The best thing about today, December 7, is that it is the birthday of my son, Allan, and of his grandmother, my wife’s mother! How cool is that? For a kid and his Gran to have the same birthday!
Of course, it is also the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago. At that time, my father was 18 years old, and a student at Georgia Tech. After war was declared, Tech cancelled summer breaks. Students went to school year-round in order to get more people trained more quickly in order to contribute now that the nation was at war.
By the summer of 1943, Dad was a graduate of Tech with a degree in Chemical Engineering. He started a Master’s program, but by the winter of 1944 his country was insistent that he do more than go to school. A combination of failing his draft board physical, his degree in engineering and his father knowing someone connected with some important research, led my father to a job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory working with a group of engineers refining uranium. That uranium found its way into some of the first nuclear weapons.
When I was a child, a framed certificate hung in the hallway outside my parents’ bedroom that said something like: “To Robert A Pendergrast with appreciation for work contributing to the successful conclusion of World War II.” Dad never said much about it. When I would ask, he simply said that he worked in a lab that refined uranium. There was a little copper shovel sitting on the coffee table in our living room that was a tool they had used in the lab.
The only time I remember Dad talking about the bomb was once when I was older. I think I was in high school. The Viet Nam war was on and I, like many of my friends, was not eager to serve in a war that by the early 70s seemed like a dead end. We were sitting on the porch and I asked him something about his work at Oak Ridge. First he said that the bomb had hastened the end of the war, and that it had certainly saved many lives that would have been lost had we invaded Japan.
But then he started talking about the night of August 9, 1945. When they heard in Oak Ridge about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, there was wild celebration, my father said. All his friends were cheering. “But all I could think about,” he said, “was all those people burned alive.” And he started to cry. “And all those damned fools were driving around honking their horns and drinking beer!” And that was about all he said. He didn’t get philosophical. He didn’t condemn the war. But he didn’t have to. He said it all. “All those people, burned alive, and those damned fools were driving around honking their horns and drinking beer!”
I wonder — does anyone really win in a war? If so, what have they won? And what have they lost? And, in our remembrance 75 years later, what is it we want to remember? What is it we want to forget, but can’t? The best reason I can think of for keeping the memory alive is so we remember the cost – of bombing, of being bombed, and of carrying the memory. And maybe, just maybe, if we remember the cost we will turn our energy more and more to the things that lead to peace.