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“The Woman at Otowi Crossing”

by Frank Waters

The Woman at Otowi Crossing is an historical novel about some of the people who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. The title of the novel refers to an actual person, Edith Warner, who ran a café at Otowi Crossing, over the Rio Grande and down the hill from the secret laboratory at Los Alamos. This excerpt takes place at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945, as scientists test the world’s first atomic bomb.

~ ~ ~ ~

This is it, thought Gaylord working in the blinding brilliance of the July sun. Trinity, when he first had heard it, was only a Top-Secret operational code name. Then, when more and more men began to leave Los Alamos and he himself accompanied them, it became a place: Trinity Site. A desolate desert in southern New Mexico known as the Jornada del Muerto, littered with men and equipment, closely guarded by a detachment of armed MPs (military police). Finally, as the pace of the work stepped up, it took on the nature of a vast and mounting endeavor: Operation Trinity.

Its pattern was deceptively simple. All activities revolved about a vertical steel needle. A fragile, slender, steel tower one hundred feet high, it thrust into the brassy sky like the spire of a medieval church, the phallic symbol of man’s challenging dominance of the flat, mute, and unresisting earth below.

From its foot, crews of men were stringing wires to instrument bunkers out on the desert, and to the control point 10,000 feet to the south, in which were installed the timing and firing devices. Inside these “dreadnoughts,” massively timbered bulkheads reinforced with earth, more men were mounting panels of instruments, the scientific eyes and ears that would record the result of the operation. Most of the personnel with their mere human faculties, Gaylord knew, would be stationed at the time at an observation point 17,000 feet south from ground zero. Still another observation point lay seven miles away, where the special engineering detachment was stationed.

Gaylord’s own work was not physically arduous, but it was tedious. Complex circuitry, electronic measuring devices and hundreds of instruments to be calibrated and tested to scientific precision. Concentration and long hours. A constant urgency broken only by a few hours sleep in the barracks with all the windows broken out. And then to awaken one morning to see a big black crow perched on the foot of the bed, pecking at the cover.

A shaft of sunlight exaggerated the size of the bird’s head with its beady, obsidian eyes and formidable beak, and brought out the sheen of black and purple in its glossy feathers. Its appearance and carrion smell aroused in Gaylord a sudden fear and repugnance. He sat up, threw a shoe at it. The crow with a loud squawk hopped awkwardly into the air, spread its wings. For an instant it hovered in the open window, like a blotch of ink upon a pane, then it was suddenly erased.

“Time was pressing now. As the tension inside him was increasing to the breaking point, so too was it mounting around him.”

It was like this—when he suddenly awakened after a restless sleep, or when he straightened up from work in the blinding sun—that Emily’s face appeared before him, pleading and accusing. Instantly all that part of him which owed secret allegiance to the midnight stars, to the ebb and tide of the instinctive, the dark unconscious, flung him headlong against a rampart of piercing pain and torturing guilt. It was more than he could stand! With all his effort he thrust it from him, as he had to do, and resumed his work.

Time was pressing now. As the tension inside him was increasing to the breaking point, so too was it mounting around him. This was the night of July 12th and the unit had been moved into the right front room of McDonald’s appropriated ranch house for final assembly of its components and gadgetry. Gaylord chewed his lip as he stood waiting in the crowd of men around it.

Before him lay the final product of two billion dollars and two and a half years of crash effort spent under the tightest impositions of secrecy in history. The end result of the teamwork of the best scientific brains from Europe and America. This, with a small amount of matter from the Belgian Congo, had been designed to release the energy locked up within the atom from the beginning of time. Gaylord looked at It with trepidation—a thing so secret that he still feared his own knowledge of its size and shape, its very existence.

The full significance of it was also apparent on the faces of the men around him. They too wondered if it would work at all—or work so well that it would blast them into eternity. Still, in sweating silence, no one moved nor spoke.

In a few minutes the vital and irreplaceable nuclear material was formally transferred from the custody of the civilian scientists to the Army. The officials went out. Then the insertion was made and the basic assembly completed.

About ten o'clock next morning the device was fully armed and hoisted to the top of the hundred-foot steel tower. Yet Gaylord still faced another sleepless day and night. For in addition to the apparatus necessary to cause the detonation, complete instrumentation to determine the pulse beat and all reactions of the device had to be rigged on the tower. Would it be a dud or blast them into kingdom come? In this vast range of speculation as to what the yield of the device would be, somebody proposed a pool.

“Chip in a dollar, make your guess, and the winner takes all the money. What do you say, Gaylord?”

Gaylord threw in his dollar. “Ten k.t. (kilotons). I'll string along on that.” An explosive force equivalent to 10,000 tons of TNT. It was a figure that meant nothing at all.

By Sunday night, July 15, all was ready. Posted throughout New Mexico were agents of the Counter Intelligence Corps to investigate any excitement or undue interest after the shot. A special evacuation outfit of 150 men left the site, prepared to clear ranches and isolated communities if the radioactive fallout level became too high, or even the small towns of Socorro and San Antonio if the wind changed. All the access roads were now blocked, and a final check by name was made of every person in the restricted area. The time of the test had been set at four a.m.

Worry about the weather now set in. Lightning flashes and peals of thunder made aerial observations of the test impossible. It was undecided whether to postpone or go ahead with the test. Every man stayed at his post waiting for the storm to break or clear.

About four o'clock the decision was made to fire at five-thirty; the rain had stopped although the sky was still heavily overcast. Gaylord with most of the men left for the main observation point, 17,000 feet from ground zero, where they were massed on a bit of high ground.

Waiting became intolerable. A deathly silence settled over the crowd in the darkness. It was suddenly broken by a voice over the radio loudspeaker announcing minus twenty minutes.

Every five minutes the voice came on. Gaylord began to tremble. Curiously all thought of his work was drained out of him. He thought only of Emily.

At minus two minutes the order came for every person to lie face down on the ground with his feet pointing toward the explosion. Gaylord stretched out flat on the damp earth, one hand clutching a pair of high density goggles and the other digging into the ground. He did not know who was lying on each side of him, but he could hear their hoarse breathing in the awesome silence. He closed his eyes to see Emily’s face looking at him with all the agony of her own waiting and indecision.

At minus forty-five seconds the robot sequence timer took over. From now on, he thought hazily, the whole complicated mass of intricate mechanism that he himself had worked on was in operation without human control. And now came the countdown.

“Minus ten seconds.”

“Minus nine seconds.”

“Eight seconds.”

Gaylord had trouble breathing. He lifted his face an inch, spit out the dirt in his mouth.

“Five.”

“Four.”

His fingers released their hold on his dark goggles and dug into the ground for support.

“One.”

“Fire!”

At this instant a blind girl seated at her window in Albuquerque, 120 miles away, spoke quickly to a companion. “What is that bright flash in the sky?”

Gaylord, face down on the ground with his eyes closed, felt the same sudden sensation of light on his eyelids. He cautiously opened his eyes. The ground underneath him was so brilliantly lit he could distinguish its tiny grains of sand. He turned his head slightly. The whole area was clear as if seen in the brightest daylight; a mountain range stood out in bold relief. He rolled over, mutely counting seconds with a dry mouth, and grabbed for his dark glasses.

What he saw through them was at once beautiful and terrifying. A huge, searing ball of fire brighter than the midday sun. It was boiling violently, swiftly expanding in size, and slowly, majestically rising straight into the sky. Changing in color from livid red to yellow, gray, blue and purple.

Gaylord jumped up, jerked off his dark glasses. Abruptly now came the shock wave which seemed to strike him sharply in back of his knees, and the awesome roar of the detonation followed by a dull, prolonged rumbling as the sound was reflected by a range of desert mountains.

The fireball clouded over to an ash gray. As it rose swiftly into the substratosphere, it sucked up from the ground a long, vertical stem of dust. Finally it changed into a mushroom-shaped cloud sheared off from the stem by upper level winds. Still Gaylord watched it climb—20,000, 30,000 feet or more, and drift lazily away.

He was suddenly aware of the commotion around him. Trucks and jeeps arriving. Men rushing about, slapping each other on the back. Shouts and scraps of conversation. The tower, except for the concrete stump of one leg, had been completely vaporized. Fermi, he heard, already had made the first estimate of the yield—20 kilotons.

This is it, thought Gaylord dazedly and finally. Trinity, with the awesome power of 20,000 equivalent tons of TNT, had blasted open the Atomic Age.

Curiously, he felt little elation. Like most explorers who had found what they believed they had sought, he wanted only to go home—home to Otowi Crossing, to the great red river curving into night and rest and sleep, to the big branched cottonwood and the picnic basket between its serpentine roots, and to her who waited there timelessly and forever in a dream of peace. Emily! Oh, Emily!