I went to the beach. My beach happens to be in Waveland, Mississippi. The beach was lovely, and the chillaxin’ was good—low 60s, sunny, breezy—perfect sitting-with-your-toes-in-the-sand-while-donning-a-hoodie-finishing-your-sci-fi-book (The Earth Abides, read it) weather. I planned on visiting the all-you-can-eat crab buffet for lunch at the Silver Slipper Casino, but another idea sprang forth: “Why don’t I go and find that nuclear test site that’s somewhere around these parts?” Nuclear test site in Mississippi? Indeed.
In addition to the fairly well-known tests in Nevada, the US conducted atomic tests in New Mexico, Alaska, Colorado, the Pacific Proving Grounds (Marshall Islands/Bikini Atoll) and Mississippi. Now if we were to play a game of “Which one of these things is not like the others?” Mississippi would surely come out on top.1
Two atomic tests were carried out in Mississippi: the Salmon and Sterling tests, which as far as names go, sound like they should be Bret Harte characters. The tests were collectively known as Project Dribble (yuck) which in turn were part of the larger Vela Uniform project.
So why test in Mississippi? Well, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had been on the hunt for a large salt dome, lacking in petroleum deposits, in which to perform nuclear testing, and the Tatum Salt Dome fit that bill. The aim of the Vela Uniform project was to study the ways that seismic waves travelled through different types of soil, including salt formations, with the hope of being able to catch Soviets up to no good using only seismic information. Kind of like we did with the North Koreans just recently.
The Tatum Salt Dome is located between the towns of Baxterville and Purvis, in Lamar County, Mississippi. In 1964 the AEC readied the salt dome and surrounding area for testing. Nearly four hundred residents were evacuated, and paid $1.50 per hour for their trouble, before a 5.3 kiloton2 device was detonated 2,700 feet underground.
After the detonation, residents felt three shock waves, heard an explosion and witnessed the ground heaving as if they were sitting upon a giant’s chest. Fruit fell from trees, animals barked, chirped and/or mooed and then flew away. The creeks ran dark with stirred-up sediment. Most residents hadn’t expected such a literal earth shaking.
One man returned home from the evacuation to find his house flooded from pipes broken by the blast. The fireplace had fissured from the wall, with the firebox shattered on the floor, ash and concrete and chunks of broken dishware mixed-in for fun. Yet this wasn’t an isolated incident; within the week, nearly four hundred residents, which remember, that’s approximately the number of evacuees, had filed claims against the government for damages incurred during the blast.
Two months later (because things were supposedly “safe” after that amount of time) the AEC drilled a hole into the dome and lowered instruments to measure the radioactivity. This didn’t go well. The hole apparently spouted a sort of radioactive mud geyser. Whoops! The agency made an effort to clean up the muck, but how does one really go about cleaning up a radioactive mud geyser?
Since the first test was such a success (Actually, I don’t know that it wasn’t; I’m just stuck on the whole radioactive mud geyser thing), the AEC detonated a second, much smaller device. The Sterling Test used a device that weighed about 380 kilotons or roughly the size of 38 Davy Crockett bombs, which were 51-pound, crazily radioactive weapons—they had an almost instantly fatal dose of radiation within 500 feet, and a probably fatal dose of radiation within a quarter mile—used by the US (you probably got that from the “Davy Crockett”) during the Cold War.3
The townspeople barely felt the blast the second time around. But, just like they did following the Salmon Test, the government drilled a hole, lowered instruments, and then cue radioactive geyser, which I can only assume looked like the beginning of The Beverly Hillbillies: Apocalypse Edition. They again attempted to clean up whole the mess. Did we learn our lesson, guys?
Apparently so. The Sterling Test was the last nuclear test at Tatum Salt Dome, though the site was later used for the non-nuclear Project Miracle Play, which was a series of gas-explosives tests. The whole site was scrapped by the early seventies, with the subterranean radioactive materials sealed in the dome and the contaminated equipment and buildings shipped off to the Nevada National Security Site for forever storage. After the decommissioning, a plaque was added near ground zero, and another monument erected warning future generations away from drinking the water in the area or digging around in general. The plaque and marker, along with several test wells, are essentially all that are left of this moment in atomic history, and I really wanted to see them.
Since I had planned for a day at the beach rather than one of atomic touring (i.e., I wore flip-flops instead of tennis shoes—you never know when you might need to pretend like you’re tying your shoe to pick-up a radioactive rock), I didn’t have any of my normal nuclear tourism information on hand. But I knew I was reasonably close to the site (in the same state) and that it was somewhere north (the Gulf of Mexico was south). Plus from past “research” (does this make me sound dingy?) I remembered that it was near Hattiesburg, which was somewhere I had heard of and I believed somewhat close. I typed “nuclear blast Hattiesburg” into Google, and Google obliged by providing me with Tatum Salt Dome as the location. Next, because Google Maps and I sort of have this kinda gotcha game going on, I selected “Current Location” in the FROM field and typed “Tatum Salt Dome” in the TO field. Crazily, a map appeared! And one with actual roads at that!4
I put my beach gear in my trunk and headed north. Basically I had to get back to I-59, pass through a town called Lumberton and then on to Baxterville, where I would find Tatum Salt Dome Road, the alleged location of the Tatum Salt Dome.
The landscape quickly changed from Redneck Riviera to what would be described in a screenplay slugline as: EXT. – MURDERY – DAY. Now, I understand Mississippi is pretty much THE South; when you say South, you really mean Mississippi. But, I have never in my life seen such a proliferation of pro-life, “praying for X,” and campaign signs jammed into peoples’ front yards. No wonder this is one of the poorest coteries of counties in the country—all of the residents’ money is spent at FedEx Kinko’s on yard signs.
