"I am the Jimi Hendrix of the Superstar 3000 Guitar." -Ray Bong of the Bongoloids
April 2, 2002
My Atomic Fame
(written December 15th, 2000 as a spec piece for a never-realized column in Albuquerque's arts rag, The Alibi)
It is strange to ponder that the first atomic detonation occurred less than 100 miles south of here. Stranger still is the fact that just north of here they're still toying with that shit at Los Alamos. What are we thinking? We are a strange species indeed.
Me? I just want to be famous. I don't want fame for fame's sake (whatever that means). I don't even want a famous face. For a writer, fame just kind of goes hand in hand with A, making a living, and B, being well read, which is what most writers crave. Also, fame can be used to serve the greater good, to shed light on important issues.
Martin Sheen is a model for that kind of, shall we say, socially responsible fame. Thanks to a longtime friendship with one of his sons and a brief romance with his only daughter, I've spent a fair amount of time in Martin's company. So, when I saw in the Alibi that he was the "Invited Guest" of a documentary video on Los Alamos premiering at UNM, I went to say hi. The video was great, but narrator Martin didn't show. No matter. The video further stimulated my interest in all things atomic. Whether it was the prodding of my buddy who once worked with plutonium or just plain morbid fascination, I had two days earlier visited the National Atomic Museum.
If there's anything weirder than staring at an ICBM and trying to visualize it flying at 15,000 mph and comprehend its unfathomable killing power, it's what happened to me that day at the museum. I was standing there mouth agape at this monstrous missile the size of two locomotives end to end, when all of a sudden a deafening buzzer alarm (in movies: the sound of a nuclear meltdown) went off.
Now, alarms come in many different sounds and mean many different things depending on the context. A car alarm, we all know, is in any context simply an annoyance. A bank alarm can be a little startling, especially if you're inside the bank. The same is true to a greater extent of fire alarms, scarier and scarier the higher the number of the floor you're on in the building. But imagine where my head was at when that buzzer sounded there in the pantheon of atomic ungodliness, a warehouse full of man's biggest bombs and enough information to put the fear in anyone.
I freaked. I didn't show it, of course. Instead I coolly strolled toward the nearest exit and out into the parking lot and the cold. But where my imagination left off, reality took over. Outside it got weirder. In one of the fastest emergency responses I've ever witnessed, the boys in uniform showed up en masse. If I ever have a heart attack, I hope I'm standing on a military base at the time and elicit such a response. There were only eight visitors and three employees in the museum that day. The emergency response team must have outnumbered us 3-to-1.
There were cops and firefighters and EMTs and BLTs, you name it. But the best of all, and the thing I really kicked myself for not having a camera on hand to capture, was when the firefighters suited up in their silver moon suits and face shields and oxygen tanks and headed for the building. It was surreal. Here were these silver space men, atomic men from some Twilight Zone episode, posed in action beneath a gray pseudo nuclear-winter sky and the giant silver letters identifying the building as the National Atomic Museum. It was fantastic. It was demented. It was better than a movie.
And me, casually leaning against the base of the ominous four-pronged nuclear missile launcher on display out front, leaning into it as though for protection from some cold wind blowing across the base. There was, however, no wind. It was all in my mind. I imagined what mad winds blow when men split atoms in the name of war.
I think now of the film footage of army troops clambering out of the trenches, rifles in hand, and rushing toward the rising mushroom of the first atomic explosion as though they'd just tossed a grenade in an enemy foxhole. Foxhole. Rabbit hole. Worm hole. Madness.
A cop came over and asked me if I'd pulled a fire alarm. I laughed in his face. When it was all over, they let us back inside. As from the hugeness of the mushroom cloud to the miniscule of the atom, my attention now focused on a tiny jade green rock in a glass case.
Trinitite. The end product of the dawn of the atomic age. Named for the site of the first atomic detonation, Trinitite is a stone found in only one place in the world, created only once. It bore no resemblance to the evil-looking Fat Boy bomb dropped on Nagasaki or the gargantuan Intercontinental Ballistic Missile outside. It was beautiful.
I wanted it. Forget that it's radioactive. I wanted a lot of it. I wanted to tile my in-ground pool with it, go for an atomic swim. Why not? There's radioactive crap everywhere now. Bunkers full of waste. Plutonium dust clouds over Spain. We're doomed. I'd much prefer to radiate myself, to go in style in a pool of beta-emitting jade.
I asked a museum attendant if I could buy some. She echoed the sardonic laugh I'd given the cop. It said, "No way." I walked away undaunted. I could feel the radiation working on me already. Someday, I'd be famous and rich. And when you're rich, you can buy anything. I thought of Martin Sheen's black bottom, jungle-like pool made of huge quarry stones and lined with lush jungle vegetation right out of Apocalypse Now. In the middle of his pool, there is an island.
My Trinitite pool will also be dazzling to the eye. Blinding, in fact. It, too, will have an island, an island shaped.. like a mushroom. And I will run at my pool like an eager soldier, blind, foolhardy, a hero. Famous.