1969, Rulison, Colorado
Hella stumbled on a root, but Karl managed to catch her before she crashed into a tree.
“Watch your feet. Stay behind me and try to keep up,” he said.
Hella shook her blond curls out of her pale blue eyes, and took a deep breath. “Concentrate,” she thought, but was once again distracted by the living forest around her. It spoke to her in a language she could almost understand, but was tantalizing in its mystery.
Karl pulled her forward again, less gently this time. “Come on. You can space out later.”
They followed a trail, probably made by deer or elk, that wandered across the steep hillside in the general direction they needed to go. The actual paths in that direction would have been easier, but were more likely to be watched. Weeks before, Karl had scoped out the most surreptitious route, taking advantage of the terrain and cover to keep them hidden.
Most in the group of six were used to hiking and rough terrain and all were dedicated to the cause. Karl had done his time in the forest and desert as both a Forest Service worker and a monkey-wrencher. James and Cindi were ardent hikers and campers, but were a little too frisky around each other, and somewhat distracting. Henry was the oldest and the leader. Coming here was his idea, and he had the spiritual take on their actions. Stuart was Henry’s protegee, and served as an apostle to him. Very smart, dogged in his belief in both the cause and in Henry, he was driven and determined, if a little inept in the woods. Hella was mystically connected to the earth and all depredations on it. Spacey, ethereal and probably a little crazy, she was a puzzle to Karl, who tended towards the very practical.
Karl stopped them for a rest. He suggested they take off their packs and drink sparingly of their water. The next leg would be bushwhacking uphill to another trail, then on to their campsite. They were just about on schedule, but the hardest parts were yet to come.
“It’s Them! It’s Them! The giant ants!” the boy screamed as he ran across the playground. Several other boys took up the call, chasing several of the little girls. “It’s Them! It’s Them!” Sandy ran out and shooed the boys away, “It’ll be you and me if you don’t cut it out!” she threatened. She put her arms around the two upset girls, “It’s okay. They’re just playing. Don’t pay any attention to them. ”
“But they said the atomic bomb would turn the ants into giants, like in the movie.” one cried. The other added, “And the bears would grow huge and come down to eat us.”
Sandy shook her head and comforted the two, sending a hard look at the group of boys across the school play ground. “They’re just making stuff up to scare you. The government scientists said it would be all okay, and they know what they’re talking about, not those silly boys.”
The news of the planned nuclear explosion had created quite a stir in their small western slope community. Many meetings had been held and fact sheets distributed, but, Sandy had to admit, it was all a little scary. Some were leaving town until it was over, but the teachers had been told to stay and help with the kids that remained.
It was a part of Operation Plowshare, an attempt to find peaceful uses for the atomic weapons developed by the Manhattan Project that had won the second world war. Someone said they were building an atomic airplane, and were using atomic weapons to build another Panama Canal. There had already been attempts at mining using the bombs underground, and now they wanted to see if the A-bomb could be used to free up natural gas from the subsurface sandstone deposits. Fracking of oil and gas wells had been performed productively for years using normal explosives, and the greater power of the atom seemed like a much more efficient alternative, at least to the oil companies and the government scientists.
So Project Rulison was born and on the nearby mountain, a 40-kiloton atomic bomb (called a ‘nuclear device’ by the government) would be detonated over 8000 feet down the drill hole. The government spokesman explained that since the well head was just over 8000 feet elevation the detonation would actually take place below sea level, a concept hard for the mountain folk to comprehend. However, the local drill crews and roustabouts found the concept exciting, and the money from overtime even more so.
But for Sandy and many others, it seemed like a crazy idea. “Isn’t that what Nevada was for?” she complained to her boyfriend Larry, “Nevada seems like a great place to blow things up.”
Larry had his own problems with the project. As a deputy sheriff, he and all the local people who might have to respond in an emergency had been pulled in to support the team of Atomic Energy Commission staff, oil company big-wigs, the military and state officials. They were to help manage the local population, help clear the five-mile area around ground zero of residents and hunters (of course, the Washington dumb-shits would do this in hunting season), man the check points, reroute or stop traffic through the area, and prepare for any accidents that might occur. Larry and his office were already dealing with the increase in out-of-towners that created a burden on local businesses and traffic. There was also more conflict at the local bars, where all the oilfield workers, outsiders and locals converged. Larry was getting plenty of overtime himself.
