obsidian beneath the city. She even took a chunk of it out from her coin purse. When my eyes widened she shot me a look: “We all buy into the woo woo a little, or we wouldn't have come.” I get it. It’s like the zodiac. Another language to talk about ourselves. Don’t begrudge us our tiny scrap of cosmic significance. How could I, when I counted among the converted?

 

I should disclose, this particular summer was even more science-crazed than ordinary. That’s because the city of Santa Fe deemed it the “Atomic Summer,” a celebration of the state’s atomic heritage.

 

***

 

This question was like a nudging cat that refused to be ignored but shrunk away when I tried to grant it attention: What is the toll on reality when we mythologize daily life, when the quotidian becomes the cosmically fated sublime? This could be a benign game, I figured, or an act of survival, or escapism, or a dirty trick. But in the case of Los Alamos, this mystification process seemed plainly harmful.The trope of the bomb’s creation is of the naive scientist: bewildered that his invention has been used for evil. This may have been true of certain individuals, but collectively, Los Alamos was explicitly, flagrantly nationalistic. It may have been born in ignorance, but it was brought up by the hand of the United States military. Santa Fe was once home to an 80-acre Japanese internment camp. The labs themselves still bear the oddly juvenile motto, “The World’s Greatest Science Protecting America.” A paradoxical claim when you consider that in 1945, the U.S. military, fearing the end of the world as we know it, introduced the possibility of apocalypse. They looked to peril abroad and dismissed the big, atomic threat simmering in their own conversations at the dinner table, or huddled around the office water cooler.

 

***

 

This is what I was thinking about before I met Rebecca, the first friend of my summer. What did I do, those first few weeks? They now seem holistically insignificant, since they were without her. I went on hikes. I was good at my job at the newspaper. At work one afternoon, I caught a flash of myself in the monitor’s reflection, copy-editing with a red pen. A red sweater and a ponytail, bubble gum, the covers of old issues lining the wall behind me, and for the first time I felt preemptive nostalgia for my time at this job in this city. I got sick with a slutty headache, which is when you feel like shit but you feel kind of sexy about it. Like you’re lying around with a fever in lingerie, or dying of tuberculosis. I smiled meekly at the men who shouted at me on the street. I was careless about closing the blinds when I changed, though workmen passed my window in plain view.

 

I was okay with being at the world’s whim. That’s why I had come to Santa Fe to begin with—because it had called to me, and if I stayed there long enough, eventually something would happen. I didn’t believe in a giant crystal that ruled my fate, but I might as well have.

 

Rebecca was the opposite. She had come to Santa Fe for cheap rent and a quiet place to stay home and work on her screenplay. She had six close friends scattered across the United States (I would become the seventh) and once told me her biggest fear was the fact that you never know how you’re affecting someone else. She didn’t want other people to affect her, either. She dreamed of a world where everyone could exist side-by-side and never smudge, perfectly retaining their own innate qualities forever. But I wanted to be changed by every encounter. Like I could selfishly pull moments toward me like poker chips and stack them up until I was buried beneath a giant, fascinating pile of life’s miscellania. This glorious mass would constitute my self.

 

Rebecca took me to Santa Fe’s premier roller rink, housed in a small, outer-space themed warehouse. On the walls aliens wore boy shorts and baseball caps and spun basketballs. We zig-zagged, swerved right through gaps in crowds. Once, Rebecca overheard the rink’s owner telling another skater, You let the music come in! And hearing that kind of changed Rebecca’s life; she said, Somewhere in me is the kind of person who dances first. There was a kinship on the floor that scrubbed away the waxy coats of moralistic daily alarm around physical contact and chummy interaction—Lord knows I participate—but: no way you can be upset with someone for grabbing your shoulders or holding your hand if they are about to fall on their butt. Or start a skate train. Or hand you half a cherry AirHead while whizzing by, as someone does the first night. So Rebecca and I wove. Boundless. I thanked some nebulous force for the easy merging of our two lives. I appreciated its chemical rarity. By chemical, of course, I mean spiritual. A man was falling in the corner, saying Aw jeez Aw jeez Awww Jeeeeez, but it came out Hot cheese hot cheese hooowwwt cheeeese. We rolled our eyes. Hot cheese will not save you, sir, Hot cheese won’t stop your fall. But then I got it in my head too, as in, Hot cheese I like how it feels to be on wheels, be together and be not afraid, Hot cheese somewhere in me is the kind of person who is free, hot cheese please grant me the mercy to keep moving this way forever.

