It is November 11th. Another Remembrance Day has rolled around, and at first glance it doesn't seem much different than all the ones that have gone before. The usual sights that accompany this day surround us- red poppies decorating jackets, uniformed cadets at cenotaphs across the land, and dignitaries making speeches. Community bands will play somewhat recognizable pieces of music and a bagpipe or two will no doubt make a mournful appearance. But something this year is missing. Take a look around and you will see only a handful of WW2 and Korean War vets marching in the parade or gathered at the cenotaphs. The rapidly dwindling number of WW2 vets are now in their eighties and nineties, and many are too frail to stand out in the wind and cold for the lengthy ceremonies. The Korean vets are a decade younger, but also getting up there in years. 2010 also marks the first year that Remembrance Day will be celebrated without a surviving Canadian WW1 vet.
This summer when my parents, brother and I visited the farm we stopped in to see an old friend and neighbor. Sam came to the door, and when he saw us he got a huge grin on his face. I was relieved that he immediately recognized my brother and me. The reason I was relieved? Well, Sam has started to lose his memory. So even though Sam has known my brother and me since the day we were born- the bonds of friendship in the farming community I grew up in run long and deep- there was no guarantee he would know who we were on this warm summer day.
We were ushered in like royalty and immediately offered a cup of coffee, the gesture that has always been the defining mark of hospitality in this rural north Idaho farming community. While Sam and my dad and brother went into the kitchen to make the coffee, my mom and I sat in the living room looking around at the pictures on the walls and the decorations sprinkled around the room, all clearly reflecting Sam's wife Donna's taste in decor. Donna and Sam had been married for 60 some years, raised two daughters, and were blessed with a multitude of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Sadly Donna had died the year before, and Sam now lives alone in a house where he struggles to hang on to his cherished memories.
After the coffee was served we sat down to visit. Now, when you are visiting with someone whose memory is failing you aren't quite sure how the conversation is going to go. As it turned out, Sam's memory is remarkably intact when it comes to events that happened a long time ago. It is the present that gives him trouble. We sat and listened as Sam shared story after story of his time spent serving in the navy during WW2. He talked about what it was like in the Pacific, on small islands that were the sights of fierce fighting. He told us about what it was like to be a kid (really, most of the guys who enlisted were just 18 year old boys) fresh off the farm transported to a naval training station back east. He could name every port his ship, returning once the war was over, had stopped at. He shared these stories, and as I listened I felt like I was being handed a gift.
Here is a picture taken that day of Sam and my dad. My dad is the guy on the left- the one with the amazing head of hair. Seriously, perfect strangers, all women I should add, will come up to my dad in places like restaurants, malls or grocery stores and start going on about how great my dad's hair is. I have actually witnessed this! My dad pretends to be annoyed, but really I know he enjoys the attention all these older women give him. My mom finds it quite amusing, mostly because she can see how flustered it makes my dad.
Stories are important. They tell us who we are, where we have come from, and to a degree shape where we are going. My dad served in the army during the Korean War. Because stories are important, I am going to share my dad's story. He witnessed three different atomic bombs being exploded in the Nevada desert. In an odd way, these bombs could well have saved my dad's life. The policy at that time, for reasons that don't seem entirely clear, was that any serviceman who had witnessed an atomic bomb explode would not be sent to active duty in Korea. As you read my dad's story you will see the outcome for some of the soldiers who witnessed these explosions was not as good as my dad's.
So here, this Remembrance Day, is an unauthorized, slightly edited guest post from my dad. At my request (actually after much pestering if the truth be told) my dad wrote this down for me last year. I should add that it is used totally without his permission. So if you are reading this blog dad, well.......... surprise!
Atomic Bomb Tests at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada, 1953
This story starts near the end of my time at Camp Desert Rock, when I was with the transportation section of the army. When we were sent to the camp we did the usual army training. We had nothing to do with the actual bombs; the army just assigned the different troops to the needed departments around the camp and bombing sights.
As I recall, about a week before the first of the three drops, we were given instructions as to what to expect when the bomb was exploded. The first one was dropped from a B36 bomber. We were told to sit down on the hillside on the sand and to expect complete silence for a short time and then the concussion would be very loud. We had dark glasses on and were rather nervous- nervous as all hell actually.
All at once was the loudest explosion I ever heard; the shock wave that followed raised all of us several feet off the ground. When the dust and noise had settled a bit we were told to look at the sight area. It is really hard to explain the strange beauty of the explosion. Tons of sand, smoke, flame and movement were in front of us. As I recall we were about 5 miles from ground zero as it was called.
After about maybe two minutes or so, when everyone was settled down to just watch the activity another explosion and shock wave hit us, along with all the sand coming back in our faces. No one had mentioned the fact that a second shock wave was even going to happen. At first we were sure another bomb had been dropped behind us. The officers apparently didn't know about it either because they were as white-faced as the enlisted men. A very huge mushroom cloud erupted in front of us and kept getting larger as time passed by. On the very top of the cloud a huge ice cap formed.
We witnessed two more atomic bombs and they were similar in looks, size and beauty. One was set off underground and one from a tower of about 50 feet in the air. The bomb on the tower was placed near a "town" constructed of many different types of materials- wood, cement, steel and any other equipment that was available and used in the army. The purpose of this was to see what would happen in an actual bombing. I was very lucky not to be chosen to go to ground zero to check on the damage that was done. A lot of troops, probably hundreds, were sent in to check things out and report the findings. From what we know now, that was a really stupid thing for the service to do, not knowing the end results of exposure to radiation. I am afraid most of the troops that were sent into this area are most likely either in bad shape or dead.
Lest we forget.