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Jack Smith

As an observer of the Nevada nuclear tests of the '50s, he got a kick out of the show

April 16, 1985|JACK SMITH

It seems incredible that an entire generation has been born and grown almost into middle age in the grotesque reality of nuclear weaponry.

I am reminded of this uneasy passage by a letter from my friend Roger A. Johnson, for many years a top man with United Press. In the years of World War II, Johnson was head of the news desk in San Francisco, handling the heavy file of war news from the Pacific. He is now living with his wife, Ellen, in semiretirement at Lake Havasu City, Ariz., a place that he helped put on the national map.

Johnson was moved to write me on the approaching 30th anniversary of a Nevada bomb test that he happened to witness, and one that he recalls with irony because it was used by a Las Vegas nightclub as the background of a publicity stunt.

"For some reason," he recalls, "I was there as an observer to get an inkling of whether American Cans, Honeywell wall thermostats, Pacific Gas Assn. equipment, RCA TV sets and other indispensable tools of domestic life would survive a nuclear device yielding 29 kilotons, and since this was mainly a civilian blowout, especially whether the mannequin moms, pops and kids were likely to survive.

"On that day we walked out of Luigi's pioneer lasagna cafe in Las Vegas (veal cutlet, fettuccine and a bottle of Chianti for less than $4), climbed into the familiar old bus chartered by the Atomic Energy Commission and rode north up the familiar 100 miles past Indian Springs and Mercury to Yucca Flats."

For 19 days they made that same trip, going back and forth; always the test was called off because of adverse weather conditions.

Meanwhile, every morning, at exactly 3:45, the chorus girls of the new Riviera would assemble on the roof of the hotel--decked out in full-length, black-mesh hose and peekaboo blouses.

"The wide mesh, of course," Johnson observes, "was no protection against the penetrating high-desert chill. But for flash photography and lighted filming the mesh was unbeatable on shapely, long legs at full kick.

"The promotional goal of the Riviera, it may be supposed, was to frame the legs against the well-known and frequently admired color fantasies of exploding atomic bombs, known more correctly as nuclear devices to the folks at Los Alamos."

Johnson was staying at that time at the Showboat Motel, and the daily drill went like this. He called a central information station (or they called him) to advise on whether it was Go, Uncertain or Bad.

"You had been leading a strange normal life, doing whatever you might want to do in Las Vegas of the 1950s--including reading a book. The crapshooters mostly paid no attention to what you were doing. But the few gamblers among us inevitably damaged their cash flow and inflicted grievous wounds on their expense accounts. Las Vegas was an unsatisfactory dateline when asking the home office to preserve your liquidity, and weakness of character was vaguely suspected."

In the middle of the night they would board the bus and ride up the long grade, arriving at News Nob in plenty of time for the meteorologists to decide whether it was Go or No Go. Night after night it had been No Go. A trace of breeze to the east, a high wind to the south, Santa Ana winds from the west, a possibility of rain. The test would be called off before 4 a.m., and they would climb aboard the bus and try to sleep the 100 miles down the hill.

But at dawn on Cinco de Mayo, 1955, it was suddenly Go. All along the civilian line, people snapped to a tense attention. "We assumed," Johnson recalls, "that the chorus girls, given the signal, were kicking in vigorous unison, graceful in cadence and hopeful that this, too, would be the last time they would have to show up on the casino roof. . . ."

Wood and brick bungalows had been built at a certain distance from Ground Zero. They were peopled with mannequins dressed as American farmers or office dwellers, perhaps sitting at dinner, or working at their overdue income taxes, but presumably unaware that a multi-kiloton explosion was about to occur within walking distance of their backyards.

"Then came the countdown. We were wearing goggles, and we had been admonished to brace ourselves for a heavy wave of motion that might knock us over; and suddenly there was a great ball of light, then a ball of orange, then a long mass of blue and swirling clouds of desert dust and sand. . . .

"I stayed through the next 48 hours while the area was being cleared. A 'mother' wearing a wig lost the top of her head, and her infant daughter was blown through a window of a neighbor's bungalow and on to a huge propane tank. A mannequin 'father' was knocked from the bathroom into the kitchen. 'We would have had many casualties,' said one of the AEC people. 'I mean dead people.' Others called it a disaster.

"The girls on the Riviera roof had done their job well, kicking themselves into exhaustion against the colorful backdrop of the blue and orange killer who could be seen drifting in the early morning dawn in the general direction of where Utah, Arizona and Nevada coincide."

There is something wonderfully Western about the insouciance of the chorus girls of the Riviera, dancing on the roof of the casino hotel while our mad scientists were playing at Armageddon on the nearby desert.

On with the show!

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