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What an A-Bomb-anation!
What an A-bomb-anation!
(A Downwinder's reaction to a tour of the new Nuclear Testing Museum in Las Vegas.)
So, have you visited the new Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, yet? This 8,000 square foot monument to those glorious days of “bombs in abundance” opened with a bang just weeks ago. I traveled with a friend to see it yesterday. It was my birthday and, well, I was feeling celebratory. After all, the nuclear tests and I were both 53 years old. It seemed appropriate. And gosh, I haven't had that much fun since, well, last year-when my doctor perforated my esophagus while zealously dilating it with larger apparatus than I could swallow. Come to think of it, the two experiences were so similar: both involved people who should know better trying to force down my throat shit I could not swallow!
The Atomic Testing museum is a must see for anyone of my era who occasionally suffers nostalgia for the good `ol days of drinking raw milk from local dairies (heavily laced with Iodine 131) and those school days filled with doctors in white coats squeezing your neck to feel for the associated enlarged thyroid nodules. My friend, Claudia, will get a “charge” out of the array of Geiger counters they have on display. Maybe she'll recognize the one they used to scan up and down her six year-old body as the thing beeped wildly as though she were a uranium-enriched yard ornament. (The doctors told her it beeped like that because she must have fillings in her teeth…she didn't.) But, I digress…
As you enter the museum, you are greeted by a life-size poster person: Miss Atomic City. She looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe and wears nothing but stiletto heels and a mushroom cloud. (I am not making this up!) The mushroom cloud looms up from her loins and extends up her torso where it billows beautifully across her bust line and neck. I thought this was particularly symbolic and I used my cane to point out to onlookers the fact the mushroom cloud managed to cover those areas of the female body most threatened by the toxic radioactive fallout: the uterus, ovaries, stomach, lungs, esophagus, breasts, thyroid, etc. (The museum curator was ill-amused at my impromptu demonstration.)
As we entered the cavernous hallways of the exhibits, we first received a short lesson in splitting atoms and fission and fusion all animated in Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoon style to illustrate the birth of bombs. Our tour guide, Al, was an 82-year-old employee of the nuclear test site and his co-worker at the museum exclaimed how lucky we were to have Al as our guide because he knew everything there was to know about nuclear testing. That was partially true. He had never met a Downwinder, though, and Al was about to learn more…from ME. Al was proud to escort us into the “Ground Zero” bunker. Visitors step down into a concrete bunker turned into a theater to experience a virtual reality movie of atomic bombs being detonated. “Hey, Al,” I said, “this bunker isn't much on ADA.” I spoke from my wheelchair. “I can't get down those cement steps.” He parked me at the top of the theater, so I missed out on the rocking seats that simulate the thunderous response to the force of the bomb. I didn't, however, miss out on the bright flash of light that signaled the detonation and the wind-like shock wave that blasted through my hair. I began to weep. I thought it was just me having a post-traumatic meltdown, but my companion was visibly shaken as well. The film served as a montage of the “best of Atomic Bombs Live”---not to be confused with anything as amusing as “best of Saturday Night Live,” but featuring characters, nonetheless, that Will Ferrell or Chevy Chase would be proud to satirize. There was the guy telling us how the bomb tests were safe and scared Russia from a super-power into just another wannabe. Of course, there was the token inclusion of footage of protestors being escorted from the test site followed by a close-up of a test site engineer proclaiming his disenchantment with those pesky American dissidents. “These protestors never seemed to understand,” the engineer says, “that these nuclear bomb tests were what gave them the very freedom they enjoyed to protest!” As I wiped away my tears and dabbed my nose, I realized that was Al, my tour guide, on the screen. “These bombs were necessary,” Al continued. “If I had it to do over---I'd do it again.”
The screen went dark and the lights in the theater/bunker came up. Clearly, the film was designed to make my breast swell with American patriotism and pride over the outcome of nuclear testing. Trouble was, I had no breast. I am a Downwinder-a victim of this dark side of America's history. I, like so many women growing up just over the hill from the bombs, have suffered breast cancer and mastectomy. I looked over at Al. “Al,” I said, “with all due respect, I take exception with your lines in the movie. Those bombs did NOT give me freedom…they took it away. I do not even enjoy the freedom to rise from this wheelchair and shove my cane through that screen in protest.” Al cast his eyes to the floor. No response. “I guess you don't get to St.George often to meet any Downwinders.” “No,” Al said. “I'd be afraid to go there. I'd be afraid they'd stone me.”
No, Al, they wouldn't hurt you. Not just for your work at the test site. It's the line about freedom that might hit them the wrong way. It's hard to celebrate freedom from a casket.
Our next stop was to view a reproduction of a 50's bomb shelter, complete with a family of vintage mannequins dressed in their “Leave it to Beaver” Sunday best. I turned to the guests in my group. “We had a bomb shelter in our basement. I just wore pedal-pushers in ours---we had a more relaxed dress code for our drills.”
