On Splitting Atoms and a Burgundy Dress
An atom bomb. A blinding FLASH. A mushroom cloud. It’s not 1940’s Japan, nor is it a Hollywood movie.
It was America. It really happened. And thousands died.
It’s a conversation which I remember all too vividly, though so many years have passed since that day I hid behind the wood-paneled wall which stood as a silent sentry between our living room and kitchen. The conversation itself serves as the eternal memory of an unexpected punch to the solar-plexus, an ominous harbinger of demise, and ultimately of untimely, pitiful death. It was a day in 1965, early spring if my memory serves me correctly. Pain usually provides context, and yes, accuracy of time and place to events as they unfold.
The discouragingly bleak weather had abruptly turned sunny and mild after a solid week of relentless chilly rain. The glass window panes of our house, turned opaque and surreal by the ceaseless downpours, were once again transparent, providing a welcoming and beckoning view to the outside world. My older brother Andre and I had finally and gladly given up our weather-induced home exile to play with our plastic toy boats in the lake-like puddles that remained out on the corner of 8th and Glendon Street.
It was when the bright optimistic light of day had finally given way to the darkness of evening, my brother Andre and I back inside, that I heard my enormous, gentle, teddy-bear of a father, his throat-clearings and cough almost uncontrollable by that point, engaged in a phone conversation with his old army buddy, Ernest Goldberg. He whom I had met on the occasions when our family happily packed into our old Rambler Station Wagon, suitcases atop the roof-rack, setting out on the three-hour drive to York. Or when Ernie Goldberg, wife Rebecca, and daughter Leah were our welcomed weekend guests here in the small town of Wilkes-Barre, on the banks of the Susquehanna River.
And though I knew I had no business listening so stealthily and secretively to the talk of another, though I knew the stern tongue-lashing which awaited me if my eavesdropping was somehow discovered, I all-too-quickly became entranced, then mesmerized by the odd content of the conversation. The obligatory preliminaries were gotten out of the way much quicker than usual, far too fast; it should have been my clue, my inkling, that something more important was in store, that something could potentially be awry, askew. Our family, his family, my father’s new Dodge, Goldberg’s ’64 Corvette Sting Ray, fishing, and deer hunting, of course. Always deer hunting. It was when the conversation made an abrupt, 180-degree turn, and the talk turned to coughing, bloody phlegm, diarrhea, dizziness, and night-sweats, that I raised my small right hand, gently cupped it to my attentive ear, and with an almost unbearable sense of growing trepidation, listened more intently than I ever remembered listening to anything in my young life. And with the simple curious question which my unseen father uttered into the receiver, I began to wonder. And ponder for years to come. “Hey Ernie, you think it has anything to do with that fireworks display we went to see down in Nevada in fifty-eight?”
It was to be a decade later when I found my then deceased father’s diary on the top cabinet shelf in our old musty attic, and two decades later when, by chance, I read an article in USA Today by a lady named Melissa Atkins, from Concord, New Hampshire, that things finally began to make sense and meaning and understanding finally sprouted from the unbearable, which is tragedy.
“The day has dawned clearly as it usually does out here,” begins the child-like scribbly handwriting of a man, an intelligent worldly man, a man who prematurely abandoned school in the ninth grade to descend into a coal mine and support his chronically unemployed father and ailing mother. Until age seventeen, that is, when the irresistible lure of traveling the world in an Army uniform became more than he could bear. So I read on. And though his penmanship may be lacking, the eloquence of his words lends a picturesque living quality to his vivid descriptions and the inner workings of my imagination take over.
As we look down on our scene, we can see a rather lengthy convoy of military troop transport vehicles, all drab olive green, mostly 1952 G.M.C. 2.5-ton “Deuce” Model M135’s, which have been on the move for several hours now. The convoy is making its way to a very desolate and isolated, restricted military zone in the lower corner of Nevada. Its ultimate destination is the Nevada Proving Ground, an area approximately sixty miles from Las Vegas, where “exercises,” such as those which the troops will undergo today, have been taking place for most of the past decade.
In the back of one of the Deuces sit fourteen GI’s, many napping in their awkward upright positions, tired and bored from the monotony of this drive through the endless, barren desert. Others, including two soldiers, one black and one white, joke together, share a few smokes, and sip from their canteens, as the dry parched desert air, as well as the acrid dust kicked up by the wheels of the convoy, combine with the tobacco and fill their throats. The two, both residents of towns in Eastern Pennsylvania, joke and laugh, speaking about a myriad of subjects, family, cars, though their conversation is mainly focused on the fishing season which they are missing, as well as a running commentary on most of the trout, bass, sunnies, and catfish that each has ever caught. Although these two soldiers, Winthrop and Goldberg, both sergeants, don’t know each other before enlisting, the connection which they form during their service, particularly in these coming days, will create a bond which will last well beyond their time in the military.
The year is 1958. It is less than four short years since Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Roger Kyes, announces that the last racially divided units in the United States military have been desegregated, ultimately allowing this bond of friendship to be formed.
