Marble Bar: Week 210

Marble Bar: Sydney, Australia

There is something about old, soft marble that is so incredible appealing to me. The marble floors were the first thing I noticed when I inspected my current house. I’m not sure if it’s the original flooring, but a lifetime of foot traffic has left the surface smooth and as cool to the touch as a puddle of water.

I actually wish all the flooring in the house was marble. How delicious it would feel in the middle of a heat wave, how much quieter it would be than the squeaky wood planks in the dining room.

Marble Bar: Sydney, Australia

That’s kind of how Marble Bar feels- like a cool, dark sanctuary. It was originally constructed in 1893 with the finest Belgian and African marbles and financed through a horseracing sweepstakes. Originally known as the George Adams Bar, it was closed in 1968 and reopened five years later after being painstakingly reconstructed inside the Sydney Hilton.

One hundred and twenty-two years ago, it would have been the finest bar in the colony to escape to from a hot summer’s day. I could just imagine men in top hats twirling their moustaches and swirling their brandies. Nowadays, Marble Bar attracts celebratory office workers and tourists. The drinks are definitely priced more for the tourist end of that spectrum though.

Marble Bar: Sydney, Australia

At the end of the day I usually prefer a bargain, but it is nice to occasionally slip into something a bit more luxurious. For some people that might mean a Chanel dress. For me it means 100 tons of National Trust of Australia “A”-rated marble.

How to get to Marble Bar: LB1, Hilton Sydney Hotel, 488 George Street, Sydney NSW 2000

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Government House: Week 195

Garden outside the Government House: Sydney, Australia

If the architect Edward Blore completely had it his way, the servants would have had this view.

That’s what happens when you dispatch architectural plans from London without knowing much about the location’s geography. Unfortunately for the succeeding servants, this oversight was changed at the last minute. When Governor Sir George Gipps first took up residence inside the Elizabethan Gothic estate in 1845, his view was undoubtedly gorgeous.

Not every miscalculation was fixed though. Blore’s original design called for a vaulted double-story open porch as the main entrance. While great on paper, the direction of the layout wasn’t very compatible with Sydney’s wind patterns. It became a wind tunnel that must have bustled a lot of skirts and ruined quite a few fancy hairstyles until it was enclosed and the covered carriageway was added in 1873.

That would have been the end of the story except that the newly enclosed space (with the flags flying off the turrets) had the worst echo. It was a feature I noticed when my guide spent a lengthy period of time covering the history of the building. The echo was so bad the she had to ask one of the guests to stop translating her speech because the sound of multiple voices bouncing off the walls was too distracting.

Government House on a rainy day inside the Botanic Gardens: Sydney, Australia

Despite being the live-in residence of the Governor, the downstairs is open for free tours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The interesting part of the tour, at least the part that keeps the guides on their toes, is that furniture periodically changes according to the whims and tastes of the current occupant.

As the tour was more about details like ballroom’s stenciled imitation damask, the role of the governor was only briefly touched upon. From what I grasped the Governor is the Queen’s representative in NSW and their role is largely ceremonial, as required by the state’s constitution.

Government House arcade: Sydney, Australia

The whole idea of the Queen of England still needing an official representative felt a bit antiquated. However I often forget Australia is part of the Commonwealth and while the Government House is no Buckingham Palace, the outdoor arcade probably has a better view. I definitely wouldn’t mind being invited to one of the many private functions held at the Government House. A cocktail and a view of the harbor would go down very well indeed.

How to get to Government House: Royal Botanic Gardens, Lower Macquarie Street, Sydney NSW 2000

Kayaking on the Occoquan: Week 183

Polaroid of Barret kayaking on the Occoquan River: Manassas, Virginia

My parents store two kayaks along the southern side of their house. One is red, the other is orange and the both of them are covered with a few days’ worth of cobwebs. It was hard to navigate them around the corner of the house and when I finally had the right angle, I bashed into a beautyberry bush. The impact caused small purple berries and a variety of spiders to scatter across the cement.

“The spiders come be back an hour after you put them away,” my Dad warned me as he stated brushing them off with his hand. “You can’t keep them away.”

