This summer, I was one of the millions who visited Las Vegas, America's gambling mecca in the Nevada desert. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, over 3.3 million people visited Sin City in June 2011, the last month for which data was available. If you were one of those folks, you are likely to have taken at least a few pulls on a slot machine, but you probably never left the glittery confines of Las Vegas Boulevard -- The Strip. You missed out.
Critics claim that Las Vegas lacks any real culture. To be sure, it is a city whose skyline is comprised primarily of tacky miniaturizations of architectural masterpieces from other corners of the globe. A city which beckons us to bring our sense of adventure (and our wallets) and engage in acts of debauchery that would not stand with the other members of the Lions Club back in Dubuque. A city where a towering hotel-casino might open to great fanfare only to be demolished less than 20 years later in a public spectacle replete with fireworks.
Vegas, in a sense, mirrors our best and worst traits as a nation. It is at once swaggering, boastful, unapologetic, optimistic, transitory, excessive, youthful, naive, impatient, and perhaps a bit too confident for its own good. There is a palpable restlessness, a constant drive for reinvention. Risks are encouraged and met with spectacular triumph or ruinous failure, but rarely anything in between. The critics usually harp on the seemingly disposable and inauthentic nature of the town, but in their haste to focus on the superficiality, they neglect a unique and often surprising history.
Miss Atomic Bomb Goes Toe-to-Toe with Khrushchev
The Atomic Testing Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, tells the story of the Nevada Test Site, America's primary nuclear weapons proving ground from 1951 until 1992. The tale is told from a refreshingly patriotic, unabashedly pro-American perspective. A series of videos highlight recollections from former test site workers who are clearly and rightfully proud of their role in helping to win the Cold War. In fact, some alums of the nuclear testing program are museum volunteers and trustees.
I toured the museum with a more liberal minded friend who griped that the exhibits did not offer enough "alternative perspective." Without missing a beat, I pointed to a wall on which hung a particularly bellicose quote by Khrushchev. Something along the lines of: "We will achieve nuclear dominance and then crush lazy capitalist American swine like ants. And then deal with pesky moose and squirrel once and for all!" I might be paraphrasing just a bit. But that quote was the counterpoint she sought.
Despite emphasizing the positive role that America's nuclear arsenal played in maintaining peace throughout the Cold War, the museum does not turn a blind eye to the complexity of the issue, addressing for example the atmospheric radiation that led to the end of above ground nuclear testing, and the ultimate international cessation of test detonations.
While the museum concerns a topic that is dead serious, it's also surprisingly fun. Some exhibits are even suitable for children, such as a display of Atomic Age toys and pop cultural memorabilia and the "Ground Zero Theater," which uses film and special effects to simulate the viewing of an atomic detonation from an observation bunker. The museum experience caps off with a quirky gift shop which sells scholarly books on the atomic program, alongside whimsical novelty items. (Connoisseurs of Z grade cinema should use this opportunity to pick up a copy of The Beast of Yucca Flats. Tor Johnson of Plan 9 from Outer Space fame wanders through the Nevada desert as a nuclear scientist irradiated in a horrible accident. When he finally meets his demise, it is perhaps as moving as Terms of Endearment, and far more entertaining).
Visitors to the museum also gain perspective on how detonations about 75 miles outside of the city limits impacted tourism in the 1950s. Casino owners were initially concerned that the rattling of foundations and occasional shattering of windows would scare away Mr. and Mrs. Middle America. So they turned the blasts into a spectacle, the brightest of lights in a city preoccupied with light. Rooftop viewing parties were held; high rollers bussed out into the desert for a closer look (and a picnic meal). The Flamingo casino spread the word to food and beverage departments up and down the Strip about the new "Atomic Cocktail." The city crowned a Miss Atomic Bomb, whose image is available on a t-shirt in the gift shop. Even business names reflected fascination with the Bomb; this past January, Atomic Liquors, the oldest operating bar in Las Vegas, finally closed after operating continuously since 1951.
