Secret Information

Lieutenant General Willard G. Wyman arrives at Camp Desert Rock, 1955. Photo by Paul Zimmer.

The other day, for no particular reason I can think of, I mentioned to my middle-aged daughter in conversation that I had been cleared for “secret” when I was in the army. Surprised, she commented, “I never knew you had any secrets.” But it is true, sixty plus years ago I was authorized by the government for “Secret Information.” 

Why had this happened? What secrets had I been told? If I reveal them now will I be arrested, slapped around for over a hundred days, stripped naked, and held in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day, then brought to trial like PFC Chelsea Bradley Manning and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison? I am eighty years old. It would be a hell of a thing.

Six decades ago I was a vacuous young man who had flunked out of a state university in one year and was unemployed until I finally landed a job in a steel mill; but the steel mill went on strike after I had worked but three months, and before work resumed I was drafted into the army. In 1954 I was nineteen years old and, as you might easily imagine, a full-time mess.

I have written about my feckless youth before, so why am I now attempting to resurrect this one outlying story? Because as I lurch toward my end I feel obligated to relate something about that ominous place I had been taken to under the Nevada desert, and the abyss I peered into.

_____

My son, who is also middle-aged now, a venerable teacher in his north Georgia community, sometimes overindulges my wife and me with gifts. One year he asked me what I wanted for my birthday.

For years in our Wisconsin community I had noticed older men wearing baseball caps that read “Vietnam Veteran” or “Korean Veteran,” and a few even older men with hats that read “World War II Veteran.” Was I envious? I must have been. On an impulse, I told my son I wanted a baseball cap that reads “Atomic Veteran.”

A package came to our house a week later, and it contained a black baseball cap showing a red bomb detonating in a blaze of yellow, with what must be red shock waves bursting out in five directions. At the bottom, stitched in prominent yellow letters, it says, “Atomic Veteran.” I wear it often in warm weather; sweat stains have begun to show on the crease above the bill. People have looked at it with curiosity, but no one has ever asked me what it means.

_____

In 1954, after two cycles of brutalizing infantry training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, I was a lethal animal, and might well have killed for my country if ordered to do so. Toward the end of my advanced infantry training I was called out one day from heavy mortar practice by my company commander and ordered to report to the base personnel office. Puzzled, filthy from training, I was dropped off at the headquarters building.

There I was informed by an irritable, disbelieving corporal clerk that at the end of my advanced infantry training in a few weeks I was to report to the Army Information School at Fort Slocum, New York. He read my orders to me, looking at me as if I had been tongued by the Holy Ghost. I was to attend this prestigious school, and in preparation for this, was to be cleared for “Secret Information.”

Why these important, officious-sounding assignments for this uncertain teenage soldier? I have never figured it out. I knew the corporal must have been thinking, “This undeserving mutt is being given this boon, while I have to go on sitting in this dreary office in Fort Knox. Who does this little dropout shit know to get himself assigned to a beautiful island in Long Island Sound just off New Rochelle, New York, a short train ride from Manhattan [the corporal had checked all this out]—and to be cleared for ‘Secret Information’?”

In truth, I had no qualifications that I was aware of for this assignment, and was not “connected” politically or socially to anyone or anything. I was just an apple-cheeked goof from Ohio, the son of two loving, patiently enduring shopkeepers. 

I was mystified, too, but admit also that the possibilities seemed pretty cool to me. Why had this happened? I was not going to ask any questions.

_____

On the last day of advanced infantry training, while we were still in muster, our commanding officer took time to read aloud each of our individual orders. Most of the men were being assigned to infantry units or as support foot troops to armored units; some volunteers were going on to requested airborne training, others to clerical jobs. Zimmer was, as always, last in the company alphabetical order.

“Zimmer . . .” the captain paused and seemingly read my orders to himself again before he said them aloud: “Zimmer is assigned to the Army Information School at Fort Slocum, New York, and will be cleared for . . . Secret Information.” Rarely had I been the center of anyone’s attention in my brief life, but now all eyes came to me.

