Australian National Maritime Museum: Week 199

Stern of the HMB Endeavour: Sydney, Australia

Barret and I have been working on a graphic novel together and when I decided a few chapters would take place on a ship, I realized that I don’t know very much at all about life at sea. It also didn’t help that the kind of visual information I needed was very specific and very elusive.

At Barret’s suggestion I made a research appointment at the library of the Australian National Maritime Museum and mentioned to the librarian in advance that I was researching diagrams for a 300-tonne merchant ship from the 1820s. While she did not find info on that specific kind of ship, she had pulled a lot of great material for me. I was very happy with the information, but I was still having a hard time visualizing what that kind of ship looked like.

How did people move through it? How was it set up? What was the scale of the interior? If I wasn’t sure about these answers, how could I write the storyline and how would Barret be able to illustrate it?

While a library is a great place to start a project, sometimes the only way to nut things out is to get into the field. That’s why I went back a few days later to visit the tall ships at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Crew's hammocks aboard the HMB Endeavour: Sydney, Australia

The one I was most interested in, the HMB Endeavour, is also one of the most historically accurate maritime vessels. It is set up as if the crew had just anchored and gone ashore. While the ship predates the period I was researching by about 50 years, there was still a lot to gain from walking the deck and through the confined quarters.

One of the things that struck me was just how much rope was needed to operate the ship. It draped around every protrusion on the deck and I imagine it presented quite a tricky work environment- especially in bad weather. Being from the digital age, it was quite easy to romanticize this kind of travel when viewing the ship in the calm waters of Darling Harbour.

Crew's toilet aboard the HMB Endeavour: Sydney, Australia

However, once you look a little bit closer you notice things like the crew’s toilet. I’m not sure if there was another located within the ship, but the one at the bow of the deck was a wooden platform with a hole. Aside from absolutely no privacy, a shared tasseled rope served in place of toilet paper.

Then, with the help of the stationed tour guides, you come to realize the things that would be impossible to accurately recreate: the sweaty stench of a 56-strong crew, the rudimentary healthcare, and the disappointing taste of stale food and stale water.

The crew of the HMAS Vampire, an Australian destroyer ship commissioned in 1959, might not have contended with the same issues as the crew of the Endeavour, but it feels a bit different to romanticize about laminate tables and commissaries stocked with Crunchie Nuggets and Dunhill cigarettes.

Mural inside the dining room of the HMAS Vampire: Sydney, Australia

Officer's dining room aboard the HMAS Vampire: Sydney, Australia

The surfaced HMAS Onslow inside the Darling Harbour: Sydney, Australia

When it came to the HMAS Onslow, a submarine commissioned in 1969, the first thing a visitor noticed when stepping aboard was the lack of space. Bunk beds lined the hall and the lowest bed looked more suited to store shoes than a sleeping man.

Officer's quarters on the HMAS Onslow: Sydney, Australia

The quarters of the ranking officers were not much to get excited over, unless of course you were sleeping on one of the aforementioned bunk beds. The one thought that kept crossing my mind was how much work it would have taken to draft the construction plans- every square inch of space had to be accounted for.

The Captain's bathroom on the James Craig: Sydney, Australia

The other thought that crossed my mind was that I’d much rather deal with rats and damp bedding than with the claustrophobic nature of a submarine. Especially if I could have a bathroom like those of a Captain’s wife (circa 1874).

Operation room of the HMAS Vampire: Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

After viewing the utilitarian style of 1768 and the 1960s, it’s easy to see why the HMB Endeavour captures people’s hearts- the creaking floorboards, the skylights, the excitement of traveling by the whim of nature. Paying passengers today can even sail aboard it to places like Tasmania.

You just don’t feel the exhilaration of being out at sea inside the Bat Cave of the HMAS Vampire. Seeing the inside of the operation room also made me glad that I am not writing a military thriller- you really need to have a background in the Navy to even begin to understand the complex operations on board a ship like that. I’ll stick to describing poop platforms and toilet paper tassels.

Operation Room of the HMAS Vampire: Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

How to get to the Australian National Maritime Museum: Darling Harbour- 2 Murray Street, Sydney 2000

About: The HMB Endeavour

About: The HMAS Vampire

About: The HMAS Onslow

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.

About: the Nevada National Security Site tour

About: NNSS Photo Library

About: NNSS Factsheets

International Fleet Review: Week 134

A page from the Sydney Mail, published on 8 October 1913, shows crowds watching HMAS Australia at her moorings. (Royal Australian Navy)

One hundred years ago the HMAS Australia sailed into the Sydney Harbour. It was a momentous occasion for the fledgling country and thousands of people gathered to see the new Australian Fleet Unit.

