Are You Telling Me That This Sucker’s Nuclear? Adventures in Atomic Tourism
2012 Column Contest Winner
Anne Wheeler used to live in the Pacific Northwest and have purple hair and piercings, but now works for “The Man” at a white-shoe law firm in the South. To balance this assault on her soul, and free the ‘90s Goth girl within, she spends her free time working as a cemetery tour guide and exploring the vestiges of the Atomic Era.
BY ANNE WHEELER
I stole a radioactive rock from the Nevada National Security Site. I know, I know.
The Nevada National Security Site is situated in the desert about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. NNSS is the current cluster of letters used to name the site that the US used to detonate most of the atomic tests of the last century. As repeated nuclear tests and an unrelenting sun will do, the entire area looks like what would happen if you put Nevada in the microwave for too long and then let it chain-smoke Marlboro Reds for fifty years.
I’ve been on this atomic kick for the last few years, which generally just makes first dates turn into last ones and gets me followed by entities like The Department of the Interior on Twitter. But, it has also taken me to some pretty cool places, even when they look like overcooked bacon. The NNSS is like a national park except nuclear. And the first rule of national parks is, you’re not supposed to take stuff. You’re also not allowed to take pictures or record anything at the NNSS, which is kind of a downer. Anyway, a souvenir that I wasn’t supposed to have was just too tempting for me. While our tour guides were letting us amble around the Icecap test tower, I feigned an untied shoe (I was wearing Danskos, suckers!) and quickly scooped-up a rock and put it in my pocket.
The next day, I tested the rock for radioactivity using one of the Geiger counters on display at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, which if you’re inclined to visit, is way out past the defunct Liberace Museum, but an easy bus ride away from the nice hotels on The Strip or even the decaying opulence of Fremont Street. The rock registered a lower radioactivity than the chunk of Radioactive Red Fiestaware on display, but still managed to coax a satisfying series of blips from the device. My rock was indeed radioactive, so I did what any other lady in her early thirties would do—I stashed it in my pocket and continued exploring the museum.
I watched the atomic blast reenactment from the bleachers in the Ground Zero Theater, paged through the hand-drawn, Technicolor-bright, Certificates of Participation, created for everyone involved in the tests, looked at the Atomic Era barware and games (if you were a lucky, and rich kid in the fifties, you may have had a Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab, which allowed you to “play” with actual uranium ore), and of course marveled at the apocalyptic yearbook presenting pre and post blast pictures of JC Penney mannequins1, all with Atomic Era history secreted away in my pants.
I spent the better part of the day at the museum, but this was my third trip, and I was pretty spent from traipsing all over the test site the day before. I boarded the bus back to the hotel early in the afternoon. This placed me back on Fremont Street just in time for the opening of my super-seedy hotel’s dinner buffet. Like most Americans, I simply cannot resist the charm of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Particularly when I have a half-off coupon.
The scene in the dining room was pretty grim. The mid-eighties Florida Floral and gaudy brass chandeliers could not camouflage the desperation and good old-fashioned self-loathing of the patrons. It was like a grotesque diorama of Sloth and Envy styled after an episode of The Golden Girls. But there was seafood! And a spread of mayonnaise-based salads that would make Paula Deen weep. And I had a radioactive rock in my pocket! What more could a girl ask for?
I loaded-up my plate like I would never eat again. Crab legs, lots and lots of crab legs, shrimp, prime rib and “fresh” Gulf oysters. Now I live in Louisiana. Where Gulf oysters come from. So of course I thought it a good idea to eat oysters from a questionable buffet in the middle of the desert, 1500 miles from the Gulf. I could taste the oysters’ non-freshness. Rather than mermaid tears, they tasted like muddy globs of death, or what I imagined a tar-ball to taste like. The spread was really sub-par overall. (See my Yelp review.) However, I made-up for what was lacking in quality with quantity consumed.
Once I made my way through approximately four plates of mediocre food, I waddled out of the buffet and onto the casino floor. It was very early evening, so I couldn’t very well head to my room for the night without surrendering what cool points I had left after touring an atomic test site. One purpose. For fun.
