Reflections on the atomic blast test in Nevada

How the “typical American family” fared in “Doom Town,” 1953.

  • A civilian defense observer inspects a bombed mannequin “family” that was 4,700 feet from ground zero of an atomic blast.

    Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images
  • A “typical American family” of mannequins who were subject to an atomic bomb test at “Doom Town” in Yucca Flat, Nevada.

    Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images
 

NEVADA TEST SITE, 1953
Put yourself in his shoes: cold, Army-issue, treads packed with sand. Rise before dawn, climb into the truck and bump down the road to Doom Town. As the convoy tops the last ridge, narrow your eyes at the rising sun’s brilliant seam. Showtime. Up the ladder you go, sun already warm on your neck, roof shingles softening underfoot, nail heads gleaming silver.

The day wears on in pounding and shouts as you move down the line, lapping layers tight enough to turn any water, although this roof will never see rain. Down below, masons raise the chimney a row at a time, scraping excess mortar free. The painters spray the siding, not bothering to tape the windows; time is of the essence. Saltbrush shivers on the ridge and smashed jackrabbits stain the road as you ride back to Mercury Camp, work done, clothes heavy with sweat and tar, paint and dirt, tacky with sap from lumber that was a tree six months ago. 

OPERATION DOORSTEP-SHOT ANNIE, 1953
Full dark over a silent house. See how easy it is to make a family, twins sprawled on the floor, Baby in his high chair, Mother bending near, a spoonful of pears in her shapely hand. J.C. Penney provided the mannequins and wardrobe: rompers for the twins, footed sleeper for Baby, and Mother’s sensible skirt, button-front blouse, clip earrings. (Daddy’s at work, offstage.)  

The bomb will detonate in a minute’s time.

The countdown begins.

Ten, nine, eight.

See the desert, scraped bare, hash-marked with distances. A mile from Ground Zero, soldiers crouch in their foxholes.

Seven, six, five.

Abandoned tanks wait in arrow formation. Testing instruments nestle in the cold sand.

Four, three, two.

Journalists on the little hill press dark goggles to their faces, giving nervous hands something to do.

Zero.

There must be sound, but it’s been edited out. In the film, everything unspools in silence, Mother’s face lighting up, bleaching white, catching fire. Then the blast wave punches in the wall, shattering the window and knocking Mother off her stool. There must be the sound of glass splintering, a noise lost in the roaring wind that snuffs the blazing bodies, shreds the curtains, shears the door from its hinges. Then the house collapses in a raw hex of timber. Two seconds, all told, the roof blown straight to hell. 

Operation Doorstep-Shot Annie was one of a hundred or so nuclear weapons that exploded above Nevada from 1952 until 1962. I’m mesmerized by their names’ blunt cadences: Ranger-Able, Ranger-Baker, Ranger-Easy. Tumbler-Snapper; Greenhouse-Dog. Fox shot rose in three ice-capped steps. Climax made a narrow stem, a wide-beamed cap, and a batch of skinny tracers. Buster-Jangle-Charlie was a textbook cloud, opening in classic mushroom shape. Upshot-Knothole: a tidal wave of dust pushing across Frenchman Flat, strewing tires, twisted chassis, and an upended tank in its wake, track lying on the ground like a zipper. (After Operation Hot Rod, the Federal Civil Defense Administration warned citizens not to think of their cars as “rolling foxholes” that would save them.) On the old clips, the narrator calls this landscape “the desert,” or the “dusty precursor-forming surface.” Bombs exploded, sometimes once a day, and tourists visited Vegas — the “Up and Atom City” — to watch the shots. One observer noted that the “visual show” proved to be “very spectacular.”

I wonder about those tourists. What did she think, that woman who might have — as I would have — talked her husband into rising early from their motel bed to stand in the cold desert dark, waiting? Did she say, Drive faster; I don’t want to miss it? Or, I brought my sunglasses; you wear yours too. We don’t have much time. What’s a minute worth? Ten seconds? Countdown: nine, eight, seven. Did she squeeze his hand and remember unbalanced bank statements, unwashed bedsheets, relics of another world? Moments long past, safe in the warm light of memory. Nothing like this stark, blinding flash. Standing there on the hill, did she gasp, or shout?

Did it thrill her, the searing blaze, the weird shadows the greasewood threw, just like in the news clips? Rumbling. Wall of dust racing across the flats toward her, howling in her ears and crusting her lips with powder. Her sunglasses hung at her throat; a kerchief covered her hair. Afterward, she was tired, windburned, sick of the Geiger counter’s staccato clicks. Now everything was tainted: stones, the newspapermen’s laced-up shoes crushing gypsum to powder, cars, cactus, road, bird. Even her husband. Even herself, empty face reflected in the smudged windshield. A sheet of notebook paper jumped across the desert, whirled high on air currents and caught on a yucca, some forgotten detail or maybe just a blank sheet, an open mouth with nothing to say.

Joni Tevis wrote a new collection of essays, The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse, from which this excerpt is taken. Milkweed Editions will publish the book this month.