Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Awesome destruction

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Me and the Vol-in-Law watched a BBC documentary about it the other night. It described the suffering of those who experienced the first bombing in Hiroshima and also followed the tale of the jocular pilots as they made ready to unleash hell.

The documentary was very sympathetic to the Japanese, and yes, their personal suffering was horrific. I remember being obsessed by the burns, the radiation sickness, the shadows of humans burnt into stone steps during my cold war childhood. These days the sudden horror of seemingly random destruction also takes on new meaning to me.

When the show had about 20 minutes left to run the Vol-in-Law declared he was bored and wanted to change the channel (probably to flip through the 50 or so music video channels, he has greater interest in music videos than I would expect of a person of his age, the result of either a cable-free, MTV deprived childhood or the scantily clad women).

“You’re really bored?” I said.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Yeah, I forget, your granddad didn’t help build that bomb.”

Yep, the Vol-in-Law’s paternal grandfather no doubt gave his all as a music professor in Edinburgh during the war (perhaps he composed something). My paternal grandfather was working on the Manhattan Project in Chicago. Doubtless, my grandfather only played a small part, he was young and serving as a technician to Enrico Fermi. Only later did he become a respected physicist in his own right. He was a man dedicated to his work, and the best time I ever spent with him was when he took me to Oak Ridge National Lab to watch him work on the fancy science machine. He died when I was 16, probably at an age when he thought I might only just be starting to get interesting, so I didn’t really know him that well. My granddad has been gone for quite a while now, but during this anniversary week I’ve been thinking about him a lot.
I suppose it's ok to have mixed feelings about your ancestor's role, however small, in the creation of awesome destruction. But mostly I'm proud that he was part of something that big, and I do believe that using the bomb saved the lives of untold numbers of American solidiers and wish I'd thought to ask him more about it when he was alive.