Sixty-five years ago today (9 August 1945) the bomb known as “Fat Man” fell away from the B-29 bomber “Bockscar,” and detonated about 1,500 feet over Nagasaki. Fat Man exploded with the force of about 21 kilotons of TNT, immediately killing somewhere between 40,000 and 75,000 Japanese, mostly civilians.

I was just over two years old, living in Hilo, Hawai’i, and have no memory of that event, nor do I remember the Hiroshima bomb three days earlier. And I don’t remember Japan’s surrender, which took place only a few days later. My partner Ruth – who is just three months older than I am, and was living in Chicago – also remembers nothing about those explosions.

I don’t have any memories that center on what we used to call “A-bombs” until I was nine or ten years old – this would have been 1952 or 53 – when at Riverside Elementary School, where we had already been taught to duck and cover in case of earthquakes, we were taught to use the same procedure in case of atomic attack. That there should be earthquakes on the island was predictable. They shook and rolled us regularly. As for atomic attacks – who knew what the Russians might do?

I remember riding with a friend, in a car driven by his father. We were playing in the back seat with wooden swords that I had made. Between Waimea and Honoka’a the father asked us, “Do you boys know what to do if there’s an atomic attack?” We said that we did. I remember this because even at that age I recognized the irony of playing at swordfighting while talking about atomic weaponry.

I certainly didn’t know the word irony, but I had some notion of the difference between atomic bombs and conventional ones. I was aware of how strange it was to be play-fighting with weapons no longer used in war, while declaring I knew how to deal with new weapons so fierce that a single one could destroy a city. And I believe that even then, I understood that no matter what our teachers told us, ducking and covering would not keep me safe if the Russians attacked us with atomic bombs.

I had by then read Hersey’s Hiroshima. I found it fascinating, I remember that, and I remember being saddened, and I remember struggling with the scale of the thing. Many more people than lived in our town had died instantly. It was incomprehensible and yet it had happened. So I knew that it should be comprehensible in some way. I just didn’t know what that way was. I can’t say I was obsessed by it. It was something I stored away in memory and sometimes it would bubble up and I would think about it again.

I remember the front page story in the Hilo Tribune-Herald, reporting that Stalin had died. This was March, 1953, and I remember asking my mother whether this meant the end of war, that there could now be no atomic war with Russia. I don’t remember my mother’s response, but I am sure she told me that the threat of atomic war hadn’t disappeared with Stalin.

In 7th grade I wanted to run for Student Council Vice-President. Election posters were allowed, and I remember laying out a large sheet of paper and, with crayons and watercolors, creating a mushroom cloud, all reds and yellows and browns, and lettering it “Vote Mitchell — The Atomic Candidate — for VEEP.” I didn’t win. I was only trying to attract attention. Certainly I didn’t lose the election because of it; I never thought that. But I also never stopped to wonder whether linking my candidacy to mass destruction and death was a good tactic. I only thought that a mushroom cloud would be eye-catching.

On Friday, August 1st, 1958, about midnight, a Redstone ballistic missile carried a W39 thermonuclear device to about 50 miles above Johnston Island, where it detonated. This was the first missile-launched nuclear shot. The W39’s yield was 3.8 megatons, or, putting it another way, it released about 1,800 times the destructive power that Fat Man had. We in the Hawaiian Islands, about 1,000 miles north-northeast of the shot, had not been warned.

I had just turned 15, and was home asleep because my mother did not let me stay out that late. Some of my friends were out in Hilo, and when the sky lit up and something like a mushroom cloud formed, they were amazed and shocked. Was it a volcanic eruption? But no eruption flashed like that, or created a fireball.

Some of them went home, woke up their parents, and told them that World War III had started. There was no place to turn for information. The AM radio bands didn’t seem to be working. Television was never on at that time of night. By the next morning everyone knew it had been only a test.

In those days teenage boys did not talk readily about their fears. But it was clear to me that my friends had been badly frightened. And yet they were excited, too, as I was. What a thing to have seen! An H-bomb!

The military denied that the failure of medium-frequency and high-frequency communications over much of the Pacific, lasting even into the next day, was related to the test. They promised to warn us before the next shot, which would be sometime in August.

Many years later it would be revealed that testing for the effects of the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) was an important goal of that shot, which was code-named Teak. The Teak shot observers failed to gather the data they wanted, because Hans Bethe had miscalculated the likely energy of the EMP, and all the instruments, set to record low levels, were instantly driven into overload and delivered no useful information.

They would do better with the next shot, code-named Orange, scheduled for the night of August 12th, a Tuesday.

In Hawai’i you can be licensed to drive at 15, and I was. A group of us planned to drive to Ka Lae (South Point) about 80 miles from Hilo, to see the H-bomb. I was surprised my parents let me drive the family car there, but they did. Perhaps my mother, a high school teacher, thought it would be educational. I had my sister – a little older than I was – and, I’m almost certain, my girlfriend C. Of course we drove our cars in a convoy, we had beer and cigarettes and radios tuned to mainland stations and we were all excited.

We went to Ka Lae because Ka Lae is the southernmost land in Hawai’i, which meant that there was nothing but the Pacific Ocean between us and Johnston Island. We also went to Ka Lae because there was a tracking station there. I assumed that the tracking station had something to do with the Johnston Island tests, but none of us knew whose tracking station it was. In those days big dishes were rare. This one was surrounded by barbed wire. Its concrete pillar still stands and even now when I drive visitors to Ka Lae I wonder how many of the people who see it near the road know what it was.

