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Trinity's Children: Living Along America's Nuclear Highway.

Trinity's Children: Living Along America's Nuclear Highway. Tad Bartimus, Scott McCartney. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $22.95. Native New Yorkers Mary and Richard Carter decided to enjoy their retirement someplace more temperate and sedate. They chose a ranch house in Four Hills, an exclusive subdivision perched above Albuquerque, New Mexico. Nestled in the Manzano Mountains, the house abuts what is generally believed to be the U.S. Air Force's largest storage facility for nuclear warheads.

At the edge of the Carter's backyard runs a chain-link fence. On the other side of that fence stretches empty land. In the distance are concrete doors built into the mountains-doors reputed to mask vaults containing cruise missiles, Titan 11 and Minuteman Ill warheads, and other offal of the arms race. The Carters do not mind. They believe the weapons are safely stowed. They don't think about whether they themselves might be a nuclear target. What they do think about is the pleasure of having government-owned land right next door. "The good thing about it," Richard Carter explains to the authors, "is that there is so much clear area behind the house. And you know that nobody is going to build up against us." And who could disagree? After all, what truly matters to most of us? The grisly specter of Mutually Assured Destruction? Hardly. What matters is the sanctity of property values. The Carters are two of dozens of compelling characters Associated Press reporters Bartimus and McCartney found up and down America's "Nuclear Highway"-that stretch of Interstate 25 that begins around Las Cruces, New Mexico, and ends around Casper, Wyoming-during their grim four-year assignment. They visited ranchers living near the Trinity site in New Mexico where the first A-bomb was detonated in 1945; high-tech SDI investors who brought a very temporary affluence to Colorado Springs; an Albuquerque glassblower who learned his art in occupied Poland and now applies it making lasers for Star Wars weapons; young Air Force officers who staff the MX missile silos in Wyoming; and scores of citizens, protesters, believers, and spokes-persons who occupy the hot stretch of Western desert that has changed utterly since J. Robert Oppenheimer and his crew sojourned there. The Carters fall into that category of sturdy citizens (and you can find them everywhere in the world) who prefer not to confront the unthinkable. Worried about the maturity date of their CDs and the health of their tall fescue, these people prefer to ignore the fact that the mild drama of their lives is being lived out, literally, next door to the bomb. They are comfortably afflicted with what Nietzsche called the "will to ignorance." Among them you'll find workers at the notorious (and recently shut-down) Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Denver, Colorado-workers who stopped hanging around their colleague, janitor Don Gabel, when he was dying of a mysterious brain tumor. You'll find John Bartlit, a scientist at New Mexico's Los Alamos lab who heads up an environmentalist group called New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water but, according to this book, declines to tackle the problem of radioactive waste produced by his own employer. You'll find Ken Kirkbride, a World War 11 veteran who believes the timely detonation of the bomb saved his life. For this reason he agreed to let the Air Force house a Minuteman missile in a silo on his Wyoming ranch and continues to support the idea of nuclear proliferation as a means of nuclear deterrence. Kirkbride's aunt probably feels differently. While the Air Force was digging the silos, they did annoying little things like fail to mark trenches dug in main roads; she unwittingly drove her car into one of them and was crippled for life.

Then there are the potential victims of barely averted nuclear mistakes. How many people know that the Air Force accidentally bombed-not once but twice-Oppenheimer's gang at die Trinity site? Or that in 1957, a nuclear bomb was dropped on Albuquerque (but failed to detonate) when an airman fell against the wrong lever? How many taxpayers heard the news when a repairman inserted a test tape into a missile-tracking computer at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), sending the message that an enemy attack was coming? By now it's public knowledge that the U.S. government misjudged wind patterns when it built Rocky Flats, ensuring that folks living downwind from the facility would be exposed to its emissions. But who heard that Rockwell international, the private firm contracted to operate Rocky Flats, contributed only $10 to the memorial fund of the cancer-ridden Don Gabel? Or that the Department of Energy "lost" Gabel's brain after shipping it off to Los Alamos for examination?

In addition to dredging up these sorry incidents, Bartimus and McCartney show a keen eye for detail. It may not be Pulitzer material, but it's interesting to know that the MIRACL laser (a proto-Star Wars weapon) costs more to run per second than the entire federal government; that as many as six officials may have access to the code that would launch a nuclear strike; that a man named Francis Dellenbach is living in an abandoned missile silo and has painted its doors (which leak) hot pink. True daily reporters, they have amassed an impressive arsenal of fact and outrage. All of which makes it doubly disappointing that the result of their labors is so hard to follow. Having assembled all this great stuff, the authors decline to write an influential book-or even a very readable one. Instead of setting forth any kind of argument, they confront the unthinkable with platitudes.

Ideally, the book format gives the deadline-whipped reporter more room to play. Repeatedly, however, Trinity's Children subjects us to the most shopworn of homilies. Over and over we are reminded that "good fences do not make good neighbors." In their conclusion, the authors manage to insert two of their most oft-used cliches almost simultaneously in an apparent effort to sum up the book without actually saying anything. "The people of the Nuclear Highway," they tell us, "have learned that no army ever retreats, that living next to the Bomb can be hazardous, that you can never put the genie back into the bottle." And then: [T]he people of this place that has been on the front lines of momentous history have learned that there is always a silver lining in nuclear weapons work." Confronting the biggest bang of all, Trinity's Children ends with not so much a whimper as a deliberate flat note. With so many lives on the line, that's a truly disheartening choice.
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Author:Mundy, Liza
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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