It is 9:17 A.M. (D-Minus 43 minutes)
Two days have passed along with endless Kools and Kents, smoked as the troops have been bivouacking in the Nevada desert, close to Camp Desert Rock. Although the days are hot, the October nights have been frigid. For this particular exercise, code-named “Operation Heavy-Hitter,” equipment is light; no protection is deemed necessary, as the Department of Defense considers these tests to be safe.
9:36 A.M. (D-Minus 24 minutes)
The Troops, over nine-hundred in total, including Winthrop and Goldberg, undergo one final briefing by commanders. The two friends, like many of those around them, are shivering, though the source of this shaking has nothing to do with the cold; the warmth of the morning sun has already begun to permeate and heat the desert floor. It is shaking brought on by the apprehension and dread of what the next few hours have in store. The soldiers and Marines who are present stand less than three miles from the source of this test, designed to assess “psychological effects” on American military personnel. In the past, the distance has been up to five miles; however, those in charge, those sitting in their fancy dress uniforms in comfortable, air-conditioned offices in the Pentagon thousands of miles away, have decided to radically decrease this distance, apparently deeming it safe to do so.
9:41 A.M. (D-Minus 19 minutes)
Cocktails are being drunk. Champagne is being poured. There is a celebratory mood. Many are singing and dancing. The atmosphere is festive and those present are reveling, waiting in great anticipation for the fun to begin.
The scene of this revelry is the rooftops and balconies of the hotels which comprise the Las Vegas Strip, approximately sixty miles away from where the troops go through their final preparations. Exercises such as “Operation Heavy-Hitter” have become public attractions; well publicized in the press, they are now a major tourist draw.
9:58:32 (D-Minus one minute and twenty-eight seconds)
Gunnery Sergeant Winthrop, like those around him, crouches on the desert floor. He, like the others, faces away from “The Source” as instructed.
9:59:27 (D-Minus thirty-three seconds)
On the third floor balcony of the Sahara Hotel and Casino, a seven-year-old girl from Concord, New Hampshire, dressed in a long burgundy dress with a simple pink floral pattern, hugs her mother tightly. Her tall and lanky father, several feet away, has his arm around her brother. Their eyes, like those of tens of thousands of others in Sin City, stare transfixed to the northwest sky.
9:59:47 (D-Minus thirteen seconds)
Gunnery Sergeant Tyrone Winthrop closes his eyes, makes the Sign of the Cross, asks Jesus to forgive his sins and indiscretions, and resists the intense urge to urinate. Two feet away, Ernie Goldberg’s shaky right hand reaches into his white undershirt, searches for the Star of David which he so proudly wears, and clutches it tightly.
9:59:54 (D-Minus six seconds)
The piercing metallic voice of a commander shrieks over the P.A. system: “COVER!”
FIVE! Tick. FOUR! Tock. THREE! Tick. TWO! Tock. ONE! Tick...
10:00:00 A.M. (D-Hour)
Although “Gunny” Winthrop crouches, facing the opposite direction of the source of the exercise, eyes firmly closed, the brilliant white FLASH allows him not only to see the hands that cover his face through his closed eyelids, he is able to see the bones in his hands, through his own flesh, as clearly as if he had been looking at an x-ray in a doctor’s office.
10:00:03 A.M. (D-Plus three seconds)
Thousands of voices throughout Las Vegas cheer wildly in unison. Glasses are raised in toasts of merriment. The “fireworks display” has gone off, outshining the brilliance of the sun a thousand-fold. Hysteria. Joy. Jubilation. And alcohol. Yes, plenty of alcohol.
10:00:05 (D-Plus 5 seconds)
Commanders down the line yell out in unison, “TURN TOWARDS!”
The heat and the force of the blast wave have just passed the crouched-down soldiers in the form of hurricane-force wind. United States Geological Survey seismographs are registering a sizeable earthquake. Sergeants Goldberg and Winthrop turn around and stare. In utter disbelief.
The sight which awaits them is simply beyond description: a massive fiery cloud expands before their eyes. It begins to rise wildly. MADLY! Shooting up like a rocket. It begins to take on a shape. Sinister. Evil. The shape of…a mushroom.
“Horrifying, but in a strange way beautiful,” my father will later pen in his diary. The colors. So vivid. Dream-like. Reds. Pinks, Oranges. And then just brown. A mammoth, unrelenting, growing column of brown. It takes on a life of its own. It’s…ALIVE!
The source of today’s exercise? It is a sphere no larger than a grapefruit. A sphere of Uranium-235. The yield of the weapon is twenty-four kilotons, the equivalent of twenty-four thousand tons of TNT. That’s forty-eight million pounds of TNT, approximately twice the size of “Little Boy,” the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima.
10:35:12 (D-Plus thirty-five minutes and twelve seconds)
Thirty five minutes later, the troops, most dazed in this surreal, this…apocalyptic landscape, with little more than the fabric of the uniforms on their backs as protection, are ordered to march forward. They do so fearfully, but with unquestioning obedience. They will eventually advance to within nine-hundred yards of ground-zero. Afterwards, the soldiers will be given brooms to brush the fallout dust off of each other. Brooms.
