Saturday, March 21, 2015

Oppenheimer's Legacy Endures and His Fears Proved Founded

Here is another story written 5 or 6 years ago -- dusted off and thrust into the harsh light of self-criticism of a mind not yet broken and rebuilt for practicing medicine. I vaguely remember writing it -- I really remember that the story was inspired by one of the best classes I've ever taken. It was basically a semester of studying nuclear weapons, atomic energy and the geo-politics that surrounded (and stills does) the nifty little trick of splitting an atom. The instructor was a biochemist by trade but had a passion that he turned into an elective course. I also have a feeling that this may have been my first attempt to follow in the footsteps of the late great David Foster Wallace and his obsession with footnotes in works of fiction. At the time I thought I should start doing the same -- and its a credit to my writing instructors that they were patient enough to let me work through that foolishness on my own. 

To be sure there are some cringe-worthy aspects of this specific story, too. It reads, as an attempt at subtle contrasts executed with a lack of elegance -- to say the least. I was most tempted to change the title to "Ronald Raygun" but resisted the urge. 

Long Live the Plainly Mysterious and Horribly Innocent Mycology of Yore
By Jeremiah Pamer
The talking head on the television kept referring to an iron curtain that I imagined to be some immense rusty version of what hung in the school’s cafeteria, separating the stage from the lunch-time tables.  It could have been that same newscast but probably not (aren’t they all the same anyhow, only with new faces and differing weather reports?) when I first remember trying to imagine a mushroom cloud…what could that be? My little prepubescent mind came up with many interesting ideas.  Why not? The discovery of new things at such an age may as well include huge clouds of mycological fungi, or perhaps (I really was hoping for this one…) a yet undiscovered secret level in Super Mario Brothers. So, one can imagine the horror that came with the surprise that the people living on the other side of the iron curtain were trying to kill me with their mushroom clouds: my NES and subsequent skills were irrelevant.
While growing up East of Portland, in the shadow of Mt. Hood and at the gates of the Colombia River Gorge, mushroom hunting was popular. Morels and Chanterelles were the two most coveted varietals, and vitally important to distinguish from the also plentiful poisonous mushrooms, of which the most potent ones are referred to as Death Caps. Uncle Boomer would often take me and my cousins hunting for such goodies in the woods; all the while this was reverberating in my head: beware the Death Caps and check with Uncle Boomer before eating any thing picked in the forest. I began to worry about our trips into the Hood River Wilderness.1 Maybe the people behind the iron curtain had sent Death Caps in disguise and we were walking into a mushroom cloud trap? Once again, my surprise was palpable when I learned how off base I was in fearing the Death Cap and consequent renal system failure, in contrast to the much more appropriate fear of fiery death via nuclear annihilation.
In fourth grade I loved my teacher, Ms. Knightely. I knew she was a lesbian (this was the gossip in the school yard, which I played along with while at the same time having no idea why I was so shocked and excited). I also knew I was Hungarian, and my father had made sure that I knew where to find Hungary on the map; I couldn’t, for the life of me find Lesby, or any other derivation of the term lesbian on the world map.2 She was the one who gave me, and indeed the whole class, the straight dope about the people behind the iron curtain, including the part about their pending demise. She related and confirmed the stories of their repeated attempts to kill me, but she went on to tell us about our fearless leader: a cowboy turned President named Ronald Reagan.  He was sure to save us, Ms. Knightely told us because we had many more mushroom clouds of our own.
Aha! We have our own mushroom clouds! Yes!
Indeed, I would learn that we had bigger and better mushroom clouds than anyone else in the whole wide world! I was much comforted by this. Around this time my parents decided to move me downstairs, away from my parents and give my old room to my much younger sister. For a small period of time, in the autumn of my fourth grade of schooling I was an appropriately peaceful eight year old, able to focus on the conventional worries accompanying my specific demographic. Things like the downstairs door, which lead to the garage, which lead to the door to the backyard, which lead to the burglars who were plotting the theft of my Nintendo Entertainment System were what I turned to for worry fodder. That year for my birthday I was given a big fat Swiss Army Knife, my parents declaring that I was now responsible enough for a knife. I would leave it out on the night stand, with the big cutlasses fully extended and the lesser blades extended to lesser and varying degrees so that when the night of the burglary finally came I could throw the knife at him, striking him in the throat, or the eye. This would buy me enough time to get the baseball bat and yell for Dad. As the home-invasion-free nights accumulated I began to understand that even the coolest Swiss Army Knife was no match for the mushroom clouds from the other side of the iron curtain. It seemed no combination of traditional worries would, or could trump my atomic vexations.
