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TBS in the Southwest: The Beginning

By bkelsey on March 14, 2016

Meagre belongings packed into travel-sized bags: Check. Entertainment options for the trip: Check. Everything laid out ready for the morning: Check. Sense of adventure: Need it be said? Check.

As I prepare for my trip to the Southwest, I cannot help but wonder why exactly it is that I feel the need to go. I look forward to enjoying the company of my fellow Bentons, of course, but I can do that anywhere. Why go to all the trouble of travelling across the country? The question to which I seek an answer can be broadened to the following: Why is it that, despite knowing that things exist, despite having an idea of what they are, despite having seen and heard and read about them, we feel the need to actually go to them? What makes the experience so much more valuable?

I think that it is fair to say that I know more than most about the atomic bomb-related sites and sights to see in the south-western U.S. Having spent a semester becoming familiar – at times, perhaps, more familiar than I ever thought necessary – with the history and science of the first atomic bomb project, I know what to expect when it comes to testing sites and research facilities. You show me some radioactive material, and there’s a good chance I can tell you what shape it should be in to make it go boom. I’ve seen pictures of compounds, laboratories, tests, craters, and bombs. What more could there be to gain from seeing a large semi-circular hole in the ground in person than on film?

I’m no philosopher, nor am I a trained psychologist or sociologist, but I would hazard a guess that it has something to do with a feeling of history and tangibility. At the risk of sounding overly romantic, I think that there’s a sense you get when you’re in a place of what happened there that you simply cannot get from a photograph. We have all seen pictures of WWII battlefields, but it’s something entirely different to stand in the trenches, looking out over a dew-tipped field as grey light filters through the remaining wisps of cloud and the calls of birds are carried on the wind as they scour the mud for worms drawn out by the recent rain. In such a position, one can almost see through the eyes of a soldier as he squints into the distance, searching for the glint of a gun barrel across the field. Though it might not be as tense a situation or as striking a location, I suspect that there is a similar sense of seeing through the eyes of those who were at these tests and in these laboratories over 70 years ago as they turned blackboard scrawlings into the most destructive weapons the world had ever seen. It is also easy to forget that, for many of the scientists, engineers, and military personnel at these facilities, the development of nuclear weapons felt as much like a head-to-head battle against the forces of evil as it did for the soldiers on the front lines- in the sense that, for much of the period of the development of the first atomic bombs, the military and government were very much conscious that just such a development could be in progress in Germany or Japan. To be in the laboratories and to witness the craters, then, is to some extent to stand in their places and, if not to share their uncertainty of what its results would be, then at least to share their marvel at the power of this step in human capacity and knowledge.

There is also, I think,  a sense of a lack of scale inherent in photographs and written accounts. They say that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the Los Alamos facilities seemed to have been built just about that quickly (and, it seems relevant to point out, the technology that was unleashed in their rooms is capable of destroying Rome in mere fractions of a second). It is difficult to wrap one’s head around the real magnitude of certain things until one sees them. Just as a symphony cannot be described in mere words, a nuclear testing site cannot be described in mere images, and the magnitude of a nuclear detonation cannot be described in mere numbers. It is necessary to see in person to understand.

And so, in the interest of taking in all that the world and the wonders of human enterprise have to show us, no matter what form they may take, we adventurous folk set out for lands yet unknown to us. Some say that the journey is more important than the destination. With fourteen hours of bus and airplane travel ahead, I find it difficult to take that stance, but perhaps the expression refers rather to the journey of life as a whole. If that is the case, then I am certainly looking forward to my journey through the atomic history of the American Southwest.

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