1. Johnny and Oak Ridge
“Invisible and irrelevant”—that’s what Johnny said we old people are. You have to have lived among other people before you can say something like that. I have lived alone most of my life, back in the hollow with trees, leaves, birds, stream, sky, and seasons, so I don’t quite understand.
Too bad he thinks that way because he’s only 72. I remember when he was born down in Oak Ridge in ’44. I was a 15-year-old truck driver, and in that busy, crowded, secret Tennessee city, tens of thousands of us were working invisibly on a “project” about which we were told nothing. On 6 August, 1945 it became visible and relevant. It was something new called “the atomic bomb.”
“Invisible and irrelevant,” Johnny repeated, “just like The Bomb. Nobody much worries or cares about nuclear holocaust or World War III the way we used to. My grandson Zeke knows about it because I’ve taught him, but his friends don’t even know what a nuclear warhead is. Maybe something in a video game.”
I have known Johnny since he was a child. Ever since the Cold War ‘ended,’ he has seemed nostalgic for the fifties and sixties, so I was not surprised when he showed up at my cabin and said, “Uncle Burly, let’s go to Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School Class and stop on the way back at Oak Ridge.”
We drove down to Plains, Georgia, from southern West Virginia and arrived at the parking lot of the Maranatha Baptist Church at three in the morning—which put us first in line and, later, in the front pew. Jimmy Carter walked back and forth right in front of us. I had to pull my feet back because I was afraid I might trip him.
He talked about free will, how we all had the choice to be whatever we wanted to be. That was a gift from God.
The church was packed. President Carter is older than I and recovering from brain cancer, but there was nothing wrong with his brain or his free will. He was anything but invisible and irrelevant.
“Good God,” Johnny said, as we headed north afterwards, “He just told us to decide our futures for ourselves. As a nuclear engineer and a former Commander-in-Chief of our nuclear arsenal, he must know better than anyone all of the possibilities for nuclear holocaust. He is a man of great faith.”
We came to Oak Ridge, the town which had produced the uranium-235 for the Hiroshima bomb. Johnny had read that K-25 was being demolished—the mile-long plant Johnny had always called “Mitch’s plant.” His dad Mitch had told him the old stories over and over.
K-25 had employed 2500 workers on four shifts. Mitch had headed up the shift organization. He and the Colonel had hired me as a truck driver in 1944, and my duties had taken me into the massive plant. I wanted to see it again. They could not be demolishing it. That plant and Mitch and my two trips out to New Mexico in 1945 had been the high points of my life. I, too, was nostalgic.
Oak Ridge was anything but a trip down Memory Lane. The scores of acres where K-25 had been were occupied with other buildings. The town looked like a place I had never seen before. The sprawling women’s dormitory where I had gone to see Tessa was gone, replaced by houses and shopping centers. The house up on the hill where Johnny had spent his first years was unrecognizable.
“My Dad, Mom, two sisters, the pre-fab Army hospital where I was born—all gone,” Johnny said as we headed north out of Oak Ridge. “All obliterated—as if our lives and all of Dad’s stories never happened. I’m sorry, Burly. Big mistake to go there. Big mistake. I wonder how many people in that town today know what happened there in the forties. My Dad just about worked himself to death in that plant. All gone and forgotten.”
We rode in silence. I had wanted to stop at Norris Dam and sit on the concrete bench with rounded corners at the end of the dam where Tessa and I had sat, where I had fallen in love over seventy years ago, but after seeing Oak Ridge, I figured there would be no trace of it. I did not mention it.
I did not tell Johnny that Oak Ridge had been the immutable theme of my consciousness for seven decades. Had it really existed? Had all of that work, and maybe The Bomb itself, become “invisible and irrelevant?” Johnny and I knew better. Maybe nobody feared The Bomb anymore, but Johnny and I did.
Johnny finally broke the silence.
“Nope, not gone—just invisible and ‘slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.’”
