The Writing Traveler: Was it the end of the world?

Faye Crawford, left, and Linda Pirtle cross the street to Roy’s Ice Cream Parlour in downtown Carrizozo, New Mexico.

What was the most important thing to ever happen in Carrizozo, New Mexico? It may have been the day the bomb exploded.

It was a step back into a far distant day as though time had been held in a grasp too tight to turn it loose. Anyone who had walked out of Roy’s Ice Cream Parlour in 1935 would have felt right at home returning to Carrizozo, New Mexico, and walking back through the same door.  Same old original furnishings. Same old pictures on the wall. Same old heart-shaped wire-back chairs lined along the same old green and brown marble counter of the same old soda fountain with the same old white marble-knobbed dispensers.

The parlour smelled of chocolate malts and strawberry shakes, of double-dip vanilla cones and banana splits, which is exactly the way it should have smelled. Time came along one day long ago, dropped a quarter in the jukebox, settled down at the counter, ordered a sundae, any kind would do, and never got around to leaving. Didn’t want to. Didn’t need to. Frankly, there was no place better to go.

It had been built back in 1906 by Dr. Paden, who had trekked down from the gold mining town of White Oaks to become the hand-picked physician and surgeon of the railroad. He opened an office with an apothecary and soda fountain, placing his hospital, lab, and nurses, on the second floor. The parlour became the center of Carrizozo. If his patent medicines wouldn’t cure you, at least a scoop of ice cream made you feel better.

Roy Neal Dow runs it now.

He has for the past thirty-five years if the calendar is correct, and it usually is. Roy Dow was born in the little town, and hardly a day passes when he doesn’t see most of the thousand and thirty-six souls who walk its streets and work in the fields. Oh, the Air Force took him away for a while, and so did a job with Western Union. But when he could, Roy Dow came home again. In Carrizozo, you can do things like that.

He is a quiet man with a slow and easy smile. He knows his hometown isn’t growing and probably won’t, but he kind of prefers it that way.

Caleb Pirtle

Carrizozo rests in the middle of somewhere, but it’s not very close to anywhere. It sits on the fringe of the Lincoln National Forest, on the fringe of the volcanic lava flow at the Valley of Fires, and on the fringe of the sacred gold mines that wove their way beneath the hills of White Oaks like a spider web caught in a windstorm.

Carrizozo sits on the fringe of a lot of things.

Always on the fringe.

“What’s the most important thing that ever happened around here?” I asked him.

He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said softly, “I guess it was the day the bomb exploded.”

He glanced out the window and down the road toward White Sands. Only thirty-six miles away, in the dead of an early morning, before the sun was even ready to rise, the Atomic Bomb pounded the sky like thunder run amuck, shook the earth around him, and lit the sky with fire and heat ten thousand times hotter than the surface of the sun.

And no one knew. The development of a bomb had all taken place under a heavy cloak of secrecy.  No one knew that the best and the brightest minds in science and physics had gathered in the remote mountains of Los Alamos to compete against the Germans in a wicked race, winner takes all, to determine who could split the atom first and own an atomic harbinger of death.

No one knew that on the early morning of July 16, 1945, the best and brightest had all gathered with the military on the desert of Jornada del Muerte – the journey of death, the route of the dead man – to test “The Gadget.” The project’s code name was Trinity. It would be the world’s first nuclear device. Or it could kill them all.

No one knew.

The people of Carrizozo did not have any idea that “The Gadget” had been lifted a hundred feet to the top of an old Forest Service fire-watch tower, and the best and brightest were burrowed down in their bunkers and waiting for the fateful moment when somebody would press the trigger.

No one knew that the observers had rigged a betting pool among themselves. Some said the device would be a dud. Some predicted it would explode with the force of 45 kilotons of TNT, as it was supposed to do. Some believed it would destroy the entire state of New Mexico. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi was willing to bet anyone around that the test would incinerate the atmosphere and wipe out all life on earth.

No one knew.

In Carrizozo, no one even suspected.

The detonation had been scheduled for four o’clock while the condemned if anything went awry, were still in their beds. It was better that way. Bad weather delayed the project until 5:29.45 Mountain War Time. By now the ranchers and farmers were already outside and on their second cups of coffee, but no one else. They heard the blast, and it was deafening. They saw a fireball light up the sky and illuminate the mountains as though they were standing in the middle of the day. A blast of heat came out of the back door of hell on a dead run. Shock waves stormed through Carrizozo and roared across the landscape for another hundred miles. A mushroom cloud rose for more than seven miles above them. One rancher said the hair on his cattle turned white in an instant. No one doubted him.

The world had ended – not with a whimper but a bang.

Some cried and some prayed and some feared it was too late for either.

Thirteen-year-old Roy Neal Dowd was awakened by his father. “Get up, son,” he said. “Something’s going on?” And so it was.

General T. F. Farrell, who saw it all from the bunker five miles from ground zero, would write: “The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying. No man-made phenomena of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was gold, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined.”

The Army issued a terse report to quell the fears running rampant in the country around Carrizozo: “A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded … There was no loss of life or limb to anyone.” No one believed the words. The Army may have lied.

On August 6, word reached Carrizozo that a nuclear bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” had fallen from the metallic carcass of the Enola Gay and struck Hiroshima. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the secret project, would quote a line from a Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds.”

Carrizozo suddenly realized why the skies had turned to daylight in the dark of the night. Hiroshima had felt the wrath of the bomb second. Carrizozo had felt it first, and Carrizozo had survived.

Somewhere in the darkness near ground zero, test director Kenneth Bainbridge had simply shaken his head and said, “Now, we are all sons of bitches.”

Carrizozo did not dispute a word he said.

Confessions from the Road is a collection of stories about people and places from my days as travel editor: Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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