Nimmerdorf

In the 1930s, refugees from Central Europe fled the Nazi onslaught to freedom in the West. Among them were scientists and engineers with ethnic roots and political dossiers. The United States government created Nimmerdorf as a haven for them, a research center for high-level concepts in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and thermodynamics, pure and applied, with an eye to their eventual use as means of defense, or in mass production of labor-saving devices. The secret city was built in an undisclosed location—possibly one of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River, or a secluded valley in Appalachia, or a depopulated county in a Dust Bowl panhandle, or a clearing in the tangles of the Great Dismal Swamp.

The national laboratories at Los Alamos, Livermore, and Oak Ridge get all the attention in history books. Yet it was in Nimmerdorf that the most provocative ideas were hatched. The socialist origins of some Nimmerdorfers may have inclined them to pursue the arts of peace rather than those of war. In any case, imagination ran riot, encouraged by lavish Congressional appropriations under the line item of “discretionary spending.” Out of this welter of creativity came the universal decoder ring, logarithmic accentuation, frimbles, the perpetual motion steel ball pendulum, the invisible shield, and the smart pill. Things that showed promise included the gamma ray gun, antimatter pellets, blatherproofing, a surgical technique that involved eastern meditation, and a method of refrigeration that used rubber bands, clothes pins, and a deck of playing cards.

A city cannot spring into being overnight, of course, even one devoted to thought and flights of fancy. The early inhabitants lived in canvas tents and sheet-metal huts, a hastily thrown-together assemblage of sheds and lean-tos, with a trench latrine and a hand pump for water. Laundry and bathing facilities were crude—a bucket and a sponge. The displaced intellectuals, many of whom had narrowly escaped the clutches of the fascists, joked about their American “concentration camp.” Yet camaraderie was strong. The communal mess evoked the dining hall of an elite university, with conversations in several languages. German and Czech were well-represented, along with Polish, Hungarian, Yiddish, Esperanto, and a smattering of Baltic and Balkan tongues.

Despite limited availability of foodstuffs, the cuisine was inspired by Vienna and Prague. A pastry chef, a kosher butcher, and a noted saucier were among the refugees. Even allowing for a perfectly understandable tendency to romanticize, people recalled that primitive time with a dollop of nostalgia. The polyglot and multilingual Nimmerdorf Cookbook is a trove of recipes and reminiscences, as well as tribute to what you can do with a few potatoes, an onion, and a sprig of rosemary.

A priority program of fast-track construction emphasized innovative architecture and unusual materials. Nimmerdorf the city was as much of an experiment as the functions it was intended to serve. In a single year, the flimsy housing and overcrowded facilities gave way to a spacious layout of villas and cottages, a laboratory of polished corridors and stark white cubes, a progressive day school, and a multi-purpose auditorium. Mainly one-story and sensitive to the natural contours of the site, flooded with sunlight, and favoring pebbledash walls and low-pitched roofs, the city resembled the best of the Bauhaus, avant-garde design from France, and Italian futurism. Modest in size, it probably had a few thousand residents. Population figures and other statistics are hard to come by, owing to government secrecy. Memoirs from the period are still subject to censorship, insofar as they touch on classified information. And people are often vague about numbers, even those who work with them for a living.

Cut off from the outside world, Nimmerdorfers had to “make our own fun,” as they said. They were uniquely qualified to do so, with talented performers in music, drama, painting, and set design. They formed an orchestra and a club for amateur theatricals. A string quartet played for its own amusement. A men’s choir and a women’s chorus met on Friday and Saturday respectively. If culture was strong, religion was not. Small minorities met in private homes to practice their faith—Jewish, Catholic, Zoroastrian, and Theosophical. The social tone was secular, devoted to science and unfettered inquiry.

Wartime disruption of the apparel industry, as much as a general acquaintance with sewing and cloth, in the heady atmosphere of research and speculation, led to a blossoming of couture, a distinctive “look” that lasted a few seasons. Photos show men in conservative wool suits and dark neckties, with slicked-back hair and briar pipes, while their wives model sportswear and cocktail gowns, as though a band of esteemed professors intermarried with a troupe of gypsies and dance hall girls.

