That Time William S. Burroughs Fled a Ranch School in
Ken Layne on Magic and War in Los Alamos
The town of Los Alamos lies upon the slopes of a living supervolcano called the Valles Caldera, at a crisp High-Desert elevation of 7,300 feet above sea level. The modern town is barely a century old, but the nearby cliff villages were built more than a thousand years earlier by the Tewa, who carved homes into the caldera’s cliffs—Bandelier Tuff, the chalky volcanic stuff is called, in honor of the archaeologist Adolph Bandelier’s work here in the late 1800s.
You can walk among these skull-eyed cliff dwellings—preserved since 1916 within Bandelier National Monument—and appreciate the then-novel approach of Bandelier, who combined “historical research, folklore, mythology, native traditions, ethnography, ethnohistory, and archaeology” in an early effort to remove European-American assumptions about New World culture, as so much more can be discovered with an open mind.
The Swiss-born archaeologist had made early missteps at other New Mexico pueblos, including his witnessing of secret rituals without the community’s permission, but in time he learned the humility and careful manners required to learn some of what these Tewa-and-Keres-speaking descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo people already knew. (“Anasazi” is the now out-of-favor Navajo name for this ancient culture that migrated southward from the Four Corners region some seven centuries ago. Drought, dwindling resources, war, and major changes in religion and culture are now thought to be the main reasons for the “vanishing” of the Ancestral Puebloans from the Four Corners.)
Bandelier was led by a Puebloan guide to the ancient dwellings hidden within and around Frijoles Canyon, in the Jemez Mountains, and spent years excavating and studying the pueblo in the valley and numerous brick-fronted cave dwellings in the cliffs above. Mysterious rock art hints at the lives and beliefs of much earlier nomadic peoples on the Pajarito Plateau. From the earliest nomads to the time of the Spanish friars, ritual magic was the crux of daily life. The cliff dwellings reveal a people under constant fear of attack.
Both the Tewa and the Keres chose “War Captains,” whose authority combined the power of magicians, commanders, and governors, according to the pioneering anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons.
“War Captains have ritual functions of prayer and offering, of guarding against witches or intruders, of maintaining the customs, of appointing to office and installing, and of serving as executive messengers,” Parsons writes in her two-volume Pueblo Indian Religion, published in 1939. “Among Keres and Tewa the War Captains or Outside Chiefs, like Zuni War chiefs, are representatives or proxies for the War Gods and go by their names.”
New Mexico became a U.S. state in 1912, a 64-year wait as a “territory” caused in large part by Washington’s discomfort with the land’s volatile mix of Indian wars, old Mexican society, and a spiritualism entirely foreign to U.S. Protestants, but magic and war would continue to be the primary institutional obsession following statehood.“In Burroughs’s fiction, a fantastic version of this Old West–themed all-male school of horseback-riding junior cowboys is the Burroughsian ideal of a perfect society.”
As Nazism infected the Old World and most of Europe’s great physicists collected in the United States, many of them began to suffer nightmare visions of a new weapon that would make Germany unstoppable. Washington must, these celebrated scientists insisted, build the atomic bomb first.
Much of the authority for the Manhattan Project fell to J. Robert Oppenheimer, a wealthy New York– born scientist and suspected communist who had ventured to New Mexico, like so many other elites, for the fashionable “dry air cure” at a guest ranch, in 1922. Oppenheimer’s affliction was not tuberculosis, the then-incurable illness that once brought thousands of “lungers” to New Mexico, but dysentery, likely caused by infectious colitis. After the disease kept him bedridden for what was to have been his first year at Harvard, Oppenheimer was taken to New Mexico by his high school English teacher.
Julius Oppenheimer, Robert’s father, was a wealthy industrialist and collector of modern art. It was the elder Oppenheimer who suggested the New Mexico trip, believing that “a Western adventure would help to harden his son,” according to Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2006 biography, American Prometheus.
As part of this frontier adventure, the 18-year-old Oppenheimer rode from the guest ranch near Cowles to the stark slope of the Pajarito Plateau and across the great caldera. Beyond the old cave dwellings and pueblo, the only permanent settlement was the rough-hewn all-male Los Alamos Ranch School, with its prep-school cowboys doing ranch chores between studies.
Oppenheimer was so taken with the brilliant landscape, the cowboy life, and the arid climate that he later leased (and eventually bought) the little ranch near Cowles for himself. When the need arose for a remote location for America’s World War II effort to build the A-bomb, Oppenheimer suggested the part of the desert he loved best: the mountains north of Santa Fe. “My two great loves are physics and New Mexico,” he wrote in a letter, and now the two would be combined.
Oppenheimer was also a mystic, not uncommon among the East Coast Americans drawn to New Mexico in the early 20th century. While his agile mind maneuvered easily through physics both hard and theoretical, there remained a gauze at the frontiers that baffled him. He studied Sanskrit and took to the ancient Hindu texts, a deep interest that poetically merged with his singular profession years later, following the successful Trinity test, the detonation of the first atomic bomb, on July 16, 1945.