_____

Secret Information. How would they “clear” me for it? Would they spy on our modest family house on McGregor Avenue in Canton, Ohio? Would they look at my school grades? (Great God!) Would they check to see if I had a police record? (I did not.) What documents would they look at? My birth certificate, my baptismal record stored in the dusty attic of St. John the Baptist’s Grade School? My First Communion certificate?

There actually was a bit of a family scandal—twice one of my uncles in Indiana had to be escorted home in a police car because he had become intoxicated in a bar. Would they come across this and somehow count it against me? I worried a bit about this. I was a very unripe young man.

_____

Cleared for Secret Information. Holy shit! Was I ready for this? Did I deserve it? What was it? What would I have to do?

As we cleaned our M-1 rifles that evening, my bunkmate buddy, with whom I had knocked around quite a bit, asked, “What is this Secret Information shit, man?”

For the first time in my life I was beginning to feel some importance. “I don’t know,” I responded, “but they’re going to clear me for it. Before you know it, I’ll be secret. But I promise never to tell what I know about you. We are buddies to the end.”

To this day I cannot explain my assignment. Perhaps it was someone’s mistake, someone’s little prank? A mix-up on an assignment intended for another, more connected Paul Zimmer? A Paul Zimmer who went grinding on in the army, mystified and frustrated, to clean officer latrines for the rest of his tour of duty, while I went on to the secrets. 

_____

I was flown to New York City from Louisville—my first airplane ride: window seat, soaring over the Statue of Liberty, the great skyscrapers, bridges, parks. Somehow, when I came into Manhattan from the airport, I managed to locate Penn Station and find a train that made a stop in New Rochelle. When I arrived in that town I found I had to take a ferry for the half-mile ride out on the Sound to Fort Slocum.

As the boat approached—my God, I was so young, it was so long ago, it is hard to evoke my elation—the sylvan island (one brief history refers to it as “mystical”) loomed up out of the water as I stood looking out from the front end of the ferry. I could see handsome brick buildings and the tops of huge trees all over the island.

Fort Slocum had been used in various ways by the military since post–Civil War years: first as a coastal artillery defense post, then as an assembly point for units being assigned to overseas operations in World War I, a military recruiting station for eastern states, an army air force base, a chaplain’s school, and finally the army’s information school.

The old buildings were decorated with carvings. There were trimmed hedges along the tree-lined streets, and a carefully mown marching field became the students’ field for softball and touch football in the evenings after classes. The place was a campus more handsome than many colleges.

In fact, Fort Slocum was too beautiful for the army, which deactivated it in 1965, and removed all military personnel. For forty years they neglected it completely, letting it deteriorate into scrabbled, overgrown green ruins. Finally the island was turned over to the City of New Rochelle and federal funds were appropriated to remove the ruined structures. In 2008 the city demolished everything—all remaining structures on the island, included the iconic water tower on the northern end of the island, to which I had often walked in my rambles.

But the grand old fort dazzled me in 1954. After the brutality and challenges of infantry training at Fort Knox, I could not believe my reprieve. I arrived at Slocum a month and a half early for the school term, so the maintenance cadre put me to work cleaning barracks.

I would have cleaned barracks the rest of my life to stay in that place. Born in the Midwest, I had never been on an island. In the twilight after evening chow I walked the seawalls by myself and watched waves rolling and slapping on the small beaches. I savored the soft days and sunlight on the water, the twilights and breezy evenings, and I was fascinated by the storms off the sea. At night I sometimes stepped out from the brick barracks to listen to the subtle, arresting strength of the waves in the dark Sound.

I bought a small, white Philco radio from the post exchange, listened to jazz and discovered classics on the New York stations. I drank beer (illegally, I am sure) in the very pleasant, chatty, Manhattan-style bar that had been created for enlisted men. I walked the island some more, listened to the ocean, watched the venerable trees moving in the breezes.

