Sep 14, 2007
September 13, 2007
The Apocalypse. That’s what it says on one of the signs outside the entrance to The Black Hole Surplus Store & Museum in Los Alamos. It’s a disturbing welcome, but the man who created and runs the Black Hole wants to do what he can to save us all — from ourselves.
Edward Grothus, who turned 84 in June, worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1949 to 1969 and has put in nearly twice as much time advocating an end to nuclear weaponry. The Black Hole is a maze of aisles featuring gadgetry, recycled hardware, and assorted knickknacks — mostly culled from the lab. “If the lab ever had it, I got some of it. I have most of the artifacts of the Atomic Age,” Grothus said.
The FBI stopped by at least twice to investigate Grothus, but someone in the government must appreciate him. New Mexico is honoring the artist, activist, and satirist with the Allan Houser Memorial Award, presented alongside the 2007 Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts. Grothus receives his award in a public ceremony from 5:15 to 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, at St. Francis Auditorium in the New Mexico Museum of Art (107 W. Palace Ave.) Earlier that day, there is a reception and exhibit of the artists’ works from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in the Governor’s Gallery, fourth floor of the state Capitol (Paseo de Peralta and Old Santa Fe Trail). The exhibit runs through Dec. 1. There is no charge for the awards-presentation ceremony or the reception; call 827-4378 for information.
During a recent interview and tour of the Black Hole, Grothus said that he is busy these days trying to find a public space in Los Alamos for two granite obelisks — “doomsday stones,” he calls them. He says the stones, which were quarried in China, weigh 22 tons each and are about 44 feet tall.
“Welcome to Los Alamos, New Mexico, the United States of America, the City of Fire. Our fires are brighter than a thousand suns. It was once believed that only God could destroy the world, but scientists working in Los Alamos first harnessed the power of the atom.” So reads part of Grothus’ intended inscription.
He offered the work to Los Alamos County’s Art in Public Places Advisory Board in June, but the board declined the offer for a number of reasons, including the fact that it couldn’t figure out where to put the pieces. “They said they don’t fit in with the rest of the Art in Public Places pieces,” Grothus explained.
A sense of sadness comes over Grothus when he talks about our government, people, and weapons manufacturers. “No one is secure unless everyone is secure,” he said. “With Homeland Security do we have to live in fear? No. We have to change the way the powerful are thinking.”
Grothus is a self-ordained minister of the First Church of High Technology, which sits on the grounds of his Black Hole complex. In the mid-1960s, he bought the old A-frame church and a former Piggly Wiggly grocery store, which now houses the museum and store. Not long ago he elevated himself to the status of cardinal in his church. That, he said, makes him eligible to be nominated for pope. He mentioned that he recently garnered 154 votes for that position, but “they didn’t recognize me in Rome.”
Grothus is happy to take anyone on a tour of the Black Hole and its grounds. He refers to most of his stock as nuclear waste. “Not radioactive, but waste from the nuclear industry. They’re always doing experiments, and when they complete these experiments they have to get rid of his stuff. Last year’s technology is already out.”
Outside the Black Hole, there are old stoves, microwaves, computer consoles, desks, and errant torpedoes. Grothus is putting together a large, sunflower-shaped sculpture from old bombs — it will make a nice addition to the yard, he noted.
Inside, Grothus’ sculpture Nuclear World Screwed is on display. He hopes it will be shown in the Governor’s Gallery, but don’t count on seeing the sculpture there — it’s big and hard to move. A 1944 Marley high-speed camera sits next to the shelf where wood screws and Sharpie permanent markers are for sale. Grothus has a 1940s-era mechanical calculator — “but it doesn’t do square roots!” You can find radiation detectors rattling away, and there are Geiger counters that don’t count.
There are vacuum tubes, pipes, clamps, valves, meters, a stainless-steel carrier lined with tin (“maybe they used that to carry acid bottles in”), and, inexplicably, Christmas stockings shaped like cowboy boots.
A can of “organic plutonium” sits on a shelf. It’s a joke piece, but the FBI didn’t think so. Some investigators came by to ask Grothus why he sent a similar can to President Clinton in 1996. “I sent it with a note saying, ‘If you eat this stuff you’ll walk with a halo,’” he recalled with a chuckle. “They came and checked me out to see if any insanity ran through my family.” The feds showed up again a few years ago to confiscate a computer hard drive marked “secret.” It has since been returned.
In one of the Black Hole’s back rooms, there is a fermentor. You can mix anthrax in it, Grothus said. “They’ve been looking all over Iraq for these things, but they can’t find them,” he explained. “Bush wants to buy it from me and smuggle it into Iraq. Then they’ll find it there. I’m asking $2 million. People tell me that’s cheap.”
During the tour, Grothus spoke of his career at the lab. “My job was to make ‘better’ atomic bombs.” First he was a machinist, and later he helped measure implosions. He doesn’t say that he regretted that experience. When asked if it helped make him the anti-nuclear force that he is, he said, “Not really.”
Does the lab do any good? “Aside from some medical breakthroughs — it’s been a bad business. They should leave the uranium in the ground.”
He pointed to a collection of comments written by visitors in a sign-in book at the front desk. “My favorite collection of bombs!” a Florida resident wrote. Grothus may smile at these things, but underneath, he grieves for the reality of the situation. “Something that can kill a million people — what would be the advantage of that?”