It was a beautiful day, cool weather, the sky was perfectly blue;
in Los Alamos, we stood indoors.
On the laboratory table, there were two uranium slugs, a Geiger counter gently ticking.
Equations exist for calculating chain reactions.
This is how the bomb works, but how do you know, how do you find out,
how much is needed, how close
together should the two slugs be, and for how long?
Some would argue that knowledge is impossible without experience.
I wish they were wrong.
There were eight of us, and Professor Slotin
was conducting an experiment. I remember he was using a
screwdriver, and his hand slipped.
Something horrible happened. The air turned blue
with what must have been waves of radiation;
it smelled like how it must be after a lightning strike.
He threw his body over the uranium, and pulled the slugs apart with his bare hands.
Professor Slotin told us to stand
in our places, while he drew chalk circles on the blackboard
estimating distances and the dosage received.
I was standing towards the back of the room when all this happened. What if I had stood closer?
Louis Slotin died a horrible death, you can
read the report if you want to, I don’t want to,
I want to know whether I am dead.
I want to know whether I will turn into a monster, or will
my children be monsters, will I make them that way?
I want to know if I am free, or allowed to leave,
because I still can’t decide whether I walked out of that room,
or this is some dark heaven I am sharing with the also dead, who are so afraid of dying
they won’t admit they’re dead. I am asked how I feel. Sometimes I tell them
I feel like I don’t belong here, I know I should be enjoying each breath, but I can’t decide.
I can’t disprove this suspicion. Are these men around me doctors or
uniformed angels? I don’t know and they tell me to relax: they say
this world is a little better than it could have been, even if
it is not as good as we expected.
*Note: Dr. Louis Slotin was the first person to die in an atomic accident, May 30, 1946.
Hugh Behm-Steinberg is the author of Shy Green Fields (No Tell Books) and two Dusie chapbooks, Sorcery and Good Morning! His poems have appeared in several literary magazines. He teaches writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where he edits the journal Eleven Eleven.