January 5, 1945
Major Winters marched briskly down the narrow halls, his polished boots clicking a sharp cadence on the shiny green linoleum. Vera, in her restricting pencil skirt, could barely keep up. Her pumps slid precariously on the newly-buffed surface.
"Try and keep up," said Major Winters flatly. "And eyes forward: don't look through any open doors."
Vera nodded meekly and snapped her wandering eyes forward. She couldn't help herself: the temptation to look about her was too great. Already she had caught glimpses of huge machines bristling with wires and cables, laboratories bustling with white-coated scientists, chalkboards filled with arcane equations. The whole building was abuzz with frantic activity, the nature of which remained a mystery to Vera. Whatever it was, it must have been important: every wall in the facility was lined with posters exclaiming THE WALLS HAVE EARS.
Vera focused her eyes on the back of Major Winters' head, where his close-cropped hair emerged from beneath his neatly perched green wedge cap. He was a fine-looking man, she thought: the young ambitious type, the kind of officer who could get any girl he wanted. He acted, however, as though Vera was a stray dog or tagalong child: an irritating but necessary nuisance. But she couldn't tell whether he was just playing up his military discipline for his superiors or if he was one of those careerist types, married to the Army.
The hallway grew noticeably darker as they passed deeper into the complex. There were no windows here; the walls were bare concrete, the doors heavy green-painted metal. Above each door glowed either a red or green light bulb, like pairs of oversized Christmas lights. The hall smelled of floor polish and wet paint; in fact, everything here looked and smelled new, as though the whole structure had been raised overnight.
"Through here," grunted Winters, pushing open one of the doors. Vera scurried through under Winters's mildly annoyed glance.
Vera entered a vast hall lined with row upon row of tall, battleship-grey control panels. She gasped slightly as she took in the sheer scale of the space: the monolithic panels stretched from floor to ceiling and seemed to extend forever into the distance, like one of those funhouse infinity mirrors at the fair. A young woman around her age sat on a small wooden stool before each panel, silently monitoring and adjusting various gauges, knobs and switches. A heavy-set, sweaty-looking man in a tucked-in white shirt and black tie patrolled up and down the hall with clipboard in hand, pausing occasionally to make adjustments to a panel. He strode towards the door as Vera and Major Winters entered.
"You have a new one for me, Major?" he said.
Winters silently nodded.
"How do you do? I'm Vera Mas..." Vera started.
"You'll be at Panel 857," the white-shirted man interrupted, turning away. He strode over to a nearby vacant control panel. "Sit down," he said, gesturing to the stool. Vera nodded nervously and took a seat, resting her hands demurely on her lap as she faced the bewildering array of gauges and knobs.
"I'm Dr. Riley," said the man. "Floor supervisor for Beta 2."
Not wasting a second, Dr. Riley immediately launched into a rapid-fire string of instructions, his index finger flying over the panel in quick jerks.
"See these two gauges here? These need to be maintained between 44.95 and 45.05. Top gain is controlled by these knobs here, bottom gain by those there. That selector switch there toggles between coarse and fine adjust. On fine adjust the reading should be maintained between 44.955 and 45.005. Now, when you adjust these, your voltage reading on that gauge there is gonna wander, so you'll want to optimize..."
"I'm sorry, Sir...doctor," Vera interrupted. "But, uh, would you mind telling me please what I'm doing here? What does this machine do?"
Dr. Riley gave her strange, hesitant look.
"That's a matter of national security," interjected Major Winters, still hovering behind them. "Top secret. Now you will refrain from asking any further questions pertaining to this assignment. You are only to enquire about details relevant to your carrying out your assigned task, is that understood?"
Vera, eyes wide, nodded meekly. "Yes, I understand."
"Thank you Major," said Dr. Riley. "I think I can handle things from here."
Winters gave a short, curt nod and turned on his heel.
He glanced over his shoulder at Vera.
"You're doing a great service for your country, ma'am."
August 6, 2005
A charred pocket watch, its hands frozen at 8:15. A faded rice bowl, clods of soil fused to it like dark tumours. Molten glass Sake bottles, twisted into tortured shapes. The tour guide, bent forward in a permanent stoop, shuffled his way between these silent artefacts, each neatly labelled under glass. Vera stopped and slowly leaned forward, gazing at the strangely beautiful, twisted glass forms. Her grandchildren, holding each crook of her arm, knelt down beside her.
"It's like that artist, what was his name? He had a strange moustache..." she slowly mumbled.
"Dali?" said Dorothy. It was just like Dorothy to know: she was a wonderful artist herself.
