Trinity’s Keeper

This is a work of short fiction based on events at Los Alamos in 1944.

“Truly the way men think is the most practical concern in life, for all conduct flows from it.”–Robert Millikan Science and Life.

TechAreaLargeApril 3 [1944]. The luminaries are on edge. Rumors swirl that there is a spy on the mesa. Oppie hasn’t slept in two nights. He looks even more gaunt than normal, and he runs between the four divisions; no jeep will drive him around the facility, no one will baby-sit him he says. He still refuses to be absent from any seminar or experiment. The luminaries—the scientists that rule our mesa—coming through the office continue to request material pertinent to the project, their resolve seems more steadfast in light of the rumors. Oppie comes through with a list of articles and materials. He bounds as though the weight of the war was never placed upon his shoulders. He asks if the Oak Ridge package has arrived. I tell him no. Why not! Why not? He paces the office and I can almost see the math formulas racing through his mind, circulating in the space around his disheveled hair. Segre and Teller are at odds—gun-type at issue and both demanding the Oak Ridge package. Oppie having to mediate between the two scientists, two of the demanding luminaries, but not his best skill.

April 5. I rush out of the office to find Oppie. He is in the Theoretical Division with Teller. I need to get a message to him, but I am not allowed into the building. Guard outside delivers message. I return to the office finding that the package from Oak Ridge is smaller than I imagined, but extremely heavy. Will need to use truck to bring it over to Theoretical.

April 6. Professor Kennedy comes to see me. I owe him in that I am not somewhere on a beach in the South Pacific or sweating in the sands of North Africa. He greets me with his wide, enthusiastic smile. He is wearing his familiar favorite blue shirt, top button unbuttoned—he never was one for a tie—a dark suit coat and pants. His dark hair a wild mess on his head. “I heard that the gift from Oak Ridge made it yesterday.” I knew what my former professor wanted to know and he knew that I couldn’t say anything no matter how much I respected him as a scientist. No matter that I really did owe him for my clerical job while my classmates were fighting for their lives against Rommel. “It did,” I said nonchalantly. “I was told to bring it over to Theoretical.” Look on Kennedy’s face showed glimmer of remorse that his department, Chemistry and Metallurgy, was excluded from the package. No matter the bond we formed at Berkeley, I couldn’t disobey military orders. He leaves in a huff.

April 12. Quiet day on the hill. I have time to read some books I brought with me from Berkeley. I read through the first few chapters of The Chemistry of Powder and Explosives by Tenney. The noise of the barracks becomes too distracting. I leave for a walk through the neighborhood. I watch people closely. Certain I will be able to find the spy. I watch a new scientist moving in. He and his girlfriend? Wife? settle into a their tiny apartment. I will probably be ordered into Santa Fe to pick up their allotted household goods. Despite the moving orders that clearly state what you can and cannot bring to the Mesa, they probably have too much stuff for their tiny, ramshackle apartment. The Army Corps of Engineers hastily put our home, Los Alamos—the Mesa or the Hill—together just over a year ago atop the desolate Pajarito Plateau. The Technical Area—where the science happened—was a collection of buildings just south of Ashley Pond; each building its own little fortress surrounded by wire fences with a v-shaped barbed wire security fence atop them.

I look at the tech area. I may be Army, but the science excites me. I can still remember the day the cyclotron arrived. I helped drive it up to the plateau. Atomic studies. I know that D-Building is where the fun is happening. I walked along the fence surrounding the tech area and look between the buildings. In the distance. Near the edge of the plateau. D-Building. Chemistry. It makes my skin bristle with excitement. So close. So far away.

April 16. Weather chilly today. I don’t know that we will see the sun for a few days and doing the morning calisthenics in the early frost seems to hurt my joints more than help. Got into the office to find a letter from dad. Of course, I predicted the first words inside the envelope. Dad being dad. “Have you become a member of the Communist Party yet?” First words. Not hello. Not how is college? Not a single I-am-proud statement for my serving in the war, for getting into Berkeley, for my efforts. Nothing. Dad is a hard man. Hard living during the Depression and having served in the Great War before that will solidify a man’s soul into a wretched, calcified knot. To him, college is a place for leftist radicals to indoctrinate naive students and convince them to join the Communist Party. The Fifth Column. I’m not too certain as to his hatred of the communists. I know many on campus. I know there are even more here. They just want worker’s rights and are, for the most part, pacifists who hate war. Maybe dad just needs to meet one. Maybe I’ll just find me a communist wife and bring her home.

April 18. I had lunch in the commissary. Talk of plutonium catches my ears. I remember Professor Kennedy’s research at Berkeley. I yearned to be on his team. No undergraduates. His rule. An amazing discovery. They call it 49: The four stood for the last digit in plutonium’s atomic number—94, the nine is the last digit in plutonium-239. They are going to master 49. I want to be there. I know I could help.

April 19. Snow. The hill is quiet with everyone inside their brisk offices. We all try to huddle around what heat we can find. Wives and mothers do what they can do to warm their tiny, temporary trailers and huts. A number of requests from the reading library. Forms in triplicate. I learn to type quickly. Women’s work, but I don’t complain. Every request for any thing on the Mesa comes through Procurement. I think my commanding officer, Edwards, works for Army Intelligence. Articles, publications, food request, mechanical inventory, everything has to be approved by Edwards. He’s got the power on this mesa. Tug-of-war between the Army who thinks they should be running the camp and the scientists who do run it.

April 21. A copy of Nikola Tesla’s “The Art of Projecting Concentrated Non-dispersive Energy through the Natural Media” comes in. I am told to bring it to Oppie and Segre at once. I can’t but help myself. I read a few passages from the article. This would be standard reading in a graduate level course, but the army postponed that. I think it is the least they could do in letting me read it before I deliver. Four years ago Tesla announced in the NY Times that his “teleforce” peace weapon would disable aircraft from up to 200 miles away. Now, I read the science and I am amazed. An open-ended vacuum tube. Forced air creating negative chamber. Could we be building this teleforce? Gun-type is the key word. Gun-type is the weapon being researched. Might this be the invisible Chinese Wall of Defense as Tesla put it? It intrigues me. Highly accelerated particles, highly charged particles shooting invisibly through the air to down enemy aircraft. This would need incredible amounts of power. Maybe harnessing the subatomic to get a new form of power? Could a ray gun be turned into a weapon of war? Segre and Teller hold the answer but I can’t get near them. Maybe.

I stole away in a storeroom. Boxes of foodstuffs for the grocery: cans of beans, wooden crates filled with vegetables—I gaze at the artful designs on the sides, my eyes stuck on the pinup girl on the side of the Plenti Grand crate, she plays with her long blond hair while her eyes cast a sideways glance as if she knows something I don’t and her lips purse—tins of meat and spam (I hate spam). There are motor pool supplies of tires, wrenches, engine parts and the like all shoved haphazardly into a corner of the large, cold room. And it is cold. My hands are numb holding the article. I strain to read Tesla’s words in the faint light of the storeroom. I look at the four problems that need to be overcome: 1. A new form of vacuum tube open to the atmosphere; 2. Provisions for imparting to a minute particle an extremely high charge; 3. A new terminal of relatively small dimensions and enormous potential; 4. An electro-static generator on a new principle and of very great power. Numbers two and four echo in my mind.

Sitting in the cold I can almost say for certain that the work that is being done here is a departure on Tesla’s electro-static generator. There was no way that he could have imagined atomic energy. Tesla was focused on his own current. “Of very great power.” That’s what we are making here. Something of very great power. That’s what 49 is for. The gun-type will fire away particles with extremely high charges that will render our enemies incapable. I look at the pinup girl. Could we use such a weapon on a person also? I leave the cold storeroom and wander across the base.

I find myself standing outside the Theoretical building like a puppy trying to get inside a locked, dark house. I watch the snow catch on the barbed wire while I stand beneath the makeshift, wooden shelter. The guard in the security shack tries to ignore me. I cough incessantly. He refuses to let me warm inside. Security protocols he says. Spies on the base he says. Eventually, one of the scientists comes out of the building and takes the article from me.

April 25. Got a letter from one of the professors at Berkeley. Of course the letter was opened. Father would say it was something a Commie would do. Circled in red pen was his question: “Word is that you are working on a ray gun out there in New Mexico. True?” Written in the margins: What you see and hear here stays here. The army has its regulations and I wasn’t about to test them. I am reminded about my modern U.S. history class and the propaganda from the Great War—Loose Lips Sink Ships. The secrecy on the Mesa took some getting used to. Who was it we actually worked for? I know that the scientists balked at the idea of becoming military personnel; except for Oppie who had ordered a Lt. Colonel’s uniform. I just stared at him and wondered who game him the authority to jump ranks so quickly. Bethe says that the Army wouldn’t have him. Too sickly. Lungs that sounded like tuberculosis ruled. All of our mail had to be post marked P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico and was read by Army Intelligence. One wonders how the spy gets material in and out.

April 28. The luminaries walk up 20th and Main. I watched them from my little window in S-Building. They gathered together, briefly, where the streets came together, shared a smile, and wandered off to their respective buildings secured behind razor wire, high fencing, and armed military patrols in jeeps. They are everything I aspire to be. Masters of science. I set to task completing my ritual of forms.

