At some point in our childhood the painting of the farmer and his wife giving thanks in a field of freshly dug potatoes was taken down from its place above the dining table, and replaced with a photo of an atomic bomb exploding at night over the Nevada desert. My father worked for the Lawrence Radiation Laboratories in Livermore, California. For weeks on end he was away, joining engineers and scientists, testing nuclear bombs in the South Pacific and the American badlands. The unimaginable power of the split atom fascinated him, nearly obsessed him. Having aided the technologies that defeated Hitler and the Japanese in World War Two, he struggled with the tension between the good and the evil use of this new and unprecedented power. He made a good living. We were well provided and comfortable on our grandfather’s 70-acre almond and walnut ranch in California’s fertile Central Valley. It was the 50’s. Life was sweet.
But with the 60’s came Viet Nam and the draft, and the sudden irruption of a revolutionary collective consciousness in the minds of America’s youth, his own children, now blossoming into young adults. He could no longer resolve the conflict. He could no longer tolerate his participation in the system that had killed and maimed so many, and was slouching steadily toward greater catastrophe. In addition to his work on nuclear weapons he was also privy to technologies of surveillance the government was developing to invade the privacy of their own people.
Dad quit his job, openly disclosing his reasons, accepting no severance or pension. He did odd jobs, electronic repair, drafting, teaching. Dad devoted all his spare time to the cause of nuclear disarmament. We were no longer upper middle class, and eventually, some years after grandfather died, we had to sell the remains of the ranch, which by then consisted of a bunch of dead trees surrounded by the influx of suburbia and strip malls.
But I remember one thing. In the days after my father quit his job, the photo of the bomb was taken down and the painting of the farmer and his wife praying in a field of potatoes was restored to its place above the dining room table.
Thank you, Dad. You did the right thing.
Postscript: A few years ago I was in a songwriting group and the assignment was to write a song about someone you admire. Immediately I thought of my father and his story, and I wrote a song called “Against the Tides of Cruelty.” A YouTube video of that song can be found online at: