TimManBlog

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Archive for the tag “New Mexico”

Los Alamos: A City on a Hill

November 10, 2011

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.

View of canyon below Los Alamos, New Mexico

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.

Robert Oppenheimer’s House, Los Alamos, New Mexico

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.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, beyond Oppenheimer Drive

Things have changed of course. Los Alamos has grown to become a city and a county jurisdiction with its own courts.

Los Alamos County Justice Center
Los Alamos County in the state of New Mexico

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.

Central Avenue, Los Alamos, New Mexico

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.


A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

I’m trying to travel to all of America’s county courthouses, and each month a post about my visit to the most interesting county seats. It’s only a hobby — but donations are greatly appreciated to help defer my costs.
Thanks,
Tim

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Truth or Consequences — and Quixotic Occupy Wall Street

November 3, 2011

On the old game show “Truth or Consequences”, a contestant would be asked a question (“Truth”) and if answered incorrectly he would face the “Consequences.” Sometimes the Consequences could be an embarrassing stunt. At other times the Consequences could be happy ones — such as a chance to win money or a surprise reunion with a long-lost sibling. Host Bob Barker would often close the broadcast with the phrase “Hoping all your consequences are happy ones.”

In 1950, “Truth or Consequences” creator Ralph Edwards promised to do his national tv program from the first town that agreed to rename itself for the show. Hot Springs, New Mexico won the contest and promptly changed its name to “Truth or Consequences.” The game show is long gone but the town’s strange name remains today.

So, here’s the “Truth” of Truth or Consequences. “T or C” (as it’s known) is a dusty desert town of 7,000 people and the county seat of Sierra County, New Mexico. The nearby Rio Grande provides water and some recreation. Cactus patches speckle the rocky hillsides. The barren face of the Caballo Range towers in the distance, and beyond that lies the ancient Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead Man.

Sierra County in the state of New Mexico
Desert scene, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Desert towns can be odd and seem to stretch reality. Walking down Main Street feels like walking through a kaleidoscopic canyon. Storefronts are mostly trinket shops painted multiple pastel colors and the aroma of burned incense and marijuana fills the air around them.

Dust & Glitter, Truth or Consequences

Across the street, a lawyer’s office is painted in red and white stripes as if it were a circus tent.

Lawyer’s offices, Truth or Consequences

Homes built of rocks cling to the hillsides above Main Street; their porch supports are stacks of rocks.  Many of the residents seem to be retirees who came here for the blue skies and warm weather. Yet this isn’t a wealthy town, so presumably many of those might be retired schoolteachers living on state pensions.

Hillside rock home, Truth or Consequences

As I turned the corner onto Broadway, I found an open diner. I ordered some green chili or “chile verde” as New Mexicans call it. Chile verde is not simply a green version of chili con carne.  It’s a stew with meat (usually pork), potatoes or other vegetables, and chopped green chilies added for a kick. This is perhaps New Mexico’s signature food — each restaurant seems to have its own recipe. Although you can find red chili on most menus here, it is referred to as “Texas Red” and is delivered to your table with some under-the-breath derision.

I overheard some waitresses chatting among themselves.

One said, “I think [man’s name redacted] might just claim my youngest to be his real daughter.”

“The one in first grade now?” another waitress asked.

“Yes.”

“Oh, she looks just like him.”

So once upon a time there was a Truth and now there are Consequences.

On my way out of town I saw, incredibly, some Occupy Wall Street protesters! There were maybe 10 of them, all old hippies, holding signs in the town park at the corner of Main and Broadway. They seemed to be a quixotic bunch, protesting Wall Street in a town too small to have a three-story bank. As I slowly drove by, I could overhear one of them explain “right-wingers” this way: “It’s in their genes so they can’t resist the urge to hate.”  I’d hate to see the Occupy bunch turn into the next eugenics movement.

I tweeted about it later:

“I saw protesters today at Occupy Truth or Consequences New Mexico!! A dozen peyote-smoking middle-aged hippies. Truth!”

To my shock, I got an answer from one of them:

@que_taylor: “There were 18 of us and thank you for saying ‘middle'”

You’re welcome @que_taylor.  I looked up @que_taylor on twitter. She describes herself as “K Taylor: Math teacher, single mom with grandchildren, fan of humanitarians, love to re-post good tweets”. I looked up some of her other tweets. They weren’t as friendly as the one she sent to me:

“For one thing, #OWS are testing local police forces and local authorities; exposing the thugs and police-state mentalities.”

“Don’t put the bread in the oven until it’s done rising. #OWS is far larger than T-baggers. No need to get personal.”

@que_taylor and the Occupy Wall Street people in Truth or Consequences might be having a problem understanding Truth. The police force here doesn’t seem to be thugs or the leaders of a police state. In fact, their headquarters are in the Sierra County Courthouse just 200 yards away. Although the protesters are clearly visible from the courthouse the sheriff isn’t marching out with his shock troops.

Sierra County Courthouse, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

OWS might also be having a problem understanding Consequences. If they really lived in a police state they wouldn’t be able to protest openly in the town park, and their bodies would likely wind up at the bottom of the nearby Rio Grande.

In the final analysis, OWS is simply demanding things for themselves that others have earned for themselves. I was in other parts of New Mexico the same week I was in Truth and Consequences.  Here are some alternative cause-and-effect scenarios.

There’s a burgeoning energy industry in the northwestern corner of the state, near the desert towns of Farmington and Aztec.  Natural gas collection sites are dispersed among desert rocks and sagebrush. Pickup trucks servicing the sites invariably pass you at 15 miles above the highway speed limit. That’s all ok though. The ultimate consequence of the energy work is blooming desert towns with middle-class jobs and homes.

Main Street Bistro, Aztec, New Mexico
Residential Street, Aztec, New Mexico

But suppose you don’t want a mortgage or a 9-to-5 job. Eschewing traditional occupations, both Jack Kerouac in the 1950s and the old mountain men of the 1830s chose to wander the countryside with a pack and a tough pair of boots. They demanded nothing from anyone. The consequences of such a life would include hiding under rock ledges during storms. However, after the rain stopped, they would be rewarded with sights like this:

Foliage and homes near Jemez Springs, New Mexico
Jemez Canyon, New Mexico

So in the end, the vocal residents of Truth or Consequences don’t seem to have a firm grip on Truth. Because of that, they experience only imaginary Consequences. It’s sad and I feel sorry for those modern-day Don Quixotes.


A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

I’m trying to travel to all of America’s county courthouses, and each month a post about my visit to the most interesting county seats. It’s only a hobby — but donations are greatly appreciated to help defer my costs.
Thanks,
Tim

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