April 28, after supper. I opted for dinner at the Fuller Lodge knowing that many of the married families came here to get out and that I might find one or two of the scientists enjoying a late meal. I sat near the wall—still amazed that the lodge was built out of logs not laid horizontally but stood upright. Most of the tables were occupied, many with the young families that moved onto the Mesa a year ago when the lab was started. I imagine Oppie sitting in his office, papers strewn around him, all covered in complex formulas, books open to random pages, articles from the library spread on the floor and side tables. For him, all of this world that he surrounded himself with was practical in nature. These were math problems to be solved. I sat wishing that I could be part of the study. Instead, I read a chapter from a book father had sent.

When he learned I would be studying science, my father was devastated. For him, the Scopes Trial was a sure sign that science would take us away from God. I tried to explain to him that through science we could better understand God. Aside from communists, father believes all scientists to be self-absorbed atheists. It is funny then that he sent me this book. Science and Life by Robert Millikan. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1923. I read the book with a skeptical interest. The only reason father sent the book was because he’d learned that Millikan was a devout Christian. This is his way of trying to keep me from falling into sin. He has dog-eared a few pages and I read them with faint interest. Kennedy walked up to me and caught the title of the book along the spine.

“I didn’t imagine you’d read this,” he said.

“My father sent it,” I replied.

“And what do you think about God and physics?”

“There might be room for both.”

He hesitated. “What if there isn’t any god and we are just here to figure it all out on our own?”

He walked off with an air of superiority. It was almost as though he was happy to stump me. I looked at the closed book. In it Millikan was warning against rigid dogmatism in science and in religion. I looked around the room at the gathered scientists. The luminaries. All these acolytes of the church of physics and chemistry. Are we headed toward a dogmatic abyss?

May 2. Gossip in the laundry and cafeteria about problems in Segre’s lab. Gun-type isn’t going to work. 49 may be unstable.

May 5. Ran into Kennedy on the muddy street. Early May brings snowmelt to the Hill. The streets in both the Technical Area and the civilian area are still dirt and with the snow melt and the monsoons that are certain to come this summer, we will all be caked in mud. Just means more talk at the public laundry. Tried to ask him about Segre’s problem.

“What will you do?”

He shrugs. Sly smile. “You could be the spy.”

May 10. Sprained my ankle in morning calisthenics. Hobbled across the compound all day slipping twice in the mud only compounded my misery. Hard to get any work done. Visited the infirmary before dinner and got a bandage; nurse said that it would be swollen for a few more days.

May 13. Had the day to myself. Spent it in the barracks with twenty other guys. Kept my foot up on a pillow. It helped with the throbbing. Finished reading the book father sent. Not sure what to think. Capricious deity or conscience god bound by laws?

May 17. Oppie is an enigma. He scurries from lab to lab never content to just work on one problem or one task. His mind must be a furious whirlwind of ideas and thoughts. And yet, he is calm. He can remember everyone’s name. After a chance meeting. Weeks apart. Still remembers. His demeanor on the mesa is that of a reserved introvert. I think it is because of his renaissance nature. A nature that I wish to adopt for myself. This enigma is also a difficulty for the army. My superiors are always checking on the request for library material he sends. He is a suspected communist working on a top secret U.S. military base. Last week, Oppie requested a copy of Lui Ming’s The Eternal Way: A Study of Taoism in the Contemporary World. Of course, the paranoid captain had to find out if Lui Ming was in any way related to the Chinese communist movement. Oppie had come through the office for weeks awaiting the book. I sorted through a stack of materials that arrived this morning. Lui Ming’s book was among them. I offered to walk the books and articles to the library. My intentions were not altruistic. Rather, I hoped to read through as much as I could before reaching the library. I took a rather circuitous route to give myself the most time with the book. I was so engrossed that I didn’t hear Kennedy come up behind me.

“Nice day for walk,” he said.

I turned to find Kennedy matching my stride. He was slightly winded which meant that he had to have run up behind me.

I replied. “It is.”

A glance at the title of the book written across the top of the page. “Given up on God?”

I shook my head. “Trying to be more enlightened.”

Disappointment. “He’s no more a god than you or I. Anyone of us could have been selected to run this place,” he said with a pompous wave to the air. A twenty-seven year old running the Mesa. No. Kennedy was suited for the science.

“I never said he was a god. I just respect his thirst for learning.”

Kennedy smiled.

“You should come to dinner at his house tomorrow then. As my guest.” His voice trailing while he spoke to the cool air surrounding us. A pause. Not for me, but for the quiet around him.

“I’m not sure….” I tried to say. Kennedy had just assumed I would be there and he scurried off to D-Building.

I will admit that I am curious. But was there more to this chance meeting? I try to figure the odds of the two of us meeting. Was Kennedy’s voice cryptic? Could there be alternate motives? These scientist and professors are an arrogant bunch, admitted prima donnas who despise being wrong. I worry that I am about to be set up.

 

May 19. Marvelous day. Early trepidation mostly unfounded. Though I still suspect ulterior motives on Kennedy’s part, I will do my best to describe the wonderful evening I had last night. I arrived later than the time given by Kennedy. As I turned down the street where the original houses of the boys ranch school stood. I could already hear the laughter and banter coming from T-111—Oppenheimer’s small cottage. I stood, still as a mouse staring down a cat, and looked at the quaint stone structure before me. With the amassed knowledge inside I was more curious to have a peek at the bathtub as these few homes on the block were the only buildings on the entire plateau to have one. I try to organize all the questions I want to ask in my head: Why Oppie? Did you really read Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on a train trip from San Francisco to New York? All seven volumes? How long did it take you to learn Sanskrit?

Oppie’s wife, Kitty, greeted me at the door and warmly welcomed me in despite my never having been to the house before. She directed me to the large living room. Near the almost floor to ceiling windows stood Oppie, cigarette in hand, twitching slightly. He was a dominating presence in the room despite his thin frame, wispy like the smoke swirling around his head from his cigarette. His smile was the first thing that greeted me and I immediately lost track of everyone else in the room. He turned to a small bar and set to making his famous martini. He strode toward me, drink in hand and cordially invited me to join the others in the room. Stories were true. The martini packed a punch. I had to remind myself to stick to just one.

A sip and immediately turn to the conversation around me. It swirls like fog after a car had driven through it. Surprised to hear that they are talking about their work in the different parts of the Hill. Wives too. From initial gathering, the secretive work centered on a new weapon. Larger than anything we’d seen before. “Proof that science controlled all destiny,” Kennedy said. I stood and listened for a while, observing the luminaries as they huddled in distinct groups. Kinships, formed between various departments, dictated how the men gathered. Oppie did his best to dissolve these invisible barriers. As did the wives. They were just happy to be out of their cramped housing and socializing with others.

I finally gathered the nerve to pose a question, though it wasn’t one that I had planned on asking.

“Why do we need a new weapon? Aren’t we winning the fight with what we have?”

“Boy,” one of the scientists said condescendingly, “When has mankind ever been satisfied with the tools at hand?”

“Excuse me?”

He smiled and the room grew quiet. “First hunters worked with sticks. Then came fire and we started to mold metals. Bronze. Iron. Steel. Bows came to fling weapons at enemies distant. Better bows lead to new ideas. Gunpowder. Then cannons. Do you understand? Weapons are ever evolving and we,” he waved to the other scientists, “We are the ones who will continue this forward progress.”

“To kill greater and greater numbers?”

A laugh. Maybe a sneer. “I’m not a philosopher and I don’t want to be one. There are mysteries tied to the atom and I will be damned if some Kraut figures it out before we do!”

“Here’s to bigger sticks.” Glasses clinked and I shrunk back to the side.

A few moments later, Oppie came beside me.

“Not all of us feel like he does, but he is right on one thing: the German’s cannot be allowed to find the keys to unlock the atomic door before we do.”

I looked at him. His face was resolute, but there was a sense of wonder in his eyes. For Oppie, it was just a game. Like all his other projects in the past. A riddle who’s answer he’d figure out.

For the next few hours we talked about formulas, subatomic theory, chemistry, and metallurgy. It was amazing. Like a moment in the commissary at Berkeley where I was a peer not a student. Now, I write this with the sting of a slight hangover, a smile on my face, and new questions about motive, purpose, and science. Mine. Oppie’s. Kennedy’s.

May 21. Three-day liberty. Confined to Santa Fe and cannot have contact with the people in the city or my family. Any accidental contact must be reported. Of course, in triplicate. At least it is not the Mesa.

May 25. Back on the Mesa. Nothing changed. Don’t know if I expected it to. First day that my ankle hasn’t given me fits.

May 26. Captain noted my distraction. Science ruled my mind. Not triplicate forms. Oppie’s party. No negative mark assigned. A stern verbal to keep in the present. I offer to walk packages to the library and motor pool.

May 27. Off day. Unusually cool this morning; first time in a few weeks I could see my breath. Had to get out of camp for a while. Took a walk around Bayo Canyon. Occasionally, we can hear explosions echoing out of the canyon. Hints of the weapons that are being built. Came back to the barracks and found a letter from father on my bunk. Reluctant to open it. I think about 49. I imagine, despite the pettiness of arrogance, the luminaries collectively work on a singular solution.

