Spring Morning in ’86
It was already uncomfortably hot when Ryland Smith’s party arrived at Austin Cooper’s place, four miles south of the small city of Fernville. A week of torrid weather in Central California had boosted the temperature of the still air on that Saturday morning with leftover heat from the previous day. Fred Jennings pulled the big car into a graveled parking area in front of a turn-of-the-century ranch house, its clapboard sides shedding blistered white paint.
Austin Cooper’s place was on the very edge of the Sierra Nevada foothills where the ground was rocky and useless for anything but grazing livestock in the winter and early spring. A few miles to the west the slope flattened, and there, in rich, dark soil, irrigated walnut and almond orchards flourished. In the last year, a steady creep of large houses over hilltops and ridge lines, and now in view from Cooper’s place, hinted at the growing suburban sprawl of Fernville.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” Fred Jennings said. “I last saw Cooper about five years ago when he had a small repair shop on the edge of town. Before that, until about 1977, his engineering company was prominent in the defense industry for its custom design work and consulting.”
“Even back in the Maxtar days he was kind of a visionary guy,” said Ryland Smith. “Affected his day to day management style though, I always felt.”
“Anyway, they lost some big contracts, got bought out, and Cooper ended up with virtually nothing,” Jennings continued as they got out of the car. “Then a stroke and a bad heart attack nearly killed him. But he got pretty well rehabilitated after a couple of years and set up a little repair business which kept him and his wife from goin’ nuts. Claimed he could fix anything, and he turned into quite a colorful character around town and even a minor cult figure among the college crowd.”
“What a tragic comedown for one of the pioneers of the missile business,” said Ryland Smith. “In the early fifties I even thought he could end up in the same league as Werner Von Braun and those other hotshots the L.A. Times once called ‘the Edisons of the defense industry.’ ”
“It was the personality thing, too,” said Fred Jennings. “You have to be able to get along with people.”
The four of them walked up on the front porch, holding subconsciously to the ranking established thirty years before: Smith and then Jennings led the way, followed by Alex Mannoy and finally Arthur Sonett. An elderly woman answered the door, unenthusiastic about meeting these old colleagues of her husband. No, she did not remember Fred Jennings or his big company party back in 1954. She had the iron going. They could find Austin in the metal building out in the back.
They picked their way by storage sheds and old household paraphernalia and commercial junk rusting in the brown weeds. Faded signs were stacked against a wall. Arthur Sonett read: “COOPER REPAIRS - Small Engines - Portable Appliances - Sewing Machines” – “Vacuum Cleaners, Used and Rebuilt.” A large sign, its cursive lettering barely legible, declared: “Ask Austin: HE knows.”
Ryland Smith at 75, wearing crisp denims and expensive athletic shoes, dodged spryly through the debris. Fred Jennings moved with quick, short and confident steps, still suggesting the powerful, elusive halfback of forty years before. Alex Mannoy lumbered along in a rocking gate, carefully tracing the ground ahead, obviously disgruntled at wasting his time there. Arthur Sonett, at the back, remembered Cooper mainly from the intimidating and overbearing manner he presented to the engineering staff thirty years before at the Maxtar Missile Systems Division in Fernville.
Sonett believed a man of Cooper’s historical stature in the early missile industry had a rightful claim to a dignified and comfortable old age. Many of his contemporaries who ran that technical establishment from the forties to the seventies now jockeyed golf carts in Palm Springs or in similar resting places, while Cooper wrestled with both his early and current demons on this dilapidated, old chicken ranch.
As they moved up to the big metal outbuilding, Sonett guessed that Ryland Smith was having second thoughts about this visit which was inspired by tenuous obligation and curiosity. The corpse might be in worse condition than he had figured.
The whine of a small motor came through the open door of the building.
“Heh, Austin. Is that you in there?” Jennings shouted.
“Yeh! … Come on in.” The voice seemed to be coming from far away.
The building was crowded with machine tools, mechanical equipment, material stock and work benches. A large tank-like object occupied the center.
“I’m in here. In the tank.” The voice resonated, emerging from the opening at one end.
They moved to the port, large enough to easily climb through. Bright light shimmered off the metal walls inside. Austin Cooper sat on a stool at the far end of the tank holding an electric drill motor. Miscellaneous hardware was strewn about the tank.
“Austin … Hi,” Fred Jennings announced. “We’re here to say hello and visit awhile. Remember, I saw you about five years ago down at your old repair place. I brought along some of the old Maxtar guys from the fifties. We’re all back here in Fernville for the week-long AIAA aerospace conference this week.”
