My Father, the Atomic Bomb

Judith Dancoff's father, mother, and sister in Chicago, ca. 1944–45, when her father was working at the Met Lab. Photo appears courtesy of the author.

I would not be who I am today were it not for the Bomb. 

Had there not been a bomb, my biological father—a Manhattan Project physicist—would not have died in 1951 from radiation-induced cancer a month before my fourth birthday, and I would not have grown up fatherless. 

Had there not been a bomb, I would not have lived through the bomb drills and terrors of the Cold War aware that my father helped create them. 

And had there not been a bomb, I probably would not be a writer. My first attempt at serious writing came in my twenties. A graduate of UCLA Film School, I was searching for a topic for my first screenplay—my feet on my desk in my small Santa Monica apartment and staring out the window at passing clouds—when the subject of the Manhattan Project came to me, rained down on me seemingly out of thin air—all the eccentric physicists my mother talked about when I was growing up, the world she lived in before my father died—and I realized it was my heritage, to do with as I liked. Because my father was who he was, they all spoke to me, Feynman and the rest. 

I got a U.S. Rail Pass and traveled across the country, to all the places where my father lived and worked, trying to find him. I would arrive somewhere—the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, the Fermi Lab in Chicago, the National Laboratory at Los Alamos—and simply stand there, trying to call his soul from decades in the past. 

The closest I came on my first trip was at the Niels Bohr Library in New York City. My father’s papers are housed there, and I found a copy of a letter he had written a few months before his death to his teacher and mentor Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Princeton Institute that year; my father had a fellowship, and then suddenly he became ill and returned to Urbana, which was the reason for the letter. He was thirty-six. 

Most of the letter is about physics, but near the end he apologizes for his sudden departure and discusses his “doleful secret,” the cobalt treatments he is receiving, and his prognosis. Four months later he would be dead. 

“As to all that has happened to cause my illness,” he writes, “my thoughts are clear. It seems to me that everyone will have to make sacrifices before this thing is through. When you consider the hazards to which we will all be exposed, my own sacrifice does not seem insupportable.” 

When I read his words, I set down the frail letter and stared for several moments at his small, careful handwriting, at my hands on the paper, at a clock on the wall. He died at the start of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, which helps to explain the sentence about sacrifices. The year before he went to Princeton, he had won a Guggenheim to work with Wolfgang Pauli in Switzerland. Even though I was just three then, I could remember the talk in the house about the trip and posing for a passport photo. But we never went. As I discovered recently, the State Department denied him a visa because they were worried that the Soviets would kidnap him.

Sitting in the Bohr Library, I did not know about the visa. I only knew that at last I had found some remnant of my father, a proof that he was real. At the same time, I was shocked. Who was this person who could speak so technically of his own death, call it a sacrifice that does not seem insupportable? “Not insupportable to whom? Certainly not to me, my sister, my mother. And what were the hazards to which “we” would all be exposed, so ominous and mysterious, as though he were discussing some secret nuclear war? 

In the Greek play Iphigenia in Aulis, the warrior Agamemnon is told by the oracles to sacrifice his daughter so that his ships might sail to the Trojan Wars, and she pleads with him: “How can a war be more important than me, Father, your daughter?” And I wanted to say that to my father, shake him, rail at him: “What battlefield were you on, Father, that required the sacrifice of our hearts?” 

_____

Two weeks after his funeral, my mother moved my sister and me to Los Angeles, where she had grown up, and out of my father’s world forever. Her large extended family lived there, and because she never graduated from college, she worked full-time as a nursery school teacher to support us—possible in those years without a degree. 

I see myself at age seven on the curb outside Laurel Avenue Elementary School in the center of 1950s Hollywood. I am standing with my new best friend, Chrissie, waiting for our mothers to pick us up. I usually walk home by myself, a key around my neck, but today my mother is coming for me, driving our old blue Packard, the last thing she bought with my father. 

Chrissie and I have just met in my second-grade class. She has a blond ponytail that reaches to her waist and smells sweet from the hair gel her mother uses. She has the most petticoats in school. That is something she says all the time: “I have the most petticoats in school.” 

The sidewalk is cool and dappled, so it is probably fall in Los Angeles, the air redolent with fireplaces and songs and the coming holidays. 

“What does your father do?” Chrissie asks. 

This is an important question for seven-year-old girls. I concentrate to get the words out correctly, as my mother has taught me: “He was a theoretical . . . nuclear . . . physicist,” I say, “but he’s dead.”

