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My favorite story about my little sister is also one of my favorite stories about New Mexico.

Alongside New Mexico’s deserved reputation for being a place of rich aesthetic experiences, a place of taking into oneself sensations like the texture of an ancient adobe wall or walking barefoot on a sidewalk so hot it can cook an egg, or the famous flavors of it’s regional cuisine, the smell of pinion-pine smoke and roasting chilies, the otherworldly sights of it’s geology that are like something out of a science fiction movie where an astronaut crash-lands somewhere, there is another, darker, more infamous, more dangerous claim to fame involving high energy physics. No, not the UFO thing ( although we all know the UFO thing really happened ).

My family moved to New Mexico when I was 6 from Black Hawk South Dakota, which was a town of 1,000 people at the time. In spite of being taken in, as anyone would, by the aesthetic, sensory and cultural richness of that place, we would often miss the Black Hills, and out of nostalgia, take family day trips into the mountainous, forested parts of northern New Mexico which reminded us a bit of our former home. We would take a back way through the Jemez mountains on which we would always stop to get this native American bread that was sold alongside the road. No, I don’t mean fry bread.. I mean this white bread made with lard I think, with such a rich flavor that I can't even adequately describe it. It was dense, and sweet and was meant to eaten slowly with a slab of butter. Into those forested mountains we would drive, in a circuit that would take us to Los Alamos, then to Santa Fe, then south to the suburbs west of Albuquerque in a circuitous route that had the cumulative effect of bonding us to our new home.

One of our usual stops was this Atomic bomb museum in Los Alamos. We split off from our parents, took interest in the exhibits, walked around a bit, looked at life-sized models of the bombs, and eventually were rounded up by my mother so that we could continue our journey. When we were ready to go, I sat in the car, noting a lizard sunning himself on a slab of granite beneath a pine tree in the landscaping outside, as my younger sister Raina got into the car on the seat next to me. My mom looked back to see if my sister was seat-belted in.

And mom completely lost her mind.

“Oh god. Raina, what is that. Oh my god. Let me see what that is. Larry,” she appealed in a panicky tone to my dad, “look at what she has. What is that in her hands? What is that? Larry? LARRY! LOOK!”

Because little sister had sat down on the car seat, with a smile on her face, holding in her hands an octagonal green crystal that was picking up light from the bright southwestern sun through window. It was longer than her hand and almost seemed to glow on its own. Remember this was in the American state where the first Atomic bomb had been tested and we were at a museum that had once been a lab where that terrible weapon was first developed. Before I left NM at the age of 20, there was a sign alongside a highway that said “Welcome to New Mexico, the Nuclear weapon Capitol of the World.” Things atomic, plutonium and uranium and radiation were on our minds and these things were on my mothers mind when she leapt to her conclusion about what my sister had brought into the car. Somehow, she believed, little sister had wandered off unsupervised, found her way into some restricted, carelessly unlocked hidden vault in the lab. In her hands, mother truly believed, was a bit of radioactive something or rather, uranium or plutonium that some scientist had absent-mindedly left in a drawer or next to a coffee pot, and we were all sitting there, getting massively irradiated at close range. And Raina of course had a perfectly innocent smile on her face. So my mother’s terror was entirely understandable and appropriate when you take into account what she believed. Had this been a real plutonium rod it would have been an actual emergency ( and a very, very bad one. ) Little sister had no idea why mom was freaking out, but I began to understand what the misunderstanding was.

Outside, in the landscaping, I saw a bed of rocks of just that type. They were greenish, bright, possibly a feldspar or a quartz, and with either hexagonal or octagonal symmetry. Little sister had not wandered off into an abandoned wing of the museum and pushed a button on a nuclear fuel vending machine. She had done a perfectly reasonable little girl thing and picked up a shiny rock she saw on the ground.

I don’t remember if little sister got to keep the rock or not but I think she should have been allowed to. I do remember I thought it was hysterical, and so did my father, and mom laughed at herself too when she calmed down and reflected upon her momentary misjudgment.

We continued on to Santa Fe and spent time there, where we walked inside a church that is one of the oldest buildings in North America, then stopped by this place we called the witches cauldron where hot springs have made a massive green bowl of hot water inside a cave in a dome of white rock, and where steaming springs empty into a small river or stream that runs alongside, and then headed south towards home, one hour on I-25, no more or less irradiated than was usual in the beautiful state of New Mexico.


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March 2015

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