_____

When other students finally began to arrive I discovered they were all graduates of schools like Cornell, Harvard, Michigan, Yale, Dartmouth, Notre Dame, Princeton, Stanford, and Vanderbilt. Most of them were draftees in their mid-twenties. I will remind you: I had flunked out of Kent State big-time in my freshman year. I was nineteen years old. Why was I there?

In company with these far more sophisticated young men, I usually had the good sense just to sit back and listen. I hung out, somehow having the wit to recognize this as the beginning of my education. I had no idea what I was doing at Fort Slocum—nor did anyone else. I was an elated, happy accident. The other students, some of whom had volunteered for the draft just to get this assignment, recognized this: I was a curiosity, but mostly they did not push me around, and I found that if I stood these guys to a beer or two in the evenings they would tell me some interesting stuff and lead me to good places. I sat in on their conversations and bull sessions in the dormitory. I wrote down the titles of books they discussed and some of the words they said, looking up those words later in my pocket dictionary. I bought books when I went to the city and started my own life collection. 

I was way, way out of my league, but despite the occasional condescension or impatience of my mates, I stuck like a burr to the situation and, with a little tutoring from kindly friends, squeaked through the writing, journalism, current events, military history, photography, speech, and broadcasting courses. I accepted the whole scene on the island as a sort of magically realistic spin that had befallen me.

_____

In the meantime, I assumed that my clearance for Secret Information was proceeding. Had I already been cleared? When would I actually start receiving secrets? What form would they take? Hey, buddy, psst. . . .

I kept my eyes and ears open, but as far as I could tell, no one had yet told me anything clandestine. Had my clearance transferred me into some sort of alternate state where everything was secret?

_____

When I graduated from the Information School and—with great reluctance—had to depart the island, I was assigned to the Public Information Office at Fort Lewis, Washington. Innocent, hopelessly young, I worked with others to hack out “the news from Lewis” for several months until—once again—I was told to report to base headquarters for new orders.

A clerk there told me I was to report in two weeks to Camp Desert Rock, the army base adjacent to the Atomic Energy Commission’s bomb testing range in Nevada. This personnel clerk, who was also a corporal, did not begrudge me this assignment. Instead he gave me a small leaflet about the duty. With other troops I was to witness atomic explosions from trenches located two to three miles from ground zero. 

When I had recovered from the very thought of this, I asked the clerk to check my records; had I passed the clearance for Secret Information? It appeared so—as “Secret Information” was mentioned in my orders. When had this transformation happened? Was I now lighter than air?

Surely there would be many secrets at Desert Rock. Would I be made privy to some of them? Would they be so furtive I would not recognize their covertness even as I received them?

_____

Camp Desert Rock was the antithesis of Fort Slocum, a chill, gray place with nothing to cheer the troops or elevate our spirits. On nights when we were not out on maneuvers witnessing atomic explosions, we swilled beer in a Quonset hut post exchange or stared numbly at movies in a chilly tin building. All around us the desert was shredded and pallid. 

Deserts can be exquisite places—but that jagged, crusty gray mash of sand and dust stretched everywhere as if it had been poured out of gravel-and-cement trucks. There was only one road in and out of the camp past a checkpoint and military police gate. Desert Rock was a godless place, or at least no god I could have possibly conceived of would have permitted such a severe, wicked place to exist.

The government claimed with this operation to be researching how young troops would react to the explosion of ultimate military weapons at close range. It is hard to imagine what they expected of us. Were we to be brave? I suppose. We were, of course, uniformly scared shitless.

The army, trying to make us feel important, issued pamphlets when we arrived at the camp, telling us we should be “proud” of what we were doing. We “were privileged to perform,” they said, “experimental duties that would greatly aid our country in its defense.”

_____

I have no idea why I was assigned my own jeep by the Desert Rock motor pool. I suppose because I had been cleared for Secret. There was a regular jeep available to the Public Information Office for everyone else to run errands—but I was given my own. The situation was awkward. At least I had sense enough not to strut, but I was beginning to think—as young people sometimes do—that I was pretty hot stuff. What the hell was it all about? I have never been able to determine this. But clearance for Secret Information makes you overconfident. I guess Private Chelsea Bradley Manning found this out.

