Blood and Vomit

08.08.2006 | MEDIA

Happy Hiroshima Day, everyone.

Before listing candle-light vigils and dove-releasing ceremonies near you, here's my new pick for Most Iconic Moment of the second half of the twentieth century. It's a true story.

In May of 1955, Hiroshima survivor and clergyman Kiyoshi Tanimoto was touring the United States, raising money so young women disfigured by the blast could receive plastic surgery. His peacenik American guide, Norman Cousins, told Tanimoto that he had arranged a television interview at the NBC studios in Los Angeles. When Tanimoto arrived and was seated on the set, he was introduced to a smiling man named Ralph Edwards, who turned toward the camera and addressed 40 million Americans with the following words:

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to 'This Is Your Life'. The ticking you hear in the background is a clock counting off the seconds to 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945. And seated here with me is a gentlemen whose life was changed by the last tick of that clock as it reached 8:15. Good evening, sir. Would you tell us your name?"
Needless to say, Tanimoto had no idea what was going on. He did not blush or gush, as Edwards' guests usually did; he just looked confused. As the ticking clock grew louder, Edwards declared, "This is Hiroshima!" and a mushroom cloud appeared on television screens across the country.

The host continued:

"And in that fateful second on August 6, 1945, a new concept of life and death was given its baptism. And tonight's principal subject -- you, Reverend Tanimoto! -- were an unsuspecting part of that concept. We will pick up the threads of your life in a moment, Reverend Tanimoto, after this word from Bob Warren, our announcer, who has something very special to say to the girls in the audience."
Thus did Ralph Edwards cut from Hiroshima to a nail polish commercial. When the show resumed, a shell-shocked Tanimoto was introduced to several people he had either not seen in years or never met. Among them was a visibly drunk Captain Robert Lewis, copilot of the Enola Gay.

Forget Nixon meets Elvis footage. I want that episode. You hear me, Rhino Records?

The story comes from John Hersey's 1985 afterward to his famous book of nuclear war reportage, Hiroshima, which turns 60 later this month, a few weeks after the bombing of the same name turns 61.

I first encountered Hersey's book as most people did: handed out of a big brown public school box, with a split spine and years worth of notes in the margins.

I was unhappy when it landed on my sixth grade desk. American culture in 1986 was drenched in nuclear dread, and I tensed at seeing the long-stem mushroom cloud on the cover. I decided immediately not to read it. No sense walking into an insomnia tripwire. School, my teacher failed to understand, was supposed to be an escape from the dread, a place of kickball, chocolate milk, and training bras. The ubiquitous yellow-and-black fallout shelter signs never let me forget about World War III completely, but in the loud hallways, it was easy to try.

My teacher, Mrs. Simms, herself looked like a victim of Hiroshima. A mysterious condition made her right foot resemble the Elephant Man's forehead, and she wore frosted eyeglasses that only pretended to hide a sagging eye-patch of flesh. The grotesque Mrs. Simms was the kind of teacher conservatives want exorcised from "our schools." She told us about acid rain, the Ozone hole, the Contras. And, like thousands of other teachers before her and since, she gave us Hiroshima.

For anyone raised on 80s nuclear films like The Day After or Threads, Hiroshima rates low on the terror-meter. The Bomb used, nicknamed "Little Boy," was a firecracker compared to the megaton monsters now sitting so patiently in our silos; and we all know that the story has a relatively happy ending, with Japan going on to create Toyota and Pokemon. The world continued to turn.

In telling the tales of six survivors, Hersey employed a flat style, lacking the trademark flair of then New Yorker writers like E.B. White and Eudora Welty, both of whom had their columns bumped by Hersey's massive four-part piece. Laconic almost to a fault, Hersey rarely flexes the muscle of language. When he does, he makes it burn. There is no forgetting that the skin of a woman's hand slipped off "like a glove."

Hersey's restraint was dictated by the subject, which could have overpowered even Norman Mailer's ego. He understood that writerly touches or political digressions would have been like adding a musical soundtrack to the first footage out of Auschwitz. Hersey, who was 31 when William Shawn gave him the assignment, took out a reporter's pad and listened to people. Then he wrote what he heard, humbly.

His collected notes told the stories of a city on fire with thousands of dazed and dying making their way to hospitals with almost no medical staff; of one doctor working days on end wearing a dead man's eyeglasses; of wounded Japanese gathering, bleeding and dying in silence in the city's few green spaces; of women clasping their dead infants to their chests, refusing burial until their husbands were found; of scavenged hot potatoes, pre-cooked by the bomb's heat while in the ground.

In a representative passage, a survivor wanders into the city searching for his family. "He met hundreds who were fleeing," writes Hersey. "Every one of them seemed hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing."

When Hersey's essay was published in the August 31 issue of The New Yorker, sucking up every inch of editorial space as an atom bomb consumes oxygen, it was the first time the details of nuclear devastation had been made human in the hands of a skilled writer. The result was an Old Media earthquake, the likes of which the world had never seen and will never see again.

The issue sold out in a day. The New York Times wrote an editorial about it that week; other newspapers followed. Before Knopf had bound its first copy, the Book-of-the-Month club bought reprint rights and sent its own edition to members free of charge. There were major radio broadcasts of the complete text in the U.S. and around the world. It was translated into dozens of languages. (But not officially in Japan, where Occupation authorities kept Hiroshima from print until 1948.) Albert Einstein special ordered 1,000 copies of the issue, a request that could not be met due to empty stock.

There will never be another Hiroshima, even after another Hiroshima.

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