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Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age

Apocalyptic visions at a Deep South tourist attraction

by Joni Tevis

Published in the January/February 2009 issue of Orion magazine



Art: John Glenn

THIS WAY NEXT
        —trailside sign, Rock City

FRIEDA CARTER was an entrepreneur’s wife and maybe all she wanted was a garden. It grew. In 1930, she walked through the woods with a string in her hand, letting it trail behind. Across the big flat stone, down a vale and through a narrow cleft, up a hill and out to the edge of the mountain, where the sandstone fell sharply away. Lookout Mountain was Georgia, but the valley was Tennessee, close enough to spit. This is a place where many boundary lines touch.

Do as she did and head down the narrow path through the boulders, winding past hemlocks and bluebells, each plant neatly labeled. Autumn fern, Florida azalea, leatherleaf mahonia, lenten rose, sourwood, button bush. The Enchanted Trail doubles back on itself; you can’t see where you’re going, but you know where you’ve been. The brochure in your hand notes each location of interest.

Which came first, paving the way or planting the specimens? Laying stone for bridges or saying the names? Fat Man’s Squeeze, Needle’s Eye, Tortoise Rock. Who claimed (a stretch) that you could see seven states, who sent money overseas for the fallow deer? These deer, entirely white, bleached as old negatives, recline on granite slabs. Are they statues? people whisper. Not until one of the creatures flicks away an insect with its ear do we move on, spell broken.

Standing here at the lookout, lean against the guardrail and sweep your eyes over the rim of the curving Earth. Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia. But these faraway border distinctions must be taken on faith. What you’re sure of are the new subdivisions spreading on the grassy fields below, the pines’ dull green, a barn roof painted SEE ROCK CITY. Closer now: drop a quarter into the slot and fix your eyes to the peepholes. The cold metal hugs the bridge of your nose as you swivel the viewer toward various sights of interest: the nearby waterfall, ice rimming its edges; Stone Face, Missionary Ridge, Lover’s Leap; the freeway.

High atop Lookout Mountain, overlooking Chattanooga, sits Rock City – garden, grotto, moneymaker. It opened in 1932, and if you’ve heard of it you can thank Garnet Carter; he started it, started too the marketing campaign that made the place famous, paying to have SEE ROCK CITY painted on barn roofs all over the Southeast. Today, thanks to stricter billboard laws, the barns have become relics. The Rock City gift shop offers birdhouses, coffee mugs, and ball caps shaped like those old barns.

I haven’t been since I was a little girl and am not expecting much. At first, Rock City seems like any other walk through the woods. But see the circles cut in plywood? Look carefully through these round portals at all the dark dreams on display.

THE IRON HANDRAILS SWEAT cold drops on this chilly day. Next up: Fairyland Caverns, a partially man-made cave lined with dioramas of fairy-tale scenes, lit with ultraviolet light. It’s a strange adjunct to an otherwise conventional rock garden, and the black light is what makes it unusual. To get there, you follow the trail to this entrance, Diamond Corridor.

Step into the shadowy portico and let your eyes adjust. Sparkling minerals cover the walls: sharp crystals of dog-tooth quartz, rough blossoms of calcite, glassy chunks of smoky and rose quartz. The gems gleam in the poor light. Coral lines the ceiling, some bleached white, some dyed pink, all of it from somewhere else. Yes, I remember this from my childhood visit—this entrance room, covered in glittering rocks. Back then, I’d always kept one eye on the ground, searching for treasure. During the day I pored over field guides and begged my parents to take me on rockhounding trips; at night, I dreamed of stumbling upon caches of rare specimens. I must have coveted the quartz lining this room, would have been tempted to worry a piece loose, like a tooth, knowing that even the impulse was wrong. I would have longed to sit in this niche for hours, hoarding this sharp beauty.

