by Justin Hocking
1) They wear respirators and white radiation safety suits. Eight men gathered around a 7,000 foot hole in the ground, the rising Colorado sun flaring on their silver hard hats. The smell of engine oil, sagebrush, creosote. Strapped to a diesel flatbed next to the drilling platform awaits a large silver cylinder, bearing the ominous yellow and black nuclear radiation symbol, also known as a trefoil: three thick black wedges radiating from a central circle.
Just beyond the din of the machinery and the men's voices, a sage grouse coos above a trio of speckled eggs, the eggs coincidentally arranged in a loose trefoil, a word that derives from the Latin trifolium, meaning "three-leaved plant." In ancient Christianity, the trefoil symbolized the trinity: father, son, Holy Ghost. The radiation trefoil represents its own trinity: the three neutrons released by the splitting of a Uranium 236 nucleus, a three-leaved atomic bloom.
The men have been here for weeks, drilling. Using a mile-long, telescoping bit, they pierced the surface alluvium and bored through the upper and lower aquifers, the water source for local corn and wheat crops, for grazing livestock, for human consumption. They pressed though the Green River formation at 5,000 ft., the Wasatch formation at 2500 ft., the drill bit chewing through layers and layers of shale and sandstone. They stopped at the edge of the Fort Union formation and the Mesa Verde Formation, just around sea level, where they found what they were looking for: fine-grain, low-permeability sandstone and claystone.
The exact kind of earth needed to withstand and contain a nuclear blast—a chain reaction of atomic blooms—and half a million years of radioactive fallout.
As planned, the men around the drill site carefully attach the silver cylinder to a cable; a crane lifts it from the flatbed to the platform. With their white-gloved hands on the cylinder, they resemble doctors handling a newborn infant, a grouse turning its eggs. They maneuver it above the shaft, insert the base and begin the slow process of lowering the device into the ground, like a birth in reverse.
The cylinder's name: Rio Blanco 1.
Rio Blanco 1: the first of three 33-kiloton thermonuclear warheads with which they will seed the earth, then simultaneously detonate 6500 feet below ground, generating an explosion with the power to decimate six mid-sized American cities.
Thirty miles away, outside of the town of Silt, population 200, my parents are home, having breakfast, drinking coffee, ironing a white nurse's outfit and western-wear shirts with wide, 70s era collars. Their modest bedroom contains a newly assembled crib, a nest of factory-lathed wood and blankets.
My mother, six months pregnant, sits on the edge of the bed, waiting.
2) On screen: a small, earthy mound rises from the ground, a slow motion birth. A male voice with a smoker's timbre and perfect enunciation narrates the film, shot in the 1960s as a propaganda campaign for Project Plowshare. "To perform a multitude of peaceful tasks for the betterment of mankind," the narrator explains, "man is exploring a source of enormous, potentially useful energy: the nuclear explosion."
On screen, the mound expands into a steep, swollen hill.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the—
Plowshare: an agricultural implement for turning soil, for creating a cleft in the earth. The archetypal idea of the plowshare derives from the Book of Isaiah, in which warriors are implored to beat their swords into plowshares.
On screen, the hill grows into a mountain, and then the mountain—which is not a mountain—erupts, a hulking black mass edged with feathery projectiles, a pyrotechnic finale of soil and shale.
Under the auspices of Project Plowshare, scientists, engineers, miners, and military personnel detonated twenty-seven nuclear bombs in subterranean shafts of various depths across the continental United States. The project lasted seventeen years, from 1965 until 1973—the year of my birth. "For the benefit of all nations," the narrator explains.
Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, supervised Plowshare. Strauss was the man responsible for stripping J. Robert Oppenheimer, co-inventor of the atom bomb, of his security clearance. In Strauss's opinion, Oppenheimer's increasing concerns about nuclear proliferation and radioactive wastes were pedantic, alarmist.
Strauss and his Plowshare operatives had colossal ambitions. They envisioned large-scale nuclear excavation and quarrying: canals, railroad cuts through mountains, dam construction. They hoped to blast a harbor-sized hole in Cape Thompson, Alaska and cut a channel through an oceanic reef in the Marshall Islands, all to enhance commerce and transportation.
Their grandest plan: to supplement or even replace the Panama Canal.Four possible routes across Central America were selected and studied. In the Plowshare film, a crude animation illustrates a zipper of nuclear blasts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to excavate a sea-level channel up to 200 feet wide and 1000 feet deep, a superhighway across Costa Rica or Panama. Here are La Corbusier's and Robert Moses' visions for unimpeded industrial transportation writ large—a freeway in the sea, a clean slash across the American continent.