"Yes, that was it: Dali. He used to paint things like this."
Vera slowly and shakily stood, Dorothy and Eugene helping her up. At the far end of the room, the tour guide had stopped before a large display case. Eugene and Dorothy guided Vera to the front of the group so she could see. Behind the glass lay a wide, weathered slab of crumbling concrete, unremarkable save for a large, round oily stain smeared over its centre. Vera felt her heart grow heavy as the guide began to speak.
"This is front stairs of Sumitomo Bank, Two Hundred Fifty Meters from Hypocentre," the guide said in his soft, heavily accented voice. "What you see is shadow of man, sitting on stairs when blast hit. He was instantly vaporized, leaving only his shadow on..."
"Take me outside," Vera whispered to her grandchildren as she turned her head away.
"What is it, Grandma?" asked Eugene.
Vera's old, frail body began to tremble. Tears rolled from her drooping eyes, running in rivulets over the creases of her weathered face, a face that had known ages, not mere instants. Eugene nodded to Dorothy, and they slowly shuffled her from the hall.
They emerged into the cool night air as the last rays of sunlight were disappearing over the horizon. As they shuffled to the handrail overlooking the river, the fading twilight presented them with a magical, surreal sight. Beneath the Peace Dome, its skeletal remains glowing eerily lit by floodlamps, the river glowed with a vast procession of floating paper lamps, a twinkling, multicoloured constellation drifting in silent reverence over the dark waters.
Vera's gnarled hands clutched the handrail as her tear-stained eyes beheld the ethereal sight.
"Grandma, what's wrong?" asked Dorothy.
"You can tell us, Grandma," said Eugene.
Vera swallowed hard and closed her eyes, standing in silence for many long moments.
"Two hundredths of an ounce..." she finally whispered.
February 16, 1945
Vera glanced at the overhead clock for the hundredth time. She made sure that Dr. Riley was out of sight; she had been reprimanded before for not keeping her eyes on her work. There was little left to do, however, but watch the clock. A month ago, reining in the restlessly jumping and drifting dials had been an exercise in extreme concentration; eight-hour shifts would fly past. But Vera had now become so intimately acquainted with her panel that she could innately correct the most abrupt, unexpected twitch within seconds. She played the device like a musical instrument, and it sang contentedly through the day. Vera's once-frantic shifts, however, had now become eternities.
At long last the clock read eight o'clock.
"Shift change!" bellowed Dr. Riley, patrolling the hall as usual. The girls silently rose from their stools and filed out past the incoming line of late-shift operators. As Vera made final adjustments to her panel, she noticed something odd. The second panel on her right was always operated by her friend Marcia during the night shift. Tonight, however a tall woman in slacks with short brown hair was seated at that stool.
"Excuse me," said Vera. The new girl turned her head. "Where's Marcia?"
"Who?" asked the new girl, her country underbite lending her a perpetual air of vexed confusion.
"Marcia. She's usually at this panel. Small girl, red hair...?"
The new girl shook her head apologetically. "I'm new here. This is my first shift..."
"NO TALKING!" shouted Dr. Riley from across the hall. The new girl gave a flustered look and turned to face her control panel.
"By the way: Vera Mason," Vera hastily whispered.
"Gladys. Gladys Owens," said the new girl. With that, Vera scurried from the room.
April 11, 1961
From the powder room, Vera heard the metallic click and hiss of the television set being switched on. The audio, initially quiet, quickly grew loud enough to hear:
"... began today in Jerusalem. Eichmann, as director of transportation for Hitler's "Final Solution," is accused of arranging the deportation and extermination of some six million Jews during the war. Having fled Europe for South America, Eichmann was captured last year in Buenos Aires by Israeli Intelligence so he may stand trial before the very people he once attempted to exterminate. Here Eichmann arrives in the courtroom, shielded behind bulletproof glass to prevent any administration of vigilante justice. The judges at this tribunal are..."
"Honey," Vera called as she trotted down the stairs. "You're going to be late for work."
"I have a few minutes," mumbled Charlie from behind his raised newspaper. "Chief Engineer is usually a half hour late anyway."
"Well, then, I'll be late," said Vera, pushing down Charlie's paper. "You still have to drive me."
Charlie pulled the newspaper back up. "I'll finish this article, then we'll go."
"Alright then," said Vera, pulling her coat off the hook by the door.
"Huh, would you believe this guy?" scoffed Charlie, pointing to the television set. "Claims he was "only following orders". Goddamn Nazis..."
"What? You never followed orders in the Air Force?" said Vera, searching around for her keys.
