Empire My Prince
Carl Baum, trestle-maker
I was shocked and awed when UNM offered me the job of assistant to Dr. Carl E. Baum. What could I possibly offer the most famous electromagnetic theoretician in the world? I was just a local poet and burned-out newspaper man who couldn’t even grasp the fundamentals of elementary calculus.
I didn't know if I could relate to a retired military man who worked as a scientist for the Air Force for 42 years, but I eagerly accepted the job because I was desperate for work.
That was five years ago. It turns out that Carl Baum and I were a perfect fit. The time flew by, and I never suffered a single fit of conscience or moral outrage. Then, out of the blue, this sensitive and generous man suffered a massive stroke. On Dec. 2, he died at the age of 70.
Carl Baum’s research at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department was focused on keeping people from dying. He was looking for a way to kill cancer cells and also a means to detect land mines.
Carl was a very smart guy. He got his Ph.D. in just one year from Caltech and he won the IEEE Electromagnetics Field Award in 2007, the most prestigious in the field. Carl worked at UNM seven days a week for no pay, and half my salary came straight out of his own pocket.
Carl had some intriguing quirks. Even though he helped usher in the digital age, he refused to use a computer. He wrote with a pencil on lined, three-hole-punched paper—the kind school children use. When he lectured at great universities throughout the world, he used an old-fashioned viewgraph machine to display his primitively hand-drawn figures and high-level calculus that probably only 300 people on this planet can understand.
Carl tried to live a simple life and drove the same old 1962 Chevy Corvair that he used as a student at Caltech. It lacked an air conditioner or radio and emitted horrible fumes into the driver’s compartment. I rode up with him once to the Christ in the Desert Monastery and had to wear a gas mask. The car broke down several times along the way, but we finally limped into Abiquiú going 15 mph, trailed by a dozen cars that were honking their horns at us. Carl dreamt of a day when he would join the brotherhood and become a hermit.
Carl was a prolific composer. He wrote 14 choral arrangements, three sonatas, four quintets, two quartets, two fanfares and a march. But his most monumental achievement was the one you can see when you take off or land at the Albuquerque Sunport.
Carl came up with this idea of building a wooden structure, two football fields long, over an 20-acre, bowl-shaped arroyo deep inside Kirtland Air Force Base. Erected between 1972 and 1980 at a cost of $60 million, he nicknamed it “the trestle” because he said it was inspired by a railroad bridge.
The trestle was a test stand for the world’s largest electromagnetic pulse simulator and is regarded as the world’s largest wooden structure. It supports a wooden runway that faces an arsenal of spotlights and signal-generating equipment that have not been turned on for more than 20 years.
“It is reputed to have taken one or two months of the national lumber output from the Northwest and Georgia to make the glue-laminated structural members. You don’t look at it. It looks at you.”
Carl Baum on the trestle
Between 1980 and 1990, military aircraft were towed onto the deck of the trestle and bombarded with electromagnetic pulses. The purpose of these classified experiments was to measure the effects of these electromagnetic waves on the electronics of military aircraft and also to convince the Russians that we were not vulnerable to attack during the Cold War.
If you wanted to see how a 100-ton, 185-foot-wide B-52 Bomber was affected by the electromagnetic pulses from an H-bomb exploding in the atmosphere, you simply wheeled the plane onto the trestle’s deck, charged up its Marx capacitors with 0.2 terawatts of electricity (that’s the number two followed by 11 zeros), aimed and fired.
The testing of complex electronics is no longer done this way because it’s too expensive. Mathematical simulations are now conducted by powerful supercomputers, but Carl had serious doubts about the veracity of their results.
The trestle was constructed using very little metal; even the bolts holding it together were made from wood or fiberglass. By constructing the trestle with materials that were invisible to electromagnetic pulses, its 1,000-foot long platform, rising 600 feet (12 stories) above the desert floor, simulated an airplane in flight.
“It is reputed to have taken one or two months of the national lumber output from the Northwest and Georgia to make the glue-laminated structural members,” said Carl about his Southern pine and Douglas fir trestle. “You don’t look at it,” he said, laughing. “It looks at you.”
And it’s in great shape for a piece of engineering that hasn’t been maintained in more than 20 years. When funding for the project stopped, everybody was told to pack up and leave immediately: Sandwiches and half-drunk cups of coffee and were left behind.
Hollywood has been barred from making action/adventure movies on the site, although Carl readily believed it would be perfect for such a use, and I think he had a screenplay tucked away in his back pocket. “It would be an ideal site for a James Bond movie set in the waning days of the Cold War, entitled Empire My Prince,” Carl once said. He told me that the title of his movie has a double meaning. The Initials of Empire My Prince are EMP, as are the first three letters of the word “empire.” EMP is shorthand for electromagnetic pulse.
Albuquerque has a deplorable track record when it comes to preserving its history. What hasn’t burned down has been torn down and what hasn’t been torn down is falling into decay, such as the locomotive repair center in Barelas. Similarly the trestle is becoming a decaying ghost town (or a spectacular, 6.5-
It recently occurred to me that this monolithic structure might qualify as art, so I called up a famous art historian and asked her.
“What a beautiful piece of art that trestle is!” said my sister, Dr. Selma Holo, director of the Fisher Gallery at the University of Southern California. “The details of that wooden trestle remind me of the wonderful abstract art that assemblage artists can only dream of making."
Clearly, the trestle needs to be preserved for future generations. It is one of wonders of Albuquerque, a testimony to the vision of Carl Baum and every bit as marvelous and mysterious as Chaco Canyon or Stonehenge.
It’s a shame nobody can see it up close.
Who knows? There may come a time when the trestle will be regarded as a prime location to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July, a spectacular place to see flamenco dancers strut their stuff or simply installation art that attracts people from all over the world.
Meanwhile, Carl is probably looking down at that bridge to nowhere and laughing. His legacy is firmly established in the desert sands of Kirtland Air Force Base and also in the annals of electromagnetic history. It’s just a matter of time before the rest of us begin to take notice.