We sat in the cars, and outside on blankets, and kept looking where the dish was pointing. And suddenly there it was, of course without warning. A flash, a burst of static on the car radios, and the fireball, rising. This image was made closer to Johnston Island – I haven’t found any images of Orange as seen from Hawai’i – but from Ka Lae it was spectacular. Awesome. The fireball expanded and there seemed to be a cloud, perhaps even a mushroom cloud, around and above it.

More than anything, I was intensely aware that I was seeing an H-bomb. In those first few seconds I had no other thought, and no feeling other than excitement. As a Hawai’i boy I knew the feeling of seeing for the first time things (television, for example) that I knew people on the Mainland were used to seeing. My first thought was: so this is what an H-bomb is. Everything I thought about it was subsumed by the rising, expanding fireball.

And then the excitement. We were all yelling at each other. Did you see that? Amazing! Rugged! We hugged each other and danced around, even though our radios played only static. We drank more of our beer. We waited – for what? I don’t know. We knew there wouldn’t be another, but we didn’t want to leave. Finally, early in the morning, we drove home. I told my parents it had been a sight worth seeing. I described it. I said nothing about what I’d felt.

Did I later stop to think about the enormous destructive power contained in that fireball I witnessed? Not that I remember. Did I relate it to Hiroshima or Nagasaki? No, I didn’t, for all that it was August. I knew I wasn’t likely to forget what I saw that night because it was so extraordinary, but teenage life went on.

A few weeks later I began my junior year at Hilo High. I was involved in amateur radio, the Civil Air Patrol, and the local Civil Defense, which as an organization was much more engaged in lava flows and tsunamis than in fallout shelters. Even so, Civil Defense was supposed to be concerned with atomic warfare, and so I learned about radiation and how to measure it.

In 1960 I was a freshman in college, and thought I wanted to be an electrical engineer. That didn’t last long, but before I discovered Anthropology I signed up for a 1-credit course called “Radiological Health,” which was actually a PE course. We learned how to operate Geiger and other radiation counters (I already knew about them, which made the course look like an easy A), we learned about rads and millirads and shielding and radiation contours.

On the evening of our final exam, the instructor laid out a dozen yellow Geiger counters and sheets of graph paper and said, “I’ve hidden a few dozen sources in the building. Go find them. Map the radiation levels.”

I thought nothing of it beyond admiring it as a clever exam. I made an excellent map – in three dimensions, thanks to having studied Mechanical Drawing at Hilo High – and got a good grade.

In 1964 I met Ruth, who took me home to meet her father Stan. She introduced him as her father, not as Stanley G. Thompson, the nuclear chemist he was, although I am sure that she mentioned it. Ruth is as modest as her father was, but it’s likely that she told me that he was a co-discoverer of three of the transuranic elements: Berkelium, Californium, and Mendelevium. Neither she nor I can remember.

If she did, it didn’t stick with me. I only met him the one time. I remembered what a good time we’d had fishing from his boat, in the Sacramento River delta, nothing more. Over the forty years I spent apart from Ruth – years during which the only chemistry I encountered had to do with archaeological dating – I remembered her father only as a man who knew Willard Libby, the developer of radiocarbon (C14) dating. I believed (wrongly, as I discovered) that they had been colleagues.

And every time I lectured to my classes about C14 I told them I had known someone who had known Libby, and I thought of Ruth and how foolish I had been to have allowed myself to drift away from her when I went East in 1964. And I thought that someday I might find her again, but during those forty years I never even looked.

And when, as always, I had to talk about other radioactive materials and half-lives, and would use plutonium as an example, I would tell my students about having witnessed an H-bomb explosion, although by then I was properly calling it a thermonuclear explosion. I meant to tell them about how casually nuclear explosions and nuclear materials were handled, even in my lifetime. I told them about the shoe-fitting fluoroscopes operated by the salesmen, devices through which I’d been shown my little toes wiggling inside shoes – yes, he has enough room – while the salesman, all unknowing, was receiving a blast of radiation in his crotch. I always told them my Radiological Health story and asked them how long they thought I’d keep my job, tenure or no tenure, if I hid radioactive materials in the Classroom Building at Buffalo State College and sent my students out to find them.

But every time I talked about my H-bomb I knew that part of me had never gone beyond the you can’t believe what I saw amazement of August, 1958. I never failed to talk about it in Part II, Isotopic Dating Methods, and I think my story had a good effect on the students, but I always knew it had a showing-off component I didn’t like admitting to myself. I told my nuke stories twice a semester, four times a year, for more than thirty years.

In 2004 I found Ruth again, 40 years after I’d lost her. As we were getting reacquainted, I asked about her father. She told me he had died of cancer at 64, and she had always thought it likely that the cancer was because of his work with radioactive materials. What they were doing was very exciting, and they had all been careless.

She matched my fluoroscope story with her cooling pond story, one that she had not told me in 1964, because at the time she thought nothing of it. In the mid-fifties the Thompson family was in Sweden, where Stan was at the Nobel Institute for a year. Sweden. Cold. So where were people around the Institute to swim? Where were pools of warm water to be found?

If you know what a cooling pond is you already know the answer. No, they didn’t swim in the actual pond where the spent reactor rods were cooling. But they swam in what must have been secondary or overflow ponds. Indeed it may well be that radiation levels in cooling pond overflows are not great. I don’t know, but as in the fluoroscope example, no one seemed concerned about it.

