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04/17/2014 - 12:07

Trinity, in haiku

Charles Trumbull

Charles Trumbull

Charles Trumbull grew up in New Mexico, was educated at Yale and Notre Dame universities, and held editorial and publishing positions at the National Academy of Sciences, Radio Free Europe/Radio...

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Human history changed in a flash on July 16, 1945, with the first explosion of an atomic bomb, which took place at the Trinity Site, a remote stretch of desert at the north end of the Jornada del Muerto (“Day’s Journey of the Dead Man”) in the Tularosa Basin east of Socorro, N.M. Located on the territory of White Sands Missile Range, the Trinity Site is closed to the public all but two days a year. Driving to the site proper, we pass through a guarded main gate and proceed several miles south. About an acre of land around ground zero, simply a three-foot-deep declivity with a small basalt obelisk marking the spot, is cordoned off with chain-link fencing. Photographs from 1944–45 are hung museum-style along the fence.

The McDonald Ranch, about three-quarters of a mile from ground zero, served as the headquarters and observation point for the scientists from Los Alamos who developed the atomic device. On display in the ranch house is a facsimile of Albert Einstein’s letter of Aug. 2, 1939, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt advising him of the scientific feasibility of making an atomic bomb and warning him of a growing interest in the development of uranium in Nazi Germany. A model of “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, is on display at the Trinity Site. (The first bomb, “Little Boy,” was detonated over Hiroshima.) Trinitite is the name given to the green glass-like mineral fused from sand by the intense heat of the atomic blast.

Sixty-five-plus years on, we contemplate how this event, the apotheosis of modern science, instantaneously shifted the political, economic, military, and especially moral landscape of the modern world. J. Robert Oppenheimer, chief scientist on the Manhattan Project, famously quoted a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

This haiku sequence records, journal-style, impressions from a visit to the Trinity Site in October 2011.

October dawn

a fireball rises

over the mountain

 

Jornada del Muerto

autumn morning haze

fills the valley

 

looking for antelope

along the roadside—

DANGER signs

 

Trinity Site

in the guard’s vehicle

fuzzy dice

 

we drive through the gate

feeling very American—

weeds through asphalt

 

small talk

“my father

was at Oak Ridge …”

 

squabbling children—

the grasshopper

hops away

 

ground zero

we walk into a depression

decades old

 

black lava obelisk

like a tombstone

marks the spot

 

everyone wonders

about lingering radiation—

rattle of a locust

 

65 years:

the persistence

of trinitite

 

scraping the dirt

with my toe—

a grain of green glass

 

Trinity’s garden:

snakeweed, Russian thistle,

yucca, sagebrush

 

Porta Potty

someone has scrawled

“Army”

 

visitors gawk

at souvenir mugs, hats, T-shirts, …

Fat Man

 

the Stars and Stripes stretched tight across a tourist’s breasts

 

McDonald Ranch silence shattered by two sonic booms

 

“clean room”

at the ranch house

the Einstein letter

 

empty magpie nest in a mesquite bush

 

we leave the site

in the malpaís

sand shifts slowly

Editor's note: This version was originally published in Frogpond 35:3 (Autumn 2012).