Cooper peered out at the heads, lined up at the port.
“Conference … What conference? … Hi, Fred. And that must be you, Ryland. Hi there. … Don’t recognize you other guys.” The voice now sounded thin and tremulous. “Climb on in here. Plenty of room for everybody.”
The temperature in the metal building was hotter than that outdoors and Cooper’s tank was hotter yet. The close air stunk with old sweat and bad breath. Cooper’s stool was the only seat in there.
“Hard to believe it’s been over thirty years, Austin. And you’re lookin’ pretty good,” said Ryland Smith. “These guys here were just young technical types at the Maxtar plant back then.” He waved at the two last men. “Alex Mannoy and Arthur Sonett. Mannoy’s now a big nuke expert at the Livermore Weapon Lab, and Dr. Sonett is one of those think-tank defense policy gurus that seem to be hatching all over the Washington scene these days. They’ve both done real well in their careers.”
“Sorry. Can’t remember you two at all.”
“Well, Austin. What are ya up to now?” Fred Jennings sounded as cheery as he could. “Wouldn’t surprise me if you had a little DoD work going on in here.”
“Yeh, I’ve written them a letter proposal for a thousand units,” Cooper said, “but I’m mostly counting on sellin’ directly to the private customer.” He slowly surveyed the faces, dwelling too long on each, Arthur Sonett felt, as if looking for, and expecting to find, hints of condescension.
“Just lean back against the sides and put your feet against the floor member here for support. It’s not bad that way. You, Senator, could use one of these. Delivery starts in four months or so.”
“I’m in the House, Austin, not the Senate,” said Ryland Smith. “But what is it?”
“I always thought it was ‘Senator’ somehow. My wife keeps tellin’ everybody we know a senator real well. Anyway, when the bill gets through congress, you’ll all have to get one.”
“A bill? What bill is that, Austin?”
“The bill that says all you guys have to have one.”
“One of my tanks.”
“Wait a minute, Austin. I don’t know of any bill pending or otherwise that requires congress to have to …”
“Listen! I don’t know all the goddamn specifics,” Cooper impatiently interrupted. “Just there’s somebody workin’ something up back there. Jesus! I got enough problems right here designin’ and puttin’ this thing together.”
“Austin. Just what is this thing we’re in?” Fred Jennings asked.
Cooper’s tremulous hands and bobbing head became more agitated. “It’s a tank, a chamber … a shelter, for Chrissakes! What did ya think it was?” He looked back and forth, eyes sharpening.
“And a real impressive one, too, Austin,” said Smith quickly. “But what kind of chamber or tank it’s supposed to be is what Fred here was getting at.”
“Supposed to be? It’s not supposed to be anything! ... It’s a bomb shelter. A fuckin’ bomb shelter! A fallout shelter.”
“Of course … Sure. We really hadn’t given it much thought, Austin,” said Ryland Smith. “Let’s go outside and you can tell us all about it.”
“It’s fine in here. I can tell you all about it right here. Why move around? … Why get out?”
“The bomb-shelter fad went out in the sixties,” said Alex Mannoy.
Austin Cooper glared hard at him. “Fad? So you don’t think it’s a good idea, buddy?”
“Well, I wouldn’t buy one.”
“Who asked you?! I don’t need your fuckin’ business.”
“Listen, Austin,” said Ryland Smith quickly, “we’d like to hear all about it. You might even get Jennings here to sign up for one.”
Arthur Sonett was becoming a little claustrophobic and uncomfortably warm. He guessed the tank was about seven feet in diameter and a little over ten feet long. It didn’t look like much in its present state of construction, but as they listened to Cooper lecture, its full potential became clear. It would safeguard up to six people during that short, critical time-period. Once you sealed the door, the tank could withstand the overpressure pulse of four atmospheres from a one megaton warhead detonating two miles away. With battery power, lights, internal oxygen supply, sanitation, and food and water, the tank shelter could get you through the first days when the outside environment might be pretty messed up. And after that? Cooper said that was not his problem. It would be yours. His charter was to get the party through the initial blast, heat, radiation, fire, and general chaos. You were on your own when you opened the shelter door. At least you were alive.
Sweat was dripping off Alex Mannoy as Cooper continued his detailed description. The basic model had the basic necessities. If you foresaw firestorms as a potential problem in your area, a thermal overcoat was available as an optional extra. It was his own design, made of glass fiber, asbestos, a proprietary binder, and was cemented to the exterior of the tank.