And then Ruth told me something about her father that I had not known. The Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb, but the first nuclear bomb (the “Gadget,” detonated at Alamogordo) was a plutonium bomb, as was the one dropped on Nagasaki sixty-five years ago today. And so was the W39 device that produced the fireball I saw in the Ka Lae sky.

Ruth’s father Stan was brought into the Manhattan Project to invent a process that could produce plutonium on a massive scale. No one had ever produced more than a few micrograms, but the bomb-makers needed kilograms of it. Glenn Seaborg thought that his high school buddy Stan Thompson could do it if anyone could, and he was right. All the plutonium in Gadget and Fat Boy was produced by the process Ruth’s father invented and oversaw.

Without his work, there would have been no plutonium-fueled bomb. He didn’t design the bomb. He didn’t assemble it. He didn’t open the bomb bay doors and he didn’t detonate it. Even so, the tens of thousands of people who died at Nagasaki in part died because of what Stan, the father of the woman I love, did.

When Ruth told me about her father, it excited me. I admit it. Sometimes I am ashamed of what I let it do to me if I’m not careful. Sometimes I have the urge to tell people who are getting to know Ruth – people like Zara and Simon, there in the restaurant at East Randolph – Do you know what Ruth’s father did? He discovered elements and he made the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb. Is that amazing, or what?

Is that trivializing his work – and him – or what? Of course it is.

The small man I met behind Berkeley in July 1964, the man who took me fishing, handed me beers, looked the other way when I kissed his daughter – this was a man who had done something of consequence, and I had not known it. And when I did learn it, I didn’t know what to do with it. As we say these days, I didn’t know how to process it. I still don’t.

At the Orange shot I was excited by an extraordinary event and for years did not go beyond that excitement. It wasn’t that I couldn’t. I simply felt no need to try. It was something I’d witnessed, and I’d witnessed it because people were casual about thermonuclear shots in those days. I had compartmentalized my experiences; my H-bomb was disconnected from what I knew – had known even before 1958 – about what happened when nuclear weapons were used in war. Neither Teak nor Orange was detonated in anger, and neither did any serious harm.

And yet . . . what was it, then? A simulacrum of the deadly strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Saying so is too facile. If I could return to Ka Lae and inject meaning into that boy’s simple perception of an awe-inspiring, exciting, yes beautiful fireball. . . what would that meaning be? Everything I can think of seems at once too simple to an old man, and too complicated for a boy.

And what of Ruth, and her father, and whatever of her father lies within her and is part of her song? She has written of him in his deafness, pressed up against speakers, listening to Beethoven. She tells of him sitting in his chair, thinking, doing the kind of chemistry-of-the-mind that preceded his making it manifest in the lab. For that, he needed no equipment. He only needed a place to sit, and time to think.

So I am wondering, today, August 9th, 2010, how often and in what ways he thought about the process he conceived, gestated, gave birth to, and then released to others, who made of it fiery destruction as never before seen in the world. It is impossible that he did not think of Nagasaki.

It is said that upon Gadget’s explosion Oppenheimer recited from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Ruth does not know where her father was on that day, except that he was not at Alamogordo, nor does she know where he was on August 9th, 1945.

He might have been in Chicago. He might have been at Hanford. He might have had his first daughter, now my life’s partner, in his arms. Perhaps he sang to her. Perhaps he wept. He never said.

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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

52 responses to “Nuclear Families”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Stunning piece, Don.

    I love how you have constructed this by weaving all the threads together into such a seamless story. The story of you as a boy, losing Ruth, finding Ruth, Ruth’s father.

    Layered on top of all this: “Everything I can think of seems at once too simple to an old man, and too complicated for a boy,” – the way you build in your feelings, pride, amazement, shame. It really is a wonderful piece.

    The nuclear issue has a lot of resonance here in the Pacific. Obviously, New Zealand is proud of its ‘Nuclear Free’ stance although it has cost us dearly as a nation, but its people are united on this and it is one reason I am extremely proud to be a kiwi. I’m always amazed at the lack of knowledge the rest of the world has when it comes to this. The fact that New Zealand suffered its own terrorist attacks in the 80’s when French agents bombed our harbour in protest to our opposition for nuclear testing that was being carried out throughout the Pacific, seems to have not been noticed by the world at large.

    The Hiroshima bomb also holds a personal connection for me. My grandfather was one of the soldiers who went into Japan after the surrender and was on clean up duty in Hiroshima. he never spoke of it until he was dying from a rare brain cancer when he was 58, and when he finally told us of te horrors that he witnessed in that poor bombed city. The radiation he was exposed to ate away his brain, and contaminated his blood so that the legacy has passed on in our generational lines. Truly awful.

    I love the last lines in your piece. They are so perfect and beautiful. I’m sure he sang. I’m sure he wept. So many tears. Such deadly power. Thank you for this piece.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    Thank you, Zara, for your good comment. There are probably more connections out there than we know.

    That’s a pity about your uncle. There was so much they didn’t know in those days. Or maybe there was a disconnect between what the military’s own experts thought was safe, and what the commanders thought was safe for their men.

    As for the French, I never understood how they got so many free passes for what they did in the Pacific.

    And NZ’s nuclear stance is admirable.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    Don, do you ever watch Mad Men? I ask because a friend’s status update today was ‘Due to how much Mad Men I’ve watched, my reaction to everything noteworthy is now to say ‘A thing like that!’

    Maybe my subconscious is preoccupied with my reading of that update, but I read this and that’s what I can muster.