5:45 p.m. (D-Plus seven hours and forty-five minutes)
As Missy Atkins, in her long floral dress, her twelve year-old brother Hank, and her parents, Bradford and Hazel, sit down for an early steak and potato dinner in the Sahara dining room, gleefully reliving the morning’s festivities, the Deuces arrive back at the barracks of Camp Desert Rock.
Medical liaison officers explain to the troops that any headaches or nausea they may feel is only temporary and will soon dissipate. Gunnery Sergeant Winthrop’s mind wanders back to the information pamphlet all the troops received on arrival at the base. The booklet that contained the word “RESTRICTED” on its cover. The booklet that stated unequivocally that there is absolutely no danger from radioactive fallout. The same one that emphatically explained that the only danger posed to the troops is “that of poisonous snakes, spiders, and scorpions indigenous to this area.” And he thinks back to one sentence in particular: "The commanders and officers of 'Operation Heavy-Hitter' share with you the hope that your visit to Camp Desert Rock will prove an informative and revealing experience, one you will always remember."
What the pamphlet does not explain is the purpose of these tests, namely, to test the psychological and emotional effects of close proximity atomic explosions on front line combat troops in order to prepare them and assess their “readiness” for future Cold War combat scenarios, which may include the use of non-conventional weaponry.
But it is not just one detonation that Gunnery Sergeant Winthrop and his buddy Ernie are present for. It is a series of tests. Four detonations in all over the span of six days. And on that sixth day - as Missy Atkins sits in Social Studies class, the novelty of telling her friends and classmates back at Concord’s Martha Washington Elementary School about the atomic tests having already worn off - Sergeant Winthrop sits in the barracks thinking of his sweetheart. His wonderful Gracie, waiting for him back in his beloved Pennsylvania. The headaches are easing, and the vomiting has abated. The shaking and the diarrhea will last just a bit longer. His buddy, Ernest Goldberg, lies fitfully tossing and turning on his cot, mumbling something incoherently, vomit stains covering his dusty uniform.
And so, the next morning, as Missy Atkins lies peacefully in her bed, twenty-five hundred miles away, the two friends, along with the hundreds of other soldiers and Marines, board the Deuces for the long agonizing ride home.
And like the tens of thousands of troops who have and will undergo these exercises for almost a decade, as well as the unfortunate, unsuspecting residents who happen to live downwind of the atomic blasts, Sergeant Winthrop has no idea about gamma-rays. Or rads. Or rentgens. Or Strontium-90. Or of thyroids, genetic mutations, leukemia or lymphoma.
He knows not that less than eleven short years from now, on an unseasonably mild day in mid-March, the bright orange orb hanging in a cloudy azure sky, his wife Gracie, sons Andre, Chase, and I, Benjamin, will be dressed all in black, weeping over his flag-draped coffin as a military band plays Taps on the green lawn of Indiantown Gap National Cemetery. Or that the body contained in the descending coffin, six-feet two-inches in height, will weigh in at a mere hundred and fifteen pounds. Or that government recognition and compensation for “atomic veterans” will ultimately come decades after he and others like him, Ernie Goldberg included, have met their excruciating, untimely demise. No, he prefers to believe that which he has been told by his dapperly-uniformed superiors. That the Department of Defense would not do anything to jeopardize the health or well-being of its loyal and esteemed fighting men.
After all, he now ponders to himself, the wheels of the olive-green troop transport bouncing off the dusty, rocky desert road, each mile that the “Deuces” put behind them is one more mile away from those darn pesky snakes, scorpions, and spiders.
An excerpt from USA Today, dated January 26, 2005:
I recall dinner with my brother Hank and my parents that night in the Sahara Dining Room. I can still, four decades on, smell the sizzling peppery steaks and the wonderful aroma of the crispy baked potato skins as our bowtie tie-clad waiter set down our plates in front of us, one by one.
And the voice of my brother Hank, two years my senior, asking Mom and Dad if someone made sure that everyone was out of harm’s way before the bomb went off. He was assured by both our mother and father that not only were all people gotten out of the way, but all deer, rabbits, birds and squirrels too. It set both of our young minds at ease.
I know now that it was not the case. I know now that rather than being removed from harm’s way, that people were deliberately put into it by those whom they trusted so implicitly. I know now that on that wonderful day when I believed I was witnessing a thing of unimaginable, indescribable beauty, that the seeds of death were being planted in the living. And as we were enthusiastically cheering, the slow painful demise of those brave boys was just beginning. I’ve come to curse the memory of that day, oh how I’ve come to curse it.
- Dr. Melissa Atkins is a Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire
It is often that I think of my father, tall and erect, beaming smile, so proudly adorned in his military uniform. And of plastic toy boats floating effortlessly on the rippled water of post-rain mud puddles.
And every once in a while, I think of a little girl in a burgundy dress from Concord, New Hampshire, staring, awe-struck, into the azure-blue, Nevada sky.
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