Their campsite was a small clearing in the underbrush surrounded by towering trees, making it nearly invisible from above and far enough from any real path to be safe from discovery. No fire was made and their tents were camouflaged, but Karl let them boil water on a small camping stove for their freeze-dried dinners and coffee or tea. They were tired and there was little chatter, but after they ate, Henry lit a joint and passed it around to the others. Karl abstained.
Henry warmed up to his nightly sermon, “We know in our hearts that God hates war. We know that war is evil.” he paused for another toke, “And by deduction we know that the greatest evil is nuclear war.” Several in the group nodded as though they had not heard this before. Henry went on, oblivious to their half-hearted attention, “So it follows that anything that related to nuclear weapons is evil – their testing, research, and uses that would allow nuclear weapons to proliferate.” He paused for effect, “That is our challenge, to stand in the face of nuclear war and say, ‘NO!’ We will sacrifice ourselves to show the fallacy of a technology inherently evil.” Nods from around the group. “God is on our side and he will comfort us for our bravery.”
James and Cindi ceased their cuddling, “staying warm,” she had said, and went into their tent. Henry and Stuart wandered off to theirs deep in conversation. Karl hadn’t seen where Hella intended to bunk. He had set up a small lean-to shelter for himself between two trees, but felt too keyed up for tomorrow’s event to sleep, so he just watched Hella in the dim light. She sat immobile, eyes wide, seeming to absorb the whole night, and it kinda creeped Karl out. She occasionally swayed and sometimes hummed to herself, and his few attempts to speak with her were ignored.
It turned out that Cindi was very vocal when having sex. At first Karl thought she was having a nightmare, but quickly figured out what was up. He finally went off to his sleeping bag, but was awakened twice more during the night by her noises. “Oh, Romeo!” seemed to signal her completion, and his opportunity to go back to sleep.
Security increased as the ‘device’ was brought down the highway and transported to the well site. Guards and helicopters flanked the route, and tried to contain the curious locals, and persistent media folks. Nearly every able-bodied (and some not so able) government worker was coerced into serving as guides or sentries in the surrounding area to keep non-essential people away from the site. The rough terrain made it easier, but the large forested sides of the mountain made an effective cordon unlikely. So they manned the known roads and paths across the mountain sides, and helicopters scanned the area for intruders.
Things had gotten pretty tense in town. A whole slew of protesters, gawkers and journalists arrived in the wake of the device, and crowd control became Larry’s primary duty — keep people from blocking traffic, from getting too near the command post and ops center, and generally from killing each other. The protesters were primarily hippies with a few nuns and priests thrown in, and he had to work pretty hard to keep them separate from the oilfield guys. The gawkers came to see the action, and weren’t above egging it on when it started. “Let’s move on, folks!” became his mantra for the day. He made a few arrests for disturbing the peace and gave out almost a whole book of traffic tickets for illegal parking and reckless or inattentive driving.
Karl woke before dawn, conscious Hella’s sleeping bag was pushed up against his. She opened her eyes when he moved. “I hope you don’t mind; I got cold.” She wiggled down further into her bag and went back to sleep.
He managed to extricate himself, and got the water boiling for warm drinks and oatmeal. Stuart appeared and got a cup of instant coffee to take back to Henry. Cindi came out naked, smiled saucily, and quickly got a cup for herself and Jamie. Karl thought she looked pretty good for someone with almost no sleep. Hella groaned and got up, seemingly more conscious than she had been before she slept. Looking around at the woods under the lightening sky, she broke into a nice smile that Karl found very fetching.
They soon broke camp and moved uphill, though whatever trail they followed was visible only to Karl. He urged greater silence and stealth, but kept them moving as quickly as he could. As daylight increased, they could hear more noise from the work at ground zero and the sentries. The loudspeakers at the site were blaring a babble of voices — largely unintelligible. It was about mid-day when he called a halt and cautioned everyone to stay quiet and under cover. Below them about a quarter mile away was the center of activity — ground zero.
In the center of a meadow surrounded by trees, a metal structure and crane were positioned over the borehole, and a handful of trucks were parked around the area. A crew was shoveling and pouring sand, gravel and water into the borehole to plug it before the blast. As a given piece of work was finished, people got into vehicles and drove away. Sand and water trucks arrived, deposited their load and drove off. The loudspeaker played the conversation between the site and the control center, announcing impending arrivals or departures.
