--For John Hersey on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
WHEN I WAS IN THE FIFTH GRADE I began going to the library with my dad every Sunday. I remember one particular Sunday browsing the young adult section in a funky little corner near the LP record listening stations where homeless men shared headphones and listened to jazz, surrounded by their shopping bags full of clothing. Browsing a spinner rack jammed with books I came upon a worn-out paperback with the word HIROSHIMA in bold letters across the cover and a photograph of a gigantic mushroom cloud. I doubt that I knew the term “mushroom cloud” then, but I recognized the towering grey cloud from somewhere—TV? A comic book? But to be sure, the word and the image together held no associations for me. The austerity of the cover made it seem important, as though this one explosion was different from all others. I was about eleven years old and I liked the idea of being able to read young adult books. So I sat down there near the homeless men bopping their heads to Parker and Monk—music for the atomic age—and began reading.
Hersey’s prose was direct, focusing on the banal particulars of a morning in Hiroshima, Japan. He writes with an almost holy reverence for the events of that morning, careful to chronicle the last incredulous moments before the bomb detonated in a flash of molten-hot light. I thought,Where have I been? This event seemed much too important for me to not have known about it. Never before had I read a book that described the ravages of war so explicitly. The skin of people’s hands sloughed off in glove-like pieces, a woman’s naked torso was emblazoned with the flowered pattern of the kimono she was wearing when the intense heat and light irradiated her. It was not the complete flattening of the city that unhinged me but the way the survivors’ bodies—the elderly, young mothers and young children—all bore the burns of invisible radiation and tremendous heat.
Never had I read a book shot through with so much guilt. “Excuse me for having no burden like yours,” the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto says to the dazed and bleeding people while hurrying through the smoke and dust-darkened streets, knowing that he can do nothing to save them. I couldn’t get my mind around the idea of feeling such deep guilt simply for having lived. Not long after reading the book I watched a documentary on PBS about the bombing. By this time I had grown obsessed with the event, and I recall even being excited as I sat there on the couch waiting for it to begin. My dad watched it with me, making it seem like a manly thing we were doing, cultivating a deep and thorough knowledge of world events and history.We were probably munching popcorn, something we always do when watching TV.
Like Hersey’s book, the documentary focused on brutal and heartbreaking eyewitness accounts. The narrator told of a woman and infant lying on the ground near the Hiroshima River. After some time the mother died, but the infant continued to nurse at her breast. An illustration accompanied the narration of this devastating story. Watching the infant crawl up on its mother’s limp body, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I felt a deep twinge of horror. An old wrinkled woman, just a teenager when the bomb dropped, told of how her mother had been completely vaporized by the bomb blast as she sat on the steps of the Hiroshima bank waiting for it to open. She held up a photo to the camera: a dark spot on the steps where her mother’s body had left a shadow.
ALMOST TWENTY YEARS AFTER MY FIRST READ of Hiroshima, on the sixtieth anniversary of the blast, the news coverage I witnessed on the major networks consisted of little more than brief footage of memorial ceremonies in Japan. On NBC there was no mention of the number of Japanese deaths; instead, an interview with a crew member of the Enola Gay, who expressed no regret after over half a century. It felt like a good time to reread Hersey’s book, but my copy was missing. I drove to the library, but their copies were either checked out or missing, so I went looking for the original issue of the New Yorker, where the entire book had first been published on August 31, 1946.
I went down into the basement where the periodical holdings are squeezed into movable shelves. I cranked back several shelves and walked between the futuristic units, better suited for brushed aluminum cylinders containing double helixes than the faded bindings of magazines like Canadian Nurse. I found the correct volume, seven-inches thick, lugged it out of the stacks and sat down at a table. Inside the front cover, written in tight cursive with pencil was a note: "Missing volume 22, issue 29." I flipped through the huge fan of brittle musty pages, past ads for hair tonic and phonographs, knowing the missing issue was exactly the one I was looking for. But then there it was: August 31, 1946, a year and twenty-five days after “Little Boy” detonated 580 meters above the center of Hiroshima, killing one hundred and forty thousand people, some vaporized instantaneously.
The cover wasn’t what I’d expected: a colorful painting, an aerial view of hundreds of people basking on blankets in the summer sun of Central Park. Inside I was surprised and relieved to see the familiar heading, GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN, in the same font you’ll find in a New Yorker now. I love reading through the movie listings and art openings, but my favorite is the jazz column. I always check to see who’s playing at the Village Vanguard— it’s a dream of mine to see a show at the Vanguard before I die.
Now Playing! The Big Sleep...with gun-fire and tough talk, Notorious and The Postman Always Rings Twice. On Stage: Harvey. With Music: Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun; Carousel; Mr. R and Mr. H’s Oklahoma!; Buddy Ebsen in Show Boat; At the Spotlite: Coleman Hawkins’s and Roy Eldridge’s bands; Billie Holiday at Downbeat (a place, the writer cautions, resembling a subway car in size).And surrounding the tiny printed entertainment listings there were ads: Rise and Shine in Randoms by Stetson; The Beau Catcher; thrumming Ford V- 8 engines; dresses with glistening satin stripes, pale pink or blue on rustling black rayon taffeta.