I was issued my own camera as well. Word would come that a general was visiting the base, and I’ d take my jeep to the airstrip and snap a picture of him jumping out of his helicopter, posed like a plunging fullback. The general would look at me, wondering who the hell this kid was. (I am a kid cleared for Secret, sir!) I still have one of those photographs—a three-star general about to land on the ground after leaping from the helicopter, looking at me with what I took to be surprise and suspicion. 

Secret Information. For the first month or so, no one else in the Public Information Office or in the whole camp at Desert Rock had such clearance. A captain, two majors, two lieutenants, two master sergeants, and a bunch of corporals in my own office were not cleared. I had not yet been promoted to private first class, so I was still a Private E-2—but I had been cleared for Secret Information! I tried to look cagey and important, not an easy thing for someone who shaved only twice a week.

_____

There were eight atomic “shots” in the series, some devices dropped from airplanes and some detonated from towers, but there was an aerial burst and an underground blast as well. These tests occurred generally at dawn, so we traveled by convoy in buses in the middle of the night to assemble at the sites, shuffling around in the cold, chain-smoking until we were ordered into the trenches.

Countdowns were broadcast over loudspeakers and the detonations occurred as we cowered in the bottom of earthen slits with hands over our eyes. We wore our steel helmets, but were not issued earplugs, eye covers, or any protective clothing. After the shock wave had mauled over the trench top, we crawled out to observe the mushroom cloud glowing purple and massing over our heads. 

Sometimes during the shock wave the trench sides caved in and buried us alive, so we had to claw our way out from our own graves. Some poor doggies in jeeps were assigned to drive forward with Geiger counters and radio transmitters. When clearance was radioed back, we were ordered to walk forward into the blast area to bear witness.

The largest bomb I witnessed was on 7 March 1955. It was called “Turk,” yielding forty-three kilotons, almost three times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. It was, as one officer predicted, “going to be a ‘big baby!’ ” It was dropped from a five-hundred-foot tower, and our trenches were approximately two and a half miles from ground zero. The blast “yield” was bigger than expected, so the brass did not order us to proceed forward that day. 

The unfortunate guys who had gone forward in jeeps with Geiger counters rattled back, and we were all ordered to retreat to the buses where we swept each other off with kitchen brooms, and hustled into our seats. 

The next morning some of us were bussed back into the area in our fatigues and ordered to walk forward to bear witness. There was still a heavy smell of ozone in the air. Vegetation was shredded, scorched, torn out by the roots; small animals and birds were scattered dead, or crippled and blind, lurching about, some still trying to find a place to hide. We walked past crumpled vehicles and artillery pieces that had been placed in the open. Mannequins staked out in khakis were torn apart and melted grotesquely. Caged Cheshire pigs that had been dressed in specially fitting army uniforms were dead or mangled, the latter still shrieking their last. Herds of blasted sheep and cows were mangled together dead or moaning. Staged houses and barns were splintered and scattered. There was more, much more, but I do not intend this brief memoir to be a litany of what has become too familiar. 

I want to speak instead of secrets and darkness—perhaps what W. B. Yeats meant when he referred to “fabulous, formless darkness,” or what Donald Rumsfeld meant when he tried to philosophize about “known unknowns”—or perhaps more accurately, “unknown unknowns.” 

_____

The eight tests were spread over a four-month period. Now in my late years, when I conjure that brief, surreal period of my youth, I try in vain to make some sense of it. But many of my attitudes and feelings about life were grounded in what I saw and did not see at that time. 

Newspaper reporters and television broadcasters referred to us as “atomic guinea pigs.” The army kept telling us lies about how we should be “proud” that we were “aiding our country in its defense.” As a very young man, I believed some of this. But as I grew older I recognized that these tests were some of the very first rehearsals for the end of the world. I have a photograph of some of us jammed into a slit trench practicing for those “big babies.” Officers are standing over us with their clipboards and leather gloves, trying to look cool and authoritative for the camera. What did those guys know? 