Paradoxically, the Allied victories of 1945 rang the death knell for the city. While the more famous laboratory centers smoothly segued to the Cold War litany of intercontinental ballistic missiles, spy satellites, and nuclear weapons, the free-wheeling style of Nimmerdorf was unable to adapt to the grim new reality. Funding evaporated. A frantic round of awkward sales calls and badly-worded press releases to editors who could not for the life of them figure out what they meant left the bold scientists and theoreticians without a sponsor for their peculiar brand of genius. Albert Einstein and David Sarnoff were invited to visit, but neither came. Almost as quickly as it rose, the city fell. By the end of the decade it lay deserted, a modernist ghost town that was already crumbling.

Harold Spritzer, who had lived there as a boy, returned as an adult on summer vacation and found almost no visible trace. He snuck through the fence and took pictures that show weeds in cinder block foundations, buckled street pavements, and some dented sheet metal lying on the ground. Mr. Spritzer writes:

The hulk of the auditorium and the spine of the laboratory are faintly visible. The tallest structure, a water tower like a tin can on stilts, leans at a crazy angle. But where is the little white stucco house of my childhood, the Main Street shops that accepted Monopoly money as scrip, the school where a lady with garlic breath taught me to play the violin?

The following year, the Federal Bureau of Disinvolvement cleared the site, ostensibly to prevent accidents, but really to wipe out an inconvenient fact. Experiments can fail, and memories can embarrass. After its brief flowering, Nimmerdorf faded to a sheaf of paper, a file any bureaucrat would love to purge.

Wellaway

 Wellaway is a town on an island so remote and difficult of access, a resort so exclusive, a place so unplugged and deliberately underpublicized, the average person has never heard of it. Lost in the South Pacific, the island cannot be reached by commercial air travel or conventional navigation. A minute speck in the vast ocean, with rugged terrain and a skinny coastal shelf, like a mountain peak with a fringe of foam, it has no room for a landing strip and no harbor for ships. The pink sand beach is lovely, and the coral lagoon is a nature lover’s dream, full of gorgeous aquatic plants and exotic marine organisms. Wellaway is a pristine paradise. But shoals are treacherous, winds blow in the wrong direction, and deep-sea currents are swift and changeable. Only at certain times of the year can a hot-air balloon touch down, or a dugout canoe thread its way through the surf.

The island is privately owned and independent of government jurisdiction. The owner is a person of high net worth who values peace and quiet, a person whose wealth is as incontestable as his sense of taste, a person whose strong and manicured hands hold all the real estate in a firm grip. This inscrutable person controls all decisions and calls all the shots. Wellaway presents the case, then, of a feudal enclave or a personal possession, like the isle of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Mr. Smythe is the name of this person, who declines all interviews and takes care to keep his personal data out of the limelight. A few chosen associates work closely with Mr. Smythe and reveal his wishes to the outside world. Is Mr. Smythe a haughty recluse in a fiercely guarded villa? Or is he a genial man-about-town who mingles freely under a pseudonym? His photograph never appears in the press, and his entourage is tight-lipped. No disguise is necessary. The prince of this enchanted realm would seem to have the best of both worlds: riches and peace of mind. Is he old or young, single or married, happy or sad, handsome or plain?

As if to fill the void of his public image, Wellaway promulgates a legend concerning the early years of Mr. Smythe. Born to comfort and beautifully educated in elite schools in New England and Europe, he achieved early success in business but found disappointment in love. Sailing solo across the Pacific in a boat he designed and built to his own exacting standard, he was blown off course. He washed up on an unknown and uninhabited island. Its seductive climate and abundant seafood tempted him to remain, but Mr. Smythe felt that premature retirement might be unwise. Who would he talk to? How would he share the events of the day, the hundred little happenings that make life worthwhile? He repaired his boat, set sail once more, and vowed to return.