Now the campaign signs were my favorite. There were even some for Billy Nungesser who was running for office in Louisiana, which is different than Mississippi, yard-signers. One of particular creativity had the following text:
I’ll admit—I probably wasn’t giving this sign the attention it deserved, but I was busy; that unheard episode of This American Life wasn’t going to find itself on my iPod, now was it? Anyway, it took me my entire drive to realize that the sign was for a candidate named Ben (nice use of all caps) Winston, who they hoped would “win,” judging by the capitalization. Also, is the “Again” really necessary? I get that it’s likely because this was for a re-election, but it seems unnecessary. And while we’re at it, Help probably is too. How about a simple:
I think people will get the gist.
Now I mentioned the Southernness of the landscape. This stereotype only solidified as I drove through Baxterville. The entire hamlet was straight out of Fletch Lives, complete with Calculus.
I missed Tatum Salt Dome Road on my first pass, but luckily the main street was only a handful of blocks long and I could easily flip a U-turn at the edge of town. Now I realize that there are more historical things than non-clods of dirt in the South, so it gets a little old to have a historical marker for everything, but these tests were pretty important. Maybe a marker at the crossroads would be helpful? No? Have it your way, Baxterville.
Anyway, I turned down the road, the one direction it went, and immediately passed a church (white peeling paint and steeple, check) and a few houses that just looked… tuckered out. The scattered trees congregated in thicker and thicker groves as I drove on. Kudzu (which I don’t care how cute you think the Cabbage Patch Kids were, kudzu is creepy as hell—it swallows entire towns) also slithered onto the scene, and eventually your run of the mill prison for the criminally insane type fence, complete with barbed-wire made an appearance. The fence was literally holding back the vegetation from the road, with tendrils creeping through onto the asphalt every so often. It was like driving through a way untended English manor maze, not the good kind, but the murdery kind.
As if the landscape itself wasn’t already getting worse—we’re now at EXT – MURDERY! – DAY—I’m a jackass. I had of course switched off This American Life and was listening to “Dueling Banjos.” This certainly helped the situation.
I had worked myself into such a terror (EXT. – MURDERY!!! – DAY) that I was pretty close to ready for men in white jeeps to pop out from behind the POSTED signs regularly placed along the aforementioned fence. By the way, I imagine the fine print on the signs to have read something along the lines of: “Men in white jeeps are watching you just like they are at Area 51 in every alien-related movie you’ve ever seen, and if you so much as look like you’re going to get out of your Corolla and poke around (we know about the rock) they will shoot you dead and then your family will have to ship your body back to Idaho and that will cost them a lot and they’ll have to pick up your body at the airport and you don’t want that now do you?” Or something like that.
I found a gated dirt road outlet in the fence, which I was sure was the right road, and turned off. Of course the gate was locked with a giant rusty chain and padlock. Now, I apologize to the fine people of Lamar County, but your county is fucking scary. Scenes from Deliverance and every slasher movie ever were pounding like a strobe, lighting their way through my brain as I sat in my car at the gate; I was so getting murdered.
To make matters worse, a late-nineties teal Dodge Neon that I had seen pass TWICE now pulled in behind me, blocking me from the road. Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod. I didn’t know what to do aside from turn off “Dueling Banjos.” Sometimes I’m quick like lightning.
Should I throw the gears in Drive and sail through the locked gate like a Trojan Horse? Should I kick it into reverse and smash into the Neon? I didn’t know if a Corolla could take a Neon, and I wasn’t quite willing to test my luck, so I just froze. (EXT. – ¡¡¡¡MURDERY!!!! – DAY) The sun was hitting my rearview mirror just right, so I couldn’t get a good look at the Neon driver. But, before I really had much time to think about it, she was out of the car and beside my window, knocking for me to roll it down. What the eff should I do? Throwing caution to the wind, and essentially kissing my grits goodbye, I pressed the down button.
“Are y’all here about the puppies on Craigslist?”
“The puppies. From the ad on Craigslist. They’re down at our house at the next driveway. I saw your Louisiana plates and figured you were that girl from Slidell that wanted to see the puppies. I didn’t want you to get lost.”
I spent the next five minutes or so explaining to Jennifer that no, I was not in fact the person who had responded to her ad on Craigslist about the Catahoulas, and that I was just looking for the Tatum Salt Dome, because I liked to tour old atomic test sites.
“Why would you want to do that?,” she asked.
Somehow I had come off as the weirdo. In Mississippi. I should have just come home with a damned puppy.
PS-I gave up the search for the Tatum Salt Dome that day, but have since been in contact with the Mississippi Historical Society, and have garnered some interest in a group trip to the site. Which, well, seems like a way better idea.
1 I know: the Pacific Proving Grounds also seems like a good choice since it’s neither American nor continental. However, my “like” criteria is that radio stations start with K here, or west of the Mississippi River. And also non-hillbilly. So Mississippi wins.
2 For comparison, Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, was 18 kilotons; and Little Boy, the bomb used on Hiroshima, was between 12 and 18 kilotons.
3 Did you know that at the height of the Cold War, the US detonated 20% of its nuclear arsenal annually in testing? #themoreyouknow
4 True story: My friend Susan and I followed Google Maps directions to a safari park north of Baton Rouge. The directions had us literally drive through an actual field, like the kind with crops, to get there. In her Honda. We took the highway on our return trip after talking to an actual person rather than a robot. You won that round, Google Maps.