 

Soon, Rebecca and I developed a routine. We saw one another every day. We kept rituals. Wednesday night live music on the hill, the roller rink, writing side by side at Betterday Cafe, hiking up Monte Sol.

 

***

 

One Friday after work, Rebecca and I drove to Abiquiu Lake, to camp out where Georgia O’Keefe used to paint. Rebecca’s dog, Duke, stuck his head into the front seat panting. Outside the window, tall trees tipped and leaned like drunk brothers. There was a mode of careless sharing that had by then become our versed way, like there was no way of talking about ourselves before summer and never again would there be after. We each liked to understand how the other had processed her life, then imagine how we would have done it differently.

 

I told her about an incident last winter. I was collecting wood and milking cows for room and board at a farm on a mountaintop. A few nights in, a man entered my room holding up a large machete. I pretended to sleep while he stood over me. He receded to the closet. I turned on my flashlight and called out, but he didn’t respond. I felt quite certain that now was the time, as in every girl’s life, when I was going to be raped by a strange man at machete-point. I considered whether I should jump out of bed and run (though there was nowhere to run, it being a mountain top) or continue pretending to be asleep (though I had just proven I was not). I jumped, and ran across the house to the bathroom and locked myself in. The man paced in front of the bathroom door until morning, and at some point, gave up and left.

 

Waiting in the bathroom, I did not feel particularly afraid. And I haven’t felt fear thinking of it since. I resented being told that I should feel particularly torn up at this or other moments like it. Rebecca understood. She found my reaction bizarre, but we both agreed that emotional response seemed to defy this type of codification. I had to believe this, because I did feel visceral fear all of the time, and it did not correspond to real life moments of risk—and trying to chart where the two things matched up felt as random as if I’d spilled a box of pins at my feet.

 

At some point around the third grade, I’d fixed in my mind the schema of things that were genuinely worth being afraid of. These mainly involved serial killer clowns, flesh-eating skeletons, lamprey men coming out of my toilet, and other horror creatures that mostly emerged from the horror stories that got me sent to the principal’s office that year. For years after, I checked under my bed before sleeping. Sometimes I still do. My first night in the house in Santa Fe alone, I pressed a knife under my pillow in a 3AM panic, picturing supernatural clowns. I spent the interim until I fell asleep keeping watch out of the window for ominous shapes. I wished I could scrape these thoughts from my brain. But some obsessive quality kept them entrenched. After all a fear of this intensity and duration must betray some fascination.

 

The next morning Rebecca and Duke and I stood beside the lake. A flower poked through the white stone at our feet—a plant you saw all over the place here, one that unfolds methodically, over the course of many hours or even several days, like a blues singer alone on a stage, singing the slowest blues. Green dress, shaking hands. The slowest blues you ever heard.

 

Rebecca dove right into the lake and Duke followed her, as he followed her everywhere, but I had pause. I could directly trace my nerves, embarrassingly, to a late 2000s Animal Planet series called Lost Tapes, which I used to watch compulsively in elementary school. It produced in me a reaction of immense fear and immense pleasure. Each episode is a stand-alone mockumentary, but the show tries to pass itself off as nonfiction. The premise is the recovery of lost tapes—usually a combination of home video and surveillance footage—that prove the existence of mythical creatures. Sasquatch, aliens, Mothman, and so on.

 

At this moment, the Oklahoma Octopus episode was getting me. I don’t think I’ve ever entered an opaque body of water where this octopus did not enter my mind. The episode follows the show’s typical formulaic arc. A group of unsuspecting acquaintances, armed with a camcorder, enter a territory known to be home to some mythical beast—in this case, it’s high schoolers out on a lake trip.

