Monday, May 07, 2012

Atom Bombs and Aliens

More often than not, Las Vegas is on our route back and forth to the Northwest.  We’re not particularly fond of Las Vegas; the crowds, traffic, and cigarette smoke annoy us, and we’ve found that in spite of all of their best efforts, casinos all look the same once you’re inside.
We lived here in the late 70s, back when all-you-can eat buffets were $1.99, the downtown was roofless, and playing the nickel slots was an exciting experience.  We didn’t really enjoy our time here; the weather was extreme (the week we arrived it was 110+ every day for a week), but mostly because everyone’s lives seemed to revolve around the gaming industry.  There was a small, really crummy zoo, no museums that are worth mentioning, and a night of culture was to go bowling at the Showboat Casino (two floors of alleys – this was the BIG time!).
So in between stocking up on groceries at Nellis AFB (we stayed at the base campground, our review here), we took a drive around town to see what had changed.  Not much.  Same uncompleted buildings, sidewalks packed with people, pall of cigarette smoke, and people of questionable citizenship handing out flyers for girlie clubs.  We opted instead to visit the National Atomic Testing Museum, one of the newer attractions and one for which I’d scored a half-off Groupon.Atomic Museum Exterior
It was a treat for me to be able to show Brenda some of the things I was involved in while stationed here.  You see, I wasn’t assigned to Nellis AFB, but to a didn’t-really-exist detachment that took me away from home four or five days a week.  Back then, we referred to our workplace as “Mercury”, or if someone was more familiar with the Test Site, “Groom Lake”, or what is now known as “Area 51”. 
Brenda w Robbie the RobotEntering the museum, we were greeted by Robbie the Robot, who of course tried to hit on Brenda.  Unsuccessfully.  The first portion of the museum was filled with exhibits that took you back to the 50s and the Cold War.  For those that didn’t grow up under the shadow

Atomic Museum Display
of a nuclear holocaust, it painted a clear picture of those days – a scary time.  What made the visit special for me was the section on underground testing.  Atomic Museum Display2During underground tests, I would be part of a two-man team that provided air traffic control for the aircraft involved in the test.  We would sit at a console in the control room, which at the time was Stars Wars……a huge wall with live color video of the test site, projections of seismographs, wind information, and other data – sort of like Houston Control.  There were a number of aircraft involved in each test, from helicopters providing video and measuring ground radiation, aircraft measuring winds aloft, and others measuring any pressure wave caused by the test.  Even though the “device” was detonated 3000’ down, there was always a concern that radioactive gas could escape (never happened while I was there).  The suspense was palatable as the countdown progressed, and when the device detonated, you could see the ground wave coming toward the camera, just like a wave in the ocean.  Usually the underground chamber would fall in and form a crater soon after the test, but some took hours, some days, some never cratered.  There was always a lively betting pool on when the crater would occur.  Being able to show what I was involved in after all these years was fun for me – after all, for almost two years I’d come home and when she’d ask me what I did all week I couldn’t tell her.
But the real fun started when we entered the Area 51 exhibit.  First, we were issued a glow-in-the-dark badge on a lanyard and told not to remove it or we’d be arrested.  Then we entered a room where we were given a briefing by “Mr. Black” and ordered never to tell what we were about to see.  It was a video, and “Mr. Black” looked like Dan Akroyd in his Blues Brothers outfit.  Down the corridor we went, into……..Area 51!
Obviously, no pictures were allowed, but I can tell you that the it was another trip into the past for me.  Some of the projects that I was involved in were described, there were pictures of some of the Russian Migs that were part of our operation, and even pictures of some of the people I worked with.  It took a few years, but Brenda was finally able to see some of what and where it was that I disappeared to each week.  There was a section devoted to the possibility of aliens and captured technology, but as I told Brenda, there were no aliens at Area 51 while I was there.  Although there were some strange-looking people with cone-shaped heads.  But they said they were from France…..
My trip down memory lane ended with a stern warning to forget I was ever there (just like the old days!), a return of our glowing badges, and a stop at the gift shop.  It was an entertaining and interesting –if you’re in the area, it’s worth a visit.
We’re in Oregon now, so come back and see what we’re up to!


  1. If I lived in the northwest, I think they'd have to tear me away. On my trip west, I met my daughter in Vegas and hated every moment of it--stayed on a cement slab in Boulder City--Hoover Dam was nice to see, but that was it.

    I'm glad I found your blog--I see you've been in a number of places that I love, and many that I'd like to see.

    Enjoy your travels.

  2. Crap...we were going to go to that museum but ran out of time. Thanks for at least letting us know that it will be worth going back to.
    I read about Area 51 and thought that would probably be the highlight of our visit. Glad to hear it was great. Glad you had some wonderful memories and Brenda can share some of those with you now.