I don’t know what any of it means, except the death part that means he’s gone and not coming back. Before Laurel, my mother took me to a special kindergarten at the top of a high hill. Three years after my father’s death, I still dream of it at night, the car skidding backwards before we reach the top, flipping over and killing us. 

When I tell her my father is dead, Chrissie looks at me, her eyes wide. She turns, then looks back and smiles. “My father runs a dry-cleaning store,” she says proudly. “In Beverly Hills!”

Later, when we knew each other better, aided by the fact that she lived around the block so our mothers encouraged the friendship, I went with her many times to her father Johnny’s dry-cleaning store in the heart of Beverly Hills, where we played on the floor with receipts and paper clips, and then went for hamburgers and french fries at Dolores’s Restaurant across the street. 

Chrissie’s favorite was a cheeseburger with Suzy Q french fries, corkscrew instead of straight. Her parents went out every Saturday night to Lawry’s Restaurant on La Cienega for prime rib and baked potatoes because her father cleaned the tablecloths. When I slept over those Saturdays, the babysitter who lived next door sat with us. She was a member of the John Birch Society and talked to us about the dangers of Communists and Jews. I am Jewish, though my mother, raised a good Russian atheist, refused to let me go to temple even though I wanted to. She set up a Christmas tree in our living room, but we also lit Hanukkah candles, the small flames holy and magical, like the stars in our backyard. L.A. was not yet a metropolis, so the city lights didn’t drown out the stars, and one summer night when we slept in the backyard because it was so hot, I saw the Milky Way. For days after, I told my mother I wanted to learn the stars, to swim in their mystery and dedicate my life to them. 

Unable to help me, she bought the World Book Encyclopedia on time, and when it arrived she opened to the chart on the constellations and handed me the book. “Here,” she said. It was another summer evening, many stars visible, but as I stood in the backyard with a flashlight and looked at the chart, I didn’t know what I was looking at and gave up.

So, it is possible that had there been no atomic bomb to dose my father and kill him, I would have become an astronomer. I have a photograph of our small, unbroken family from the summer of 1949 when he consulted at the Oak Ridge uranium enrichment plant in Tennessee. The four of us are sitting on the grass in front of the faculty bungalows; I am almost two years old and in the center of the photo, holding a flower with half its petals gone, as he reaches to take off another petal—the perennial teacher, showing me the magic of petals on flowers. If five years later I had said I wanted to be an astronomer, surely he would have taken me to the best telescope on campus at the University of Illinois where he taught, positioning the telescope at a distant galaxy, his breath in my ear. 

I visited Oak Ridge in the early 1990s at the end of the Cold War, drove through the Smokies in eastern Tennessee, and stayed in a motel not far from the secret city that employed thousands of workers during World War II to create enriched uranium for the Hiroshima bomb and later throughout the Cold War. “What you see here, what you do here, when you leave here, let it stay here,” a billboard advised outside the plant in a famous Life magazine photo, a troop of young women workers walking cheerfully beside it. 

Not long after, I went to Hanford, a plutonium plant in eastern Washington where my father also consulted. It is considered the fourth most radioactive place on earth after Fukushima, Chernobyl, and a site in Kazakhstan used for hundreds of thermonuclear bomb tests. Hanford’s nine reactors were built on the Columbia River to fuel the Nagasaki bomb and later, as the main plutonium facility in the country, our sixty-thousand-bomb arsenal. Its radioactive waste was stored underground in inadequate tanks, though, that have corroded and are leaking into the ground water next to the Columbia River. Called America’s Chernobyl, workers employed in the $100 billion clean-up effort have become ill, the water supply is at risk, and a tank explosion is considered a possibility.1

The landscape looked like the moon’s when I was there, devoid of vegetation. A Hanford staff historian drove me around, past decommissioned warheads, fields of the decaying nuclear waste tanks, and the reactors themselves, no longer operational. The term Cold War was a misnomer, she said. Each reactor was funded by Congress for a different turning point in the arms race: when the Soviets exploded their first A-bomb in 1949, when the Communists crossed the Yellow River in China, when they launched Sputnik. Machine guns were stationed at the entrance to keep out the enemy. And, as with any war, there were casualties: declassified documents from the Air Force show that in December of 1949 the government pumped “hot” radioactive iodine into the atmosphere and flew planes overhead to see what such a plant would look like in Russia. Known as the “Green Run,” it gave the people below thyroid cancer and worse. 

