My wife and I took a nice desert walk this evening with our French Bulldog happily snorting and snuffling beside us, and now both of them are peacefully dreaming beneath a strawberry moon while I settle in for a little night writing. The television is playing a terrible low-budget horror film from 1961 called “The Beast of Yucca Flats.”
Despite my ridiculously highbrow tastes, I readily confess a fond weakness for terrible, badly-made horror movies. Nothing is funnier to me than something that is unintentionally funny. Swedish ex-wrestler and famous Halloween mask Tor Johnson plays a defecting Russian scientist who is chased by two KGB agents into the atomic testing grounds of Yucca Flat, Nevada . His car is forced off the road and then Tor flees across the desert on foot. This sight alone delights me. Because of his wrestling style, 400 lb. Tor Johnson actually tippy toes across the desert, off-balance, mouth open, with the look of a terrified fish on his face. While I’m smiling at this sight, an atomic bomb suddenly goes off and the ensuing blast transforms Tor into a murderous atomic madman.
One of the benefits of an education is the ability to simultaneously view entertainment with an understanding of the culture that created it. America dropped the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945, effectively ending World War II and shocking the world. But American citizens didn’t automatically view atomic weapons as dangerous because the American government engaged in a public affairs campaign to make atomic power seem safe and positive. The public was told that the atom was our friend. Atomic weapons symbolized power and strength, and the United States was the only country in the world that possessed atomic weapons. We had “the Bomb.”
This was a major cultural influence.
All across the nation, businesses began using the word “atomic” in their company names. When we tested two bombs on an atoll in the Bikini Islands , a French designer adopted the name “bikini” for his new woman’s two-piece bathing suit. He thought the name represented the explosive effect that the suit would have on men. Designers of everything from clocks to corporate logos soon adopted what came to be known as “Atomic Style” into their work. It was a form of design that often included rays and spheres simulating the path of electrons around the nucleus of an atom. General Mills even offered children an “Atomic Bomb” ring if they sent in a Kix cereal boxtop and 15 cents. The ring featured a secret compartment and a concealed observation lens that allowed children to look at atomic flashes.
Oh, if only poor Tor Johnson had possessed one of those rings. In the movie, a young couple pull off the road to fix a flat tire. The husband no sooner has the jack out of the trunk than he is quickly choked to death by the newly created Beast of Yucca Flats. Maybe choked is the wrong word. The husband doesn’t struggle or even make a sound. He just closes his eyes and dies as soon as The Beast touches him. Maybe it was the nearby radiation that killed him, but I’m also thinking it could have been the sour odor of Tor’s massive body in the desert heat that did him in. Anyway, the wife apparently doesn’t notice a 400 lb. man getting into the backseat and gets choked too. After killing the girl, The Beast of Yucca Flats carries her off into the atomic wasteland, because, well, that’s just what monsters do, I suppose.
This movie is a turd. But it’s an exquisite turd and I’m enjoying it immensely. The Cold War had basically been in effect for about a dozen years when it came out. During that span, many people had tried to capitalize on the image of power and energy evoked by the atom and “the Bomb,” but no amount of government propaganda or business culture could obscure the fact that atomic weapons were insanely dangerous. This fact became apparent when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949 and various magazines began reporting on the devastation that such a weapon would have on an American city. Fathers everywhere, equipped with plaid shirts and eager to protect their families, began building bomb shelters in their backyards. Paranoia reigned.
To understand that anxiety, we don’t really need to look any further than the popular culture of those times. In the movies, giant ants, mutated by atomic radiation, threatened Los Angeles in “Them!” A military officer gets exposed to radiation during an atomic test and grows into “The Amazing Colossal Man. ” Over in Japan , an atomic test exposes a lizard to radiation and the lizard then becomes “Godzilla!” who particularly enjoyed stomping on Tokyo. Hundreds of other films reflected the same social commentary. The culture of those years took a rather grim view about humanity’s future. The world seemed to be teetering on the brink of Armageddon.
Meanwhile, back in Yucca Flats, desert policemen Jim and Joe have investigated the dead motorist next to the car and tracked the creature over rocky terrain to a hidden cave where they find and retrieve the strangled girl. You can’t really leave footprints on rocks so I’m not really sure how this is possible. Then two boys get themselves separated from their vacationing parents, and they’re wandering aimlessly through the dangerous wasteland. The dutiful father disregards a big warning sign that reads MISSLE TEST SITE and searches for his boys. The Beast of Yucca Flats, that atomic-powered engine of destruction, is now limping across the desert and using a tree branch as a cane. I guess endurance isn’t included with atomic superpowers. Not that it matters anyway, because the lost vacationers aren’t really in danger from him. Now the biggest threat is Jim, the psychotic desert policeman, who is currently patrolling the area by plane. When Policeman Jim spots the dad searching for his sons, he takes out his rifle and opens fire on him. Dad is brought down by bullets and the atrocious murder is explained by the movie’s narrator as, “Shoot first, ask questions later.” Oh, they’ll be questions, my friend, like: “Why, officer, did you circle my defenseless husband in a plane, murder him, and leave him to be eaten by vultures?” In any case, Policeman Jim is now confident that Yucca Flats is safe from all middle-aged fathers in plaid shirts.