 

THERE ARE CREATURES SCIENCE REFUSES TO RECOGNIZE, a booming narrator insists at the start of each episode. Over the next twenty minutes, the Oklahoma Octopus makes itself known from beneath the lake’s surface, flashing a tentacle here, a tentacle there.

 

BUT NEW TECHNOLOGY MAKES US QUESTION WHAT IS REAL. His disembodied and trustworthy voice offers statistics and history over informational graphic reels, and by the end of the episode, the teenagers are mostly dragged underwater by the beast.

 

INTO A REALM WHERE FACT MEETS FICTION

WHERE SCIENCE MEETS LEGEND

WHERE NIGHTMARES COME TO LIFE. In the end, as always, the camera lies skewed on the beach, knocked out of some victim’s hand. One survivor lives to tell the tale, and the viewer is confronted with the ever-lingering question…

...DO YOU BELIEVE?

 

I always did believe, at least a little.

 

***

 

The Opera House’s production of Doctor Atomic was approaching, the heart of the city’s cultural fascination with the scientific and the mystical. One day at work I summoned the nerve to ask Joan across our cubicle if I could go. The paper agreed and got me a press pass.

 

The show’s libretto is thick with poetic allusions, in large part because J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb, was himself a lover of poetry. He and his wife Kitty Oppenheimer used lines of poetry as both erotic and practical code.

 

The bulk of the opera narrates the World War II scientists’ decision to test the world’s first atomic bomb in Southern New Mexico. When it came time to choose a code phrase for the test, Oppenheimer went the pious route, named the test site “Trinity,” and borrowed this line from the poet Donne John: “Batter my heart, three person’d God;…break, blow, burn and make me new.”

 

Oppenheimer might have been the poster child for the total entanglement of science and spirituality. “Now I am become Death; the destroyer of worlds,” he famously mused after the Trinity test, quoting Hindu scripture.

 

Deeming himself manifester of the sublime because a uranium-235 atom absorbed a neutron and split in two.

 

His religiosity was extraordinary among scientists but hardly unique. Throughout the twentieth century, Los Alamos scientists ran radiation tests for bomb fallout on their own children. Like Abraham binding Isaac to the rock, like science was a god worth sacrificing one’s son to appease. Doomsday, long having signalled the Rapture or the Second Coming, has been invoked since the 1940s by the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists to warn the populace of impending nuclear armageddon (and more recently, climate armageddon). Before that first Trinity test explosion, one of the stated risks was that the scientists would set the atmosphere on fire, yet they felt themselves entitled to play the odds. The night that bomb was set to detonate, a thunderstorm arrived. General Groves threatened the weatherman physical violence because of the bad conditions, forgetting that men are not gods.

 

***

 

My editor assigned me a news piece about an acclaimed Los Alamos chemist. The chemist, when we met, was a booming presence with a hulking frame and broad gestures. He spoke and spoke, long after I’d gotten down all the information I needed. He spoke of his childhood abroad, his critical role in conceiving optical effects in LCD screens, his children’s national quiz bowl championships.

 

When he traveled for work, he never booked a hotel room, he said. Instead he would crash in the lab or work through the night. “There are many things we are told we need, that we don’t need,” he philosophised, and I nodded along. We meandered through the city together after the interview was over, and he invited me to live rent-free in his downtown adobe house for the summer, and I said I’d think about that.

 

I liked him. I left smug. A chance encounter delivering a friend and a housing offer, and the man was interesting, and if interesting things came my way then it must have meant I had some quality that attracted them, and therefore I was a worthwhile human being.

 

I imagined him toying with vials in his Los Alamos lab. I imagined Oppenheimer doing the same three quarters of a century ago, peering at atoms and thinking of the bomb to come. There was something so alien about the way he’d related to the bomb and to his own self-importance. Where I liked to float along the cusp of great forces, these men liked to wield them.

 

This seemed to suggest on my part some essential inadequacy, one that forever preceded action, preceded being. The image of letting life accumulate around me until I was buried suddenly seemed less like an act of creation and more like, simply, being crushed. I don’t know who I want to be but I don’t want to be a person made of violence.