The same documents show that the iodine released at Oak Ridge was even hotter.2 Did my father know when he took us there? Over time, the radiation drifted into the pastures that fed the cows and so into the milk in my cup. Like many of the children, I developed horrible ear infections that summer, so bad my ear drums nearly burst. A CDC pamphlet on the problem states that girls under five were particularly affected. By my mid-twenties, I had thyroid disease—sudden weight gain, loss of body heat, trouble staying awake. 

So: no atom bomb, no ear infections; no atom bomb, no thyroid disease.

A friend told me recently that the Meeropol brothers—children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were electrocuted for supposedly passing the secret of the A-bomb to the Soviet Union—went to a high school in Los Angeles just a few miles from Chrissie’s and mine. When their parents were imprisoned, Robert and Michael were adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol, family friends, and the boys’ true identity kept a secret, the execution of their parents a small package to wrap in their hearts and speak about to no one. Julius Rosenberg passed unimportant information; Ethel passed nothing. They were essentially innocent, but it was the start of the McCarthy era, the Soviets had just exploded an A-bomb, and someone had to be blamed. 

They were innocent also because there were never any great secrets to steal. From the first, the scientists knew that the engineering of a successful weapon would be tricky, but that was all. When news of the discovery of atomic fission reached Berkeley in January of 1939, Oppenheimer immediately worried that Werner Heisenberg, Hitler’s scientific advisor, would make a German bomb.3 Oppenheimer had studied at the University of Göttingen with Heisenberg and considered him the best physicist of their generation. Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron, was standing next to Oppenheimer as he read Niels Bohr’s telegram, and they got into an argument. The science of a bomb would be too difficult to figure out, Lawrence said, but Oppenheimer disagreed; any of his graduate students could do it. And in a kind of wager, he gave the telegram to three of them—Phil Morrison, Joseph Weinberg, and my father—who spent the night holed up in the Berkeley Student Union, working out the calculations for history’s first atomic bomb. That summer, Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard drove to Einstein’s cottage on Long Island and convinced him to sign a letter to FDR asking for authorization to begin investigation into a bomb. 

It is not hard to imagine that Berkeley night in the Student Union, and the sense of importance my father and the others must have felt to reach inside the atom and, as Einstein said, know the mind of God. My father was twenty-six, the average age of the men who built the bomb. When he walked home through the early morning Berkeley streets to my mother’s bed, what did he think when he looked up at the last stars in the sky, aware that nuclear reactions fueled them, and now he knew their secret? Knew their secret and could one day duplicate it, with all the justification in the world? Hitler had recently told the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister that he would destroy all Jews, a threat he repeated a few weeks later to the Reichstag. By summer he had invaded Poland.

As it turns out, Heisenberg had qualms about an atomic weapon and told Hitler it wasn’t worth it because it would take too long and be too expensive.4 But if that is so, where were my father’s qualms, there in the Berkeley Student Union, scribbling his calculations on a napkin for the first atomic bomb? Of the hundreds of American scientists who were asked to work on the bomb, only a few refused. My mother says that my father signed the Franck Report, the letter circulated by the Chicago scientists opposing dropping the bomb on Japan, but he continued to consult on the hydrogen bomb until his death.

When I met Phil Morrison on one of my trips and asked him my father’s feelings about the bomb, he was gentle. Morrison was a professor at MIT at the time, with hippie hair to his shoulders. Since the war, he had worked for nuclear disarmament, horrified by what the bombs had done in Japan. He touched his hair and said, “We’ve all changed since then. I am sure your father would have changed as well.”

“It was a different time,” he went on. “We didn’t know what we were dealing with.” To emphasize the point, he told me about the scientific observers scheduled on the A-bomb runs over Japan. The military was ready to drop A-bombs on Japan as fast as they could be produced, two to three a month, until Japan surrendered. Another man was scheduled to observe in the bombing runs for the first six months, and Morrison was scheduled for the second. 

I imagine the Meeropols as small, serious boys, carrying the truth of their parents inside them as we scattered on the floor for atomic bomb drills—short bells for an atom bomb (fall to the floor, hide under your desk, cover your neck), long bells for the hydrogen bomb (run to the hallway and do the same.) Our teacher would yell drop in the middle of arithmetic, and all of us would clatter to the floor. 

