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Night at the World's Largest Atomic Cannon

by Christopher Cokinos
  

Listen to Christopher Cokinos introduce and read this essay:
 
 

Watershed and extinction folders stacked beside me, I must have been driving home from the quarterly state gathering of activists when suddenly I needed to climb the hill beside the highway, where the dark of just-past-dusk gathered all around the World’s Largest Atomic Cannon.  No one else there in the parking lot, I took so many steps on the steep, broken asphalt path, I didn’t try to keep count.  I reached the place I’d also leave behind, where the weapon perches above and across from Marshall Airfield’s entomological helicopters and dowdy Army hangars like a finger pointing where to go next.  I was after textures, and the World’s Largest Atomic Cannon looked certain of direction.  Olive-drab, it pointed west.

Beside the big bluestem and Indian grass, beside the switchgrass and little bluestem, atop Kansas limestone—depth accumulation of condensed detritus—that long dark invention aimed back at and with the peculiar force of nostalgia: how I felt years ago, wanting the calming orders of drill, uniform and rank, wanting to be cockpit-hurtled in an F-5 or F-15.  But I’d never fly that fast after Miss Hawk stood me in the hallway, the rest of Advanced Algebra wondering with me at my transgression, so later one summer I stood with my other Civil Air Patrol cadets while an officer like a tour guide explained the control panel of a Minuteman II bunker.  I loved the white fluorescent serenity of the station.  I knew then I would be an M.L.O., a Missile Launch Officer.  Perhaps it was as simple as control but also, I reasoned, I could be posted quietly beneath the earth—so much time to read!  It seemed hermetically exotic, the acolyte bound to a rock-walled, reinforced metal room that opened to the furiously divine once, only once.  The probability of mushroom clouds I could make and the plasma purgation of the winnable mass war posited something mature and heroic.

"Atomic Annie" test on May 25, 1953.
  Upshot-Knothole Grable M65 atomic cannon test at the Nevada Test Site, May 25, 1953.
Photo courtesy National Archives.
  

Once when I was a boy I stood between the night window and the drawn curtains of our darkened living room on Sawyer Street and imagined that I spoke to a rally in Nuremberg. 
Had self-hatred begun that early, so for years I’d hate others?  I could see the lawn from which I would fire bottle-rockets over a neurotic neighbor’s roof.  I could see the crowds that listened.  I understood nothing.  Now I think of Stanley Milgram’s experiments and what I would have done.

Beside the World’s Largest Atomic Cannon—non-functioning, a relic, a memorial of sorts—I noted caliber and manufacture, not sure that those facts mattered, but I had wanted to live in the films of such weapons, Saturday morning’s war shows on Channel 4, as well as in the black-and-white afternoons of lost late springs I watched closely in grade-school science units, the views of empty corridors then youngsters scurrying under desks without ever—astonishing—really disturbing the classroom’s rows.  How wistful to see those defensible boys and girls on bikes, the fathers in hats and narrow ties, narrow-waisted wives so chipper in the bomb shelters their chiffon had to hide something too sweet to say.  Large-finned cars cruised forward through the understandable, our towns prepared for anything, because the streets were lined with glass storefronts sporting simple, painted words.  I saw barber poles I’d never seen for real, and the narrator always knew his bass voice spoke reassurance, whatever he said, even as white arrows from nowhere might appear on the screen to demonstrate atmospheric circulations, the pulsed patterns of cumuli, rain, and fallout that could make, wonderfully, terribly, ants the size of airplanes.

I patted the cannon and must have remembered Hersey’s Hiroshima, how so many bodies became shadows.  I could not, cannot, believe that once I’d wanted such power beneath my hands: to erase the body, yes, to erase the body.

I took them off the metal and saw them block out stars.  That night, I watched nighthawks zing down, up, everywhere, scimitar the air just above the hill.  The soft orange lights glowed below me, glowed over highway, beside runways.

The stars reappeared.

It was a July, not long before I’d leave my wife.  Maybe just months before.  On the hill, I did not know that but I knew I was beginning to ask more of my keening disintegrations, my silent havocs, my lusts, than I had in years, and the self wondered at so much latent poignancy, so many once-upon yearnings that came back, came back, came back, came back.  What can be done with them?  Ever?  Live them, I’d understand later.  And did I love standing there—and I did—because I’ve come to love artifacts that take me to another time?  Does that too erase the body?  Was it still a love of power, of speed, the trite hungers of boys?  Was it negation of fluids?  Was the Freudian cannon so stupidly obvious, so laughably obvious, I could not say more? 

"Atomic Annie" test at Frenchman Flats, Nevada Test Site.
The Grable test resulted in the successful detonation of a 15 kiloton shell (warhead W9) at a range of 7 miles. This was the first and only nuclear shell to be fired from a cannon.
Photo courtesy National Archives.
 
  

Silence is always what had saved me but that too was mistaken.  Quoting Whitman on contradiction no longer seemed to help.  Reading ancient epics on the backyard porch gave me only Gilgamesh asleep with Enkidu.  I no longer wished to rub away my own skin to paper.

That night beside the weapon, I also named flowers, which lately I had understood grew desire from the durable honesty of eons: mullein, coneflower, black-eyed susan, and compass plant, whose leaves align with the edges of the blades pointing north and south.  Even the plants know which directions sustain or console.  Weapons, birds, stars, blossoms—I could have stayed forever there alone (and perhaps that too was it—alone—thus desire was only conjecture) but a couple began to climb the hill, and, though I would look away from them, I imagined them with me, that arrival, that staying, that touching, another form of shame I’d soon begin to feel I should not be ashamed of, then shook my head clear then backed away.  The nighthawks zinged some more, white-stripe wings and aerobatic feeding.  The tarmac airfield of the fort stayed orange-lit and quiet.  Insects rasped.  I breathed.  The stars stayed on and that was important.

Then I heard from the draw across the way, thick with oaks, the night calls of common poorwills, of whippoorwills, of Chuck-will’s widows, the only place on earth where all three songs belong together.  Pulse and syncopation, need-songs, need-songs, going-on songs.  Somehow something gathered to make me feel for a handhold, for sure footing, and I took a different trail down.

  
 

Christopher Cokinos is the author of The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars (Tarcher/Penguin), which has been praised by Kirkus, the Tuscon Citizen's "Logical Lizard," Seed, Discover, and Sierra Club Book Roundup. Read an interview with Cokinos at New West Writers.
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Resources
 
 

AtomCentral.com: The Atomic Bomb Website

Atomic Annie

The Atomic Cannon: AtomCentral.com

Atomic Cannon Firing, Nevada Test Site, 1953 : Video (YouTube) from Trinity and Beyond

Fort Riley, Kansas

Junction City, Kansas

 

 
     

 
The World's Largest Atomic Cannon

Located across from Fort Riley, Kansas, on Interstate 70, the World’s Largest Atomic Cannon is free and open to the curious public.  The M65 cannon was also known as “Atomic Annie” and saw deployment in Korea and Europe, though the only time an M65 launched an atom bomb (just once) was in, of course, Nevada. Several of these cannons were in service from 1953-1963. The exit for the cannon, which is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, is at “Freedom Park,” well-marked at Exit 301.

 
 

    
  
 
   
    
  
 
   

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