Millions of people pass by it every year, but few stop to see what’s left of old Wendover Airfield on the Utah- Nevada border. Behind the sporadic newish paint and the occasional signs welcoming you to a new venture here and there, when you squint really hard, you can either see or imagine the thousands of airmen who lived there during World War II. Your mind might pick out an old church, the in-a-row streets, the various buildings (about 100 remain), a recreation area and square. Alongside the landing strip, at more than 8,000 feet in length and among the longest in Utah, sits a large, decaying airplane hanger.
More than 60 years ago, the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that would eventually drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, sat inside that hangar. They were both spitshine shiny back then. The town of Wendover was, too, bustling with life that might even rival that of today. The black rocks above town where airmen painted their names attest to that prior life. So does nearby Jukebox Cave where airmen poured a slab of cement on the cave floor to create a dance floor (which inadvertently preserved the 10,000 year old cave-dweller artifacts below it—other local caves have been pilfered). I’ve danced in Jukebox Cave and that’s all I’m telling. It was very dark.
Today, if you didn’t know better, you’d think the atomic bomb was dropped on Wendover. I know a little bit about that, because 30 years ago, I lived in a decrepit trailer on the edge of the airbase. That decrepit trailer is still there, just a duller green. The airbase was off-limits to civilians back then and had a distinct shroud of mystery surrounding it. The airmen I used to deal blackjack to said they were there on maintenance duty. And to check on UFOs.
The government gave ownership of Wendover Airfield over to West Wendover, Utah, in the late 1970s and the promise of a bright future swept through town. But, really, what does one do with an Air Force base? Not much. Twenty years later, the airbase was turned over to Tooele County. Another 10 years after that—despite some signs of life—the greater part of that airbase is basically no better off than before. The Enola Gay hangar is in worse shape than ever. A group called the National Trust for Historic Preservation wants to raise funds to preserve the Enola Gay hangar. I’m not so sure about that.
A few years after working my first go-round as a dealer, I returned to Wendover for more 24-hourper-day punishment. While driving down to Louie’s Hideaway casino, I noticed there were no guards at the airbase gate. The swimming pool was repaired and opened to the public. The original wood-plank diving board somehow brought back ancient memories to me, even though I’d never before seen a wood-plank diving board, let alone used one. Each dive brought a Tarzan movie time-warp. I was told the church and movie house were being used or were about to be. A small barrack was converted to a dog kennel.
Somewhere along the way, the Enola Gay hangar became home to a “mad scientist” named Robert Golka who was trying to create ball lightning, a la Nicola Tesla. I met Golka. He wasn’t mad. I saw only sparks, and no matter how he explained it, I couldn’t grasp the importance of ball lightning— paying off crazy stacked chips at the roulette table was a far easier enterprise as far as I was concerned.
Once Golka left town, the Enola Gay hanger became what all old buildings become—vandalized. Each time I was in the Enola Gay hangar, I felt uncomfortable. I recognize the historical importance of the Enola Gay, where it was tested, stored and cared for, what it did. The atomic age was not conceived in Wendover, but it was delivered there.
Yet, the Enola Gay hangar is exactly as it should be. It should not become a polished exemplar of the atomic age with dioramas, kiosks and exhibits. It should remind us instead that the victors also lost a little something when those bombs fell. If that reminder is crumbling dust, rusty, twisted metal, ghosts and faded memories in the same manner of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so be it.