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Amarillo

"WHAT'S A SONIC BOOM AMONG FRIENDS?

"Well, it's somewhat startling, but very solid assurance of protection. It's an unspoken pledge that the safety of you and your family is the prime concern of the day-to-day business of the U. S. Air Force."

This ad appeared in the Amarillo News-Globe in 1961, on the tenth anniversary of the siting of a Strategic Air Command base in the dusty Texas panhandle.

By 1975, Amarillo's Pantex Plant had become the final assembly spot for all nuclear weapons manufactured in the United States. At its peak, Pantex produced 1500 warheads a year—an average of at least four a day.

Many of the locals, hired to work on bombing components, were fundamentalist Christians who relished the idea of the end of the world. It meant the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

My ex-wife's parents live near here, where the prairies of Oklahoma slide into Texas' grassy plains-going-to-desert. I'm passing through today, after visiting family in Oklahoma City. A sign on the old Route 66, just across the Texas state line, says, "Rattlesnakes. Exit now." From Clinton on west, billboards have been screaming in blocky red letters, "The Big Texan Steak Ranch. 72-ounce steak. You'll be glad you waited."

In Amarillo, stoplights sway over wide, empty streets, clicking green to yellow to red to green to yellow to red. There is no traffic. Tumbleweeds. Caliche. TV satellite dishes. A cracked Dairy Queen sign says, "Amarillo. We Like Where We Are."

This part of the world—my big, gusty backyard where the bomb came to sit one day—has always crushed me with loneliness. But now, driving through, thinking of Martha and her folks, whom I'll probably never see again, it seems more desolate than ever.

For the casual traveler, with nothing personal at stake (but who would come here casually?), Fodor's sums the place up well: "As the last echoes of the Civil War cannon died, and men turned their thoughts westward," says the famous travel guide, "they aimed at nearly every corner of the map except the Texas panhandle. That way . . . lay only madness: the madness of the incessant howling wind (summer and winter); the madness of the unbroken prairie where a man might wander aimlessly until the blistering sun and the windblown dust finally felled him; the madness of icy snow, borne horizontally on the wings of a roaring gale. This was the Texas panhandle."

This was the Okies' escape route.

And in the early nineties, this was the mad track of Timothy McVeigh. Obsessively, he drove to and fro between Kingman, Arizona, where his friend Michael Fortier lived, and Herington, Kansas, to visit his pal Terry Nichols.

Here, in this hardscrabble basin, hour after pill-fueled hour, McVeigh envisioned the bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah building, blowing families to the winds.

Is it coincidence, I wonder, staring now at cactus, weeds, alkali streaks in the sand, that this parched, dead-flat stretch of the road is also the beginning of the militarized West?

In the thirties, when the Okies sputtered through here, none of what McVeigh would later observe had yet been built: nuclear weapons plants, test sites, Air Force bases.

"Restricted." "Federal Property." "Keep Out."

Initially, the interstate highways that erased Route 66 from the map were developed mainly for the military. Dwight D. Eisenhower had returned from fighting in Germany highly impressed by the strategic value of Hitler's Autobahn.

In the High Plains, and in much of the West, the roads were designed to be emergency runways for fighter planes. A B-52 bomber from Oklahoma City's Tinker Air Force Base could land on a long, straight line of I-40, refuel, resupply, and be back in the air in a snap, defending America from the terrible Soviet threat.

Throughout the Cold War, most people who lived in "hot" towns didn't mind the government's presence. Uncle Sam's pockets were deep.

But to a migrant, unmoored, lacking direction—to an Army veteran, no less, who'd finally been rejected by the Army, as McVeigh was—it was easy to believe that the U. S. government was a kind of occupying force, waging war on American soil.

Most farmers, victims of federal price-fixing, would agree.

Most ranchers, pinched by federal land regulators, young Ivy Leaguers in big, climate-controlled rooms back East, would agree.

