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Oppenheimer

Category: Gaggle of Groaners listserv, Rated G, Shaggy Dogs

This is an original style shaggy dog with highly educational aspects of physics and history. You have been warned. The author is not known. It was posted by Stan Kegel on the groaners listserv.


As a child I came to America with my family in the darkest days of the Great Depression. It was only through the hard struggles of my dear mother and father that I was able to receive a fine education in American schools. I was awarded a Ph. D. in physics from MIT in the year of 1939, and had planned to continue on in a consulting capacity with the school.

Good fortune smiled upon me (although I didn’t recognize it at the time!) and my days at MIT were numbered. One day in the first weeks of the second world war, I received a call from my good friend, Richard Feynman. We had met briefly while working at the University a few years earlier, and I knew that by the sparkle in Dick’s voice that there was more to be told than could be uttered over the public telephone, especially considering the terrible struggle that this country was consumed with. Dick persuaded me to join him in an out of the way little town in New Mexico where he was about to start work on what he called “a scintillating and phenomenal project.”

Most Americans have some idea of what happened in and around the town of Santa Fe in those days, 45 years ago. At least they think that they have an idea. Overall, the common visualization of the scene at Los Alamos is correct — the perception of a dedicated and hard working group of physicists, engineers, technicians, and craftsmen, all struggling inch-by-inch toward a clearly defined and attainable goal.

For the most part, this was true. They were all dedicated, hardworking and idealistic American patriots.

But the goal was not attainable, at least not in the short span of time that was available to us. In the preceding months and very short years, great strides had been taken in the infantile arena of nuclear physics. We knew how the bomb could work, how it should work, and how it might be made to operate. All in all, the nuclear theory and the basic concepts of detonation were fairly well in hand. The essential special nuclear material was being extracted from elemental uranium at Oak Ridge and plutonium was being wrought in massive nuclear forges hidden at a secret desert laboratory in Washington State. Our goal at Los Alamos was to have the mechanisms necessary for detonation of the special nuclear material ready as soon as enough material was available.

Progress always came as a flash of apparent inspiration, but without fail, the credit for these leaps was never given. Quite often, a component or mechanism, completely encased and assembled, was tested for functionality and installed in the test device. These components and mechanisms were rarely, if ever, seen or examined by any of the project team.

When questions were asked, and they were asked often at first, the ultimate authority of Oppenheimer usually came into play. We were ordered to install, and test, not question the internal workings, nor their actual source. “TOP SECRET” and “CLASSIFIED” were his two most favorite utterances

Gradually we all came to realize that it was Oppenheimer who was producing these mysterious breakthroughs, apparently without any help from the rest of the project staff. Now, to the layman and outside observer this may not seem to be a bit unusual, since Oppenheimer is popularly credited as being the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” In fact, Robert Oppenheimer’s forte was not as an engineer or a scientist, but as an administrator and as logistician.

None of these contributions by Oppenheimer have ever been documented, as to details of construction, nor materials of composition. The feeble attempts that were actually developed at the lab had absolutely no hope of ever producing a functional weapon.

Even today, if the actual working details of the first two bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, were to be examined, it would be apparent to an engineer or physicist of even modest training and education, that they could not have been devised nor fabricated with the technology and the resources available at that time. Available, that is, to the people of this planet using their own earthly resources.

The actual components used in the initial test and in the two dropped in August of 1945 had no documentation, no prints, no list of materials, no description of their internal workings, whatsoever. Those components, and the only man who held the secrets to their genuine origins, have been sent into oblivion, the bomb components in the conflagration of their own doing, and Oppenheimer consumed by the so called cancer that took his life after the war.

It is no coincidence that many of the UFO incidents and sightings recounted in the popular press have occurred in the same general area where Robert Oppenheimer frequently wandered on solitary excursions away from the labs at Los Alamos. There were more than a few of us at the labs that held suspicions of the origins of the finely tooled and perfectly functioning devices that appeared in the workshops as the deadlines approached.

The devices always functioned exactly as the specifications called for. Even in the cases where the specifications that were called for were in error, the devices produced them precisely. As soon as tests were run, and it was found that our calculations were erroneous, a new or modified device would be produced by Oppenheimer, meeting the new performance requirements to the letter. Near the end, when we would realize that Oppenheimer was not onsite, work would slow to a standstill as we anticipated the delivery of another black box of perfection.

Dr. Feynman was every bit the maverick and jokester as his reputation portrayed him. He could not resist the temptation to dig a bit deeper to learn of the source of Oppenheimer’s miracles. On one of our regular trips into town for a few beers Dick brought up the unspoken but widely whispered rumors. Leaving the compound was strictly forbidden, but that made escapes to the tavern seem all that more necessary.