Text taken from back of original photograph: Observers crouching in their protective trenches at the Atomic Energy Commission’s test site at Yucca Flat, Nevada. The observers are here to witness the first of a series of nuclear tests being conducted by the AEO. Photographer: M/Sgt. Theodore Shane, Signal Corps Pictorial Center, for PIO & Special Services.

Text taken from back of original photograph: Observers crouching in their protective trenches at the Atomic Energy Commission’s test site at Yucca Flat, Nevada. The observers are here to witness the first of a series of nuclear tests being conducted by the AEO. Photographer: M/Sgt. Theodore Shane, Signal Corps Pictorial Center, for PIO & Special Services.

Probably they knew more than we did—but those officers were not informed either. They gave us orders, but were as clueless as we were. In fact, if anyone should have known anything, it would have been me—right? I was the kid who had been cleared for You-Know-What. But I knew no confidences. Despite my clearance, I learned no secrets that I was aware of. So if I was privileged to know, then apparently it was not for me to know. Such stupidity under the guise of control! No wonder I suppressed it all my life.

In the breast pocket of my fatigues I had a package of Lucky Strikes, half a Clark bar, and some little scraps of paper upon which I had scribbled a few words that were important to me. Were they poems? Whatever they were, they were my secrets, my way to wend through that darkness—the only way a guinea pig can go. 

_____

My boss major called me into his cubicle one day and shut the door, turning to look at me as if he wanted to run over my unseasoned carcass with an M-4 tank. He told me he had received orders from the commanding general’s office that I was to report to him personally—by myself—at 1100 hours the following day.

I could see that my major had a very bad hangover as he gave me my orders. There was still a whiff of bourbon about him. Obviously he had bellied-up late at the officer’s club the night before. He disliked me intensely, but he did his duty

A brigadier general named Fred W. Sladen was in charge of Desert Rock in 1955, and his quarters were located on the outskirts of the camp in camouflaged house trailers. Enlisted men were not permitted near those trailers. But I had been cleared for YKW.

Needless to say, I was nervous the next day at 1100 hours when I knocked on the general’s trailer door. His aide-de-camp opened. “Are you Zimmer?” he asked incredulously.

“Yes, sir!” I answered brightly. He frowned and waved me into a small office area and told me to sit down. 

“I need to see your ID and Secret clearance,” he said. He pored over these documents carefully at least three times, pushed them back to me, knocked on the general’s office door, and went in. After a muffled, uneven-sounding discussion the aide reappeared with a heavily wrapped, sealed packet of papers prominently marked SECRET. He ordered me to stand at attention. Obviously General Sladen was not going to have any truck with a teen-aged Private E-2, even if he had been cleared for Secret. So the aide handed the package to me. He reached out with both hands, gripped my arms hard, and looked severely in my eyes.

“Zimmer, these are communications that must be delivered to the regional command office in Las Vegas by early afternoon. This package is not to be out of your hands at any time until it is delivered to headquarters. You are not to open it. Do you understand?

We have arranged for you to be flown from the airstrip now, and there will be a military limousine waiting for your arrival in Vegas. You are permitted to speak to no one but the pilot of your airplane and the driver of your vehicle. Am I clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

At last, Secret Information!

_____

A military policeman, waiting for me outside the general’s trailer, snappily escorted me to the airstrip where I climbed aboard a small military prop plane as I clutched the secrets to my chest. A young second lieutenant pilot, a skinny man with red hair, was already in the front seat, warming up the motor. He was openly amused. He indicated I should put on a pair of earphones with a small mike attached to the side.

“Have you flown in one of these before?” he asked on the intercom.

“No, sir.”

“There’s a barf bag by your seat,” the lieutenant said. “Make sure you hit it if you need it. Don’t wait too long. Sometimes guys have trouble hanging onto their cookies when they go up in these babies.”