"Yeah, but they never told us to murder six million innocent civilians."
"Maybe he didn't know what he was doing. Like they said: he arranged transportations..."
"Yeah," said Charlie. 'cause an innocent man runs and hides in South America
He paused suddenly. Setting down his newspaper, he turned his head to face Vera. "Are you seriously vouching for this Nazi?" he said incredulously.
"Of course not," said Vera, picking up her handbag. "I'm just playing Devil's Advocate. That's what scientists do, don't they?"
"But seriously," Vera continued. "They never gave you orders you didn't like or understand?"
Charlie set his paper aside and rose from the sofa. "Difference is: we always knew what we were doing was right," he said, donning his coat. "And what do you know about it anyway? You weren't there. How many moral choices did you have to make in some stateside factory?"
Vera sighed and nodded. "Yes...I'm sorry. You're right: an awful man. I hope he hangs."
Charlie smiled and kissed her. "Let's go," he said, opening the door. "Don't want to be late."
February 16, 1945
Vera joined the gaggle of shift workers as they descended the hill from the Beta 2 building to the cafeteria. The girls always travelled in groups: Oak Ridge was barely lit at night. Vera had no idea why; it wasn't like in coastal cites, where they had blackouts against the U-boats. Of course, everything was strange about this town, especially the secrecy. Nobody talked about work. Never. Every minute someone reminded you to keep your mouth shut. Every conversation was monitored by a hovering Military Policeman.
Vera fetched her dinner from the army cooks and took a seat with Betty, Eleanor and Rosie at one of the long tables.
"So Rosie, how was your night with Bill?" Eleanor teased. It was well known that Rosie had come to Oak Ridge for all the available men. Bill was her third so far.
"Boring," Rosie lamented. "He took me to the movies, but then he said he had some "important calculations" to do. So he dropped me back home right after."
"Eggheads," said Betty, shaking her head. "Rather figure out equations than girls."
"Have you seen Marcia?" Vera interjected. "She wasn't at her station tonight. There was a new girl, Gladys
Rosie and Eleanor glanced nervously at each other. "Her
her bunk was empty this morning," said Eleanor, her voice quivering. "An MP came and took all her clothes, her things
Rosie gave a look of sudden realization. "You know," she added. "I saw her at the theatre last night. She was with some guy
and the MPs came in and asked her to leave."
Betty's rolled her eyes. "Probably kicked her off the base; girl could never keep her mouth shut."
"Girls," came a sharp male voice from behind. Vera glanced behind her and saw an MP looming over them. "What were you talking about?" he asked flatly.
"N...nothing Sergeant," said Rosie quickly, flashing a nervous smile.
The MP raised a sceptical eyebrow. "Keep it that way," he said gruffly, turning on his heel.
"Actually Sergeant," called Vera. "We were wondering if you knew anything about Marcia Strong. We haven't seen her all day."
The MP halted and slowly turned around, his face grave.
"Sorry to inform you of this," he said. "But Miss Strong died last night."
The girls gasped in unison. "W...what happened?" stammered Eleanor.
"It seems Miss Strong partook in a bad batch of Moonshine Liquor," the MP explained.
The girls fell silent in shock.
"I trust none of you will be so reckless," the MP continued. "Or to speak of this or anything else to anyone. This work is vital to the War Effort; if the enemy should ever find out about it
He paused and lowered his voice.
God help us all."
September 23, 1949
and thus Einstein deduced that nothing can exceed the speed of light."
The Professor paused from his relentless back-and-forth pacing to erase a swath of dense calculations from the chalkboard.
"Shortly after publishing his 1905 paper, Einstein revised it and introduced everyone's favourite formula." With great flourish, the professor scrawled a simple equation:
"This states that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. That's it for Special Relativity. Now on to General Relativity, which Einstein developed to factor in gravity
"Excuse me, Professor?" Vera exclaimed, raising her hand. The professor fell silent and squinted irritably at her.
"Miss Mason," he said gruffly.
"Sorry, Professor, but what exactly does that equation mean? Can you give a practical example?"
"A practical example?" the professor scoffed. "I'm afraid you won't find many practical applications for Special Relativity down on the farm, Miss Mason."
The class roared with laughter. Vera blushed and stared at her lap. But she could take the laughter. She had to: it had taken everything for her to enter this class, and she would not allow her education to be undermined by a dull professor in love with his own voice. She would learn the material regardless of ridicule she endured.
"Well, Miss Mason, let me give you a practical example," said the professor wryly as the laughter died down. "Can I assume you read newspapers?"
Vera nodded quickly. "Yes, professor."
