Sunday, March 9, 2008

A New Generation Views Los Alamos

Whenever guests arrive for a prolonged stay, they usually have certain attractions on their list of places to see. One of my least favorites is Los Alamos. As a child of the atomic age who remembers her dad bringing home an 8mm reel of the bombing of Hiroshima, I still have that horror implanted in my psyche. For those who were born after the end of WWII or for those who never saw the news clips of the human and property devastation visited upon Japan, Los Alamos is merely a tourist attraction on New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau.

Recently our daughter, son-in-law, and teenage grandson wanted to drive up through the Jemez Mountains to Los Alamos. We agreed to mount the excursion but included some other, gentler sites such as Valle Caldera National Preserve, Jemez Pueblo, and the tiny city of Jemez Springs. For our grandson, it was to be a history lesson wrapped up as an outing.

For travelers unfamiliar with Los Alamos, it is a city unlike any other in New Mexico, perhaps in the U.S. First, the cultural mix, so obvious in the rest of the state, is missing. Instead of Anglos, Hispanics and Native Americans, you find an international amalgam of highly educated nuclear physicists, chemists, and other branches of science. Los Alamos schools always come out on top in state ratings, and the per capita income is also highest.

In 1917 in what is now Los Alamos, a wealthy Detroit businessman named Ashley Pond purchased the Harold H. Brook homestead. His dream was to create a school dedicated to transforming sheltered boys from wealthy families into robust scholars. By 1918 his vision was a reality in the Los Alamos Ranch School.

During the dark days of World War II, the U.S. government embarked on the Manhattan Project, a top secret venture to tame the power of the atom. They had five considerations for the location of their lab: available housing for 30 scientists, land owned by the government or easily acquired in secrecy, and area large and uninhabited enough to permit safe separation of experimental sites, easy control of access for security, and sufficient cleared land so new building could be started immediately.

The Los Alamos Ranch School was selected because J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of scientific research, knew about the academy. His family summer home was in the mountains at the headwaters of the Pecos River, and as a boy he’d ridden over the mesas of the Pajarito Plateau on pack trips.

After the detonation of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered and World War II ended, but the work at the labs has gone on with half the effort devoted to the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Detailing the history of the labs and the city, the Bradbury Science Museum has 8,500 feet of exhibit space devoted to interpreting the role of the laboratory to the lay public. To envisage an authentic picture of the time period, no one should miss the 20-minute video, The Town That Never Was.

Located next to the Bradbury, Otowi Station Science Museum Shop & Bookstore has the best selection of books on Los Alamos, the region, and New Mexico in general. In addition, they stock tee shirts, educational toys, stuffed animals, etc. Of course our grandson had to have an atomic bomb tee to impress his buddies back in New Jersey. Maybe I should dig out that old film clip.

The Los Alamos Historical Museum, housed in the former Ranch School infirmary, is a personal favorite. Here, more than anywhere else, you get an idea of the flow of time and events. Exhibits deal with area geology and prehistory, homesteading, the Ranch School, and the Manhattan Project. A small bookstore is in one wing of the building.

Los Alamos has two restaurants of note, The Blue Window Bistro for fine dining, and The Hill for solid diner food. As we pulled into the Hill parking lot, we noticed a great many customers leaving with Styrofoam containers. This should have told us something. The portions are huge! My chicken fried chicken with mashed and glazed carrots would have fed three normal hungers. Their special, banana cream pie, almost defies description. We shared three pieces among five people, and even our grandson with his teenage appetite couldn’t finish his portion. We left Los Alamos totally surfeited with food, returning to Albuquerque via the highways rather than the byways.

The Bradbury Science Museum, Central Avenue and 15th St, Los Alamos, 87544. (505) 667-4444.

The Hill Diner, 1315 Trinity, Los Alamos, 87544. (505) 662-9745.

Los Alamos Historical Museum, 1921 Juniper Street, Los Alamos, 87544. (505) 662-4493.

1 comment:

  1. The Bush administration has unabashedly filled its coffers for a whole new generation of weapons.