Thursday, December 24, 2009

Here, Everything Goes In and Not Even Light Gets Out

The New Year holiday - 2004.

It was not my first trip to Santa Fe but it was my first "romantic" getaway. Allegedly romantic anyway. It was kind of a...hmmm...disaster is too strong a word for it perhaps. It was just...mundane as most of that relationship would turn out to be.

The relationship itself is not the point of this entry though.

To get to the point, we must first establish that I went to college at UNLV. One of the degree requirements for all students was a semester of Nevada history. Yes, I know Santa Fe isn't in Nevada. So what does Nevada history have to do with anything? For the most part, not much. Until we start talking about the 1950's and the nuclear bomb testing conducted from 1951 until 1992 65 miles away from Las Vegas.

That class was painful. Not because the subject matter was dull - it wasn't. The professor was extremely dry though - one might say as dry as the desert in which we were located - and the lectures were right after lunch. Most of us slept. But toward the end of the course, when we started to discuss the nuclear testing, things got very interesting. We watched propaganda films like Duck and Cover. We watched documentaries like Atomic Cafe. And, for the first time all semester, the entire class was totally engaged. I became completely hooked on exploring government propaganda, secrecy, and conspiracies.

So back to Santa Fe. We took a day trip to Los Alamos. This was the one thing we both could agree we wanted to do. Anyone interested in WWII history and anyone interested in physics and anyone interested in government propaganda ought to go at least once. Since I was interested in all three, I couldn't really go wrong.

Oh yeah, for those of you who don't know, Los Alamos was the highly secret location of Project Y or, as it's more commonly known, the Manhattan Project. You know, the project out of which came the atomic bombs we dropped on Japan to end World War II.

We tried to go to the Bradbury Science Museum but it was closed. So we drove over to the Los Alamos Historical Museum which was actually more interesting to me than the Bradbury Museum might have been simply because much of the focus of the museum is on the Manhattan Project itself.

While we were perusing the gift shop at the end of our visit, we asked the clerk if there were any other points of interest we ought to check out before heading back. It was she who told us about The Black Hole.

The Black Hole is a salvage yard and was owned and operated by a man named Ed Grothus. This is no ordinary salvage yard though. Nearly everything in it was salvaged from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (home of the Manhattan Project). Grothus himself worked for the Lab for 20 years before he quit to become an anti-bomb activist and businessman.

But I didn't know any of this when we pulled up in front of the place.

It was eerily quiet. There were no other people around and the front of the building looked like an office equipment and junk graveyard.

Image credit

We got out of the car and poked around a little outside, both of us feeling a bit nervous and unsettled. And then an old man came out the door of the store and gruffly asked us our business.

Atomic Ed.

He warmed up to us quickly once we'd introduced ourselves and he quickly ushered us inside where "the good stuff" was located. Immediately upon entering, one has the understanding of why this place is called the Black Hole. 17000 square feet of everything under the sun stacked floor to ceiling - wires, electronics, lab equipment, gas masks, soup cans. Yes, soup cans bearing the label Organic Plutonium - a joke of Ed's which led to a visit from the FBI and the Secret Service.

image credit Jeff Keyzer obtained from the wiki

He took us through every nook and cranny, poking our noses in dusty corners, putting our hands on history. He had a story for everything and they tumbled out of him like a stream tumbling over stones.

He sat us down and showed us films - "teaching films", he explained while giggling that he'd "procured...ahem...not through normal channels" - about physics and nuclear bombs and how exciting and progressive the technology was and is. He'd pause the films frequently to point out the propaganda.

All told we were there about 6 hours visiting with Ed - a piece of living history. It was well past closing time and dark when we left. It was hard to tear ourselves away and, I believe, even he was sorry to see us go.

There wasn't much we could afford to buy - neither of us had much money and I'm not sure what we would have purchased. But as we were getting ready to leave, I saw a basket of old brass buttons with numbers stamped into them and I inquired about them. As Ed explained to me, the Manhattan Project was so secret, only a very few knew what the end product was to become. Part of the way the government maintained this secrecy was to insist anonymity among the project employees. Identities were not to be revealed even to one another. The brass buttons then were their badges...their identities in the lab.

I bought one.

And I'd forgotten about it until yesterday when I was going through a box of odds and ends and stumbled upon my little piece of history.

The memory of Ed came flooding back to me and I wondered about him - whether or not he was still alive. I'm sorry to say he is not. Ed died earlier this year from colon cancer at the age of 85.

The Black Hole remains though. And Ed lives on in the documentary Atomic Ed and the Black Hole produced in 2002 and broadcast on HBO. Ed sold us a copy of that (I did not get it in the break up unfortunately) and it's worth the watch if you can find it.

Atomic Ed was extraordinary. A legend. I am fortunate to have made his acquaintance and sorry for those who never got to spend time with him.

S-Site 171

1 comment:

kk said...

Cool story!