He taxied out onto the strip, gunned the motor, and then we were rolling, the plane rising in an arc over the desert. The gray mountains, stroked with patches of dirty snow on their tips, looked battered and lifeless as we soared above them. Cactuses and scrubs looked as if they were clutching desperately into the sand. We circled and headed out on a straight line following the road to Las Vegas. I cannot recall how long we were in the air, probably no more than three-quarters of an hour. I clutched the secrets to my chest and held on to my morning chow.

I don’t recall much about our landing and the limousine trip into town, nor the office where I saluted and delivered the package at last to an abrupt, disbelieving bird colonel after passing through a couple of security checkpoints. But I will never forget the return flight to Desert Rock in the small plane. The red-haired lieutenant swung out away from the road to the open desert and dropped down low over the wasteland. I mean really low—skimming just a few feet over the gray grit and desert spikes, the plane’s wings dipping and vibrating. We were down close enough to shear off yucca
plants.

The lieutenant was bored and crazy, I think, testing his skimming chops, and it made no difference to him what I thought or felt about this, nor that I had been cleared for Secret. He knew I would never tattle. He was also obviously enjoying scaring the hell out of me. I kept my mouth shut and my jockey shorts dry, praying that one of our wings didn’t suddenly dip in a downdraft and send us cartwheeling across the sand. 

Did I think then I was going to die? Enter the ultimate darkness? Young people are not generally mindful of this possibility, but I am sure the thought occurred to me, perhaps for the first time in my life. I realized how abrupt and final it could be. Life/boom/death. 

  That loopy, young lieutenant was just a kid like me. He did not realize it—neither of us did—but we were rehearsing for doomsday like everyone else at Desert Rock. Finality was in the atmosphere of that place. We were all practicing for the ultimate on the yucca flats—not just our own meager deaths, but the possibility of final days when everyone gets taken out. That fact was part of the recklessness, the bootless atmosphere of the place.

The lieutenant watched me closely after we had landed at the airstrip and climbed out of the plane. I did not blink, gave him no satisfaction, turned and walked away without thanking him for the ride. I think he was a little worried that I might tell on him. 

Fuck you, Rusty! The only tales I carry are Secret Information.

_____

I was ordered to attend a briefing/meeting of administration civilians from Las Vegas and other Nevada communities, people who had been appointed liaisons to the Atomic Energy Commission office in Mercury, the operation’s administrative center. I would prove to be the only military person present because (yes, it is preposterous, I know) I was cleared for YKW.

Private E-2 Zimmer, I drove my own personal jeep across a stretch of desert to Mercury, passing through the military and AEC checkpoints, after showing my orders and clearance, and moving on down the long road past the severe warning signs.

There was a small group at the meeting in Mercury, perhaps two-dozen people; I was at least twenty years younger than all the other attendees. The purpose of the meeting was to brief us all on the progress of the tests being conducted that year. I contributed by giving a short and nervous presentation on army troop participation. 

The tone of the meeting puzzled me. Everyone was calm and adult. We were talking about open detonations of the world’s deadliest weapons, but it seemed like an amiable town meeting to me, as if we were discussing the placement of stop signs on streets, or school tariffs, or traffic laws. 

The meeting went on and on, and at a few points questions were raised by concerned citizens about the larger tests planned and about the possibility of excessive radiation in the atmosphere. Would there be health risks to civilians? These questions were treated by the AEC representatives as if we were discussing school truancy or tavern hours. Radiation topics were of some concern, yes, yes, they said, but this subject had already been addressed by world-class experts and matters were very much in hand. Trust was needed and assumed. The men conducting the meeting were very practiced in their reassurances, like grand clergymen comforting their whimpering flock on the first day of Lent.

I was a daffy teenager. I thought, okay, Mr. Man, if you say so, I’m sure it’s okay. But the AEC was very practiced at diverting questions about health risks, sweeping them under a blanket of “security,” and making queries about public safety seem almost unpatriotic. The government never warned residents of Nevada—or anyone downwind in Arizona and Utah—that they might be/would be exposed to dangerous levels of fallout from the world’s most lethal weapons.

