- Brother Bomb
My father was in the living room reading the New York Herald Tribune when my mother’s water broke. “Bernie!” she cried out from the kitchen. “My water broke! Do something!” [End Page 10]
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He might have been reading Red Smith’s sports column in the Tribune, as he always did, or news of the underwater A-bomb test at Bikini Atoll. But the story of my birth that my parents told years later left out that detail. I’ll never know if the bomb was a topic of conversation between them, or a thing they associated with me in particular, the way they would not have associated it with my older sisters because we, the bomb and I, had come into the world at the same time and would from that time on, as long as I lived, always be contemporaries.
A refugee from the hollows of West Virginia and the first in his family to go to college, my father got a job in the Columbia College admissions office that, along with having two young children, exempted him from going to war. He kept a journal during graduate school in which he lamented our habit as a species of “constantly being at each other’s throats.” He was distressed by the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki one year before my birth, but that didn’t keep him and my mother, along with everyone else, from celebrating the end of the war and believing in the promise of better times to come, a belief which made ordinarily cautious people do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise—like having another baby. After all, we’d won the war in Europe and in the Pacific, and of all the nations on earth, we alone had the bomb.
Sports outweighed politics in our family, although rooting for the proletarian Dodgers and hating the ruling-class Yankees was itself a low-octane political statement. My father was an Eisenhower Democrat, so naturally we, his wife and children, liked Ike too. For a few years after the war, before running for president, Eisenhower had served as president of Columbia University and moonlighted as NATO commander. My father shook hands with him at university functions and adopted the Eisenhower golf cap when playing his game of choice, tennis. He approved of Eisenhower’s refusal to use nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War, in spite of having threatened to do so. Much later, when I was away at college in the 1960s, he sympathized with Muhammad Ali, who refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam War and whom Red Smith considered a punk and a slacker.
At first, what came to be known as the Manhattan Project was headquartered in Manhattan, and preliminary research for the bomb was carried out at Columbia University’s Pupin Physics Laboratories, one of at least ten such sites in Manhattan before the project headquarters moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Columbia football players were [End Page 12] recruited to muscle barrels of uranium ore from one place to another on campus. As the college’s director of admissions, my father favored brainy applicants from Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science over football jocks, which had something to do with the team’s perennially dismal record.
The bomb made its grand public debut in the Marshall Islands early that July. Test Able was a disappointment, failing to match the “efficiency” of its predecessor, the Nagasaki bomb, as the operation’s commander, Admiral William H. P. Blandy, conceded. On the other hand, Test Baker, an underwater test on July 25, two days before I was born, scared the living daylights out of practically everyone who saw it.
There had been speculation that an underwater bomb might unleash a monstrous tidal wave, set off a chain reaction that would vaporize the world’s oceans, or knock the earth a few degrees off its rotational axis, leading to God only knew what further disasters. Among...