A Novel

            Jack joined Mick in the tent at around midnight but sleep did not follow. He was aware of Mick's harsh, labored breathing but his mind sprinted like a riderless horse along several paths.      
            He was embarrassed by his moronic behavior with Emily. What must she think of him? The serious, prudish, religious guy who is no fun at all. After all, what would have been wrong with making love? It was the most natural thing in the world. On the other hand, the church taught that Satan often packaged sin to look natural and attractive, the old wolf in sheep's clothing trick. But sex was biologic, as fundamental as breathing and eating, and the human race would die out without it. It was a force of nature that could not be denied.
            The church insists that we learn to control our appetites, become masters of our bodies as well as our minds, Jack thought. That is a big part of the reason we are placed on earth, and self-control is an integral component in achieving our ultimate goal, the growth of our immortal spirits until we become gods, like the church teaches. Bitterly, Jack wondered, what exactly did gods do? Certainly, he could not imagine God engaging in lustful sex. On the surface, it seemed that they must live a pretty mundane existence of self deprivation, like the Catholic priests. But regardless of all that, it would have been nice to make love to Emily.
            Jack's restless mind then veered to Mick. Undeniably Mick is a classic cynic, Jack thought, he questions everything. Nothing is as it seems on the surface and everybody and everything has an ulterior motive. Even things that should be beyond reproach, like the church and even God. Mick even challenged the integrity of the AEC and government itself. There was no doubt in Jack's mind that these organizations were looking out for our welfare and the good of the country. If the Atomic Energy Commission said the tests were safe, they were safe. What possible motive could they possibly have for lying?
            After all, the citizens of Washington County and the AEC had a common goal, Jack thought, the preservation of our land and freedom. And as a country we were in some serious trouble, we had to beat the Russians in the development of the H-bomb. This was not just hysteria or paranoia, this was real. Regardless of what Mick said, God is on our side.
            But even more troubling to Jack was Mick's cynicism toward the church.When they were kids, they had made a pact, that they would go on missions together. Lately, this was looking doubtful. The church had designated twenty-one as the age to go on missions, and now they were of age. It was time to stand up and be counted Jack thought, but Mick seemed disinterested, almost antagonistic. Mentally, Jack doubled his resolve to encourage Mick to go with him on a mission.      
            Then there was Mick's health. Lately he had been tired and irritable, and that damn cough would not go away, and now tonight, the nosebleed. When they got back home, Jack would insist that Mick see Dr. Hilton. Probably some penicillin would do him and his summer cold a world of good.
            Jack's thoughts wandered to the volcano, Easy and Greg, Deputy Saunders and the manslaughter charge. That benign prank had left three people dead. How could innocent horseplay blow up in your face like that? To Jack, these events only served to confirm the fleeting and transitory nature of life and life's circumstances. One day it looked like you pretty much had a handle on life, attending college, majoring in pre-med, preparing for a mission, and starting to date a terrific girl. The next day you could be going to jail, doing one-to-five, or, as in Easy's, Greg's and Deputy Saunders' case, be dead.
            With a flashlight, Jack checked his watch. It was 4:15 a.m. Thank God, it was time to get up and wake the others. He pulled on his faded Levis and rotated his navy blue T-shirt in the dark, trying to sort out front and back. For the first time he noticed a jagged tear, probably from a barb-wire fence, on the back of his shirt. That must of really impressed Emily. With a sigh, he parted the tent flaps and went outside to re-start the fire.
            In the chill morning air, Jack nursed the coals back to life. A hint of light sneaked past the craggy shoulders of Pine Valley Mountain to the east and seeped like blood into the raven-black night. To the far west, thin streaks of russet light outlined wispy, rooster-tail clouds that dozed unsuspectingly high above the Mojave desert. With a growing sense of excitement, Jack put a pot of water on the fire. Hot chocolate would be perfect for watching the test.
            When Jack shook Mick's shoulder to wake him, he noticed his shirt was damp with perspiration and the front of his white T-shirt was flecked with blood.
