by John A. McCabe
Joe stood in the eddying mass of young men looking at the others, many of them handsome with sun tans, he noticed his hands were tanned, especially when held against the greens of the life mimicking colors, of the combat infantry uniform. Some soldiers appeared unimpressed while others were complaining about the heat. Two men near him were still talking about Las Vegas, and some were still marveling about the atomic test on Tuesday. They had been told that many of the top leaders of the country would be watching them today from a distance three miles to their rear.
Joe took a letter out of his pocket and in the blazing sunlight, he reads in his Philadelphia accenting:
Portland, Oregon Dear Joe:
Well, at long last I heard from you. Your post card arrived this morning and got me out of a sound slumber, but it was a good way to wake up. I have hesitated writing you for some time now because I knew that some group from Ft. Lewis was in Nevada. I knew it had to be you.
Knowing how hot it is in Nevada right now, I can imagine that you will be glad to get back to civilization and some cooler weather. When you come back to civilized country, you are welcome to come to dinner. If things go right, weather-wise, it may be at the beach.
Allow me to apologize for not being there last time you were in Portland. Next time you come down there and I’m not there, call my home. You know the number. That’s where I usually am.
Another comment. Don’t worry about radiation. That’s why my friends all avoid me already. I’ve been radioactive for about a year now thanks to a little experiment I did in school. I’ll tell you about it when you come back. Goodbye for now, Joe
Joe thinks almost whispering and emotionally, “How does she know about us being here, and what’s happening here anyway? And the radiation, what is this, I’m saying? What are we doing in this place man?”
He reads, “…Love, Salina.”
Putting the letter away in his pocket, Joe Mc Grath watches Cosgray nervously chugging water from his canteen and tried not to judge the act as a lack of self-discipline. Joe felt his first notion of fear that day as Cosgray, undetected by the NCO’s, quickly put the empty canteen away.
Joe’s sudden fear that for some reason accompanied Cosgray sneaking a drink was that something was all-wrong there, “Why are they three miles back?” He was trying to reconcile what was happening. He kept it to himself and nearly put it out of his mind until they were ordered on the trucks. On the truck he thought, “We are the army of the new President.” He felt worried about it all but did not want to be hesitant. “If I stop, I’m in trouble! But we’re gonna be like the Japanese.”
He trusted authority in the simplest of ways from the heart of his boyhood. To him the new President was another Lincoln, although you would have to ask him directly to find that out. He never expressed any political opinions without being asked. He was nervous now and he spoke aloud, “They’re gonna throw an atomic bomb at us! …” He felt himself breathing short breaths. He thought, “I’m an Infantryman in John Kennedy’s army, and this country…” He swallowed and whispered loud enough to be heard, “We’re gonna be in it like the Japanese. It can’t be the same. Gheez. How is this safe?” Some of the other soldiers were looking at him but not saying anything back to him.
Masters sprung to life as true NCO’s do, since they are what make armies actually work. Joe welcomed the tough sergeant’s actions. Masters, in Joe’s mind, was the only protection they had. The demands of the day were plotted out in Masters’ mind with deterring or distracting thoughts dashed out of his consciousness. He calibrated his body to willingly withstand a range of heat and exhaustion beyond what the desert had threatened him with previously. He ran peak tests on his alertness and senses like an airplane running up its engines before a takeoff.
Masters stood behind the trucks designated to carry his platoon. He slapped backs and checked equipment, straps, hooks, clips and buckles. His arm signals and hand contacts created a tempo that soon had his men moving quickly and determinedly. The trucks filled with responsive individuals sitting erect and on the edge of their seats. On board they slipped into a group, linked with each other, controlled, militarily predictable. They would, as all effective armies capitalize on, die for each other no matter how quickly or how long it took to die.
The trucks moved with a speedy, almost reckless boldness. Masters’ platoon dismounted about twenty-five yards behind a long straight trench piled high on one side with surprisingly non-indigenous looking red clay contrasting with the dun-colored desert floor. The trench looked as if it were the work of civilian plumbers starting up a housing project in a new suburb. The hole was a city block long and about six feet wide. You couldn’t see how deep or shallow it was from where the men first stood.
