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The radioactive activist

I have worked in an atomic weapons depot, a veterans’ psychiatric hospital and a perfectly awful mental hospital for juveniles, and in all of these places I did what I was told to do, and gave my notice when I had had it with the life they offered. The fact that I was able to follow almost any order, I owe to my Navy training. I am useful. I keep my mouth shut. Sometimes.

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I got my “Q” clearance, giving me access to atomic weapon secrets, in July 1958 and was sent to a depot in Nevada where atomic weapons were stored. We were still using the first generation of air-droppable bombs and warheads, though they were being phased out. They were the direct descendants of Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Real monsters. You saw the Mark 5 and Mark 7 bombs and you knew they weren’t firecrackers. The Mark 7 was about two-and-a-half feet in diameter, about 15 feet long and weighed 1,700 pounds. We didn’t have to assemble the TNT sphere, but the detonators that triggered the implosion wave had to be put in one by one, and attached to the cables that came off the high-voltage capacitor bank. The detonators were sensitive: if you dropped them more than six inches they’d go off. A couple of times they took us out to the firing range and blew a couple up while we watched from 20 feet away. There was no question, it could blow a hole in you, and if you were in final preflight assembly and the shockwave hit the TNT sphere, you’d lose the assembly bay and everyone in it. Two hands at all times when you handled dets. Kohler, who liked to have his fun with people, sneaked a couple of dummy detonators into a case of live ones, and one day in the middle of the arming sequence, took what he knew was a dummy and tossed it to poor Horpstead, who bobbled it, dropped it and dived for cover, thinking this was it. Kohler just laughed, hah hah. Big joke.

We had special pliers to secure the electrical connectors. You torqued up the connectors tight but not too tight, matched up the holes on the connector to the holes on the receptacle, threaded a wire seal through the holes, and then used these pliers to spin the two ends of the wire together and make neat little seals. This was Standard Operating Procedure to prevent the connectors vibrating loose in the bomb bay. Today all these connections are sealed at the factory. No chance of the kind of mischief I spent too much time thinking about. It was brutally hot up there on the surface, but we had air-conditioning and the twin ordnance igloos we worked in were mostly underground; just their ends showed above the surface. Ten-ton motor-driven doors sealed the entrances used to take weapons in and out. The whole area was heavily fortified. At night, jackrabbits electrocuted themselves against the security fences: distant pops and small blossoms of flame.

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Inside, pretty much everything was green. Pea green for the walls with dark green trim and cement floors. Bulletins about security, sermons on the dangers of high voltage. A workbench with test equipment ran along the south wall. Two names came back to me this morning: Karlsven and Katchke. God knows how Katchke was really spelled. He wore glasses and I remember him as shy, the classic nerd. He didn’t understand my jokes. He tested the radars, the twin black cans we strapped into the fusing assemblies. In the old days when gunners and boatswain mates were working in the program, men going on leave used to stand in front of the radar transmitters. The legend was that five minutes in front of them made you sterile for 12 hours. I assume all those clowns died unpleasant deaths, or maybe it was just another sea story told to new guys.

Katchke was a high-class tech who knew about radar and advanced electronics; he even did some soldering now and then. I belonged to a lower caste: I swapped black boxes, ran testing protocols and checked the tire pressure on the weapon carriers and wheeled them around on the forklift. I felt safe with this small group of technicians who clustered around the test equipment, running checks on the weapons they brought in from the storage igloos. I had a few buddies; I was off the streets; I was clean and sober and confined myself to one beer a day; I had my shoes spit-shined and wasn’t worried about where my next buck was coming from. Our main job was doing retrofits. Blizzards of retrofits, lots of factory recalls of new bombs and warheads. Bad batteries, malfunctioning radars and contact fuses, whatever. I had a crow on my dungarees, which meant I had a little rank. I had an account in the base credit union where some money went every month towards my college education. I did well in advancement tests.

