This essay was published in Proximity Magazine, Issue Number 6, Winter 2009.
“Hey man, can I see your ink?”
I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Los Alamos, NM, working from the road and trying not to explode at the soccer Mom behind me. She’s bragged for the past forty-five minutes to a friend about her children’s college plans. “Well, she can’t decide between Harvard and Stanford,” a statement expressed in a hundred different ways over the past 6500 seconds. In front of me is a timid teenage boy bearing the store-bought tokens of the feigned high school badass–dandruffed hair and a washer-worn My Chemical Romance t-shirt. He wants to see my tattoos, and feeling a solidarity with my teenage self, I oblige, even though I’m way past deadline.
He surveys the tattoos on my arm, and then points to his own, a shitty scrawl that would resemble a prison tat if it weren’t for his youth and suburban upbringing. I offer what seems like an appropriate amount of encouragement, too busy to continue the conversation indefinitely yet trying to encourage a young punk kid bored in a mountainous suburban wasteland.
“What are you doing here?” he asks suspiciously. “Camping, down at Bandalier,” I explain, and he asks what I think of Los Alamos. Not much,” I respond, and almost on cue, he launches into what seems like a rehearsed bit, excitedly saying, “Well, I can give you the tour.” He points East. “The labs are over there;” West, “the desert’s over there;” South, “there’s trees over there.”
“This town fucking sucks,” he adds.
I can’t disagree. My wife and I have only been in the town a few hours, and while it’s historical significance is tantalizing, the workaday reality is like any other isolated, suburban mountain town, except for the military research labs that encompass it.
I’ve been places like this before–isolated, yet unexpectedly affluent, with a youth that has refined disaffected boredom to an fine art that would shame your typical suburbia-dweller; economies driven by those who’ve made it elsewhere and the influx of tourist money. Yet none of those towns were home to the atomic bomb. They’re not host to one of the most high-security research facilities in the world, where Oppenheimer and his boys brought the world reluctantly into the atomic age. Most of these towns don’t have signs outside the Subway sandwich shops reminding you that you’re on land owned by the US government, or campgrounds surrounded by homeland security checkpoints.
Yet as we sit in this Starbucks, within a mile of people developing technologies that could easily eliminate all forms of life on Earth, our immediate surroundings are shockingly prosaic.The only things that immediately indicate the isolated, mountainous region as a space at the forefront of military technology are the demographics, which are unusual for a community of this sort.
You wouldn’t guess it by the working-class people working at the local grocery store, who could credibly man the registers in any American small town. You wouldn’t guess it by the disaffected youth who roam the streets, sit around the Starbucks, avoid attending class to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and talk shit to the guy who works behind the counter.
There are many places that Los Alamos reminds you of, but the differences are apparent–youth roam the streets like they do in many small towns, but here they seem more concentrated. Soccer Moms beam about the Ivy League prospects of their children–presumably not the same children smoking outside of the Starbucks. The tedium of the daily life contradicts Los Alamos’ self-proclaimed status as the “atomic city,” the home of the bomb, a center for classified government weapons research. A short glimpse at the demographics are revealing: median income for a household in 2000 was $71,536, and the median income for a family was $86,876. Males had a median income of $65,638 versus $39,352 for females (according to the 2000 census.). If it weren’t for the laboratories, this would be another sleepy tourist-trap of a mountain town outside of a National Park, with a median household income dictated by the slave wages of the diner waitresses.
Only small details underscore that the town strictly exists for high-grade weapon research– the main strip is named Oppenheimer Dr. and visitors to the town must first enter through a checkpoint. Amidst the signs proclaiming government ownership of the land are car dealership billboards touting their atomic deals.
Nowhere is the contrast of the banal and the apocalyptic in sharper relief than at the modest Bradbury Science Museum, a testament to the world-obliterating innovations developed in the city, and funded by the research lab.
Reminiscent of an educational video from a Simpsons episode in which a cowboy neutron rhapsodizes about the potential of nuclear power, the Bradbury Science Museum is shockingly toothless. The information next to replicas of Little Boy and Big Boy make only cursory reference to the horrors of Nagasaki or Hiroshima. An informational video is cheerily benign, and seems to have been produced in the ’40s itself, with its cheery jingoism paying unconflicted tribute to the glories of American ingenuity.
Which isn’t to say there is no sense of solemnity at the museum–the video makes reference to Oppenheimer’s fateful quotation of the Bhagavad Gita upon the detonation of the bomb– “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. Much is made of the myriad national security threats the United States has faced over the past few decades. A small kiosk in the back of the museum has been set up to allow activist groups to offer a counterpoint to the museum’s historical interpretation. It’s a tiny space, covered in horrifying photos of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a guest book where visitors can leave their responses. The haunting final comment, written in the scratchy script of a young teen, reads “those poor poor victims that got killed in the explosion…”
You’d be forgiven for forgetting this town’s legacy amid its prosaic suburban sprawl and tourist-savvy whimsy. Here, a small mountainous town where the adults are engineers and their children roam the streets disaffected. Where absent-minded fathers develop technologies that could eradicate life on Earth. The disconnect between daily life and the implications of the work being done are profound.
But that’s the purpose of Los Alamos, secluded by definition and necessity. The contrast between the prosaic and the world-changing is academic in most places, but here it is drawn in clear, government-demarcated lines. It’s home to small-town America, to families of absent parents and disaffected children, and to the bomb.