2. Shoshanna and the Library
I first met Shoshanna at the Dewey Decimal 940s in the South Charleston Library. I said “excuse me” and leaned over her to reach up and pull down Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial. When she saw the book, her face lit up.
A foot from me, she said, “A dark, hidden, propagandized chapter in American history.”
I was about to say, “I know a little about it,” but the intensity of her gaze and the tautness of her face captivated me. We both held wooden canes. We were both equally old—late eighties or so—and, I was thinking, we might be equally interested in one another.
“In that book’s ‘Introduction,’” she said, “Lifton and Mitchell quote Manhattan Project physicist Ralph Lapp: ‘Hiroshima has been taken out of the American conscience, eviscerated, extirpated.’”
Not for me. It had never left my conscience for a minute since 1945.
“At least now we have some books about it. Nonfiction, that is. But fiction? Almost nothing. I know a man who has written five novels about Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The uranium-235 for the Hiroshima bomb came from Oak Ridge. But could my friend get his books published? He queried over a hundred agents and publishers, and exactly none of them would read a word. ‘Eviscerated,’ rejected.”
Was she talking about Johnny? I knew he had written several novels about Oak Ridge. He had used Mitch’s stories, interviewed his mom, taken notes from me. In fact, he had made me one of the main characters in three of his novels. He had also shared with me many “declassified” details he had researched on the building of Oak Ridge and the devastation of humans in Hiroshima.
“Dozens of novels churned out every year for Civil War buffs. Obsession with our glorious national insanity! What about us Hiroshima buffs? No novels about the Manhattan Project or Hiroshima, and yet The Bomb lives on—subconsciously wished and willed away. The bodies in Bloody Lane are glorious, Hiroshima is not.”
She was a talker, maybe a ranter. I was not a buff. I was a participant. The delivery of “product” from K-25 in Oak Ridge to Hiroshima via Las Alamos and Tinian covered about 9,000 miles. Without knowing what I was doing, I had handled the first 1,200 of those miles. Nobody knew about my delivery except Mitch, and later Johnny. This woman might want to hear my story, but after she talked nonstop for fifteen minutes, I made my exit and decided maybe I was wrong about her. Maybe I had lived alone in the woods too long.
3. The 355.0217 Group
When I told Johnny about the woman I had met, he said, “That’s Shoshanna. She can be just as obsessed as I am, but not all the time. Sometimes she’s a darned good listener. Her husband was an atomic soldier, one of those out at the Nevada Test Site in the ‘50s who advanced on ground zero after an atom bomb test. He died of leukemia back in the ‘60s. Sho and I have talked many times at 355.0217—that’s where the World War III books are. Her mind is sharp, and she can go on and on about how everybody ignores the almost 30,000 nuclear weapons spread around the globe. ‘Wishing them away will not disarm them,’ I’ve heard a few times. There’s Sho, Jeff, and me at 355.0217. Maybe you can join us. I guess we’re a makeshift therapy group. Jeff is our resident manic-depressive who specializes in seven decades of nuclear-war near-misses and in details of World War III horrors and environmental effects. You think I can ‘get on a roll?’ I’m a lightweight compared to those two.”
4. Sho at 355.0217
I rode in with Johnny to meet the group at 355.0217.
As Sho and I approached each other in the library, lurching and hobbling on our canes, she tossed her head and smiled at me.
“Just a pair of what they used to call cripples,” she said. “Good, old-fashioned cripples.”
“My nickname was ‘Crip’ in school until our teacher renamed me ‘Burly.’”
“You’ve been crippled since birth?”
I liked her directness.
“No, we lived on a dirt farm not far from where K-25 went in, and when I was two-and-a-half, our woodpile fell over and crushed my legs. My parents didn’t believe in doctors or couldn’t afford one, so my legs healed crooked.”
“Today they would fix you right up. Mine’s just arthritis. Johnny’s told me you worked at K-25 for his dad Mitch, but never said what you did.”
