Joni Tevis | The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse | Milkweed Editions | May 2015 | 28 minutes (7,494 words)
Below is Joni Tevis’s essay “Damn Cold in February: Buddy Holly, View-Master, and the A-Bomb,” from her book The World Is On Fire, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. This essay originally appeared in The Diagram.
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OK. So then when you get sent out to the test site, first of all I’m curious what your impressions of that were, because you are now in the middle of a desert compared to a—
It’s damn cold.
Yes, the desert’s cold in the winter.
In February, it’s damn cold.
First impression: cold.
And it’s dry, except when it rains.
—Robert Martin Campbell, Jr., atomic veteran (Navy), describing his initial impression of the Nevada Test Site, 1952.
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Click through the images, one at a time. VIEW-MASTER ATOMIC TESTS IN 3D: “You Are There!” reads the package. The set’s reels show the preparations for the 1955 Apple-2 shot, its detonation, and the Nevada Test Site today. Three reels, seven images each.
Of the hundreds of atomic devices exploded at the Nevada Test Site from 1951 until 1992, the ones that stand out are the ones featuring Doom Town, a row of houses, businesses, and utility poles. It makes sense: the flash, the wall of dust, and the burning yuccas are impressive on their own, but without something familiar in the frame, the explosion can seem abstract. Doom Town—also called Survival City, or Terror Town—makes the bomb anything but theoretical. These are the images I can’t forget.
Click. Here’s Doom Town’s iconic two-story house, a classic Colonial with shuttered windows balancing a front door. Neat and tidy, with white-painted siding and a sturdy red-brick chimney: if this were your house, you’d probably feel pretty good about yourself. But something’s wrong. The vehicle parked in the drive isn’t a Dodge or a Packard but an Army jeep; on the chimney’s edge, a bloom of spray paint shows the siding was painted in a hurry. This is a house nobody will ever live in. Its only inhabitants are mannequins with eyes like apple seeds.
All part of the plan, and the planning took far longer than the event itself. A crew unloaded telephone poles, jockeyed them upright, and drilled them into the alluvium. Down in Vegas, men bargained for cars and stood in line for sets of keys. Imagine the hitch and roar of a ’46 Ford, ’51 Hudson, ’48 Buick, ’47 Olds as they pull onto the highway, headed for the proving grounds. Click. Here’s one of the cars now, a pale blue ’49 Cadillac with “46” painted on its trunk in numbers two feet tall, marked like an entrant in a demolition derby.
You could say the whole country pitches in. Fenders pressed from Bethlehem steel, lumber skidded out of south Georgia piney woods, glass insulators molded in West Virginia, slacks loomed in Carolina mills. And mannequins made in Long Island, crated and stacked and loaded onto railcars.
Click. In an upstairs bedroom, a soldier tucks a mannequin woman into a narrow bed, the mattress’s navy ticking visible beneath the white sheet. Outside the open window, the white blare of the desert at noon. Downstairs, another soldier arranges a family, seating adults around a table and positioning children on the floor, checking the dog tags around each of their necks.
What’s a plan but a story, set not in the past but the future? Someone in the Civil Defense Administration already decided how many mannequins this house will have, what they’ll wear, whether they’ll sit or stand. But surely this soldier can allow himself the freedom to choose, let’s say, which game the children on the floor will play. For Brother and Sister, how about jacks? A good indoor game. And Big Sister, let’s set her off from the rest, next to her portable record player, its cord lying on the floor like a limp snake. Father leans toward the television, one hand on his knee and the other on the pipe resting in the hole drilled in his lip. The blank television reflects his face; he could be watching the news.
Dinner party in Doom Town. Photo via US Dept. of Defense and The Atlantic
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The tremendous monetary and other outlays involved (in testing far away) have at times been publicly justified by stressing radiological hazards. I submit that this pattern has already become too firmly fixed in the public mind and its continuation can contribute to an unhealthy, dangerous, and unjustified fear of atomic detonations. It is high time to lay the ghost of an all-pervading lethal radioactive cloud (to rest). While there may be short-term public relations difficulties caused by testing atomic bombs within the continental limits, these are more than offset by the fundamental gain from increased realism in the attitude of the public.
—Rear Admiral William S. “Deak” Parsons, 1948.