Not long ago, I uncovered my old rock collection, its specimens packed away in newspaper. There were tiny garnets I had sieved from mud at a North Carolina mine; quartz, still stained from the red clay it had been buried in; fluorite crystals, purple and white, safe in their old pharmacy bottle. Other specimens were glued to cardstock that provided bits of information: galena, heavy for its size and shiny, used in the manufacture of batteries; spotty bauxite, from which aluminum is made. There was the lavender muscovite from Canada, and the yellow knob of sulfur, still smelling as sour as it ever had. Best of all, a polished slab of agate, small as a baby’s fist, whose every wrinkle and stripe I remembered immediately. The band of rich red with a stutter of white floating above! It looked like the horizon of a desert landscape I hoped to someday see.

I loved the world, believed its every inch paved with treasure, but knew it could be ripped away at any moment. Death was real; the preaching we heard every Sunday underscored that. A farm accident instantly killed my grandfather. A girl my own age, eight or nine, lost her mother one Friday night when her car was forced off a bridge. You’re no different, the preachers said, and I had to admit their logic. They’d start in on the scary parts of the Bible: Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, the moon turning red on that great and fearsome day. The Battle of Armageddon could start at any moment, the preachers would say, even now, while we’re sitting here in this big beautiful sanctuary, and are you right with God? Well, who could be? There will be a blast of wind, the rivers will turn to blood, the preachers said. Matthew 24:29, The stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. What a relief when we could all file out of the barnlike church, shaking the preacher’s hand on the way into the bright sun, past the blooming crepe myrtles and the old crabapple tree. How could we go out for fried chicken after that? How could I lie on the living room floor and read the funnies or look at the paper’s boring pictures of boring debutantes? I asked my parents about the end of the world, and they said, Try not to worry about it too much. Sometimes, after that, when my mind wandered during the sermons I let it go—down the path my own feet had made through the pines; later, to dresses, always red, that would fit only me. I gazed at the fake stones set in the little rings I loved to wear, saw the lights of the sanctuary reflected in them, and let my eyes go out of focus, staring at my earthbound vision.

TO ESCAPE TEMPORARY BLINDNESS
BURY YOUR FACE IN YOUR ARMS

        —Survival Under Atomic Attack, official
        U.S. Government Booklet, 1950

Fairyland Caverns is a grotto, of course, and a grotto is a place with a long history. Ancient Greeks worshipped caves, the water flowing through them, and the nymphs associated with water. The first grottoes were naturally occurring caves, but in time people dug caves out of rock, expanded existing caves, and heightened the effect of water sources by installing pipes that spurted water on the unwary. The practice of building grottoes was revived in Italy during the Renaissance, when wonderful things such as water organs—pipe organs played by falling water—were invented. Artists embellished cave walls with bas-relief; they arranged shells, mineral specimens, and chips of glass in swirling mosaics. If there were no natural stalagmites, they made their own, dripping cement into elaborate towers. If there were no nearby beachcombing sites, they imported shells from the West Indies. Those with enough money created spaces where the natural world was represented in abundance. They entered, perhaps, through the carven mouth of an ogre, his forehead inscribed with “Ogni pensiero vo,” every thought flies. These were places to dawdle, shilly-shally; places to dream.

As in a traditional grotto, part of Fairyland Caverns is natural, and part is man-made. There are mechanical elements—piped music, rotating water wheels, sailors gone to sea in a yawing washtub. And, as traditionally, water is a key feature from the first fountain to the final room where a stream tumbles over quartz in a four-stepped water stair, catena d’acqua. Minerals line the walls, the ceiling bristles with coral, and the pool glitters with wishing pennies.

Leaving Diamond Corridor, make your slow way through the caverns, pausing here and there for a look at the dioramas through round portals cut in plywood. She had been expert, Jessie Sanders, at creating the look of real surprise. Had sculpted dozens of figures for Fairyland: miners, Santa’s helpers, bootleggers, skaters floating on a flannel-rimmed pond. Bears chase Goldilocks, but their hearts aren’t in it. Dwarfs cluster with squirrels and rabbits, Snow White poses in a pretty glen, and the faint strains of “Rock-a-bye Baby” filter in from somewhere. Hansel and Gretel approach a sad-looking Witch too tired to be sinister, just an old woman getting home after a long shift. Her cottage’s peppermint-stick pillars tilt out-of-true. Not much, but it’s paid for, she seems to say, trudging heavily toward the kids, their hands already out.

