WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE -- I recently watched footage of the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site in 1945. A black and white mushroom cloud built up in slow motion. Chills and prickles crawled up my spine.
Visiting Trinity Site
One week later, I visit ground zero, where a device called "The Gadget" was strapped into a 100-foot-tall steel tower and set off. Two more nuclear explosions took place over Japan after that successful test, harbingers of the end of World War II.
This all happened a long time before I was born, but I feel a strange sadness as I stand here on a hazy spring day in the middle of the Jornada del Muerto, a desert basin full of scrub and pronghorn antelope. That name translates to "day's journey of the dead."
It took only fractions of a second to change history all those years ago. A lava rock obelisk marks ground zero today. Only a tiny scrap of the steel tower's footing escaped vaporization.
Now a tourist attraction
I see license plates in the dirt parking lot from all over the country. Visitors crowd around the obelisk, politely taking turns snapping smiling photos next to the marker. The area is fenced in to keep us from wandering out too far into White Sands Missile Range.
Many people crouch, plucking at the soil in search of Trinitite, a green glassy residue left over from the nuclear test. It's illegal to remove Trinitite from the area, but that doesn't stop people from trying. Most of it has already been taken away or plowed under. The hidden souvenirs spirited away by visitors are likely to be just regular pebbles mistaken for the rare Trinitite.
Trinity Site is a different animal. This military technology is so destructive, it changed the way the world viewed itself. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer, often called the "father of the atomic bomb," has said that a famous quote from the "Bhagavad Gita" went through his mind upon seeing the detonation: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
I never had to practice duck and cover nuclear war drills in school. The bomb shelter signs on local buildings were rusted relics of bygone fearful days.
Standing here at Trinity Site, surrounded by curious visitors and the wafting smells from a hot dog seller, I feel both the distance of New Mexico's terrible past and the pressing sense that these weapons still sit silently, hidden and waiting to become what they were born to do.