"So you know about the Atom Bomb?" the professor continued.
"Yes, a little bit
"Well," said the professor. "The first atomic bomb we dropped on Japan on Hiroshima had the explosive energy of eighteen thousand tons of TNT. Do you know how much Uranium that bomb used?" The professor stared directly at Vera.
" she stammered.
The professor lifted up a small, empty artillery shell he used as a paperweight on his desk.
"Thirty-four pounds. Now, Einstein's equation tells us that mass is just a concentrated form of energy. The amount of energy in any object is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared. Now, Miss Mason, can you tell me how many people died in Hiroshima?"
Vera shook her head.
"130,000 people, like that," said the professor, snapping his fingers. "Vaporized where they stood - turned to ash - or killed by flying debris. Or burned in the firestorm, or died of radiation."
The professor paused for effect. The room had fallen deathly silent.
" he continued. "The speed of light is a big number: one hundred an eighty six thousand miles per second. This means that a small amount of mass contains a vast amount of energy. Interestingly, not all thirty-four pounds of Uranium in the Hiroshima bomb were converted to energy. Do you know how much?"
Vera shook her head again.
"Does anyone else know?" the professor asked the class.
Silence. The professor again reached down to his desk, this time producing a single paper clip.
"Three hundredths of a gram," he announced. "Less than this paper clip. That much Uranium killed 130,000 people."
A shiver ran down Vera's spine. Strained silence hung over the class for what seemed like hours.
"Well," the Professor finally said, breaking the tension. "All I can say is: be glad that God and Mr. Einstein are on our side!"
The class chuckled. The professor turned to the blackboard and began scrawling equations anew.
"Not anymore," whispered a voice beside Vera. It was Charlie Cooper, the only boy in the class who didn't seem to mind Vera's presence. Also from the farm in Tennessee, he had joined the Air Force during the war and gotten into college on the G.I. Bill. He was a swell guy, down-to-earth and quick with a joke. Today, though, his face was ashen, his voice grave.
"What is it?" Vera asked.
Charlie held up the newspaper he was holding. Vera read the full-page headline:
RUSS. HAVE A-BOMB
June 21, 1945
The murmur of voices and patter of shoes grew steadily louder, drowning out the faint, constant clicking of switches that permeated the hall. Vera leaned back and turned towards the door as three men entered the hall: a portly, moustachioed man in a tan military uniform, a tall, thin man in a fedora with a gaunt face and bulging eyes, and a younger man with a boyish face and buck teeth, clutching a camera. The large man had stars on his cap: a General.
"Here's the control room for Beta 2, General," said the boyish man. "Staffed 24 hours in 8-hour shifts. We keep her humming day and night."
"Julius!" called Dr. Riley, striding over from the far end of the hall. "What're you doing here? Desert too hot for you?"
"If it were, I wouldn't be coming here," said the thin man in a deep, crackling voice, wiping his brow. "Are these the famous girls Ed here keeps talking about?"
Dr. Riley frowned. "My hillbilly high-schoolers?" he said bitterly. "Yeah, that's them."
The thin man leafed through a clipboard he was carrying. "Well, Frank," he said with a chuckle. "It seems that these "hillbillies" are out-producing your own boys. Back in December, your technicians produced 5.643 ounces. This past month alone, the girls produced..."
"2.215 pounds," said the boyish man.
"They're like soldiers," said the General proudly, beaming at the roomful of girls. "They do what they're told and do it well. You engineers can't resist figuring out just why a dial is off; they fix it."
"Mr. Westcott, why don't you take a photograph of these lovely ladies?" said the thin man. The boyish man nodded enthusiastically. He climbed onto a nearby stool and aimed his camera down the hall. "Smile
The flashbulb popped brightly.
"Thank you, Mr. Westcott," said the General. "Dr. Riley, carry on."
July 4, 2004
Everything was just as Vera remembered it: the high fences and guard houses, the chapel and boarding house on the hill, even the cafeteria - now a museum. Pausing at the crest of the hill, the tour guide gestured down into the valley, to the same sprawling complex of laboratories. Vera was once again in 1945: she could almost see the bustling crowd of engineers, scientists, workers and military personnel milling along the grassy, sunlit paths.
"And down in the valley there," said the tour guide. "You can see the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant. At the time, that was one of the largest buildings ever constructed: it's almost half a mile long. Now take a good look while you can: it's been slated for demolition soon."
The guide allowed the group a few minutes' look into the valley before continuing up the hill.
"Now, they used three refinement methods here during the war: gaseous diffusion at K-25, thermal liquid diffusion at S-50, and Calutrons at Y-12, which we'll look at next."