In 1945, Manhattan Project physicists exploded the first atomic device, Trinity, in the desert outside Alamogordo; a little more than two weeks later, the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima, and three days after that, Bockscar dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki. Scientists predicted that the United States monopoly on atomic weapons would hold for at least twenty years, but in 1949, the Soviets proved them wrong, exploding a bomb named First Lightning. In response, Harry Truman authorized the building of Mike, the first hydrogen bomb, tested in the South Pacific. The logistics of testing so far away made the process costly, so a public relations campaign was conducted in order to convince Americans that testing closer to home—at the Nevada Test Site, an hour or so north of Las Vegas—was desirable and safe. By and large, the public got on board with this campaign, and although much of the evidence generated by the tests was kept classified for decades, the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission made it a priority to publicize some of the information. Broadcasts of the tests were shown on television, newspaper reporters and photographers documented them, and even civilians were encouraged to witness the explosions.
In the summer of 1957, an article in the New York Times explained how to plan one’s summer vacation around the “non-ancient but none the less honorable pastime of atom-bomb watching.” Reporter Gladwin Hill wrote that “for the first time, the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada test program will extend through the summer tourist season, into November. It will be the most extensive test series ever held, with upward of fifteen detonations. And for the first time, the A.E.C. has released a partial schedule, so that tourists interested in seeing a nuclear explosion can adjust itineraries accordingly.”
Hill’s article suggests routes, vantage points, and film speeds, so that the atomic tourist can capture the spectacle. But is there anything to fear from watching an atomic explosion? Rest assured, he says, that “there is virtually no danger from radioactive fall-out.” A car crash is the bigger threat, possibly caused by the bomb’s blinding flash, or from “the excitement of the moment, (when) people get careless in their driving.”
In the article’s last paragraph, Hill writes, “A perennial question from people who do not like pre-dawn expeditions is whether the explosions can be seen from Las Vegas, sixty-five miles away. The answer is that sometimes enough of a flash is visible to permit a person to say he has ‘seen an atomic bomb.’ But it is not the same as viewing one from relatively close range, which generally is a breath-taking experience.”
That summer, after winning the title of Miss Atomic Bomb, a local woman poses for photos with a cauliflower-shaped cloud basted to the front of her bathing suit. She towers over the salt flats on endless legs, power lines brushing her ankles. With her arms held high above her head, the very shape of her body echoes the mushroom cloud, and her smile looks even wider thanks to the dark lipstick outlining her mouth, a ragged circle like a blast radius. Not only do Americans want to see the bomb, we want to become it, shaping our bodies to fit its form.
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A studious-looking young man who totes his electric guitar like a sawn-off shot-gun.
—Review of Buddy Holly performance, Birmingham, England, March 11, 1958.
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There’s a lot going on during that atomic summer. Buddy Holly, for instance. His career’s taken off by 1957, thanks to hits like “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” and “Everyday,” songs that combine country inflections with rock’s insistent rhythm. He looks ordinary, like someone you went to high school with; in fact, you were born knowing him, the bird-chested guy, sexless and safe. But look more closely. At the story of how he gets into a “scuffle” with his buddy Joe B., the bass player, before a show, and Joe B. accidentally knocks off Buddy’s two front caps. He solves the problem by smearing a wad of chewing gum across the empty space, and they all play the gig. Or the story of how he met Maria Elena in a music publishing office and that same day, asked her to marry him, and she said yes. Or look at this, a clip from a TV show he played in December of ’57.
“Now if you haven’t heard of these young men,” the hostess says, “then you must be the wrong age, because they’re rock and roll specialists.” The camera’s trained on him, and he doesn’t waste time: If you knew Peggy Sue, then you’d know why I feel blue, giving it everything he’s got, and as he moves into the second verse, the camera on Stage Right goes live, and he pivots smoothly, keeping up. I’m staring back from better than fifty years out, watching as he follows the camera with a studied intensity magnified by the frenetic speed of his strumming. His fingers are a blur, but he doesn’t make mistakes, and as I watch the clip, I’m startled by the distinctly handsy look in his eye. This is not what I expected.
The whole song’s a revelation, from the rapid-fire drumming, to the stuttering Pretty pretty pretty pretty Peggy Sue, to the way his falsetto warps the words of the last verse. With a love so rare and true—you know he doesn’t mean a word of it. He’s just telling you what you want to hear, and that tamped-down sex—how had I missed it?—burns in his eyes. And there’s something about the way he stares at the camera that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Elvis, the Big Bopper, Johnny Cash all play to the audiences they have at the time, mugging for the camera and making the kids squeal. Jerry Allison, the drummer for the Crickets, said later that playing on TV made him nervous: “that was something different,” he said, “an audience that wasn’t there.” But watching Buddy, you’d never know it. He’s playing to the fans of the future—to the camera, to now.
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First floor, living room. First floor, dining room. Children at play, unaware of approaching disaster.
—Declassified U.S. Nuclear Test Film #33 (Apple-2/”Cue”), 1955.
