Stepping off an airliner recently in El Paso, Texas, I had the distinct feeling that I was re-entering an earlier life. On July 16, 1945, the inky black El Paso sky matched my mood as I propped my sheet music in the window sill to practice my accordion. Then, at 5:29.45 to be precise, the sun rose far too early – in the north.
My long-suffering mother had hoped for some flash of brilliance from my accordion, but when the windows rattled a few seconds later we were both aware that all this could not have been of my doing. We were not to realize the exact time and circumstances for another month, but I had witnessed the birth of the atomic age 115 miles from my window. The cover story that naturally everybody believed in that less-inquisitive era was that an ammo dump blew up near Alamogardo.
A month later my dad let out a low whistle while reading the El Paso Times account of a new weapon dropped on Hiroshima. “Remember that ammo dump that blew up?” he asked. "Now they say it was a test of this bomb!”
Years later I visited the site on a news assignment. The area remains restricted as part of the White Sands Missile Range, but it’s perfectly safe – code-named Trinity for its millisecond that eclipsed the sun. At the entry point, my watch dial elicited more reaction from the Geiger counter than did the glassy green shards of fused sand.
Even before Trinity it was an inhospitable land of yucca, creosote bush and sage called the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death). A 5-foot cairn of black volcanic rock marks ground zero. Nearby stands one sheared leg of the ignition tower. The explosion did not leave a crater nor did it significantly damage a nearby adobe ranch house. And we wonder why the Casa Grande ruins and other pueblos lasted so many centuries.
A New York Times reporter present at the Trinity test called it “the grand finale of a mighty symphony of the elements.”
He was wrong, of course. It was only the beginning.