Filmmaker Melinda Hess at Trinity Site Obelisk
Last weekend, a triad of historic, scientific and spiritually significant events occurred within three days. The religious holidays of Passover and Easter flanked the solemn occasion of the one day public opening in April of Trinity site, the “ground zero” for the testing of the Atomic Bomb. The test occurred on July 16, 1945 and turned the world upside down. The Trinity site is open for only two days a year, the first Saturday in April and the first Saturday in October. Some years, as in the case last weekend, the Saturday opening becomes part of a holy triangle.
Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt has always been one of my favorite holidays. It celebrates the human spirit’s quest for liberation and justice. For me it is usually a restorative celebration, full of joy and the promise of renewal that springtime brings. And besides, the food is always delicious. This year, the holiday felt much more somber. The morning after the first night of Passover, we ventured with some friends to Trinity. I’ve resisted going there for the almost 13 years we’ve lived in New Mexico. Why risk potential radiation exposure, why visit this site of death? Answer to myself – for several reasons, mainly connected to the making of our documentary, we decided to make the pilgrimage this year, and quite the journey it was.
We rose very early Saturday morning in Alamogordo and drove to the Tularosa High School parking lot, where we waited for the police and military escort to take the large caravan of vehicles through the southern entry gate into White Sands Missile Range. The ride through the southern route was beautiful, wildflowers and cactus dotted the landscape, and the San Andres mountain range was the backdrop for the long, almost two hour drive. The landscape was vast and seemed to extend forever. Passing smaller side roads and other testing grounds, the police escort kept us moving forward to our destination-Trinity Site. Finally, we arrived to a sea of cars, school buses and motorcycles in a makeshift parking lot. On one side there was a line of portable bathrooms. On the other side, some food vendors and an official WSMR information booth and bookstore.
As I got out of the car I took in the sights and sounds, trying to get my bearing. I immediately felt quiet, solemn, out of place. Passing by the vendors, we found our way to the wide dusty entry way between the chain link fences posted with yellow: Caution- Radioactive Materials signs – sober reminders of where we were. As we walked in a silence that seemed appropriate, I noticed the wide variety of people making the pilgrimage. Young, old, families, veterans, groups of school kids, Anglo, Hispanic, Native American. Some were dressed up in fancy clothes; most were dressed in weekend casual wear- shorts, sleeveless shirts, work-out clothes. So many had phones or cameras using them to record their adventure with, many were preoccupied with looking for remaining fragments of Trinitite – the radioactive green glassy substance the melted desert sand turned into, after the blast. Despite signs to not pick up any Trinitite, many folks, especially children were looking all the same.
As we approached the memorial Ground Zero obelisk build on the exact spot the Atomic Bomb was dropped from a 100 foot steel tower, I noticed that it stood alone, solitary in a vast field. On all sides of the memorial people were gathered taking pictures. Or rather, waiting turns to be photographed in front, or on a side of the obelisk. I stood and watched as one after another struck a pose for the camera. The eeriness of the place, the solemnity of the occasion, seemed to escape so many present that day. Patricia suggested we take a photo of me for the record. I felt awkward, it seemed so irreverent. So I took a deep breath, held my hands in prayer pose and made some prayers.
I kept wondering why all those people were there. I wanted to stop each person and ask them why they wanted to see Trinity. What were they hoping to see, to do, and to have happen? Were they smiling for a camera and making silent prayers in their hearts? Were they proud, or ashamed, angry or sad? Instead I watched. As I walked past the monument to view the remnant of the footing from the 100 foot steel tower which vaporized from the heat of the blast, I couldn’t release a repetitive thought in my mind, “and they decided after seeing a steel tower vaporize from the power of the bomb that it was still fit as a weapon of war against human beings and property”.
Feeling sad and quite strange, I walked around the fenced in perimeter with hanging historic photos and radiation warning signs, meandering slowly out of the site. As I walked out, a young family behind me was having a discussion. The father was explaining what I’ve heard so many defenders of the bomb say, “We weren’t trying to kill everyone, we just wanted to shock them into surrendering, and it worked”. Then the young daughter said, “It doesn’t make sense, it just seems like there should have been another way. Its just not right what happened”. Amen.