I’m going to go out on a limb and say it: I just had the best birthday weekend ever.
The Loved One planned a surprise regional tour for Friday through Sunday. Surprise, not in that I didn’t know it was coming, but as to the destinations she’d booked for each day. Several times in the weeks and days leading up to it, TLO asked me if I wanted to know what we were going to do and each time I said no. At first, she interpreted that to mean I wasn’t looking forward to the weekend. I reassured her that, no, I was anticipating it greatly but I really relished the idea of giving myself over the to the unknown of it.
In fact, that explains a lot of the difference between us. TLO is a planner whereas I love to see which way the wind will blow us.
Anyway, Friday, we drove up to Fairmount, Indiana for the James Dean Gallery & Museum. Fairmount a small town of just under 3000 inhabitants and was the birthplace of the iconic movie star. Funny thing is, he only ever appeared in three movies, East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, and Giant. he was killed in a car crash after having shot all his scenes in Giant, although the movie was still in post-production when he died.
But those three movies established him as the icon he’d be to this day. Now, by and large, I’ve never thought much about James Dean but I love Americana and there are few things more American than the deification of a tragic movie star. Think Rudolph Valentino or Marilyn Monroe. You can buy seemingly any and every item ever invented, cerated or fashioned by human hands emblazoned with the image of one of Dean’s famous poses — or several images, for that matter.
Fairmount hosts a couple of annual James Dean bashes including a September event that draws some 30,000 visitors to the town. Our host at the bed and breakfast we stayed in Friday night told us she’s booked up for that event through 2021 already.
We went to the cemetery just north of town to see his headstone. Turns out the stone had been stolen twice. After the second theft someone came up with the bright idea of anchoring it with iron rods sunk ten feet into the ground. Once that was done, people started chipping pieces off the stone as souvenirs. To this very day, visitors still leave handwritten notes, flowers, and other mementoes at Dean’s gravesite. Dean’s cousin continues to live in the home he was raised in and, acc’d’g to those in the know, isn’t all all bothered by people driving up and snooping around the place. His birthplace home in Marion, just north of Fairmount, was razed long ago.
The next morning we crossed the state line into Ohio on our way to Wapakoneta, the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to step on the Moon. The Armstrong Air & Space Museum house all the expected memorabilia of his childhood in addition to some beautiful exhibits on NASA’s Gemini and Apollo projects. TLO and I are space geeks so this kind of thing gets us all hot and bothered. We did learn that Armstrong was the first civilian to be accepted and certified by NASA as an astronaut. He had, though, served as a US Navy aviator and test pilot in the 1950s before leaving the service.
It still amazes me that the Moon landing occurred more than 50 years ago. That’s half a century, for pity’s sake. Around the time Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins flew in Apollo 11, I was 13 years old and watching on TV and reading in the papers as they soared to the Moon, Ted Kennedy blew his chance to become president, the Manson Family did their deeds, Woodstock and then Altamont took place. Oh, and one of the great tragedies of my youth (my entire lifetime, really), the storied collapse of the Chicago Cubs who watched as the goddamned New York Mets won the World Series that year, stealing from me something that would take 47 years for me to get over. What a freakin’ year 1969 was! To me at that age, anything that happened 50 years in the past may as well have taken place in the time of the dinosaurs. Let’s see: a half century before ’69, World War I had ended the year before and the Black Sox Scandal was about to take place. Both those things, to my adolescent mind, were of a temporal piece with the Dark Ages and Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Now, something that took place 50 years ago is just another of my memories.
Wait, let me amend that. The Moon landing is far more than just another memory. It’s perhaps the greatest single human achievement in history. It cost some $25 billion-plus, the equivalent of $152B in today’s dollars, and the work of tens of thousands of people from various private companies and a number of federal departments and agencies to land a couple of people on the Moon.
The Moon, for chrissakes!
For the longest time, there was a Moon rock on display in a window at the Tribune Tower on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago and every single time I passed it by — sometimes several times a week — I’d stop to gape at it. And every single time, I wanted to shout at passersby Jesus Christ, people, that’s a piece of the Moon! One day I was with a then-14-year-old relative and I pulled him toward the window and said, “Look! That’s a piece of the Moon!” He shrugged and said, “Yeah, so?” I was stunned into silence.
Okay, I’m a geek but — I have to say it again here and now — that’s a piece of the Moon!
Saturday afternoon TLO directed me to drive to Dayton, Ohio. We stayed in a hotel adjacent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the massive National Museum of the United States Air Force. I’d sent TLO a link to the place several months ago saying it’d be cool to visit there one day and, lo and behold, she kept that in mind, the dear girl.
We were pretty wiped out by the time we checked in to the hotel so we decided to do the museum the next day, Sunday. That night I stood in our second floor window and gazed out at the museum complex and the huge airbase and thought, “You know what? If nuclear war breaks out this minute, we’ll be among the first to get fried.” I’d just finished reading The Bomb, by Fred Kaplan, the story of all the United States nuclear war planning over the decades by generals, Defense Department academicians, presidents and cabinet secretaries. Funny thing is you’d be shocked by how much misinformation, corporate lobbying, paranoia, irrational hatred of communism, personal ambition, and inter-service rivalry drove the build-up of our nuclear arsenal. I mean, guys were perfectly willing to push us closer to incinerating tens of millions of human beings simply to get the upper hand on a competitor for a military or cabinet promotion. Anyway, Kaplan tells us that American planners targeted some Soviet air bases with four or five multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons — an insurance against one or more missiles or bombs failing to hit the spot — in order to make sure we’d finish them off. I figure the Russians today still have places like Wright-Patterson in their sights, also with multiple missiles and bombs so they, too, might guarantee the destruction of our air forces.