“We’re got a few hours to go,” Karl told them, “get some rest.”
James and Cindi cuddled together against a log, and Karl wondered about taping her mouth shut if they went at it again. Henry and Stuart sat by themselves and Henry seemed to be giving Stuart instructions. Hella seemed to be praying or meditating, once again either immobile or swaying, eyes wide open. It didn’t creep him out as much in the daytime, but it was still pretty weird. Henry came over and they watched her together.
“She’s a mystic, you know.” Henry told him, “Sees into all living things, including the Mother Earth, and feels what they feel. It’s a terrible burden, and I don’t know what will happen when the bomb goes off. The pain may be too much for her.”
Karl, chuckled, “It may be too much for us. There’s no guarantee that the scientists are right; this whole place could be vaporized by the end of the day, and us with it.”
“That’s why I’ve instructed Stuart to stay back from ground zero, and film it. Someone has to be able to tell of our sacrifice and what happened here.” Henry shifted to face Karl, “You know, you can stay back with him. Your job was to get us here, and you’ve done that. Exceptionally, in fact.”
Karl nodded his thanks, “I know, but really, how often do you get to ride on an A-bomb blast? Why would I want to miss that?”
Things got a little more hairy in town as workers from ground zero returned and the confrontations worsened. The protesters were forming groups, chanting, singing and waving signs. The news media loved it when a drunk oilfield hand tried to charge their line to break them up, only to be decked by a hippy girl with long blond braids and a revealing halter top.
In the chaos, Jerry found time to check in with Sandy at the school. The kids seemed a little wild to him, but compared to the scene outside, it was pretty peaceful. “Thanks for coming,” Sandy told him, then to the class, “Does anyone have any questions for Officer Jerry?”
Several kids raised their hands eagerly. He pointed to a girl with brown hair and glasses. “How will we know when the bomb will go off?”
“Well, first they will sound the sirens. That means there is five minutes to detonation, I mean…boom.” Sandy gave him a look. “But when that happens, we’re asking everyone in town to get somewhere safe, so that if the explosion shakes things too hard, like a little earthquake, nothing falls on them.”
Sandy interrupted, “We’ll all just get under our desks, so that we won’t get all dusty from the shaking.”
The girl asked, “Do the spiders fall off the ceiling when it shakes?” Everyone looked up, and several girls looked worried.
“That’s a good question, “Sandy smiled, “But if you get under your desk, any spiders that fell wouldn’t land on you. I’ll make sure to sweep them up, if there are any.”
Jerry handled several other questions, mostly about giant ants and bears, then left to his relief. Sandy found his performance endearing.
The speakers announced the thirty-minute mark as the crews finished their work, loaded equipment into their vehicles and begin to drive away. Soon there were only a few people left at the site. At D-minus-fifteen, they all climbed into the last truck and left. The speakers were left on and announced the evacuation of ground zero, then began a minute by minute countdown.
Henry told them it was time to take up their positions. He went straight to the edge of the disturbed area around the borehole and found a place to lie down. Stuart got out his video camera and took a position where he could see Henry clearly. James and Cindi took off their clothes, ran down to a place in the meadow where the grass was untrammeled, and began to make love. Hella mumbled to herself and wandered over to another spot on the edge of the trees away from the others. Karl could hear her singing and chanting as she began to dance, swaying and twirling. He moved to a point between the love birds and Hella, across the site from Henry. He saw Henry light up another joint.
“D-minus-ten” was announced and he heard Cindi begin her amorous vocalizations. On the other side, Hella seemed to be singing a prayer. He sat in the soft grass, and wondered what he had gotten into. He slowed his breathing and tried to just relax. At one point it seemed that Hella and Cindi were harmonizing, and he began to chuckle. “Here I am, sitting on top a fuckin’ atomic bomb that’s about to go off and I find it all to be hilarious!” he mulled, “I’m getting as bad as any of these people.”
“D-minus-five,” they switched to calling every fifteen seconds.
Sandy asked the kids to put everything away and slip under their desks. She tried to make it a game, kinda like a weird hide-and-seek, but then she started to get scared. It was hard not to show it, though. She scanned the ceiling for spiders.