In order to mark the 100th anniversary of that occasion, the navy orchestrated an International Fleet Review with helicopter displays, 21-gun salutes, and a military band rendition of current pop songs.

“WHO LIKES PINK?” the singer caterwauled as she stomped her feet and clapped her hands. She was the rare kind of artist that could transform a bad song into an overwrought opera.

“Oh YEAH,” a female audience member replied, her enthusiasm captured on a stranger’s iPad. She was in her mid 20s and dancing in front of the stage in baggy clothes and a baseball cap. I wondered if she really did like the music or if she was the singer’s friend in civilian clothes.

The Opera House steps were packed and all the best views had been claimed for hours with tripods and cameras. Barret and I had an hour to kill, but the food and bathroom lines were so ridiculously long that it just wasn’t worth leaving our cramped spot- besides, the band was now covering the best of Justin Beiber.

While the pebbly texture of the steps pressed into my ankles and my feet lost circulation, I reflected upon the simpler times when one could rock up to the quay on a horse and buggy ten minutes before the ships entered the harbour. Not that I knew what it was like to find a good spot so easily, but I can imagine. How different these public events must have been when people didn’t need plastic wrist bands to get close to the action.

The only reason I was even allowed to enter the cordoned off zone around the Opera House was because I had won tickets to a graphic novel festival. Once the lecture ended, I was urgently ushered out of the Opera House but allowed to stay in the area with the military band (now covering Miley Cyrus).

International Fleet Review 2013: Sydney Harbour, Australia

My spot wasn’t worth that kind of auditory torture until a bunch of disgruntled tourists and amateur photographers decided to break past a barricade. With minutes until the start of the fireworks there was suddenly a void of people right up front on the balcony railing- the part of the steps that people were allowed to watch the show. Sensing my opportunity, I rushed forward and set my tripod up right behind the balding head of a 5’7” man. A few minutes later the gate crashers were kicked out of the restricted area and stuck at the back of the crowd.

Yes I had a better view, but halfway through the show I noticed a dark dome-shaped smudge in the bottom corner of every image.  That’s when I hoisted my camera above the crowd and produced my next series of pictures at crooked angles. It wasn’t my finest hour of photography, but the night wasn’t really about my photos or anybody else’s. It was about Australia, how much the country has matured within the last century, and about how much better fireworks look in the Sydney Harbour than they do anywhere else in the world. Not even Prince Harry could distract the crowd from that.

About: the International Fleet Review

The Phone: Week 125

The phone

When you travel for an extended period of time you have to make sacrifices. One of the biggest sacrifices Barret and I made was our smartphones. According to Barret this has saved us $6,000 over the last three years, which means we’re either really savvy, really bad at math, or we had really shitty phone plans.

Part of the estimated savings was due to the fact that since living in Seoul we have only ever had one phone, aka the phone. It was not T9 friendly but it did have a dictionary that was really useful when Barret had food poisoning. Did you know that ‘salsa’ means diarrhea in Korean?

A second phone would have come in handy (two dictionaries are better than one), but we just didn’t have a lot of contacts and we sat next to each other at work.  When you’re attached at the hip to the only person you need to call, you just don’t run out of minutes.

When we moved to New Zealand, our personal space was downsized from a studio apartment to the bench seat of a 1989 Mitsubishi L300. Once again, having two phones just felt redundant.

However, after eight months of living in Sydney, we found ourselves with different jobs and different sets of friends. So when Barret invited me to check out his office for the first time, I was excited to see how well his retro red panda poster clashed with the office décor.

The only problem was that after hours I needed a key card to use his elevator. Although I had the phone, Barret didn’t have a work line. I had also arrived later than planned, so there was the chance he had already left. I was stuck in the white marble lobby trying to predict his next move when a set of elevator doors opened.

Nope, not Barret.

As the minutes ticked by I couldn’t help but wish I could call Barret. Yet, for all the inconvenience caused, there were benefits to only having the phone. For starters when we made plans to meet up we always carried through and [ahem] we were more likely to meet on time.

Also, the time we spent with each other and our friends was of a higher quality. You’ll never see Barret and I pull out the phone during dinner. The calculator function is not enthralling and anyways you don’t tip in Australia.

Ding.

Just as my self-doubt was kicking in, the elevator opened and out stepped a smiling Barret. “I had a feeling you were down here! Want to come up and see my office?”

See- all you need is one phone and telepathy.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: