I am unsure how long I have been standing here mesmerized by this sleek aluminum tube. I can see people behind me reflected in its polished skin just as surely as I can feel the presence of terrible power. Speaking to my friend, I confide I am having a spiritual experience, disturbing, but spiritual.
I have long known about this object–seen all the films, read all the books–but to be here in its presence, to finally see its "face," has taken me by surprise. Enola Gay holds me speechless. I am at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum viewing only the fuselage of this iconic bomber. It is years before the large annex will be constructed and the fully restored plane will be displayed. The original theme of this display, hotly debated for years, included information on the civilian deaths but that inclusion was fought by veterans groups. They sought to minimize the fact of the Japanese dead. They wanted the emphasis on how many of our soldier's lives were probably saved by ending the war before the planned invasion of the Japanese main islands. Even though the resulting display is a shadow of the original plan, its power remains potent.
The world in which I grew up was shaped by this silver warrior. In truth it was the cargo rather than the plane that held sway over my world, but, for me, this bomber marks when we took a seat under our modern sword of Damocles.
All of my early memories revolve around air bases, the Cold War, and Dad on alert near the B-52s. The alert force was comprised of armed bombers and their airborne tankers that were to launch in under fifteen minutes in order to beat the arrival of a Soviet sea-launched missile.
One vivid memory was my family visiting Dad as he spent a week in the alert barracks. All the men were in their flight suits and we were playing board games. The calm was torn by the klaxon sounding. Instantly, the men bolted from the room. I remember looking down the corridor and seeing their backs and blurred legs growing smaller and further away. Mom took us to a window to watch them drive towards their planes whose engines were coming to life. After the seemingly mad dash from the visiting room, seeing the drivers of the crew trucks obeying the posted speed limit was an odd contrast. It was later explained that the danger of an accident while driving at high speed outweighed any shortening of the launch time achieved by speeding. Then, with great the great noise and smoke characteristic of the B-52, the planes were off into the air.
Only years later did I comprehend the magnitude of what I witnessed. As far as those men, including my father, knew, they were going to their targets in the USSR and within minutes the families they just left would be incinerated by a Soviet missile. While writing this, I pause and see that the programming used to train the military rubbed off on me. I note how I referred to the people here as families–real people–and the people that my father would vaporize in the USSR as...