When he did, he brought a company of sympathetic souls, a band of men and women as bright and capable as he, a Platonic academy devoted to what they considered the right way to live. They created Wellaway in their own image, which is to say along the lines laid down by Mr. Smythe, their benevolent despot. How has he managed to keep them loyal? Perhaps he is a genius, able to weld the self-interest of many into a seamless whole. Or perhaps the place has a mollifying effect, a subtle way of taming the will to power praised by Friedrich Nietzsche. Overt competition is absent from society, with Mr. Smythe serene at the apex.

Aware of the pitfalls of unrestrained development, the impossibility of significant trade in imports and exports, and the need to provide for the foreseeable future, the colonists tweaked the island ecosystem. By their own account, they swam ahead of the wave as pioneers in sustainable design. Or perhaps they revived the tried and true. Ancient methods of agriculture for limited sites and hot places have been rebranded as permaculture. On Wellaway they call it “smartfarm.” They invested in rainwater collection, soil amendment, solar and wind energy, suitable crops, a healthy mix of predators and prey, and a comprehensive ban on pesticides and poisons.

The town is a model city both in size and sophistication, an encrusted jewel of dear little houses and intimate squares, an urban environment “of imagination all compact.” Land uses are strictly zoned, and permits are hard to get. The restrained vibe is the opposite of a market-driven free-for-all. Implementation of the master plan is gradual and almost imperceptible, led as it is by the Smythe interest.

Burning of fossil fuels is prohibited. The air remains as pure as a ray of sunlight. Water, electricity, and utilities are rationed. Walking and cycling are safe and easy. Approved modes of transport are small electric vehicles like carts and scooters. There are, in any case, few places to go—the botanical garden, the fish market, the tennis courts, the miniature golf course, and the gingerbread confection of City Hall.

Population is capped, with no net growth. Residents maintain this delicate balance with a wink and a smile. They tend to be older, with passions held in check. Children are few and cherished all the more.

Visitors are screened with the utmost rigor before they arrive, even before they learn where they are headed. Geophysical coordinates are blocked. There is no direct phone or internet link. You do not casually book a vacation in Wellaway online or through a chatty travel agent. You undergo an interrogation, including a credit check, a health evaluation, a security clearance, and references from at least three persons of integrity and valor.

Guests at beachfront hotels and bed-and-breakfast hideaways include older celebrities, well-preserved supermodels, former heads of state, glamorous film stars of yesteryear, popular entertainers who no longer perform, international intelligence agents from previous decades, people who engaged in state-sponsored acts they are not at liberty to discuss, people who have had enough of fame and fortune, and people content to drop from the headlines and escape from their fans and the paparazzi. Extended stays are common, and adequate funds are a must.

The detox clinic run by Dr. Lance Morris is a frequent excuse for travel to Wellaway, which could be considered a healthcare destination. Dr. Morris is a charter colonist and one of Mr. Smythe’s associates. A primary source of information, he occupies the catbird seat. A rumor claims that he and Mr. Smythe are one and the same. He certainly acts and looks like a doctor, but his affable manner might be a ruse, a bright cape tossed over the sword.

Once you have passed the prequalification, filled out the twenty-page form, and signed the nondisclosure agreement, Dr. Morris will be pleased to see you. His patient list is confidential, as are his success rate, pharmaceutical suppliers, and fees. No insurance plans are accepted, sad to say. Wellaway is too remote from world financial systems. Yet the spa as a medical resort is simply an old idea brought up to date. Rest assured that the doctor’s academic degrees are real, and his credentials hold up. He is charming in an old-school, avuncular way, with a light touch and a first-rate staff of nurses and aides.

If you need help with a troublesome addiction, a persistent craving, or a lifestyle adjustment, you may respond to clinical care like a cactus that bursts into bloom. You may fall under the spell of the place and never want to leave.