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A fierce wish to belong

By 1960, I had been in the Navy for two years, the traumatic effects of boot camp and the Uniform Code of Military Justice were starting to wear off, and I was waking up to certain possibilities in my life. Before boot camp, I had been a street kid for about a year. Boot camp meant I could take a shower and wash my clothes. Putting up your hand and taking the oath got you 10 weeks in San Diego, without rights, subject to constant abuse. You’re marched here; you’re marched there. You yell yes sir and no sir and try your damndest to fit in and do everything that is demanded of you. Be clean, stand up straight, roll your socks up into balls so that the stenciled initials show in the little window. After failing inspection one day, I had my whole sea bag, all 132 pieces of clothing, thrown in the shower and was told I had until the next morning to get everything clean and pressed and ready for inspection at 08.00.

I sat in the shower room for a long time staring at that huge sodden heap of clothing before I roused myself and set to work. Fairly early in that long night of ironing, I found out that I wanted to survive; I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to be a sailor; I didn’t want to get a general or medical discharge and go back to the streets and, more than anything else, I wanted the approval of my boot camp chief petty officer. And when I graduated with the rest of Company 341, one of 80 men standing in ranks at the San Diego Naval Training Center, I stood proud in my anonymity, staring fiercely ahead at nothing, coming to attention, coming to right face, told to stand at ease and finally mustered out, to get two weeks of leave before my first duty station.

All this merely meant that I had, like everyone else, a fierce wish to belong, to obey orders. It’s nothing to boast about. I had been programmed. Deprogramming myself was much harder. But maybe surviving boot camp is something to boast about, to be proud about.

When I enlisted, I said I wanted to be a hospital corpsman. I think this was an intelligent choice. I have never been that gung-ho. I enlisted not to fight a war but to get three meals a day and a warm place to sleep. And looking after people is what I ended up doing for most of my working life. Nurse’s aide, psychiatric aide, home health aide. I’m retired now, but that’s what I was doing when I started writing this: I wrote and I waited to get Peter’s dinner out of the oven. Peter got 24-hour care, and I did three seven-hour shifts a week. I enjoyed the connectedness that working always gave me, the benchmarks at the end of every shift: pill box empty, kitchen clean, patient clean and medicated, wastebaskets empty, shift annotated.

In the later days of the boot camp, when some of the pressure was off, we were marched over to a building to talk about our future careers. Our test results were in, and I was already a pariah in my company for my high marks. The company commander made me stand at attention in front of the company while he talked about me. He walked around me, pointing to various parts of my anatomy. He wanted to reassure all the people in the company whose marks were low that they were good people and sound sailors. He wanted to tell them that if they were worried about their scores, to look at Kirby here, who got a 75 but couldn’t do anything right, who might singlehandedly, through all his fuckups, deny the company the performance pennants they deserved.

When it was my turn, there was a chief petty officer looking at my file. “You want to be a hospital corpsman?” I said I did. I think he sniggered. I could do better, he said. I could still be a hospital corpsman if I wanted, but anyone could be a corpsman. My test scores were very high. Especially for electronics, and mechanical ability. He wondered if I wanted to spend my four years emptying bedpans and making beds. He said I had a higher calling. The Navy had a new rating that combined electronics and other sophisticated training in armaments. He said that someday I might have a real career in the defense industry. It was all highly classified, and until I got my top secret clearance, I would remain in the dark. And so I said yes, without too much internal struggle, I think. I was putty in the hands of anyone fatherly who told me I was underestimating myself.

So I signed on the line. Three months later I was on temporary duty in the holding barracks at Sandia Base, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We were waiting for our security clearance. One day 24 of us got our notices and marched to the “Q” area gate, where all mysteries would be revealed. We had badges that let us get into most of the buildings beyond the barbed-wire fences.

The first day we went to the museum. My God, it was love at first sight. All those bombs and missile warheads, and we were going to work on them. We all talked in whispers; there were models of Fat Man and Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I remember standing behind the yellow line, looking up at an absolutely massive hydrogen bomb. The first H-blast detonated a stationary refrigeration plant, the next came from a bomb like the one we were looking at — about the size of a 40-foot boxcar. It was delivered by a B-36 whose bomb bay had to be lengthened and widened. And then we walked through more recent exhibits, when the weapons got smaller and more powerful. There was the tiny ASROC, a nuclear depth charge, and warheads for the Polaris and other ICBMs. Pictures of the tests in Nevada and Bikini.

