Living with the Bomb

A serendipitous (and sometimes tangential) time-travel adventure inspired by the library

It all started when I met a group of Cub Scouts and their parents down in Kirk Hall of the Central Library. When I asked them if there was anything in particular that they wanted to see on their tour, one pointed to the back of the library and said, “That.” “That” was the Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow exhibit. I hadn’t yet made it up there, so I was pleased to have a chance to take a look at it. There’s some crazy stuff in there—more than just a picture of the “duck and cover” drills for school children, which is perhaps laughable to us now, but it was deadly serious in the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. Some of the items I found most interesting were the comic book covers featuring Atomic-inspired characters and the Kix Cereal Atomic Bomb Ring. The exhibit is open to the public during library hours until January 6, though information about it can be found at the following link beyond that time.

After touring the exhibit, I finally picked up the book Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin, that I had pulled to read for Kansas City’s Mock Printz Awards (KC area librarian’s attempt to forecast what the real Printz committee will deem in early January the best young adult book of the year). I’d been passing it over for the last couple of weeks in favor of fantasy novels, but now I’d had my fill, and was ready for a little non-fiction. The serendipitous experience had begun.

Every time I’d looked at the cover, I kept saying to myself, “Steve Sheinkin. I wonder if it’s the same Steve Sheinkin that did the Rabbi Harvey series?” that I’d just plowed through a couple of months previously. Perhaps there are not so many Steve Sheinkin’s in the world after all. One and the same. That series is graphic novels that combine Jewish wisdom and folklore with a Wild West setting—think Rabbinical sheriffs who duke it out with outlaws using wisdom tales rather than pistols. What was fun for me was that I have heard many of these tales since delving into the world of storytelling. And when I was a kid, I read my way through the my hometown library’s collection of Louis L’Amour titles as fast as I could get my hands on them. My worlds collide.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb book cover

Back to Bomb. This book for young adults is a page turner. It focuses on three storylines—the Americans’ race to build an atomic bomb (with help from the Brits); the Allies’ attempts to thwart German efforts to create a bomb of their own; and the Russians’ attempts to steal the Americans’ plans to use to create a bomb for themselves. I was right in the middle of the Americans feverishly working to get a bomb ready to test while I was riding the bus to work during the December 20th snow storm. As they were talking about the care they took to bring the various pieces of it together, I looked up in time to beg the bus that had the right away not to insist upon because the probability of our stopping for the red light was not looking good. (It started up with the light change, then noticed our plight and stopped just as we slid to a halt slightly past our target.) Perhaps that upped the tension of the story a bit, but there’s plenty of it in this book all on its own. Sheinkin lists all of his sources for his story at the back of the book. He bills Richard Rhodes book The Making of the Atomic Bomb “the bible on this whole subject,” so if you want to go deeper, there’s the first one to consider.

The description of the desert surrounding the bomb once it was detonated reminded me of two things, a book and a movie. The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages is a children’s fiction book that focuses in on the daughter of one of the scientists working on “the gadget,” the code name for the bomb. The story of Dewey Kerrigan is set against the backdrop of Los Alamos during the race to build the bomb. The movie is Sweet Home Alabama which has nothing to do with the bomb race. It features Josh Lucas as a glass sculpture artist who makes his creations by sinking metal rods in the sand whenever lightning storms are forecast. The force of the lightening melts the sand into glass, which is exactly what happened in the New Mexico dessert back in 1945. This 2002 movie may be a bit difficult to get your hands on, but if you want to see an example of what extreme heat does to sand, it’s got it.

The youth librarians at Central offer a history program for the Kansas City School District 5th graders and we’ve been looking to make it a more interactive presentation. As I’m reading Bomb, I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, maybe there’s a local history piece to this — I mean it’s big right — and we could get kids interested in creating their own stories about this if there are some resources in the Missouri Valley Collections.” I will not say how long it took me to have my “duh” moment; I will only say that it happened about the time that Sheinkin mentioned the “senator from Missouri” who was nosing around trying to figure out how the government was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on something nobody was talking about. “Knowledge of the atomic bomb was available on a strictly need-to-know basis. Harry Truman did not need to know.” Yet.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet book cover

A few days into the books, I was talking with my mom on the phone and was telling her about it and she told me that a girl about her age lived in the same apartment building when they were growing up and that her father had worked at Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the plant that was working with uranium to send to Los Alamos. She thought that working there had lead to an early death for him. After reading about what was going on there — that “need to know” had limited the information given to the workers to such a degree that they had created a very dangerous workplace. To the point that Oppenheimer, the director of the atomic bomb project, sent one of his scientists to educate them on what they were doing and how to do it more safely.

All of this focus on World War II reminded me of another book I read a couple of years ago, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. This wonderful book is set in Seattle. It relays the story of a boy of Chinese descent who falls in love with a girl of Japanese descent during the time right before the Japanese-Americans were rounded up and placed in prison camps. He struggles to stay connected with her against the wishes of his parents but ultimately they prove too powerful and he loses track. The story captures both the time around the war and much later when the main character is an older man remembering his first love.

Right in the midst of this journey back in time, I was brought back to the present by the massacre that happened in Newton, Connecticut. Somehow all of this seems to be related for me. For the most part we don’t think about atomic weaponry and what could happen if some country with the capacity decides to use it. The smaller scale horror of what we all just experienced is still too big for us to really take in. And yet there are huge rays of humanity and caring that shine through what has happened in Newton and also in the bombs race as captured by Steve Sheinkin. Maybe our connection and ultimately our salvation is to be found in our stories. They are at least a good place to start.

Jamie Mayo is the Manager of the Central Youth Services Department. She is a storyteller who enjoys history and graphic novels. And apparently still likes a good western. Who knew. How her mind works is a mystery. Why she is willing to reveal glimpses in writing is no less so.