    A nuclear explosion?


    A thing like that.

    What else to say? Anything else would seem too little, or too large. As you’ve pointed out.

    I think I would have liked your class, and your H-bomb story.

    What a fascinating man, and what a fascinating thing to be a part of.

    This line grabbed me: “I always told them my Radiological Health story and asked them how long they thought I’d keep my job, tenure or no tenure, if I hid radioactive materials in the Classroom Building at Buffalo State College and sent my student out to find them.”

    Not long, I would say.

    (I also would have been fascinated by hearing this story over the table in East Randolph, although I don’t know what I would have said. It takes a little while to process).

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I confess I’ve never watch Mad Men. I ought to check it out, especially the slang.

      The radioactive materials thing would have gotten me in trouble, without a doubt. But in the 70s I used to do a permitted classroom activity, which was do finger or ear pricks and have the students check out their ABO blood types. Having learned to do it in grad school, I did ear pricks for anybody who didn’t want to do a finger prick.

      Never thought anything of it until one day a student fainted and the sound of a head going thwock against a desk made me think maybe it was too risky.

      This was — I hope it’s obvious — before anybody was paying attention to AIDs. Blood? Blood, so what?

      • Simon Smithson says:

        Oh, and I forgot to point out just how much I liked ‘The Atomic Candidate’.

        Regardless of its undertones, I would have voted for you.

  4. James D. Irwin says:

    I love reading about things like this. It’s not really the sort of thing that one should ‘love’ reading, but I do. I love reading about history. It’s important, and it’s fascinating and there are fantastic stories like this.

    I can’t imagine being young in the late ’40s and ’50s when all this awesome, devatating weaponry was being tested or, in the case of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, used.

    It also amazes me how carelss people were about nuclear materials back then. The British government are involved in a lawsuit with a nuclear weapons test from the early 1950s. The military involved were unaware of the dangers and handled everything wearing only their fatigues. Now they’re dying at a rate of about 60 a month.

  5. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m glad you liked it, James, especially because (can I say this without offense?) you’re young.

    I don’t excuse the early carelessness — military or non-military — but at the same time I can see how hard it must have been to think about radiation as profoundly different from any other hazards that people knew to avoid, especially the military where by definition much of the activity was dangerous activity and accepted as such.

    “Sir, there are bullets flying out there, I don’t want to go.” Not a chance.

    “Sir, I don’t want to enter this area because there are invisible rays that might cause me harm.” Not a chance.

    Here in Buffalo I’m used to reading comments from old factory workers who were exposed to all sorts of dangerous toxins and dismissed it all, saying “we got used to it.” No, you didn’t.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      I’m not at all offended, because I’m the youngest guy around here by some way. Quite proud of in in fact. I like to think though that I’m a lot more grown up and mature than a lot of kids around my age.

      I’m really quite glad to be living in the 21st century where we are now almost fully aware of all the dangers around radiation and building materials and generally keep safe from it. All things we’ve learned because of the poor bastards who ended up dying from the ill-affects.

  6. Fascinating stuff, Don. I saw a documentary on HBO maybe a year ago that interviewed a few of the survivors of Hiroshima, and then they went into the streets and interviewed Japanese teenagers, asking them “What important event happened on August 6th, 1945?” and it was astonishing how many of them had no idea.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Sad, but I’m not surprised. I suppose they knew there had been a bomb, though. I hope so.

      I used to deliver a couple of lectures about warfare as a great natural experiment involving human adaptation to stress: heat, cold, fear, disease, hunger, thirst, etc., because these things couldn’t be controlled and armies by their nature put huge numbers of men in trying conditions — situations that would be unethical to set up in experiments.

      And I would ask, As for the US Army, who can say why the armed forces, as a population, were very different for the Korean conflict and after, compared to World War II?

      I don’t think anybody ever got it, even when I said, “Something Truman did?”

      The answer, of course, is that Truman desegregated the armed forces, thus giving everybody an equal chance to be under awful conditions.

  7. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    Excellent write-up Don. What I find most disturbing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the use of nuclear materials, is the after effects — the rate of cancer in survivors and their children, specifically leukemia. I was recently reading an article in Science Magazine by Niel Wald on the topic, “Leukemia in Hiroshima City Atomic Bomb Survivors,” and I couldn’t help but be reminded of that when I read this piece of yours.

    My dad died from leukemia last year at age 59. (Ten years before that, he was diagnosed with a rare colorectal cancer) His case is currently under review by the government’s EEOIC Program. I never knew what he did for a living but I do know that it involved nuclear handling but that’s it. I didn’t even learn that through my dad. He was always mum on this subject. His former employer and many other companies connected to the Department of Energy (DOE), by the grace of God and legislation, are now finally addressing nuclear contamination in their employees since so many have died from rare cancers over the years.

    There’s no doubt in my mind my dad’s cancer(s) were a result of nuclear contamination. Really, there’s no telling what the genes in my body and in my sister’s body look like. I’m built from my dad’s chromosones. So is my sister. And my dad, scary enough, had part of his DNA break away in the final stage of his life. He literally lost chromosones. They just died. Other chromosones started switching around. That is scary.

    The same thing is happening to the generations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s children.

    Thank you for writing on this.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your father, Jeffrey. What happened to him was all too common. Let’s hope that it becomes increasingly rare.

      It’s just wrong when people aren’t given the information they need, so they can either accept the risk, or reject it.