I’d remembered Diamond Corridor but forgotten the dioramas inside, how they fiddle with dimension, tautly foreshortening or stretching out into delirious long shots; how the gnomes’ jaws and cheekbones jut sharply, shiny with lacquer. How their beards gleam in the ultraviolet light, tights shimmering. Fairyland Caverns opened in 1947, and the ultraviolet light there carries a hint of radioactive threat. Everyday things—teeth, white t-shirts—glow under it.

In July 1945, scientists exploded the first atomic bomb in remote New Mexico. I imagine Jessie Sanders working on her sculptures during the Trinity test, dipping her brush in pots of fluorescent paint as scientists half a continent away calculated what the fallout might be, the half-life of plutonium, where the winds might carry the particles. Some of those particles rained down on a rancher—nobody knew he lived where he did. Of the fallout he said, It smelled funny.

Here’s a scene from “Rip Van Winkle,” Washington Irving’s version of the ancient story. Unhappy at home, Rip escapes to the woods with his rifle and his dog. High in the mountains he meets a group of strange, silent men, bowling and boozing. They stared at him with such fixed, statue-like gaze, that his heart turned within him and his knees smote together. When they look away he sneaks draughts of their powerful wine, waking in the morning to find his rifle rusty and his dog vanished: twenty years lost. He returns to his town, a place gone strange; when he insists, I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, folks just laugh.

Rip leans on his rifle for support. Two men stand nearby, jubilant, leering. One clenches a pipe in his teeth, and the other carries a basket of glowing coals. But the look on Rip’s face strikes me; despite his long sleep, he’s exhausted, eyes dark with worry, and if he could speak he’d say, What have I done?

Well, he’s survived his own mortality, nothing less. And so he’s rewarded with the rare chance to see his place—family, home, community—after his death, for so his twenty years’ disappearance had seemed to be. How would he be remembered? For his kindnesses to strangers, for his gentle playfulness with children? Psalm 31:12, Forgotten as a dead man out of mind. To fall asleep under the mountain is to be erased as though you had not been. If not for the tired welcome of his ancient dog, Rip would not be remembered at all.

What draughts do we drink to make us forget so much? The world shifts around us; like that old man said to me once, Used to joke you could lie down in the middle of Highway 123 on a Saturday night and go to sleep. Look at it now. You can’t see where you’re going, but you know where you’ve been. Rip awoke old, safely doddering, ignored. They’d cut down the oak tree and planted a flagpole in its place. Slept through the Revolution.

DIAL (4) OBJECTIVE
CHICKAMAUGA BATTLEFIELD

        —View Scenic Points Through These Bausch & Lomb
         Binoculars. 25 Cents.

We aren’t the first to visit this mountain, not by a long shot. Consider the Battle of Lookout Mountain; the Battle Above, or Within, the Clouds. See Mission Ridge and Lookout Mountain with Pictures of Life in Camp and Field, B.F. Taylor, 1872. “And here we are pleasantly walking where sleeps an earthquake; making each other hear where slumbers a voice that could shake these everlasting hills,” wrote Taylor, musing in the munitions tent of the Army of the Cumberland, 1863. After the battle, he wrote, “Mission Ridge has been swept with fire and steel as with a broom.”

Taylor’s camp imagery, vital and immediate, lets the reader in on a world that war movies skip. He notes the tents’ “genuine home-like air. The bit of a looking-glass hangs against the cotton wall; a handkerchief of a carpet before the bunk marks the stepping-off place to the land of dreams; a violin case is strung to a convenient hook. . . . The business of living has fairly begun again.” Can’t you see the place, clear as a stage set? So with a few strokes here and there, we make a resting place, as if to stay awhile. But things change quickly when the order comes to strike camp. Overnight, “the canvas city has vanished like a vision. On such a morning and amid such a scene I have loitered till it seemed as if a busy city had been passing out of sight, leaving nothing behind for all that light and life but empty desolation.” Broken branches in a smoldering heap; trampled fields of stubble. Give it a few years and you’ll never know anything out of the ordinary had happened here, though decades from now some keen-eyed person might turn up a bullet casing, maybe a coin crusted with verdigris.