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Ever since I watched La Bamba as a kid, I’ve known about the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson. It happened before my time; it was a foregone conclusion, verifiably historical. Knowing that, it was impossible for me to see Buddy Holly as anything other than a dead man walking, doomed to die young, tragic. But of course there’s more to him than that.
He was a writer, for one thing. The year before that TV appearance, he’d gone to the movies with his friends and seen a John Wayne picture. That’ll be the day, Wayne kept saying. Well, that was a nice line, and he wrote it down. Maybe he could put it to use.
Not long ago, I watched The Searchers myself, trying to figure out what had compelled Buddy Holly about that line. The movie follows Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, over the course of five years spent tracking a band of Comanche across the desert southwest. He’s trying to find Debbie, kidnapped as a child during a raid on her family’s ranch. Along the way, other riders join Ethan, but you wouldn’t call them his partners. He’s the one calling the shots, and he’s vengeful, cruel, and all the more dangerous because he has enough cultural knowhow to really hurt his enemy. This image stays with me: when the group finds a Comanche warrior buried under a stone, Ethan opens the grave and shoots out the corpse’s eyes. “Now he’ll have to wander forever between the Spirit Lands,” he says, leaving the twice-blinded body behind.
For me, the movie’s most compelling moments are the ones leading up to the raid on the ranch. In a low-ceilinged adobe room, Debbie’s mother scolds her older daughter for lighting a lamp and revealing their presence. “Let’s just enjoy the dusk,” she shrills, trying to hide how frightened she is. Outside the half-timbered window, the desert glows white-orange, sunlight pouring in like fear made visible. Her voice cracking, she orders Debbie to run away to the family’s burial plot and hide there: “Don’t come back,” she says, “no matter what you hear.”
That light, brilliant and threatening, stays with me. No matter what Mother tries to pretend, this is no ordinary sunset. We don’t see the war party attacking the ranch; it’s enough to see the helpless family anticipating disaster, and the aftermath, in which nobody’s left standing. When Ethan and the rest of the men return to the ranch, they find it a smoking ruin, the death inside so grisly they can only allude to it. “Don’t let him look in there,” Ethan commands one of the men; “it won’t do him any good to see it.” The people killed had been Ethan’s brother and his family, but he doesn’t show signs of sorrow or surprise when he finds them. You can’t catch him off-guard. He’s an icon, not a real man, and he says “that’ll be the day” four times.
* * *
—Poster, Mr. Civil Defense, 1956.
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Seems like nothing goes according to plan. The date for Apple-2 had been set well in advance, but after weather conditions force several delays, some of the would-be watchers pack up and head home, surely some of them regretting this chance to see the bomb up close. Finally, conditions are right, and the countdown begins. Just past five a.m., full dark over the desert, photographers braced on boulders overlooking Frenchman Flat, soldiers hunched in trenches. The speakers crackle, and the announcement goes out for observers to put on their dark goggles; those without goggles must face away from the blast. A transmitter broadcasts canned music that pours from the radios in the houses of Doom Town. It plays in the dark rooms as of a house asleep, but only one resident is in her bed. In the dim living room still smelling of sawdust and damp cement, Sister reclines on the floor beside her record player, and Father leans toward the dark television, pipe clamped in his mouth.
Not far away, a reporter embedded with a group of soldiers takes notes from inside a fifty-ton Patton tank. “Sugar (shot) minus fifteen minutes,‘” he writes. “Then it was ‘sugar minus 10’ and ‘sugar minus five.’ Someone tossed me a helmet and I huddled on the floor.”
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We just hoped somebody would buy our records so we could go on the road and play.
—Niki Sullivan, rhythm guitarist for The Crickets.
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Sometimes it must seem he’s never known anything but life on this bus, its engine groaning up the grade of every back road in the Upper Midwest, his clothes wrinkled and ripe in the bags overhead, his hands tucked under his armpits for warmth. When the bus breaks down again, and the heater conks out, they burn newspapers in the gritty aisle between the seats to try and stay warm. Carl, the drummer, gets frostbite and has to go to the hospital. He’s a fill-in; Joe B. and Jerry are back in Lubbock. But Buddy needs the money. On cloudy days after snow falls, you can’t tell where the fields end and the sky begins, and the fences down the section lines must be a comfort to him. Iowa’s a long way from Texas, but at least the barbed wire tells you what’s solid and what’s not.
They all play the show in Clear Lake and gear up for Moorhead, nearly four hundred miles away, a full night’s ride in that freezing bus, and maybe another breakdown on the side of the road. Why not charter a plane? He’ll get to the next gig in plenty of time, have a hot shower, do everyone’s laundry. The Beechcraft seats three, plus the pilot. He’s in for sure, then J.P., sick with a cold, and then Ritchie and the guitar player flip for the last seat, and Ritchie wins. See you when we see you.
