The spread of the novel Coronavirus has made me realize how nuts I am about scientific method. A friend tells me her church is people. I like that. The Dalai Lama says his religion is kindness. I like that, too. My philosophical perspective nowadays includes both humanism and kindness, leaving plenty of room for science. Including empirical evidence is important to me because I was brought up to respect science and admire scientists and engineers. My parents’ idea of a fun vacation was to attend a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). My father was a mathematician and liked to have his information verified, preferably by empirical, scientific methods. Even watching television commercials, he’d demonstrate a healthy skepticism for the misleading statistics of four-out-of-five-dentists type claims and taught me to be skeptical, too.
With the rise of COVID-19, it’s clear that scientists are constantly working behind the scenes to understand viruses, prevent outbreaks, and deal with contagions. It was a woman named June Almeida who first identified the human coronavirus under a microscope, though she wasn’t taken seriously at first. It’s easy to sit back and speculate about an illness and its origin. Tracking it to its source, whether it is a chimpanzee in the case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or bats in the case of recent viruses, takes diligent, painstaking effort over the course of years.
Our neighbor, M.C. Kang, is a chemist who developed drugs for the treatment of AIDS. He noted that, “In a rough sense, it takes thirty years or longer to deliver a medicine from the first understanding of biology to the market. Identification of biological mechanism takes twenty years or so through basic research in biology in academia.” For instance, M.C. worked for ten years to bring a drug called Fuzeon (T20) to market for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Such breakthroughs, along with the work of Anthony Fauci, M.D., virologist David Ho, and others, save lives.
Dr. Fauci says that lessons learned while working on the AIDS virus were useful in tackling the novel coronavirus. “Viruses cause disease by binding to receptors on cells in your body, be they in your upper airway or in your lung, in the case of COVID-19. They then replicate at a rapid rate that triggers a variety of pathogenic processes. Targeting drugs to interfere at one or more vulnerable sites within this replication cycle is something that we learned with HIV.”
Now people all over the world need tests, vaccines, and treatments for COVID-19. Scientists and doctors are developing them as fast as they can. There will be mutations of the virus that require new vaccines and treatments. And there will be new viruses emerging. As M.C. points out, that’s part of nature. Scientific evidence indicates that the novel coronavirus came not from a laboratory but from nature. And it’s part of human nature to try to understand and cure viral illnesses and, when possible, prevent them. Like the AAAS, we can advocate for evidence and its integrity and hasten our victories over the virus.
Shio lived in the seaside village of Nakanohama, Japan. Her husband was a fisherman and she expected her three sons to become fishermen, too. Her two daughters would become wives of fishermen and stay close to home.
That’s how it was in Japan two hundred years ago.
Could Shio see a different destiny for her second son, Manjiro? Ever since he was born, Manjiro glowed like a firefly and he was always curious.
“Manjiro,” she’d say, “it’s up to you.
There’s nothing you can’t do.
If you keep trying, you’ll see it through.”
When Shio’s husband died, nine-year-old Manjiro started going to work every day. With no father and an older brother too sick and weak to work, it was up to him to provide for the family. Little Manjiro may have looked skinny as a rice stalk, but he became strong as bamboo. He helped empty the nets on fishing boats and brought home fish for the dinner table. At least they had something to eat with their rice.
Every morning, Shio told her little son,
“My dear Manjiro-chan,
try your hardest again today
and remember: Gaman!
Gaman means to stay strong
like a tree stands in a storm.
Don’t give up and don’t give in.
Have patience and go on.”
Manjiro’s two brothers and two sisters depended on him. Sometimes they called out to him as he left for work,
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
At this time in 1836, Japan had hundreds of rules, like the rule that children always grow up to work in the same jobs as their parents. No Japanese citizen could leave to visit other countries, and no person from another country could visit Japan. People who broke the rules were punished and imprisoned. That’s how it had been in Japan for a long time.
When Manjiro was fourteen-years-old, he was working on a small fishing vessel with four other fishermen when a storm came up and blew their boat far away from Japan. When her son did not return, Shio had to accept that he was either drowned or shipwrecked somewhere. After a while, the family even had a funeral for him. Shio was very sad, but she told herself, “Gaman. Stay strong like a tree in a storm.” She had to keep going and take care of her family.
Manjiro’s family didn’t know he was still alive.
Almost twelve years later, on October 5, 1852, they got a big surprise. Guess who was coming to their door! Shio heard someone calling “Okasan” and went outside her little house. A man who seemed somehow familiar was coming towards her, walking very fast. “Mother, I’m here! I’m here!” he said. Then he stopped and bowed his head low. “I’m sorry I left you for so long.”