Another Plowshare application involved underground engineering and extraction of natural gas and petroleum. Operation Rio Blanco was designed for just this purpose, to frack vast pockets of gas and oil, thirty miles from my parent's house.
3) The Christian concept of hell has origins in the New Testament, where it's described in the Greek as Hades, or with the Hebrew word Gehenna. The actual Gehenna was the "Valley of Hinnon," a garbage heap in a low ravine on Jerusalem's shabby outskirts. A place where refuse was burned. Bodies of suicides were thrown in, to smolder with the muck and char. Authors of the New Testament used Gehenna as a metaphor for the final place of punishment for the damned. A linear narrative: hell as perpetual destination, endpoint, a fiery conclusion. The place where Dante cast endless sinners, upside down in hellholes of their own carving, or in the tangled forest of suicides, or with the fratricides in the ninth circle, all of them eternally condemned.
Our inheritance, then: the concept of the deep underground as a wasteland, a dump, the terminus of the unredeemable.
4) Western Colorado towns named in honor of their mineral wealth: Crystal, Marble, Redstone, Gypsum, Basalt, Silt, Copper Mountain, Leadville. New Castle, Colorado, was named after New Castle, England—an historic coal-producing city. On my father's side, Hocking ancestors originated in Cornwall, England; they likely made their living as coal or tin miners, in the epicenter of industrialized mining.
Four years after they married, my parents bought a small ranch outside Silt, across the Colorado River and south of New Castle. My father wasn't a miner himself, but as a civil engineer he made structural plans for tunnels and sewers—underground work. He was, like generations of Hockings before him, following mineral wealth. In this case, it was the early 1970s boom in the oil shale industry on the Western Slope that attracted him. He performed surveys for infrastructure around local oil shale operations; he engineered sprawling man-camps to house shale miners.
My parents fixed up their modest ranch house; they mended fences and corrals. They raised horses and an Australian Shepard with different colored eyes, one brown, one crystal blue. Regular visitors to the ranch: coyotes, elk, foxes, crows and hawks, and once, a wolf. The wolf kept his distance, but drove the dog half mad with fear.
They looked forward to their first child—especially my mother, who worked shifts as a maternity ward nurse at Valley View Hospital. By April of 1973, they'd decided on my name. My mother was a careful parent; she avoided alcohol; she ate carrots and lettuce and tomatoes from their garden plot. At the small diner in Silt, she sometimes asked ranchers and miners at neighboring tables to extinguish their cigarettes. This embarrassed my father, a man who prides himself on not letting things bother him.
No one had thoroughly informed my parents about the nuclear testing, but among the residents of Silt, the Plowshare Project was common knowledge. The Rulison Project—in which a single 43-kiloton nuclear bomb was detonated below ground just twenty miles from town—had taken place four years earlier, without fanfare. The planned Rio Blanco test of 1973 was just another subterranean exploration in an area developed almost entirely around mining.
Everyone knew it was coming.
5) Linear versus cyclical narratives: in some non-western cultures, hell is an intermediary period between carnations or stages. Many have no concept of hell whatsoever. In shamanistic cultures, the underworld is a place of ritual, healing, transformation. The Ancient Pueblo Peoples of Colorado—some who once hunted on the high deserts around the Rio Blanco test sight—believed their ancestors first emerged into the world from trickling springs at the back of caves. They commemorated the emergence with a Sipapu, a small hole in the floor of their subterranean Kivas. The ancients were sometimes described asliving below.
6) In the Project Plowshare film, the narrator acknowledges the problem of radiation, and problems other than radiation: the groundshock, the airblasts, the dustcloud. Fundamental distinctions: earth as a womb, or earth as a tomb of eternal punishment. The underground as an origin point, a place to be honored versus the underground as place to be exploited, carved up, left to burn. James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, who once stated "we will mine more, drill more, cut more timber," who believed large-scale strip mining of the West was acceptable, because the Rapture was—
7) In the Plowshare film, the narrator explains that humankind has many needs, “...needs he can see as man confronts the geography nature has pitted against him." Read: a reciprocal war on geography, a salvo against dirt and rock.