* * *
And I’m not married yet and I haven’t got sense enough to realize the magnitude. You see it visually but it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. Just gorgeous, the colors that are emitted out of this ball of mass, and the higher it goes into the air, it becomes an ice cap on top of it because it’s getting so high, and it’s just a beautiful ice cap.
—Robert Martin Campbell, Jr., atomic veteran (Navy), describing shot George, the thermonuclear detonation he witnessed in the Marshall Islands.
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The plane’s thin door clicks shut. Past midnight, and he’s beat. The pilot turns the knobs and checks the instruments, and the engine roars its deafening burr. When he looks out the windshield, there’s nothing to see but snow, swirling in the lit cone thrown by the hangar lights. Slowly at first, then faster, the plane rolls down the runway and lifts off. Up, and bouncing in the air pockets, the roar of the engines, no way to talk and be heard but he’s too tired to talk anyway. Three miles out, then four, then five.
When do they realize something’s wrong? Does the pilot panic, trying to read the dials and not understanding what they say? The windshield’s a scrum of snow, white-swirled black, no way to tell up from down and headed for the ground at 170 miles an hour, the plane shaking hard, going fast, and this gyroscope measures direction in exactly the opposite way of the instruments he’d known before. What does it feel like? You can’t trust your senses when you’re this beat, this far from home, and all you know for sure is that your bones hurt from hunching into the cold. One day you’re playing the opening of a car dealership outside town, the next you’re leaving the movies with your friends, the next you’re on Arthur Murray’s Dance Party, standing in front of a girl in a strapless ball gown the color of winter wheat. She’ll stand there the whole time, swaying gently, looking over your shoulder at America and wearing a little smile that says, there is nothing better than this, to be here in this place, young, feeling this song in your body, warm inside the theater while outside the wind blows, louder and louder, sneaking its way in through any crack it can find and shrieking now in your ear, higher and colder and harder and harder until finally it stops.
* * *
Amen! There’s no more time for prayin’! Amen!
—The Searchers, 1956.
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The second hand on the watch’s round face ticks toward vertical: three, two, one. A great flash, then peals of thunder, and a wall of sand radiates out from GZ. When the heat hits the house, its paint smokes but doesn’t have time to catch fire. The shockwave rolls over it, the roof lifts off, and the whole thing collapses. Two and one-third seconds since detonation.
There’s a lot of atomic film out there; you can watch the bomb explode as many times as you can stand. But although the different cameras and jump cuts can make the clips hard to follow, the View-Master parcels out a single image at a time. Push the reel home with a click, and put the eyepieces to your face. All of the images on this second reel are colored yellow, everything lit not by the sun, but the bomb. A bomb with a twenty-nine kiloton yield, about twice as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima. “Observers are silhouetted by the Atomic Flash,” reads this caption. I stare at the dark shapes of the people, the bleachers, and the telephone poles behind them, everything outlined in a gleaming yellow that could almost be mistaken for a very bright sunrise, but the color’s all wrong. Like many other shots, Apple-2 was detonated before dawn specifically so that the photographs taken of it would be better. And I have to admit, this is an image I can’t forget.
Next slide. Here’s our house, the one with Father and Daughter in the living room. As “the heat burns the surface of a two story house,” smoke issues from the roof and from the car in the driveway, a ’48 Plymouth. The house’s front windows, blank and white, reflect the fireball. Click. By the next image, when “the shockwave slams into the two story house,” the window glass is gone, the roof canting back as the siding dissolves in granular smoke. Support beams fly up as the trunk shears from the Plymouth, and already the light has changed to a pallid yellow, the black sky less absolute, greasy with smoke and sand, carpet, copper wire.
Click. On this house, a one-story rambler, the roof goes first. Smoke rises from the gravel drive, the portico, the power lines. “The house is blown to pieces from the shockwave,” says the caption; I click back to the previous slide and can’t find anything I recognize. Click. When “an aluminum shed is crushed by the shockwave,” the roof and sides crumple inward in a swirl of dust. Click. The last slide shows a stand of fir trees, brought in from the Siskiyou Forest in Oregon, maybe, or the Willamette. Soldiers implanted them in a strip of concrete, a fake forest built of real trees. There’s a rim of low mountains in the background; in the middle distance, this strange forest, bending in an unnatural wind; and in the foreground, no seedlings or fallen logs, just the flat expanse of desert, covered over by what might be choppy water, or snow. And if any stowaways were hiding in the trees, bagworms in the needles or termite colonies under the bark, they’re vaporized like everything else, flat gone.
