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By August 7, 2015 One Comment

I can’t argue with anything Thomas Goodhart offered us here yesterday. My first perceptions of nuclear war came when, as a grade-schooler, we snuck under our desks in preparation for destruction many thought imminent. It was the early 1950s, and my father, who’d spent the war years in the South Pacific, signed up to watch the sky with the local Civil Defense unit. He left a chart picturing different Russian aircraft on our breakfast bar, and I studied those shapes as if to be sure that, should I spot something up above on my way to school, I’d know evil from good.

I was only a little bit older when a photograph taught me what a mushroom cloud looked like; but once I learned what it was, that billowing image never left my consciousness, as I’d presume it’s never left anyone my age whose museum of memories seems just around the corner from consciousness.

I loved sci fi when I was a boy, The Twilight Zone an all-time favorite, Rod Serling’s voice more familiar to me than any preacher’s of the era. More often than not, the plots for that show presumed nuclear warfare and mutants Serling and most others predicted another nuclear war would produce.

I’m not old enough to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I do remember Vietnam and its casualties. I lived with some ex-grunts, guys who had lots of trouble pulling themselves away from images that were neither atomic or nuclear, reoccurring ghosts that emerged from the fog of war.

I was about to graduate from college in 1970, when one morning my clock radio woke me with the news that four Kent State students had been killed in a confrontation with what we used to call “the pigs,” so I listened to the clarion call of someone anti-war activist like Sam Brown, an Iowan, who made it clear that a huge peace march on Washington was about to take place. I listened. Three of us drove a bug all the way to DC.

I say all of that because I have no desire to argue anything with Thomas Goodhart’s injunction to grieve, to take issue with anything he says in that moving piece about life and death and “the bomb.”

But his opening line doesn’t really tell the whole story. It goes like this: “Seventy years ago today, at 8:16 AM local time, August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan immediately killing 80,000 people.”

I’m sure he has the time and numbers down, but that first line uses a passive verb that doesn’t tell the whole story because “was dropped” successfully avoids a real subject; and the fact is, as Goodhart and all the rest of us know, we—the U. S. of A.–dropped “Little Boy” on August 6, 1945. We were and are the responsible bombers.

And who were we?

In my grandparents’ home, a parsonage in Oostburg, Wisconsin, five stars stood proudly in the front window because my grandparents had five children in the war effort, my father being one of them.

My dad spent the war aboard a lousy tug way out in the South Pacific. He saw no action, but towed destroyers and tankers around harbors in islands he’d never heard of before he stepped on their beaches. He came home after those atomic bombs were dropped. My mother greeted him in the Milwaukee railroad station. I can only imagine his joy upon returning. In his arms he held a little girl he hadn’t seen in two years and another he’d never seen at all.

My father-in-law spent two years just behind the Allied front as it moved from Normandy to Berlin. He crossed the English channel a week or so after D-day, and worked the motor pool, a kind of mobile service garage for jeeps and tanks and anything with a motor. He and his buddies sometimes heard gunfire, but were never in anyone’s crosshairs, never shot a rifle themselves. Their dirty hands held grease guns 24/7.

He had his assignment when the fires in Europe ceased. He and the whole bunch of grease monkeys were bound for the war in the South Pacific when “Little Boy” dropped from the Enola Gay. Instead, he went home. One of his brothers never returned.

My father-in-law was single, but two years later he married a woman who’d lost her fiance on June 6, 1944, when he took a German bullet just one step off the landing craft at Omaha Beach.

Two of my uncles, research chemists, were employed on the Manhattan Project in 1945. For me and my family, their participation was a matter of great pride. Both men, gone now, were wonderful human beings. One of them, a graduate of Hope, went on to serve as the President of Westmont College for decades. The other, a graduate of Wheaton, chaired the Chemistry Department at Indiana University, but eventually moved into administration and actually served as interim President when the Board needed time to choose someone new.

My uncles were heroes to me, not because they worked on the atom bomb, but because they were warm and loving. They were warm and loving Christians.

Not long ago, I came across a church bulletin from the First Christian Reformed Church, Orange City, Iowa, a bulletin from 1944 that included a list of names of the congregation’s “boys” in the armed forces. First Orange City was a big church, not mega, maybe 200 families back then; but it sits in the middle of a rural community where some kids got deferments because someone had to grow food.

Nonetheless, there were 35 men listed as serving their country in 1944, 35 men, some of them married, some of those with children. Think of your church without 35 of its members, all of them in uniform, most of them in danger. The cost of that war goes beyond anything most of us can imagine today.

I say all of this not because I disagree with Thomas Goodhart’s words and not because I can’t feel the anguish he feels or the horror that was Hiroshima. I think I do.

I wish the world was an easier place to live, wish the answers came more easily. But this vale of tears isn’t an easy place, and the perfectly clear answers rarely are.

I’m thankful I grew up with a father, and my wife grew up with a dad.

The math doesn’t match, I know—my family for 80,000 dead in an instant in a horrible, livid flash.

I certainly don’t disagree with anything Thomas Goodhart says, but this morning I just want to say that I too have a story. So Death doth touch the resurrection.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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