May 27, just before bed. I opened the letter to find that the FBI had been to father’s house. He questions my loyalty to America. He is certain that I am becoming a communist. Uncertain if I should write back or not. Just what I need. Another reason not to be able to sleep. Father’s stern glare watches me as chemical formulas, explosion equations, and physics theories all become a jumble together in my mind.

May 29. Day began normally. Revelry then calisthenics. A quick walk to the office after breakfast in the mess hall with a couple dozen other soldiers. Request forms from Metallurgy needing to be processed; steel hard to get with the war effort pushing for planes and tanks, but somehow our requests always processed and delivered quickly. Pushed paper until Kennedy and Oppie walked in just before noon. The office hushed. Oppie outside of the labs! A forward invitation to lunch. Captain hesitant to release me, but Oppie always got his way.

We sat in a quiet corner of the large cafeteria.

“You impressed me the other night,” Oppie said.

Kennedy sat silently, pushing salad around with his fork.

“I want you to work in Chemical and Metallurgy.”

Shock. I tried to hide it.

“Of course, the Army considers you their property so you will still be working in Procurement.”

Hesitation.

“Morning you will belong to the Army, afternoon and evenings you will belong to Kennedy.”

I looked at Kennedy. Not sure that this was his idea. He refuses to make eye contact. His lunch sits stirred on his plate but otherwise untouched. Could it be that his plan backfired?

June 1. First day in D-Building. Kennedy took me to CM-6 on the first floor. Reunited with Samuel Weissman from UC Berkeley. The room is an industrial mess and runs nearly fifty feet in length. Along the outside wall is a rectangular, metal tube connected to small pipes protruding from the top at even three-foot intervals. The room hums with a low whirl. At the far and near ends of the room are small classrooms. In those rooms, scientists feverously scribbled on the chalkboards. Kennedy left in a huff.

“He’s just jealous of you,” a voice said. A tap on my shoulder.

“Come, this way, my name is Weatherly.”

He is short, almost diminutive in stature. Weatherly’s dark curly hair looked as though any attempt to tame them would be immediately fruitless. He walked with a limp that he explained happened living on his family farm as a child. He spoke with a deep guttural growl, but his words were kind and inviting. I followed him into a room and together we set to task on an explosion equation.

“What are we working on?”

“Theoretical numbers at which plutonium would react explosively.”

Numb. Thoughts stopped instantly.

He pointed to the long room. “Out there we are trying to purify plutonium in a high-vacuum. Our job is to take the raw materials that we get from Tennessee and purify it to a count of ninety-eight percent pure.”

“Are we talking atomic explosions on a large scale?”

“Yep. Oppie calls it Trinity. The weapon is called Thin Man.”

June 5. Opened Pandora’s Box and found it to be two chambered. Cleared the FBI with father; background check was to clear me for work in the Chemical-Metallurgy lab. He believes that I am becoming a communist. Other lid opened was the lab itself. From S-Building I watched in awe as the luminaries walked to their buildings. I imagined wrong. Belief was that these men worked in unison. So very wrong. If it weren’t for Oppie, these scientists would be at each other’s throats. It is all just a race to build the perfect bomb, and each department works nearly against each other.

June 6. An eerie calm descended upon the mesa; all power has been knocked out for the last hour. The lightning flashes and the thunder’s deafening roar bellows before our eyes can readjust to the light. Mechanics scurry like mice in the dark trying to get the generators started and running. Heads of each division clamored for a moment with Oppie to demand that their unit gets power first. Weatherly said that we’d get it because of the high vacuum units. In the mean time we just sat in the humid twilight of D-Building.

June 8. Left Fuller Lodge early. Didn’t finish dinner. Too many happy couples dancing to Jo Stafford. G.I. Jo. Sitting on my rack. Bit of introspection. Yesterday, Kennedy came to my desk in Procurement.

“You are missing a series of books in the library.”

One of the many responsibilities I have is to maintain the library. I am one of two that can pull from the shelves. There is a hidden disparagement in his statement.

“Oh,” I try to say coolly.

“1926 Annalen der Physik. I wanted to review the Schrödinger equation.”

A sideways glance from me. Beneath a stack of requisition forms the red-leather bound journal. I had pulled it to do the same thing. Work in D-Building was, I am ashamed to admit, further along than I am ready for. I find that I need to read as though I was an intro-to-physics student again. Kennedy knows the library by heart. He noticed it was missing. He knew who could have it. And he had no need to review the equation. Basic theoretical physics for a man like him. A test?

“Honestly,” I said with a smile, “It isn’t missing. I have it right here.” Pulled it from beneath the stack. I hand him the book. He taps the cover with his finger, turns, and walks out of the office.

Had I failed the test? Need to help. Good? Wanting to do right by Oppie. Good? Does this imply I have a desire to work against Kennedy? Bad? Is it bad to want? Want more. To reward hard work with the minimum of a thank you?

I think of my father at times such as this. Hard work. American dream. He says he fought so that the Huns couldn’t take that away from us in the Great War. He fears our Communist ally. He fears their spread into our colleges. Into our hearts. Into our thoughts. I pause for a moment; there’s something in Millikan’s book that father dog-eared about thoughts. To tired to find it. The luminaries press hard in the race against the Krauts. They seem to tolerate hard work. Does Kennedy, too?

June 12. First department meeting. The tension was as thick as the mud on the Mesa. Bethe. Teller. Neither man spoke to one another. Notes passed between the two; comments made by sub-ordinates. Weatherly whispers: Teller has stopped working on the numbers. Wants his way with fusion not fission. Oppie has stopped that research citing problems enough with the fission work. Bethe agrees. Teller fumes. He wanted to be director of Theoretical. He wanted to drive our research into fusion. He wanted Oppie’s chair. I am one of ten brains brought in to crunch the numbers that would have gone through one mind.

I had often sat in awe of the luminaries. The way they greeted each other before descending into their world of chalkboards and vacuum tubes. A camaraderie between them. Funny, that word. Camaraderie. Comrade. Communist. There’s almost a commune feeling to the Mesa. Isolated on the hill, cut off from even the closest family. Our radio station plays music from Oppie’s collection or live piano music from Teller or one of the scientists will read children’s stories at night. Some of the wives have taken to growing a little vegetable garden. The commissary is often empty; ration cards and the war effort make fresh vegetables hard to find. And yet, revelry each morning reminds me that the U.S. Army runs our little commune. We are still all rank and file.

June 14. Oppie has gone off the Hill. Teller quips that he’s gone to San Francisco to be with Jean. Most of the scientists know about Oppie’s affair with Ms. Tatlock. Bethe drives a stern look toward Teller. No one speaks of it outside the technical area. Kennedy says it is nice to have a few days reprieve from Oppie’s scrutiny, but the cowpunchers are still working everyone hard.

June 18. Bethe and Sangre wear frustration across their faces. Weatherly and I have worked through a new set of numbers. Things just won’t add up. Density. Reaction. Weights. Bethe demands we run the numbers again and again and again. Certain there is a flaw in one of the formulas. He is so determined to get this right. Weatherly plays with the numbers. Nothing works. We try to get the atoms to obey us, to conform. The results are the same. Failure. I stopped for a moment. Head hurting. Outside the sun beat down on the Technical Area as a breeze blew through the tall pine trees. I watched as the sharp, green needles bent, the trees twisted; a flock of black birds took flight on warm thermals and then dove back toward the earth again. I was suddenly, acutely, aware of what we were trying to do. We were trying to tame a capricious wind to blow where and when and how we wanted it to. I leave.

Walking across the compound, pass one of the rooms Oppie uses to work on formulas. The room is stale and dark. There’s an emptiness to the labs at night. A haunting silence from the usual hum of electronics, chalk scratching at walls of green boards, the fevered pacing of scientist across the concrete floors. Walls are covered with formulas. I recognize a few from ones on our board in Gamma, but there are so many others. It amazes me that he can keep it all straight. A flick of a switch and the room glows in a pale incandesces. I stand staring like a little child having caught his mother in a lie for the first time. Reaction formulas. Metallurgical compounds. Fission. Fusion. Decay rates and half-lives. Plutonium and uranium. Spontaneous fission rates. The same problem we have. Rates too high. On the desk I see a scribbled note. Gun-type not feasible? Time to ditch Thin Man. Can the weapon work? I pull out the small, blank card from the card catalog stack in my office. I scribble a quick note for Oppie.

June 22. Sitting at my requisitions desk, beside my pens and stacks of forms, my blank card. Oppie has written: Of course. Come by the house tomorrow night. Beside the note was a copy of the New York Times. The headline read: UNMANED ROCKETS CONTINUE TO RAIN DOWN ON LONDON.

June 23. Can’t focus. All I had asked for was to read his copy of The Communist Manifesto. I had seen it on the bookshelf the last time I had been in the house. Rumors swirled that he’d read all four volumes of Das Kapital. In German no less. Teller questions Oppie’s allegiance. Not his leadership. Just his loyalty. There is a spy on the Mesa and yet we speak of the weapon like we would question the change in the weather or the health of one’s mother.