While Masters inspected the trench, Spots Daniels looked out beyond them and felt something quiver inside him. The atomic bomb target, they were told, a red box about the size of a newsstand, had obviously been built or placed on a creosote-freckled hilltop. Spots suddenly envisioned the red box and the entire surrounding as destroyed in a way he knew was beyond what he imagined.
They were told the bomb would be nine hundred meters off. The base of the targeted hill was probably eight hundred yards away. The red shack on the hilltop looked very close compared to the observation position during the Tuesday morning atomic bomb.
Expressions on the youthful faces looking at the trench held fear drawn perhaps from survival drives comparable to those of the trench warfare combatants in the big ground wars. McGrath looked out and spotted the assault objective. The infantry attack target was another barren hummock about two thousand yards to the right rear of the red box. They would be charging, sweeping past the nuclear weapons’ proposed ground zero. Armored personnel carriers with their growling diesel engines moved in behind the men of McGrath and Daniels’ platoon as the humans were ordered to advance into the trench.
McGrath, with a Browning automatic rifle dangling from his right hand, was on Daniels’ right. Masters was on their right making a radio check as they approached the fresh cut in the earth. Cosgray was on Daniels’ left, then Perkins and Livingston, as Bravo Team. Daniels, only and acting sergeant, did not have a radio so he stayed close to Masters to take his orders and signals.
Masters screamed, “Snake,” and jumped back like a prizefighter. The power in the man froze. His whole body, mind and soul came to a halt with little puffs of dust around his boots. McGrath stopped and then started walking right at the retreating snake. The snake curled at the edge of the trench in front of Joe and suspended its hideous looking head out at him. Men were yelling, “There it is!!”
The snake, dropping into the trench in front of McGrath, became a greater threat and dilemma. McGrath studied the snake’s moves and defenses as he planned the serpent’s destruction. Taking up a fighting position he thought of using his entrenching tool. He got Masters to pull it off his backpack. He spun it to the half-open position, and dropped deliberately into the trench. Soldiers nearby began to cheer him on. The snake looked more menacing in the trench. It rattled repeatedly, the alarming sound hissed upwards into the hot Nevada air. It had picked a shaded spot for its defense and, swinging its head around by contorting its body, pressed its first true attack against Joe’s outstretched entrenching tool. Joe pulled back measuring the snake’s speed and range. After throwing palm-sized rocks, Joe noted with respect the doomed reptile’s gallant strikes at the flying rocks.
Masters watched with awe as Joe finally chopped the battered little beast into three or four pieces. Masters was somewhat satisfied by the snake’s condition, but insisted that McGrath and Daniels cover the remains with a pile of the biggest rocks they could handle, the largest for the head. Masters wanted them to treat each chunk as a separate body. The cheering up and down the trench that had become loud and spirited had silenced. Masters was at last ready to crouch into the trench with the rest. Killing the desert had begun.
Daniels remembered their instructions to cover their skin and face. He demonstrated it in plain sign language to Masters over the blaring loudspeakers. Masters caught on and got up again and told everyone to cover their faces before he finally bent down with them. They sat on the ground with their backs against the trench wall on the same side as the atomic bomb. John Daniels, with a vague public high school level of knowledge about radiation, peered through his fingers wondering how they were supposed to cover the skin on their hands. He saw Masters was still uncovered and was looking at the heap of rocks trapping the dead snake.
Daniels, spellbound by a bloody section of the snake’s guts in front of him, began to look for any other uncovered remains of the dead reptile. In a moment, in Daniels’ mind as he sat in the dirt in the man-made cut in the earth, the whole process of the Army’s induction and the government’s control of citizens broke down before the power of his common sense. It was brushed aside by a half-black city kid of nineteen from North Philly simply wondering why he was sitting with a dead rattlesnake in a vast desert.
He was not really clear about what was happening, just that an atomic bomb was about to blow while those who were ordering it were sitting three miles in the rear. Daniels was wishing McGrath had not killed the snake. To him, the snake’s death only seemed a benefit to those experimenting and threatening with the bomb. He bent forward to pushing the largest rock off the head of the snake. While he did, he looked down the trench at the scene of young soldiers crouched and squatting to discover many of them staring back at him.