      I’m willing to cut people in the forties and into the fifties some slack. But it sounds as though your Dad’s exposure was historically recent enough so that ignorance can’t be used as an excuse. If his employer didn’t know the risks, or didn’t reveal them — either way, they behaved badly.

      It’s true that you’re built from your Dad’s chromosomes (and from your Mom’s) but if the exposure that damaged his chromosomes either happened after you were conceived, or happened only in his non-reproductive cells, then it shouldn’t affect you. The damage could have been too late or in the wrong place, to put it crudely.

      But I’m sure you know that already.

  8. Matt says:

    Wow, this is heavy. And not at all the post I thought it would be from reading the title.

    What a think to see, that explosion. I’m having a great deal of difficulty trying to wrap my brain around it…though less, I imagine, than you seem to be struggling with in this piece.

    Nuclear power and radiation make me…uncomfortable. I’m just old enough to remember when we had to do those “duck and cover” drills in elementary school, because somehow hiding under your desk would save you from a nuclear attack. I get that a nuclear power plant can be a great source of energy, and radiation treatments have their uses in medicine, but still…so much can go wrong there. New Zealand’s stance on the matter has always made sense to me.

    My grandfather was in the Navy during WWII. I’ve been told–but never verified–that he was supposed to be posted on the Indianapolis, but was reassigned elsewhere instead.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      It’s interesting that duck and cover was still going on when you were small. Somehow I thought that hadn’t lasted much beyond the fifties. In a sense, of course, any explosion is going to cause the same problems for people in buildings.

      I get that, and so do you. I think it’s that these days we understand it’s not only the blast from a nuclear explosion that’s dangerous. Duck and cover may save you from debris or a collapsing schoolroom, but (obviously) it doesn’t do dick for radiation, and when you emerge from your duck and cover and there’s not a whole lot of your city remaining . . . that’s another matter.

      • Gloria says:

        My elementary school in Artesia, New Mexico was all underground. It was built during the late 40s/early 50s as a fallout shelter. I went through 2nd through 5th grade without a single window.

      • Matt says:

        Yeah, we had the duck and cover drills. We had two different ones, actually: the duck/cover/grab for earthquakes and the duck/cover for nuclear strike. I don’t remember doing the latter after fifth grade, which would have been 1989.

        My fifth grade teacher, who was a Korean war vet, always used to talk about how futile the exercise was, and how if there was a nuclear strike he hoped to get caught up in the initial blast, as he didn’t want to survive to suffer in the aftermath. Cheery dude.

  9. Richard Cox says:

    Wow, Don. Just wow. This is an amazing piece for so many reasons. You have created something powerful and much greater than the sum of its assembled parts. Finding Ruth, not understanding the gravity of her father’s work, seeing the detonation of thermonuclear weapons, the careless handling of radioactive material (imagine that happening in today’s overprotective, litigious education culture!), etc.

    I identified a lot with your simultaneous fascination and guilt/sadness about nuclear weapons. I felt this way as a kid, when I first began to understand the cold war. I wrote many school reports about the Soviet Union and about thermonuclear weapons. I was fascinated with the devastating power of the weapons. I was eleven and at the time at first thought the United States was totally justified in using the devices to end the war. Of course, with age and reflection I realize the moral implications are not so black-and-white. Having been in a relationship with a woman whose family is from Japan, I’m more in touch with the many facets of the Pacific theater of WWII and how decisions implemented there affected families around the world.

    That being said, I think the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were justified in doing so. Albert Einstein signed his famous letters to FDR to encourage development of the weapons, and even though he later called the letters a great mistake, many people also believe it would have been a mistake to ignore the likelihood that another (and more hostile) country might develop the technology first. In the end, someone was going to do it, and I think Ruth’s father and any other scientist on the project should be proud of their work. There are no easy ways to look at this, of course, but in the context of the situation I believe it was a just project.

    I only wish today scientists could affect that sort of influence on political decisions, which seem far too often ill-informed, considering the vastly better understanding of the world today than even back then. Today we just as often line up on the right and left, on the religious and the secular, as we do behind the illumination of knowledge.

    It’s interesting that you posted this now, as in the past week I’ve ramped up my research for the EMP-related novel I mentioned to you before. Mine will be an event from space instead of nuclear-related, but nonetheless I’ve been reading many EMP test reports, some of which include data from those early tests.

    Thanks for this piece. Your best post ever, in my opinion.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Richard. I know you think very carefully about technical/moral issues, so I’m really happy that you liked this posting.

      Ruth says that although her father had little to say about his bomb work, she knows he thought it was necessary. I read an interesting Manhattan Project book lately: “Racing for the Bomb,” by Robert Norris, which focuses on General Groves. Groves — now there’s a strange and fascinating man.

      And then there’s John Adams’ opera, “Doctor Atomic,” which is amazing. I’ve only seen the DVD version. In one scene, Oppenheimer stands next to the Gadget and recites Donne — “Batter my heart, three-person’d God. . . ” It’s astonishing. As an opera — I’m not so sure. As an experience — it’s overwhelming.

      As for EMP, I was remembering when a Soviet defector flew his MIG to Korea or Japan. I don’t remember which MIG model it was, but it was one of the (then) latest. What got out to the media, and thus to me, was disdain, even contempt that the MIG’s electronics were tube-based. How archaic! Is that the best they can do?

      But the careful thinkers eventually pointed out that the MIGs were therefore much better prepared to withstand EMP, than the “advanced” US aircraft with their solid-state electronics, were.