When most people think of Nevada, it probably brings to mind images of Las Vegas, Reno, or Lake Tahoe. They think of fortunes almost won and fortunes always lost. They think of glitter-spangled casinos studded with a million lights, three-dollar-all-you-can-eat buffets, mafia shananigans, white tigers imprisoned before thousands of staring eyes, and Elvis’s worst hours. Well, just as France is not Paris, Nevada is not an endless pleasure palace of sin and lost wages.
Our state lies in an ancient lake bottom affectionately called The Big Empty and enjoys the lowest population density in the United States. The vast majority of the land inside our borders is completely free of humans and remains virtually unchanged from the days when pioneers first crossed its sands 150 years ago. Forget the click of the roulette wheel and chink of coins falling from slot machines, the real Nevada is about vastness, silences, distances, remoteness, and solitude. This is why the U.S. government chose to use our acreage for target practice in the first place.
Speaking of target practice, low and behold, it seems good ‘ol Dad is still alive. He finally makes his way across Yucca Flats back to the car, and this is where the funniest scene of the movie takes place. His wife is waiting in the sun and frantically asks him, “What’s going on? Where’s that shooting coming from?” Dad jumps in the car and abandons her, yelling back: “You stay here! I’ll go for help!” This loses him his Husband of the Year nomination and causes me to choke on my coffee.
Back at the hidden cave, Tor discovers his dead girl missing. The narrator pipes in again and informs us that The Beast “unleashes his rage.” By that, I mean, The Beast commences to wave his arms up and down. It’s hard to tell if he’s acting or just trying to balance his enormous girth on all those desert rocks. Perhaps sensing that this is diminishing some of his terrifying presence, The Beast of Yucca Flats picks up a rock and heaves it about three feet away. His rage spent, he decides to lay down and take a nap.
Have I mentioned that I’ve actually been to Yucca Flat? The atomic weapons testing grounds are still there, but they stopped blowing things up years ago. Once a month they open it up to tourists. Being a child of atomic culture who watched all those old civil defense films, practiced duck and cover drills in school, and possessing an eccentric interest in historic awfulness, I once made the trip to see this curious place that’s been hammered by 928 nukes. It is a flat lunar surface pockmarked with hundreds of giant craters. While there, I also saw the blackened, battered ruins of Doom Town . The military built a whole town in the area, including a school, firehouse, utility grid, radio station, and residential neighborhood. All were fully furnished. Food was laid out on kitchen tables. Mannequins were clothed and placed both inside and outside in casual poses of everyday life. Then a 29-kiloton bomb was set off a mile or so away. Some of you may have seen Steven Spielberg’s reenactment of this event in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Indy is running from KGB agents (sound familiar?) when he suddenly finds himself in Doom Town just minutes before the detonation and seeks the only refuge he can find, a refrigerator. The blast hurls the fridge several miles across the desert. Indiana Jones crawls out and watches an enormous mushroom cloud billow into the sky.
While at Yucca Flat, I did not see any mushroom clouds. Nor did I see any giant ants, giant military officers, giant lizards, or 400 lb. mutant wrestlers lumbering across the desert. All that I saw were ruins and craters and ghosts of the past wandering the barrenness. It was a place of isolation. Solitude is like shadow boxing. The more you fight it, the more you realize you are bullying your own conflicts. The wind howled across the nuclear debris and I felt haunted.
Lonely people can’t endure solitude. They need people all the time. But all I need is space. I need it to reflect on things, to make decisions, to walk with my lovely wife and our bulldog on soft desert evenings. I also need the desert because it is absolutely empty and emptiness sparks my imagination.
Back on television, this terrible and exquisite turd of a movie is finally coming to a close. The desert policemen have caught up to The Beast, who does what any monster would do. He knocks the men to the ground and puts them in wrestling holds. As Tor Johnson twists their necks in unusual positions, it actually appears as if he’s really hurting the men, if only by accident. But then a hail of bullets finally bring the Commie down once and for all. Well, almost. He’s still slowly rolling around in the sagebrush and looks more like he’s having a restless night’s sleep than dying. A little baby jackrabbit wanders over to his face. He holds it gently and kisses it, then releases it back into the wild. The End. Except that I’m still wondering about the vacationing family. The kids have probably returned to their parents, and Dad is probably glad to be alive until his wife tells everyone how he left her in the desert to die at the hands of an atomic madman.
I turn off the television, lights, and find the moon shining outside. The sagebrush are illuminated like distant silver flames in the night. This is a rough, rugged, and hostile landscape that requires a very specific personality with lots of tenacity to survive. The raw power of sun and sand and wind can easily destroy a human being. But there are few places on Earth where the power of Mother Nature is as evident as in Nevada , and I also saw that awesome power at Yucca Flat. I saw the true beauty of it all. It might have been a wasteland, raped and scarred by the horrors of nuclear science, but if you look close enough, there is a glimpse of enlightenment. Sprinkled across the poisoned sands were tiny desert wildflowers.
We can see ourselves revealed in the atomic flower.