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for people who care about the West

The importance of memory


In Nicole Krauss' sparse and astonishing novel, Man Walks Into A Room, local cops find a disoriented man wandering along Highway 95 in the desolate Mercury Valley of Nevada. After the officers get him out of the shimmering heat, we learn that the man, Samson, has a brain tumor that has obliterated a large chunk of his memory. He has no recollection of the last 24 years of his life.

Samson is able to recover the human and concrete remnants of those lost 24 years. His wife is there, loving and supportive; his home is still his; his job is still available. Nevertheless, his life crumbles. His very identity unravels in the absence of the anchor of a large span of memory. It's terrifying.

Parts of the nuclear West, especially those involved in Cold War weapons production, suffer from a similar condition. Take Rocky Flats, for example, which for four decades produced tens of thousands of the pits that detonate atomic bombs. While it was in operation, the industrial complex outside Denver, Colo., was veiled in absolute secrecy. The people who worked there couldn't tell outsiders what they did, and they couldn't even talk to one another about their work.

Given the sensitivity of the work, such secrecy was understandable while the plant was in operation. The problem is that -- as Hannah Nordhaus explains in this issue's cover story -- once the need for secrecy has passed, one cannot simply pull the curtain aside and reveal what happened. Such memories as still exist are scattered and contradictory. Many of the physical remnants of that era have been demolished, incinerated and buried. For every historian who tries to get at what really happened at Rocky Flats, there seem to be two other people who would rather forget. There are indications that the government has not been totally forthcoming when it comes to revealing what went on at the plant. And many of those who worked at the plant have died -- some of them because of the work that they did.

I suspect the same omissions and holes infect the histories of other Western nuclear projects, from the uranium mines and mills of the Four Corners country, to the bomb tests in Nevada, to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, to the Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico. The West has been left with a gaping hole in its collective memory. And, like the protagonist of Krauss' novel, our region's very identity is left incomplete. That's why efforts like the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum and the oral history project deserve support. And it's why stories like Nordhaus' are important. They gather the disparate threads of memory, and try to weave them together in a coherent whole.

That doesn't mean that we'll always like what we find.

In Krauss' novel, the gap in Samson's memory is ultimately filled. Only the memory isn't really his; it belongs to a former soldier who took part in the early nuclear bomb tests in the Nevada desert. It's awesome and terrible at once:
" … a huge fireball going up on the back of the mushroom cloud like the devil mounting heaven. The most beautiful thing we have ever seen, boiling in its own blood, rising to forty thousand feet and spreading until it obscures the sun, spreading above our heads and raining down the remains of the desert. We cannot think. There is no room left in our minds for anything but this."

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].