The tavern that we frequented was one of those places built with the old-fashioned yellow adobe bricks, peeled pine poles supported the flat, sagging roof. There was an open fireplace of soot-blackened smooth adobe on one side of the room and on the other was the grease-encrusted cookstove of unknown antiquity. The cook was equally greasy and also of an undetermined age. The floor was bare planks, the gaping chinks served as the best way for the sawdust to filter away as more was added every Friday afternoon. The style of the tavern’s construction was not nearly as stylish then as it would be today. In Santa Fe around 1940, the word nostalgia had not been invented yet.

As seedy as this palace was, it was about the only place where we could go and be fairly certain of not running into any one of authority from the Los Alamos compound. In the rare instance when some other errant physicist did show up, all concerned usually ignored each other out of a combination of courtesy, fear, and embarrassment.

On this night however, there was another familiar face from the compound, seen fleetingly by the cook through the grimy front window.

“Ahyyeee, there he goes again. Always drives by, never stops.”

Bouncing over the patched strip of asphalt was a government issue jeep piloted by a gaunt man in a porkpie hat. His teeth clenched tightly onto a long stemmed pipe.

Leaving a larger than usual tip in plain sight of the cook coaxed him into giving us some information about the schedule of the man in the jeep. It turned out that Oppenheimer passed this way every Tuesday and Thursday night, at just about 10 PM, like clockwork. Typical of Oppie.

That evening, over Chile Rellenos and too many cold beers, a plan of discovery and stealth was hatched. The roads from Santa Fe to Los Alamos today are not really the best. Then they were an absolute terror — especially at night, or in the winter, spring, and even summer. In the fall of the year they weren’t too good either. The trip back, down one mountain, across the Rio Grande, and up another mountain to Los Alamos, gave us ample time to formulate a plan of surveillance for our boss.

We had so much time that we ended up drinking the six-pack of Tecate that served as a passport past the Guard at the west gate. He promised not to tell if we tried a little harder on our next trip, and brought him a half-pint of scotch. Willie (the guard) said that he needed a little nip now and then to keep off the nighttime chills. The town of Los Alamos is up in the mountains at an elevation of about 7,500 feet.

It just so happened that on the upcoming weekend the whole staff had a little time-off. All except Oppenheimer, who claimed that he had to go back to Brookhaven Labs for a “special conference.”

I arranged to get a government Jeep, and Feynman dropped off a half pint of Johnnie Walker Red with Willie at the west gate. Dick assured Willie that we would be good boys, and that we would bring him another little surprise on the return trip.

The fall of the year comes early in the high plateaus of New Mexico, and even sooner to the mountains surrounding the Los Alamos compound. Since Dr. Feynman and I had already established that Oppenheimer routinely passed by one of our favorite hangouts, the tavern was a very obvious starting point. As a matter of fact, had it not been for that warm watering hole I doubt that we would have made it much further on our mission.

We left around 6:30 that evening, while Oppenheimer was still in his quarters. We had seen him at the motor pool a little earlier when he picked up a Jeep of his own. A chat with the mechanic revealed that the boss had taken special pains to assure that the gas tank was topped up and that there were tire chains in the toolbox.

The sun had slipped behind the snow-covered ridge of Santa Clara Peak just as we crossed the river and started up the mountain towards Santa Fe. The icy crest of Baldy Peak to the east was shining a brilliant orange in the fading light. By the time that we had reached the tavern, the sun had long since disappeared along with any semblance of warmth in the thin air.

I parked our Jeep behind the place, under a Juniper that had kept the graveled lot free of last night’s snow. Our fingers were nearly frozen stiff as we struggled with the canvas top and side curtains of the Jeep. Even without a heater, the top would at least cut the wind and keep the snow off.

Dick had warned me to put it up before we left, but the air had seemed plenty warm just a little while ago. I was still unaccustomed to the erratic changes of mountain weather. Dick had spent a lot more time outdoors since our arrival here. As a matter of fact, I really didn’t understand why he insisted that we bring our heavy boots and parkas along, not to mention the tire chains.

I was sopping up the last bits of enchilada sauce with a handmade tortilla when Oppie’s Jeep putted by. I bolted up and started to grab my parka when Dick stuck out his boot and sent me sprawling on the sawdust floor.

“Hold it Sam Spade.” He chuckled, “We can let him go a while and follow his tire tracks. There hasn’t been another car along the road since we got here. Have another beer. Max, take it easy.”

