There are only two days a year that Trinity Site in New Mexico is open to the public and we were able to be there for one of them, October 5. We had just arrived in the Alamogordo area for our volunteer gig at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park and were told about the bi-annual open house. After investigating the details, we asked for the day off, and decided to go. It was a powerful experience and we were both deeply moved by it. This blog chronicles our experience.
The Trinity Site has been designated a National Historic Landmark for what occurred here at 5:29:45AM on July 16, 1945. It was the day that has gone down in history, marking the first successful test of an atomic bomb which had been under development since 1942 at Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico. In the words of Brig. Gen. Thomas Farrell, who witnessed the test, “the effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying”. The test took place in a lava field on White Sands Missile Range in a secluded region named Jornada del Muerto – roughly translated as the “day of the dead”.
I didn’t know much about the actual test and the details surrounding it before we went, so this was an important trip. We learned that the ultra-secret test included placing the assembled bomb on top of a 100-foot tower, designated as “Zero”. The observation shelters where the observers were stationed were protected by concrete and earth and were 5.7 miles away from the test site. The National Park Service material reports that “to most observers—watching through dark glasses—the brilliance of the light from the explosion overshadowed the shock wave and sound that arrived some seconds later. A multi-colored cloud surged 38,000 feet into the air within seven minutes. Where the tower had been was a crater one-half mile across and eight feet deep”. The heat of the explosion vaporized the sand and the vapor rose in the mushroom cloud. As the vapor cooled, it turned into liquid, raining onto the ground forming puddles of various sizes which then further cooled into a new mineral, pale green in color, which was named trinitite.
Along the one mile of fence that surrounds the site, we got to see some historic photographs which told the story without words. Images revealed the denotation in time lapse at .006 seconds, .025 seconds, .053 seconds, .10 seconds, and the iconic mushroom cloud image from 15.0 seconds. In addition, there were pictures of some of the team of army engineers who were there. I wondered who they were, what their stories were, how they were affected by the history that was made that day.
Among those watching from miles away was Los Alamos project leader, J. Robert Oppenheimer, a complicated genius of a man. In 1965, long after history noted the interim results of the second and third detonations at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 Oppenheimer was asked to reflect on the test. Prophetically, he commented, “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, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another”.
I know somewhere along the line I had read his reference to the Bhagavad Gita and standing there on a breathtakingly beautiful day under the New Mexico sky, it haunted me. Here we were, a throng of hundreds and hundreds of people who were largely silent, milling around the exhibits and talking softly, as if in church. Some parents brought their school age children, some grandparents came with three generations of family, and many active service members joined us. We took turns patiently waiting for a moment to memorialize the visit at the tower that marks Ground Zero. I am sure many said a prayer or two. I know that I did.
In the end, there was the solemn recognition that in this place on this day 74 years ago, the world did change. Oppenheimer was absolutely correct and what occurs to me now is what will we do with what we now know. May you find your own peace today.
Peter and Liz are continuing their life on the road, volunteering in Alamogordo, New Mexico until early December at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. T2 and Pig are loving the desert sunrise like the one shown above here in the Sacramento Mountains.