June 23, Later. I receive a letter from mother. She apologizes for father. She tries to tell me that he is proud of me. Abigail has finished the tenth grade with high marks. A neighbor’s daughter lost her husband in the invasion of France. Mother has spent time at the house consoling. She ends her letter asking me to forgive father; he just wants the best for me as he always has.

June 23, Later. I left the barracks early. I walked past the school and saw a few children playing tag. There was a simplicity to their world. An innocence despite what was being developed around them. The outcome for them was clear: Avoid being tagged. And for the scientists this was a game of tag to them. Be the fastest. The smartest. The master manipulator of atoms.

I pause. Confused thoughts. Distractions upon distortions. I watch the children. I try to predict where they will go. It is base instinct. Go for the kill. The weakest and the slowest and the least apt. They will always be it. For the rest of them, the boys in the their blue overalls and plaid checked shirts, the girls with their curled hair and pink and red knee-length dresses, they would run in randomness. Taunting from the jungle bars or the top of the slide or behind the basketball pole. This was my father’s America. Those that could work hard or run fast or outwit survived. He taught me that as a little boy. We played games in the front yard. He teased with a feint of slowness until I grew close and then he would dodge quickly. For years I was slower, shorter, weaker. And then one day I could catch him. By the time I finished high school, I stopped asking for homework help. Just couldn’t comprehend the science or the math. Father had lost the physical war, the educational war, and now was fighting for the last thing he could control: my mind. I could forgive him for his fears, but I would decide for myself what I would be in life.

Teller’s piano playing echoed across the canyon. He was home. Alone as usual.

Oppie sat on a small bench on the front porch. A neat stack of books beside him. He is humming. Can’t decide if he is distraught or happy? Formulas are proving failure. Teller wants fusion. Army wants “Thin Man”. The gun-type. Chaos all around him. He hums with a smile.

Slowly up the walk. Didn’t want to disturb his thoughts. A familiar book atop the stack. Science and Life. Strange. He looks my way. Doesn’t stop humming. I pause standing beside a small flowering bush. A cool evening and I can hear bees in the bush. Oppie glances at his books.

Mid hum. “Kennedy says you are reading this.” He taps the book. Back to humming.

What do I say? No harm in reading? Just curiosity? Admit that father fears for my eternal soul? “Just a book.”

Oppie chuckles. Picks up the book. Leafs the pages. “Did you know he once said that the atom can never be tamed? He called taming atomic power a childish bugaboo.”

“He was wrong. We will tame it.” I sound too arrogant. Cocky. Like Teller.

He sets the book beside the stack. “Harness it. Maybe. Tame it? I fear not.” He picks up the tiny manifesto. Hands it to me. “They’ll think you’re a communist.”

July 4. Weird day. Independence Day. Nation celebrates during war. We are hearing of bad news from the latest colloquium. The gun-type is definitely out. Our numbers proved it.

July 6. The Army gets the gun-type weapon. They will use enriched uranium. 49 is out. Maybe Millikan was right. The atom cannot be tamed.

July 11. Last three days I belonged to the Army again. Assigned to the haul crew. Drove trucks to and from Santa Fe. Rumors rage. Base to be reorganized. Not sure if I will return to science. I find that I am deeply saddened; I think about the children playing, carefree. I want to feel that way again. But know that it’s impossible.

We haul up three bomb proto-types. They look frightening. I can hear the scientist say, “sticks to bows to sharper sticks.” These are the sharpest in the box. Army has been testing mechanics since March. Captain I ride with tells me they are redesigning for bomb bays. Need to fit multiple bomber types. He smiles when he says, “It’ll be nice to drop one of these on those Krauts or Japs.”

July 15. Agitation. Teller plays his piano louder tonight. Luminaries frustrated. Base to be reorganized. All focus directed to fission weapon. Gun-type is left to the Army. Teller refuses to play along. Demands fusion weapon.

July 17. Weatherly is secretly working on fusion numbers for Teller. Numbers are frightening. Explosive yield far greater than fission.

July 18. Teller hasn’t spoken to anyone. Shuts himself in his office. Still determined to make fusion work.

July 19. Anxious day. Don’t know what will become of me. New organization told to public tomorrow. What of my fate?

July 20. A fire broke out on the roof of C-Building. Kennedy worried about impact on D-Building next door. 49’s instability and a fire could harm everyone on the Mesa. Requests new building.

July 21. Today at a little past noon, Kennedy comes into the procurement office. He stands as though he forgot why he came. I had been busier than usual. New requests due to the reorganization. Army now in the bomb making game. Metals. Timers. Triggers. “When’s the material from Hanford coming?” I shake my head. How should I know? Kennedy sets a book on my desk. Another theoretical study of the nucleus. He is a voracious learner. He was in constant competition with the guys in Chicago. 49 is a mystery. Kennedy’s group has already discovered two allotropes. Certain there will be more. Have wondered if he regrets not being in the lab. Directing the show never seemed to suit him. Hands on man. I remember joking with him at Berkeley. I called him the bomber. His work in bombarding uranium to produce plutonium. He winked and said, “In more ways than one.”

I get it now.

“It is a bit crazy out there,” I said. Waved my hand toward the window and the labs beyond. “All about uranium and fission. Rumor is the Army wants a workable prototype by June of next year.”

He huffed a laugh. “The Army wants everything. They’d start dropping bombs now if they could. Science be damned. Did you read?”

He reached into his pants pocket and shoved a letter at me. Arm limp. Not his usual forcefulness.

I took the note. “Read what?” I said calmly.

“Guys in Chicago. A nervous bunch, those guys. Think that there ought to be an oversight group for all things nuclear.”

I read the note. A memo from the scientist at the Metallurgy Lab in Chicago. They want international control of atomic energy. “What do they mean by cooperative laboratories?”

Kennedy shrugs. He looks down at the New York Times that I now kept at the corner of my messy desk. “Rockets on London,” he murmurs. “Just another sharp stick.” He walks out of the room.

July 22. Kennedy looks despondent. Sits in Fuller Lodge alone. Teller nowhere to be seen.

July 23. A chance encounter with Kennedy. Distant. Won’t talk about why he came to see me. We talk about the weather. Hot out today. Nods. Chance of thunderstorms. Mm-huh. He fidgets. Rolls a pencil between his thumb and finger. Says nothing. Seems unburdened when I leave.

July 25. Weatherly and I are transfixed with our calculations. Crunching numbers to help the Metallurgy Lab in Chicago. Reactor applications. Building a box to hold something we do not fully understand. We don’t hear Oppie creep into the room.

“What do you think is eating at Kennedy?”

We turn. Surprised. We know General Groves had been on the Mesa. Eager for word on when he could have his bomb. With all that pressure, Oppie is still worried about Kennedy.

I pause, chalk in hand: “I really can’t say.”

“He worries about you.”

Not certain what to say. Stupidly look to Weatherly. As though he could finish my thoughts. I have no idea what he worries about. I am not in any of the radioactive labs. No contaminants come my way. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get transferred to some distant front in Belgium or Holland.

I stand there with a dumb stare. Oppie says quietly: “Stick with Millikan.”

July 26. Arrived early at my desk in Procurement. Captain tells me I am wanted in Oppie’s office. I chuckle under my breath. “Which one?” I thought. I salute and walk to A-Building.

In the hallway, I can hear voices. I recognize Oppie’s voice. Calm. Two others. Agitated. Authoritarian. One bellows: “Damn it, what do you need?” I turned the corner. Stood rigid in the doorway. Sight of General Groves. Me looking less than soldierly. Oppie looks over the General’s shoulder. Points at me. He says: “More of him.”

July 28. Last two days driving for the Army again. The Mesa is going to get two hundred new residents. Hauling equipment: wood, plumbing, wiring, shingles, toilets, sinks. New residences to be built. The private riding with me asked if I’d heard about Normandy? “We invaded France,” I said bluntly. Enthusiastic grin: “We broke out. There’s talk we’ll be in Paris next month. Berlin just after that!” I’d spent so much time playing with decay rates, formulas for explosive reactions, I’d forgotten there was a war going on. Science had consumed me. Weatherly worked relentlessly. I followed. Into an abyss of science. I can only think of the bomb.

August 1. I have been reassigned. Again. I am out of the number factory. New role. Tomorrow I will receive a formal commission. From Private First Class to Tech Sergeant. I am awestruck. Jumping ranks. What did I do to deserve this? I am to oversee the integration of thirty new Special Engineers into the Metallurgy labs. Oppie tells me all this at dinner. Kennedy is there, too. He is smiling again.

August 10. I am overwhelmed. They all seem so young. These engineers. But they are maybe two years younger than me. All plucked from colleges around the U.S. and dropped off at the Mesa. All with commissioned ranks. I understand why I got TSergeant. They’re all sergeants. I had to be their superior. All full access card to the Tech areas. My first instruction was to bring them up to speed. “Don’t hide anything,” Oppie says. “Answer everything. We need them now.” I tell them about 49. Instability. The bomb. We now call ‘gadget’ for security issues. Everything. One asks: “When do we drop it on Berlin?” Another pipes up: “Naw, we’d kill our boys. They’ll be marching in Berlin tomorrow. Tokyo’s getting fucked. Payback for Pearl.” The rest of the boys cheered. I wonder if we need to use it at all.