The Zombie or: How to Unwind after a Nuclear Apocalypse
Hopefully the museum charged with preserving our atomic heritage won't close its doors anytime soon. Just a short ride from the Strip, it is woefully under visited. Allan Palmer, the museum's executive director, recently estimated that the attraction sees 120 visitors on a typical weekend day -- in line with a small museum, but far less than any given shop on the Strip.
If you do make the trek out to the Atomic Testing Museum, you might want to rest your brain with a drink or two afterwards. I suggest Frankie's Room, a relatively new addition to the Vegas bar scene. Frankie's, in keeping with our atomic theme, is a faithful reproduction of tiki bars that opened across the country during the middle of last century as servicemen returning from the Pacific ushered in a South Seas exotica craze. Knock back one of their delicious, rum based cocktails like the Zombie and imagine you are at the Cross Spikes Club (an impromptu haunt on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands where soldiers hung out in advance of the July 1946 test detonation known as Operation Crossroads). Hungry? Stop by the Peppermill Coffee Shop, a garish on-Strip restaurant that serves up generous portions at reasonable prices along with "old Vegas" atmosphere. Scenes from the movie Casino were filmed there.
O.J., Area 51, and Doom Town
If you want to make a deeper hands-on connection with Atomic Era Vegas, visit the Neon Museum, actually a desert boneyard full of decommissioned signs dating from the early days to the present. The centerpiece of the collection is the relocated and reassembled La Concha Motel, a Googie masterpiece whose sweeping lines scream "space age optimism."
Perhaps you will decide to take a tour of the test site itself. Tours, which depart early in the morning from the parking lot of the Atomic Testing Museum, are only offered once a month and book up months in advance. At the time of this writing, all of the remaining 2011 tours are booked, as well as the tour for January of 2012. The Nevada Test Site, recently renamed the Nevada National Security Site (N2S2 to those in the know) is an active Department of Energy facility currently used for the disposal of nuclear waste and hazmat training, amongst other activities -- hence the limited number of tours offered and tight security on the site.
The tour is a full day experience spent mostly in an air conditioned bus. On the way to the site, you might be lucky enough to see Predator Drones in flight, operating from a nearby military base. At the very least, you will see the bleak prison where O.J. Simpson is currently a guest of the State of Nevada. You'll also see a two story house, a remnant of "Doom Town": a village constructed to determine what building materials would best withstand an atomic blast.
Perhaps the greatest historical artifact you'll see will be your tour guide himself, generally a former employee of the test site. My tour was led by Ernie Williams, an elderly but spry gentleman who has worked on all facets of the nuclear program since the 1950s as both an Army enlistee and a civilian employee.
Ernie, a trustee of the Atomic Testing Museum, is a character. He tells priceless stories like the one in which he angered his commanding officer by making hamburgers of cattle that had been exposed to a test blast. They were apparently gently irradiated enough that they were edible. Or his claim that as a budget and logistics man, he signed off on the funds required to build the top secret Area 51. Though he cheerfully confirmed the existence of Area 51, he told us he could say no more as he had been sworn to secrecy.
Ernie beams with pride at his participation in nuclear testing, and is a cheerleader for current projects like the controversial proposal to store highly radioactive waste in the adjacent Yucca Mountain range.
Leaving Las Vegas
But authentic characters like Ernie are gradually fading from the Vegas landscape like so many decrepit neon signs baking out in the sun. Gone are the days of high technology in the desert. What remains is mostly just a dumping ground for byproducts.
It's easy to get discouraged in this town. Hit especially hard by the real estate boom and bust, where sandy winds howl eerily through half completed housing developments, the unemployment rate currently hovers at over 12 percent.
Maybe the critics are right. Maybe Vegas is an entirely superficial experience, where the lessons of the past hold no sway, where a proud culture of Atomic Liquor companies has ceded ground to David Hasselhoff-in-The Producers. If Vegas truly is a microcosm of America, what does that say about us? Are we still capable of developing great things as we did during the Atomic Age? Will the youthful spirit of optimism win in the end? Or are we a disposable people with a disposable culture?
I pondered these questions over one final cocktail at the airport. Last call. Bombs away.