      Finally, you may know that Nature always has a fictional piece, usually set in the future, on their back page. A recent one had to do with a gamma ray burst that originated close to Earth, and instantly took out everything on the side of Earth that was facing the GRB. If you haven’t seen it, I’m sure it will interest you. I think I still have it around, so if you don’t know about it, I’ll try to get you the reference.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Richard, it’s Nature Vol 465 10 June 2010, p. 836.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Thanks for pointing me to that story. I read it and it made me realize I never thought about the effect of the moon or the sun. I need to make sure I get the astronomy correct, because I don’t want that sort of effect in my novel.

          If I don’t get it right, some guy on Amazon will write a scathing review about how I know NOTHING about science and that I have absolutely NO credentials to write about the subject of an EMP, and for that matter he’s sorry I was ever born.

          It happens. Hahaha.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          You should think about writing something for Nature’s Futures page. I often do, but so far I haven’t come up with anything that might work there.

          So far as I know, anyone can play. The editors like it or they don’t. I’d say that half to two-thirds of the contributors list some academic affiliation, but the others — all over the place. There was one by a teenager.

          It would be a nice addition to your resume. You could say, “Oh, yeah, well I did a couple of novels, some other stuff. And then there was that piece in Nature.”

  10. Gloria says:

    I really appreciate your insightful description of the way kids understand things like irony even when they don’t know the word for it. Back when these academic ideas were in their purer, more gut-feeling phase.

    Holy cow, this is a gripping, fascinating story. It wasn’t just Ruth’s father, of course, that created The Bomb – it was many people, over many years, each adding a piece here and there. We are all complicit maybe. I don’t know. That’s too deep for a Tuesday morning.

    But wow, just fascinating.

    I’m from Roswell, but much of my kinfolk are from (and still live in) Alamogordo. So, in addition to growing up learning that aliens walk amongst us, I was also acutely aware of The Bomb. This was also during the Reagan 80s, so maybe there’s that, too.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Kids understand a lot that they don’t have words for. But having read your postings, I know you know that.

      Yes, Roswell. I like it out there, actually. Maybe a little bit dry for me, but very beautiful.

      Ordinary people can still get near where the Gadget went off, can’t they? I remember going somewhere near it, in the early fifties, and picking up fused sand. But I think the actual site was still too radioactive.

      I can see how living near a famous and terrible place would have an effect.

  11. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Remarkable piece, Don.

    Most humans can’t avoid observing the horrible. There’s a tremendous terror-beauty in a mushroom cloud. Behind it, the innovation of human beings who could make that happen. Incredible. Whatever compels a person to watch something like that must be similar to what compels someone to watch a tornado or the approach of a hurricane. Wonder, maybe? (There’s a disturbing part in the book HUMANITY: A MORAL HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY in which the author accounts witness reports of soldiers stacking corpses and the expressions on their faces. They smiled. More of the same…)

    And then there’s the juxtaposition of Ruth’s father. A quiet, intelligent man. As others have mentioned, I love the ending of your essay, too. It brings up the duality I imagine he had to contend with–to be creatively brilliant enough to do what he did and to see it used for the purpose of ending life.

    Recently, a friend’s teenage son posted something on Facebook about the BP oil leak and predictions about a pending mass extinction of all life. I remembered my own feelings of fear of a nuclear war in my lifetime—but then I was furious on his behalf. That his generation, too, lives with worry of extinction, from yet another series of human decisions. Complicated creatures, we humans.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Ronlyn. I’m sorry I didn’t comment on your poem, so I’ll say here that it affected me. I think it’s difficult to write about situations like that.

      I think it is wonder, and curiosity. What’s going to happen? How powerful are these forces, anyway? I know that the time I got in the way of the tsunami — less than two years after the Orange shot — I felt a kind of compulsion to be there where the action was, to see what this thing could do. Fortunately, I survived.

      It’s a great pity that I had only the one weekend with Ruth’s father. I wish that I’d known him better. He had an extraordinarily rough life up to the time he hit UCLA, and yet he did wonderful things. It’s not my story to tell; someday I think Ruth will write about it.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        No worries. I appreciate that you read it. Sometimes, I wish there were a little checkbox on the comment pages so we readers could note appreciation. Although in many cases, “like” seems a bit understated.

        In a recent hurricane, our neighbor stood on his porch as the worst of the storm was coming through. He watched a tornado-like wind rip through the trees east of us, moving due west–right next to our house. Only after he got cut by flying debris did he go inside. But he had a good story to tell later.

        I hope Ruth does write about her father!

  12. Damn–powerful story, so interesting. And yet, I have nothing but horror for the fact that “The Bomb” exists. It scares the hell out of me. I would never watch one explode; I would be hiding somewhere, I am sure. But maybe I say that mostly because I know about the health effects of radiation…I am so virulently anti-nuke, it’s not even funny. (This comes from being a news reporter and interviewing countless scientists who were studying baby teeth…they noted that almost everyone’s baby teeth seem to be contaminated with radioactive materials, which lets us know how polluted our world is, at least in the Long Island area, with nuclear waste).

    When I was a little kid in the 70s and 80s, I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so worried about nuclear war.

    Nothing freaks me out more.

    Were you so complacent because no one knew any better then? How were the massive death tolls explained to kids in the 40s and 50s? As “worth it?”

    I was so sad the other night thinking about all the innocent Japanese people who died when Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped.

    Did the radiation seep over to Hawaii? Does anyone know?