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Live a bucolic life in the country, far from a potential target of atomic blasts. For destruction is everywhere. Houses destroyed, mannequins, representing humans, torn apart, and lacerated by flying glass.
—Las Vegas Review-Journal, May 6, 1955.
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It could be any cornfield, any stretch of snow. What’s left isn’t recognizable as a plane, and the dark shapes on the ground don’t look like bodies, although they must be. The coroner’s broad back is dark against the snow as he leans over to take their measure. The thin snow crusting the ground makes everything look even colder. There’s a shape a few yards distant that looks like someone trying to crawl away. You know it’s a lie. They didn’t have a prayer.
Time to clean up. Down in Las Vegas, employees at car dealerships sweep up window glass that had been shattered by the blast, sixty miles away. Someone dumps the pieces in a barrel and starts charging for them: atomic souvenirs. They sell out by day’s end. In Doom Town, cars lie flipped onto their tops or burned where they stand. Telephone poles are snapped in half, their lines a snarled mass.
I watch a clip from Civil Defense Film #33. A camera pans down a line of mannequins staked to poles in the open desert. Their clothes wave in the breeze. “Do you remember this young lady?” the narrator asks. “This tattoo mark was left beneath the dark pattern.” As she speaks, the hand of an unseen worker lifts the skirt a modest few inches, smoothing the slip to show how the heat seared a design onto the fabric below. “And this young man? This is how the blast charred and faded the outer layer of his new dark suit.” The same worker’s hand, a wedding band gleaming on one broad finger, pushes the cloth back to reveal the lapel shadow on the mannequin’s chest. Then he smoothes the lapel back in place. For a brief moment, he presses his ungloved palm to the mannequin’s shoulder, as if to say, there you go. You did your best. Such a slight gesture, here and gone—he probably didn’t give it any thought. But it moves me, his moment of pity for even this mute copy of a living man.
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He never said hardly a word but “thank you.”
—Daniel Dougherty, of Buddy Holly’s banter during the Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, February 2, 1959.
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Corn or soybeans, the field gets replanted every year. A beaten path runs along the fence, and at the site, there’s a memorial, metal records and a cutout guitar with BUDDY HOLLY RITCHIE VALENS BIG BOPPER 2-3-59 etched on the aluminum. People leave things: flowers, quarters, a red model Corvette, guitar picks, several pairs of glasses, ticket stubs from the State Fair, a CD with WE LOVE YOU and RIP written on it, a WAYLON tour button, a small American flag like you’d leave at a grave. In winter, snow covers the offerings, and the metal records look like pie pans left out to scare the crows.
He died young and far from home, and snow drifted around his body all that long dark night. Damn cold in February, but at least it was over quick. At least you can say what caused it and nobody will argue with you. The reporter who wrote about the “honorable pastime of atom-bomb watching” wrote another article that scoffed at the threat of fallout, writing that “some of the scare talk is simply a matter of individuals’ basking in the limelight of public attention for the first time.” The woman who crouched in the trenches 3500 yards from GZ—” the closest any Caucasian women have ever been to an atomic blast”—told of “the normal feminine excitement” in the air, but insisted that “I didn’t feel that my life was in any danger.” The leukemia clusters in downwind towns would emerge over the next five to nine years, but the government would fight the link between testing and disease for far longer. “Hysterical,” the reporter called the letter writer who claimed cause and effect.
I can’t stop thinking about the bare-handed worker showing the mannequin to the camera. About the newspaperman in the tank they nicknamed Baby, and about the soldier driving the tank, twenty years old, from Bellefontaine, Ohio, town where I was born. About the workers serving lunch at the Test Site the day after the shot. “I particularly remember some roast beef,” says the narrator in Test Film #33. “It was done to perfection and roasted in cans which could have been salvaged from demolished buildings.” The camera lingers over a woman spooning stew into her mouth, the cafeteria tray before her holding an opened can, an apple, and a carton of milk. What she took inside her that day, carried home to bed that night.
* * *
Today, there is no second-best for family’s civil defense. The urgent need to prepare now against the threat of atomic warfare. Or will you, like a mannequin, just sit and wait?
—Declassified U.S. Nuclear Test Film #33 (Apple-2/”Cue”), 1955.
* * *
When you see the explosion, even from a distance, you might be stunned into repeating inanities, pretty pretty pretty pretty. (You see it visually but it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful, just gorgeous.) The song gets caught in your head and you run over it again and again without realizing it; it enters your life like a new reality. One quart of water per day. Food in bare rations. In the film about fallout shelters, the narrator advises you calmly to make your way to the shelter, unpack, and “take your bearings.” Someone chose actors; someone directed them. But you don’t think about that when you watch it. Instead, you unconsciously select one to identify with, the woman with the child in her arms, taking neat steps downstairs and finding a place in the damp room, setting up the smaller cot beside her own and spreading a plaid blanket smooth.