At classes for the next 10 or so weeks, we practiced procedures with dummy bombs, studied theory, saw plenty of movies and were taught radiation safety. One movie was shot in Los Alamos in the wake of a bad accident in the 1940s when a worker accidentally brought together two blocks of uranium and radiation inundated the area. They filmed his last hours. They asked him to talk about what he was feeling. I remember his face was beet red and his hair was falling out. He was polite and responsive to the last, apologizing when he didn’t remember things or started coughing.

‘Stop me from doing something foolish’

But we didn’t talk or think like that. Everything was matter-of-fact and technical. Clean as a whisker. No blood or guts, no visions of Armageddon, except now and then when they would suddenly shut the place down and put us all on alert. Marines in the guard towers, sirens blowing, a lockdown for 48 hours. Planes would be loading down at the strip, and we were under the ground working with no way of knowing whether World War Three was on. One kid worked in our unit as a weapons handler for a couple of months and never knew what those weapons were that he was loading and positioning. He went crazy. He thought we were mad to take all these things for granted. No sooner had he started talking like that than he vanished, like I did later.

In the winter of 1961-62, things were slow in the electrical bay, and I was transferred to the mechanical bay, where I worked doing retrofits and supervised the library, checking weapon manuals in and out. I inevitably did quite a bit of reading in the process of updating manuals, and it was there, sitting at my desk, that I started to do a little research that might have made me very dangerous to everyone on the planet. But it didn’t. I went to the local community college and took a couple of evening classes, and avoided talking about what I was thinking and learning to Lt. Commander Karlsven, the base commander. Karlsven was a taciturn Swede who always looked splendid in his uniform. He came to work in a green Department of Defense sedan; we came to work in a little gray school bus. There was gold on his collar buttons, gold in the braid on his hat that hung on the three-legged hat-stand, silver in his thinning hair that he wore combed straight back. When I left, Karlsven encouraged me to read the Bible. In the college library I found all these books and magazines I never knew existed: the New Republic, the Progressive, Partisan Review and Dissent. I went to see On the Beach, which portrayed the final days of life on Earth after a nuclear war. I started subscribing to the magazines and soon the base security officer wanted to talk to me.

Some time in the spring, a new warhead for the Polaris arrived, the first of many that were to be shipped to the submarine fleet. I went through the warhead manual and found a number of things that disturbed me. This particular warhead was designed for use against cities. It was very compact, a weapon with a small bang and a small cross-section, but its ablative shield was an alloy of uranium, and it produced very heavy alpha fallout downwind. I thought about the world laid waste by these warheads. I wondered if you could be a good soldier and have an imagination.

There was also this: When installed on the rocket, the main warhead connection was safety-wired in place and hidden. But in our bay and out in the storage depots these warheads were stored with an unlocked weapons connector. Unzip the weather cover, and it was right there. The safety mechanisms were in the fusing assembly, not in the warhead. Bang the right pins with the right voltage, and the warhead would blow. I wrote a technical change memo, suggesting a locked cover for the warhead connector while it was in storage.

I alerted the system, but the system wasn’t listening. This memo went into a drawer in my boss’s desk. I remember him looking at me quizzically. Never a word, but no trouble either. I think it made me angry, not being listened to. Anyone who has tried to buck the system understands how difficult it is for an enlisted man to tell an officer what to do. All I wanted was for them to put a lockable cap on the main warhead connection. I wanted them to protect these devices from me and my madness. Stop me from doing something foolish. And thinking of something foolish became an obsession. I saw myself holding the president and the program hostage, single-handedly bringing about disarmament. People would finally understand how dangerous these weapons were.

I walked out in the desert nights dreaming of doomsday scenarios. I wrote my first poem about the bomb. One day, I thought I was about to laugh and cried instead. I found my symptoms in one of my college books on psychology. World War One veterans exhibited it. Reversal of emotions. And so I wrote another memo, the memo that is probably buried in classified files in the Department of Defense, the memo that was hot enough for my boss to look at me with a startled expression and send it on to Karlsven, who sent it to the security officer. “I want out,” I said. “Or else.” And this “or else” got through to them. “I will not be responsible for my actions if you keep me here in this program.”