The museum walls were lined on either side with films that captured those “duck-n-cover” days which dovetailed so prettily with the bomb shelter vignette. There was black and white footage of elementary children responding to practice drills of Russian attacks: hurriedly crouching beneath their school desks in defense of Khrushchev's bombs. I recalled those days with a bit of adrenaline rush. I looked up at Al…”too bad we weren't told to get under our desks or into our bomb shelters when you guys blew up our world. Silly us, we thought only Khrushchev's bombs could hurt us.” Al ushered us on to the next kiosk. This one was showing footage of some Japanese fishermen in a boat. “What is this?” I asked. The museum curator had joined us at this point in our tour and took this moment to respond. "Well, this shows the down side of the testing. You see, before the nuclear testing was moved to Nevada, we tested the bombs in the Pacific---and, well, on one occasion we mistakenly doused some innocent Japanese fishermen with fallout from one of the bombs. They got very sick-vomiting, you know, with radiation poisoning."
“Yea,” I murmured, “that happened to a lot of people in my home town, too. How come you didn't include a kiosk right here about them?” “We're working on that,” the curator remarked and hurriedly turned to the young twenty-something female in our group. “How do you like the museum so far?” he queried. “It's very interesting,” she responded. “I knew from my history classes about Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but this is the first I've been aware that America conducted nuclear tests of such magnitude right here.”
The curator beamed. “So, this has been very educational?”
“Yes,” the pretty young woman nodded. “But it's been much more interesting having toured it with Michelle. Watching and listening to her responses reveals so much of the human devastation these bombs wreaked.” The curator stepped back. “You know,” she went on, “my grandparents survived the Holocaust and I've toured that museum. It includes so many of their stories. Why haven't you done that here?”
(“Thank you,” I said under my breath, “you dear, sweet, young, innocent, objective tourist for pointing out the obvious”…for saying what would never have worked if I had said it.)
The curator excused himself quickly from our group and Al moved us toward the “happily ever after” conclusion of our Bombs'R'Us excursion. There, as we came to the final exhibits, stood a sizeable remnant of the Berlin Wall: a lasting reminder (I guess) of the “freedom thru fission” aspect of the nuclear testing era. And speaking of atoms splitting, that described perfectly the throbbing in my head about now. God, I was glad this wheelchair whirl down memory lane was complete! But, (in the words of late-night infomercials) WAIT---THERE'S MORE!
As we turned to exit the museum and reenter the lobby, there stood an enormous structure of some sort. “So, what does THAT represent?” I asked Al. “That,” says Al, “is a piece of the Twin Towers from 9-11.” The inclusion of this huge piece of twisted metal in this exhibit seemed equally twisted in the logic of its placement there. But, then, my synapse snapped back to embrace the subliminal message of this visual aid. It served as a trailer to the Bush administration's plan for a SEQUEL to the movies I'd just watched. The tower remnant reached out to me as if to say, “To be continued”……..
* the previous page marks the end of my formal recap of the tour….read on and enjoy what there was to delight me in the "souvenir shop."
As we entered the lobby of the museum, I spotted the adjacent curio shop. “Do you want to see what they offer as souvenir of the exhibit?” my companion asked. “Sure,” I thought, “why not visit the 'bombs or bust' gift shop?” There were shelves of T-shirts-each shirt pictured a different atomic bomb and the date/kilotons of the respective detonation, i.e. Shot Annie, May 1953, Shot Harry, etc. The attendant came over to assist. “Are you looking for a particular bomb?” he asked. “Oh,” I said, “there are so many to choose from; I don't know whether to get the one that claimed my right ovary, or wear a picture of the one more likely to have taken my breast and legs.” (The shirts sported glow-in-the-dark emblems that represented the symbols denoting designated bomb shelters: you know, the yellow and black triangles?) The salesperson brought me his personal favorite bestseller. “We have these “shot” glasses you might like. They come with the recipe for the Atomic Cocktail.” (A popular 50's drink served in Las Vegas lounges during the testing years.)
“No, thank you,” I said. “I went through a year of atomic cocktails. I didn't drink them, though, I swilled `em down intravenously at the local cancer infusion clinic. They were pretty stiff: knocked my hair right out. The attendant seemed confused. I picked up a set of playing cards. What trip to Las Vegas would be complete without a deck of souvenir cards? And these, well, these were so distinct. Fifty-two cards capturing 52 atomic blasts. “Geez,” I said, “I sure wish I'd been a member of your marketing team on this item. I'd have included a deck of 52 fallout-related disease and cancers pictured. Oh, and the jokers could be the congressmen who want to see the resumption of nuclear testing!”
“Is there anything you want me to get you,” my companion asked, “any souvenir at all?”
“No, I'm fine,” I murmured, “My breast prosthetic, surgery scars, and cane are all the souvenirs I need.”
But really, folks, you need to include a visit to this Atomic Testing museum next time you travel to Vegas. It's just a few blocks east of the strip, and it's so appropriately located on Flamingo. After all, with the one-sided historical integrity of this museum, it has but one leg to stand on.