8) My father sits on a small wooden church pew outside the ranch house, pulling on cowboy boots, whistling Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings songs. Colorado sun warm on his cheeks, his square chin. The pew and its twin had been given as a wedding gift from my maternal grandparents. My father always thought it was a miserly gesture, to saw a church pew in half and send it to your daughter and her new husband on the occasion of their marriage.
What my father notices first is the silence.
In the wake of the silence, the horses begin to stir; the dog whimpers and cowers beneath the porch, like it had when a wolf stalked the property, months before.
Then it begins—a low, rolling rumble, like a train off in the distance.
Seconds later, it reaches him as what feels like a minor earthquake, like sub-surface thunder. The world wanting to come apart, the layers of the earth buckling, a train peeling off its rails.
My father stands up.
My mother's inside, holding her swollen belly. She's sitting on the bed, which by now rocks violently, nearly throwing her to the floor. She calls out my father's name, Roger.
"Roger" can be used as an affirmative, as in Roger that. My mother's usage is just the opposite.
9) Craig Hayward was eighteen when he watched the Rio Blanco nuclear shot from six miles away. He was the son of the rancher who leased the land to Project Plowshare. The Hayward family was promised a share in revenue, should the nuclear method prove viable for natural gas fracking.
"When they touched that thing off, I saw shale cliffs crumbling," Hayward said. "After a while, I saw the ground rolling. It was like a wave coming through. Cars were parked there. They were rocking back and forth."
Twenty miles away, a small group of protesters gathered at the Meeker Hotel. They were concerned about radioactive nucleotides with a half-life of a quarter of a million years. They worried about contaminated natural gas seeps, contaminated drinking water. As the current owners of the Rio Blanco site are still concerned, forty years later, when energy companies drill for natural gas just a half mile away.
10) The film Hiroshima Mon Amour, by French Director Alain Resnais, explores the inextricable nature of personal and historical memory; it's shot in an experimental style that cracks apart the genres of fiction and documentary and smelts them into a ghostly, shimmering amalgam. Jean Luc Godard described Hiroshima as "Faulkner plus Stravinski." The mostly impressionistic plot (anti-plot?) concerns a married French woman, in Hiroshima to film an anti-nuclear war film—a post-mortem attempt at documenting Japan's holocaust. She has an affair with a Japanese man; both are married, both are still traumatized by what happened during the war. Though she tries to understand the Hiroshima bombing by visiting a museum and interviewing survivors for her film, her Japanese lover tells her repeatedly that she saw nothing of Hiroshima. Susan Sontag called Resnais' work "the cinema of the inexpressible." Other critics point to Hiroshima Mon Amour as the epicenter of postmodernism. It's about the hopeless inability of a museum—or any conventional, linear narrative—to convey the lived experience of such cataclysmic trauma.
Yet, what if the bomb was buried and detonated over a mile beneath the earth, thirty miles from your family's home, two and half months before your birth? There were no mass casualties, no casualties at all, so perhaps narrative is up to the task. But wouldn't the explosion cause the story itself to rock and fracture like those crumbled shale cliffs?
11) The Rio Blanco nuclear shot stimulated a flow of natural gas, as hoped, but the product was contaminated with radioactivity. Unusable. Just as it was in 1969, after the Rulison test.
After twenty-seven nuclear shots, the Plowshare Project was losing popular support. Early activists deemed the blasts and their aftermath as environmentally unsound. Among politicians, the idea of using nuclear weapons to build a better Panama Canal was seen as increasingly far-fetched.
Seventeen years after Plowshare's genesis, Rio Blanco marked the very last underground explosion. The endpoint of the Project's own linear narrative. The Haywards had been promised substantial wealth from natural gas extraction. What they were left with, instead: a few $100 checks from the U.S. government and a radioactive ulcer deep in their land.
12) I'd like to believe that, during the Rio Blanco blast, my mother felt an internal rocking: the child inside her growing restless, uneasy. Perhaps in reaction to her physiological stress response—elevated heart rate, adrenaline spike as the ground shook beneath her—the result of a nuclear blast six times as powerful as Hiroshima.
I was still in the womb; I saw nothing of Project Plowshare. But was I disturbed, even then, by what took place beneath the surface
Justin Hocking is the author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir, winner of the 2015 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and a finalist for a 2015 PEN Center Award. His work has also appeared in Orion, The Normal School, Poets & Writers, The Portland Mercury, Tin House online, The Rumpus, Big Big Wednesday, and elsewhere. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches creative writing at the Independent Publishing Resource Center and in the Low Residency MFA Program at Eastern Oregon University.