He was right but I grabbed a broom anyway. I didn’t like the idea of being trapped in the middle of the river with a spider crawling up my leg. Once the kayak was swept down I plugged in the leaf blower. The nozzle blasted all the plastic crevasses and then I positioned it so that the air created a spinning vortex of debris inside the kayak. Nimble little spider bodies swept along the walls like those dizzying theme park rides that just spin and spin and spin.

When the kayaks were as spider-free as they were going to get, Barret and I carried them down to the Occoquan. The river was one of the reasons my parents bought that house. You can’t see it from the windows, but it’s only a short stroll through the patch of trees on the other side of the road.

Because it was summer, a million miniscule bugs bounced along the surface of the water, their bodies so light that their movement doesn’t even cause a ripple. As we paddled down river we saw jumping fish and turtles resting on water-logged branches. One statuesque white heron watched us approach before it suddenly burst skyward.

Colvin Run Mill: Great Falls, Virginia

Most of the homes along the river use the water for recreation. However, it wasn’t too long ago that these bodies of fresh water were important for food and transport. The Colvin Run Mill, which is 45 minutes north of my parent’s house, is a beautiful example of an early 19th century mill. The mill is still used for grinding and the nearby gift shop sells bags of cornmeal, grits, wheat and buckwheat flour.

Polaroid of flowers at Colvin Run Mill: Great Falls, Virginia

While my parent’s bend of the Occoquan is too tranquil for a watermill, it is the perfect speed for a gentle kayak ride. There is nothing better a hot summer’s day than a shady river and the rhythmic splash of a paddle breaking the water’s surface.

How to get to the Colvin Run Mill: 10017 Colvin Run Road, Great Falls VA 22066

Neon Museum Boneyard: Week 182

Polaroid of the Las Vegas Club neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard, Las Vegas

I was with my color photo class the very first time I visited the Neon Boneyard. Even before it became a proper institution, a museum with a visitor’s center and a security guard, the Boneyard was something special.

As soon as my film was developed, I locked myself up in the photo lab. The color darkrooms were small individual rooms along a short dark corridor and they had a vinegary smell. It might not have been practical to study film in a digital age, but it felt more meaningful. My film was a tangible object that captured the jagged glass, the rusted metal, the heart and soul of Sin City history.

Polaroid of the Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

“Neon lighting took on a particular resonance in Las Vegas and in other parts of the open landscape of the Southwest. Without many trees or buildings, the illuminated neon sign could be seen from miles away in the evening. Western motels used the neon medium perhaps more than any other business. This was also perhaps afforded by the low profile of casino and motel buildings when casinos within Las Vegas’ city limits were once limited to two stories. The low, horizontal profile has allowed building-mounted signs to be seen at longer distances. Traveling north on the Strip, the neon glow of Las Vegas acted as a beacon signaling toward the city.”(Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon).

Polaroid of the Lido neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

Within the last two years, the neon collection has been split into two different yards- the North Gallery is for commercial shoots and weddings while the Neon Museum Boneyard is available for public tours. One of the most exciting new additions to the facility, which was still in the process of relocation the last time I was in town, is the visitor center. The clam-shaped lobby, designed by Paul Revere Williams, was salvaged from the demolition of the La Concha Hotel in 2005.

Polaroid of the Stardust neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

The Neon Museum Boneyard is a testimony to the ebb and flow of Vegas culture. From the atomic font of the 50s to the kid-friendly themed signage of the 90s, the history of this desert valley is written in neon. Hotels might come and go, the wedding chapel vows too, but the Boneyard will still be around fifty years from now to document the changing city. At least, that’s what I would bet on.

Polaroid of wedding neon sign. Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

How to get to the Neon Museum Boneyard: 770 Las Vegas Blvd North

Nevada Test Site Tour: Week 181

Operation Teapot - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Operation Teapot – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

You should have seen the food back then. Only $2.50!

Steak and lobster $5.00!

Then- imagine- 10,000 people,

It was a block party!

Area 23

Every month, the DOE Nevada Field Office runs a free tour of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site).

John, one of the retired employees chaperoning the tour, narrates with a touch of a Southern drawl. Over the PA system he covers both the history of the site and whether or not the camera battery is charged. “I just wait while this thing spools up,” John mumbles into the microphone. Dario, the other guide, stands up when he has something to add to the conversation.