August 12. I find that I cannot focus. My life is consumed with confusion. I cannot give orders. I don’t take orders well either. I am out of sorts. All I think about are the numbers. I find little comfort in my textbooks. Tried to read a few. A couple pages only.

August 13. A hot, dry wind whips the Mesa. Dusty. Grit in our teeth. Walking around between D-Building and the Boiler House. Keenly aware of the magic happening behind the windows. Constant reminder that I am no longer involved. Is it a rebuke? Why was I teased with everything I wanted? Why was I pulled out? Weatherly catches me on his way to a colloquium. Between breaths: “Bang up job getting those boys up to speed.” I want to ask about the numbers. The words won’t form. He is gone before I can get them out.

August 15. Another day giving orders. Getting men situated in jobs that I should be doing. That I yearn to do. Those are my numbers. My formulas. My ideas. My science.

August 19. My first command meeting. The directors of each division are there. Oppie sits behind a large desk. We sit lecture style. I am in the back behind Kennedy. Reports on findings. Fission is likely. Gadget should be ready by next July. Grumbling from some of the luminaries. “Another year of dead American boys.” And then Kennedy spoke: “Do we need to use it at all?” We looked at him as though he was a complete stranger in the room. Oppie ended the meeting with a wave of his hand.

August 19, after midnight. Can’t sleep. Again confused, interspersed lucidity. Kennedy had said what I had questioned. Why use it? It was only a matter of time. Time was short. For the Germans. For science. For the war itself. Did we need to use it in war? What about a mere demonstration? A show? A brilliant light show? Kennedy’s queer presence in Procurement. The note from the Metullargy Lab in Chicago. Was he having doubts?

August 21. Kennedy walks with a bounce in his step. As though all the cosmic tumblers had clicked into place. A question: Is that the behavior of a man who questioned his own work? Gadget nears completion. His work with plutonium. 49. And now he doesn’t want it used?

Another thought. Understands that gadget is more than we can hold onto. As we race to complete it, is it a completion? Are we finished at that? Teller’s fusion. Even greater yields. Weatherly proved that. He doesn’t question his work. He questions tomorrow’s work. As though he’d given birth to a tremendous burden. The science betraying him. Maybe he wasn’t questioning God and science. God and physics. A question of if it was God in the physics. Someone else? The formulas a seductive mistress. A temptress luring us into the abandon.

And Oppie? His concern for Kennedy. Did he share these same fears? Does he allow Kennedy to be his voice? His hand? Challenge it! Question it! Who will be Trinity’s keeper? Kennedy’s abrupt dismissal of all our work. Oppie’s fears of a future uncertain voiced by Kennedy’s quick trepidation. What did he say? Tame the atom? I fear not. Oppie has gone too far down the rabbit hole. He must push the program forward. Kennedy close behind. They try to keep me from falling in.

Is this possible?

Maybe.

August 25. Paris is liberated. No change here.

December 4. I am on a train. Heading to Chicago. We stopped in St. Louis. A young man joined there. Have become friendly with him. Davis. A mechanical engineer. Just finished studies in St. Louis. A robust, stout man, worked his father’s farm, terse, direct; dark hair and balding. We are going together to the Metallurgy Lab in Chicago. Orders. I learned you don’t question them. Davis notices my Special Engineer patch. Asks about my work. “Where were you stationed?” “What were you working on?” I can say little. Maybe more at the lab.

But I think about my work. What did I advance? With or without me gadget would come about. Maybe a few months later. Maybe a year. The world would know what we toiled over. The accidents. The successes. Nucleuonics. Power of the atom. We would replace coal with clean energy. Science could make a better world. But how would we share it? Perhaps as a harmless tool to brighten our homes. A flick of the switch. Listening to FDR on the radio. Atomic power. No. Kennedy rests his hopes on a display. I can only think of a fireworks show. A grand explosion. Witnessed by all nations. The Army wants a target. Before I left, rumors swirled across the Mesa of a Target Committee. Oppie would be on it. For sure.

At the station. Santa Fe. Kennedy says something. Unexpected. He quotes: “The way men think is the most practical concern in life, for all conduct flows from it.”

He takes my hand. Firm. Draws me toward him. A hug.

I ask him what I’ve meant to ask for months: “Why have you watched over me?”

He smiles. A whisper: “Remember the dinner party?”

A nod.

“Remember what was said?”

“Bigger sticks.”

“We won’t be the only ones. There will be other sticks.”

“Not if we share.”

His face is resolute. “Think wisely. Be a true voice.”

A cold snow sleets across the windows. A sky as dark as molasses. The rhythmic clicking of steel against rails. For the first time in many months, I am certain of my purpose.

 

END

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Staring At Corners

mediumThere wasn’t much in my room that wasn’t blue. The walls were a soft shade of sky blue. The carpet had, at one time, been a deep, plush shag of royal blue, but had deformed into a matted, dreadlocks looking pathetic attempt at a shade of blue. There were spots in the carpet that were nearly as smooth as the concrete in the garage. My window curtains were blue. The duvet was blue. And then there was the fish tank which made the entire room ripple as though I was living in some dank undersea universe. It was my universe. I told stories to the walls, created fantastic world with my toys and populated them with the only friends I knew–the ones living in my head. I spent a great deal of my time in that little sanctuary, often just sitting indian-style on my bed in dead silence, staring at the fish lazily swimming in their tank as though they were moving in jello.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that the room color wasn’t an accident. It was that way when my parents purchased the house. And then they left it that way. Sure, I liked the color blue. But an entire room, floor to ceiling? No, it was their way of subduing me as though my room was the “calm room” in the psychiatric ward.

And I had spent a great deal of time in that room, and most of it because I was in trouble. Most of my trouble came from school. Attending a private Christian school had a myriad of drawbacks, but the biggest one was that your peer group was extremely limited. I had been in the same class with Caroline and Heidi since pre-school. My people meeting skills had peaked by the first grade and by the third grade my social sphere had been firmly established. This made making friends in the neighborhood difficult and once Adam and Billy moved, there really wasn’t anyone to play with. So, I retreated to my silent room; my opalescent world where I was keeper and king.

Samson_and_Delilah_by_RubensThe other issue with being in such a small social sphere was that our reputations had been established and perpetuated by the teachers in the school. I was constantly getting in trouble. Talking when I wasn’t supposed to. Not in line straight enough. Forgetting Bible verses–a sin tantamount to cannibalism in my school. When we forgot our verses, we had to rewrite Exodus 20:12 some twenty times. “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your GOD has given you.” Nothing like an implied threat! Honor your father–GOD–by memorizing verses or he’ll smite you from earth. By ’83 we were no longer learning simple verses; we had the joy of learning entire chapters. I didn’t want to recite “The Lord is my shephard…” or “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows….” I got it. God loves me and he died for my sins. I figured that one out sometime in the first grade. I’d sang enough songs to beat that fact into my head. I wanted to read about the things that Delilah was doing with Sampson. I wanted to see the face of Mr. Swift–our hipster, before hipster was a thing, teacher–when child after child walked up to him and said: “Now Samson went to Gaza and saw a harlot there, and went in to her.” Then had to answer the question that everyone would have: “What does it mean that he went in to her?”

Other than my spending time reading chapters of the Bible I wasn’t supposed to be and rewriting the Fifth Commandment when I should have been learning math, my reputation had been firmly established as a child that needed punishment in those rebellious years called Kindergarten.

the_paddles_infinite_stingOne day, while playing with Hot Wheel cars beside the green corrugated metal shed where the church school bus was stored, I got my foot caught between the bottom of a chain link fence and the asphalt. Of course I was screaming and crying. What five-year-old wouldn’t be as the sharp points at the bottom of the fence cut into their ankle? But I was also crying because we weren’t supposed to be playing on the side of the bus shed. I knew I would be in trouble and that scared me. I’d seen second graders get paddled and I knew it would be my turn. You’d think that that trauma would have sufficed, but, no, I had to be made an example of. In class, Mrs. Gaston–the daughter of the pastor of our school’s church–made sure to give me a good swing of her yardstick in front of all my classmates. From that day, I was a bad student. If Mrs. Gaston says your are bad, you stay that way until you leave Foothill Christian. When you are ten and that’s your reputation with the teachers, you might as well live up to it. Who could imagine with so many tropes of doom, I’d find a malicious portent in Getting Foot Stuck Under Fence? So, I read about harlots and daughters who were thought to be harlots and, of course, boobies. Thank God for the Song of Solomon. Had I been more astute, I’d have memorized every line from the Song of Solomon and used them to woo women. Unfortunately, social skills was one part of the curriculum lacking in my school.

