Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
LOS ALAMOS — It's been a couple of years since the man known as Atomic Ed commissioned a huge granite monument marking the first nuclear bomb explosion.
The hulking stones sit in their original shipping containers outside Ed Grothus' surplus store, where, for decades, he has hawked Geiger counters, circuit boards and other widgets and gizmos recycled from the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory.
It appears that the monument could meet the same fate as most of the inventory piled inside Grothus' store, the Black Hole, where it's said everything goes in, but
nothing comes out.
The peace activist can't find a home for his creation, composed of a pair of 33-foot-high obelisks that will sit atop black granite cubes. These "doomsday stones" are inscribed with a message in 15 languages that Grothus says will help some future civilization decipher things on Earth after a nuclear holocaust.
Grothus knows nuclear weapons well, having worked at the lab for more than 20 years. He sees his employment there as training to later understand the mechanical calculators, centrifuges and other relics crammed inside the store.
But there's one subject about which Grothus says he's still in the dark. "I'm dying," he said bluntly during a recent interview. "I don't know how to die. I've never died before."
Grothus, 85, is suffering from inoperable cancer, an illness that leaves him sore and miserable.
He hopes his obelisks will soon find a home and serve as towering reminders of the nuclear threat posed to humanity.
Beyond that, Grothus — an icon for peace activists, scourge to neighbors and celebrated eccentric across the globe — isn't talking much about his legacy.
But he will say this: "There's always one man who makes a difference. Jesus Christ. Joseph Stalin. Chairman Mao. Abraham Lincoln. And Ed Grothus."
For a man who is the self-proclaimed bishop of his own church, the one-time target of a Secret Service investigation after sending "organic plutonium" to the White House, and the owner of a $200,000 monument, it's hard to know if Grothus is kidding.
Shakers, mixers, stirrers
Born June 28, 1923, in Clinton, Iowa, Grothus' upbringing may explain his aversion to waste. "We were just poor," he said. "We never threw anything away."
Eager to explore the world, Grothus served in the Merchant Marine before joining the fledgling federal lab at Los Alamos on March 26, 1949, four years after the atomic weaponry invented there ended World War II.
He began as a machinist before joining a weapons group dedicated to making what he sarcastically calls "better" bombs.
But the Vietnam War turned him against nuclear weapons, and soon the surplus store that he opened inside an old Piggly Wiggly became a place to organize peace efforts.
To follow Grothus on one of his aimless tours through his 17,000-square-foot store is to take a trip through atomic history. The shopkeeper, with a puff of unruly white hair, wears his trademark purple camouflage pants and a 5-inch bolo tie.
"I make a business of selling last year's scientific equipment and hardware," Grothus says as he shuffles past metal shelving filled floor to ceiling with who knows what. "I only sell about 5 percent of what I buy so I've built a huge pile over 50 years."
As he shuffles swiftly through the store, Grothus kicks pieces of equipment aside, bangs a mallet against a bomb part and fiddles with a red panic button, to the slight consternation of onlookers.
There are typewriters and gauges, refrigerators and radios. Centrifuges, compactors, connectors and cords. One box is marked "satellite parts." Somewhere in the distance, a beeping smoke detector needs its battery replaced.
Hard of hearing, Grothus calls out what he sees. "This is all fiber optics. That's a vacuum over there. These are transformers." He looks around the corner. "Shakers, mixers, stirrers."
"Every scientific discipline — Pressure! Flow! Vacuum!" he proclaims. "Tubes, all kinds of tubes."
He rests his hand on a large old-fashioned radio. "Someone told me this was Oppenheimer's radio," he says before scurrying on.
Down another aisle, a customer. "Welcome to the Black Hole," he says. "What do
you say, what do you do?"
Grothus generally charges half of what's listed in his catalog. Or, another method: "I X-ray the bill fold," he says, patting a reporter's back pocket, "and then I name the price."
Grothus keeps his valuable artifacts, like the Oppenheimer radio and heavy mechanical calculators, stashed away in a locked trailer for a museum he's been dreaming of.
Next door is an A-frame church, where he's the pastor of the First Church of High Technology, though "recently I elevated myself to cardinal," he says.
Grothus was raised and married in the Catholic church but is no longer religious. The religions don't practice what they preach when it comes to peace and love, he says.
Grothus says he never called for closing LANL. But he does want the lab to change its mission to focus on renewable energy, something now being discussed in Washington.
He sees hope in president-elect Barack Obama's statements that he wants to rid the world of nuclear weapons. "We've got to abolish the bombs," Grothus said, as he stood near a fading McGovern campaign poster on the wall.
Grothus hopes the message will live on in his monument, an embodiment of his motto "build, never destroy."
The 22-ton stones, quarried in China, are meant to play a role in future history similar to the Rosetta Stone that helped researchers decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The message at the monument's base reads in part: "It is only in Los Alamos that the potentials for unimagined, fantastic good and demonstrated horrendous evil are proximate."
The monument has sparked some criticism. Stephen Stoddard, a former state senator and lab retiree, has called the work degrading to the effort to save lives by eliminating the need to invade Japan to end the war.
Meanwhile, the Los Alamos public art advisory council has said no thanks to Grothus offer of the monument. It isn't art according to the council. The lab itself also said no, too.
"We certainly wish Ed well and appreciate the offer," lab spokesman Kevin Roark said. "But it's not something that we're in a position to accept."
Grothus can also envision the pillars in Berkeley, Calif., or perhaps under the arc in St. Louis. Recently when a couple tourists from Germany visited, Grothus said the obelisks could be placed anywhere — say, Berlin, maybe Munich?
But, for now, the columns rest on their sides in the shipping containers, where they're not immune to Grothus' hoarding habits. On top of one of the stones lay an autographed poster of Dolly Parton soaking in a hot tub.
Asked about the blond bombshell, Grothus could only shrug.