Monday, March 23, 2009

Atomic Bombs and Lightning Balls

The Wendover Airfield has always felt a little other-worldly.

The second to last time I was there, strolling through the endless desert acreage of this military ghost town, I stumbled across an atomic bomb casing filled with cement. A dummy "Little Boy" used by the Enola Gay crew for target practice.

The last time I was there, I toured the Wendover branch of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The group's sponsored avant-guard art installations like salt sculptures, artificial traffic jams, a museum of practice targets and a radio tower that receives orders from a local fast food drive-through. And they're a Fresh Look on Life. (For more information about visiting CLUI, click here.)

But my favorite Wendover Airfield story, is one I never shot.

KUTV producer/photographer Ken Fall did, and it literally fried his camera.

In the 70’s, Robert Golka, a modern-day Nikola Tesla, turned the old Enola Gay hanger into his high voltage laboratory. There he tried to create ball lightning with a Tesla coil* more than 100 feet tall.

The flash of the blinding artificial lightning burned the tubes of Fall's camera.

Director Robert Frank made a mocumentary about Golka, “Energy and How to Get it,” featuring writer William Burroughs as the Energy Czar, director Robert Downey as a Hollywood agent, musician Dr. John, and Golka himself.

Eventually Golka he was evicted from the hangar.

He continued his work in Leadville, Colorado, but left there, I read, after a wall inexplicably fell down.

I don’t know that Golka made great scientific breakthroughs, but his story certainly adds to the unusual aura surrounding Wendover Airfield.

*A Tesla coil is basically a transformer that can turn standard AC outlet electricity into millions of volts capable of producing one's own personal lightning storm. I remember attending a Tesla Society gathering at a Colorado Springs hotel. A member tried to demonstrate a large Tesla coil, but it triggered the hotel's smoke detectors and sprinkler system. He moved his lightning to the hotel parking lot.

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