            "How you feeling?" Jack asked, his hand still resting on Mick's shoulder. "Your shirt is spotted with blood."
            "Just that nosebleed. I'm fine. What time is it?"
            "It's 4:30. About last night, I'm sorry," Jack said.
            "No big deal. We just differ on certain things. Friends can do that, you know."
            "Lately, seems like we disagree on everything. We're still going on missions, aren't we?"
            "J.T., we're different people. We're supposed to disagree. For now, forget the missions. If it happens, it happens. If it don't, it don't. That's not what our friendship's about. Let's get the girls. I certainly don't want to miss that shot. You get any last night?"
            "Any what?"
            "Nookie. You know with Emily."
            Jack flushed. "Nah, after you went to bed we just talked for a while, then we all hit the sack. Brenda seemed disappointed that you left so early."
            "I'll make it up to her. We better wake them up or we'll miss the show."
            As the rumpled girls came out, Jack greeted them with steaming mugs of hot chocolate. A wave of embarrassment pierced him as he handed Emily hers, but she squeezed his hand and smiled. Feeling better, he tilted his watch to the firelight. It was 4:45.
            "We ought to get over to the edge of that high point, where it drops off. We'll have a good view from there." Jack pointed to a spot about twenty yards to the west where the terrain rose slightly, then pitched precipitously to the valley floor.
            "This is exciting. I've never seen an atomic bomb test before." Emily said.
            "J.T. and I have been watching them on and off for about two years now. From here you can't actually see the mushroom cloud but you can sure see the flash and feel the earth shake." Mick took a sip of his chocolate. "Then a couple hours later, what's left of the mushroom cloud will float over. Sometimes they're pink. It should be quite a show. I just don't know why they set them off at this ungodly hour."
            "I'll second that," Brenda said with a yawn. "I'd heard of five o'clock in the morning but until now, I never really believed it existed."
            "Well, bring your mugs and let's go over and get the balcony seats before they're all taken." Jack laughed as he started walking toward the ridge.
            Ninety miles to the west, Shot Harry was detonated at exactly 5:05 a.m. at Yucca Flats, Nevada. Hanging like an outlaw from a gallows, Harry dangled above the desert from a 300-foot aluminum tower and when the prevailing winds were exactly right, blowing due east, Harry was exploded.
            Within milliseconds after the switch was pulled, Harry shattered with an atomic rage three times that of Hiroshima, instantly produced a blinding white-orange fireball. As it shot upward, a giant root-bearing stem instantly appeared as if to support the ascending fiery mass. Standing on the valley floor like an enormous water tower, it was, for one paralyzing minute, a thing of terrifying beauty. Then the base of the stem began to disappear as a billowing ashen-gray dust cloud was sucked from the valley floor.
            The loose soil and rock of the desert floor, the tower and the cab that contained Harry were all instantly vaporized. As the fireball rose and began to cool, the gaseous vapors within condensed to form a vigorous updraft called afterwind. This afterwind vacuumed the remaining loose debris from the valley floor and thoroughly mixed it with the vaporized material and radioactive products. It created a suspension of particulate matter that varied in size from that of an atom to about a half inch in diameter. As Harry's cloud floated downwind, these airborne radioactive particles would systematically fall out with the grip of gravity. The heavier particles would plummet to the earth first, and the lighter particles would take hours or even days to descend.
            At the time of the blast, a small thunderhead had been perched directly over the top of the tower at about 10,000 feet. As the bomb exploded, the mushroom rose and swallowed it up, transforming it into a thing of eerie beauty. It instantly turned an iridescent pink, rapidly intensifying to a flaming orange, then deepening to a crimson red, rifling through the colors of a sunset in milli-seconds.
            Meanwhile, the stem started to blur. Hanging from the fireball like gray beards, apron-clouds began to appear, ringing and obscuring the upper stem.
