Grad Research: Bombs and Belvederes

Last week, I introduced a collaborative project that I’ve been working on for the past few years, Mystery Spot Books. This week, I submit another bit of writing from our first book, Mystery Spot Vol. 1, on buried cars in Tulsa and hydrogen bombs hiding in plain sight in New Mexico.

Image by Chad Rutter, Mystery Spot Vol. 1

Sandia Base was a field test area for nuclear weapons run by the U.S. government that operated from 1946 until 1971. The former test site lies southeast of Albuquerque amidst a seemingly unbroken expanse of dry mesas and their tributaries of dusty roads. In May of 1957, at what is now called the Mark 17 Broken Arrow site, a 42,000-pound hydrogen bomb fell through the closed bay doors of a plane that was approaching Kirtland Air Force Base to the south. The plutonium pits were safely stored on the plane, but radioactive pieces of the bomb were scattered across the mesas. In 1996, the Center for Land Use Interpretation placed a descriptive marker at the site to commemorate the incident. The marker is a wooden post that stands in the middle of a field and holds a plaque describing the 1957 event. The Air Force cleaned up the site in secret, but if you visit the Mark 17 Broken Arrow site today, you can still find radioactive pieces of the hydrogen bomb hiding in the sagebrush.

Six hundred and fifty miles east of the Sandia Base, also in 1957, the city of Tulsa buried a brand new Plymouth Belvedere in an underground bunker designed to withstand nuclear fallout. The car was a time capsule, slated to be unearthed during Oklahoma’s centennial celebration in 2007. The concrete enclosure was intended to protect the car from decay, but a defect in the design of the bunker allowed water to seep in over the years and severely damage the Belvedere. A second car, a Plymouth Prowler, was placed in an above ground vault in 1998 and will be sealed there until 2048. If you visit Tulsa in 2048, you might see a well-preserved 1998 Plymouth Prowler emerge from its sepulcher, or perhaps a design flaw will allow time to do its work on this time capsule as well.

Some things get buried so no one can find them; some things get buried so everyone remembers them. But things don’t always stay buried. What you find if you visit the Broken Arrow site or Tulsa, Oklahoma, is more than the radioactive scraps of a destroyed bomb or a bizarre representation of local pride. One way or another, things come to the surface, and what is revealed when they do is not simply the contradiction between what we hide and what we honor, but the fact that the latter is often a mask for the former.

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