The isolated outpost of Mercury once had a bustling hobby club, swimming pool, church, movie theater, eight-lane bowling alley, and tennis court. That was before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1992. Now, the only sign of life at the gateway to the Nevada Test Site are the two stationed guards and the woman behind the canteen cash register. She has long black hair and curled bangs.

Whenever a bomb was being detonated, all unessential personnel were sent to Mercury. Of course not everyone had been as excited as John and Dario about the nuclear test block parties. During the heyday in the 80s, the entrance to the Nevada Test Site was often filled with protesters. If they crossed onto government property they were put in a chain link pen with a port-a-potty until the police took them to Beatty for processing.

From where those protesters sat, they would have seen a nondescript desert landscape in every direction. They knew better though. Just beyond the rolling hills, where Area 23 transitions into Area 5, is a closed basin– an innocuous name for land with a water system that does not drain into another body of water and has high levels of evaporation. It is an ideal location for ensuring the quality of nuclear weapons.

Damaged Vehicles - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Damaged Vehicles – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Complex

Overlooking Area 5 is a series of benches where press and dignitaries once observed the atmospheric tests on Frenchman Flat. The warped and twisted wood planks are surrounded by green brush and little yellow signs. Caution Radioactive Material.

Our first stop is at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. It is comprised of a few cream-colored metal buildings surrounding a covered picnic table. A few employees are having a fish fry in the shade with a retiring colleague. Our tour bus pulls up to allow the manager of the complex to board.

During his portion of the tour, Jon speaks about the complexity of plutonium. He tells us that transuranic waste has a higher atomic number than uranium. Bioturbation, remember this word, is the study of the disturbance of soil. That’s why we put a four foot cap of earth on the waste; insects won’t go deeper than that.

The land is divided into ‘cells’ and within those earthen graves the waste is carefully recorded by columns, rows and tiers. Contaminated dirt goes into large white ‘super sacks’ and cranes deposit the 72,000lb casks containing hot material. Cell 19 received some waste from Dayton, Ohio. “I feel close to home,” Jon jokes.

Aside from hazardous waste, the facility accepts classified military waste. It’s more affordable to bury the classified material than it is to shred it.

Building 6-902 Wet N’ Wild

“I’ll let Dario tell you about that because I gotta call Brenda.”

Dario wears aviator glasses and a baseball cap with a roadrunner on it. He began his career at the test site in 1988 as a water engineer.

During the construction of Building 6-902, Dario had ordered a hydrostatic test on an important 12” pipeline. Some obvious part was overlooked, which makes the guys sitting next to me groan in disbelief, and 300,000 gallons of water flooded the facility.

“I wasn’t the one who forgot it,” Dario claims, but he has never lived it down. The nickname is printed on the tour itinerary. As the bus rolls past Wet N’ Wild, I see an antelope’s white bottom running through a field of lush scrub. It had rained a lot more than normal in the area.

Preparations underway for an underground nuclear test - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Preparations underway for an underground nuclear test – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Area 7 Icecap Ground Zero

The white corrugated emplacement tower is 152ft high and has a sign affixed to the front door that says no classified discussions in this building. Thick diagnostic cables snake out the back of the tower, through the desert, and into recording trailers encased within shock-absorbing aluminum honey comb. These cables would have been lowered down the ‘event hole’ to capture information about the bomb’s performance.

Operation Icecap was in the works when the nuclear testing moratorium went into effect. Had the project been given the go ahead, the 500,000lb test package would have been chilled with dry ice to -42 degrees to simulate the temperature a missile system would encounter in outer space. Because the test was discontinued the site has remained as it would have been prior to a test, emplacement tower and all.

Yucca Flat runs along the western edge of Area 7. The dry lake bed has the dubious distinction of being one of the most popular locations for nuclear tests. Out of 928 total tests, 828 of those were underground and a significant portion of those took place on Yucca Flat. Ten miles away from the peach-colored lake bed was News Nob. People like Walter Cronkite stood there amongst the Joshua trees in anticipation of an atmospheric detonation.

Sedan Crater - Courtesy of Emmet Gowin

Sedan Crater – Courtesy of Emmet Gowin

Area 10 Operation Plowshare

On July 6, 1962 a hole was dug 635ft deep. A 104 kiloton thermonuclear device was inserted and, when detonated, displaced 12 million tons of dirt. The result was one of the largest man-made craters on Earth.

In an age of unlimited nuclear possibilities, Operation Plowshare was part of a larger concept introduced to the public by President Eisenhower. The concept, Atoms for Peace, was interested in the application of cheap nuclear energy for peaceful applications: excavating land, open pit mining, and dam construction. Surprisingly though, the most promising use for underground nuclear explosions was the stimulation of natural gas production. To this end, Operation Plowshare only ceased at the end of Fiscal Year 1975.

Today, Sedan Crater is fronted by a metal viewing platform and rimmed with small puffy bushes. This is the only site on the tour where the guides are allowed to take a group photograph, but they are not allowed to show the horizon.

Loomis Dean—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Caption from LIFE. "Fallen mannequin in house 5,500 feet from bomb is presumed dead."

Loomis Dean—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Caption from LIFE. “Fallen mannequin in house 5,500 feet from bomb is presumed dead.”

Area 1 Operation Cue

Just off in the distance, on Rainier Mesa, was a good café. At least it used to be really good.

“And,” John added, “it used to have a rec center.”

John pops a DVD of archival footage from Operation Cue into the stereo equipment. An attractive young woman named Joan Collin enters the footage with a purse on her arm and a patterned scarf loosely tied over her hair. “As a mother and housewife,” Joan assures us in that soothing Hollywood accent that went extinct in the 1950s, “I was particularly interested in the food test program.”

During the early hours of May 5th, 1955, Joan drank hot coffee on Media Hill while a small group of Civil Defense Volunteers jumped into a trench close to ground zero. They had thick, bulky jackets and hardhats. “As I watched the people eating,” Joan notes after the detonation, “I realized that mass feeding would be an important job for civil defense.” The camera pans over a troop of dusty men preparing a feast made with ‘salvaged cans.’

“Don’t let me forget, Dario,” John says as he switches the PA back on, “to call Patricia to get the photos set up for us.”

Film still from Operation Cue Footage - Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Film still from Operation Cue Footage – Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

We drive into Area 1 along Yucca Flat and when we turn off the paved road the scent of dust drifts through the AC. Soon the bus is approaching a brown two story timber house. It is one of two structures still standing after the famously televised detonation of the Apple II bomb in 1955.

The structure is in relatively good condition, considering it was only 6,600 feet from ground zero. It has a red brick chimney, asphalt shingles on an undulating roof, and a reinforced concrete basement. Through the front door I see a white wood staircase and through an upstairs window I see Garfield spray painted on a wall. The tour bus slowly circles around the house. The gentle rocking has put Barret to sleep.

Although there are no more full-scale nuclear tests, the residual radiation from decades of testing makes Yucca Flat ideal for first responder training. The nearby Transportation Incident Exercise Site simulates nuclear terrorist attacks. Overturned cars, trains and shipping containers are strewn in front of a replicated Main Street. A jack rabbit hops past an airplane crash.

The Nevada National Security Site has a lot of scary associations, but those are carefully tucked away. What is visible looks as harmless as a neglected backyard with rusting cars on blocks.

I don’t know how John and Dario feel about the ethics of nuclear testing; they do a very good job of treading neutral ground. It must have been so thrillingly banal to work a 9-5 shift at a nuclear test site. I can see how easy it would have been to focus on just the science and forget the big picture.

***

Operation Ivy - Mike Shot - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Operation Ivy – Mike Shot – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

In fact checking this article, I came across a name that was familiar but didn’t mean much to me: Operation Ivy. In 1952 President Eisenhower gave the green light to Operation Ivy. Two bombs were detonated under this program in the Marshall Islands. The first one, named Mike, was the world’s first hydrogen bomb. The yield for the device was 10.4 megatons.

When the dust settled and the ravaged landscape surveyed, Gordon Dean, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, sent Eisenhower a short message.

“The island of Elugeleb is missing!”

Humankind had just harnessed nuclear fusion, the same process that takes place in the sun. I can’t think of anything more sobering than that.

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