The girl who serves us wears her jeans low on her hips,
like our students do back in the states. Forty years ago,
a B-52 bomber crashed into a tanker while refueling, dropping
four hydrogen bombs. Three landed around Palomares and one splashed
into the Mediterranean.Nick and I’d come to look for craters
in the fields, but our search wasn’t yielding much,
so we stopped for a break.
The waitress who steams the milk
couldn’t have been alive in 1966, but maybe her parents were
living here then, children at the time, celebrating the festival of Saint
the town’s patron saint. It is said San Antonio saved the lives
of many people who would otherwise have been farming
when plutonium clouds blew across the crops. The blasts
broke windows, cracked walls, and threw several people to the ground.
We are hesitant to ask the waitress if she knows anything
about “Broken Arrow” because a few days ago we heard on the radio
that owners of the land still deemed tainted are being asked to sell it
at a reduced price for clean-up, so that nine hectares can eventually be made
into a park. What we’ve read suggests people in Palomares are upset,
still have their urine tested yearly for plutonium levels.
On January, 17, 1966,
Simo Orts was fishing. “We always used to watch the planes.
I saw a B-52 and a KC-135. They must have brushed against each other.
Both planes burst." I get this all from transcripts of a documentary
about the Cold War. Antonia Flores said, "I remember all this fire in the air
and pieces of airplane falling to the ground, all the neighbors running
to the place where the smoke came from. We thought that what had fallen
was still burning."
We almost postponed driving out to Palomares
because we woke up to the news that North Korea had tested a nuclear bomb.
The whole expedition became a bit more obscene, but then we decided
a bit more important as well. Kim Jong Il was no longer the funny man
with the bouffant and platforms, the spoiled leader who ate lobsters
with silver chopsticks. What did we know about North Korea?
Nick said they have their own form of Coca-Cola, “Ko-ko-a”
and that the people are told that Kim was born on Korea’s highest mountain,
under a double rainbow. I remembered reading about the red stars
on their license plates.
The last time we were here, in 1995,
Nick and I zoomed by these fields where the three bombs fell, the Beatles
on the rental car’s CD player: I don't care too much for money,
money can't buy me love. We swam in the Mediterranean, in the waters
where the fourth bomb plummeted. We knew nothing of the incident.
There wasn’t much here then—just a scruffy naturalist beach
with a comical sign, a drawing of swimming trunks with a circle around it
and a red line through it. As we peeled off our bathing suits, we felt a little
like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who posed nude for their first
collaborative album, Two Virgins, which was distributed wrapped
in a brown paper covering, sometimes confiscated as pornography. We loved
that Lennon described Yoko and himself as “two slightly overweight,
flabby junkies.” It is rumored that he often walked around naked
at the Dakota. And on his last day on earth, Annie Leibovitz photographed
nude again, for the most famous cover of Rolling Stone, in a pose that looks
as though he is a koala clinging to Yoko, a tree.
In 1995, there was no
chiringuito to get coffee or a snack, none of the 2000 apartments
that have sprung up—a naturalist community that, according to its
also welcomes “textiles,” which we assume are people who wear clothes.
There are cranes in the sky, cement trucks, piles of bricks,
construction everywhere. There’s even a sparkly oversized supermercado
called Consum where Nick buys microwavable paella and cartons
of Don Simon gazpacho.
Now our waitress is singing along to her iPod.
We wonder if she is listening to the Beatles, or if anyone her age still listens
to them. John Lennon was staying down the road, in Santa Isabel,
in 1966, when students first wore their jeans low on their hips.
He wrote “Strawberry Fields” while in Spain. He arrived
in October, ten months after the bombs fell. Did he know about them?
Did he make a similar pilgrimage here to Palomares? He was still married
to Cynthia then, shooting How I Won the War. He was going to meet Yoko
in November, when he returned to London, wearing for the first time
what became his signature round granny eyeglasses.
Simo Orts: "I saw it
very clearly. A bomb fell into the sea, close to me. And then I saw
how much interest the Americans showed. The whole 6th Fleet came.
There were 5,000 soldiers living in tents—generals, colonels, so many
important people from North America." Antonia Flores: "They started
doing medical checkups here in the town with a Geiger counter.
Some people had to throw away their clothes because they were
The houses were washed down with detergent or water.
At no stage did the Americans tell us anything. People were scared,
because no one knew what was happening; all you knew was
that you were forbidden to eat things, that you couldn't go out onto the street,
you couldn't touch anything.”