Instead I found my favorite nickel slot machine, Texas Tea. Texas Tea has been around for years. It is now generally relegated to the worn-out downtown Las Vegas hotels and gambling outposts like Jackpot, NV. The best part of Texas Tea, aside from Texas Ted’s awesome mustache, is the bonus round. In the bonus round, you get to place oil derricks in different regions of Texas. You get to be an oil speculator! As a rule, I always bet on the Beaumont region. It just works for me. Usually. I started playing with $20, which is like a billion dollars in nickels, and by the end of a couple of hours, I was three gin and tonics in, down to $7.15 and sweating profusely. Maybe it was the booze, or the enormous amount of food I’d consumed, or maybe Texas Tea was just a cruel, cruel siren, luring me in with its armadillos and longhorns and smashing me upon the very offshore rig sprouting my Texas Tea bonus. But I digress.
I was surprised that my radioactive rock hadn’t brought better luck. So I cashed out. If you can even call receiving a paper printout while the machine struggles with a .wav file of not even real coins clanging, “cashing-out.” I headed up to my room.
I carefully placed my radioactive rock on the counter in the bathroom where I could see it from the tub and took a bubble bath. And an Ambien. In the tub I started at my rock and enjoyed a few more pages of Idaho Falls, a book detailing the first atomic disaster in the US, given to me by my mom and dad for Easter. Nothing celebrates the resurrection of our lord and savior like a book about nuclear accidents.
Now the Country Music Association or some other organized musical shit-kickery was holding an awards ceremony and related festivities during my stay. Most of the action took place on Fremont Street. Lucky for me, my room was immediately above one of the stages. Like feet above. This configuration all but ensured an awesome night of sleep for me even considering the Ambien. I woke-up in the middle of the night tangled-up in the greasy, Florida Floral polyester bedspread with a bloody nose, which was not awesome. I was so very uncomfortable.
Finally it was 5 am. This seemed like a reasonable hour to get-up, have a breakfast buffet and get the hell to the airport for my early afternoon flight. I packed, i.e., threw everything in my bag, but carefully placed my radioactive rock in my pocket for safe transport.
I checked-in for my flight, handed-over my bags and headed to the TSA checkpoint. You know how they ask you to take everything out of your pockets? Well, I didn’t. I mean, I took most of the stuff out of my pockets, but I left the rock safely stowed in my pocket. My plan was to say that the rock must have been left over from the stonewashing process used on my jeans, and I hadn’t noticed it before, and oh my god it was radioactive? That’s crazy. Someone had better tell The Gap. Luckily, the fine folks at the checkpoint didn’t notice my radioactive rock. Good job, America.
I usually have a window seat and suffer from flight-induced narcolepsy (not a real thing). It’s a good deal. Gate to gate, I sleep. Usually. This time, I did not. Airplane seats are not known for their spaciousness, and I have a 38” inseam, but this time, I was more than just tall-girl-on-an-airplane-uncomfortable. I felt like my skin was going to burst, kielbasa-on-the-grill style. Something was not right. I became horrifically ill. I used the airsickness bag (check that off my bucket list) and lurched my way to the lavatory. I don’t know how long I was in there, but it was long enough that the flight attendant came and checked on me.
I made it back to my seat, with the flight attendant attending to me the entire way. I was not well. I had a fever, was freezing cold, yet sweating profusely. My stomach was you-have-died-of-dysentery upset. What the hell was wrong with me? I had never in my life had airsickness. This had to be something else. Another passenger noticed my horrible state and gave me some anti-nausea drugs, which very well could have been meth or crack or rat poison (thanks for not poisoning me, fellow passenger!). My stomach settled a bit.
I decided somewhere over Texas that upon landing I would immediately take a cab to the ER. I went through every Web MD-style diagnosis I could think of. Most of the causes I thought of were completely reasonable. Highlights include: radiation poisoning, pregnancy, flu, food poisoning, leprosy and yellow fever.
When we landed, I made the decision to die in my own bed. Once home I stripped off my clothes and climbed into bed and slept for 16 hours sans Ambien.
The next couple of days were a carnival of fun, and basically went like this:
Oh my god I haven’t peed in two days.