“D-minus-three” sounded and Karl lay flat on his stomach. Across the way, he saw Henry do the same, but couldn’t see Hella. Cindi had apparently mounted James, as he could see her head writhing over the grasses. Her rhythmic “ohs” were speeding up. He thought that James must be inhuman.
At D-minus-two they shifted to five second intervals, then at thirty seconds, each second was counted. Henry started praying loudly from across the way.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…zero”
There was a moment of quiet, as though all sound had gone, then Karl was lifted almost a foot off the ground. Actually, the ground was lifted by a foot, and took Karl with it. He momentarily lost his breath, then was covered in a swirl of dust. “Oh Romeo, Romeo, Romeo!” came from one side as a scream came from the other.
It was a little anticlimactic to Sandy, but the brief shaking caused a few squeals from the kids and brought down a lot of dust. Sandy got the broom, but found no spiders. “Now I guess all we have to worry about is whether we’ll all die from radiation poisoning,” she thought, “Or maybe it will be the giant ants.”
The dust shifted and began to settle, and Karl pulled himself up. It was hard to see across the site, but he could just make out Henry getting to his feet. There was no sign of James or Cindi, but Karl assumed they were too sated to move yet.
He walked shakily over to Hella, and found her crumpled on the ground, crying. He held her and soothed her and gradually she subsided against him. “She cried,” Hella told him, “Mother Earth actually cried.” He comforted her as best he could.
He heard Henry talking loudly and saw Stuart filming now from on the site, trying to capture Henry’s soliloquy about the evils of nuclear weapons and his sacrifice. The plan was to send his message to the world.
The loudspeakers announced that the rad teams were to enter ground zero and scan the area. “Time to leave,” thought Karl and gathered Hella up and headed back to their trail in. He called to the others to leave, but his hands were full with Hella, so left them to themselves.
As they entered the woods, the first truck of space-suited radiation techs arrived, and their transmission back to control was broadcast over the loudspeakers.
“Um, Control, this is Rad One. We need security up here. There’s a naked couple cuddling in the grass, and another guy’s giving a speech and being videotaped. Over.”
“Say again, Rad One. This is control. I don’t think I got that clearly.”
Hella recovered enough to help Karl gather their things and start the long trek back to the planned escape rendezvous. They walked awhile with his arm around her, then she took his hand the rest of the way.
Henry, Stuart, James and Cindi were all detained by the security forces after they had been scanned for any radiation. Not surprising to the scientists, no radiation was released from the blast, and the group was declared clean. They confiscated Stuart’s video camera and all the tape, and someone found coveralls for James and Cindi, who smiled dreamily the entire time. Cindi actually looked pretty good in hers.
The intruders presented a problem for the officials, who didn’t want them to get credit or publicity for their escapade. After questioning, they were taken discreetly by van to the Rifle airport, where a government airplane flew them back to Denver. There, government cars took them to their homes and dropped them off. The theory was that without any proof that they were at ground zero, it could never be proven. Henry and Stuart tried to get the media to tell their story, but it was too egregious and these guys were known as being a little flaky anyway.
James and Cindi stayed together, but found their lovemaking less fulfilling, and assumed a normal sexual life. Cindi tried placing a sub-woofer and several amps under their bed and played heavy metal very loudly when they had sex, but it only got them thrown out of their apartment.
Karl and Hella pretty much faded away. Someone thought they had gotten married and moved to Arizona, but no one knew for sure.
The data collected from the test shot provided lots of information, and was so successful that another shot was planned for a site about fifty miles away. In 1973, the Rio Blanco Project detonated three 33-kiloton devices nearly simultaneously in one well at depths of about 5800, 6200 and 6700 feet.
This test was also highly successful, although the remote location negated the throngs of protesters and gawkers of the earlier shot. Coincidentally, Henry and Stuart were called to family emergencies two days before the blast, and were unable to attend. James and Cindi wanted to go, but her third pregnancy interfered with their schedule.
Surprising to no one but the scientists, the natural gas freed from their formations by these nuclear blasts proved to be radioactive and unusable. The wells were subsequently sealed and granite markers placed that celebrated the success of the experiments. Operation Plowshare went on to explode nuclear devices in other experiments across the country. The nuclear-powered airplane, however, never did get off the ground.