Adam to Atom
My first job (not counting being the swamper in my family's water well drilling business) was for the School of American Research. To be scrupulously honest, my first "job" didn't pay--I was a volunteer at age 14 because I wanted to associate myself with the director of the School, Dr. Edward Weyer, who had done some absolutely spectacular ethnological work in Brazil among the Chavante and Camayurá cultures deep in the Amazon Basin. This was in the 1950s. He had taken a 16mm Bolex movie camera into the rain forest and emerged with the most amazing footage I had ever seen. Granted, I hadn't seen much at that age, but when my mother took me to his lecture I was instantly consumed by the notion that the past lives into the present. I was a little naïve, admittedly, but now, half a century later, I'm feeling strong about first impressions.
I continued doing archeology, with SAR, the Museum of New Mexico and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. What a time! In Tikal, Guatemala I was co-discoverer and first to enter an intact Early Classic Maya tomb; on Unkar Delta in the Grand Canyon I excavated a tiny ruin whose story told of occupation, a flood, re-occupation and a final, sad abandonment. On the North Rim, I did surveys -- one of the most glorious jobs on the planet because it meant walking, walking, walking across the Kaibab Plateau looking for indications of human settlements and attempting to tie them to the dwellings five thousand feet below on the Colorado River.
As it happened, anthropology did not become my livelihood despite my love for (especially) the digging part; the search for Adam, as it were. What did happen was that my passion for digging gave way to drilling for water in wells. That was a wonderful career; there is nothing, I mean nothing, that can compare to causing water to flow out of a hole in the earth. It's a primitive feeling that has no comparable in my experience. Nevertheless, when I decided that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life riding the back end of a drilling rig, I made a move that has been thrilling because it reinforced my youthful naiveté by connecting past and present in a very real way.
Historic preservation, more accurately architectural conservation, is intriguing to me for one reason; like art it's personal, and the effect it has is purely subjective. A building and its imbued message either grabs you or it doesn't. I have visited profoundly historic sites all over the world. In some cases, I have been moved on an aesthetic level (the Fortress of Peter and Paul in Leningrad), on an intellectual level (I presented a paper in the same room in which Galileo taught in Padua), on an emotional level (Angel Island in San Francisco Bay). I have been to many, many other sites that didn't touch me at all, though they provided great places for picnics.
The most important, impressive and emotionally moving project that I have ever been involved with is V-Site, the architecturally non-descript building in Los Alamos where the first atom bomb was assembled.
We just received an award or the restoration of V-(for Victory)Site from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I am grateful for the award, and acknowledge the partners: The Department of Energy; Los Alamos National Laboratory and the lab's Cultural Resources Management team leader, John Isaacson, and Historic Buildings project leader, Ellen McGehee; the Atomic Heritage Foundation; the U.S. Department of Energy's Director of the Office of Management; and the general contractor, J. B. Henderson, Inc.
As you can no doubt infer from the list above, we were a bit player in a big, significant production that began in 1944. After all, whatever your opinion about nuclear energy, the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer or the atom bomb, it would be hard to deny that the bomb's development, assembly and use changed the world forever. V-Site took me from Adam to Atom.
So, let me tell you a bit of the story.
First, at Los Alamos there are Rules. Yes, initial cap, Rules. V-Site is in a restricted area; there is stuff there from 60 years ago and from yesterday that I don't even want to know about. Badges were required, and security clearances, and escorts for every move. No cameras, no cell phones, nothing. In fact, and get this, we were not authorized to touch anything. J. B. Henderson is the lab's general contractor for projects like this, but because they are not experienced in preservation and conservation, we were given the contract to consult. Consulting means just that -- synapses and words, nothing more. So we would go to V-Site several times a week to snap and speak. It was awkward for hands-on people such as we, and expensive for us taxpayers, but it worked because Henderson was a fabulous partner and translated our abstract instructions and recommendations into faithfully executed reality.
V-Site, as I have said, is not a pretty site by any means. It's green and gray and has no pleasing masses or dimensions -- not even on an industrial level. But not everything is preserved for beauty. My project manager for V-Site, Jonah Stanford, grasped this on his first visit when he noted that, paraphrasing, ". . .it was like they had just left. The coffee cup was on the bench, there were old 5-digit phone numbers written on the wall in pencil along with the pie-are-squares."
And that is the significance. The building is nothing; frame, deeply bermed-in just in case there was an accident, clad in asbestos shingles. The part that moves the mind and emotions is what is scribbled on the walls and, to me, the relict plumbing.
Inside this "High Bay" building, so named for the tall doors and overhead hoist for lifting the "gadget," are pipes and tanks and valves. I spent a goodly amount of time trying to figure out what everything did, and felt at one point that I had an inkling. Until I imagined Enrico Fermi or Neils Bohr or Edward Teller hesitantly, with an arm over their eyes, easing open a gate valve and hoping for the best. Really, I had no idea -- couldn't, because those geniuses were dealing with substances that even they weren't quite sure would behave as their scrawled formulae predicted.
Preserving V-Site was less about architecture and more about artifacts. Not artifacts in the way we normally think of them, strange and ancient, but in this case as familiar as the components of the heating system in my own house. This of course was plumbing that changed the world and had been assembled by some very clever journeymen, indeed.
My first youthful intellectual swooning inspired by Dr. Weyer's talk on the natives of Brazil reached an apogee in Los Alamos where, in an equally alien realm, I experienced the connectedness of the past, with the present. . . and the future.