“Manjiro? Could it be you?” Shio said. Tears came to her eyes. Then her son hugged her and cried along with her. His brothers and sisters came running to see what was happening and stopped short in surprise. Shio drew herself up and said, “It is your brother. He has come home.”
Their shock gave way to joy as they shouted, “You’re back! Hurray!” And then, “Manjiro! Where have you been?”
“Yes, Manjiro, what happened to you?” asked his mother. If she had known, she would have been a wreck herself.
The family gathered outside on straw mats with cups of tea. It was a warm autumn afternoon in their village between the mountains and the sea. “Manjiro, we thought you were dead. You left here a boy and now you’re a man. Where did you go?” his mother asked.
“I’ve been around the world and back,” Manjiro said. Then he realized that his family would not understand what that meant. They knew as little of the planet as he had twelve years ago when he was shipwrecked. He decided to start at the beginning of his journey.
“I was fishing on a boat with four others. A storm broke our mast and oars. The cold rain and winds lasted for seven days and blew our boat far, far out in the Pacific Ocean. All we could do was hang on.”
“Gaman,” said his mother, glad that her son had remembered what she taught him.
“Then we used planks of wood to row ourselves toward a tiny island. Our boat broke to pieces on the rocks, so the five of us swam to shore.”
“Oh,” said Shio, with a sharp intake of breath. “You didn’t give up.”
“There were no people living on the island, only albatross birds. We ate their eggs. We also found shellfish to eat. We saved rainwater and allowed ourselves three sips a day. That’s how we lived for five months! At night we slept in a cave.”
A tear rolled down Shio’s cheek as she thought of their loneliness. “So much for a boy to endure!”
Manjiro’s sisters remembered the words they’d shouted to their brother as he went to work. Now they chanted them again in order to cheer up their mother and to help Manjiro continue telling his story.
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
Manjiro laughed, remembering how their high spirits had lifted his mood so many years ago. He decided not to dwell on his trials as a castaway, such as the earthquake that almost buried them in their cave, and jumped ahead to a happier part of the story. “We always looked for boats to come take us home. One day while I was looking for food on the shore, I saw a ship. I shouted and the others came running, waving their clothes until the sailors on the ship saw us. We were rescued!”
Manjiro’s mother, brothers, and sisters leaned toward him with their eyes wide. “By Japanese?” asked his sister.
“No, they were Americans from far away, hunting for whales in a big ship. They rowed a small boat to our island and picked us up. Then they took us on board the big ship and fed us rice and soup. They gave us sailor clothes to wear and washed our old things for us. But they could not bring us home, because Japan does not allow foreign ships to enter its ports.”
“Weren’t you scared, Manjiro?” asked his littlest sister.
“My four fellow fishermen were very scared. They expected to be killed. I was too curious to be scared, so I followed the sailors around to see what they were doing. Some of the men were friendly even though they laughed when I tried to repeat the words they said. Then one of them touched the tall tree trunk holding their sail and said mast. I repeated it and this time I knew what it meant. I learned new words every day and soon I could talk with the crew and even the captain.”
“The whaling ship took us to the island of Oahu where there were many good people. The four other fishermen decided to stay there. The ship’s captain, William Whitfield, asked me if I’d like to go home with him to America. I said yes.” Manjiro took a chopstick and sketched a map in the dirt to show how far he traveled. “In America, in a place called Massachusetts, I lived with Captain Whitfield and his family. I went to school and learned many things.”
“You learned another language?”
“Hai, Okasan. Yes, Mother, I learned to speak, read, and write in English.” Manjiro scratched in the dirt to show them. He wrote John Mung, the name the Americans gave him because it was easier for them to say than Manjiro. Then he continued with his story. “Some people did not like me at first because I was different. I was the first Japanese person they’d ever seen, so, of course, I was strange to them. But I made many friends and learned from everybody. I even learned to ride a horse.”
This was astonishing to Manjiro’s family, because the only people who rode horses in Japan were samurai who served the shoguns and nobility. They did not expect a boy from a poor fishing village to ever have that privilege.
His mother looked confused. “How did you get back to Japan from the other side of the world?”
“There was something called a Gold Rush on the west coast of America. I went there and found gold.”
His brothers and sisters pumped their fists in the air and cheered him again. “And what did you do with the gold?” his mother asked.