Yoshi was an exchange student from Japan and came to live with us after the New Year. He was 18 and knew Karate! It was from him that I learned that we had already made mushroom clouds in his country…I was very sad. He said it was a long time ago, but he had lost some Aunts and Uncles so I knew it couldn’t have been that long ago. He told me about the half-life of the nuclear fallout that was part of the mushroom cloud and how it still made people sick where he was from. Half-life? What…? I asked him repeatedly what he meant and he said he didn’t really know. We found Japan on the world map and he pointed to his town that he left before he came to live in my basement. I showed him where Hungary was and asked him if he could help me find the country of Lesby.
Four times per week my parents would take me to church. The preacher would talk about Israel being back in the land of their forefathers and about the violence in the Middle East and that the end of the world was coming. Soon. He may not have said as much but I knew that the fiery end of the world would have to come in the form of mushroom clouds, hundreds and thousands of them. Sermons about the Godlessness of the people behind the iron curtain and how they had no churches to go to, and wouldn’t go if given the chance and how they couldn’t even read the Bible seemed quite strange. I wondered if this was why they wanted to kill us. I thought of Yoshi and his family that died in our mushroom clouds we had (and still) made; was his family evil?
The five ‘o clock news was standard viewing at the dinner table. Once in a great while my dad would have to work late and that was great! It meant the Electric Company was accompanying our Tortino’s pizza my Mother micro waved for my sister and I (Yoshi would often make himself some rice and steamed vegetables, at the time I thought him quite the fool. I mean, c’mon! Giving up microwave PIZZA?). And, increasingly my Father was working evenings: “the trickle spigot had been turned off,” my Father would lament. When winter came around I helped father turn off the water to the spigots in the yard. Dad must have been important to be in charge of turning off so many spigots around the city, as it obviously was a big project. But, even the effervescent hypnotizing ever-present companionship provided by the television could not dissuade me from my preoccupation of impending nuclear holocaust.
Sometimes the stresses involved with being an eight year old boy who constantly scanned the skies for incoming ICBM’s became too much. In these times of youthful emotional breakdown, when I could no longer handle my anxiety I retreated to the backyard. It was awesome. The yard was large with a two-story playhouse and adjacent sandbox. I would organize my GI Joes against my coalition of Transformers and Go-Bots. Peril breeds strange bedfellows, as was evident in Lady-Jane and Cobra Commander joining forces to fight the morphing robots from the other side of the playhouse. The GI Joes (Cobra forces included) had much bigger weaponry and larger tanks and airplanes. Even if I included the mercenary forces of my lone Boba-Fett and smattering MASK action figures (NOT DOLLYS!) on the side of the Transformers and Go-Bots the GI Joes would always win. It was simple logistics: the “Yo-Joe” hybrid team was always victorious because of their relatively numerous and bigger guns.  I refused to let the battles become strategic, only conventional warfare was allowed in my backyard. Looking back now I admire the restraint of a transmogrifying robot population that undoubtedly had nuclear capabilities. Why Megatron ever allowed himself to be hamstrung is an enigma lost to my youth.
Duke, SnakeEyes, StormShadow and Destro and company were not invincible forever. Eventually the battle fields of the back yard were forsaken and all but forgotten, replaced with the pursuit of girls, skateboarding and a variety of ever growing conventional concerns. Before I had even entered high-school the iron curtain was demolished. I have often thought it strange that the real world manifestation of the iron curtain was a huge concrete wall splitting Berlin in half. When Hasselfoff tore down the wall, down went the iron curtain as well.  The new and improved talking heads who now had their own twenty-four hour dedicated cable channels talked as if the mushroom cloud threat was over.  Still, I kept (and keep) and eye out for the distant con-trail with accompanying mushroom cloud that signals the return of my childhood’s most cryptic and strangely most reasonable fear.

1.     (author’s note) Strangely enough, and unknown to me at the time was that not far from this plot of land about 30 miles to the west was the sight of the only mainland American casualties from World War II. The Japanese had sent thousands of bombs attached to helium balloons sent upward into the newly discovered jet stream and designed to drop over US mainland. On May 5, 1945 a pastor and his pregnant wife took 5 children from their church on a picnic at the heavily wooded park near Bly, Oregon. All perished except for the father, who was significantly further away from the unexploded ordinance that was found in a tree and tugged upon by one of the children for further  inspection. August 6, 1945 was the day when, in Hiroshima, Japan the first mushroom cloud was used in anger and against a civilian population. Again on August 9, 1945 the US dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Over 220,000 innocent people were killed in the war crimes, combined. People are still dying from the radiation poisoning.

2.     (author’s note) Ironically, when I learned that the term ‘Lesbian’ derives from the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea (specifically from Sapphos’s poetry and the island of her birth, Lesbos), I could not refrain from letting forth a chuckle. If the small island of Lesbos had, for some reason gained independence prior to and during my tenure in Ms. Knightely’s fourth grade class I would have been left wondering why it was so scandalous that my teacher was of Greek origin.

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