“Heads away from the windows!” she stressed. “If the bomb explodes and you’re facing the windows, the pieces of glass will fly into your eyes and blind you.” 

A boy at school said that if I slept on my back and the bomb dropped, I would die. He slept on his stomach. But I ’d always slept on my back and didn’t know how to change. 

We did not talk about the atom bomb at home. Different from the Meeropol brothers, I, at least, had a mother, and she was smart. One year she bought me an old bedroom set and, in the driveway of our small bungalow, spray-painted it a modern speckled pink that I adored. When we moved into our house in Hollywood, she took a hammer to the living room wall and revealed a fireplace. How could she have known? A friend built a modern brick hearth around it that I laid my cheek against for years, staring into the flames and making up stories. 

My father remained in my life only in limited ways. When X-ray devices appeared in shoe stores to fit children’s shoes, and all the other children pushed and shoved each other to glimpse their bones through the device, my sister and I were not allowed to use them—a message, my mother said, from his death bed: these machines would appear, but they were dangerous and we mustn’t use them—a point she repeated to the puzzled shoe salesmen, who were forced to measure our feet the old-fashioned way.

Otherwise our mother rarely spoke of him. She refused the role of a widow in the 1950s, when being a single woman with two children was almost as bad as being a Communist. One blind date left her at a restaurant when she told him; girlfriends clucked at her unmarried status and regarded her with pity. She could have stayed in Urbana, respected as the wife of an important scientist who had died, but by the time she had nursed my father through his illness and death, she wanted only to move forward. When I cried for him, she soothed me on her lap, stroking me and whispering how wonderful my life was going to be when I finally grew up. 

“Do not cry,” she would say. “One day when you are grown, he will come, the man in your life to replace him, to fill your heart and body and soul with everything you have missed.” 

No doubt she was speaking of her own life as well.

But my grief for my father remained. Where was he, where was his body, why had he died? For years I harbored the fantasy that he was not really dead; he had become a nuclear spy working on secrets in Russia and his death was merely an elaborate cover. I even dreamt of him as a spy. In my dream he met me clandestinely because he was stealing time from his secret job. We met on a bridge in an ancient city, and while a gray ocean roared beneath us, he told me that he loved me. This dream, which I had when I was eight years old, was the last time I could remember his face.

After the dream, I cried for him less.

There were two carob trees in the front yard with cool dry earth beneath. I swept the earth and set out the carob pods for the man my mother promised was coming to me, then sat in its branches, dreaming my dream of our future love—a package from God.

Waiting for this man became the meaning and purpose of my childhood. There were other important things—painting pictures, playing handball, roller skating with Chrissie—but that was the thing at the core of me. I became, you might say, a kind of Stradivarius of longing, perfectly carved and tuned, so that by the time my body was fully grown, my solos could have played Carnegie Hall—never mind that they were for one-night-stand boys. 

“All a boyfriend is is a father you can make love to,” I said to my college roommates. I can hear myself saying it, thinking how smart and psychological I sounded. Now I can only stand back in wonder at myself, at the time I spent looking for boys to fill the hole in my heart that my father left. I loved their rough cheeks against my face and the feeling they put inside my body that made me whole.

Occasionally I would stumble upon a quiet boy who wanted only to take care of me, but how could I choose so quickly when I had waited my entire life? 

Then, when I was twenty-one I met him, a graduate student at UCLA. He was ten years older, a drama teacher down from San Francisco on sabbatical to get a master’s degree, and he was out of money. So handsome—the first time we kissed, I literally heard bells. When I took him home to my mother, she pulled me aside and whispered, “Don’t blow it!” By then she had remarried, and wanted the same for me. She meant not to chase after him, he was the perfect catch, and I tried so hard. I let him be the one to ask me out, come on to me, suggest we live together. He stayed in my apartment three months while he finished his degree and I kept us alive on spaghetti. He was it, the place to put all the love that I had stored up my entire life. Then, when he finished, he left me the way you leave so much hotel furniture, without even a backward glance. 

_____

I was reborn twice in my life—the first time after my father died, the second after the drama teacher. Thanks to him, though, I was cured of waiting for a replacement father, and set out to look for my real father in earnest—an obsession that lasted years.

