October 8, 2014
The cradle rocks
ten stories up: a corrugated metal shed
bolted to a surplus Forest Service tower.
Lopsided, swaddled in wire,
a bomb’s blunt muzzle snuffles
the electric air.
Kisty called me when the mock-up
failed and Oppie flared.
A dummy weapon with a real
spare spark gap switch
I never should have volunteered.
But it was gorgeous work,
and I was proud: the long shanks
of its axial electrodes
sealed in glass—a flower
only meant to open
once. Then everyone
thronged round with cameras,
timing circuits, tampering
and testing till it failed.
All faulted me.
That cloud hung overhead for days.
No sleep. Not even after Oppie
called his hot shots in: the muckety
muckiest group I’ve ever seen.
They wouldn’t let me touch
the botched X unit—cracked
it open like a corpse
and found it had been fired
three hundred times and more
before it funked. No fault of mine,
they might have said.
The wet wind wails and sucks
air from my lungs.
The steel-lipped doorway
mouths a black sky stitched
with white-hot tungsten sutures.
My heart ticks faintly
There’s me—and then there’s Oppie.
I say: when a thundercloud sweeps overhead
the shadow of 100 million volts
will crawl across the desert after it;
let’s build a ladder for the lightning
with a bomb on top. Madness.
So I thought he ought to think. Instead
he nods, says it’s a go. Of course
it goes. And I go up one hundred
rain-slick rungs, his Isaac,
sacrifice to sleep-starved fantasies
of sabotage. The desert’s underwater,
roads are muck, trucks
mired in gullies, swamped and ditched.
Our patchwork Armageddon’s safe—
from tampering, at least.
The real threats, I can’t stall:
where our own error strikes
or massed electrons fall.
Lightning smacks the ground,
scars earth, pocks rock, cauterizes
like a fallen star. I count the miles
by fifths, too few, until I hear
untold, untellable atoms
bully back into the vacuum
panic left. Seared sagebrush
spices air. Creosote and cinders.
Beside me, our beast slumbers
fitfully, its heart
a metal fist. Half mine,
its brain revolves in vacuum,
a glass capsule cupping nothing
but expectation of a swift
I play the odds
of pleasing Oppie off against
my death. Or do I give devotion
to this bud of my ambition
that will bloom in thunder soon?
Either way, I call it love.
Donald Hornig, physicist
By John Canaday