    Sorry to bug you with questions. I hate nuclear weapons so, so much. Anything nuclear terrifies me…



    • Don Mitchell says:

      I’m glad you found it interesting, Elizabeth.

      It’s amazing (and horrifying) what works its way into our bodies, whether we take care of them or not. I do think that the careless disposal of radioactive materials was one of the great crimes of the 20th century. Near Buffalo, Union Carbide drilled wells down into the water table and then pumped their radioactive waste into them.

      I’m not sure that we were complacent, really. Many people were frightened, in Hawai’i perhaps more than many other places. If nuclear war broke out, then obviously Pearl Harbor would be an attractive military target. Even now, one has to worry about the North Korean missiles that could reach Hawai’i, making it once again an attractive target.

      Basically I got the “worth it” explanation, to the extent that I got anything at all. Even so, I was encouraged to read Hersey’s book by my parents, who were at heart conservatives. They didn’t try to tidy it up. They went for the “it’s what it took to end the war” explanation.

      No radiation from Hiroshima and Nagasaki made its way to Hawai’i, and the Teak and Orange shots were far enough away (and in low space) that no radiation from them made it to the islands, either. The Teak missile malfunctioned and the warhead detonated directly over Johnston Island, rather than down range. It was high enough so that radiation wasn’t an issue, but some people had eye damage, as did the rabbits that were put out both on the island and on ships.

      But even as teenager I felt as though we’d been used as guinea pigs. No, not literally true. But where else in the country would anybody just toss a warhead up high and detonate it just to see what would happen to the electronics on the ground? California? New York? No, but Hawai’i has always been treated as if it were the military’s playground — the Navy, especially. They are better now than they were, but not as much as I wish.

  13. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Reading your piece makes me wonder, selfishly, what ginormous atrocity we are committing right now, to ourselves. “They were careless” “excited” and of course it was new technology. So what will people say in 50 years? I scrambled my brain with my iPhone? I didn’t know that the proximity to my iMac could cause blindness and Alzheimers?

    beautiful piece. Scary.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I think we’re committing many of them. What’s required are ways to judge which are likely to be harmful down the road. And of course that’s a difficult task under the best conditions, and near-impossible under current ones. Nobody want to know. Nobody wants anybody to know.

      I do think that by now we’d be seeing strong hint of bad phone-related stuff, if they were really bad, rather than something we ought to be careful about using. I’m not giving them a pass, though.

      These days, it seems to me, the public’s looking for simple answers and there are a lot of people and entities all ready to give them those simple answers, some of which are lies. Nobody has the patience for difficult work and ambiguous answers. Not many people appear to understand probability and the nature of risk and to even have any concept of trying to minimize risks and consequences of actions over periods longer than a few years.

      I used to tell my students that if I were the boss, I’d make every college student take basic introductions to epidemiology, demography, statistics, and archaeology — the latter only because through archaeology you see some seriously long-term changes and you get used to thinking in terms of centuries and millennia, not next quarter or next election.

      In those early nuclear days, though, even careful workers didn’t know exactly what was going on. We don’t want to take our current amazing knowledge of DNA and molecular biology in general and act as if those early folks knew it. They didn’t. They had to know that ionizing radiation was something you had to be careful with, but they didn’t know all that much about what, precisely, it did. Sure, people like Muller shot xrays at fruit flies and saw that the mutation rate increased. But as for the more subtle things — they didn’t know yet.

      It wasn’t until the early 50s that DNA was conclusively shown to the the carrier of hereditary information, for example, and when I took Genetics 1 in college, about 1962 or so, the professor said, “We don’t know for sure how many chromosomes human beings have . . . it’s either 46 or 48.”

      Now days there’s no excuse at all. Then, yeah, because of what people didn’t know.

      You want to be careful with that iMac. Apple doesn’t tell you that your screen uses the dangerous “twisted nematic” technology. You can tell by its name that it’s dangerous. Believe me, you don’t want it to reach out and twist your nematic. I can sell you this invisible iMac shield ($89.99) that protects you from the harmful iMac emissions that can make you go blind, and a specially-crafted headband ($39.99) that keeps the iMac from tangling the proteins in your brain. For you, Stefan, both for $119.99. And I’ll toss in the five D-cells you need to power the headband.

  14. Irene Zion says:

    Fascinating, Don.
    Very few people at this point know the minutiae of these horrible events that ended World War II.
    Isn’t it interesting that you are one of them?

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I’m glad I’ve learned some of this stuff, but I wish I knew more about it. Even so, at this time in my life I’m not going to reboot myself and start doing WWII and early nuke history.

      I do think that accounts of everyday life are important, and mine is only one among many. Professional histories, official histories, they all have their place. But I think we need to know how the big events and themes worked their ways into family life, for example.

      As the people who were directly involved die off, their personal stories die off with them, and we’re left with more or less sanitized versions. Less sanitized, we hope, but there’s no way to know.

  15. Greg Olear says:

    Fantastic, Don…well-told, and fascinating.

    There’s a line in The Kindly Ones, which I’ve packed or I’d find the exact quote, along the lines of, “If you have never been in the position where you have to watch your children get killed, or worse, kill the children of others, than consider yourself grateful, thank God, and do not judge.”

    Ruth’s father, in his notable way, was a soldier like the others…he did what they asked him to do, he lived with the consequences, and his life was (probably) cut short by the war. The difference is, there are plenty of positive benefits of his discoveries. I don’t think it was necessary to drop those bombs to win the war — it was already won — but who’s to say that doing so didn’t cut the duration shorter and save more lives, ultimately, than it took? A grisly kind of arithmetic, to be sure, but that’s what the leaders were contemplating at that time.