“This is crazy, it’s totally nuts! They’re about to blow away a piece of the freakin planet,” he said bending desperately toward Joe. “Hey Joe! This is fuckin nuts!” he yelled. Then turning to Masters, he said in a deep terror-filled voice, “You sure that snake’s head is dead, Sarge?” he taunted the sergeant again with, “Did you know they were gonna do this, Sarge?” Staring not at the sergeant but at Joe the whole time, he said again, “Hey Joe! This is fuckin nuts!”
The sergeant’s sweat soaked face appeared shades darker in the sunlight. He was staring at the opposite side of the trench. His eyes filled with fear that became unchecked fear when he heard a deep serious voice from the loud speakers on tripods, giving out firing commands down the line from the center of the trench. Men squirmed a little with last second positioning. Joe, following an instinct, looked up at the sky and saw a black projectile cross over the trench at about five hundred feet. There was a blinding light and in it he saw his hands were X-rayed right there in the trench. He instinctively pressed his now strange hands over his eyes. He had seen the bones in his hands as black forms. The hands pressed on his eyes felt alien, the black bones, hidden now in his skin, were not his anymore.
The first shock, the one that probably dilates your heart, came pounding through the earth. Then another, or maybe it was his mind’s ability to grasp the first, drove into his back. The sound, so incredibly explosive, was crushing his spirit with fear. The awesomeness of man’s new fire for a new age was born in deafening noise and that flash of very artificial light, bright beyond any natural light. He felt as if he should have been hurling through the air or shattered into a violent vapor like the dust that threatened to bury them alive. Because of Tuesday’s bomb, he knew what was coming at them.
Joe glanced over and saw Daniels’ hands through the dust; he was swatting it and scrambling to stay above the dirt that was swirling into the trench. They yelled to each other, “Stay down!” knowing that something from the indefinite fringe of reality was forming over them, something with more intensity than the very core of their beings had yet known. The bomb, like a new pain from the thorns and pressure of matter, was enough to shrink a man into a few passionate questions either to another desperate Cybele or to the heart of his true God.
When things quieted, they may have felt as if they had to rise above the threat or be enslaved by their own fear. Perhaps they might have simply died there in that hole. They got up, first a few at a time, then the whole population of the trench. They stood and looked at the atomic monster, half their bodies rising out above the crude, obviously inadequate earthy protection. Their eyes discovered the hill at ground zero remade into a mushroom symbol, a shape to match a foredoomed urge to conquer that only a desert could serve as an expert witness. It was like a strange vision of some futuristic battlefield, a nuclear Gettysburg on the hidden far side of the moon. Only the victims were the same, men, just men, again. In Joe McGrath’s mind, in a single, arrested scene, two things existed- the stunned, dust covered, young men standing in a shallow trench on the surface of the world and that atomic bomb also standing on the same surface, nothing else.
* * *
The armored personnel carriers moved up in front of them, the noise of their diesel engines initially somehow unnoticeable. Joe sensed something like an invisible being in the trench with him. It was as if he were two people now, the person before the radiation and the invisible person or angel that was either still Joe or some spirit he would need. He dismissed it in the increasing rumbling of the armored personal carriers squealing and opening their steel doors. The irradiated soldiers ran onto the hydraulically-controlled boarding ramps, which opened without any human hand touching them. When loaded, each vehicle closed its ramp swallowing the men in a macabre scene beneath the mushroom cloud. The dusty tracked vehicles spread out along the way and dropped their captured human cargo out on the test range.
The head of the mushroom cloud, elevated by a great black mass, black like an empty mine shaft, opened to the darkness of the universe, began to fall down range, tumbling over towards Master’s platoon now dismounted from their armored machines. The charging soldiers, on foot again, were now much nearer to ground zero. They ran, some leaping over smoldering fresh craters and rivulets of flowing black-crusted molten red-fired earth.