“Truck driver. After the government took our cabin and land for the Oak Ridge Reservation, I started driving a truck. Legs were not a problem there. I was fifteen. They needed drivers. A lot of the men were either in the war or dead. I drove long routes, discovered I could go all night, and then that I could go for two all-nighters in a row. I picked up components from all over the East Coast and the Midwest and brought them to K-25. Everybody was in a big hurry, under great stress.”
“In June of 1945...” I stopped. She was listening intently. I was about to divulge classified details.
Jeff had not shown up, and Johnny was nearby, scanning shelves. “Go ahead, Uncle Burly. She’s all right.”
I looked at Johnny. Sho nodded gently toward me. “My husband was killed by an atomic bomb,” she said. “Please continue.”
“June 1945, I drove sixty-one-and-a-half straight hours through four packs of Camels and delivered four canisters of uranium-235 to Las Alamos, New Mexico, on its journey from Oak Ridge to Hiroshima. At the time, I didn’t know what I was transporting. Years later, I realized that as I drove through two nights without sleep, the children of Hiroshima were asleep in their beds. Or were they on mats? It doesn’t matter because when my cargo reached its final destination, it made sleep and waking disappear into nothingness for those children.”
I did not tell Sho that during my long drive I had played over and over my brief times with Tessa just before I had left. Tessa had turned back from the others to walk with ‘Crip’ across Norris Dam. We had sat on the concrete bench with rounded corners at the end of the dam. That evening she had poured me full of elderberry wine and taken me upstairs during the party at the farmhouse. The only time my twisted legs have so entwined.
Now, after seventy-plus years, I was talking with a woman again. She was paying attention, listening to me.
“They used you, and you took on a guilt you shouldn’t own. Why feel guilty when they hadn’t told you what you were doing? The same forces did that to my husband in Nevada during the fifties. He paid for it with lingering pain and a slow death. You’ve paid, too, haven’t you?”
I had never thought of it that way.
She put her arms around me and hugged me for a long time. Even Tessa had never hugged me.
5. At Sho’s Place
Sho asked me to come to her house for lunch. She said she lived in Davis Creek, just two houses up from where the old Nazarene Church had been. She told Johnny to show me where it was. I told her I had walked past her place, one of the smallest houses I had ever seen, when I used to go in to Cleaver’s little grocery store when it was there. She said she thought she remembered seeing me in there in the sixties or seventies with my cane.
I remembered her. Long, strawberry-blond hair and cotton dresses. In those days I was very worried that the FBI or the Army was still looking for me, and I worked to be invisible. No woman ever paid any attention to ‘Crip’ anyway.
As we headed out Davis Creek road, Johnny was complaining about how Jeff had once gone on and on about something he’d read in “Rosenbaum”—the moral question of what an Israeli submarine commander in the Persian Gulf should or would do with his nuclear missiles if he received a communication that his “one-warhead” little country had been struck by a missile from Iran. Should he launch and kill millions in Iran, or spare them? With his country and his people gone, what meaning would retribution have?
As Johnny pointed out Sho’s place to me, he said, “She likes you, Uncle Burly. I think you should make your move. Time could be short. Remember, we all believe that ‘The End is Near.’”
“Make my move? I don’t know what that is.”
“I know you’ve been out in the woods since the war, but surely you…What about that Tessa you told me about, at that party with the elderberry wine? You got her to go upstairs with you.”
“She led me up. Make my move? Can you help me out with that?”
“Not much to tell. I saw you and Sho hugging in the library—big step in the right direction.”
“She hugged me.”
“Just show up and see what happens. You’re both unattached, consenting adults. Be yourself.”
What was he talking about?
I showed up. Soup and sandwiches. Sho wanted details about my Las Alamos trip.
“In 1945,” I told her, “Mitch’s 2500 K-25 shift workers did not know what their plant was producing. Mitch knew. In ’45 he hired me to drive a mechanically-rebuilt but beat-up, rusted-out, 1932 Chevy panel truck with Arkansas plates to Las Alamos. The idea was that it would look like some kid in an old clunker of a truck. My cargo was ‘critical to the war effort.’ That’s all I knew. The Colonel had told me ‘under no circumstances allow your truck to fall into enemy hands or anybody’s hands.’ Mitch told me to ‘scuttle it’ the way the Germans had the Graf Spee.”