The greater good? The necessary sacrifice? The unknown unknown?

As a special “treat,” after we had been served coffee and donuts, some of us—yes, yes, those of us who had been cleared for YKW, six civilians and Private E-2 Paul Zimmer, still only nineteen years old—were conducted into a very large elevator/lift and taken far down to the AEC’s underground laboratory/research/assembly area.

_____

These were strange moments. I have tried hard, but I remember little of this brief time underground. There I was, in the proximity of some of the biggest secrets of the Atomic Age, closer than most any other people would ever come.

This is what I remember: When we stepped out of the elevator there was impenetrable darkness in all directions. Light was confined to the particular area where we stood. I remember seeing a desk or two in this lighted area. Filing cabinets? Maybe. There must have been some chairs around, but I cannot be certain. We did not sit down.

I looked in all directions. The light ran out and there seemed to be no corners to this darkness, no walls, the light just collapsing into endless murk. Atoms were certainly way back in that dark, and things that split them; doubtless very smart people were tucked away in there, too, hidden as they worked on insidious engines, gathering particles into tiny explosive masses that could suddenly grow hot, angry, and immense. I took some tentative steps toward this obscurity just to see what more I could see, but was sharply ordered back by our guide.

He had promised us on the elevator that someone from the research staff would address us down below. A young man stepped into the light, perhaps a dozen or fifteen years older than I. He wore a jaunty cap and was pleasant looking, I remember. Our AEC guide seemed surprised and awestruck when this man came into the light to welcome us to the darkness. A few more lights were turned on and the man walked us around a bit in the expanded light, pointing things out about office equipment and teletype machines, as he explained that there was much greater space beyond this obscure area, where much activity, research, and assembly went on, extending far out underneath the desert; many scientists and physicists were doing fabulously important work. He said some other things, too—but strain as I might, I cannot remember what. The wunderkind clearly enjoyed being deeply important. I recall straining hard to look further into the gloom that surrounded us as he talked, but I could see nothing.

Why can’t I recall more of these dark moments? There was no hum of machines, no sounds of activity. Perhaps the coffee and donuts the AEC served us before we descended in the elevator had been laced with something?

As we were being addressed I stared some more into the restricted gloom. I remember it as darker than coal mines I visited with my uncles when I was a kid, murkier than Neolithic caves I saw later in France, blacker than the most overcast night amidst deep, dense trees in our Wisconsin woods; that menacing obscurity under the Nevada desert, surrounding the light we stood in, stretching in all directions under the earth.

When the boy genius concluded his brief talk, our simpering guide thanked him with great respect and enthusiasm, saying he had not expected such an eminence to address our humble group. The prodigy’s smile was modest. He said the other staff members had been occupied. It was Sunday, and the AEC did little work on the Sabbath. I recall that he chuckled lightly as he said this—as if even the concept of this was ridiculous. And so it seemed in that abyss.

We were not invited to look around after the brief chat, but were herded by our guide back toward the elevator. As we stood waiting in the dim light for the big elevator doors to open, the guide gushed again in reverent tones about the youthful man who had addressed us. He was one of the “real stars” of the project, we were told, a physicist deeply involved in creating some of the most ominous secrets of our age. I did not catch his name when it was spoken. Hell, my ears were ringing from bomb blasts! They still ring sixty plus years later, and I miss a lot of names.

But I suppose I was impressed then. I had been cleared for YKW—this sort of strange state of grace, this ghostly fraternity. I was hardly as secret as this guy who had talked to us, but I was secret! 

As I look back now, I realize that this smug, thirty-something nabob, who had so wowed us, was also helping us practice for the last days of our world as we know it, preparing things that could ultimately blow us and all our enemies into painful oblivion. 