    I am also reminded of another Oppenheimer quote, which always struck me as incredibly sad, and laden with guilt: “The optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist knows it.”

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Greg.

      “Which I’ve packed” implies the obvious — when’s the big move going to happen?

      I like that line from The Kindly Ones that you quote. I’ve often thought that Americans would think more carefully about armed conflict if it hadn’t been centuries since we were invaded by anybody, and more than a century since the Civil War. When where you live is the battleground, you begin to think differently. I don’t wish that on us, of course.

      I’m sure that Ruth father was excited by the task he was asked to do — find a way to make large quantities of a dangerous, poorly-understood substance that had only ever been made in extremely small quantities, and do it quickly. And it seems as though the engineering for the weapon was proceeding on the assumption that he would succeed.

      Oppenheimer’s story is a fascinating one, and it’s an instructive one. I think in the US there’s this unspoken assumption that scientists are supposed to be uncomplicated Eagle Scouts, and when they’re not, there’s trouble. But that’s nuts. Why shouldn’t they be as fucked up as the rest of us?

  16. Extremely timely and well-written piece, Don. As a teenager in South Jersey I lived right by a nuclear power plant. Could see it out my bedroom window in fact. So nuclear energy (read as nuclear destruction) is something that’s haunted me for years. I recently saw the wonderful documentary, Countdown to Zero. That Oppenheimer line you mentioned was in it– “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I’d never heard it before. But when I did it chilled me to the bone. Here’s to peace, my friend.

  17. Joe Daly says:

    Wow, Don- you’ve done it again. Weaving together history, science, and your own fascinating personal experiences together, you’ve given size and heart to something I generally view as remote and cold. What an exciting time to have been alive, and thankfully your recall and experiences are vivid enough to bring them back to life.

    I love your prose because you render science accessible to me- a perennial C and D student in all courses scientific. And you tell the shit out of a love story. Even when it is safely snuggled in mass destruction. Something to think about while I put a few miles on the shoes today. Good stuff, Don.

  18. Don Mitchell says:

    Thank you, Joe. I do my best to weave things together, and sometimes it works. And I do my best to make what I know accessible, and that also sometimes works. I never meant to snuggle a love story in mass destruction, but I guess I did. I’m glad you pointed that out.

    Hope your run goes well.

  19. Erika Rae says:

    Sorry I’m slow to comment on this – when I finished reading, I passed it over to my husband, who loved this, too. We lived right next to the Hanford site for a year or so – I’ve been fascinated by what the weight of this would do to people who helped make the bombs possible. The imagery of Ruth’s father with his ear pressed up against the speakers…wow. Heavy piece and beautifully told.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I’m glad you and your husband liked it. I can imagine that living next to Hanford would make you think about what went on there (not to mention how it needs cleaning up). And I suppose you must occasionally find yourself near Rocky Flats, which would be cause for a thought or two.

      It’s an odd thing to say, but I think mine pairs interestingly with your Prana in the Sauna piece. How to behave in a world made dangerous not just by evil, but by carelessness? We made fun of your sauna yoga dude, and he deserved it, but his version of “cultivate your own garden” I think is defensible. It’s not for me, but if he had a brain to go with that body, he might be able to defend it.

  20. Ruth Thompson says:

    Hello everyone — I’m Don’s partner Ruth. Here’s the poem about my father.

    The fact is, we never talked about his involvement in the Manhattan Project, and I regret that now. I believe he felt the bombs were necessary; certainly he felt so at the time, though he later had many students and friends from Japan, and visited them, and must have seen the consequences and may well have changed his mind.

    He had grown up (in Watts, multicultural and poor back then) with kids from Japanese-American families who were interned during the war, losing their farms and all their possessions, and I know he thought that had been a terrible injustice. But he was not ever forthcoming about his feelings, and by the time I was in my teens he was almost totally deaf.

    He was 64 when he died, younger than I am now, and yes, it seems pretty clear that exposure to radiation was the ultimate cause — not during the Manhattan Project but later at UC Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory. But I also know that he loved his work; it was completely absorbing and exciting to him, to be always at the edge of the unknown, imagining how it might work and creating experiments to find out. A colleague said of him that he had the intuitive “feel” for it.

    But to me the key things about my father are the profound sadness that lay within, yet how unconditionally he loved us, how much he enjoyed being outside in nature, the wonderful stories he made up when we were little, how generously he always listened to me (as long as he could hear, and even after, leaning forward and reading my lips), and how he taught me, not by words but by the way he himself worked, that doing science can be like making a poem — not dry and abstract, but deeply creative.

    My Father’s Silence

    Sometimes my father sang to himself
    about dusk on the prairie and the slow murmur of cattle,
    about rolling unshaven off a long-snaking train of flatbeds
    with nothing but a tin can and a whistle.

    Then he was deaf. I thought him happy enough.
    He had his work; I thought his deafness
    bought him peace. Yet he took to dying
    as sea grass takes to salt.

    Sometimes I see his shadow
    when darkness shoulders up against the glass.
    He weighs the music in each hand, turns
    the volume up as high as it will go.

    Then as the house rides out into the night
    on seas and breakers of Beethoven
    he sits there hard against the speakers,
    head cocked, eyes closed. Listening.

  21. […] has seen things most people have not: thermonuclear explosions, tsunami waves (albeit only once), women working molten metal, the transit of Venus, and founding […]

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