“In 1947 Mitch showed me his 9 August 1945 Oak Ridge Journal. The headline read “Oak Ridge Bombs Japanese.” I asked him if my cargo had been the stuff used in the Hiroshima bomb. He answered, ‘I cannot answer that, Burly.’”
“Question answered. Years later, after some reading, I figured out that I had been a part of the delivery chain along with the U. S. S. Indianapolis and the Enola Gay. I have clung as desperately as those crews and all Oak Ridgers to what came to be called the ‘official narrative’: the atomic bombs were responsible for ending the war and saving thousands of American lives which would have been lost in the invasion of Japan. It was intended to provide justification.”
“One time Mitch proudly showed me a framed document signed by Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War: ‘This is to certify that Mitchell Menzies has participated in work essential to the production of the Atomic Bomb, thereby contributing to the successful conclusion of World War II.’ I did not receive a certificate.”
“Stop,” Sho said. “Since the sixties we have learned another story. The Japanese surrendered primarily because Russia had invaded Japanese-held Manchuria. In addition, by August ‘45, over sixty Japanese cities had been burned to the ground by incendiary bombing. Hiroshima was just one more. The military leaders did not care about the cities—the people ‘would gradually get used to being bombed daily,’ and it would strengthen their resolve. For the Emperor the war had been a series of mistakes. The military was exhausted. The bomb was a handy justification to surrender, to save face. They could even cast themselves as victims of a horrific weapon. One leader called the bomb ‘a gift from the gods’ in preventing the military from bringing shame on themselves. These details were kept hidden for decades.”
I said, “In ‘73 Johnny had me read John Hersey’s Hiroshima and then took me down to the Presbyterian Church to see Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the first release of Japanese footage. I began to question the official narrative. Burnt bodies, shadows on pavement of persons vaporized, clothing patterns burnt into the skin, children.”
“I saw that film. Unforgettable,” Sho said. “I had read Hersey in ‘47. Yes, the official narrative circumvented the horror. Its purpose was to establish us as honorable, patriotic victors, not war criminals. Hersey was forgotten. Hiroshima was too ugly to acknowledge.”
“I passed Hersey to Mitch,” I said. “A week later he said, ‘Doesn’t bother me. Think about those men still inside those ships at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. I hope it doesn’t bother you. We were all just doing our jobs.’ How many sins has that statement covered? Auschwitz guards were just doing their jobs. I was doing mine for the sleeping children of Hiroshima.”
I fell silent. I had not talked for seventy years, and now I had said this. My “job” would never go away any more than would The Bomb.
Sho reached across her little table and put her hand on my arm.
“O. K.,” she said. “You did not choose to do it. Do you get that?”
She smiled and nodded at me. I had a strange sensation. I wanted to kiss her.
“Go on, Burly, tell me some Oak Ridge stories.”
Tessa came into my mind—the last woman I had kissed. Should I tell Sho about Tessa? Why not? I was, after all, talking about things I had done, but had not chosen to do.
“When I returned from Las Alamos to Oak Ridge, I went to the women’s dormitory to see Tessa. She was…well, Oak Ridge was a pretty wild town, and based on something that had happened at a party, I thought Tessa was my girlfriend. On my New Mexico trip, I had thought about nothing else but her. At the dorm, her best friend came down and met me: ‘Tessa and Emily quit K-25 and moved to D. C. Inverts, lesbians from the start. They got caught. They left before the FBI could come and take them out.’”
“I had not even known what a lesbian was, but I figured it out pretty quickly. Oak Ridge was full of secrets, and here was another. Tessa had acted out her own ‘official narrative’ with me, and it had been a big lie. For seven decades I have wished her away, out of my mind. She remains there, looming over me. I probably should not be telling you this.”
