Why do we take any one path in our lives? Perhaps a mix of choices and abilities, stirred in the cauldron we call childhood, and subject to fate that can change everything in a moment. Or are there elements to that mix we can’t possibly fathom?
Maybe there are more mysterious forces at work. I have reason to wonder.
Here’s one reason for that wonderment.
I was one of those kids who worried about every chained dog and crying baby. I wanted to understand why the world contained cruelty and more, how I could fix what was wrong. When I was ten years old I learned about the splitting of the atom. It struck me with cold horror for no reason I could articulate. Before that I assumed most adults were looking out for the welfare of kids and trees and animals under their care. But once that information sank in I was afraid that grown ups were terribly misguided. When I asked a few questions I found out my country had dropped two of these bombs on Japan and now used nuclear power. I knew my fears were well founded. It wasn’t until years later that I heard what J. Robert Oppenheimer, called the “father of the atomic bomb,” thought when the first one was detonated. A verse from the Bhagavad Gita came to his mind: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Cold horror indeed. Even on sunny days I thought about death.
As the child of conservative parents, I don’t recall any family discussions about nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, pro or con. The few times I asked I was told the bombs had to be dropped to end the war and nuclear power was a safe, clean form of energy. I kept to myself the chilling fear I felt whenever I thought about atom splitting. Until the evening we had dinner with my father’s old college roommate. I was told he was a smart man who had done well for himself. (In other words, ramp up the politeness factor from Good Girl to Really Good Girl.) And I knew my father hadn’t seen this friend since before I was born. All good reasons to mind my manners and listen quietly to the adults talk. Which I did, until I heard him mention he was an engineer for a nuclear power plant. I gasped (not polite unless a wasp is in your pants) and asked him about the safety of radioactive waste (truly not polite).
He gestured to the light switch on the wall dismissively, asking, “Do you expect the lights to go on or do you know how to generate your own electricity?” As a child still afraid of the dark, I didn’t have much to say. But his answer didn’t dismiss my concerns about the consequences of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. That experience taught me to get the facts before I introduced a subject and also to do something about my concerns. Thank you sir.
Yes, my ten-year-old self would be disappointed with me. I haven’t devoted myself to freeing the world of nuclear waste and nuclear weapons. But it’s an issue that has resounded in my life. I worked with anti-nuclear weapons activist groups for years. I campaigned and testified against the opening of two nuclear plants inOhio(unsuccessfully) and against a five state radioactive waste dump (successfully). When my children were small we attended Hiroshima Day observances each year, floating traditional lantern boats with messages of peace to commemorate the lives lost. We also hosted a child from the Chernobyl region for five summers, a child we grew to love and whose health is still threatened by elevated background radiation in her homeland.
Then I learned what the bomb meant to me, personally. What I found out calls me to ask about fate and the paths any of us take.
That’s because, in my father’s last years, we learned about his service in the closing months of World War II. He had been a radar man in the Navy. One day he and the entire crew of their ship were called on deck. They thought it was simply to greet a new commander. Instead they were given a classified briefing. They were told all leaves were cancelled and all communication with home would be heavily censored. Their ship was being retrofitted to leave soon for a top-secret coordinated air and sea attack on Japan. Their ship would be third in line of the first fleet. It was considered a “sacrifice” ship. In other words, officials didn’t think they were likely to return. My father, a quiet religious teen who was drafted right out of high school, faced certain death along with the rest of his shipmates.
A short time later, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. My father lived to attend college, become a teacher, get married, and have a family because of those bombs. I am alive because of those bombs. That I’ve wanted to dedicate my life to peace in all ways possible from my earliest childhood seems now to have roots more mysterious than I can comprehend.
Do you believe in fate or destiny? How do you see that at work in your life?