* * *
There’s no other product that gives me as much fear and respect for the power of mass culture as the Hula Hoop. It has a life of its own.
—Dan Roddick, director of marketing, Wham-O. 1988.
* * *
The Hula-Hoop demands a lot of space. It has no place in a fallout shelter, the domain of compact games to pass the time until the radioactive isotopes decay enough for the family to return to normal life. (Two weeks, says the narrator in the film.) Checkers, dominoes, pick-up sticks would all make better choices, or marbles or cards, or View-Master, “The World at Your Fingertip.” The hard-shell box is packed with reels in paper envelopes: The Grand Canyon; Beautiful Rock City Gardens; Petrified Forest; The Islands of Hawaii; Disneyland. Daughter savors the quiet satisfaction of pulling the Yosemite reel from the Yosemite envelope. Summer vacation without the headaches, Father might say, the box of reels shelved between the powdered milk and the canned beef. Just about better than fresh.
And View-Master’s images are sharper than life, more saturated with color, Spider Rock’s crisp shadow a deep black on the desert valley, the polished spume of Old Faithful standing tall above a crowd of tourists leaning in to get a better look. She presses the viewer to her face and clicks through the shots, and when she gets up from the floor, Mother looks at her strangely; the viewer has left a mark. Time to go outside, she says. Get some fresh air.
Click, click, goes the hoop against the button of her jumper. Click, swish, go the button and the breeze. She can keep it going. The plane crash in Iowa behind her, the fallout shelter before her, but here she is, now, feet planted firmly on the ground, eyes on the horizon. Swish click, swish click, and when it worries downward she kicks it back to the right place with a little jab of her hip. The drumbeat of “Peggy Sue” goes faster than her heart ever has, tacka tacka tacka tacka, like gumballs dumped on a corrugated roof. The singer had been twenty-two, exactly twice her age. Impossibly old.
The Hula-Hoop fad begins in ’58 and peaks by ’59. I want my Hula-Hooping girl to be the same girl who pressed the View-Master to her face, the same girl who listened to records in the living room, but that’s impossible. The girl with the View-Master waits in a dark room underground; the girl with the record player lies buried inside the ruined house. But as long as the machine in the mannequin factory pours plaster into a mold, as long as a conveyor belt sends the shape through the oven to cure, as long as a worker’s there to stretch a sleeve over the torso and pull it upright and snap it to a pair of legs, I can have my girl, standing in a silent room full of dozens of her kind. You’d never mistake her for the real thing. Leave her in the house; make her your substitute. Send her through hell and see how she holds up.
* * *
Someday this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.
—The Searchers, 1956.
* * *
One night in Vegas, I stood under the neon in Fremont Street and watched as a crowd of strangers linked arms, swayed, and sang along with the chorus This’ll be the day that I die, smiling like it was a lullaby. Then I read about the phenomenon of nostalgia for the a-bomb as a symbol of a “simpler time.” For me, these iconic images of the late 1950s—Buddy Holly’s grinning face, the exploding Cape Cod house, and the mushroom cloud—all signify the same thing, death. And they all demand that we grapple with them.
Despite all the documentation of Apple-2 and tests like it, there is something fundamentally unknowable about an atomic explosion. Physicists can explain how it happens and why. Historians can place it into the larger context of time and place. Eyewitnesses can tell the story of how it felt to watch it rise from the desert, unfold into the sky, and veer off toward the mountains. But for me, the atom bomb represents the breakdown of certainty. Here is a weapon that enacts hell in three ways: fire brighter than the sun, wind stronger than a cyclone, and fine particles that imbue the air with death. Only myth can explain it. This is the salamander that lives in the fire and eats of the fire. This is the basilisk that binds you, once you look. And this is the hammer that fractures time: the house is gone in the space of a moment, but the radioactivity of the fallout, what the house becomes, will be deadly for millennia, longer than our languages will last.
Let’s be honest. To really imagine what happened, you have to put yourself in her place. So make me the girl with the View-Master. Me with the Hula-Hoop, staring at the horizon, watching for something terrible. Me on the living room floor, listening to the song with its bridge like baby-doll music. And on the television, light fills the screen, and thunder pours from the speakers. (Should the girls be watching this? Mother says. To which Father replies, You can’t shelter them forever.) Man, woman, and child, millions of them, exposed to these tests, whether or not they drove out into the desert to watch. According to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “the National Cancer Institute estimates that around 160 million people —virtually everyone living in the U.S. at that time (mid-1950s)—received some iodine dose from fallout.” All water exposed to the upper air since 1945 contains radioactive signatures. The a-bomb is in us all, its isotopes in all our blood: the tests, all 1021 of them, live on through us.
