TaraShea Nesbit

July 16, 1945

Joan Hinton rides on the back of a friend's motorcycle at sundown, passing army guards in Jeep patrols, heading towards the test site.  A young grad student, she's one of many surrounding Fermi, and she wants to watch the first nuclear bomb explosion.  Along with several other young physicists, she arrives at a low hill about twenty-five miles away and waits. The night passes.

At almost daybreak, she feels something. Like being at the bottom of the ocean she says. Bathed in light from all directions. And then the light withdrawing into the bomb, as if the bomb sucked it up. The explosion turning purple and going up and up. The cloud reaching the natural clouds.

And then, the sound. The rumbling whirl and all the mountains rumbling with it. Like howling wolves she says and she says she feels exposed to the whole world.

***

The Bhagavad Gita begins before the start of a war between two feuding sets of cousins. They are fighting over land. One prince, Arjuna, stands on the open battlefield with his chariot. He is filled with doubt. He knows his enemies, those standing on the other side of the field, are also his beloved cousins, friends, and teachers. He stands across from them and tells his charioteer, the wise Krishna, that he wishes to abandon the battle.

***

It is 5:30 AM in the desert between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, New Mexico, on the White Sands Missile Range. Los Alamos scientists sit outside in theater seating wearing goggles like 3-D glasses, as if they are about to watch a movie, a fiction, rather than something physical they have constructed.  They pass around welding glasses in the dark morning.  Soon, their creation will mimic daylight.  Cyril Smith, a metallurgist, is the last to touch the plutonium that goes into the test bomb.  Those portentous bits of warm metal, he calls them.

Oppenheimer paces.  He’s down to near 100 pounds and chain smoking.  Fermi worries the explosion might catch the atmosphere on fire.  Groves tells him to shut up and takes out his frustration on the meteorologist who has just suggested that today, with its storm clouds, might not be optimal.

The plutonium fuel of this test bomb is the size of an orange and was made at the Hanford Plant in eastern Washington.  51,000 workers labored for 27 months and only a handful of them, the scientists here today, Oppenheimer and Fermi, as well as General Groves, knew what they were building. 

Groves compartmentalized each worker; if you dumped the buckets of radioactive waste into the outdoor holding pool you only knew liquid needed to be dumped; if you monitored the heat created by the nuclear reactor you only knew there were gauges of heat that needed to be monitored.  You carried a pencil dosimeter in your shirt pocket that you turned in every day and you were sent home if your body was too “hot,” too radioactive.

After two delays due to lightning and rain, the director, Bainbridge, finally gives the signal.  He’s worried not about the atmosphere catching on fire, but about what happens if the bomb does not go off. He’ll be the one that has to drive out to it and see what is wrong.  The scientists are twenty miles away from the explosion.  A test plane is thirty miles away, but the pilots would like to be closer.

A fiery eyeball shifts and rises five miles high and grows arms, like a giant jellyfish rising from the desert, eclipsing mountains. They feel the heat of radiation on their faces.   The center of the jellyfish is four times as hot as the interior of the sun, a pressure of 100 billion atmospheres, a sight that can be seen even 250 miles away.  The rapidly changing explosion glows blue and orange off their glasses, which reflect a cloud shape no one has ever seen before: like a mushroom, except they instead say it looks like cauliflower.

Fermi rips up a sheet of paper and watches it fall. He estimates the bomb’s force by how far the wind moves the scraps.  His crude calculations will prove to be just as accurate as more sophisticated methods of measurement.  Radioactive ash like snow falls on the arms of men prospecting for uranium hundreds of miles away.

***

Oppenheimer thinks of his colleague’s daughter, Jean Tatlock, his mistress, a psychiatrist who committed suicide six months prior. She said in her last note: I wanted to live, but I got paralyzed somehow. It is she who shared John Donne with him: I am betrothed to your enemy.  Yet dearly I love you.  I shall never be free.  Reason proves weak or untrue.  He names the bomb Trinity. 