Dagnabit

 Artificial mounds, enigmatic tumuli, and unexplored ruins lie strewn throughout the world. Archaeology brings evidence to light of human habitation and manual labor—post holes and hearths, flaked stone tools, snares for wild game, bones made into fish hooks and transverse flutes, and pretty shells strung as beads in a necklace. But unless the spade unearths a scratch on clay or stone, an inscription some scholar is able to decipher, we remain none the wiser as to what the place was called. A name that spoke of safety and home now languishes in silence, as the wind moans over the excavator’s trench.

A site in the Near East illustrates the point. Layers of settlement here go back to a Neolithic village that grew in stages, acquired a circuit wall of dried mud brick, rebuilt itself again and again on the ruins of its past, and rose to form a flat-topped eminence, the tell-tale sign of a buried city. Surrounding civilizations left their mark—the Hittites, Akkadians, Babylon, Elam, Assyria, the Philistines, and Ugarit. In the course of one season, all too brief but gratifyingly productive, Dr. Delahanty found a fragmentary inscription on a broken pot, the sequence “n-b-t.” Vowels were not in fashion at this time. He interprets this word as Nabatean and prefixes the syllable “d-g,” which might mean “hill” or “hump,” to reconstruct the prehistoric name of the place as Dagnabit.

Dagnabit has features typical of the region. Its artifacts and remains prompt armchair professors to yawn and say they already know all about it. But Delahanty and his team have broken new ground. Their findings reveal an urban culture that differs from most in Syria, Palestine, and eastern Turkey in five respects:

1. The circuit wall is consistently present, repaired and raised over centuries. As the level of the ground inside inched upward, the wall rose with it, like the shell of a mollusk. But there is no abrupt break in occupation, no layer of ashes and charred ruins to indicate that the city was taken by storm and burned. Nor is there a citadel or fortified palace on higher ground, not even a house of larger size and grandeur, one that would suit a petty king or royal governor. There is no higher ground. The muddle of houses, all much the same and all on one level, implies an egalitarian society. Or maybe the place was too insignificant to tempt the great powers to conquer it, post a garrison, and levy tribute. Did they view the town as slim pickings and march on?

2. Animal bones both wild and domestic abound in the kitchen dumps and garbage pits that fascinate archaeologists. Sheep, goats, donkeys, dogs, cows, and several species of birds are represented. But the bones occur as whole skeletons, not cut and disjointed as they would be if butchered and roasted. Does this mean that the residents kept the animals as beasts of burden, guardians, and pets? Did they shear the wool, gather the eggs, milk the mammals, pick up dung for fuel and fertilizer, and abstain from meat?

3. In addition to barley, sorghum, wheat, and rye—cereals common to the region—Dagnabit grew soybeans. Basin-like hollows found on the site may be natural, or they may be tubs for processing bean curd. Was Dagnabit an early maker and consumer of that modern staple of the health-conscious diet, tofu?

4. Orchard trees include the olive for oil and the apple for fruit, as one would expect, but grape vines seem to be absent. Dr. Delahanty found a press for the olives, and jars to store the oil, but nothing to point to a harvest of grapes, the making of wine, or an interest in alcohol. Was Dagnabit dry?

5. There is a shrine with clay idols and a lump with legs and two horns or long ears to suggest a hare. Like the circuit wall, the shrine was rebuilt and refurbished over the years. It developed into a temple, then a small church for a mystery cult or Early Christian sect, then a little mosque, and in its final form a Crusader chapel. The hare persisted as a fertility symbol in sculpture and mosaic, and finally as a medieval fresco of a bunny in a landscape, probably part of larger scene. Was the animal a totem for the town, as the bear is for Berlin?

Dr. Delahanty paints a picture of Dagnabit as a haven of peace, where people escaped the curse of war and unfair taxes, a nest of vegetarian folk, possibly teetotalers, who shared and shared alike, a utopia that evolved from prehistory into the thirteenth century. At that point, occupation of the site ceased. Colleagues may scoff, but the picture is attractive. Everyone likes the Dagnabit rabbit.


ROBERT BOUCHERON grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Chantwood, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, and Poydras Review.