The weird sisters in Macbeth chant as they stir their pot, “Black spirits and white, / red spirits and grey; / Mingle, mingle, mingle, / you that mingle may.” Evil potions were being stirred at the back of this blackness where we could not see. So many secrets in there. And I was told none of them. The beginning and the end of existence—right there in the dark soup all around our small group standing by elevator doors deep beneath the Nevada desert on a Sunday morning.

But I could not see the secrets going on and on beyond the sphere of light, in the gloom, behind doors, beyond dimness, beyond obscurity—an assemblage of cunning, logical, and illogically brutal machines back there in the dark with brilliant people building them, stirring those potentially ultimate fires, unrestrained destruction being planned and shaped. “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! / What is’t you do?” Macbeth asks.

I do not remember any sounds beyond those of our officious host chattering like a museum guide as we waited for the elevator. We had been told nothing that seemed of any importance, no secrets, no urgency, no danger. But I knew danger was back there in the dark . . . and secrets. There were secrets. Our whole group had been cleared for Secret, but we were told no secrets, though I swear I felt them even as the teenager I still was, a long time ago—secrets back there growing like evil fungus in that darkness. 

If I knew any of these secrets, if revealing them would help us, I would tell them now even if it meant I would be stripped naked, slapped around for a hundred days, and sentenced to prison until I was a hundred and fifteen. 

_____

Two days after my underground journey there was another test—a “shot” as they called them. I was out there with the others at break of dawn in the bottom of a deep trench as the shock wave rolling in broke down the sides of the slit, so that we had to claw our ways out of our living graves and brush the grit out of our eyes before being ordered forward into the blast site.

_____

Over the four years of America’s open-air atomic bomb testing in Nevada a few thousand army men participated. It does not matter anymore that only feeble attempts were made by the government to find out how these experiences affected us. We are all dying now, and most of us are already dead.

Lately I’ve begun to realize that I am one of the last people living in America to have actually experienced close-up explosions of atomic bombs. I lived with and suppressed my memories of those blasts for years, got on with my life, rarely spoke of these experiences. Some years ago I did check with the Veterans Administration about the possible radiation dosage I received during my participation. I was informed that the film badge I wore throughout my four months at Desert Rock had been burned up in a government warehouse records fire in Kansas City some decades ago.

I still have no secrets to tell, but in some ways it has become my responsibility to at least recollect and tell how that great flash and blast permanently reached into my very young mind and heart, how those enormous sounds deadened my ears and still ring them to this day, how the crush of shock waves sometimes buried us alive in our trenches. I feel it my duty to tell the reckless absurdity of it all—how they ordered us, in our “experimental duties,” to move forward and look at the unspeakable destruction caused by those “small bombs” six decades ago. 

_____

It is no secret that the United States has an arsenal of 7,700 ultimate nuclear warheads. The midnight hags have been stirring and mixing for over six decades. “Mingle, mingle, you that mingle may.” Sure, sure—it is “unthinkable” that we would use these weapons. It is not a possibility, we are told. Nevertheless they remain in our arsenal, and a switchbox in a little case is always kept close to wherever our President goes.

Count slowly to seven-thousand-seven-hundred. It will take you quite a while. Does this make you feel secure?

What if people . . . somewhere . . . made us very, very unhappy brandishing their own weapons, disturbing us with their behavior? How hateful, how frightened, how unhappily challenged and furious with our enemies (large or small) do you suppose some of us could possibly become?

Maybe we could just spin off ten or fifteen of those big babies to scare the living hell out of some rogue government crossing a red line. Would they still be talking tough when they see what we are capable of? Should we then give them a few more? Maybe a hundred bombs to teach them a lesson? Maybe a thousand, if they talk back, just to make certain they get the full message? 

 

Paul Zimmer lives on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin. In the fifteen years since his retirement from a long career in university publishing, he has published two books each of poetry and essay-memoir. His first novel, The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove, is forthcoming from Permanent Press in early 2015, when he will be eighty years old—which surely makes him, he believes, one of the oldest first novelists ever.