The Nuclear Blast
When I was eight my mother gave me a book called Our Friend the Atom. It had been published in the mid-fifties and was, by then, about twenty years old. It extolled the wonders and virtues of atomic power and all that it could give us to make our lives richer.
My grandfather had been living with us for a year and a half, by that time. He’d had a stroke about six years before and, while he still had his faculties, he’d lost the use of half of his right arm and had trouble walking. He’d retired early from his job at the jet engine plant and received a pension.
My mother had told me never to show this atomic power book to him.
But one afternoon I did.
Without saying anything to me, he took one glance at the book and then began tearing pages out. Then he threw it into a corner of the living room.
He had destroyed something that I thought at the time was beautiful; a book that talked in children’s terms about wonders and made me want to dream and hope and have faith in science and how it could do incredible things to make our world better.
And he had ruined it.
I hated him for the rest of the week and tried as hard as I could to avoid him.
When I saw him coming out of the bathroom in the morning or when I came home from school at night, I would steer clear of him. I told my mother what he had done but she had only looked at me and said that she wasn’t surprised.
“He’s had some bad things happen to him, Gage. Showing him that book only brought them back.”
I didn’t understand at the time how things in the past could come back at you or how simple objects like a book could bring them back.
That following Saturday I found him sitting out on the front porch, which was rare because he never liked to sit in the sun or look into a cloudless blue sky. I came over to him and asked him what my mother meant.
He told me to sit down across from him and said he owed me an apology for destroying the book.
“Ruining your book won’t change what happened,” he said.
He had all of my attention and he talked for about half an hour. It seemed much longer than that though and next to him he had a book of his own: a slim, brown, leather bound journal of some kind that I’d never seen him with before. It looked beaten and very old.
He squinted up at the sun once in a while as he talked.
“I joined the Army during the war but right at the end so I never did any fighting on the ground or in the air. Not like in the TV shows. I was in a special kind of army that didn’t fight with anybody.”
He saw how perplexed I was at this.
“We experimented with different kinds of weapons.”
When he saw that I still didn’t comprehend, he looked at me with eyes that were, as I remember them now, even for a man his age, ancient and reaching back from a deep primordial sadness, as if he was trying to describe all of mankind’s worst sins.
“Gage, they made us experiment on each other. Nerve gases, chemicals that made us sick, paralyzed us, messed up our minds, made us see things that weren’t there.”
He saw my next question before I could ask it.
“The work we were doing was supposed to save lives. Because in the next war, whatever it was, they knew these kinds of weapons were going to be used. If we made them first and knew how they worked we could keep our soldiers from getting killed, protect and equip them properly.”
He paused and swallowed.
“Then there was the test, the atomic test. A couple of generals called me into a room one day and sat me down at a table and showed me pictures from the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima.”
He said that I wouldn’t find any stories about Hiroshima in my book.
“They dropped an atomic bomb there, to end the war with Japan and make them want to surrender. The bomb leveled the city like cardboard in a hurricane. These generals showed me pictures of what happened after the explosion. There was one of a man, naked, burned all over, standing by a stream. He was holding something in his hand. I realized after a minute that it was one of his eyeballs.
“They told me this was what I was getting into. This could happen to me. But they would take steps to protect me. You see Gage, they wanted to set off an atomic blast in the desert and put me and some other soldiers in a trench nearby and then see what it would do to us.”
He pointed now to the sun.
“Gage, you know that looking into the sun hurts your eyes. But even with the goggles they gave us, me and another guy, they called him Fred; it was like looking into a dozen suns all at once. When they set that atomic bomb off, the sound was like the Earth coming apart from inside out. The vibration shook our muscles, our bones, our teeth. It was like we were being taken apart and put back together again.
“Then there was the wind, like a hot desert wind but more than that. It had a form, a shape, like a gigantic wall, miles high, pushing and pulling us, like we were rag dolls. But we were in this trench and maybe that doesn’t sound like much protection but somehow it was enough to keep us from getting leveled or sucked away."
“Did it hurt?” I asked.
“Maybe that was the worst of it. Because no, it didn’t hurt. Fred and I expected it to, but it didn’t.
“No pain. But there were voices. Fred and I both heard them. A chorus, like a million voices all raised to Heaven. I’ve thought about that part of it more than any other over the years and I think that maybe, somehow, when you split atoms open and let out all that energy it’s like going all the way back to when life started. It was like everything that had ever lived was calling out to us right there.”
He leaned back and reached for a cigarette with his good arm.
“I’ve read some books since then and they have theories that maybe everybody’s atoms are mixed in with everybody else’s.”
He lit his cigarette and exhaled the smoke slowly. As he held the cigarette between his index and middle finger, I kept staring at the burning end, a tiny, red furnace.