“Only if you buy, and the beer is a chaser for a shot of mescal,” I sputtered through a mouthful of floor sweepings. “You’re in charge now, Doctor!”

The sound of Oppie’s Jeep crunching through the crusty snow slowly disappeared. The single glowing taillight seemed to go on forever as he creeped along the narrowing road.

Dick went out to the Jeep and returned with a thick-walled steel vessel with a gasketed lid. Without a word of explanation, he had the cook fill it up with hot coffee, and headed back out to the Jeep, this time with me in close pursuit.

Outside, it was colder than I ever imagined possible this early in the year. There were a few tiny snowflakes quietly swirling about, illuminated by the mellow light from the tavern windows Coming to rest on the hot coffee can, the puny flakes instantly melted and then vanished.

Dick popped open the Jeep’s hood and jammed the steel can between the engine block and the exhaust manifold. He secured the coffee with a long steel hose-clamp using a standing liberty quarter for a screwdriver.

“Might be a long night Max, but this works every time.” He said, with a knowing sparkle in his eyes. I decided to keep Willie’s half-pint of scotch in my pocket, just in case Dick’s home-brew coffee heater failed to keep the chill off

Dick decided to drive with the lights off. I was nominated to lean out through the side curtain and follow the tracks from Oppie’s Jeep by the feeble light of a flashlight. I had almost lost the trail in the deepening snow when it suddenly veered off to the left.

Dick stopped and we both stepped out into the ankle deep fluff. The tracks seemed to disappear into a thorny locust thicket. I held the flashlight as the Doctor tugged and jerked at the twisted branches to reveal more tracks vanishing into the scrub. A faint bluish light was just barely visible about 50 yards off the road.

We broke out the coffee. It exploded into a boil when Dick opened the lid and released the pressure. Luckily we had the scotch to cool it down and warm us up. We’d need it.

We polished off about half of the coffee. I slipped the can into a large pocket on the inside of my government issue parka. I figured that it would stay warm longer that way. Besides, so would I.

Not knowing quite what we had gotten ourselves into, Dick and I crept through the tangles without the benefit of the flashlight. The moon was mostly obscured by the clouds, but with the reflection of the snow we made our way into the bush.

Oppie’s Jeep was parked, with the motor idling, next to a weather-beaten shack, the door hanging askew on one leather hinge. The one window was devoid of glass and had been crudely boarded up with rotten shingles. There were more shingles scattered about the yard. Collimated blue light beamed out through ragged gaps in the roof. The hood of the Jeep was propped open, and what looked like jumper cables were pulled into the shack.

Dick sucked in a sudden gulp of the frozen air and I found myself face down and spread-eagled for the second time tonight. Dick threw himself down beside me as Oppie burst out the rickety door and onto the dirt porch. If he hadn’t been so intent on his work, the boss would have eyeballed us for sure.

The little man was struggling with a shiny metallic object shaped sort of like a giant dunce cap. He set the dunce cap on a tripod of thin metal rods, and attached a long translucent tube to the base of the cone. Oppie was fidgeting around the contraption, apparently making some sort of adjustments. Every so often he would move what looked like a light meter over the open end of the cone, all the while softly muttering to himself. After a final pass of the light meter, he grunted once, and darted back into the shack, taking the loose end of the tube with him.

I pulled myself out of the snow and helped Dick untangle his parka hood from a locust sticker. Not a word was spoken between us before Oppie slapped through the door, knocking it loose from the frame. He kicked a rock loose from the shack’s crumbling foundation and grabbed it with both hands.

He poked his head inside the Jeep, jamming the gas pedal to the floorboards with the rock. The tiny engine roared for the briefest of moments then the RPMs dropped off, the motor lugging down mercilessly. A sickly sweet smell of ozone poured over us, along with the unmistakable odor of an overheated engine.

The dunce cap was generating a field of static electricity so intense that pine cones and twigs were being torn loose from a nearby tree and stuck to the cone. In a clap of artificial thunder and the frenzied sparking arcing and zapping of the machine, a pulsating pillar of brilliant blue light shot out from the cone. It seemed to extend forever up into the cosmos.

Gazing upward through the spotty cloud cover and up to the stars, it looked like there was something, or someone, riding the light beam. It looked like a cosmic fireman sliding down an electrified fire pole.

It was someone. The alien reached the bottom and hopped down onto the dirt near the base of the cone. He turned and slowly looked back up the tower of light, nodding in apparent approval.

Oppie approached the weird creature, wringing his hands in anticipation. “Well?” he asked.

“Very nice light, Mr. Oppenheimer. But I wanted a Bud Light!!”

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