Of the soldiers, Taylor wrote, “If there is a curious cave, a queer tree, a strange rock, anywhere about, they know it . . . home they come with specimens that would enrich a cabinet. The most exquisite fossil buds just ready to open, beautiful shells, rare minerals, are collected by these rough and dashing naturalists. If you think the rank and file have no taste and no love for the beautiful, it is time you remembered of what material they are made.” So they might have loved the grotto of Fairyland; so they might have created their own cabinets of wonder, proto-museums, in the lidded boxes of peacetime life.

If there is nothing new under the sun, neither is there anything new beneath the earth. Grottoes functioned as early theaters; caves have interesting backdrops and good acoustics, and the arch over the stage in modern theaters refers to the ancient cave shape. So, too, Fairyland Caverns is stuffed with scenes from childhood stories, frozen and stiff. And that light! The glowing colors under the ultraviolet light remind me of glowworms, foxfire, and the lichens growing near Anna Ruby Falls in north Georgia; I worked there one summer, leading hikers up the trail in the darkness to show them how the lichens shone. Ultraviolet light is a way for humans to see the world as some other creatures do; it translates their vision into our own language of sight. Honeybees see patterns on flowers that direct them to pollen and nectar. Because these patterns show up at lower frequencies, they are visible to bees, but not to humans. In a rock shop I visited once, a curtained corner hid a display case containing mineral samples. When you pressed a button, an ultraviolet light switched on, and certain samples glowed green and purple in the light. Once the timer ran out, you saw the same specimens, dull and unremarkable. Ultraviolet light let you in on their secret.

The ultraviolet light in Fairyland Caverns points toward something larger than itself; like an anxious friend, it pokes you in the side, whispering, Something’s not right. Things have changed, and it feels wrong to repeat the same old stories. Although it’s a comfort to know what comes next—Yankee Doodle went to town / Riding on a pony—there’s a disconnect, a break: Trinity. If you want to see something of Trinity, go to New Mexico, where the nuclear age began. Face the explosion, the original light that Fairyland slantwise reflects. Yes, you could trace it further: say the bomb started with the Curies’ radium research, Jewish physicists on the run from Hitler; say it started under the old squash court at the University of Chicago, say the seeds of apocalypse were sown at the Earth’s very beginning. But for argument’s sake, start in New Mexico, where the first atomic device exploded in the desert one morning in July.

Drive the wide freeway to Albuquerque, past adobe houses and mitt-shaped buttes, anvil clouds and remnants of Route 66, and pull over at the National Atomic Museum. The exhibits there explain the preparations involved in the making of the first atomic bomb, with thumbnail biographies of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project. One of the most interesting things on display is an old copy of the Los Alamos newspaper. Dated June 25, 1945, the Bulletin lists the movies to be shown at the compound’s theater; it scolds the mystery person who’s been pocketing the knives from the mess hall and promises that no new ones will replace those stolen.

None of this would be all that noteworthy were it not for the fact that the Trinity test is less than a month away. There will be a blinding flash and rolling thunder, hot wind and shock waves, but in the meantime someone on the base has lost a “long-haired black Persian cat with yellow eyes, wearing a collar with bell”; someone else misses “a Buick hub cap,” offering a reward for its return. The list of items FOR SALE includes a “Large, strong, varnished clothes basket. Used 1 month as bassinet. $3.50.” This bears out what I’ve read about the growing Los Alamos maternity ward, as does the WANTED TO BUY list, which includes a request for a “Good baby buggy. Call 496.” Trinity’s plutonium core will arrive at the test site three days early; someone will drive it down from Los Alamos to Jornada del Muerto in the back seat of a ‘42 Plymouth. A good family car.