My bad boy reputation firmly established, I was in constant trouble both at school and at home. If I had to serve detention after school, I would then be punished twice the detention time at home because I had to make my mother wait for me. And then when I’d question where a homemaker had to go, what could possibly demand her immediate attention at home, I was certain to my second swatting of the day. But therein lie the problem: How do you punish a kid with no social skills and spends all his time sitting quietly on his bed indian-style? “Go to your room!” wasn’t so much a threat as a privilage. “Don’t play with any toys!” was about as firm a threat as a yapping chihuahua. I’d shuffle off to my room and sit quietly staring at nothing, memorizing the distorted and faded colors of blue on the floor. Eventually, my father, probably out of desperation and a reluctance to admit defeat, realized that just sending me to my room was not a punishment. So, I started standing in the corner opposite my bedroom door. I’d stand there, staring at the corner, lost in my mind.

There I stood. Nose into the wall like so many other children before me. Standing like a silent sentinel in honor of Nemesis. I’d think about Niki. I’d tell myself stories where I wasn’t standing in the corner. I’d watch the darkness in my mind stretch into a tiny corner and feel myself falling away from it as though I was being ripped from a vacuum; heads of people I knew would shrink into ridiculously tiny bobbles atop their shoulders. I would tell myself the story of Lot and his daughters. And then I’d ask myself why something as lurid as that would be in the Bible. I’d stand for hours. I never made a sound. And, once, I fell asleep standing in my corner.

If Getting Foot Stuck Under Fence was an ominous portent, there was also a little wrinkle of wonder to it. Without it, I wouldn’t have found my corner and there I would never have ventured into the world of my imagination where all these stories come from now. So, I suppose I should thank Mrs. Gaston… but really. No. Seriously? Who paddles a five-year-old?

Read more stories from the ’83 series here

But They’re a Christian Band–Part Two

stryper-togehterasonesoldiersundercommandConvincing mom to go to Maranatha was as easy as convincing an old woman in Kansas that God needed her to give money to a televangelist. She was always reading Bible study books and she was good for needing more than she could finish in a month. While she meandered the self-help section, I browsed the cassettes looking for something that I knew wouldn’t be there. I flipped through the plastic cases of familiar names like Petra and Stryper and the REZ band. My parents had bought everyone of their cassettes for my birthday, Christmas, and Easter. I could count on a cassette with the Maranatha price tag half-way peeled on any of these holidays.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” my mother asked with a handful of study guides for Corinthians and Ephesians and tucked between were books on raising a Christian Boy in A Secular World and When They Don’t Honor Their Parents. Mom figured since God had made me, the manual had to be out there somewhere.

“Not really.”

“Do you have any of these?” She was looking down at the collection of REZ tapes. I wanted to say I have two of each! You’ve bought them for my birthday and Easter this year. Instead, I just nodded.

“Well, there’s always Christmas.”

Of course there was. One more Petra tape and I was going to pull a Fountain of Billy myself. I wanted to Rock. Not be rocked to sleep with another rendition of “The Coloring Song”. I’ve never heard anyone take such an inspiring message and turn it into a song that would lull shepherds to sleep.

“I was looking for U2.” There. I had fired my initial shot. Mother looked at me quizzically. I knew that she and the other mothers spoke in their little Bible study groups about things like the Anti-Christ/Devil’s Children and the Culture Club, and how they were poisoning the minds of America. To be honest, I thought Boy George was as absurd as my parents did, but that didn’t stop me from singing “Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon” all day. Each time I did, I’d lose my radio for a week, but it was worth it just to see the frightened reaction on my parents face. If I had the balls, I’d have stolen some of my sister’s makeup and painted myself to look like him, too. I’d have strawberry stained lips and I’d paint my eyes to look like the eye of Ra and I borrow a rainbow of felt and fabric from mom’s sewing kit and make my hair look like a clown threw up on me. I didn’t only because I was afraid I’d be sent to some dark rehab for future homosexuals. By the quirk in her look, U2 hadn’t made it into their specter of fear.

“They’re a new Christian band,” I said sheepishly.

Mom shrugged. “Did you look in the U’s?”

Yep. She really said that.

“They don’t have them.”

“Let’s ask at the counter.”

Oooh. Not what I had planned for. I was just hoping that I’d be able to move into the second phase of my plan smoothly. Once it was firmly established that Maranatha didn’t have everything Christian they’d have to take me to the West Covina Mall where there was a Tower Records. I’d seen the place many times. It was a giant brick and red tile building with red and white metal awnings over the floor to ceiling windows in the parking lot of the mall. The windows had posters of Madonna and David Bowie and Adam Ant. And that was why I was never allowed to go inside. Damn you awkward gender-bending music trends!

Mom had thrown an unforeseen twist to my plot. I knew that the clerk would look through her shipping records and announce that, no, there was no such thing as U2. If Maranatha didn’t have it, then it wasn’t Christian. That would be the end of that.

Before we could get to the counter, I found a young lady wearing a soft peach/pastel shirt and blue jeans, her hair bunched atop her head in a pile of curls and feathering. Her Maranatha badge said her name was Clare. “Do you have U2?”

She looked dumbfounded and I could tell she was lost. Here’s what she probably heard: “Do you have you, too?” If I let this moment go on too long, the spellbinding silence would lull my mom into anxiety and she’d lose it. She rationalize that I’d broken the poor girl’s brain asking about a band that was clearly not a Christian band. “They’re a new Christian band,” I blurted.

“Oh,” she said pleasantly. “Did you look under ‘U’?”

No matter how hard I tried to scrub it off, the I’m-A-Complete-Idiot tattoo on my forehead wouldn’t come off. “Not there.”

“Maybe you can come back next week. We get more tapes then.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Can we come back next week?” I asked as I turned to my mother. I hoped this question would settle it and she wouldn’t bring it up to the manager behind the counter. “We’ll see.”

As the cashier handed my mother her change I thought I’d made it out free and clear. She didn’t say anything to the young girl other than a polite “God bless.” She always said that to people. But then the stubby, portly manager with thinning brown hair, a face that showed the torment of acne filled high school years, and a light blue and white Hawaiian flower print shirt walked up behind the cashier and asked, “Did you find everything you needed?” Uh. No. Wasn’t going to find it here in the first place. This was all a ruse. Please don’t ruin it.

“My son wanted a cassette by U2.”

I swear, if he asks if I looked under “u” I was going to hit someone.

Instead, he looked at his clipboard, flipped some pages, scowled, and replied, “We don’t have them. Maybe you should try Tower Records.”

Holy shit! Some middle-aged, balding, Magnum-wannabe managing a Christian bookstore suggested we go to Tower? I probably should have dropped to my knees on the spot and prayed a long prayer of forgiveness and repentance.

“No,” my mother said softly. “My son says they’re a Christian band.”

The man looked at me for a moment. He saw right through me and through my hollow lie. “They have a small selection of Christian music and they can get Christian bands from Europe that we cannot.”

Okay. Prayer wasn’t enough. I probably should run off to some monastery, shave my head,  take a vow of silence, and live the austere life! I could see it now. Me walking around a cloister in a brown robe with a rough hemp rope for a belt, shaved head, chanting, humming, and reading all the dirty pages of the Bible over and over again. It’s a shame they no longer made illuminated manuscripts. I’d have had a blast drawing some of those pictures. A regular Biblical Penthouse forum.

My mother and I didn’t say a word until we pulled into the driveway of our blue trimmed  white house. I opened the door and slid out the backseat of the “banana boat”–a overtly derisive term used for my mother’s yellow 1977 Dodge Aspen wagon. I was always embarrassed going to school in a Chiquita fruit. I followed my mother in silence. In the dining room, she set down her new collection of books on the table just as silently as she walked. She had a weird way of being deadly silent. I’d be in my room looking at the TV Guide, reading all the shows I’d never see including the late-night HBO ones and then there she’d be standing in my door. I swear she had a sixth sense when it came to my soul and its temptations.

“So can we?” I asked meekly.

“Can we what?”

“Tower records?”

She pursed her lips. I had as good of a chance getting my mom to go shopping with me in the Red Light district in Amsterdam than I had of getting her into Tower. At least there, you knew for certain the girls were girls. But that wasn’t my hope. No, if fate was playing on my team–and it was after Mr. Magnum Christian guy–then my sister would take me.

“We’ll talk with your father when he gets home.”

And, just like that, I was back to recording on my two year old Memorex cassette. It was getting so bad you could barely hear the underlying recordings as I recorded new songs over the past. U2 would have to go into the dusty, neglected hope chest of my youth along with becoming a professional BMX racer, a big rig truck driver, hearing AC/DC for the first time, and living in a household that had cable television.

The topic of U2 and Tower Records never came up at dinner. Father, in his usual dour, stern voice, asked how school was, why my math test scores were low, and if I finished my homework for next week. I nodded. Anything more invited too many questions. After dinner, I finished my chores of clearing the table and cleaning the dishes. I was about to retreat to my room when dad came up to me and said, “You need to go to Tower Records?”

I’d heard about The Exorcist from kids at school whose parents were less fastidious about their faith. I knew that the girl in the movie was possessed; Satanic possession was something my parents feared would, or maybe had, happen to me. I’d heard the older kids quoting “What an excellent day for an exorcism” whenever something strange happened at school, or one of the teachers decided that it was paddling time. At our school, the administration exorcised the demons from us not with holy water or scripture but with a solid ping-pong paddle. I had my fair share of turns leaning over the principal’s desk counting to three or five or the dreaded seven.

