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.
April 3 . 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.”
“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?”
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.”
“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?
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?”
“Remember what was said?”
“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.