“It helps,” she said. “If you’ve never told anyone, now is the time. Never too late to heal a broken heart. I’ve had mine broken. By a hidden secret, as well. But please go on, Burly. Today is about you and Oak Ridge.”
I could not help remembering Johnny’s story of getting jilted. He was a freshman at WVU in October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis had everybody frantic that World War III was going to blow at any minute. He hitchhiked to West Liberty with an engagement ring for his girl, Mary. They went down to the pines by the lake, to make love, Johnny thought, “before the planet was destroyed.” Nothing happened—no love and no war. What did happen was that a week later he received a letter—“dating Hank, a wrestler”—on the same day Khrushchev backed down.
I asked Sho if she had heard Johnny’s story.
“A few times,” she said. “He still carries it with him. But you have more to tell.”
“There’s a reason I have been living in an obscure hollow since the war. It’s not just my cabin, it’s a hideout. Well, probably not any longer. I’m pretty sure I’m a cold case.”
“There was a second truck trip to New Mexico. Again, Tessa was on my mind, but differently this time. There was an escort car a quarter of a mile behind me with two MPs and a plant engineer. East of Clovis, New Mexico, I saw them stop to take a leak, and I drove on ahead, per usual. They always caught up. There was a route change, and I got confused or was thinking too hard about Tessa or something, and I took a turn I shouldn’t have. I didn’t realize I had gotten myself lost until I had driven forty miles across a barren stretch, again thinking too hard about Tessa and not checking my mirrors for the escort. I decided to plunge ahead, drive the remainder of the night, and get directions for Albuquerque in the morning. The road took me south and then west into mountains. I ran into thunderstorms, and at about 4:30 a. m., I knew I had to nap. At the top of one of the mountains, I pulled off onto an unpaved side road and drove out of sight of the main road. It was just beginning to get light.”
Sho was hanging on my every word. Nobody had ever listened so intently to me. It made me nervous, but it also made me feel like I mattered. I had never felt that.
“Just as I was dropping off, the whole world flashed the whitest white I have ever seen. Or I should say, there was nothing to see. I slapped my hands up over my eyes. I could see the bones of my hands, like an x-ray film. In a few seconds—I think—came this thunderous rumbling, like an earthquake and a tornado at the same time. When I finally dropped my hands and looked out, in this wide valley below me was...”
“A giant mushroom cloud of dark dust,” Sho said. She reached over and put her hand on my arm again, but this time she left it there. “You witnessed the Trinity Test, the first atomic bomb. You had no idea what it was. You were alone. You just had your orders. So you panicked, right?”
She knew her stuff.
“What did you think it was, a Japanese attack?”
Incredible. As if she had been sitting in the truck with me.
“I wish I could have been with you there instead of that Tessa haunting your thoughts.”
“I wish you had been, Sho.” I called her by her nickname for the first time. I put my hand on hers. My hand felt like it wasn’t mine. “You probably could have prevented me from doing the stupid thing I did.”
“Oh, I doubt if it was stupid. Tell me.”
Then we slowly withdrew our hands, smiled at one another.
“The white flash, the rumbling, the heat wave, the smoke churning up into the stratosphere—they had attacked Phoenix or Albuquerque with a death ray or a terror weapon like the Germans’ V-2. Their troops would be charging up the California beaches and rolling inland. They’d be in New Mexico soon, and I decided I’d better scuttle the truck in a hurry. I drove north, away from the explosion, on rutted, barely passable mountain roads. After maybe twenty slow miles, I found a deep ravine and ran the truck down into it, wedged it in there like a giant boulder. It was almost invisible—it looked like just another piece of the old mining equipment and vehicles that littered those mountains.”
“And you set out on those legs of yours in the desert mountains?”
“In two days, down out of the mountains, I found the ruins of an old Spanish mission, where there was a spring. I slept for two days among the trees surrounding the old walls. Then a car came up the dirt road and stopped in front of the mission. An old timer got out and lit a cigarette. When I walked out, he said, ‘You one of them monks?’”