“The air we breathe right now,” he went on, “ might be the same air that a dinosaur or a caveman or Shakespeare breathed a long time ago. Well maybe that was what we were getting back then except that the blast was squeezing everything into a few moments instead of millions of years.”
I knew it had taken a lot out of him to tell me all of this and at my age it had been a lot for me to take in.
I had a can of Coke sitting on the porch railing in front of me and at that moment I picked it up to take a sip. I recall now how the sweet syrupy fizz had hit my tongue and how I had thought: Atoms, millions of atoms, inside this soda pop, in the can itself, all waiting to be smashed open, to let loose their energies, like those atoms in the desert, with my grandfather, so long ago.
“After it was over,” he continued, “we spent a year or so in a special hospital. They did tests and things happened to us, our bodies did start to change. I had a lot of problems with my mind. I slept a lot, sometimes two or three days straight. I had dreams. Most of them were about the blast, about being there. But I also dreamed about becoming transparent. Like my skin was Plexiglas. All the nerves, and veins, muscles, I could see everything. But it must have been real because one time a doctor showed me a picture of myself, my transparent body, walking around my room.”
I asked him if he still had the photo, glancing, as I did, at the leather bound volume next to his chair and wondering if he kept any pictures in there.
My grandfather seemed to not hear the question.
“This doctor said he wasn’t supposed to show me the picture but he figured that a man had a right to know if people could see into him. That doctor didn’t seem to like what was going on, the tests, the other things at this hospital. A couple of days later he stopped coming,and he was replaced by a different doctor.
“I never saw Fred again after the blast. Although I heard nurses and doctors talking. Somehow he had been affected differently. Maybe his mind more than his body. It was like he couldn’t take what had happened and what was happening to him then. I think he lost his mind, Gage. Thank God that didn’t happen to me.”
I asked if he was stronger than Fred, or was Fred just weak.
“No, no, I don’t think so. I got to know Fred when we were waiting in the trench for the blast. He seemed as tough as me, tougher maybe. Sometimes being tougher doesn’t mean you’ll make it. Maybe he was too tough to understand what was happening to him. I think I just let it pass through me but Fred tried hard to fight it. But how do you fight something that big?”
He sighed, dropping his spent cigarette onto the porch floorboards and then stamping it out with his boot.
“It’s been thirty years since that day in the trench. But I still hear those voices sometimes. Millions of them, reminding me that it happened and that I’m part of it. Never letting me forget.”
I asked him if he wanted to see a doctor now. Maybe they had come up with ways to help him, after all this time.
“Gage, nobody would believe me. No one has. The Army shut the project down years ago and most people have forgotten they even did those bomb tests. The generals are all dead now and probably most of the doctors as well.”
I heard my mother’s voice calling us in for dinner.
I asked him if my mother believed him.
“She doesn’t really know. She was a little girl when I came home that summer from the hospital. She knew I was different. I tried to explain but she was young, younger than you are now. And she is not the believer-type. Some people are. Some people aren’t.”
“I believe you,” I said, with the plain matter-of-factness of children.
He only looked at me and his eyes seemed to say that he had gone farther that afternoon, in telling me all of this, than he ever thought he would.
After supper, I did my homework as usual and was in my room getting ready for bed when my grandfather came in.
He held my copy of Our Friend the Atom in his hands. He had repaired it with scotch tape, putting back the pages he had torn out the week before.
“I’m sorry for what I did to your book. I don’t agree with all of what’s in here. Just because it leaves out so much. But now you have the whole story. The whole story of the atom. You can make up your own mind.”
He laid the book down on my bed and turned to go. Then stopped and looked at me, once more.
“I would give anything to go back to that desert, another blast, to feel what I felt back then, all over again, one last time.”
There were tears in his eyes. Then he left my room.
The next morning he was gone.
We searched the neighborhood, then called the police late that day and filed a missing person’s report. We called the news stations and asked them to put his picture on TV. And then we waited; days, a week, then a month.
We never saw him again.
My mother didn’t take it that hard. Looking back on it now, maybe that was because she did believe that his story was true. After all, she’d given me Our Friend the Atom in the first place.
I tried to find the leather bound book I remember him having with him when we had talked for the last time, that Saturday, but I never did and I still believe that he took it with him because it held some proof of all that he had experienced.
I had known then what he wanted, as I know now.
I have no doubt that, right after giving my book back to me, he had set out for the desert, hoping to find his nuclear blast and all of the sensations and clarity that it must have brought him that first time, so long ago.
For many years now, there have been nights when I lie awake next to Keira at our house in New Mexico with the bedroom windows open, hoping that I might hear that chorus of voices, of all thinking and feeling creatures, calling out to me across the desert and across time.
And I quietly weep.