Soon they met another life form that had been routed before them. From above their movements would have looked somewhat alike. Each ran in spurts and after each sprint, the men fell into feeble firing positions, while their counterparts advanced, soldiers and lizards. Finally the forward charge ended for the soldiers. The lizards kept going. In the distance, the horizon seemed to know the innocent would be coming. Three miles back the perpetrators sat. The Secretary of State repeatedly stroked his hair, his habitual personal tic, but no one near him could tell what he was thinking. As always he looked innocent and thoughtful, his eyes always promising something.
Still out on the nuclear range, Joe, noticing a cut across the back of his right hand, spontaneously calculated how much it would bleed without being attended to. He was up and walking, hot and sweating through the irradiated dust covering his face, neck and hands and clothing, He hiked up his browning automatic rifle and cradled it in his right hand. He then grabbed the back of his bleeding hand with his left palm. He instinctively pressed the cut. After a few seconds, he lifted his palm and looked. Suddenly he remembered his father’s stories of The Second World War and his father’s scarred hands and imagined the amount of blood his father must have dealt with when he was shot by the Japanese during the battle for Okinawa. He felt the link; father to son, soldiers linked by blood and bleeding. The bleeding stopped.
The dust had formed a seal but he still wondered how and when he had cut his hand. For the second time that day he thought of the Japanese in the atomic bombings at the end of his father’s war. He imagined people helpless in the scene he had watched during Tuesday’s blast. The names of the two Japanese cities were whispered over his lips. “What have we done? What are we doing now? He thought. “Holy gheez, nobody’s gonna believe this!”
When the test exercise the government called Dante was over, all of E Company was strung far out on the desert and told to simply walk back. McGrath walked with his B.A.R. now very heavy on the back of his neck. He felt close to heat stroke. They all looked exhausted, some like half dead draft animals with their heads down at random distances, most at intervals, which left them alone to their own thoughts. They walked across the firing range and into what had been a rear position. Marine helicopters followed the suspended mushroom form, like shepherds watching a retreating wolf pack.
Joe was walking head down in his overheated daze. With the mechanical, rattlesnake sound of the helicopter blades waffling in the desert air, he again sensed something. He looked up and saw two men in silver, full body, protective clothing. Just behind the two men, the full bird colonel he had seen in the civilian cafeteria when they first arrived was standing beside the man in the fatigues. The man in fatigues was the same blond-haired man with the tattoo who had given them the atomic bomb speech before they watched the first bomb being detonated. The colonel had his arm on the other man’s shoulder as if to praise him. Much closer to Joe, two men standing in protective clothing had formed a foreboding gateway for the soldiers to file through. They held Geiger counters against each man as he passed, probing legs and upper bodies and calling off to each other the Roentgens count. Joe passed through the men in silver, their suites reflecting brightly in the desert sunlight. “This is science fiction. They’re like Saturday matinee aliens,” he thought.
Joe also continued watching the colonel and the other man, the scientist with the tattoo. The Colonel and the scientist were side by side in conversation, walking towards their vehicles. He never saw the two of them together again.
Spots Daniels, the mixed race boy from North Philadelphia was looking around the desert scene for Joe’s whereabouts. His brown skin glistened like wet wood in the bright sun. He noticed that they were segregating those in need of decontamination by directing them off to the right side. He saw that they were letting the greater number of men gather on the left. Sergeants were assigning details to sweep off the armored personnel carriers with brooms appearing out of nowhere. The diesel engines sounded very loud again. Garces, with one of the brooms, was already up on an armored personnel carrier. McGrath started sweeping it from the ground but stopped when Daniels came over to take the broom from him. Daniels also waved at Garces to come down. In reply to Daniels’ suggestion, Garces, always joking, flicked some of the dust at his friends. “Get off of there with that fuckin broom, Garces, The whole thing is radioactive, you dumb shit.” At that, Joe McGrath jumped back afraid of the dust. Joe and Spots walked a good distance away from the vehicles.
Daniels sat on a rock. Joe McGrath, on another rock, sat unconsciously on the wooden stock of his automatic rifle, which he had propped up on its tripods with the wooden end on the rock. Daniels watched Garces throw his broom on the ground and walk away. Daniels walked closer and leaned toward Joe. They both looked over at the contaminated. They didn’t speak to each other but stared with curiosity at Hutton and Cosgray standing there with a nervous-looking Sergeant Masters staring back at them. Daniels wondered if Joe had noticed how long it took the screeners to let Daniels go by.