“I sold the gold and made enough money to buy my own small boat, the Adventurer, to put on a big ship. The captain of the ship brought me close to Japan and I went the rest of the way in the Adventurer.”
“Where is your boat?” asked his younger brother. After all, a boat is a good thing to have for a fishing family.
“Naturally, I was arrested when I got here, because I have been out of the country. Local officials took my boat away. Then they locked me behind bamboo walls and questioned me for more than a year. Finally, I was released so I could visit you. I hiked ninety miles to get here.”
No one could speak for a few moments as they thought how far Manjiro had come. His brother patted him on the back a few times. Then Shio wiped her eyes on the cotton sleeve of her yukata. She was so grateful her boy who was lost at sea was alive and well. With a smile for Manjiro she said, “I must get you something to eat.” She hurried to the cooking fire. Her son, the firefly, was home at last.
Manjiro stayed at his childhood home for three days. After that, he was taken to a castle in Kochi for questioning and then to Edo (now called Tokyo) for more questioning.
Fortunately, he did not have to stay in jail again. The more Manjiro talked to officials, the more they realized that he could be a valued advisor to the Shogun and other leaders of Japan. A scribe wrote down and illustrated what the traveler told them. Those writings and pictures became a book called Drifting Toward the Southeast that is still available today.
Manjiro became a teacher and taught English and other subjects to samurai.
In December 1853, Manjiro was given the rank of samurai himself. The young fisherman from Nakanohama received payment, two special swords and a new name, Nakahama Manjiro. (Only high-ranking people in Japan had second names. Manjiro named himself after his village.) He could finally help support his family as he’d tried to do as a child.
Manjiro was often asked to tell people about America. He told the Japanese leaders how helpful and friendly the Americans had been to him. Manjiro’s words helped the leaders consider being friendly, too, and in 1854 Japan entered into a treaty of peace, friendship, and trade with the United States. They opened two ports to ships from the United States of America and other countries. After 250 years of closed doors, Japan was open to the rest of the world.
Manjiro had gaman, guts, and grit. He did more than endure his difficulties. He took action, made friends, and changed the world.
JAPANESE WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS
Gaman = Endurance, strength, and perseverance
Hai = Yes
Okasan = Mother
Oni-chan = Brother (informal)
Oniisan = Brother (formal)
Samurai = Warrior in service to the shoguns
Shogun = Head of the samurai government
Yukata = Cotton kimono
Bernard, Donald R. The Life and Times of John Manjiro. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.
Blumberg, Rhoda. Shipwrecked! The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Hirasuna, Delphine. The Art of Gaman: Arts & Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. Humanity Above Nation: The Impact of Manjiro and Heco on America and Japan. Honolulu: The Joseph Heco Society of Hawaii, 1995.
Manjiro, John and Kawada, Shoryo. Drifting Toward the Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways. Told in 1852 and translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai. New Bedford, Mass.: Spinner Publications, Inc., 2003.
Rosenbach Museum and Library, Nakahama Manjiro’s Hyosen Kiryaku: A Companion Book. Philadelphia: Rosenbach Museum and Library, 1999.
My daughter, Emily, and I used to visit the International Crane Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and later worked there briefly as volunteers. We were fascinated, as were millions of people by the work of George Archibald and Ron Sauey to save endangered crane species, especially the whooping crane, from extinction. With only thirty known whooping cranes left in the world, it became crucial to breed Tex, a female crane in captivity. Trouble was, she was imprinted on humans from an early age and had no interest in flirting, much less mating, with her own kind. But George she liked.
So they would dance.
During mating season, George got up every morning and walked with Tex over a grassy hill of the Crane Foundation. She was, in her mind anyway, his crane wife, (also the name of a popular folk tale in Japan). The whooper was always delighted to see him. Together they would do deep knee bends and flap their appendages in the brisk Wisconsin air. Whooping cranes are four to five feet tall and have six to eight feet wing spans. Tex could hold her own with Dr. Archibald! The couple danced each spring for three years. Eventually, George’s assistant was able to artificially inseminate the bird as her attention was on George. George Archibald kept Tex company day after day and, like in the Japanese folk tale, his “crane wife” returned the favor. She laid a fertile egg! The egg hatched into a chick named Gee Whiz that carried on Tex’s genetic line.
Though whooping cranes now number in the hundreds, they are still rare and endangered. You can see wild cranes in the wetlands of Wisconsin and you can see cranes of all fifteen species at the International Crane Foundation.