Vera Playa, the naturalist zone, is believed to
where Hannibal’s elephants landed in Roman times. Spain has been host
to the largest living animals, the largest bombs. In Palomares,
on January, 17, 1966, a 30-knot wind was blowing from the west.
One plutonium-bearing dust cloud traveled across irrigated fields
and the northern edge of the village. Another floated away from the village
but across prime areas used for growing beans and alfalfa.
The last tomato crop of the season, just ready for harvest,
had to be destroyed.
In How I Won the War, Lennon plays Corporal
a fascist fighting against fascism. All the soldiers who die in the film
continue to accompany their units. The director, Richard Lester, shot the film
in black and white, but tinted the uniforms of the dead soldiers in different
The lab that made the release print, assuming the tinting was a mistake,
graded it back to black and white. So no one has ever seen the film
as it was intended.
Kim Jong Il apparently has several spitting-image
who make public appearances for him. The stand-ins are schooled in the
leader’s mannerisms and take voice lessons to sound like him. They’ve had
so their faces match Kim’s. They are used as decoys to foil assassins. The
situation makes for an interesting screenplay. In 1978, the real Kim Jong Il
his favorite South Korean director and his girlfriend.
for coffee, Nick and I drove the perimeter of the town—farmers still bent
in sprouts, the craters perhaps now all filled in. We couldn’t find anything—
a plaque, or a monument to the crash—only a new hamburguesa. Billboards
for more townhouse developments, some newer ranches and bungalows
with swing sets and round above-ground pools.
All four crew members
in the ignited KC-135 tanker were killed. Four of the seven in the B-52
were able to parachute to safety. Volatile materials in two of the bombs
that fell to earth exploded upon impact, forming the holes we thought
we would find. The third landed in a dry riverbed in one piece.
It took almost four months, until April 7, to find the last bomb, damaged but
in the ocean.
In the movie, Men of Honor, Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Carl
who, diving from the salvage ship USS Hoist, is a hero for recovering
the bomb from the bottom of the Mediterranean. Brashear was hurt much worse
than portrayed in the film. He almost died from loss of blood and gangrene.
His leg was amputated in two operations because of the infection. In real life,
a Spanish fisherman, who witnessed the bomb plunge, led Brashear
and others to the site. I wonder if Kim Jong Il has seen Men of Honor,
as he is reported to have 20,000 Hollywood movies in his collection.
Someone told me the dictator said he’d forgo his nuclear ambitions
for just one night with Angelina Jolie. At first I believe it, but soon I found
that the story was from Humor Gazette.
I was mixing up Angelina
with Cicciolina, Jeff Koons’ porn star wife, who got herself elected
to the Italian Parliament. In 1990, trying to stop the Gulf War, she offered
to have sex with Saddam Hussein, hoping to achieve peace
in the Middle East. She made the same offer in 2002 in exchange
for letting in inspectors to look for WMD’s. Cicciolina even offered herself
to Osama bin Laden in return for the end of his tyranny. She was 55 by then,
but still up for the job.
After the bombs dropped in Palomares,
a massive clean-up operation was mounted by American authorities.
Some 1400 tons of radioactive Spanish soil were taken to South Carolina
for disposal. As part of its compensation, the U.S. settled
with 500 Palomares residents whose health was adversely affected.
The United States also built a desalination plant at Vera Playa.
A British couple at the next table tells us they’ve cancelled their trip
to Pennsylvania Dutch Country because of the schoolhouse shooting.
How could that happen? they ask us. They are polite, truly perplexed.
Pensioners, living part time in Palomares, they know about “Broken Arrow”
that in 1966, some of the personnel fell in love with Andalusia’s weather
and decided to stay on. A few Americans—though the Brits don’t know
their names—still live in the area, retired now. At the time the plant was
there was little local development, so it was never put to use. But some
of these roads, they say, were actually paved by the U.S.
The waitress arrives
with our la cuenta and a smile. “You’re from the states, si?”
This is our
The young woman speaks English, but I can’t find the right way to ask her
my questions. I try small talk, hoping to build up to a suitable moment.
She is polite—she did indeed grow up here. She is a student on her way
to university next year. Then her cell phone rings and she excuses herself,
giggling all the way to the counter of tapas, as Nick empties
his pockets of coins. He leaves a big tip.
In 1966, the Spanish feared
that their beloved Mediterranean was contaminated. So American
Biddel Duke went swimming for the cameras. A “textile,” he wore trunks
with red, white, and blue stripes. An interviewer asked,
"Ambassador, do you detect any radioactivity in the water?"
And Duke answered, "If this is radioactivity, I love it."