AND WE ARE IN A STRANGE NEW LAND
        —“The Atomic Age,” editorial, Life, August 20, 1945

Does Rock City show our past or our future? Without the ultraviolet light, it’s the past—nursery rhymes, fairy tales, a garden as static as something preserved under glass. But the ultraviolet light shows the future, a place radiant with garish color. The familiar fairy tales are transformed by this luminous color scheme into something peculiarly atomic age. I read about the workers, mostly women, who painted the glowing tips of alarm-clock hands. They licked their paintbrushes to get a fine point; at night, their skin, clothes, and hair glowed. The radium in the paint gave them bone cancer, and they filed suit in 1927. By court day, they were too weak to raise their right hands. This strange light makes innocent stories sinister, recognizable but changed. The atomic calves grazing in the desert during Trinity look normal but for their dusting of white. Swept with fire and steel, as with a broom. Seared everywhere the fallout touched.

Before Trinity, the scientists at Los Alamos made a wager. Would the bomb set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire, and if it did, would the consequences be local or global? They liked betting, those physicists; in another pool, each of them guessed how much power the bomb would have, as compared to tons of TNT. (Twenty thousand.) The man who won happened to come in late, after all the reasonable figures had been taken. Out of politeness, he guessed what seemed like a ridiculously high figure, and it turned out he was the closest.

At the moment of detonation—July 16, 1945, 5:30 a.m.—a passenger was on her way to morning music class. She saw the bright flash of light and thought it was the sunrise. What was that? she asked her brother. She saw the explosion, this woman, even though she was stone blind. Hadn’t it seemed like any other morning? Maybe the brother drove a little too fast through town, running late, past the still-dark filling station, radio dimly on. Suddenly a blast of light, unlike anything ever seen, and what must he have thought, the brother?—blind too, at that moment, and too stunned to steady the car. No word for thought, not at first, silence then thunder and hot wind as not far away, the physicists lifted their faces from the ground, and Oppenheimer thought of a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

It smelled funny, the rancher said, standing in the desert as the fallout rained down. Was that the vaporized jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, greasewood, killed at the moment of detonation, falling on him? Rip woke from his long sleep and staggered out from under the mountain to a world scrubbed bare, glowing gray in dull light. Slept through the Revolution. What if he were the only one left? Even Wolf long gone; every dog gone.

THE FUTURE BELONGS TO
THOSE WHO PREPARE FOR IT

        —advertisement, Prudential Life Insurance,
        Life, Sept. 24, 1945

After Trinity, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, it makes perfect sense: you go underground, a place of safety, but also a place of ancient, subconscious threat. Go where the dead go and make your home there. Where ants and blind worms tunnel, where moles stroke smoothly through the clay. You will beg the mountain to cover you, and the rocks to hide you. It will not be enough. By August of 1945, the bomb no longer secret, an editorial in Life read, “For if there is no defense, then perhaps man must either abolish international warfare or move his whole urban civilization underground.” Fallout shelters (suburbia below ground) are grottoes lined with hoarded goods. Hollow out a place and fill it with the stories you used to know, but even the light is changed here, and things shine as they once did not, setting your glowing teeth on edge. Continued Life, “Constructing beautiful urban palaces and galleries, many ants have long lived underground in entire satisfaction.”

Paging through these old magazines, you want to shake the people in the ads for Packards, frozen peas, Campbell’s Soup. Wake up! But the draught’s been drained; done is done. What can follow the photos of the Trinity crater? An article about the new Miss America, flautist, a tall New Yorker. Ads for underwear and Arrow’s dress shirts. Mamma, use Swan soap. Free cake of soap to any baby born in 1945; write away for coupon. The business of living is fairly begun again, wrote Taylor; said Mom and Dad, Try not to worry about it too much. Good advice, if you can take it. At breakfast, just after Trinity, physicist George Kistiakowsky sat in the dining room at the Los Alamos Lodge and said, “That was the nearest to doomsday one can possibly imagine. . . . I am sure that at the end of the world—in the last millisecond of the earth’s existence—the last man—will see something very similar to what we have seen.”

Who knows how Jessie Sanders felt about the bomb? She was busy in her studio, pouring Hydrocal; a survivor, building a new world. How do we live with this new knowledge of how the Earth will end? Set it aside. Keep on working. Said William Laurence, witnessing Nagasaki—of which Trinity had been a test—“We removed our glasses after the first flash but the light still lingered, a bluish-green light that illuminated the entire sky. . . . As the first mushroom floated off into the blue it changed its shape into a flowerlike form, its giant petals curving downward, creamy-white outside, rose-colored inside.” It’s an artist’s description, filled with color and comparison, and yet this is light unwholesome, strong-armed into something never before seen. If Fairyland Caverns is a memento mori, it is unlike the Renaissance ones, where sculpted skeletons reach from caskets to claw the air. Here there are no bones—vaporized instantly—just the glowing circles of Baa Baa Black Sheep’s wool, hanging in the darkness like an afterimage. What made me think of Trinity as I walked through Fairyland? Light spoken in a new tongue; a cave peopled by children with glowing faces. But the truth is you find what you look for. Maybe not the exact specimen, but once the scales fall from your eyes you must see the world, strange and dark. A red moon floated above a stadium on a noisy Friday night. I could have read there a sign of doom, or atmospheric dust, or both. Just the same, once I saw Trinity I would see it always.

Imagine the world deserted. The raven did not return to the Ark, but lit on the bodies of the floating dead. Under a photo of the Trinity crater, the caption reads, “The first atomic bomb’s crater is a great green blossom in the desert near Alamogordo.” The heat from the blast fused desert sand into a greenish glass, trinitite; how I would, as a child, have loved to find a piece of that poison glass. Imagine a desert rasped clean of every living thing. The bomb’s crater, shallow to start with, fills in a little more every sundown when the wind kicks up. Now, sixty years out, you wouldn’t know anything had happened there if not for the plaque, though there’s rarely anyone around to read it. Bits of trinitite pocketed years ago, ground to powder, or buried. A waste place. Neither stubble nor crumb. Till it seemed as if a busy city had been passing out of sight. So it has been. Will be.

Outside the caverns, safe in the half-empty parking lot, come back to yourself. Unlock your car and drive slowly down the mountain road, careful on the switchbacks. Turn on the radio. Pass the first barn: GOOD BYE TELL YOUR FRIENDS ABOUT ROCK CITY. Yes, that’s right; these barns are how you heard about the place to start with. see seven states. WORLD’S 8TH WONDER, BRING YOUR CAMERA. BEAUTIFUL BEYOND BELIEF.

THE LORD’S WILL SHALL BE DONE
NOT YOURS OR MINE

        —roadside sign outside Chattanooga

The barns were new once. Bright boards wept sap. There was that one roofed with hand-rived shakes cut from the great felled oak. The old men said, You got to do it at the right time of the light of the moon lest the shingles curl. Shakes nailed down tight.

Clark Byers didn’t need stencils; understood the different iterations of barn, varying shapes in the same family. Painted SEE ROCK CITY on the roof with a wide brush. That dry wood drank paint, didn’t it. Hot work, sweat running down his spine, paint spattering his forearms, pulling his hair as it dried. Carolina grasshoppers leaping from yellow straw to light on tall pokeweed. Pokeweed juice a dye the Cherokee used. Had used.

Made his own paint from linseed oil and lampblack. “There were no such things as rollers,” he said. “Used a 4-inch brush, never had to measure letters and always worked freehand. Once that paint got on, there was no getting it off.” He carried paint, rope, chalk, brushes. Dying barns deflate like lungs. Inside them it is dusty, with a different kind of darkness, and in the rafters you might see wasps swarming, or old swallows’ nests. Termites chew the planking, piling gray dust on the floor of pounded red clay. TO MISS ROCK CITY WOULD BE A PITY read the John Molyneux barn. That was from the 1930s. It’s torn down now.

Traditionally, it took forty days and forty nights to cure tobacco in the barns. In early spring, you weighted seeds with ash to sow; come midsummer, cut green leaves, working slowly down the line. Bundled stems together in hands and set a slow fire. The leaves cured to brown, supple as skin on a wrist. Smoke wriggled out through gaps in the walls. You’d see it wafting over the fields, smell it on a still night, dusty and sweet, like grass in August but darker. Most people have forgotten all this by now, or never knew. One day won’t anyone remember.

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Joni Tevis's book of essays The Wet Collection was a finalist for the 2007 Minnesota Book Award. She teaches creative writing at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

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