People over the centuries have no doubt observed the way newly hatched birds sometimes bond with humans. Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) specialized in studying this behavior known as imprinting. Working with greylag geese, he stayed with some hatching eggs until the goslings emerged from their shells so that he was the first animate object they saw. The goslings attached to him as if he were their mother, following him all around.
Emily’s fiancé, Alex, had a similar experience with one of their geese on their Duck Duck Goose Farm on Whidbey Island. One spring day Alex heard a peeping in the grass a short distance from the nesting area of the geese. He found a tiny hatchling, cold and wet, and wondered how he got separated from his mother. When Alex returned the little guy to his mom, she pushed him away. As Alex put it, he “shopped” the gosling around to the other geese moms and none would take him.
So Alex took the fluff ball inside the house, dried him off, and fed him. Once he warmed up, the little goose kept chirping for attention, so Alex turned on some music to try to calm him down. When a piece by Amadeus Mozart started to play, the gosling was entranced and peaceful. So Alex named him Mozart.
After that, Mozart liked being with humans and had to be babysat at all times. In fact, on Mother’s Day, Emily showed up for our celebration at my house, handed me the fluffy, peeping baby, and said, “Happy Mother’s Day!” He was my first grandchild, as it were. I tended to him while she and Alex cooked a nice dinner. At the Greenbank Pantry and Deli, you can see where Mozart’s image is painted (by our daughter Steph Terao) under the store sign on the side of the building. He’s now the mascot of the deli where Emily and Alex work, because he spent so much time in the yard there while they set up their new business.
This past spring, one-year-old Mozart bonded with a Roman tufted goose and she laid a nest full of eggs! Their offspring imprinted on their parents and followed them all over the farm. Even though Mozart is an excellent father and well-adjusted gander now, he still greets Alex and Emily with a big spread of his wings, happy to see them.
As one of my mentors, Paula Underwood, used to say, what may we learn from this?
From George and Tex, I am reminded to dance. Sometimes it’s more than fun and exercise; it can be a bonding experience and help continue the species!
Perhaps there is a warning in imprinting: don’t follow every animate object that catches your eye or soothes your vulnerabilities. It is disturbing to know that the Austrian Konrad Lorenz was an active member of the Nazi party during WWII. With that in mind, the charming photographs of him with lines of devoted ducks or geese behind him might conjure up the kick step march of German soldiers saluting Hitler. If someone appeals to our instincts and takes advantage of our innocence, we may be recruited as devoted followers. This is not usually done with our best interests at heart.
What about Mozart? He found no kindness in the nest as a gosling, but due to human kindness became an attentive friend and parent himself. When given a chance, we can fly higher than our upbringing and origins. With fluffiness and fortitude, we bring smiles to those in the heart of an island.
Before there were pantsuits, there were bloomers. Before there were female presidential nominees, there was Susan Brownell Anthony.
Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820 and grew up in Massachusetts. Her family, especially her Quaker father, Daniel, believed that everyone deserved freedom, education, and other rights, regardless of race or gender. So Susan received as much education as did the boys in her town. (On a personal note, Susan’s cousin, Sarah Anthony also received an education and in later years married my great great grandfather, Zaccheus Test.)
Inspired by news of the Seneca Falls, New York conference for women’s rights in 1848, Susan went to Seneca Falls herself a couple years later and met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, anti-slavery and women’s rights activists. They were both wearing bloomers! The outfits consisted of loose Turkish-style trousers gathered at the ankles and covered by a skirt that came down just below the knees.
Woman in bloomers
Bloomers may not look comfortable to modern eyes, but they were more convenient than most women’s styles of the 19th century. A woman in America back then typically wore seven layers, including a corset to mold her figure and a skirt so long and full it made everyday movement such as climbing stairs a challenge. Women could never count on making full use of their hands, much less the rest of their bodies, as they managed their hoops and layers. Bloomers freed them up considerably.
In support of such freedom, Susan B. Anthony wore bloomers–for about a year. When her clothing attracted more attention and ridicule than her lectures about women’s rights, Susan went back to wearing her usual dark blouse and skirt, with her hair pulled back in a bun. That’s how we see her in the photograph that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Susan, wearing her most conservative clothes, decided to test the voting laws in a national election. It was illegal for her to cast a ballot for either Ulysses S. Grant or Horace Greeley, so she was arrested and tried by a hostile judge and all-male jury. As the New York Times reported, “It was conceded that the defendant was, on the 5th of November, 1872, a woman.” She was ordered to pay a fine and never paid it. She continued her fight for equality throughout her life.
