Tucumcari by Patrick Parks
150 pages – KERNPUNKT Press
Someday I will write a book about my father because he helped build the first atomic bomb.
My father helped build the first atomic bomb, but he wasn’t one of those famous men whose names you always read in books about the bomb. He was just a soldier in the army sent out into the desert. He didn’t know what was going on before he got there, and when he did get there, he found out the big shots didn’t really know what was going on, either, except that they were trying to create the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen, and they weren’t sure they could do it, and they weren’t sure what it would do if they did. Some of them speculated that it might evaporate the atmosphere. Some others thought it might crack the earth’s crust and send tectonic plates skidding around and banging into each other like shuffleboard pucks. But that didn’t stop them from going ahead with their project.
“It was like a bunch of boys poking with sticks at a rattlesnake,” my father said. “They knew if they poked enough, it would strike. They just had to be ready to run.”
When the bomb went off, it was brighter than 20 suns. The heat was the same as the sun’s core, and it turned the sand into glass. My father took a chunk of the melted sand. It was about the size of a quarter and looked like the greenish glass soft drink bottles are sometimes made from. Atomsite is what they called the stuff, that or trinitite. I still have the piece my father chipped free. It’s in the same box as my father’s medals from the army and my mother’s stories, the same box as my parents’ ashes.
When the bomb went off, my father was standing next to the famous genius Enrico Fermi. During the countdown, Enrico Fermi tore up some paper into little bits. As soon as he felt the blast wave from the bomb, he dropped the paper. After the wave passed, he measured how far the paper had been blown by the blast wave, and then he used his slide rule to figure out how many tons of TNT it would take to do what the bomb had done. My father was the one who handed Enrico Fermi his slide rule when the famous scientist dropped it because his hands were shaking. My father was the one he turned to and said, “20,000 tons.” My father was the one who whispered, “Jesus Christ.”
When the bomb went off, Robert Oppenheimer, who was also a famous genius, turned to someone, not my father, and said, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
I don’t know if the person he said that to had anything to say in reply.
I’ve read a lot over the years about the first atomic bomb. I probably know more about it than anything else I can think of.
I know that after the first bomb exploded, a soldier at the site turned on a faucet in his barracks, and worms came out with the water.
I know that there was a cat that became famous because its black fur was speckled white from the fallout.
I know there was a girl who could see the flash even though she was blind.
The first atomic bomb didn’t even look like a bomb. It looked like a wrecking ball, which it was.
The second atomic bomb flattened Hiroshima.
To make an atomic bomb, you need two pieces of uranium each a little bigger than half the critical size needed for a successful chain reaction. These two pieces of uranium have to be kept apart until you want the chain reaction to begin. When it’s time for that to happen, you bring the two pieces together very rapidly. Usually, one of the pieces is shot at the other one, like a bullet. When they hit, the atoms split apart, sending neutrons flying at thousands of miles per hour. These neutrons split more atoms, which split more and more and more. All of this happens in a millionth of a second, not even enough time to blink your eyes, and what you have is a tremendous amount of energy being released in the form of a nuclear explosion. Here’s what happens when those atoms start flying:
If the bomb is dropped directly over a city, 200 square blocks will be flattened, and thousands of people will be incinerated. A half-mile wide crater will be left behind.
At one mile from the site of the explosion, the air will be hotter than 50 suns, and the blast wave will knock over walls nine inches thick.
At two miles, wood will char instantly. So will skin.
At two-and-a-half miles, billboards will be knocked over.
At up to ten miles, there will be fires. Gas lines will be ruptured and electric lines knocked down by the thermal wind. Flying glass will be a danger.
All of this will take place in less than one minute.
The bomb is a metaphor for man’s greatest fear. Mankind always had metaphors for that fear, but it was usually some kind of monster or some kind of cataclysmic act of God. We are the first to have created the very thing we fear the most.
The book I’m going to write, a book about the first atomic bomb, will be called The One Who Whispered, and it will be about the part my father played. It will go beyond that, too. It will go right up to his death, which means I’ll be in the book. I’ll be able to tell about how my father used to blow things up when he was a boy. He told me about that many times. He told me that he and his best friend would make bombs out of firecrackers and soup cans. My father’s best friend lost an eye
making bombs but the love of things exploding was too great for my father to give it up because of an accident.
“It’s energy in its most basic form,” he would say to me. “You think you can control it, but you can’t. Not the way you want it to, anyway.”
He would tell me this while we were constructing little bombs of our own, the two of us in the basement or in the garage. Sometimes we used gunpowder and sometimes we mixed different chemicals together. Most of the time, we just blew holes in the ground but once we knocked a dead limb off a tree. My father was going to cut it down before it fell and hurt someone, then he decided it would be more interesting and less work to blast it off. When it hit the ground, it was on fire. We let it burn and then picked up the charred chunks and threw them away.
“You can do this to people, too, you know.” He held a piece of blackened wood in his hand. “I’ve seen it done.”
This was before I learned about his part in building the first atomic bomb and before we started moving around because my father was having nervous breakdowns and couldn’t keep a job. That was when we owned the station wagon, the one I remember.
In the book, I’ll tell about growing up after I found out about my father and the atomic bomb. I’ll tell about how I knew what my father had done but couldn’t say anything because everyone was so afraid of nuclear war that I didn’t think anyone would see his actions as particularly heroic or praiseworthy. Nobody at that time thought having the bomb was a good idea, except for the generals and the president, and they weren’t all that sure themselves. My father couldn’t tell anyone, either, about his part in building the bomb. All anyone knew about him was that he sold encyclopedias or he was a shoe clerk or that he opened the new soft-serve ice cream place on the edge of town. When we lived in this city, he was trying his hand at managing a tool and die shop. He didn’t run any equipment, he just made sure other people ran it the right way and didn’t get hurt.
I think about my father at this time of day, sunset, when the falling ash turns red. The clouds of ash turn red too and the whole world outside my window seems to have caught fire. I think about my father then because I think that this might have been what the whole world looked like to him when the bomb went off.
My father finally died of cancer. The bomb got him, too.