There’d be a flash, I thought as I stood in the window, and then I’d be instantly transformed into a shapeless cloud of my constituent atoms. Hell, at least there’d be no pain.
We woke up the next AM to a brilliant, piercing sunrise, coincidentally emerging from the horizon at the likely X-marks-the-spot point in the middle of the air base that Russian generals, war planners, and Putin-ites have keyed into their computer programs. We grabbed the free breakfast on the first floor of the hotel, all the while listening to a table-full of young men of military service age bragging to each other about bar fights they’ve enjoyed over the years. Then we drove around the air base and were sufficiently overwhelmed by the width and breadth of the place. We saw the airfield where the Wright Brothers built and flew the first viable airplanes in human history. A couple of Indiana and Ohio boys whose parents had eventually settled in Dayton, the Wrights elected to test flight their first successful flying machine at the site of present-day Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina for the area’s strong winds and soft sands. It was in the Dayton area that they perfected mechanized flight and would run the very first flight school in history. Ergo half the name of the air base.
The Air Force museum is enormous. It’s laid out chronologically, so the first exhibits you see are of hot air balloons used by the Union Army in the US Civil War and then on to the rickety biplanes of World War I. Truth be told TLO and I only made it as far as the World War II gallery, less than a third of the entire layout, in the two hours we spent there. I was especially drawn to the B-29 called Bockscar, the long-range bomber piloted by US Army Col. Charles Sweeney in 1945. US air power was split between the Navy and the Army during World War II — the Air Force wasn’t established until 1947. Bockscar was the plane from which the second nuclear weapon ever used in warfare was dropped upon the city of Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945. Nagasaki, it should be noted, was selected by Sweeney and Commander Fred Ashworth, the weaponeer, because their primary target, Kokura, was covered by clouds and smoke and sight bombing couldn’t be carried out there.
The Bockscar bomb bay doors opened around 11:00 AM, local time. The bomb fell for 43 seconds as the B-29 banked hard to get away from the detonation point as quickly as possible. Some 43 second later, the Fat Man exploded with the3 force of 20,000 tons of TNT at a height of 1650 feet, instantly killing tens of thousands of Japanese civilians, Mitsubishi Munitions plant workers, and about 150 soldiers and 2000 Korean slave laborers. All told, up to 80,000 total human beings perished as a result of the Nagasaki bombings, taking into account those who died days and weeks later from injuries and radiation sickness.
Perhaps the unluckiest — or luckiest — human being in history was a fellow named Tsutomu Yamaguchi. He was a resident of Nagasaki on business in Hiroshima three days earlier and lived through the nuclear bombing of that city three days earlier and subsequently returned to his hometown just in time to endure a second nuclear bombing there. Believe it or not, Yamaguchi died in 2010 of stomach cancer, unrelated to his exposure to to the two doses of harmful radiation.
Even though the b-29s were the biggest bombers ever produced by 1945, the aircraft looks surprisingly modest in the display hall at the museum. You can see into the nose canopy where the bombardier sat. His chair and controls all look…, well human-sized. As do the access doors for crews members in the fuselage and even the tires and external equipment labels painted on the Silverplate skin of the plane. I suppose I was expecting to see a Leviathon, a gargantuan machine, responsible for one of the two greatest mass killings at one moment in human history.
But, no, Bockscar was just an airplane crewed by 13 regular guys, 12 of them members of the United States Army and one, Ashworth, of the US Navy. A decommissioned Fat Man-type bomb sits next to Bockscar and it, too, looks unprepossessing. The thing is 128 inches in length and 60 inches in diameter. This particular weapon actually was a once-loaded nuclear bomb whose core had been removed so, conceivably, it could have been dropped on another Japanese city had the war gone on. According to Army records, two Fat Man-type bombs were due to go online sometime later that August and three more in September. And with Gen. Curtis LeMay in charge of the strategic bombing campaign against the Japanese home islands (and nicknamed Bombs Away LeMay, The Demon, and The Big Cigar) it’s a sure bet those bombs would have been dropped.
What made Fat Man and those like it objects of awe were the plutonium “pits,” just 3.62 inches in diameter that, when compressed, burst into a chain reaction precisely similar to what happens in stars, producing an energy release undreamed of.
I sat in front of the Bockscar, staring at it and imagining it soaring around Nagasaki as the mushroom cloud reached 40,000 feet into the upper atmosphere. I peered at its Silverplate skin and thought of the blinding flash bouncing off it. I imagined its crew looking at the nuclear fireball through their welders’ glasses, the only adequate eye protection at the time. I supposed many in the crew were gleeful that the long, most terrible, war in history would soon be over. I also thought at least some of them might have been cognizant that countless people below had simply ceased to exist and other countless people were experiencing terror and agony unknown to humans before that very moment. I sat there for long moments, imagining.
For some odd reason, no country has ever used nuclear weapons against another, although it can be said that the thousands of nuclear tests conducted since 1945 by the nine nuclear weapons powers were actually pre-war shots meant to scare the living hell out of potential enemies. One estimate has it that the nations of the Earth possess more than 16,000 nuclear bombs today.
How in the living hell have we gone this long and this far without there being another Hiroshima or Nagasaki?
Perhaps it’s a testament to the essential decency of human beings or maybe it’s just dumb luck. And can a species that has developed the technology to kill hundreds of millions of its members at the press of a button ever be considered decent?
I thank The Loved One from the bottom of my heart for giving me the opportunity to muse on these existential questions this past weekend. I have faith she and I aren’t the only people on this planet who wrestle with them. Perhaps it’s our strain of thought that’ll ensure some kind of survival for our kind.
[Images and links to come — I just wanted to get this essay up as quickly as possible.]