Fourteen years after the death of Susan B. Anthony, women won the right to vote. The 19th Amendment passed in 1920 and stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
That was 96 years ago. What will you wear to the polls on November 8 of this year? I’ll be wearing jeans and using a ballot with the name of a woman running for President of the United States. A woman wearing a pantsuit.
Lily with twins David and Donald (my husband) in Chicago, 1949
Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law, Lily (or Yuriko) Terao. She was mugged by a purse-snatcher near her home in Los Angeles and died from her injuries November 8, 2005. As a nisei (second-generation) Japanese-American, Lily was born in Seattle in 1920 and returned to Japan many times in her life. In fact, she went to high school in Japan, then returned to the United States to work.
Due to the events of World War II, Lily was sent to the desolate Gila River internment camp in Arizona in 1942. She was imprisoned there merely for being Japanese and had to destroy her Japanese items, including her high school diploma. Anything Japanese was suspect at that time. Fluent in both Japanese and English, Lily was soon recruited to go to the University of Michigan and teach Japanese to intelligence officers and others. She saw her chance to get out of the crowded, makeshift camp and she took it.
Gila River barracks 1942
“I took a loyalty test to get out of camp,” she said in an interview transcribed by our daughter, Stephanie. “Then I was sent to Michigan to help teach soldiers Japanese. The student soldiers would come [for one year] and we would speak nothing but Japanese to them. I mostly taught military intelligence.”
I once went to the University of Michigan and got a copy of a document written in 1943 by Marine Major Sherwood Moran, Intelligence Division. It revealed what Lily was working on back then at the University, along with revealing a stark contrast between Moran’s approach and our recent treatment of prisoners, such as at Guantanamo Bay. Moran’s attitude toward interrogation, or “interviewing” as he called it, was more about befriending than brutality.
A June 2005 Atlantic Monthly article, “Truth Extraction,” by Stephen Budiansky explained the impact of Moran’s work, revealing that “abusing prisoners is not simply illegal and immoral; it is also remarkably ineffective.” For instance, James Corum, an expert on counterinsurgency warfare, noted that the cruelty of Abu Ghraib personnel was not a case of the ends justifying the means. “The torture of suspects did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted.”
Moran’s attitude was, “I am a human being talking to a human being.” And, he noticed time and again, that human being wants to tell his story. He believed that “those interrogators who tried the hardest to break down the morale of POWs were actually revealing their own fear.” Such “hard-boiled” tactics rarely yielded results.
What was effective during WWII was following Sherwood Moran’s suggestions, recruiting second-generation Japanese Americans, including Lily, and having them teach both language and culture to interrogators. The interrogators could then get to know the prisoners and help them open up to the point where they’d share important information.
Lily made friends with the other nisei women in Ann Arbor and enjoyed teaching the young men how to speak a new language. According to James Corum, “the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945.” For instance, it only took Marine interrogators 48 hours to obtain the complete Japanese battle plans in the Marianas in June of 1944. Perhaps some of them were Lily’s students.
Medal honoring Lily (Kobayashi) Terao’s service to Military Intelligence, received by her sons, David and Donald.
On July 1, 1946 my dad, Sgt. Frank Wolf, sent a letter to his grandmother from Bikini Atoll with a special postmark for that day: “Atomic Bomb Test.” “Be sure and save this envelope,” he wrote, “as it may some day be quite a collectors’ item.”
On July 1, fifty-four years later, Dad died of a type of cancer associated with radiation exposure. And in July of 2013, I received a letter informing me that the U.S. government would be sending a check to me and my siblings in compensation for our father’s exposure to nuclear fallout.
Dad was what we’d nowadays call a nerd. A skinny guy, his nieces and nephews called him Uncle Peewee. To his math students, he was Professor Wolf. We four kids just knew him as Dad, the one who got us up early to go fishing and who couldn’t resist a bad pun.
He took keen interest in his work as an engineer in the Army’s technical division, producing U-235 from uranium—even if he was kept in the dark about WHY he was doing it. Stories of the U.S. atomic weapons project came out after the fact—from Enrico Fermi’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago, until the first successful test of the bomb three years later. Terms like “nuclear fission” were coined by scientists as they gleaned what the split atoms could do. Secret nuclear research accelerated to a hectic pace with the events of World War II.
TESTS ONE AND TWO
In July 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, sent two of his fellow scientists a cryptic letter inviting them to join him for “our fishing trip.” They knew what he meant: the new device called the Gadget was about to go off in New Mexico.
