Learning From Las Vegas

There is no such thing as an ordinary story. Here is one story that celebrates my life’s rhythms of rest and action, the ordinary in the midst of extraordinary circumstances.

In 1951 my family lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. On January 27 of that year, the U.S. Government began a series of above-ground tests of the atomic bomb in an area officials designated Yucca Flat. We locals called that place “Jackass Flat.” One hundred tests tore up the desert. Bombs dropped from airplanes, hung from towers or simply rolled out onto its burned floor. The tests were called “shots.” One morning before first light, my father drove us out to a highway lookout to watch a shot.

Jackass Flat
Las Vegas, Nevada, 1951

At four o’clock in the morning every family
on Griffith Street was out there. Men piled
their Fords and Buicks like nervy derelicts
along the shoulders of the road. They stood outside on the spalled
gravel, arms folded across wrinkled white shirts.
Their hats rode far back
on their innocent heads. Children
in their undershirts played a running game.
Mothers opened car doors, waited, bored.
The desert lay at their feet like an empty bed.

On the far side of the mountain at Jackass Flat.
the soldiers pulled the big atom bomb from its stall.
They rolled it out to the middle of a platform,
got it ready to drop. Klaxons
would signal the boys from the Army,
who got to watch from behind some rocks
a mile or two away. To take cover,
put on their custom dark glasses,
insert their plastic earplugs so they could
live through the noise. Then streaks

of light so bright we were appalled split
the elastic bed of the desert, bleached
the stunned water holes, felled the small heats of voles.
There was some applause, a few victory calls,
the lethal hat and stalk.

Then clicks of metal and gravel spurts
as the old car caravan pulled out.
They drove home looking straight ahead,
tucked us children into soft beds, not talking,
gathered up the china spilled from shelves in the aftershocks.
On Jackass Flat, the Army boys’ retinas turned dumb
as the stunned desert in the coffined light.

In this extraordinary context my family carried on ordinary lives. We listened to the radio, went to church, played the piano together, visited with neighbors or with aunt, uncle and cousins living a few blocks from our house. I walked to school every day, joined a Brownie troop, went to birthday parties, and learned how to ride a bicycle. My sister Elsa and I rode on the Seven-Up float in the annual Helldorado Parade.

We did not think of ourselves as courageous. But the acts of prevailing as a family in the shadow of Jackass Flat I now understand to have begun sketching somewhere deep within me a will to endure, a determination to connect both to the ordinary and to something larger than myself. No wonder that the line from “Our Town” resonated so when I read it as a senior in college: Emily says, “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you.” That A-Test started a process lasting not just for that moment, but, in the words of novelist Scott Spencer, bridging “clear across the arc of time.” It’s a mystery why this death symbol did not create lifelong cynicism or hopelessness in me. Instead, it generated the seed of a life eventually to be lived from love rather than fear.