And Native Americans? Workers in the fields? Well. They weren't talking. Or if they were, no one was listening.

Midland, Texas, my hometown, lies directly south of Amarillo, south of 66. As a child, watching Roy Orbison on my daddy's brand new Crosley TV, I wasn't aware of Pantex. I didn't feel the nuclear weight pressing on me from the desiccated plains up north.

But of course the bomb had changed my home.

I know now that most television and computer technology has developed, over the years, through military research. Satellite tracking. High frequency radio waves.

Though I wasn't aware of it in 1959, the big-eyed box in my parents' living room was a poor civilian stepchild of an angry warrior father.

All the while, as Roy wailed, "Ooby dooby," the bomb was sitting just up the road, biding its time. In the hands of fervent Christians. In swales of blowing dust.

Today, with the collapse of Cold War money (the bomb in hibernation, its messes strewn recklessly across the desert, from Amarillo to Hanford), it's impossible to overstate the sense of betrayal one feels in many parts of the American West.

For example, in Hudspeth County, in far West Texas, the ag-based economy has been severely depressed since the late seventies. The area only averages seven to nine inches of rainfall, yearly.

In the early eighties, the federal government proposed turning the county into a nuclear waste dump, storing ninety per cent of the nation's radioactive waste there. The locals were not informed of this decision, and only caught on, much later, from newspapers.

Meanwhile, Merco Joint Venture Inc., a private sewage company, purchased a 128,000-acre ranch north of the proposed nuclear site, and began disposing sludge there—nearly 225 tons of it a day from industrial sewage plants back East. Merco told the citizens of Hudspeth County it was providing fertilizer for overgrazed rangelands.

At the edge of the Nevada Test Site, an organization called American Peace Test provides advisory bulletins for protesters: "The Nevada Test Site is a highly radioactive place with many hot spots, dumps, and storage areas . . . [T]here is little that can be done to protect your body from beta and gamma rays which are unseen . . . Cover your face when walking in the wind. Do not eat food dropped on the ground. Don't use bare, dirty hands for eating . . . Depending on [where you are] you will have to deal with ammunition strafing, falling bombs, unexploded bombs on the ground, maneuvering around targets, and stealth bomber[s] . . .  [S]ecurity forces are well-armed and quite capable of shooting if they feel threatened."

Really.

Is it any wonder that many Westerners today, like Southerners after the Civil War, feel they live in a conquered nation?

Is it any wonder that a furious farmer and a disillusioned vet would plan to bomb a government building?

The wonder is, we didn't see it coming.

The miracle is, it doesn't happen every week.

* * *

Harry Tracy Daugherty, my left-leaning grandfather, running for elective office in Oklahoma in 1935: "We must stop the destruction of true democracy and the substitution of government by force."

Timothy McVeigh (1993): "The violations of the Constitution by those power-hungry storm troopers of the federal government [must] not succeed again."

Michael Fortier (1997): "If you don't consider what happened in Oklahoma, Tim was a good person."

 
I recall a local television commercial when I was a kid in these parts. A pretty young woman smiled at the camera and said, "If you don't have an oil well, get one."

See what I mean about betrayal?

 
From the outskirts of Amarillo, a right turn takes me back to Oklahoma City, on I-40. Cornstalks scritch in the fields. High clouds, banked against the blue.

I decide not to call Martha's folks. What would I say to them?

Well, we're apart because—

I'm here because—

I'm really very sorry. I'll miss you.

I know. I know.

Like a bomb.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of CLR

Tracy Daugherty

Tracy Daugherty's latest novel is The Boy Orator (SMU Press). He has recent stories in Chelsea, The Southwest Review, and The Southeast Review.

He is currently on leave from Oregon State University on a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

You can find Tracy Daugherty on the web at:
—  NEA Explore
—  The Georgia Review
—  The Boy Orator
—  The Woman in the Oil Field
—  Oregon State University
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble


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