‘Gimme a sign’

You write a good memo and there’s no taking it back; no stopping the bullet once it leaves the barrel. I lost my top secret clearance and was eventually transferred to Treasure Island near San Francisco. I cleaned urinals, swept the parade ground, and did guard duty at the brig. Every morning, thousands of men were marshalled in the parade ground. Many of us were awaiting orders to ship out. My number was 3039, and every morning I was there waiting for it to be called. As the months went by, and all my shipmates came and went to other assignments, I began to understand that this was punishment duty, that I was going nowhere until my enlistment was up. San Francisco at that time was a hotbed of the peace movement. They couldn’t have thought of a worse place to put me in cold storage. There were demonstrations all the time against atomic testing in the Pacific Ocean. The Soviet Union had violated an informal test ban earlier that year, and the Department of Defense’s desire to test its modernized missile warheads resulted in the U.S. conducting a series of dramatically stupid hydrogen bomb tests in the spring of 1962 near Johnston Island in the mid-Pacific.

Perhaps some of the guys I trained with in Albuquerque were on Johnston Island. Early-model Thor rockets, returned from years of deployment in England, were used to test out the feasibility of anti-ICBM defense by being detonated at high altitude. The range-safety officers had to abort four of them. The fallout came down. It wasn’t like other tests where the military were held back a decent distance from ground zero. One of the Thors blew up on the pad, making practically the whole island radioactive. There were barracks on that island, and probably a detachment of my fellow GMTs to install the W49 bombs on the Thors. Naval aviators flew seaplanes in and out of the fallout. They brought in an army detachment with bulldozers who pushed many acres of radioactive coral into the lagoon. After Vietnam, the island was used to store thousands of barrels of Agent Orange, and then it became a disposal site for chemical munitions. Today it’s not used for anything and no one can visit without special permission.

I started going to the demonstrations against testing in civilian clothes, but I had my navy buzz-cut. These were my people. They were raggedy-ass kids like I used to be, and they were staging sit-ins and getting themselves arrested. I wanted to hold a sign and join them.

And then one day the master at arms and I had it out. I handed in my fifth or sixth chit asking for an early discharge, and he told me that I was here for keeps. They weren’t going to discharge me until my four years was up. “You’re going to serve every goddamn day you enlisted for.” So that was it.

“Well, if you won’t let me out early, can I have this afternoon off?” I said.

I got the afternoon off. I went to my locker and got out my dress whites. I never had the occasion to wear them because we were always in dungarees. I spit-shined my shoes. There was a sit-in that day at the Atomic Energy Commission building in Oakland. There were five or six people sitting on the front steps when I arrived, and a small crowd milling about. They looked at me with some puzzlement. I think one of them got up and moved out of the way, thinking I wanted to go inside. “No,” I said. “Gimme a sign.” There was one I really liked: “Why repeat Khrushchev’s crime?”

I sat down. The crowd got bigger, there were people at the windows looking down at me. The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed me. Twenty minutes later, the shore patrol arrived. My leave was canceled; I was placed in custody for conduct unbecoming. There was cheering from up above when I was picked up and tossed into the paddy wagon. And for the first time in my life I felt I was where I ought to be, in full rebellion against the existing order. I was told on numerous occasions that I was going to face a general court martial on six or seven charges. Then word came down from Washington to discharge me quietly. An honorable discharge. Maybe the thinking was that the peace movement didn’t need a martyr. On 16 June 1962, I was escorted to the administration building. The admiral’s office on the third floor looked over the great expanse of parade ground where we were marched and stood for inspection, and where the morning meat market was held. I stood braced at attention for 20 minutes while this two-star admiral told me what he would have done to me if he had his way. Shot as a goddamn traitor, keelhauled, condemned to life in a marine brig.

And as he roared and belched fire and pounded his desk, my orders were tucked safely in my pocket. I touched them every now and then to make sure they were still there, and stole a glimpse out of his window from time to time at the distant checkerboard where, until three days ago, I had stood in square number 3039. Maybe a small smile showed itself on my face and made him that much madder. I was young and a little arrogant then. 


This article first appeared in The London Review of Books (