I decided this was not good.
I went to urgent care. I must have looked horrible. Dr. Peacock (real name) saw me immediately. Trying to pinpoint the cause of my distress, he asked me what I’d been up to the last few days. I told him about my visit to the NNSS, the buffet-eating, time on the plane and other details of my adventure. (I didn’t tell him about my rock.) Despite feeling like I was on my deathbed, Dr. Peacock assured me that I was just severely dehydrated and likely had a stomach bug caught on the plane or slightly less likely, from something on the buffet. Boring.
Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m weird. And when I’m sick, the weird shines all the brighter. As Dr. Peacock wrote out my prescriptions, I asked him if I could possibly have radiation poisoning. He gave me the strangest look, i.e., you’re crazy, but I know you don’t feel well, so I’m not going to tell you that, and said that he really doubted it.
I filled my prescriptions, went home and made my way through an industrial-sized bottle of grape Gatorade. I actually kept the liquid in my body and felt a tiny bit better. Quite possibly because of my over-exposure to post-apocalyptic literature, I still wondered if I could have radiation poisoning, because you know, in those books, the dying always feel better right before the end. With these thoughts in mind I fell asleep.
I was jarred awake by an electrical storm of such power that I thought the port a few blocks away had been bombed. Or there was a horde of paparazzi in my backyard with incredibly bright flashbulbs. Either way. I’d fallen asleep without turning-on any lights in the house and the storm had made it very dark. After realizing that I wasn’t in fact in the middle of The Blitz or a Hollywood premier, I took a chance and went to the bathroom. And guess what? I was almost okay! I completed my bathroom business and started back to my bedroom. I realized that I should check the front door because who knew if I’d had the brain power to lock it at some point in the last couple of days.
I started for the front door. Then I saw it.
There was a green glow on my mantle. Like ectoplasm green. G-l-o-w-i-n-g. Shit. It was my radioactive rock and I totally had radiation poisoning.
Thoughts collided in my brain. I immediately thought to write everything down. I would surely die in a few agonizing days if On the Beach, Alas Babylon and all of those other books had it right. And that episode of NCIS where Ziva falls in love with that guys she sees on her morning runs in the orange stocking cap only to have him die of radiation poisoning before things can really even start? That is so romantic. Maybe my prince will come out of the fallout shelter because of all of this. My parents are going to kill me. This is totally an Anne move. I should probably tell someone about the rock. I should totally tweet this. I wonder if it’s affected my neighbors? Maybe they’ll turn the house into a superfund site like in The Radioactive Boy Scout? Maybe I’ll pull through. Should I take some iodine or something? I don’t think I have any. I should go to Walgreens and get some. This sucks, for sure, but is kind of awesome.
I was standing in the doorway a good distance from the mantle during my mini meltdown. It was dark. I didn’t have my glasses on. I was sick. I had to get some pictures of the radioactive rock and Instagram the shit out of them before I died. I’d probably get a ton of new followers for this one. I grabbed my iPhone from my bedroom and, still in the doorway, took a picture. I needed more pictures and moved closer to the mantle. I figured, what the hell? I was already going to die. I got really close to the mantle and WTF—the rock wasn’t glowing. At all. The glow came from the power button on my iPod dock.
The radioactive glow was the stupid power button on my iPod dock.
I felt an incredible wave of disappointment mixed with relief. My radioactive rock was sitting peacefully, rock-like, next to the dock laughing at me.
I did not die of radiation poisoning.
A few weeks later, the doctor’s office called and told me that I most likely had had E. coli. Apparently there had been an outbreak in Louisiana oysters a few weeks ago, and I’d fit the profile perfectly. I had to go all the way to Las Vegas to eat one of the tainted buggers, but I still managed to do so. E. coli just isn’t as sexy as radiation poisoning.
1 Yes. JC Penney mannequins were used in the atomic tests. The mannequins were placed in realistic situations, donning fashions of the day to test the durability of various, mostly synthetic fabrics. Think mannequin Betty Draper at a dinner party, and then boom! And get this—if a mannequin survived the blast, it was returned to JC Penney and reused in the stores.
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