Some of the things I have done on my search include, but are not limited to, taking part-time secretarial jobs at both the USC and UCLA physics departments so I could observe physicists and write about them; reading several textbooks on the history of atomic weapons and the Manhattan Project, with meticulous notes on three-by-five index cards; and hiring a USC doctoral student to read my father’s papers and explain them to me. For hours, we sat in the USC cafeteria as he unraveled quantum mechanics to me, and though I never fully understood it, I could sense, in the stillness between us, the immensity of my father’s ambition: to divine the secrets of the universe.

In between, I launched Freedom of Information Act searches on every place he ever lived or worked, including an FBI Freedom of Information Act search, looking for some hint of him. But the FBI only wanted to know if he was a Communist (he wasn’t); the places where he worked on the bomb would only share administrative records. 

And I set out to find him myself, on five separate trips across the country, by visiting the places he lived and worked and interviewing his colleagues who were still alive. I never searched for my father to learn about his work on the bomb, or his history, or his opinion on nuclear weapons, though people told me those things, but to bring him home—if not physically then through an understanding of who he was, what killed him, and why he was gone. Had he been a schoolteacher or a plumber, I would have done the same. 

On these quests, I have stood over the fused sand of the first atomic explosion in Alamogordo, New Mexico; driven across the red-earth desert of the Hanford plutonium plant; and visited the old site of the University of Chicago’s Met Lab, where he helped to create the first fission reactor in history. He was in charge of neutron capture at the Met Lab: not enough neutrons, and the chain reaction would shut itself down; too many, and the school would explode. He addressed that concern with his Correction Factor—a mathematical formula for the pattern of material that went inside—owned by the government and still in use in some nuclear reactors today. 

Of all the trips I took, I felt him most strongly in Chicago: in the tall gothic buildings, the ivy-covered walls, the classrooms. The day I arrived, I simply wandered the campus, clutching a visitor’s map. I walked to Ryerson Hall, the old engineering and physics building, past the plaque over the squash court that marks it as the site of the first self-sustaining chain reaction in history.

People associate Los Alamos with the Manhattan Project, but that is just where they put the bomb together and tested it. The Chicago Pile is where they figured out how to make the stuff that went inside. The early Pile, the prototype for all nuclear reactors, was built under the old squash court, a room-size, wooden structure that enclosed forty thousand graphite rods. Inside the rods were nineteen thousand pieces of uranium metal and uranium oxide, alternating with fourteen-foot cadmium control rods. When the control rods were slowly removed, the reaction went critical; when they were put back, it stopped. The Department of Labor gives money to heirs of Manhattan Project employees who died because of their work. The person has to have spent two hundred and fifty days at one or more sites to qualify. The exception is the Met Lab, where you only need one day there. My father worked there two years. 

Ryerson, where my father had his office and also taught, was empty for semester break, but the rooms were unlocked and I could wander at my leisure. I felt him most in the little nooks and crannies: under a staircase, in a hallway display of old slide rules. How arcane, the slide rule! A young scientist would have bought one in grade school and kept it his whole life. It would have been his cherished tool, a totem even. The old slide rules in the case were made of real ivory, with tiny notations in black and red letters, and a fine cross hair for lining up each calculation, exactly like the one I had inherited so many years before and took to my algebra class in junior high.

On the third floor of Ryerson was a small classroom. Walking back and forth in front of the teacher’s desk was like walking in his footsteps, a future ghost in reverse, staring back at him. Did he feel me, I wondered, a premonition from the future, a whisper in his ear? Standing on the stage of the lecture hall exactly where he must have stood decades before, I shut my eyes and tried with all my will to project myself into the past—to feel him and will him to do the same in reverse. 

At the end of the afternoon, I stopped by the office of the retired physics professor who had first shown me the campus. He said his special interest was time reversal, the study of why things only moved in one direction—the study of entropy—and whether that could ever be reversed. He had a reverse clock face on the wall. When I asked him to explain, he told me about an experiment that demonstrated entropy beyond a shadow of a doubt—the immovable arrow of time. A physicist at Columbia University had proven that objects reflected in a mirror went through a measurable physical change, a change that could only be brought about by the passage of time.5 I tried to disagree, to argue that in some limited, scientific sense, time could be reversed: Yes, time only moved in one direction—it was the immutable law of the universe—but at the same time wasn’t there also an echo, a reverberation somewhere that was possible? I kept trying to say it was the passage of time itself that affected time, that reached back into the past and shaded it. When you heard a whole song, listened to the complete melody, wasn’t it the entirety of the melody that counted, more than just the end? And if I could reach back to the start of my father’s melody, what kind of person would I find, what human being breathing like all other human beings, frail and imperfect?

