I was five years old that summer when the Atomic Age was unleashed upon our world — the world I would grow up in.
It seemed exciting. Big bomb. I was used to hearing about bombs and bombing. The first five years of my life were a time history recalls as “World War II.” I came into consciousness during that very period.
But the atomic bomb was different. I had no grasp of the human tragedy when two of those bombs were dropped on Japan. I recall the jubilation here in America, in my family and in my home town Duluth, that the war was over, thanks to the atomic bomb.
No more rationing of sugar (jam was hard to come by) or gasoline for our car, or tires. Peace and prosperity had arrived (although at that age I wouldn’t have been able to put it that way), and we’d all live happily ever after, just like the characters in my storybooks.
Didn’t happen, did it.
These ruminations were prompted by the popular movie “Oppenheimer.” I recall my parents looking at the stark headlines in the Duluth newspapers and talking about this atomic bomb when it was first detonated (the subject of the movie) and then a couple of weeks later dropped to end the war. It seemed exciting to my five-year-old mind, but also scary.
Not to worry though. Of course it could never happen to America, to Duluth, to our neighborhood, to us. We would always be safe here. Of that I was confident. But maybe not as confident as I seemed.
Later that summer (the bombs were dropped in August 1945) I was playing on the front porch of our family home in what was then known as the West End neighborhood. I suppose I was pushing toy cars around, or something of that sort. My mother was inside the house, keeping an eye on me from time to time through the screen door. It was a beautiful late summer day.
But my contented play was abruptly interrupted by a horrifying sight. Glancing skyward toward the ridge of the western Duluth hillside, there suddenly appeared what was, to my young mind, an atomic bomb. An atomic bomb right here in Duluth.
It was huge (atomic bombs had to be huge, right?) and shaped like a giant bullet but pointy on both ends like a humongous football. And it moved slowly over the Duluth hilltop skyline right toward our house. The Atomic Age had materialized before my young eyes.
I cried out and ran into the house and the safety of my mother, who didn’t immediately understand what had alarmed me so. I must have said the atomic bomb is coming. The atomic bomb is coming.
She darted to the porch with me in tow, looked skyward and saw my atomic bomb. It was a blimp, or dirigible, or Zeppelin as they are sometimes called. It slowly glided overhead and continued southeastward out of our sight.
Safe. She consoled me by explaining it was just a friendly aircraft shaped like an elongated balloon. On with my happy childhood.
But I never forgot it (to wit this column). And it was the first realization that maybe our world isn’t as safe as one thinks in early childhood. There have been quite a few wars since, and our main adversaries — sometimes enemies — all got the bomb before I fully grew up, but no nuclear bombs have been used. Yet.
I didn’t know then what was in store as the years went on, of course. I had to get through first grade…and the Atomic Age.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.