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Ball of Confusion

A story by Jake Cunningham



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Photo Credit: Vemork Heavy Water Plant - Unesco World Heritage Center - For Research Purposes

Audio Credit: The Temptations - Ball of Confusion, That is What the World is Today

Many say that a picture's worth a thousand words. At History Chip, we prefer to think that it's worth a dozen good stories, and maybe some good music. Here's one about how the Atomic Bomb brought peace and prosperity to my little corner of life in Central New York. But not without a harrowing moment or two for a young boy . . .

63 years later, it's still the most frightening sound I've ever heard. My father, an Operating Engineer and newly elected Union Officer, brought my brother Peter and I to Griffiss Air Force Base, just outside of Rome NY, to watch B52's and their tankers practice take offs and landings. They were on their way to the North Pole. It was quiet when we arrived, my father styling in his new Pontiac Chieftain, showing it off and talking with his men; they worked seven days a week constructing the physical infrastructure of the Strategic Air Command. The bombers being the most reliable, accurate, and well developed leg of the nuclear triad that kept the very real threat from the Soviet Union at bay. The recent Cuban Missle Crisis dominated the atmosphere. To give an idea of the scale of the operation, the runways were five miles long.

We were parked a solid quarter mile from the hangers - well outside their security perimeter, talking to the bulldozer operators, who threatened to squash my dad's car. Even as an eight year old, I got that joke. Suddenly, we heard an explosion that rocked the car and sent Peter and I running, and everyone else laughing. The ear piercing scream of a B52 engine, one of eight, spooling up to full power. It didn't come from the hanger, it came from everywhere! To this eight year old, the power of the B52 wasn't embodied in the weapons it carried, but in the raging of it's engines. At that time, there was a famous marching band in Utica called the Screaming Eagles. Not any more, at least in our household. From then on, that was our name for the 52's'. The work lasted for years. During our frequent "discussions" (read arguments) my father always said, with validity, that the bomb brought our family prosperity, that got all three of us into college.

A couple decades later, in the mid 80's, the bomb got me out of college, and brought me a bachelor's degree in the process. I was a History Major, concentrating in American Technological History, devouring everything I could about the development of the bomb. I'm an (idiot) savant regarding our successful use of graphite to moderate nuclear reactions, a process proven under the football field at the University of Chicago, lead by Enrico Fermi, contrasted with the German's failure to achieve moderation while attempting to use heavy water as the moderator, that they couldn't obtain in quantity because it's source was so fiercely defended by Norwegians and the British. The German effort was lead by none other than Werner Heisenberg, he of the Uncertainty Principle. One of unresolved questions of history is did Heisenberg, although a committed Nazi, hold back, pull punches to deter this vital step in the development of the German Bomb. Given his contributions to physics and to history, the allies like to think that he did. I answered that question, defended my answer, and the answer made my senior year in school.

One of the unresolved observations in the Long Strange Trip of my academic life is the irony of learning about so many people who died horribly in development of the Atomic Bomb, and how their sacrifice is connected to my degree, which was conferred with distinction after a breezy experience reading a topic I loved. It's difficult to think about this topic without also thinking about my father. He was so very right about his justifications for the bomb, it's life saving potential and it's key to prosperity. I so very wish I could tell him that today.

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 Werner_Heisenberg Enrico_Fermi,B52s Vemork_Heavy_Water
  Rome, New York
Summer 1962


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