I forgot for a moment what I’d come looking for. I fantasized about what I would give to have seen Billie Holiday in that tiny, smoky club. Finally I turned the page, eager to set eyes on the original article, as it would have been seen by readers sixty years ago, but what I saw was the cover of the next issue—September 7, 1946. Someone had razored out the entire rest of the issue. All sixty-eight pages of what has been called the greatest magazine article of all time, gone. The reference librarians were sorry: it wasn’t available on microfiche. Special Collections didn’t have a copy. So I drove over to the small women’s college a mile away. There in the basement of the library, I found it:
TO OUR READERS The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.—The EditorsI took a deep breath and read it through, all sixty-eight pages, looking for any differences between it and the book published soon after. The first seven pages are column after column—three to a page—of text. And then the ads start:
"Snooperscope”—sees at night with invisible light! (below there is an inset picture of a soldier aiming a rifle with a telescopic sight affixed)The ad continues:
Here our infrared telescope is mounted on a carbine. The combination was aptly called “sniperscope,” for it enabled a soldier in total darkness to hit a target the size of a man at seventy five yards. Thirty percent of the Japanese casualties during the first three weeks of the Okinawa campaign were attributed by the Army to this amazing sniperscope.Then, in the margins, to the right of the ivory columns of text:
Aqua Velva (men in plaid jackets and derbys at the race track); Vat 69 Scotch Whiskey; Perma-lift: "The Lift that Never Lets You Down."
I finished reading and drove home. As I drove, I found myself thinking more about the ads for Aqua Velva and scotch and how much I would have liked to see Billie Holiday sing in that little jazz club than the fate of the citizens of Hiroshima. I imagined an entire scenario: reeking of Aqua Velva, drinking a scotch, smoking a Camel, I listened to Billie sing her signature tune, “Strange Fruit”:
Southern trees bear strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/ Pastoral scene of the gallant south/ The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/ Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh/ Here is fruit for the crows to pluck/ For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck/ For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop/ Here is a strange and bitter crop.The fantasy blotted Hiroshima from my mind, if only briefly, as I soon remembered the landscape that Miss Sasaki took in almost a month after the blast. It was her first glimpse of the destruction, since she had spent the previous days in a hospital with an infected leg. In Hersey’s words:
Even though the wreckage had been described to her, and though she was still in pain, the sight horrified and amazed her, and there was something she noticed about it that particularly gave her the creeps. Over everything—up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks—was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. The bomb has not left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them.III.
THE SATURDAY AFTER THANKSGIVING, looking at Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago with my friend Brandon, we talk about writing.We read a placard on the wall that explains Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world,” although it is alternately translated “sorrowful world.”
Simple images of snowy mountain passes and young women in scarlet kimonos passing over bridges remind Brandon of William Carlos Williams’s mantra: No ideas but in things. Brandon is a poet and he wants to write poetry that is as arresting as these small paintings. The more particulars, the more lived-in a world feels, I tell him, pointing to a tree heavy with snow. The more it seems real, he says. The more possibilities, I say—one image, or perhaps a cluster, causes us to see that the world is vast and mysterious. I remind him of the previous morning, the red-and-blue box kite we saw stuck way up in a tree on the farm where we, together with my wife, Jessica, cut down a Christmas tree. That is the kind of particular that can make a story, I say. Not by itself, he says. No, not by itself. But the more images like those you have. . .
On our way back to the city from the Christmas tree farm we stopped to gawk at butchered hogs that had been split open and hung like crucifixions on the lawn of a farmhouse. Four hog heads sat in a row in the foreground, staring dumbly at us. Jessica rolled down the window and snapped a picture. For some reason I was nervous, as though this was insensitive, as though the person who did the butchering was going to come out and be upset with us. But when we looked and saw these butchered hogs, the four heads, so perfect in their composition, we saw a picture. Could this be real? A picture was needed for proof, but also because it was strangely beautiful. So that’s what a butchered hog looks like—something we knew happened, somewhere, but we gaped at the tableaux like the three naïve city-dwellers we were. The butchered hogs seemed like the still center of the world. As we drove home, the top of the Christmas tree poking into the front seat by the gear shift, I thought of the day’s images: the picture I took of my pregnant wife in front of our first Christmas tree before we cut it down, the kite in the tree, the slaughtered hogs.
The images built one on the next, the previous giving way to the most recent. So that what I will remember most about this day— our first Christmas as a married couple—is that picture of the butchered hogs and the nervousness I felt sitting there waiting for Jess to snap the picture. This is not so much irony as it is the beauty of living, each new particular stuns us with its newness, irrevocably changing the complexion of the day, which, I realize, is easy for me to say, living here in Indiana, far from any war zone.
Yoshito Matsushige, a cameraman who took some of the first photos of the aftermath of the Hiroshima blast said upon revisiting the spot where he first encountered injured civilians:
The children had all suffered burns. Skin was hanging from them like rags. It was cruel to photograph them, and [long pause] at first I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think the first shot took me 30 minutes. The skin was hanging from the children. [I thought,] this is not clothing it’s skin.Such a realization is devastating. Realizing the factuality of the moment: This is real; this is happening right in front of me. Such moments—an infant nursing at a dead mother’s breast, four hog heads in a neat row on the side of a country road, children with their skin hanging from their bodies—have the power to obliterate all other circumstances of the day, and those leading up to it.
Dave Griffith is the author of the book of essays A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America, from which this piece is excerpted. Dave directs the creative writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts in northern Michigan.