_____

That night as I lay in bed in my hotel room I tried to imagine him as a little immigrant boy on the streets of Pittsburgh where he grew up, wondering at the night sky and reveling in his mother’s love—her first child, her wonder-boy, who would remake the world. 

Perhaps in school he had just learned that the light of the moon was reflected sunlight, and in bed that night he raised his small hand in its silver, wondering what the sun was and where the heat came from. He could hear, from the other room, the reassuring step of his mother—gentle and whole—and behind that, the darker steps of his father. According to my mother, my father hated my grandfather, who barely spoke the English language, who wallpapered people’s houses, stank of perspiration and glue, and did not appreciate learning or science—never mind that he had clawed his way out of Russia during the worst pogrom of the twentieth century and supported his family with honor.

To hate such a person seems unfair, but I can also imagine misunderstandings between them: the young boy full of excitement about science; the father, in his shame that he is uneducated, rejecting him.

It didn’t matter; his mother was enough. But when he was fourteen, she died in childbirth and the earth opened, swallowing him whole. He loved his brother from the first, the tiny baby that he swore he would guide and protect, but at the same time the world changed. My father lay in bed at night, looking for the moonlight on his hand, but he found only darkness. With his mother, he had stepped onto the lip of clarity and knowledge, a way to make sense of the world. Why had she ever married his father to begin with? She introduced her son to music—one night when he was twelve she took him to the Pittsburgh symphony, just the two of them, under chandeliers and velvet—and she bought him books, whispered about all that life would hold. 

When a proper year had passed, his father invited another woman into the house. Loud and overweight, she cooked beans until they burnt and played gin rummy with his father till dawn. That is when my father stopped eating at home and instead took his meals in restaurants, poring over his textbooks, pulling himself onto the lip of knowledge that his mother had shown him, where the world was silent and true. By high school, a physics teacher saw his gift and encouraged him, helped him with his college and scholarship applications. He met Oppenheimer, his PhD advisor at Berkeley, and recognized him as his true father. He dressed like Oppie, in blue work shirts and pressed trousers; smoked a pipe like him; pursued physics like him; and in my father’s mind his mother smiled to see what he could achieve: scholarship boy, university professor, builder of the atomic bomb.

A few years ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article about my father and showed the house where he grew up—a ramshackle wood-frame in the old Jewish section of the city named Squirrel Hill. To the side is a snapshot of him and my grandmother. He is maybe nine or ten, as tall as her chest, and they are embracing each other around the waist, grinning in delirious love.

_____

Most children, when they grow up, let go of their parents—see their feet of clay and find resolution. If they hated them, they may come to love them; if they love them too much, they see them for who they truly are but also forgive them. Had my father lived, he surely would have done the same with his own father, seen the good in him and the way his father loved him, seen that my grandfather’s lack of praise for his son was only born of his embarrassment as a child of the ghetto of Zinkov who could barely read or write. The Cossacks were garrisoned in Zinkov, raping and pillaging its Jews for centuries. The first recorded pogrom there was in 1648, when Bogdan Chmielnicki, a Cossack leader, led his followers to kill over a half a million Jews in the eastern Ukraine and nearly wipe out the Jews of Zinkov. When my grandfather came to my father’s funeral, my mother said, he sobbed.

So, when do I achieve my release from you, Father—see your feet of clay, forgive you, and move on? 

_____

On one of my quests, a young UCLA physics professor asked if I wanted him to explain nuclear fission.

“Yes,” I said, desperate to merge with you, Father, to lay myself on your books and stacks of research that covered my desk. When you died, an atomic bomb exploded in my life. I have no other way of saying it. 

The young professor paused, ran his fingers through his hair, and began a mini-lecture: “There are four forces in the universe—the strong force, the weak, electromagnetism, and gravity. When a uranium or plutonium atom splits, the weak force is liberated, the energy that holds the hundreds of electrons spinning around the nucleus of the atom, the neutrons and protons. The electrons shoot off and split other atoms, and others split others, releasing more and more weak force. That’s the A-bomb. The H-bomb is the strong force that holds together the center of the hydrogen atom, the most stable element in the universe. It takes an A-bomb to explode an H-bomb,” he smiled. “You release that, and you have catastrophe.”

_____

And you, my father, so good at neutron capture, unable to contain any of it. 