* * *
Well, I’m either going to go to the top—or else I’m going to fall. But I think you’re going to see me in the bigtime.
—Buddy Holly, to concert promoter Carroll Anderson, before the show at the Surf Ballroom, February 2, 1959.
* * *
How we paw over these old relics, a picture of his overnight bag stuffed with Ban, a half-used roll of adhesive tape, a Stanley hairbrush exactly like mine, all these ordinary things freighted with disaster. Twelve years after the crash, a man wrote a song about it. Thirty years after Apple-2, moviemakers repurposed its footage for The Day After‘s depiction of atomic devastation. To simulate fallout, they used cornflakes, painted white. The man who flipped Ritchie Valens for a seat on the plane bought a bar and named it Johnny’s Heads Up Saloon. In the gift shop at the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, you can buy a “Buddy Holly Spinning Snowflake Ornament.”
“This is the way we get our word out,” said the atomic veteran. “This is the way we get the word out. It’s the only way.” At the Atomic Testing History Museum in Las Vegas, you can turn a thumb reel and watch a school bus burning, smoking, tipping, and being swept away, or you can turn the reel the other way, and put it all back together. In the gift shop, you can buy a T-shirt of Miss A-Bomb wearing her rictus of a grin. Or sterling silver earrings, one of Fat Man and the other of Little Boy; when I was there, I saw a young Asian woman buy a pair.
* * *
Well, that’s my life to the present date, and even though it may seem awful and full of calamities, I’d sure be in a bad shape without it.
In other words,
—from “My Autobiography,” written by Buddy Holly for his sophomore English class, 1953.
* * *
The year The Searchers was released, John Wayne filmed another movie, The Conqueror, in St. George, Utah, downwind of the Nevada Test Site. Before the filming, shot Harry, later called Dirty Harry, was exploded. The movie’s action, set in Mongolia, required several scenes with blowing sand, and maybe nobody thought much of it when they brushed the dust from their hair and eyes, shook it from their shirtsleeves, wiped it from their feet. They had work to do. Years later, when John Wayne died of cancer, he blamed his smoking habit, and maybe he was right. But ninety other actors and crew from The Conqueror were also diagnosed with cancer, over forty percent of those who worked on the movie, along with uncounted extras, most of them local people.
In the last scene of The Searchers, Ethan Edwards returns the kidnapped girl, now a woman, to her neighbors, the closest thing to kin she has left. The movie’s theme song rises—Ride away, ride away—and Ethan turns his back on the camera. As he walks slowly out of frame, the white rectangle of sun in the door grows brighter and brighter, until finally the door closes. By the time The Searchers was playing in movie theaters from Lubbock to Clear Lake, John Wayne was in Utah, fighting through swirls of dust to finish that day’s scene. He just wanted to get a good take. Buddy just wanted to wash his clothes and take a shower.
Hardly worth dying over, but then what is? One of Apple-2’s objectives was to determine blast effects on different types of clothing. Today, historians list Apple-2 as one of the dirtiest atomic tests; the fallout it dropped made its way into children in disproportionate numbers, because of the “milk pathway” that carried it from grass into milk into developing teeth and bones. No matter how many times you click through these images, they don’t change.
* * *
When asked what “American Pie” meant, McLean replied, “It means I never have to work again.”
—Alan Howard, The Don McLean Story: 1970-1976.
* * *
Does he go on the road to sell records, or does he sell records to go on the road? Maybe he savors these giddy minutes of getting ready in a strange place, cement-floored dressing rooms with chipped green paint, hand-me-down dressers, and mirrors fastened to the wall with daisy-shaped rivets. He carries with him what he needs: guitar strings, fuses, handkerchiefs, nail file, pencil stub. Safety pins. Nobody ever has one. He could make a fortune if he started a new safety pin factory; the world desperately needs more. And outside, the scurf of people talking, waiting for the show. Waiting for him.