“I did the heat-transfer calculations myself. I can get you through a short firestorm or a general fire of a day or so. No problem.”
“An enhanced radiation device would kill you right off,” said Alex Mannoy in an argumentative tone.
“I can’t do everything, for Chrissakes. At a mile or so, immediate X and gamma rays is no problem. Alpha and beta radiation is no problem.”
Ryland Smith was wilting noticeably as he leaned against the curved tank wall. “I’m a little behind on this radiation stuff, Alex. Enhanced radiation device?”
“Special bomb designs … actually from one of my design groups,” Mannoy said with authority. “They create fast neutrons at the expense of blast and other radiation. This steel tank’s transparent to them. They’re lethal.”
“You’ve done a great job, Austin,” said Fred Jennings whose jeans were darkening from sweat. “I’d really like to go on out and look around the shop there.”
“Relax, Jennings. Plenty of time. I was just gonna tell you about the oxygen subsystem I designed.”
After long descriptions of the tank’s various subsystems, Cooper told how the market was ripe for his bomb shelter. Portable, delivered by truck, it was complete, provisioned, and ready to be anchored to the ground – a turnkey operation. All important officials and members of congress should be required to have access to one. Shouldn’t even the mayor of Fernville have a Cooper shelter?
“I set up production somewhere around Fernville here. Get some venture money in. The raw tank’s made in San Jose, shipped in here three to the truck. … Heh, any of you guys want a piece of the action?”
“But why shelters, Austin?” Ryland Smith asked. “It’s not your line. You’re an aerospace man.”
Austin Cooper twisted his body slowly to look directly at Ryland Smith with a piercing, questioning stare.
“Why!? ... Listen. There’s thousands of atomic warheads on a hair trigger sittin’ around in holes in the ground, on planes and subs. Crazy people and politicians everywhere. I’ve been a practical engineer and inventor all my life. The Cooper Shelter is the most practical idea I’ve ever had.”
“Come on, Austin,” said Fred Jennings. “Let’s look around your shop. It’s pretty hot in here.”
“Who’s crazy, anyway? You’re smart, Jennings, smart enough that you landed Maxtar those big missile contracts back in the fifties. Smith, here, a senator with a big reputation. And you two guys … I forget your names … are big in your fields. But when it comes to the nuke stuff, you and all the other smart asses out there turn out to be collectively dumb.”
Arthur Sonett recalled Cooper as a hard-driving, back-of-the envelope problem- solver, a resourceful and ambitious engineering manager who was unimpressed by, if not disparaging of advanced degrees. But during his long career in the defense industry, beginning in the late thirties, he often must have been stymied and rankled by the intangible political barriers laid down by those carrying extra papers.
Cooper turned slowly to the red-faced and dripping Alex Mannoy.
“You, there … I forget your name … Smith says you know all about the physics of the atom … you and all those other genius guys in your secret laboratories with your God-damned PhDs. You put all your brilliant heads together and look what you’ve managed to come up with … A fuckin’ little physics package, you call it. Think about it and you’ll see the logic behind my shelter.”
“No,” said Mannoy, his voice combative. “Shelters aren’t the answer. That craze went out with the hula hoop.” Ryland Smith stared hard at Mannoy, silently telling him to back off, to humor their fading old colleague. Mannoy softened his manner. “With your great talents, Austin, you should be helping out with the real defense system … SDI.”
“SDI. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, Austin,” Smith said. “You know … the Star Wars thing.”
“Star Wars!” Austin Cooper snarled, saliva rolling off his lip. “Jesus, didn’t I already tell ya? That’s the final, nutty Pentagon caper that got me goin’ on the Cooper shelter.”
Arthur Sonett compared the thirty-year-old snapshot in his mind with the old man before him. The amplitudes of his hand-tremors and head-bobs were direct measures of his internal agitation. A few long strands of white hair, glistening with sweat, lay across his large, splotchy dome. His face was thinner now, the fatty, asymmetric folds and sacks remnants of its once fullness. The heavy body of before had become emaciated. But his muscular forearms and big, reddish hands suggested the physical power the body once possessed.
It was, though, his large, faded-blue eyes, mobile and alert, which spoke of those inner fires yet unbanked, and which declared their Chief Engineer was in his office and still in charge.
Sonett heard Fred Jennings say politely but emphatically that Maxtar International was not interested in getting into the “nuclear protection chamber” business. Alex Mannoy and Cooper argued about the chamber’s utility from air-bursts, ground-bursts and from warheads of various configurations. Mannoy said technology always prevailed and the SDI program would also. To an argument that the views of Austin Cooper, an avowed technologist, were far less sanguine, Sonett knew Mannoy would simply reply that Cooper was insane.