I looked up at my father, the austere man who’s love I knew I had, but had to decipher through This-Is-Going-To-Hurt-Me-More-Than-You moments, and wondered if I needed a priest.

“You wanted a cassette.”

I blinked blankly. It was that slow blink you might have as you drove by a car accident as they were pulling the bodies from the wreckage.

“Do you want to go or not?”

Oh. There he was. Stern and to the point. Glad to have you back.

Like most of the time I spent with my father, we drove the twenty five minutes to the West Covina mall in a silence that you’d hear in funeral homes or the Antarctic.

The actual Tower Records in West Covina, no long since closed.

The actual Tower Records in West Covina, now long since closed.

The inside of Tower was everything I imagined and then so much more. There were posters of bands that I had never heard of–New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, Violent Femmes, Ultravox–and some familiar names as well. Men At Work blared over the speakers. There were punks with leather jackets emblazoned with “The Ramones” on the back. There were guys wearing frilled white shirts that looked like something from a vintage 40’s era pirate movie and girls wearing all black from hair, to eye makeup to lips to clothes. There were preppy kids and nerdy kids and just plain teenagers. It was an entirely different world to me, but it was the normal world. I was the one who lived in a void.

My dad’s drill sergeant face became more stoic than Lincoln’s on a rock in South Dakota. His mind was trying to grasp the unholiness of the situation, but it was like trying to capture smoke with your fingers. There was no way he’d be able to absorb the entirety of the place and I knew that I’d have to be quick about things or we’d be out the door faster than a Jehovah’s Witness was kicked off my front porch.

And there was another problem. U2 was supposed to be a Christian band. I knew that was total bullshit. Their albums would be found in the rock section. The problem being, dad would follow me there and stop me dead in my tracks. Mr. Magnum guy from Maranatha Books couldn’t help me now. I rushed over to the UVW section of the rock music hoping that my furtive darting, like a squirrel on a street not knowing which way to go as the car came to hit him, would help me elude my father.

Not Mr.-I-Was-A-Green-Beret guy. He had me as though he was a hound and I was the fox. He parked his massive body behind me as I pulled “War” from the rack. “This isn’t Christian music,” he said.

“Maybe they misfiled it.” Yeah. Like that was going to work.

My father took one look at the record cover with the young boy, hands behind his head, a little cut on his lip, all in black and white, with “U2/WAR” in blood red and said: “Nope.” He turned, and I knew that as a dutiful foot soldier, I was expected to follow quickstep.

On our way out of what must have seemed to my father to be one of the three portals to hell–the other two being Hollywood itself and Las Vegas–my father paused by the “new release” rack. I tried to follow his eyes across the rack. There were the usual sinners: A little girl in a white dress playing peeping tom (Violent Femmes); A building exploding as viewed through a sniper’s scope (Def Leppard); An orange haired, bondage masked Annie Lennox; A pentagram and title “Shout At The Devil”. At least Madonna looked somewhat decent. Then my eyes caught Juice Newton’s latest album. God no. If he picked up that pastel cacophony of wretchedness I’d be shamed for all time.

What he reached for instead was “Built For Speed”. I could see a twinkle in his eyes. He looked back in time through that cover. Maybe he saw himself in those Rockabilly outfits and slicked back hair standing in front of two amazing hot rods. In that moment, I realized that my father was a person, too. That there were memories and hopes and dreams behind that icy veneer.

And that’s how I ended up walking into my bedroom with my first ever record. I played that album almost raw. I still have it, along with hundreds of others that I have since collected. Oh, I did end up with “War”, on cassette, for my birthday. It was a gift from my sister.

Read Part One here

Read more stories from the ’83 series here

But They’re a Christian Band–Part One

erin_gray0248(1)It was already a hot day and it wasn’t even nine in the morning. The heat shimmered off the black asphalt like a steady rain falling upwards. I was walking two houses up the street to Adam and Billy’s. Adam was my age and Billy was his younger brother; we’d been friends since kindergarten. Above me, past the sagging eucalyptus trees and overgrown shrubbery, trucks ground through their gears as they made their way up the 210 freeway along the slopes of South Hills. I loved going over to Adam and Billy’s house for two reasons: Rock music and their stepmom. She drove a burgundy MG convertible and she looked exactly like Erin Gray from Battlestar Galactica. Yeah. She was hot. She’d take us to the beach in that convertible and we’d be the kings of the road. And she’d let us go into Adam’s room and blare the music and we’d dance and sing and act like little rock savages. We’d play air guitar to “Eye of the Tiger” and “Abracadabra” and “Don’t You Want Me”. Our favorite song to play pretend band to was Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”. It became my little anthem. And whenever Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” came on the radio, we’d be joined by Adam’s stepmom who would belt out her voice as though she was calling us into war. I’d pick up Billy’s wooden tennis racket, Adam would jump onto his chair with two pencils substituting for drum sticks and we’d play our own little private concert. To say that Adam’s house was a sacrosanct temple of music doesn’t do it justice; I watched MTv’s launch at his house. I was confused by Boy George there. I watched Madonna and got turned on there. While my house only had free channels and the gospel networks, Adam had cable! I had convinced my parents to let me sleep over at his house that fateful August night in ’81 and together we watched The Buggles change how we listened to music. After a few weeks of Rod Stewart videos we tired of MTv and went back to AM radio and our rock gods.

1982-84 were good years for music. The Police. Duran Duran. Michael Jackson. Prince. But in my good Christian naivete I had no idea what it was that I was reciting despite the clear connotations: “I feel the magic in your caress/I feel magic when I touch your dress/Silk and Satin; leather and lace/Black panties with an angel’s face”. Uh, yeah. Nope didn’t get it! And this from a kid who’d read all the naughty stuff in the Bible. Though it doesn’t help that the Bible is rather cryptic with its messages with its “goes in to her” stuff. [Extra points for anyone who can name the song quoted above! No looking up on the internet either.] To be honest, I was beginning to get things figured out and by ’84 I would be pretending to not have a clue just so my sister and her friends could get a laugh.

It might sound callouss, but I would head over to Adam’s just to listen to music. We were friends though, and did the things friends did. When the older boys on the street dared us to a game of “rat tail” we’d be there for each other, until the boys caught us. Rat tail was just that–We’d all have towels rolled up and soaked wet. The older boys would hide inside one of the houses and Adam and I would have to come in and try to find them. The older kids would jump out from their hiding places and start snapping their wet towels against our bare legs and arms and once cornered Adam would abandon me to the tortures of those rat tails or vice versa. We were good friends! But we shared a love of music. There really wasn’t music in my house. Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” was tempting fate. My sister tried to bring in Purple Rain and the tape was destroyed twice–she dared to buy another copy–when my parents heard “Darling Nikki”. It didn’t help her cause any that my sister’s name is Nicole.

So, there I was wandering up the street ready to immerse myself in everything holy about rock ‘n roll. Adam and Billy were standing outside on their driveway. They’d just waved good-bye to their dad and were standing idly in the morning heat. Like usual, we stood around debating what to do: Ride bikes? Ride our skateboards down Concord Lane? Ask the older boys to go to 7-Eleven? Listen to music? Then Billy stopped mid-sentence and gurgled a burp. Adam and I laughed, but Billy didn’t look good. Billy looked around as though a wild spirit had just flown through him and he was trying to find it. Adam and I paused. When Billy looked skyward, we both looked too wondering what it was that he was looking for or at. Then we heard the gurgle again. Only this time it was accompanied not with a burp but with a steady flow of breakfast. There was Billy standing on his driveway, eyes to the sky, vomiting like a fountain in Vegas. It went on for what seemed like minutes. Billy puking to the sky with chunks of bacon and eggs and milk and toast raining down on his shoulders and the pavement with a faint splattering sound almost like the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. The longer he puked, the paler his face went until he finished and his face matched the white of his eyes. After we’d finished laughing what Adam would later call “The Fountain of Billy”, Adam took Billy inside. That was the end of my day with them. If Billy couldn’t play, neither could Adam. I went home.

Martin-f_Panasonic_RQ2108

The creator of so many mixed tapes in the early 80s

I had two ways of listening to music: A Panasonic slimline cassette player or my record player/stereo. The only redeeming value that my Panasonic had was that I could record my favorite songs off the radio. I’d sit next to the speakers and hold up that old cassette player, careful to not make too many movements because the microphone would pick up all the cracks and knocks of the plastic case. It wasn’t worth listening to music on since it’s one speaker sounded about as decent as a conversation between two tin cups tied with a string. But I would record all my favorites off the radio.

The stereo was a hand-me-down. As were most of the things, expensive things, that I had in my life. My first bike was a lime green–that late ’70s green, like peas meet Andy Warhol–girls bike with a two foot long beige banana seat and glittery tassels that hung from the opalescent, green handle grips. It had been my sister’s and she’d long since outgrown it. My first car was my dad’s old, old business car that he bought off the company, but that’s getting ahead of myself.

The case was fake wood and the AM/FM dial often stuck in the higher numbers. The opaque green lid wasn’t hinged so if I was playing a record, it was just better to leave it off otherwise I’d make the needle jump. The speakers were massive, yet they only produced a tinny, static noise if I turned the volume anywhere past five. And that was okay, because if my parents knew what I was listening to, I’d have gotten in trouble. My mother forbid me from watching such subversive shows like Sesame Street–she’d never let me learn my numbers from a vampire!