Vera did a double take as they rounded the corner. More memories flooded back: here was her old building. It too had barely changed: the same green linoleum and pale cream paint lined the floor and walls, albeit scuffed and faded with age. The tattered remains of the same propaganda posters clung tenaciously to the old bulletin boards. As the guide led the group into the windowless, concrete-lined rear of the building, Vera was once again that nervous high school graduate, struggling to catch up as Major Winters strode impatiently ahead.
" continued the guide. "
named after the University of California, was really a big mass spectrometer. It vaporized raw uranium, accelerated the ionized gas, then exposed it to a magnetic field. Because they have different masses, U-235 would curve more in that field and could be collected in a specially-placed compartment."
The guide entered the dark corridor with the coloured lights above the doors. He paused before the last door Vera's door. Vera began trembling in nervous anticipation.
"Now, to maximize efficiency, 96 Calutrons would have been arranged around a big oval magnet called the "Racetrack". Those have been removed, but the control panels are still here."
The guide held the door open. Vera, at the head of the group, hesitantly shuffled through. She gasped as she had all those years ago. There they were still: the old grey monoliths, standing silent vigil in rank and file down the long corridor. The constant hum of electricity and quiet clicking of switches was long gone. The once freshly-painted casings were now chipped and streaked with rust, the gauges and dials yellowed and dormant. But they were still standing, those panels she had come to know, love and hate for eight months, eight hours a day in 1945.
"The Calutrons had to be constantly adjusted to optimize the beam," the guide continued once everyone had filed into the hall. "At first, the Manhattan Project technicians operated the panels, but due to manpower shortages, they began hiring women -high school graduates, mostly to run
As the guide spoke, he pointed to a large black-and-white photograph taped to a nearby panel. Vera's jaw dropped. There, frozen in time, was the hall as it was in 1945, its panels brand new and freshly painted. She could see Dr. Riley, a white-shirted shape patrolling the hall in the background. All the girls were there, perched atop their little wooden stools. In the foreground, Gladys Owens, with her slacks and timid underbite, stared hauntingly into the camera.
And two panels down, leaning casually back in her chair, was Vera.
had no idea what they were doing. All they knew was
Vera, almost in a trance, rushed forward and began tapping her finger on the photograph.
"My goodness," she exclaimed, interrupting the guide. "That's me!"
"What?" said the guide incredulously, leaning to inspect the photograph. "That's you?"
"Oh yes!" Vera insisted. "Panel 857, as always. And that's Gladys at 855
"Well, I'll be damned!" exclaimed the guide. "I had no idea you were a Calutron Girl!"
Vera frowned and turned slowly towards the guide. "I'm sorry," she said slowly. "But what did you say this machine was for? They never told us
the Calutron was for separating Uranium 235 from Uranium 238
" the guide started.
Vera began to tremble as she realized what the guide had just told her.
was any of that Uranium used?" she quietly stammered.
The guide hesitated. "Well yes
" he finally said. "All of it was used
in Little Boy..."
He paused and looked Vera straight in the eyes, his expression vexed and hesitant.
the bomb they dropped on Hiroshima."
October 16, 1962
The glass dropped from Vera's hands as the siren blared, smashing into a hundred pieces on the kitchen tiles. Vera barely noticed: all she could hear was that awful, droning moan. Her heart was racing. Her head swam. In a daze, she scrambled madly through the house. Julian wasn't in the living room, or in the lobby.
"Charlie, where's Julian!?" she called frantically. She heard the sliding door in the kitchen slam shut. Charlie emerged into the living room, Julian clutched in his arms.
"He was in the yard," said Charlie hastily. "Let's go." Vera nodded quickly and pulled open the basement door. They rushed down the narrow steps and ducked into the shelter, a small cube of cinder blocks in the corner of the basement. Charlie set Julian down on the cot and locked the door as Vera began lighting the shelter's lanterns and candles. Even through the concrete walls, they could still hear the siren blaring up on the surface.
"Is this another drill?" she asked as Charlie sat down beside her.
"I sure as hell hope so," said Charlie. "But with those Russian missiles so damn close..."
"Mommy, are they going to drop the Atom Bomb?" asked Julian, fidgeting on the camp bed.
"No, dear," Vera assured him. "It's just a drill. Like at school, remember? We'll go back up in a few minutes."
"Mommy, who makes the atom bombs?"
"Other grown-ups, dear."
Julian frowned thoughtfully. "Do you make them?"
"Of course not," said Vera. "Mommy would never do anything like that."