GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS reads the sign on a chain-link fence and we whistle and cheer as the bus slams past, churning up a cloud of dust in the basin. An angry black fly buzzes against the window and someone tries to singe it with a cigarette. The stubble of sagebrush is endless, and Kohler says you wouldn’t be more than a day dead before the coyotes would clean you. Right before we left Pendleton, Kohler got a tattoo of a girl who wriggles when he flexes, and he rolls up his sleeve for the sixth or seventh time today.
When we pass a road sign saying a hundred miles to Vegas we whoop again, leaning out and drumming the bus’s flanks until the ribbon of asphalt twists off into the distance. Someone says he heard that the first shot they exploded over Bikini had a picture of Rita Hayworth taped to it, and that gets a few snickers. Kohler’s been to Vegas and he talks about how we’re going to check into the Desert Inn on our night off, play the nickel slot machines, see Shirley Jones.
At 15:13 we slide into Desert Rock, stretching and jogging around on the tarmac to work out the stiffness. It’s a hundred and ten degrees or hotter, the kind of heat that makes your head split. The shower of a distant rain cloud evaporates high in the air before a drop of it ever reaches the desert.
We’re issued a fresh set of fatigues and afterward there are no immediate duties, so we find a patch of shade and watch as a few guys set out in a ragged band to investigate, joking and pushing as they disappear into the distance looking for craters.
At night the sky is pure astronomy.
We do nothing for days but wait, trying to lose time by sleeping or hunting lizards on the cracked desert floor. We are living on the bed of an ancient lake, someone writes home, there are fossils to prove it. We take a drive to a ghost town near Death Valley, standing at the crossroads dueling with our hands cocked like pistols. Occasionally someone plays a scratchy recording of Johnny Mathis or Elvis over the P.A. We drink to keep our blood from getting thick, water by day, beer by night. We watch the girl do a jerky dance on Kohler’s biceps. The wind blows continually in the wrong direction, a strange wind that unsettles us, swirling the dust in restless eddies. We eat our meals with sand between our teeth. When the wind finally shifts, orders come through that the shot will take place at 06:30. We rise at 04:00.
The test shots are named for scientists or mountains, except for the one we’ve come for, Priscilla, suspended seven hundred feet above the ground in a helium balloon. A bulletin is sent out to civilians warning of damage to the retina caused by looking at the fireball as far as sixty miles away, but miners will still scrabble up to the top of Angel’s Peak like it’s the Fourth of July.
We ride the thirty miles out to Frenchman Flat in the back of military trucks, pinned with radiation badges, now colored a safe blue. Two thousand yards from ground zero the trucks come to a halt and we stumble down, half-asleep. We get down into the foxholes until we’re eyelevel with the desert floor. A thousand of us are almost nothing on that endless flat, like ants from above, like something only a little unusual, not a species but a small event that doesn’t think of itself as history. We are mostly quiet now, listening to the coyotes and the scratch of the desert until the bitch boxes start screaming orders through the thinning dark. Later some of us will be sent to Vietnam, and when we are sweating in our tents, crawling with spiders, our skin infected with fungus, we will remember this, the simplicity of it.
While we wait a caravan of trucks rumbles by with the frightened jostle of live animals. A thousand yards ahead we see them push out nine hundred pigs, herding them into foxholes and pens. Some of the pigs wear brand-new field jackets with liners to be tested for durability. A handful of rabbits for the scientists’ continued efforts to record the effect of flash blindness.
There are fifteen minutes before countdown. Fifteen minutes for us to think about Vegas, of the time we shook Ike’s hand, of drummers in the big bands like Krupa who could finesse a set of drums, make them talk without hammering at them, of the soft piano music in the clubs in California. Fifteen minutes for another Chesterfield, to absentmindedly notch little holes in the trench wall with our fingers. A thousand thoughts, a small crosssection of a moment in America. Our helmets askew, not yet strapped on. The pants of the new fatigues still starchy. The sun rises in glory as if it had yet to invent the desert. Two minutes for the newspapermen to settle into their seats at Control Point, men in suits with tickets in their hatbands who would narrate this to no one.
A thousand men with their arms across their eyes like girls at the movies, listening to the lone, amplified voice count backwards from ten. This is June of 1957, before the countdown becomes synonymous with rocket launches that will send astronauts beyond the earth’s atmospheric vacuum.
And then a noise we’ve never heard before. Something like maximum volume. Even with our eyes closed we see a flash of hot white light from a bomb four times as big as Nagasaki, so bright there are no shadows. We count to ten and look and what we see is the blood coursing through our own veins and the skeletons of the men in front of us. The X ray of a thousand GIs, their bones like a slide show in the desert. The yucca trees stand out in relief, the mountains are aluminum.
The bitch boxes scream for us to stand up and we rise, stunned, moving without thinking except for the boys who are on the bottom crying and praying. We rise up and as we do we’re slammed with a shock wave of hot air like it’s going to rip our heads off. It knocks us back, and the ground pitches. We are too panicked to wonder about the logic of our orders. We obey because it’s the only way to make it through alive.
The air is dark as a comic book doomsday. How can I explain that we took this personally?
Another wall, a moving flash flood of dirt and debris, pelting us with sticks and stones and other things we can’t think about just now, some of us half-buried. There is a moment of strange calm, like a deep pause of respect before the singing of the anthem. Then we can no longer breathe. There is no air left as the pressure reverses and comes sailing back toward ground zero, calmer, sadder now as the detonation begins to collapse in on itself, a vacuum that threatens to suck everything in. We are fighting for air, every man for himself as the debris settles, and then we see it, the thing we have come for: a huge fireball going up on the back of the mushroom cloud like the devil mounting heaven. The most beautiful thing we have ever seen, boiling in its own blood, rising to forty thousand feet and spreading until it obscures the sun, spreading above our heads and raining down the remains of the desert. We cannot think. There is no room left in our minds for anything but this.
Fourteen miles away, at Control Point, it blows the doors off the hinges. The Geiger counters have to be calmed like scared horses. Nearby, highway travelers pull off the road and stand by their station wagons dazed and blinking, scouting the sky for aliens. The blast is felt at Mercury and Indian Springs, heard as a rumble as far as California and Reno. In Utah a wave of heat blows through children’s hair, flattening their T-shirts against their chests as they run and twirl under a flurry of ash.
When the silence finally settles we stand and march forward for the assault on ground zero. A thousand men, our film badges blushed scarlet, like girls who’ve just been kissed.