12/18/2008 - 10:52

The legacy of Ed Grothus and the Black Hole

Hugh Gusterson

Hugh Gusterson

An anthropologist, Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. His expertise is in nuclear culture, international security, and the anthropology of science....

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    --"Jesters do oft prove prophets," William Shakespeare, King Lear
    --"When one is legendary, one must do legendary things," Ed Grothus

There are some obvious places for tourists to visit in Los Alamos: the Bradbury Science Museum, which sports mock-ups of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and Bandelier National Monument, where visitors can get a glimpse of how Native Americans lived hundreds of years ago. Going off the beaten path, the travel guide Let's Go lists a third attraction: the Black Hole, a sort of never-ending atomic yard sale cum antinuclear art installation.

Housed in a converted Piggly Wiggly grocery store, the Black Hole offers piles of machinery discarded by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) over the years. "Welcome to the black hole museum of nuclear waste," says a sign, behind which are shelves upon shelves filled with mundane and esoteric castoffs from the lab--everything from valves and tubes to Geiger counters and electronic equipment of various kinds. Outside, the parking lot is crammed with still more military science detritus, including a collection of (presumably disabled) bombs and missiles. Some of the missiles have been welded together to form a spectacular giant sunflower--an eerily beautiful fashioning of military hardware into art.

Grothus' comedic irony balances his prophetic fury and creates a unique ensemble. It's a little bit like finding that Helen Caldicott moonlights as a stand-up comedian."

My wife forbade me to buy a missile, pointing out that my plan of driving back to the East Coast with a missile on the roof might get me in unanticipated trouble.

Presiding over the Black Hole is Ed Grothus, an 85-year-old eccentric who worked at LANL for 20 years, only to decide that his true calling lay in protesting rather than improving nuclear weapons. A strong personality, he is locally revered and reviled. Grothus has been profiled in Esquire and on NPR, and has even been the subject of a documentary film. His style of protest mixes the techniques of agitprop and prophecy.

For a while Grothus sold "canned plutonium," affixing mushroom cloud wrappers to cans of soup. He gave this up shortly after his mailing of a free sample to the White House earned him a visit from the FBI. Also, complaining that the clergy preach peace only to support the institutions of war, Grothus turned an old A-frame into the First Church of High Technology and elevated himself to the rank of cardinal. Every Sunday he preaches a "critical mass." In the most recent election, he got more than 150 write-in nominations for pope!

As for prophecy, Grothus has become notorious in Los Alamos for his impassioned letters to the Los Alamos Monitor, which far exceed in volume what the paper can print and exceed in tone what its readers want to hear. "Day of wrath, day of mourning!" he wrote in one fairly typical letter. "See fulfilled this prophet's warning! All the earth in ashes, BURNING. Los Alamos! How could we have done this ultimately terrible and irresponsible thing? Sixty years is enough! Stop doing this immoral thing. Think of humanity! Life on this planet should be assured. It is now in serious jeopardy. Weapons scientists, REVOLT." He has taken to prophesying that nuclear weapons will be used in 2013, and that almost all human beings will be killed, while saying, "I work daily to prevent my prediction from coming true."

Grothus is to Los Alamos what the jester was to King Lear. Lear's court jester had a special license to mock because he played the fool. His apparently nonsensical statements often carried the whiff of traitorous frankness. Statements that would have had a courtier sent to the execution block were tolerated from a lowly jester.

Grothus' jesting gives him a similar license in Los Alamos, the comedic irony balancing his prophetic fury and creating a unique ensemble. It's a little bit like finding that Helen Caldicott moonlights as a stand-up comedian. And, at a time when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Sen. Sam Nunn are calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the radical eccentric Grothus suddenly looks more mainstream.

On a recent visit to the Black Hole, I parked behind Grothus' car, with its "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam" and "This car powered by Iraqi blood" bumper stickers. I found him in purple camouflage pants, a T-shirt, and a bolo tie. His eyes blazed fierce blue under craggy white eyebrows and a shock of bushy white hair, but his cheeks had a sunken look. He is dying of cancer, and he tells visitors with disarming frankness that it is no fun. At one point he shows me the photo that will appear with his obituary.

In the two hours I spent with Ed, there was a constant stream of visitors. Some, indifferent to his political message, came to buy parts from the Black Hole. A philosophy professor from Missouri and his wife, both active in the peace movement, listened to Grothus hold forth on the evils of nuclear weapons. A young student from Harvard also appeared. He was updating the Black Hole's Let's Go entry. Ed objected to its description as a "junkyard." And two artists from Santa Fe showed up with a friend from New York and asked if they could show her "the obelisks."

The obelisks are part of Grothus' final, most ambitious dream--twin 40-ton, 42-feet tall monuments to the nuclear age in Los Alamos. "[They] are not to celebrate the bomb but to make note of the most important man-caused event in the history of the world," he explained in an e-mail message. "These are to be Rosetta Stones for the Nuclear Age." Partly inspired by his visit more than 60 years ago to the enormous statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro, the monuments were built in China and shipped to Los Alamos at a cost of $200,000. Grothus paid for them by selling a rental house he owned. The two obelisks, made of polished granite, each stand on their own doomsday stone on which the basic facts of the nuclear age are inscribed in 15 languages. On one of the obelisks is the message, "No one is secure unless everyone is secure . . . One bomb is too many . . . Always build, never destroy." Each obelisk will be crowned with a black granite sphere inscribed in the hexagon/pentagon arrangement of most soccer balls the pattern of the high explosive charges that surround a nuclear implosion device.

This foray into (anti)nuclear sculpture puts Grothus in the company of Tony Price and James Acord. Price lived in Santa Fe for many years, where he obsessively turned scrap from LANL into huge metallic sculptures with titles such as "Nuclear Kachina," "Native Who Sold His Island for A Nuclear Test," and "Post-Apocalyptic Conference of Metallic Diplomats." Acord is working on a commemorative sculpture project for the Hanford plutonium facility in Washington State.

Grothus offered to donate his monuments to Los Alamos County, but the local Art in Public Places Board voted unanimously to decline the offer, calling them aesthetically unsuitable. For the moment the obelisks lie in their shipping containers at the Black Hole.

In one of our last e-mail correspondences, Ed wrote, "My body is wracked with cancer tumors. My mind is wracked with the horrible visions of a very possible nuclear holocaust." I hope Ed's prophecy does not come true, and that his monuments to the nuclear age find a home where they can become legendary. In any case Ed, a true American original, will long be remembered by those who knew him.

Meanwhile, Ed, in the words of poet Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

For a 3-minute video showing Ed, The Black Hole and the monuments, go here.

Editor's note: Ed Grothus died on February 12, 2009. He was 86.