            Ten minutes after the detonation, the soaring mushroom cloud collided with the troposphere. It flattened and layered out at 42,000 feet, while the bottom remained steady at about 27,000 feet. The cloud and its stem held their mushroom shape for a short time, then began to break apart. As the cloud islands drifted east, they continued to glow. Their pink color was created from the residue of nitrous acid and oxides of nitrogen that formed in the caldron of intense heat and catalytic radiation generated by the fireball. All in all, it was a breathtaking scene.
            Straightaway, the entire ghoulish family of fissionary by-products was released to seep into the atmosphere. This deadly clan consisted of the virulent triplets: Alpha rays (positively charged particles consisting of two protons and two neutrons), Beta rays (negatively charged particles with approximately 100x more pene-trating energy than alphas), and Gamma rays (similar to x-rays, but with 10,000x more penetrating power). Unfortunately, none of these emissions could be seen, heard, tasted or smelled. Some radioactive particles were short-lived and decayed in hours. Other fissionary elements, like plutonium, had a half-life of some 24,000 years.
            This spectacle amazed and appalled, inspired and dismayed the four campers. In awe they watched as the brilliant, blinding white flash chased the residual blackness from the morning sky. The intense brightness had forced them to blink and close their eyes and within seconds they heard a low-pitched roar that seemed to come from the earth. As the ground shook, the horses reared and lunged at their restraining ropes. The campers flinched as the rolling sound waves hit the surrounding hill with a series of explosions, like echoing cannon fire. The thin cirrus cloud that floated over the valley instantly ef-fervesced, radiating a metallic-pink that caused the group to gasp in amazement.
            Then as quickly as it began, it was over except for an ominous dark cloud that was gathering on the western horizon.
            "God, that was beautiful!" Emily exclaimed. "So powerful. Words just can't describe it."
            "I've never seen anything like that in my entire life," Brenda said. "It's just like in the newsreels."
            "Amazing! Something so magnificent, so glorious, kinda makes you believe in God," Jack added almost reverently.
            "Believe in God, hell!" Mick fumed, as he stared at the mottled western sky. "What you've just witnessed is one huge fucking mistake. Shit, we could wipe out the whole human race with this. If there is a God, which sometimes I doubt, he don't want his name associated with the likes of this."
            "Come on Mick, you don't need to use the f-word, not in front of the girls."
            "I'm sorry, but that's how I feel. It's beyond me, how can you attribute this to God."
            "Well, God made man in his own image, to be inquisitive and inventive. The atomic bomb is a testimony of God through man's genius. A lot of good will come of nuclear power, and maybe someday we'll be able to harness some of this power for peaceful purposes."
            "If God has a hand in this, he'd better be prepared to accept liability for his actions. More people are going to die from this damn thing than Stalin and Hitler combined," Mick said.
            "When God made man, he gave him great potential and ability. What man does with that potential is his own responsibility, not God's."
            "You mean to tell me that God, on purpose, made man imperfect with the ability to do evil as well as good, and when he does do bad things, then God accepts no responsibility? How convenient for God. He purposefully makes a defective product, then assumes no liability. That's like when Steve Hardin knocked-up Peggy, then told her it was her problem and not his," Mick said, his face distorted.
            "Mick, it's not the same. You don't understand the principle of free agency."
            "I damn well do understand free agency and also know when your arguments make no sense. J.T., we'll never agree on this one. Let's just drop it."
            "I think it was wonderful," Brenda gushed, oblivious to the tension between Mick and Jack. "I'm glad I came, but if I was in charge, the tests would be scheduled for a more reasonable hour. Say ten o'clock or so. At least give us time to put on some make-up and do our hair first. Can you do something about that, Jack?"
            All four laughed, then Emily said, "Forget the make-up. How about some breakfast?"
            As they headed back to camp, the first shafts of sunlight pierced the eastern ridge top and fought through the piņon and cedar boughs, splashing the camp in dappled light. After adding fuel, Jack stirred the white-crusted coals with a piņon branch and they erupted into flames. Before long, they had prepared a ranch hand's breakfast of sizzling uncured bacon, scrambled eggs mixed with what was left of last night's onions and potatoes, and fresh baked Dutch oven biscuits topped with butter.
