Mar 112011

Here’s a second Las Vegas essay from NC’s intrepid observer of all things Nevadan (from the unique perspective of a 24-year-old Canadian Russian and Slavic Studies grad student). In her first essay, Brianna shot a Glock and an AK47. In this one, she visits the Atomic Testing Museum. In two short essays, she somehow manages to go straight to the heart of American strangeness, at least from an outsider’s point of view. Brianna Berbenuik publishes the blog Desire Machines and writes occasional film critiques here.


Let’s See Them Top That

By Brianna Berbenuik


I’m pretty disappointed that I don’t get to see the nuclear test sites out in the Nevada desert. Being a Canadian citizen, I am required to go through extensive paperwork that takes up to 6 weeks to clear in order for me to be able to see radiated holes in the ground. This is a letdown, because I hear that parts of the desert have turned to glass in the wake of the testing. I imagine this and think that there is, somehow, a morbid, unshakable beauty in this. The aftermath of great destruction: quiet and delicate. However, just up Paradise Boulevard off the Strip, there is the Museum of Atomic Testing. My consolation prize.

We walk there, which is a fucking mistake because it takes forever and by the time we actually get there my legs and feet are sore and I kind of feel like strangling something. The museum is a boring cube of grey concrete passing as a building. It resembles a bunker in some aspects, and maybe that’s the point. I buy our tickets, sign a guest book, and walk through the museum, which is essentially full of dismantled bits of the nuclear test stations that once were out in the Nevada desert. Everything is educational, scientific and at times hilarious. So much of the American zeitgeist of the 1950’s and until the end of the Cold War was illustrated by videos and documents “preparing” people for a nuclear attack. Incidentally, I read somewhere that less than 1% of the American population, during the Cold War, had fallout shelters.

But, because it is America, within all this educational material and nostalgia there is a lot of propaganda:  videos of veterans of nuclear testing extolling the virtues of having nuclear bombs and how it truly does protect the country and the greater good in the end. No regrets. But the war is over.

The strangest thing about the museum, and the most striking, is the exit because they have pieces of the World Trade Center. It is the only place in the museum where photographs are allowed. I don’t know why anyone would want to pose with a rusted beam and a twisted piece of scrap metal from the greatest tragedy of modern America. I think about it. What could you possibly do? Sit on that beam and smile? Take a picture of JUST the beam? Somehow that would take the impact out of it. But seeing it, and knowing where it came from, and touching the rusted, burnt, coarse edges of this piece of a past era is eerie. Unsettling in a strange way. A tragedy dismantled and put on display as proof that everything did change. It’s like seeing a dead body of someone you once knew, although from a distance, with its guts spilling out. But it’s true. 9/11 changed everything. I see the fallout from it everywhere here; I hear it in the conversations I eavesdrop on as I walk down the streets. The alert status Orange that never changes in the airport. The air of panic and paranoia. X-rayed bags at the airport, uniformed people scanning your body and mercilessly tearing through your belongings. For me it is strange rather than frightening. What a sad way to live, this fear and anxiety. 9/11 irreversibly damaged the American psyche. America is buzzing in a constant state of PTSD. First it was the Cold War and nuclear testing; the fear that something might happen, the anticipation of Communist Russia obliterating everything just before we could obliterate them back. So much of America is trauma.

So, I stand in front of this beam and think about it for a while. Beside the beam is a small, clear plastic box asking for donations to help fund anti-terrorist efforts. My dad puts some money in the box — I just stare at the beam and warped piece of metal for a while. The scrap metal is twisted and hanging, suspended, like a marionette it its glass case. I consider this and think that, despite not being able to see the radiated wasteland of America’s Cold War legacy, this is just as potent. The Cold War ended when I was young and so I scarcely remember anything about it. In 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed, I was five years old. I was born the year of Chernobyl.

But 9/11 — I remember this happening, acutely. People thought it was a hoax at first, because something of this magnitude could simply not be real. It was met with denial until denial was exhausted. I was 14 years old. I was walking to my friend Laura’s house to catch the bus for school. She came out to meet me: “someone flew a plane into the twin towers,” she said. Everyone was talking about it. I said something along the lines of wondering if America would bomb whichever country was responsible. Because at that time, at that age, we were under the delusion of cohesion and, for some inexplicable reason, unity within countries. I think this primarily had to do with the education we had received up to this point: “Social Studies” told us that Canada was a cooperative unit, except for the French, but even they weren’t all bad. Coupled with a strong American media influence, I suppose we just thought that some country out in some god-forsaken desert country had gotten fed up, stole a plane and flew it into some business towers in New York City, which seemed almost unfathomably far away. What could we do?

You think that things are going to blow over and heal. At the age of 14 no matter how badly the world is falling apart, if you’re not three feet away from it, your own frustrated sexuality and drama are more consuming. It’s embarrassing, really. But then you grow up and nearly ten years later, I think about that day and everything after and realize so acutely and almost painfully, that there is no going back. Something fundamental shifted and we’ve been careening towards a destination dictated by this event ever since. We’re not there just yet but maybe we’re getting close. At age 24 I am standing in front of a rusted beam and a hanging piece of scrap metal in a strange little museum in the Nevada desert. I approach these objects like they are wounded dogs. I’m sorry, I want to say. I wish I could help you. But it’s too late.

I laugh to myself when I imagine that the veterans of nuclear testing probably thought, as they exploded bomb after bomb in the Nevada desert and before that over Bikini Atoll to create the illusion of safety from communism, “Let’s see someone top THAT.”

Then, decades later, as if rising to an unstated challenge, someone flies a plane into the World Trade Center. Now it’s not communism, but terrorists.

The gift shop is full of strange tokens of a glorified nuclear past, and I grab postcards, stickers, and the general array of shitty souvenirs that friends and family expect from this kind of excursion. I send both the postcards almost immediately. We catch a cab back to the Strip and it’s hot, dusty and dry. I miss home already.

—Brianna Berbenuik

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