Monday, July 30, 2007

Bombs away

In the fall of 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was a graduate student in physics at the University of Notre Dame, living in married student housing with my wife and two kids. Like every other American, we expected the bombs might fall at any time. Not that the Russkies were likely to target South Bend, Indiana, but we were downwind of Chicago and in the path of fallout.

What to do? Our three-story apartment building was flimsily constructed; we could get as much protection by throwing a piece of tissue paper over our heads. There was a storage closet deep under the central stairwell, but the key was in the hands of our next-door neighbor, and he made it clear there was only room for one family. His.

Well, I had a suitcase packed with emergency supplies -- mostly packets of solid and nourishing Fig Newtons -- and a plan. At first hint of war, we would hie it to the cyclotron building, a stout little structure in the middle of the campus with three-foot thick, lead-lined walls designed to keep the radiation it, and, of course, equally effective at keeping radiation out. Unfortunately, as it turned out, every other physics student had the same idea. Faculty too. We would have been squeezed in there more compactly than the graphite bricks in Fermi's atomic pile. It was generally agreed that those among us who possessed firearms would have first dibs.

Ah, the moral dilemmas. What abnegations of Christian charity were justified to save one's family? In the end, my wife and I decided to take our chances with the radioactive ash. Better that than the Fig Newtons.