 

I did have one more acquaintance in Santa Fe—a long-lost relative in her seventies. That night we met for dinner. I told her about the chemist. “That chemist,” she said, “is a liar and a narcissist.” She knew his ex-wife well. (It was a small town.) She went on: “She had a restraining order—Oh yes, it was abuse. And he forced those kids to do quiz bowl.”

 

***

 

Later my editor assigned me to cover the 73-year-after-the-fact congressional hearings of the atomic “Downwinders,” those mostly Indigenous and Hispanic New Mexicans living downwind of the first atomic test at Trinity. Several women testified before Congress, asking for federal compensation for medical costs. To keep the test discreet, the scientists evacuated no one. Mostly farming communities—so that not only their air and homes but their water and food were poisoned from the radiation. A plague of cancer slipped into their bodies, their families’ bodies, their genetic legacies. To swallow families whole.

 

It’s not just that the government has never paid for healthcare costs for atomic victims; they’ve never admitted that the land could be toxic to begin with. I interviewed one woman who was eight days old when the Trinity test bomb erupted, and she filled the space of six minutes listing her family members sick or dead with cancer. Not until just five years ago, when she saw a woman discussing the bomb on TV, did she have any idea why. She wondered: did god himself despise her? As if for dystopian flair, the Department of Energy maintains today that the area was unpopulated all along.

 

With the federal government shrugging the plague of cancer into the realm of the inexplicable, the downwinders had no knowledge of the toxic matter embedded in their land and bodies; and how, then, could they even begin to keep safe?

 

And just imagine it, being a rural farmer when the sky erupts with fire. What do you do, what can you call it but the apocalypse?

 

In the hypothesis of Native scholar Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, the zombie apocalypse took place many years ago. In the mid-19th century, California miners held “Indian hunting days,” organizing militias to hunt Native people. They were compensated by the state of California. Baldy writes, “If you were an Indian person walking around, something or someone might just try to kill you. They were hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them then there was of you. Zombies.”

 

The city has structured its Atomic Summer around “Atomic Heritage”, that scientific legacy, those jobs created, these grand histories recalled; but Atomic Heritage rings a wholly different sound when one thinks of the particulate matter, the mutant cells, the death sentences transmitted from generation to generation. Yet this second heritage is not parsed out from the first. In fact, proximity to danger only furthers the fascination. In the city’s festivities—in its obsession with forces of the beyond—it forgets the atomic evidence of violence that radiates from the very land beneath our feet. All of history is subsumed into the mythos of science and pop-mysticism that has made Santa Fe what it is: its heritage.

 

***

 

The pilot episode of Lost Tapes, titled “Chupacabra”, follows a Mexican family crossing the border to the United States on foot. The daughter, Eva, brings along the camcorder she’s been given for her birthday. As the family treks, the mythic, vampiric chupacabra prowls. The narrator lists the dangers of border-crossing: heat, reptiles, cops, AND POSSIBLY SOMETHING EVEN MORE FRIGHTENING. “Of all the potential dangers,” the narrator concludes, “The most feared is the chupacabra.” As the monster attacks Eva’s parents, leaving her to wander the Arizona desert solo, the narrator makes tenuous claims to reality, describing the feeding processes of vampire bats and leaving us to our own conclusions.

 

The show feeds on this ambiguity. It asks, always, “Do they live among us?” In Lost Tapes, the object of horror is always off the back of the real horror, as if what Eva has to fear is a chupacabra and not structural violence. When American soldiers are attacked in a cave in Afghanistan, we are told that the nightmare is a group of cave demons and not the American bombing campaign that prompted them to enter in the first place. The show’s problem is not that it inquires into the possibility of myth, it’s that it displaces fear, that it sends fear outside the limits of our knowledge. The show says that danger comes from the unknowable beyond, effectively denying its existence in our own environment. It tells us that we don’t know what we think we know, when knowing what we know is so often how we keep safe.

 

By the end of the episode, two policemen have tracked down Eva in the desert. They’re no help. Darkness chokes out the scene and becomes the main character. Three faces peer out into the sagebrush sea like they’re all facing the same beast. The night rustles.