            "Mick, Jack, this is delicious." Emily said. "You can cook for me anytime. And where did you get the butter? It's great."
            "Actually, we make it ourselves," Jack answered.
            Emily arched her eyebrows. "Growing up in La Puente, I always thought butter came from the grocery store. How in the world do you make butter?"
            "We have a Guernsey cow I milk every morning and night. Guernsey milk is high in fat, so we run the milk through a cream separator. Once it's separated, the cream is poured into a butter churn. After what seems like an eternity of working the plunger up and down, you have butter. Then just add salt to taste. It's a lot easier if you just get it at the grocery store," Jack laughed.
            "I'll bet most of this food Jack raised on the farm,"Brenda said. "My dad buys some of their stuff to sell in the store."
            Mick joined in, "Most families in Santa Clara are pretty self-sufficient. The bacon is fresh, uncured, and is probably from a pork Jack's dad butchered in the last couple weeks. The eggs are from their own hen house, and the milk for the hot chocolate is from that same Guernsey cow. And, I'm sure the biscuit flour is from wheat that Jack's father traded to the miller for flour. Only thing not from Santa Clara is the chocolate."
            "Wherever it comes from, it's scrumptious," Emily said, im-pressed. "Anyway, in case we have a nuclear war with the Russians, I think it will be the self-sufficient that survive. I hope you guys remember who your friends are."
            Jack nodded. "That could happen. Anyway, I'd hate to be a Russian invading Santa Clara. There's more guns and ammunition there than in the Utah State National Guard Armory."
            "And I can't wait til I kill my first Russian. Those godless bas-tards," Mick quipped.
            "Actually, they do have a plan to invade-" Jack said, but Emily cut in.
            "Let's get everything cleaned up."
            A few minutes later as they were washing dishes in the spring, the campers noticed that the sky had suddenly darkened. The dark cloud, once innocently gathering on the western horizon, was now directly overhead, appearing thick, angry and ominous. They quickly finished washing, drying and packing away the tableware.
            Suddenly, the wind shifted and the cloud dropped to the ground. The campers were instantly engulfed in a dense, murky fog. The air smelled metallic, like a welding shop, and Jack could feel the hairs of his arms and the back of his neck tingle and stand up. Silently, a gray ash, like the soot produced by forest fires fell all around, the gray flakes flashing and flickering like Fourth of July sparklers. Within minutes, the ground was lightly covered, and their boots and sneakers left footprints in the dirty snow.
            Abruptly, the feathery ash became grainy, like hail.
            "My God! This shit is hot. I think we're in trouble!" Mick screamed as he brushed a small burning particle from his arm. "Let's get to cover."
            All four sprinted for the truck and once inside the cab, Jack asked with a nervous laugh, "What the heck is that stuff?"
            "It's fallout. This is fucking radioactive fallout," Mick barked.
            "Mick, cut the profanity," Jack replied, staring out the window.
            "Look at my hair. It's a mess. I just had it done yesterday," Brenda sobbed, as she strained ash from her hair with forked fingers.
            "This is kinda scary. How long will it last?" Emily asked, her eyes wide.
            "Who knows? I've never been in friggin' fallout before," Mick answered.
            As he spoke, the cloud began to lift and a few scattered rays of sunlight penetrated the gloom.
            "Think it's safe to get out?" Emily asked, as she scanned the sky.
            Jack, though he knew he had nothing to confirm his reply, answered, "We should probably wait. Maybe thirty minutes to an hour. By then, it should be safe."
            "Yeah, right. A couple of physics classes, and now you're an expert," Mick said.
            "It looks okay to me right now. The sun's shining," Brenda said. "I need to get my mirror and things out of the tent."
            "Let's wait a bit," Jack said firmly.
            "Whatever," Mick grunted. "You still planning on riding over to your dad's land and check on the cows?"
            "Yeah, I've got to. We put those cows up here three months ago, before they calved. We still don't have an accurate count on how many calves were born this spring."
            "Fake it," Mick said. "Just figure one calf for every pregnant cow you had."