It was two decades later when Oppenheimer, abandoned by his government and near death, recalled his thoughts about the A-bomb for NBC television cameras. “We knew the world would not be the same,” he said. “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
In that ancient story, the human prince Arjuna accepts his responsibility to fight a war he feels is unjust. He is convinced that his profession requires his full participation. Oppenheimer was not suggesting that he had become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds. Instead, his earthly profession required him to be the war god’s proxy. It was Oppenheimer’s duty—and because it was his duty, he did not regret the A-bomb’s destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Oppenheimer’s choice for the Manhattan Project’s laboratory site, quickly accepted by the U.S. government, was that same picturesque private school he had visited on a horseback camping trip years earlier, set along a creek crowded with Fremont’s cottonwoods (los alamos in Spanish), on the mesa east of the volcano and west of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The climate and views would inspire the great minds called to this duty, he believed.
The final graduating class of the Los Alamos Ranch School rushed to complete their studies by February 1943. The school had been created by a Detroit businessman named Ashley Pond, who had served in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders but avoided combat thanks to a case of typhoid.
The Ranch School’s mission was to toughen up the sons of the American elite. Pond believed in the gender segregation some pueblos practiced to create elite warriors. The forest ranger and scoutmaster Pond hired to run the school, A. J. Connell, didn’t even want the male teachers to have wives. (An exception was Pond’s own wife and daughter—the latter now known as the poet and author Peggy Pond Church, who was shipped off to various girls’ boarding schools during the academic year.) The Ranch School educated a number of notable business and artistic figures, including the author Gore Vidal and John Crosby, founding director of the Santa Fe Opera. The strangest and most brilliant of them all was a boy called Billy Burroughs, grandson of the man who invented the adding machine.
William S. Burroughs was born to a wealthy St. Louis family, but lived a life at odds with the morals and social order of that prim elite. He was a subculture celebrity by the late 1970s and spoke like a wizened Old West card shark. Whether as founder of the Beats with Kerouac and Ginsberg, portraying a priestly old heroin addict in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, or creating shotgun art with a disheveled Kurt Cobain, Burroughs dressed like an undertaker, in a rumpled suit—less dapper than shady. Burroughs’s writing is packed with studied paranoia regarding government, technology, taboos, and especially the virus of language, which Burroughs believed was the result of deliberate infection by alien “management.”Burroughs couldn’t do the war gods’ duty. His job, it transpired, was to turn the Atomic Age into the darkest comedy.
Burroughs and his older brother, Mortimer, attended summer camp at the Los Alamos Ranch School in the years 1925 through 1927. In 1930, sixteen-year-old Burroughs was sent to the school as a full-time student, in part because he suffered sinus problems. Most of the boys were “spindly,” sent by rich fathers hoping the desert would toughen them up.
Burroughs begged to come home late in his second year, and later wrote that he loathed the Ranch School’s dull chores, cruel classmates, and a headmaster who enjoyed making the students strip naked for him.
But in Burroughs’s fiction, especially in later novels such as The Wild Boys and The Place of Dead Roads, a fantastic version of this Old West–themed all-male school of horseback-riding junior cowboys is the Burroughsian ideal of a perfect society, out of doors and out of control’s reach. It is the Los Alamos Ranch School before the A-bomb, the cowboy adolescents without the teachers, without the military men who took over the school, and without the scientists seeking moral justification for bringing the world to the verge of man-made destruction.
Burroughs, interested enough in anthropology to briefly study it at Harvard, enjoyed roaming around the pueblo ruins and cave dwellings. Ted Morgan describes one such ramble in Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs: “Rogers Scudder, a St. Louis friend who went to the Ranch School with Billy, also remembers him as wry and sardonic, with a macabre side. He and Billy used to go dig in an old Pueblo Indian ruin . . . Billy found an anthill in the ruin and poured gasoline over it and lit it and started dancing a sort of parody of an Indian war dance, with maniacal whooping as ants by the thousands fled the pyre.”
Young Billy Burroughs knew about the war captains, too. He knew about the gods infecting the humans for purposes of war duty. Yet even when he volunteered for the military and the OSS, he was denied. Burroughs attended two of the same elite universities as J. Robert Oppenheimer: Harvard and Columbia, the latter’s campus in New York being the original headquarters of both the Manhattan Project and the Beats. Burroughs and Oppenheimer studied many of the same esoteric Eastern texts in their comfortable Cambridge lodgings.
But unlike the War Captains of the pueblos, and unlike Oppenheimer and his ranch school full of world-destroying physicists, Burroughs couldn’t do the war gods’ duty. His job, it transpired, was to turn the Atomic Age into the darkest comedy. In his best-known books, the still-shocking Naked Lunch and the cut-up novel Nova Express, the figures of authority are all insane and inept men of privilege, like the sadistic Dr. Benway chopping up patients in some government operating room. “After one look at this planet,” Burroughs wrote, “any visitor from outer space would say ‘I want to see the manager!’ ”
From Desert Oracle by Ken Layne. Used with permission of MCD/FSG.