He recites the song of God, the Bhagavad-Gita: If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. And, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.  The soil around the blast site resembles the blow-torched top of crème brûlée.

Fermi races out to the site of the explosion in a fast-moving Army tank to collect soil samples.  He will die of cancer in nine years, at the age of 53.  Groves will retire from the Army in 1948 saying he’ll never have another government job with as much authority.  Bony Oppenheimer, who rides through the desert on horseback drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes, will not die of cancer for twenty-five years, at the age of 64.  Test director Kenneth Bainbridge tells Oppenheimer, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Bainbridge, who is the same age as Oppie, will, after this explosion, join the Federation of Atomic Scientists in opposing nuclear weapons and will live to be 91.

***

Some wives from Los Alamos, who are not allowed to go down to White Sands, watch the landscape near the Jemez Mountains from their kitchen windows. They see the bright light. Like the sun rising twice, they think, but later they will be told that it was actually just an ammunitions storage facility blowing up.

***

Oppenheimer keeps a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita on his nightstand and often gives the book as a gift to others. Krishna is more than a charioteer, he is a god. Krishna advises Arjuna that his role is predetermined. His duty as a soldier is to continue the battle. He is advised to be unattached to the deaths of those he loves.

***

When newly married, Fermi weighed his wedding gifts in water to determine if they were really made of gold or silver. His wife thought this was crazy, but she loves to tell the story. Another year, Fermi insisted on calculating the cost versus heat loss of buying or not buying storm windows for his home. Based on his calculations, he chose not to buy the storm windows. But his calculations were wrong; his wife was cold and furious all winter.

***

wives feel a new distance from their husbands           again here and again gone then he stands there and the lungs in his hands and the flower and the eye the eye what she wanted to say was the thing she said and the yellow flowers and the sun and the mesa and the meat in his mouth was chewing and he’d be gone in two more chews, she knew, he was gone in fifteen chews, it had been thirteen, in two more chews he’d be wiping the grease from his mouth with the cloth napkin she’d embroidered he’d be standing up he was far too skinny his belt is what sticks out most on his body she can’t hear a radio next door but can hear the deep stuck of  a family car, the wheels spinning in the mud, where was one of them going by car and why? Goodbye he says and a pat of lips on her hair she smells nothing not even his aftershave not even the grease not even the pot roast she’d been pounding and deliberating about in santa fe he’d be gone in three more steps now, how far it took to the door and she’d be alone again with the army-issued oven for the night and tomorrow it was another gathering with fruit punch and lab alcohol and her mouth soured at the at the thought except for what she’d overhear, someone saying a word and then the saying, I never said that. A list of never said things—does this defy her husband?

***

Someone writes their mother and says, I’m in the West, the weather is fine, it is a beautiful landscape. A mother writes back and asks, Where are you? And someone writes their mother and says I’m in the West, the weather is fine, it is a beautiful landscape. Her own daughter grew from a pin prick to a lentil bean her own daughter kicked at her ribs her own daughter never kept quiet her own daughter All the women here are having children she hears a general say at a party everyone should quit it, she thinks what will follow is him saying, for the war effort, but now she hears the other wives and the names they will name their children one says the name of one of the words that is never said, Uranium, her own last name is Fisher, her husband is there again, the wood chair against the wood floor at dinner time and the knives on the plate and the fork in her mouth which clinks against her teeth Never say that again never say that again She doesn’t know her teeth clink against the fork women are told by their mothers they’ll need a broom and a dust pan All the moments in time inhabiting the same space Her husband holds words he will not say in her mouth of his mouth, in the wavering space where sounds are tried out he holds his hands together at the table, forward, he leans in he will tell her later, uranium fission, he will apologize, he will drive them as far away from the test site as he can get he will not sleep    good morning good morning she will whisper

***

The little black trees.  The glowing eye.  Soil turning to glass.  Once this was the bottom of the ocean.  Now we have made the sun.  The men cheer.  The ground does not shake as much as they expected.