“I asked him about the invasion. There was no invasion here, just the coming American invasion of Japan. I asked him about the big explosion. An ammunition dump had blown up, the Army said. I got a ride with him out to a main road and started hitching east. I intended to find an Army base or a police station, but then I thought, no, with my story, they’d think I was a lunatic.”
“So between the middle of July and the second week of August, I worked and hitched my way back toward Oak Ridge. I was AWOL, and the war was still on. I got off at Kingston, well outside the Oak Ridge fence and called Mitch.”
“’You’re in big trouble, boy,’ he said. He told me how to get to his brother’s place outside of South Charleston, West Virginia, where Mitch had been working in a chemical plant before coming to K-25. I was to stay in a cabin on their land until Mitch could figure something out. He never did. I am still in the cabin.”
“Mitch knew I was AWOL, knew my cargo, took a big risk hiding me out. In ’47 he moved back to South Charleston. He explained my situation to me. It was all still classified at that point, but he did tell me they were looking for me. Now you, Sho, are the only person alive who knows what happened to my truck. Even Johnny doesn’t know. Mitch told me never to tell anyone, ever. I’m sure Jeff would love to hear the story and add it to his list of nuclear scenarios: ‘Terrorists discover critical mass of World War II uranium-235 and detonate it in Los Angeles. 300,000 feared dead.’”
“So my guilt over the first load might be discardable, but not over the second. As far as I know, the truck is still out there.”
“You had to follow orders blindly, Burly,” Sho said firmly, “and as a result you have had to spend your whole life in hiding and in guilt.”
“I never thought of it that way. In fact, I’ve had a good life out in the woods.”
6. The Group
Each of us is obsessed with The Bomb. Each fills the void of uncertain waiting with some specialty of knowledge. It does no more good than a duck-and-cover drill or a fallout shelter, but as Sho quotes from a poem called “The Waste Land”: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
Jeff will gaze with beady eyes and say, “Rosenbaum asks, ‘Did we get through the Cold War because of the design of deterrence or just sheer luck?’ My dad was a gambler, but he taught me that luck runs out.”
Johnny knows nuclear devastation will come. When he was a boy in church, every time this one woman sang a solo, his dad would tell him, “I want Evelyn White to sing ‘How Great Thou Art’ at my funeral, just the second verse.” Johnny said his dad’s death always seemed to be the most far-off and improbable thing he could imagine, and then, as if in the blink of an eye, there he was in the family pew at the funeral, and Mrs. White was singing, ‘When through the woods and forest glades I wander / and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees…’ Unimaginable things could and did happen.
Johnny has told me about the fifties—duck and-cover drills in school, serving as a Boy Scout radio messenger during Civil Defense drills, helping his dad build and stock their basement fallout shelter, wondering what he would be doing when the sirens sounded. So far-off and improbable.
I might have an advantage over the others because I am ‘used to it.’ My mother was committed to ‘The End is Near’ thinking. Itinerant ‘preachers’ used to come around and call upon sinners to repent. They would prophesize the day and hour, usually the next day or two. Everyone would be scared to death. There would be several gatherings, and of course, the offering plate passed. People would give freely of what little they had. When the hour came, the preacher turned up missing. Mom never gave a single dime to a single one of them.
Mom never fretted. She quoted Jesus: “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”
On his beer benders at my cabin, Johnny will recite his list of post-nuclear no-things: “No memories. No art museums. No babies in cribs. No photographs of family on the mantle. No brushing teeth. No texting. No statues of war heroes. No new taxes. No Shakespeare. No Nora Roberts. No casualty numbers. No stepping on ants. No Stairway to Heaven. No Hotel California…”
Birds, the surviving dinosaurs, do not make his list.
Sho still has her place. I, mine. Each week I’ll spend a night at her place and she, one at mine. Each of us has free will.
We listen to the birds at the break of day. We figured out how they survived the meteor collision, the darkened atmosphere, the Triassic extinctions: they sing in each new day.
That’s how you do it.