Arthur Sonett had gradually withdrawn into a minimum-energy state, a kind of somnolent daze, just shy of the sleeping one, which vaguely monitored the goings-on, alert enough for the possible direct question, but which released the rest of his mind to wander at will. It was a technique he had learned and practiced over a long career when trapped in compulsory and boring meetings. He was trapped now in Cooper’s bomb shelter, smelly and distressingly hot.
Cooper, from his feverish brain, had brought to the forefront that scenario of nuclear apocalypse which most folks, Sonett thought, had long sublimated and relegated to a passive corner of their minds. After all, how could you function day to day and also entertain that monstrous possibility? Yes, it might cross your mind from time to time that apocalypse was lurking, but then you forgot again about those thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles, targeted and on alert in America, the Soviet Union, France and Britain and under the oceans of the world. The Cooper shelter was inspired by that hideous vision, a vision we easily dispel, even at our peril, but Cooper could not.
As Sonett’s mind drifted, he thought of the people fortunate to have such a tank available when one of those purportedly impossible – or just short of impossible – circumstances arose that suddenly declared one necessary. He saw them frantically climb into the sanctum with nearly fifteen minutes to secure the door, power up the tank, and start up the ventilating system. Somewhere on another part of the globe, large missiles trailing lances of red fire accelerated into the stratosphere. Like a dam’s sudden collapse because of a tiny, undetected fault deep in the underlying rock, the great diety of nuclear deterrence, a thirty-year Potemkin village, had colossally failed in a matter of minutes. The demons of probability that Arthur Sonett had wrestled with and worried over during much of his professional career while concocting elaborate nuclear deterrent strategies had finally lined up those dominoes of chance, and perhaps a simple electronic failure, together with a couple of human errors, had tipped the first one.
Maybe the missile that headed toward the vicinity of Cooper’s shelter had erupted out of a nearby ocean, tunneling up through the thick coastal overcast. Sonett could see its flight now as it emerged from the gray blanket in the late twilight – in appearance much like the Operational-Verification Launches of the Air Force he had often witnessed. As the exhaust gases expanded into the thinning atmosphere, the red pencil of light spread into a hellish red aurora over a great piece of the sky. That was how he saw it when it all began – when missiles began to fill the sky.
The stark reality of Cooper’s tank and what it represented through the tortured imagination of Cooper himself, the stifling yet intoxicating heat and putrid air – cast a kind of mesmeric spell over Arthur Sonett, and it brought to a dreamlike consciousness those horrific visions of a nuclear manifest destiny that he had subliminally harbored for years in his playtime world of nuclear pedantry and banality.
Now, in this altered state, he could see the ascending missile arch over at the top of its trajectory and then spew out its eight separate warheads which diverged from one another as they tailored their descents to programmed targets. He followed the one headed for the vicinity of Cooper’s shelter as it knifed back into the atmosphere, its ogive shape easing a hypersonic entry through the thickening air.
His mind’s eye followed it along, a few yards from the black canister. Look how little it was! Maybe five-feet long – Eighteen inches in diameter. What was all the fuss about? Yet, he knew, just as every person alive should know after forty years of this, that an unimaginable energy – more than twenty Hiroshima’s worth – was about to be released from those few pounds of fissile and fussile materials inside. It was, though, another incredulity impossible for human beings to dwell on for long.
Sonett then recalled the recent publicized comments of Ted Taylor, the well-known nuclear bomb designer from Los Alamos who confessed to having second and opposite thoughts about his work of three decades. He said those smart people, the physicists and engineers, came up with the worst possible results: “An implementation of psuedo-rational military purposes.” The man was honest, Arthur Sonett thought now, but maybe he was thirty years late with the obvious conclusion.
Smith and Jennings were straightening up, getting ready to leave. Cooper and Mannoy finished up an argument about resident and lethal radiation resulting from various blast scenarios.
Arthur Sonett hurried his nightmare reverie along. The object descended to fifteen-hundred feet above the ground and a couple of miles from Cooper’s shelter. Altitude switches closed to begin the activation of the device. … ‘Device?’ No! Don’t label it a ‘device’, he argued, or merely a ‘weapon’– those empty euphemisms employed for decades – that suggested a common something, a generic thing, yet still in the mainstream of human ingenuity. Label it for what it was: a ‘bomb’, a Nuclear-bomb, a mismatch to this little earth, and bring to it the full emotional and physical fury its real connotation deserves.