The blast on July 16 was equal to 15,000 tons of TNT, surpassing all expectations. People in three states reported seeing the flash. Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, a close witness, admitted that when the test began, “there was in everyone’s mind a strong measure of doubt.” Its success “was a justification of the several years of intensive efforts of tens of thousands of people—statesmen, scientists, engineers, manufacturers, soldiers, and many others in every walk of life.” He called the effects of the bomb unprecedented and terrifying, yet also “magnificent.”
The success of the Manhattan Project in producing and detonating its astonishing gadget meant it could then be used in warfare. The atomic bomb let loose on Hiroshima, Japan was essentially the second trial of the new technology.
My husband’s cousin, Reiko, lived in Hiroshima. She was at her desk on the morning of August 6, 1945 when the bomb fell. She was eight-years-old. The other third-graders rushed to the window to see what caused the big, white flash. Reiko did not look up from her schoolwork until the glass in the window shattered. As the atomic cloud swelled over Hiroshima, tens of thousands of her fellow citizens were already dead. 100,000 more were injured, including many of her classmates. Almost half of the 320,000 people of Hiroshima would die from the effects of the bomb by the end of the year.
Reiko walked to her home on the outskirts of the city. She and her mother went out in the evening and took food to the ash-covered people fleeing the devastation.
TESTS THREE AND FOUR
The next use of the atomic bomb was three days later in Nagasaki, causing more devastation and killing more than 70,000 people. On August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan.
The fourth use of an atomic bomb was the one celebrated with the special postmark on Dad’s letter, after the War. Four days later, at a Paris fashion show, a new swimsuit named after the bombsite debuted: the bikini. A cartoon series depicting the atomic age of 2062 was developed called “The Jetsons,” imagining a tricked-out, high-speed world of the future: a hovercraft in every carport, a robotic maid in the kitchen.
Having worked at Oak Ridge laboratories for the Manhattan Project, Dad wanted to see the uranium-fueled technology in action. For that fourth test, he was watching from the U.S.S. Haven beyond the lagoon. With the lightning-bolt insignia of the Special Engineering Detachment on his shoulder, Dad must have felt part of the power surge carrying America into a new age, ready to apply his training. He got his chance when he was assigned to be a radiation monitor for the next test in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll.
TEST FIVE: A MAJOR MISTAKE
Dad wrote about that day, “It was an interesting mix of people in the Radiological Safety Section. My particular team of radiation monitors consisted of a Major from the Army Field Artillery, myself, and two others. The Major was appointed senior monitor.” This appointment, Dad told us, was based on rank and not expertise. The Baker explosion (click to see photos and video) was detonated underwater in the Bikini lagoon at 8:35 on the morning of July 25, 1946. Two hours later, my dad and his team entered the lagoon in their small landing craft, accompanied by a gunboat. They had a Geiger counter and an ion chamber for measuring radiation.
The team headed for the middle of the lagoon, keeping their eyes on the Geiger counter. Dad noticed, “As we got closer to the target center the readings went up. Then rather suddenly they dropped to almost nothing. I told the Major I thought we might be in heavy radiation. He looked at the dial on the counter and said that I must be mistaken since the needle was at zero. As we headed closer to target center, I decided that this was not the time to explain how Geiger counters work, ignored the Major, and went to the cabinet in the rear and got out the ion chamber.”
Radiation levels were actually beyond the capacity of the Geiger counter to measure. When Dad got the ion chamber set up, its needle climbed and kept on climbing. The Major saw they were in radioactivity ten times above the recommended limit and ordered the landing craft and gunboat to get out of there.
“We headed back to the entrance of the lagoon as fast as we could go,” Dad wrote. Their boat, it was found later, was so contaminated from radioactive fallout it could not be used again.
My father, in his youth, was optimistic about the possibilities of the Atomic Age. As he grew older and worked for peace and environmental causes, he would have agreed with Enrico Fermi who said that scientific advances have certainly “led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life. […] What is less certain, and what we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires over nature.”
We now know the horrifying consequences of nuclear warfare and can, with maturity, wisdom and united effort, prevent its use in the future. May we make good use of the knowledge and powers we’ve acquired and work together for a healthy, beautiful world.
A new version of my blog post about John Muir Memorial Park appeared in Orion Magazine’s “Place Where I Live.” I like visiting the park to appreciate John Muir and his hard work preserving beautiful places in America. Drive north of Madison, Wisconsin to the little town of Montello and you will find the park nearby.