Los Alamos: A City on a Hill
Veterans Day is tomorrow, Friday November 11. There are some important people not usually honored with the veterans but who should be remembered all the same.
The predecessor to Veterans Day was Armistice Day, commemorating the cease-fire at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 that brought the carnage of World War I to an end. On that first Armistice Day, my grandfather, son of German immigrants to America, was a newly drafted member of the United States Army and enrolled in basic training. For him the armistice of 11/11/18 meant that he never saw any action in that terrible war; it may have been a death sentence commuted.
As the war in Europe neared its end, a man named Ashley Pond founded the Los Alamos Ranch School amidst the scrub pine of the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. Situated on a fingerlike mesa below the remains of an ancient volcano and with steep cliffs on three sides, the school emphasized academics along with challenging physical training. It was a place for turning privileged eastern boys into robust, learned men.
In 1943 the Army Corps of Engineers appropriated the school and the land around it. Their intention was to establish one secret location for conducting wartime atomic research under the aegis of the Manhattan Project. Hundreds of scientists from major urban universities gathered here in one of the most non-urban settings imaginable develop the first atomic bomb.
I may owe my existence to the Los Alamos scientists.
During World War II Los Alamos was technically an Army post, entirely secret, isolated from the outside world, olive-drab and cheerless. Residents called it “the Hill.” Outgoing mail was strictly censored. Incoming mail could be accepted only if addressed to P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To make the post feel more like home the physicists and their families added names and numbering to the dirt paths that served as streets. There was a Spruce Street and a Nectar Street. Homes for the highest-ranking scientists and officials lay along a path dubbed “Bathtub Row” because these were the only houses in Los Alamos with bathtubs. Director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s house still stands today at the corner of Bathtub Row and Peach Street.
I walked around in awe of the place. A collection of Nobel Prize winners lived and worked right here. Their familiar names had appeared on my high school physics exams. Oppenheimer lived and worked here. So did Enrico Fermi, Neils Bohr, the eccentric Edward Teller and many others.
After the War the area was expanded to become the Los Alamos National Laboratory — one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world. It employs nearly 10,000 people, many being highly educated technicians and research physicists. The new and expanded facility was moved from the old ranch school location to an adjacent mesa, behind heavy security.
Things have changed of course. Los Alamos has grown to become a city and a county jurisdiction with its own courts.
Los Alamos has a discernable business district with two wide avenues, stores, restaurants, and even a Starbucks. It is also a residential enclave for professionals with families. I saw a lot of little children about. With Halloween upcoming Central Avenue was festively decorated with flower baskets and straw-stuffed scarecrows tied to lampposts.
I ate lunch at a busy little restaurant called the Central Avenue Grill. Here the menu is best described as New Mexico chic while the diners resemble a gathering of an upscale social club. Los Alamos is a town of highly-educated white-collar employees. There aren’t any farmers or ranchers here.
My waitress was a tall, thin blond woman with a Russian accent who could have doubled for Maria Sharapova ten years ago. I fancy she is a spy. Foreign governments must place spies here — common sense says they simply must — and waitresses are certainly a cost-effective way of collecting the information overheard in technical chit-chat.
Over my hot Starbucks coffee I tried to comprehend the place. Here in the course of two short years a team of physicists overcame the most complex scientific problems to produce the world’s first atomic weapon. Meanwhile in the summer of 1945 the United States was assembling a massive amphibious force dedicated to the conventional invasion of Japan. The slaughter on the beaches was expected to be immense. My father was assigned to that invasion force, but the order to attack never came. The men and women of Los Alamos ended the War instead. My father’s possible death sentence was commuted by scientists; otherwise I might not have been born sixteen years later.
I didn’t see any nuclear protesters in Los Alamos. Good thing. I might not be nice. Happy Veterans Day.