Sunday, July 3, 2011

the neighbors

I live very near a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Well, about five miles away, maybe.

By some estimates, it’s the largest in the world.

That’s not meant to be a revelation. It’s just a fact and I’m really not too worried about it. It’s always been in the background.

I’ve lived here for 36 years, and if I should be worried, please someone, chime in and let me know.
Right now, I’m more worried about my addiction to Piggy's chili-cheese dogs. That could end my life too, but probably in a slower, more agonizing way.

It’s funny (strange, not ha-ha) how the nuclear stuff seems be below the cultural radar in these parts. To be fair, there are strong feelings on both sides of the coin, among those that know about Albuquerque’s nuclear heritage. More often, the topic remains occluded by all the other things that fill up our lives.

It’s as if it were a subtext, visible to only the loftiest of wizards, even though we have a popular Atomic Museum and a good number of our citizens are involved in the nuclear industry.

I know that some of the information needed to understand all of this is out there, as someone once said. It’s intense information though, if not in quantity, then certainly in quality.

Nuclear weapons and most of the infrastructure that dances along, have played an integral part of this city’s development and have shaped the culture here, too.
Here’s what I know and also remember:

• My friend Doug Bedell had a father who worked at Kirtland Air Force Base. He told me that he had been out to Manzano Base, which was hidden behind Four Hills (in the linked to photo the base would be behind the large hill on the left). It was like a city within a city, he said. Very few people stationed there ever left. The area was surrounded by electric fences and patrolled by fellows with machine guns. The airforce closed the base in 1982, as it prepared to open a new, state-of-the-art facility to house the weapons.

• As a teenager growing up in the heights, I frequently dreamt of nuclear weapons. I would also sneak into my father’s home office to read his
civil defense manuals. When I asked my mother about the nukes stored at the other end of the mountain, she would laugh and say that she thought we lived far enough away. I'm pretty certain that after questions like that, she would retire to the medicine cabinet for a 5 milligram valium.

• In 1992, the Kirtland Underground Munitions Storage Complex (KUMSC) became operational, in part to assist with deactivation and dismantlement activities taking place at Pantex, a nuclear facility near Amarillo, Texas. In part, this has led the facility to becoming one of the largest stockpiles on the planet.
• KUMSC is a highly secure area. Senator Jeff Bingaman has made efforts to keep it that way.

• About five years ago, I stumbled upon a protest in front of the Atomic Museum. Several people, including some acquaintances of mine, were protesting because a
Redstone rocket was being displayed in the museum courtyard. I remember thinking how scary it was that human beings used to sit on the top of such devices, trying to reach the stars.

• Next door to mi chante, there is a huge military base, un rancho grande, for the sake of comparison. They are doing research on nuclear weapons over there. They are storing nuclear weapons over there. Folks in high-tech jump suits and special boots work with the bombs everyday. Maybe they have nicknames for their favorite units, I dunno.

Anyway, I hope that everything is going well at that neighbor’s house, that there is ultimately a sense of quiet relaxation and not ticking expectation in those cold to the touch underground tunnels and rooms, where the specially clad people work.  I want to eat my chili dogs in peace.

This essay was updated (links and some content) on July 4, 2012.