Transfixed, Sonett now saw the bomb’s detonation as if on a time-scale approaching the infinite – the infinitely long. He saw the insides of the so-called ‘physics package’ a weird, pop-art conglomeration of solved physics and engineering problems, each “technically sweet” as Robert Oppenheimer might have enthusiastically characterized them. The sum of these solutions, though, would produce a mighty new problem, its absolute magnitude unimagined in the forties when it came into being.
Precisely timed electronic switches started the implosion on the grapefruit-sized plutonium pit as it was flooded with extra neutrons. Squeezed atoms broke apart, releasing fresh neutron daughters. Arthur Sonett saw generation after generation begot until, after a fraction of a microsecond, the neutrons were countless. Other-worldly pressures and temperatures ignited the tritium-deuterium mixture in the center of the core, a mini-fusion reaction, boosting the energy of the plutonium bomb.
The pit expanded from the heat and pressure, but the heralds of the reaction, gamma and X- rays, had already emerged at the speed of light and reflected off precision uranium mirrors to begin the detonation of the “secondary,’ the main fusion bomb. Its fireball grew into the cloak of inert uranium metal, producing more fissioning and energy release.
The fireball ate into the surrounding air, its thermal radiation igniting much of a twenty-five square-mile area. Gamma rays and neutron arrows snuffed out the lives of all living things within a mile or more.
Sonett witnessed the weak remnant of the original shockwave crush most structures up to three miles away, killing the occupants – except those lucky few who owned and now crouched in Cooper shelters, as he and the others now did. Now a huge gray mass moved rapidly skyward and began to flatten at the top into the bomb’s obscene signature. Great waves of fire swept from the region, and clouds of smoke, filled with debris, engulfed his scene – well out of proportion, Arthur Sonett now thought, to planet earth’s limited real estate.
Them – occupants – victims – living things – lives, all the insipid and impersonal words that came to describe those killed in the first few seconds, let alone the people who would die in the following hours, days and weeks. Someone had once urged Arthur Sonett to put a five-year-old girl’s face on each of the thems and occupants and the rest. Granddaughters. Maybe his, maybe one of yours. Theirs, too. And then see how you feel about those technically-sweet problems, all brilliantly solved and now residing inside those thousands of physics packages, each now ready to grandly display its remarkable solution in its few microseconds of glory.
Sonett’s dream came home now to the tank where its occupants heard the fury outside through the steel shell and thermal blanket. The pressure surge squeezed hard on the sealed tank, but they felt nothing from it, just as they did not feel the faint trickles of neutrons or the weakened flux of gamma rays that penetrated harmlessly inside.
Those sitting inside wondered now what it was like on the outside. That it had happened, Arthur Sonett thought, should have been no great surprise to any of them, for they all knew, in the backs of their minds, that Probability had a nasty way of eventually speaking – if its conditions were left alone for thirty years.
The corporate leader and longtime politician was not ignorant of the thirty-five years of staging for this happening. His part would have been small, but a part, nonetheless. Maybe he chose to have no part at all, leaving the issue to others while he attended to other more tractable and mundane ones. His mistake, he would now realize.
Austin Cooper, the master builder, never knew he was a longtime stagehand until insanity cleared a narrow viewing path through his haze to the absolute reality of what would transpire once the play began.
Fred Jennings had maintained a fixed idea that his career mission was to manage and solve technological challenges as they were handed to him and to let the chips fall where they may – as they were now doing.
Alex Mannoy had flourished in the sweet heart of the nuclear genie for thirty years, arrogant and ambitious to the extent that he would little care that its external body was a potential monster.
Dr. Arthur Sonett saw himself as the weak member of the group, realizing now that the direction and velocity in his professional career had been too easily driven by cues from those technocrats, bureaucrats and politicians around him – even when he felt there was something wrong or blind about his fellow travelers.
“Heh, Arthur. Aren’t you coming? Looks like the heat got to you.”
Austin Cooper sat on the stool, head wobbling, expressionless, watching them go. Sonett got to his feet, shook the limp, indifferent hand and climbed out.
For an instant he was back in that brief nightmare, expecting ruin and death. But no! The bright sunshine came through the open shed door, and the green of almond and walnut orchards spread out in the distance below.
Yet another reprieve.
Causes stan scott Supports
Nature Conservancy, Mid peninsula open space district, Tri-Valley Cares, Western States Legal Foundatiion, Audubon, Sierra Club