_____

In 2018, while working on this essay, I went to Hiroshima for the August 6th commemoration of the dropping of the bomb. It was a solemn day, but also a day of celebration for the city’s survival. Today Hiroshima is lively and vibrant, the eighth largest economic center in Japan. With its tall, glass-covered buildings and gracious street trees, it looked nothing like the bombed-out city of my imagination, though it was once. At exactly 8:15 am on 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb equaling fifteen kilotons of TNT wiped out eighty thousand inhabitants instantly, one hundred and forty-one thousand by year’s end, and many thousands more in the years following, though due to the overwhelming devastation, the exact death toll can never be known. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, where the death toll was less at seventy thousand, but only because the plane missed the more populated areas.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen because—having no military importance—they had never been bombed, and thus could better show the destructive power of the bomb. 

As we waited for the ceremony to begin, ushers passed out frozen washcloths to cool us in the hot August air, and we folded origami paper cranes to remember Sadako Sasaki, a two-year-old when the bomb was dropped a mile from her house. Initially unhurt, she fell ill with leukemia nine years later and set about folding a thousand paper cranes. According to legend, anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes receives their wish, in Sadako’s case, that she recover. She folded more than a thousand, but they did not keep her alive. Today her tradition continues, with cranes folded in temples and monuments throughout the city. Ours would be set on Sadako’s monument close to ground zero where we were sitting. A plaque at the bottom of her monument prays for peace.

As 8:15 approached, we grew quiet. The young woman who had been showing me how to fold my crane sat back in her seat. The peace bell rang and we stood in silence. The mayor and others spoke, and hundreds of doves were released into the air. 

In the evening, we floated colored lanterns down the river, with candles and messages inside. I floated one for the souls of the victims, and one for my father’s soul, to make his amends. 

 

 

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1. Just before this essay went to print, a Columbia University study released information that parts of the Marshall Islands are, in fact, up to one thousand times more radioactive than Fukushima and Chernobyl, from sixty-seven nuclear bomb tests conducted in the Pacific Ocean from 1946 to 1958. A concrete dome on one of the islands houses radioactive waste, but rising sea levels have degraded the dome and radioactivity is seeping into the Pacific Ocean.

2. Stored in the tanks after cooling, the radioactive waste at both Hanford and Oak Ridge was first immersed in large dissolving pools for ninety days to reduce temperature and danger. (Today radioactive waste is cooled for at least 180 days.) During the Green Run at Hanford, however, it was cooled for fifteen days, then allowed to disperse into the atmosphere; at Oak Ridge, for five days, thus the name “Green.” The theory was that in their haste to produce nuclear weapons, the Soviets would not be cooling their radioactive waste, and that it would be “seen” from an airplane. At Oak Ridge, the waste was seen for seventeen miles downwind.

3. Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist, demonstrated fission in his laboratory in 1934, but misinterpreted his data. In December of ’38, Hahn and Strassman, two German chemists, got it right. When their article was published in Naturwissenschaften a month later, the news reached Oppenheimer in less than a day. By week’s end, copies of a telegram sent by Niels Bohr had appeared in every major physics department in the United States. Fission, the ability to split the atom, promised since Einstein, was now a reality.

4. A 2016 article by Thomas Powers in the New York Review of Books suggests Heisenberg fed Hitler the ideas of expense and difficulty as a way to delay the project on moral grounds. The thought of a nuclear weapon was too horrible for him to contemplate, though it was clearly not too horrible for the Americans. In the spring of 1944, Allied intelligence released information that a German bomb project was essentially nonexistent, and still, no one questioned the American project. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not bombed until August of 1945, three months after Germany surrendered.

5. I did not understand at the time what he meant, but after some research, I believe he was referencing the fact that when an object is reflected in a mirror, one is not seeing the object in the present but in the past. This happens because the light rays start off at the object, travel to the mirror, bounce off the mirror, and are reflected back, all of which takes time. Since light travels at three million miles per second, it takes 0.0008763 seconds to see one’s mirror reflection, and to the extent that the passage of time changes matter on the atomic and subatomic level, one is seeing a different self.

 

Judith Dancoff’s fiction and essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern Humanities Review, Tiferet Journal, the Shanghai Literary Review, and others. She has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, where she was the McElwee Family Fellow. Her documentary film Judy Chicago & the California Girls (1971) has screened at and is owned by museums and universities around the world, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She has lived in Los Angeles the majority of her life, where she is currently at work on a hybrid memoir/novel about her father and the Manhattan Project.