Happy Hiroshima Day, everyone.
But before listing candle-light vigils and dove-releasing ceremonies near you, here's my new pick for Most Iconic Moment of the second half of the twentieth century. It's a true story.
In May of 1955, Hiroshima survivor and clergyman Kiyoshi Tanimoto was touring the United States, raising money so young women disfigured by the blast could receive plastic surgery. His peacenik American guide, Norman Cousins, told Tanimoto that he had arranged a television interview at the NBC studios in Los Angeles. When Tanimoto arrived and was seated on the set, he was introduced to a smiling man named Ralph Edwards, who turned toward the camera and addressed 40 million Americans with the following words:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to ĚThis Is Your Life'. The ticking you hear in the background is a clock counting off the seconds to 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945. And seated here with me is a gentlemen whose life was changed by the last tick of that clock as it reached 8:15. Good evening, sir. Would you tell us your name?
Needless to say, Tanimoto had no idea what was going on. He did not blush or gush, as Edwards' guests usually did; he just looked confused. As the ticking clock grew louder, Edwards declared, This is Hiroshima! and a mushroom cloud appeared on television screens across the country.
The host continued:
And in that fateful second on August 6, 1945, a new concept of life and death was given its baptism. And tonight's principal subject you, Reverend Tanimoto! were an unsuspecting part of that concept. We will pick up the threads of your life in a moment Reverend Tanimoto, after this word from Bob Warren, our announcer, who has something very special to say to the girls in the audience.
Thus did Ralph Edwards cut from Hiroshima to a nail polish commercial. When the show resumed, a shell-shocked Tanimoto was introduced to several people he had either not seen in years or never met. Among them was a visibly drunk Captain Robert Lewis, copilot of the Enola Gay.
Forget Nixon meets Elvis footage. I want that episode. You hear me, Rhino Records?
The story comes from John Hersey's 1985 afterward to his famous book of nuclear war reportage, Hiroshima, which turns 60 later this month, a few weeks after the bombing of the same name turns 61.
I first encountered Hersey's book as most people did: handed out of a big brown public school box, with a split spine and years worth of notes in the margins.
I was unhappy when it landed on my sixth grade desk. American culture in 1986 was drenched in nuclear dread, and I tensed at seeing the long-stem mushroom cloud on the cover. I decided immediately not to read it. No sense walking into an insomnia tripwire. School, my teacher failed to understand, was supposed to be an escape from the dread, a place of kickball, chocolate milk, and training bras. The ubiquitous yellow-and-black fallout shelter signs never let me forget about World War III completely, but in the loud hallways, it was easy to try.