Joe, feeling the mushroom cloud behind them, turned while an awestricken look came over his face. The fullness of the atomic shape, now as tall as a New York skyscraper, evoked a boyhood memory of a nun in his Philadelphia grade school demanding memorization, verbatim recitations. He recalled their reading and memorizing poetry by stanzas in his early Catholic schooling. He found a Yeat’s poem coming back to memory. It was a connective thread from the past to the present. Joe blew a confirming breath through his nostrils and began a recitation somewhere in the middle of Yeats’ verse. Standing up he spoke aloud as if he had erupted into a bipolar mania,
“When a vast image out of ‘Spiritu Mundi’
Troubles my sight in sands of the desert”
Joe still looking toward the mushroom cloud continued,
“A shape with lion body and the head of a man
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs …”
After pausing, any further memory of the poem faded like chalk on a blackboard. Once more that same nun came to mind. She had a pointer in her hand, tapping her desk in rhythmic prompting to the verses she was teaching. “Tennyson must be memorized,” she insisted. Joe remembering waved his arm defiantly and spoke louder,
“Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d ?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
No one seemed to pay any attention to him except Daniels.
Poetry became a tracing in his mind.
He thought, in his own words, “I’m in the rain of radiation, no the reign of radiation, molecular death, man’s Death Valley. I can feel it invisibly knowing me. Are we doomed by it? And Daniels knew it all along and Salina heard about it. I am the only idiot. The only dumb ass peasant carrying this boy killer, automatic rifle as if it were something to show off, emblematic of my status, the infantry, army of the United States, the army of the Potomac, the army of Trenton, the army of Bastogne, the army of Iwo Jima. We are being killed in practice, to be prepared to kill mother’s little Asian or Russian sons grown tall enough for the next war.”
Again he spoke aloud, ‘Your boy has to be taller than this mark, mother, or he cannot be blown apart…’ I am going crazy, for sure,” he said when he felt Daniels hand on his shoulder.
“They’re all crazy, everyone, nuts,” said Daniels, adding, “It’s too late now, Joe.”
After a few minutes, Joe and Daniels wound their way further away from those working brooms on the dust-laden armored personnel carriers, while still watching those soldiers selected for the decontamination lines. Those men, who were sent to the decontamination center, were simply given showers and released in the same irradiated clothing. They joined the rest of the company back at the air-conditioned buildings.
* * *
Days afterward, Joe writing to Salina writes;
“My memory seems to have gone lazy about our leaving Nevada, like somebody gave me a drug. I remember standing beside the train wheels again and then while riding along I saw a young couple embracing each other in an old car on an open field someplace up in the eastern part of Oregon. I thought about us, and how romantic you are. I wondered if you would be afraid of what the radiation might have done to me.”
When we were on the train out of Nevada, I stood on the rear platform of the last car, often with my head held in the wind blowing in the open top-half of the train door. I think I wanted the wind to wash me off. I didn’t talk to anyone and I know I passed that whole train ride alone in my thoughts, sensing there was never going to be that getting back to normal feeling.
I want time with you. The beach sounds great.
* * *
Remembering his private anguish and rage that day they left Nevada, Joe, spoke to Daniels while lying on a bunk back at Fort Lewis says, “I think that drugged feeling was shock; that pausing and even arresting power of shock was probably in me. After all, how could we just ride a train back into the ordinary world?” He paused, and then said, “Somebody dropped an atomic bomb on me and you, Spots, and all the rest of these guys?”
Sitting up on the edge of his bunk, Daniels answered, “But that’s what they wanted us to do. Don’t talk about it. Yeah, ride away like it never happened.”
“Yeah Spots, we have all been far away somewhere.” He looked out the barracks windows saying, “Somewhere way east of Eden, a place we should have never been and one that we would never forget.”
John McCabe, a lifelong writer in all genres, is an active member of the Writers Guild at the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center. His novel The Grey Pennies of Wars centers on his experience as a young soldier undergoing atomic bomb testing in Nevada and is actively seeking a publisher.