The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, March 29, 2010

Atomic Plastic Cactus!

When I was in field school*, one of the other students was a fellow by the name of Bob Franks. Bob was retired, but had been a journalist for many years. As he told it, he got his start in journalism during his time in the Army during the 1950s, when he helped to document various different military activities. One day, when we had come in from a long day of excavation and were relaxing before dinner, Bob told us a story that, well, I don't believe it, but I want to. As a friend of mine would say, this is the sort of story that, if it isn't true, it should be.

Bob claimed to have worked as an Army filmmaker in the 1950s - and from what I could gather, he was of the right age for this to have been the case - and that he was with a unit that filmed atomic bomb tests. Atomic Bomb tests generally took place in the deserts of the American West and on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. Bob indicated that he was involved in the tests within the U.S. and that, for obvious reasons, security was a huge concern, what with all of the Russian spies (both real and McCarthy-inspired hallucinations) wandering about. The Army was, naturally, worried that the films of things being vaporized in giant balls of expanding plasma might fall into the wrong hands**, and as such they concocted numerous plans to confuse enemy agents who might get their hands on the films.

One of these plans involved an artificial cactus.

The idea was this: the Army cinematographers responsible for filming atomic bomb tests would have an artificial cactus (attached to a trailer for easy transportation) that they would cart around with them. When they filmed a test, they would make sure to have the cactus in the frame. The intention was that the cactus was of a sort that was only common in a portion of the desert (I believe Bob said that it was a saguaro cactus), thus leading anyone viewing the film to think that it had been filmed in Arizona or California, when it had actually probably been filmed in Nevada.

I asked Bob whether or not they made sure that the trailer was not visible in the shot, and he responded that this seemed like the obvious move, but, with it being the Army and the 1950s, he couldn't be sure of that. I also asked if I would have been likely to have seen any of the footage he shot, as I didn't recall seeing any cacti in the more famous footage of bomb tests, and he said that it seemed unlikely. There were days, if not weeks, worth of test footage shot, and most of it is either still classified, or simply is less dramatic (and therefore less likely to be shown in documentaries) than the better-known footage that probably all of us have seen.

Nonetheless, Bob told us that the sight of a bunch of soldiers tooling through the desert in a truck and armed only with cameras, with a fake cactus in tow, made for quite a sight.

Personally, I am amused by my own mental image of a high-ranking officer, let's say it's a colonel, demanding that the cactus be placed "just so" in the image, to give the film that special je ne sais quoi, before ordering a coproal to push a button and blow the shit out of a desert rock pile.

Again, I don't believe the story. Bob was a great guy, and a fantastic storyteller, but I got the impression that more than a few of the things he related to us were tall tales. Nonetheless, if we're going to live in a world with nuclear testing, then I can at least wish that the testing would, somehow, somewhere, involve an artificial cactus.

*Field school is something of an annoying rite of passage for most archaeologists. Fieldschools are projects in which the head archaeologist, usually attached to a college or university, charges students so that they may work on his/her project. It's a way of getting field experience in an environment that is supposedly geared towards teaching the students how to perform their tasks. The field school I attended was absolutely geared towards teaching, but others are actually just a way for a researcher to get free labor and the students may not learn much. So, if you are planning on going to field school, choose carefully.

**Admittedly, this was actually a legitimate concern. But simply saying that in the text of the post isn't nearly as funny as being sarcastic, and I'll usually side with the joke.

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