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The Oppenheimer Haunt: A Visit to Los Alamos, New Mexico

Fuller Lodge, Los Alamos, NM

“Scenic, yet terrifying.” My description of the drive to Los Alamos.

It was Saturday morning. I’d finished posting a blog entry, done my laundry for the week, and planned to drive to Los Alamos for a little adventure. It was my first time to visit this setting. My rental sits 30 miles from the famous City of Atomic Age and I figured it would make a relaxing mid-morning get-away. In some way this was true…in other ways not so relaxing.

Packing my note pad, camera, and a couple bottles of water, I cruised out the driveway and headed in the direction of Valles Caldera. My van doesn’t like hills or mountains and somehow, I envisioned the drive to be easy and just a little over the hill from the Caldera. Not really, Joe, not really.

Dashboard Photo Op- Never Smart

The narrow mountain highway did not make passing easy and my 35 miles per hour climb in the Aerostar left drivers behind me frustrated. I made it through the caldera and had another climb. I figured it would be an easy coast down the slope from there. Well, not exactly.

I summit-ed and the far-off views with serious drop offs were scenic yet terrifying! And there was no means to turn around.  I drove the narrow road with major hairpin turns down, down, down purposely keeping sight on the road the whole way. Deep breathe, Joe, deep Breathe. Ughh! The smell of my brakes was nauseating when I was only half-way down. Hadn’t the mechanic said my brake pads were getting thin? Then I realized just how badly I needed to piss.

I have shared with friends, “I think God created us for entertainment”. Such was the case of my drive down. If I am God’s form of television, I suspect he watches/ arranges different kinds of reruns. My white-knuckle reactions when in stressful driving might bring laughter to the creator…or, maybe, they are simply a test. In any case, eventually I returned to level driving.

I turned off HWY 4 toward the sign for Los Alamos. I am not a GPS kind of guy…so I figured How hard can it be to find downtown? It was more difficult than I pictured. The city has an odd layout over challenging terrain. I ended up in one neighborhood after another. Nice houses, but nowhere to pee! I was in agony!

Somehow, I managed to navigate my way out of suburban hell and to a gas station. After my run into the bathroom, I asked the woman at the front counter, “How do I get downtown?”

Parked near Ashley Pond

She laughed, “Go out, turn right. Go three lights and take a left.”

My many years of attending Quaker meetings may not make me officially a Quaker, but I follow much of the silent philosophy towards worship and lifestyle. In short, I am a pacifist—always have been, always will be.

So, my visit to Los Alamos was with mixed feelings. While I do not believe war is ever the answer, I do pay my taxes (a large portion of which goes to the military industry) and I am not anti-military. I have family and friends who have been in the military. I respect them for their service…as I do teachers, fire fighters, police officers and Peace Corp volunteers along with many others.

Video on bomb

I first stopped in the Park Services building for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and looked at their displays and watched a short video.  The Rangers were very helpful and insisted I hear about the spies which infiltrated the setting (prompted by explaining I was The History Mystery Guy). After their input on a historic walk-around, I thanked them with a, “I’ll probably be back.”

Picnic table at Ashley Pond, Los Alamos, N.M.

I ventured down the park-like setting to visit the Los Alamos History Museum. I paid my $5 and wandered the displays. Much consisted of copies of old photos, WW2 time period artifacts, and Oppenheimer quotes. His most famous words were taken from Hindu scripture and said after he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon: ““Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”; while this may be his most famous use of words, I did not find it on display during my visit. I did see this, however, “My two great loves are physics and New Mexico” and wondered if his wife had any response.

I did watch a short video which mimicked the notion that the use of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified. In the end, you have to do your own soul searching.

Setting aside the debate of using the atomic bomb or not, I continued on my walk and visit of the setting. Originally Los Alamos was the setting for a Boys’ Camp. Somewhat of a Boys’ Scout setting, the boys slept on porches of buildings, hunted, and performed all sorts of scouting type activities.

According to the Park Service employees, “Jemez Spring was considered first. They didn’t like that it was in a valley as something could detonate. Also, the high cliffs above would allow for easy visibility.”

I wandered the Fuller Lodge which had the feeling of Adirondack Great Camps. Innocence vs. Destroyer of Worlds; this town has it all.

Homestead Cabin

An unpleasant memory from my childhood surfaced. I was a teen. A neighbor who had served in the Navy during WW2 had committed suicide. He had a difficult life of alcoholism and odd cancer hauntings. As I recall, his wife discovered him when she returned from shopping. What does this memory have to do with the bombing of Japan? He had once shared, “My ship was off the coast of Japan when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We watched, then were allowed to go ashore and wandered the city. We could take anything we found. Money laid out on tables, jewelry, and other souvenirs. None of us knew what we were being exposed to. This is when my health problems began.” The ripples of pain from war are many and often long-lived.

I returned to the Park Service building, as prophesized, to ask directions back to La Cueva. My day had a lot to reflect on—the natural beauty of this area and the formulation of a highly destructive weapon. In some ways, my little Saturday adventure hit the full spectrum of the human experience.

So many words said. The December 1946 The Atlantic article by Karl Compton shared on the full justification of bombing. Again, it may be best presented as a soul searching exploration. My ride back home was without incident though full of reflection and Los Alamos will haunt me for some time.

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