Waiting for him, Maria Elena, back in their little apartment, lighting the pilot on the stove and talking to her mother in a warm haze of gas fumes and soup. Blue feathers of flame under the pot, telephone on the wall, push button to light the kitchen: all of these cost money. The honeymoon in Acapulco. The property in Bobalet Heights; he’s signed his real name on the deed, Charles “Buddy” Holley, with an “e.” The stage manager says it’s time, high time. He finds his mark, waits for the curtain, and when the stagehand hauls it up he can’t hear the creaking of the rope for the screams, and he’s playing the first chords of “Peggy Sue” without even realizing it, diving deep into a pool. Feels the crowd stomping through the soles of his feet, shaking with the bass like he’s hooked to it, and between songs he has to take off his glasses and wipe the sweat from his eyes. Hey, he says, we sure are glad to be here. The crowd’s a blur but he can see the mike, its woven mesh familiar as his own fingerprint. Whew! That’s better. Slides the glasses on. Looks back. “Oh Boy,” do you think? When you’re with me, the world can see. That you were meant for me.
* * *
It’s a-getting closer
Than a roller coaster.
* * *
Paiute and Shoshone lived, once, on the land that became the Nevada Test Site. But by now, clicking through this third reel, “The Test Site Today,” it’s hard to believe anyone ever lived under this acid sun at noon. Here’s one of the few Doom Town houses still standing, its siding burned brown, windows empty. Here’s a bank vault, slung the length of two football fields. Here’s a shot tower, never used, abandoned after the moratorium in ’92. Tumbleweeds rest on the broken tarmac against the guard house. It all looks so ordinary, the orange plastic webbing seen in countless construction zones, the ground bristling with rusty rebar. If you stare at these things, even from this remove, you carry something of them with you. Brilliant blue sky; the dust the photographer breathed, close now as the tongue in your mouth. Turn the knob of your own front door and observe how it smokes in the heat’s first blast. Stand at the kitchen sink and watch the window bow inward and break, the eyelet curtain tumbling out and tearing free. Wake suddenly from your last dream to the fireball’s flash and realize the shockwave’s coming, will be here in a single second’s tick.
Click. The guitar case snaps shut. Click. He opens a stiff new pair of glasses. Click. Dog tags rattle in the soldier’s hand. Click. A photographer documents the crash scene. Click. The arm of the record player drops a 45 on the turntable. Click. A soldier stacks cans in the pantry, bottom to rim. What’s still there, in that dark, silent room? A stray jug of water; an empty coffee cup. In a crack in the floor, a safety pin.
* * *
All I got here is a bunch of dead man’s clothes to wear.
* * *
That’ll be the day. When Ethan Edwards says it, it’s cynical; he’s seen it all, and none of it’s good. But in Buddy’s voice, the words change. Baby, I got your heart, he’s saying; you ain’t gonna leave me. It’d kill me if you did, you know that. He’s brave, but vulnerable too, and maybe that’s his gift, turning bitterness into hope, an alchemy possible only because he’s so young, clean-cut, the favorite son. Will you say goodbye; will I cease to be? Not a chance.
Close your eyes. They’re in the studio in Clovis, in rooms close in summer and drafty in winter, formerly a grocery store, smelling of paint and mice. He sits in a corner, threading a fresh string onto the guitar and tightening it, adjusting, tightening again. Meanwhile, Jerry’s working on the drum part. Petty says, “That cha cha isn’t going to work,” and he’s right. He charges not by the hour, but by the song, and they like that; gives you time to get it right. They try different things until they hit on the idea of paradiddles, tacka tacka tacka tacka, a rhythm that rolls like breakers, and when they try a take they have to wait because a passing truck makes the windows rattle. Outside, it’s a hundred dark miles back to Lubbock, and nobody’s in the mood to quit. Grab dinner, come back, and work some more, and later they’ll stretch out on the narrow beds in back and sleep.
Maybe sometime during the night, one of those big old thunderstorms rolls up out of the west, and maybe they stand outside the studio and watch it come. Forks of cloud-to-ground lightning silhouette long reefs of cloud, flashing on eighteen-wheelers barreling toward Vegas with a ways yet to go. Arc, crack, boom. Moist wind presses the boys against the wall, the smoke from their cigarettes swirling around their heads and shunting up into the downdraft. Time stops cold in moments like this, everything sharper in the strange light, the ambient electricity strong enough to raise the hair on your arms. Rain on gravel, hot smoke in your throat. When they say we better go in, you say give me a minute. Lean against the still-warm cinderblock and feel the storm coming. If it’s got your number, ain’t nothing you can do. It’s late by now, the night almost gone, but you’re swinging with caffeine and nicotine and a head full of notions. Inside, your friends are waiting, and there’s a seat with your name on it. Soon you’ll walk through that door, an explosion now from close by and closer still, not yet, not yet, now. Does it really happen like that? You bet your life it does.
After the dinner party. Photo via US Dept. of Defense and The Atlantic
* * *
From the book The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse, by Joni Tevis.
from Longreads Blog » Longreads Blog http://blog.longreads.com/2015/09/29/atomic-summer-an-essay-by-joni-tevis/