At school there was a sixth grader named Chad who wore a simple black pin with “U2” in white on the collar of his shirt. I had no idea what a U2 was, and thought it just was a cool way of saying “you, too?” In March I’d heard them for the first time. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. I had to have their album. I’d talked to Chad and he told me they were a Christian band. I knew he was full of shit, but, hey, a band singing about Sunday I could play this off on my parents. I recorded the song off the radio with my little Panasonic but you could hear my mom in the background clanking dishes in the kitchen as she made dinner. Kind of took the edge off the protest song.

Walking home from Adam and Billy’s, I decided that I would screw up the nerve and get my parents to take me to the music store and buy War. I had an elaborate lie crafted.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” was a song about Christ fighting for our sins; “New Year’s Day” was about His resurrection and how it made a new day for us Christians. The album title was a bit complicated so I had hoped to navigate around that one, but if it came up, I’d say something about it being a “war” against Satan.

When I say music store, what I mean is a Christian Bookstore on Arrow Highway. It was next door to Southeast Construction Products and their bright red sign that looked a 2-D image of an arrow’s fletchings. It was a strange place. The fence bounding Arrow Highway was made of beige brick columns with pearl white statuary atop them and chain link fencing between. I always imagined the place as some ’70s drug induced shrine to Italian stereotypical lawn decor or a Roman gladiator pit. The latter seemed more appropriate since Maranatha Christian Books was next door.

Read Part Two Here

Read more stories from the ’83 series here

First Kiss

burt_lancaster_and_deborah_kerrImagine Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the surf or Westley and Buttercup perched high above a soft, cloudy sunrise and you might just have the most perfect kiss. You are holding your lover’s chin cupped in your hands. As you look into their eyes time and space seem to eclipse into a burning hot singularity. From the corner of your eye you can see the flutter of butterflies slow and the wind gently caresses your head tenderly nudging you closer. A quick slip of your tongue across your lips to wet them. You can begin to feel the warmth of their skin and breath as you draw even closer, and the sweet smell of yearning envelops your senses. A soft tilt of the head. Your eyes close, but not completely. You want to savor the sight of passion. Your lips touch…. and, yeah, my first kiss was nothing like that!

That I had a first kiss is an amazing fact in its own right. My social skills when it came to interacting with others involved not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day just so I’d get pinched. The other problem was that I’d spent the last five years in class with the same girls year in and year out that the thought of kissing any one of them was about as repulsive as kissing your sister. But, by 1983, new girls were being introduced into our little social sphere. There was Renee and Trista and Julie and Niki.

Niki came to Foothill Christian in 1981 (third grade), but she was in the other class. So, for all intents and purposes, she was living in Outer Mongolia. As fate would have it, she was seated behind me for the entirety of the fourth grade (’82-’83). Her sandy blonde hair ended in little ringlets and curls. Her thin lips always turned up in a smirk belying a mischievousness that I would soon learn about . She’d wear skirts with knee-high socks and a pair of black, leather girl’s loafers. Given the chance, she would have dawned “jelly” but that was strictly verboten at Foothill Christian–as was any semblance of the New Romantic look, Madonna, or punk. It was preppy or nothing.

There I was, sporting my popped collar and Levi jeans, carrying my gigantic, red Rubbermaid lunch box–the one where every aspect of your lunch could be compartmentalized into smaller Rubbermaid containers–and overstuffed blue winter coat trying to get Niki to recognize me. Strike one. Anyone gets noticed carrying a red Rubbermaid lunchbox. And not for good reasons. To make matters worse, the powers that be decided that this year, all fourth graders would be tested to see if they were too smart. Of course, my parents had me tested, and I would spend the fourth grade in a tiny–me and Inger–reading group segregated from the rest of the class sitting in front of a reading box. It looked like a light box an artist might use to transfer an image, but instead of a glass screen, there were velum pages on a roll illuminated from behind and a dial on the side that could increase the speed of the rollers. Let’s single out the nerds. Strike two.

In our cloistered world, a new girl was like throwing blood into shark infested waters. Every boy immediately set upon Renee and Trista and Julie and Niki as though we’d not seen a living, breathing girl before. But Renee and Trista were only with us for one year and by the summer of ’83 they’d disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. That left Julie and Niki, and I figured I stood about as good a chance with them as Grenada had fighting the U.S. Strike Three.

I don’t recall who said anything to whom. As all playground romances, it was probably initiated by friends of Niki who talked to my friends and so on.

“Did you know Niki thinks Bryan is cute?” Tina said at lunch.

“Really? He said the same thing.” Craig replied.

And then the it happened. We were an item. Dating as only fourth graders could do. We’d sit next to each other at lunch. She’d push me down stairs. I’d shove her into the sandbox. True love. We’d play tag at recess and, of course, I only chased her and all her friends made sure that I couldn’t get near her. And then the gossipy little mites asked the one question that would shake my world. “Have you kissed her yet?”

Uh. Kissed? “Sorry, I don’t speak your language.” And I ran away like I had piss running down my legs.

By the summer after fourth grade, Niki and I had held hands, sat next to each during Friday chapel, and played countless games of tag. We talked about horses even though the only thing that I knew about them was that they were big and that Jack In the Box supposedly put them in their hamburgers two years earlier. Niki loved horses. She had one in a paddock beside her house. She wanted to ride horses all day, but her parents dragged her to school. She taught me about grooming and bathing and saddling. All skills that I have put to about as good of use as trigonometry. I told her my stories. I drew pictures for her. And when I was standing in my corner I’d think about her beautiful sandy blonde hair and her soft eyes and her sneaky smile. But that kiss lingered over us like the threat of a playground tattle-tale.

We saw each other quite a bit over the summer; her brother James and I became friends and I’d spent the night often. Niki’s house was up San Dimas Canyon. I’d been up that road every Christmas I could remember each winter on the family trip to the Sturrock Christmas tree farm. I’d wander the acres of Monterrey pines looking for the perfect tree to plant in our living room. I even remember driving past Niki’s house. A two story house, it was twice the size of mine and it was set back from the road behind a lush yard of green grass and live oaks. The paddock was to the south of the house. That my first kiss would happen so close to another site of fond memories is one of those things you just chalk up to cosmic coincidence. Nothing is left of the house or the Sturrock farm. In its place is a golf course and Puddingstone Diversion 32-016 Dam.

Niki’s birthday party would be in her backyard. She invited nearly half the girls in our grade. And me. Those odds played perfectly into my social skill set. Tease the girls. Runaway. Get them to chase you. Attention on me.

It was a cool afternoon when my mother dropped me off at Niki’s house. I had a sleeping bag with me; I was going to be spending the night with James, and my present for Niki. All the girls were in the backyard around the pool, and I found James inside watching TV. Per household rules, I wasn’t allowed upstairs–I never saw Niki’s bedroom, or James’ for that matter–so we stayed downstairs and played games. When we finally got the nerve, we went outside with the girls and the game was on.

“Niki and Bryan sitting in a tree…”

“Come here, hug her,” one of the Jennifers said tugging on my arm.

“Kiss her. Kiss her.”

Of course I wanted to but I had no idea what to do. If I had an ounce of charisma I might have walked up to Niki, put my hand on the back of her head, drew her near, and say: “Kiss me.” But I didn’t. So. I ran. I ran around the house with James in tow and the girls following squealing and giggling like ten-year-old girls do. Then, what started as a game of chase to get me to kiss Niki became a challenge to catch me and toss me in the pool. Oh well. At least they were still chasing me. After about ten minutes, the girls finally cornered me and wrestled me toward the pool. Fully dressed, feigning a struggle, I was tossed in. A triumphant roar echoed through the canyon as I bobbed in my shorts and t-shirt staring up at Niki and wishing I had just gone through with the kiss.

Like a cat coming in from the rain, I dragged my soaking wet corpse from the water. Niki stood nearby with a towel her mother had given her. The girls were scolded: “We don’t do that to our guests,” Niki’s mother said. I went inside, changed into some of James’ clothes, and joined the party outside just as Niki was about to open presents. I have no idea what I got her; my mother probably picked something out with me standing beside her in the girl’s aisle of Gemco. We played games, ate cake, and played chase again. This time, the girls were chasing Niki. Jackee was sitting on me and the Jennifers held my arms against the plastic lawn chair. They were going to get us to kiss one way or another.

And that’s how it happened. Three or four girls tugging and pulling Niki toward me while I was being held captive by two others. It was a quick peck on the lips. We were both flushed red with embarrassment and the other girls started singing “Niki and Bryan sitting in a tree…” once more. I had kissed her. And at that moment it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me.

Niki and I were in different classes again for the fifth grade and our worlds drifted apart. She moved to Northern California after the fifth grade and we never spoke to each other again. Every once in a while, when feeling nostalgic, I pull out my old fifth grade yearbook and read what Niki wrote:

Yo Bryan,

Have a great summer!

Your [sic] nice! Good luck in

6th grade. I still think your [sic] cute!

From Niki

 

Read more stories from the ’83 series here