Grave of the Week: Remembering My Grandfather

This post is part of the Graves of the Week series. To see every entry, click here.

Today, the online history magazine We’re History published an article of mine entitled “‘We Have Passed the Stage of Amateur Evil:’ Scientists Respond to the Atomic Bomb.” The article, posted today on the 70th anniversary of the detonation at Hiroshima, takes its title from the line of a letter written that same day, by my grandfather Eugene Cotton.

Grave of Eugene and Mary Cotton
Westview Cemetery, Lexington MA

The full letter, which is linked to under the article, reads like this:

August 6th

Dearest Mary,
This morning I opened my eyes about 4 a.m. and found myself wide awake for no apparent reason.  An odd feeling overcame me that something terrible had happened, and yet it seemed foolish to think so.  Finally I went back to sleep and convinced myself that all was well.  Then, when the news was broadcast at noon, I knew I had been right.  The announcement of the new atomic bomb, and its use without warning, made me realize that we have passed beyond the stage of amateur evil.  Man has openly begun to lay plans for his own destruction.

My grandparents on their wedding day, 1945

Perhaps I feel this too strongly – perhaps it will only develop that this new explosive is only effective to a greater degree than others.  The announcements of the commentators are of course laying accent on the Buck Rogers aspect of the invention.  But regardless of the degree, and despite the limited effect, the fact remains that we have unleashed a new source of power, not for the betterment of our race, but for mutual destruction.  What good is it to shorten this war – and indeed to do it by brutal murdering if it only makes the next one more horrible?  To sanction its use is perhaps no worse than sanctioning any other of our “civilized” weapons.  It must surely make us see that we are neither Christians nor humane, and that we have total disregard for human lives.

What makes me most fearful and ashamed is that highly regarded physicists have developed this thing, using the highest forms of our science.  I can think of no greater disgrace than to have made possible such a weapon. Of course the argument will be that it was better to have developed it here first, and that by maintaining proper custody we can make it a weapon for peace and progress.  This is all true – we have all dreamed of a new source of power, which would raise standards of living all over the world.  But still they have used it first for destruction, thus setting a horrible pattern for the next half-century.  Have we no proper custodians of such power?  It would seem not.

One of the only photos of my grandfather in
uniform, late 1945

You will probably think I am overly excited by this – but knowing you, I feel that you will understand my opinions.  Now it is imperative that we keep peace at any price – for the one we pay for war would far outweigh the false prides of nationalism.  If this could shock us into international repudiation of war forever, it would be good.  But after years have passed, and power becomes so easy to throw about, I have no doubt that our childish fellows will seek to rule one another again.  Of one thing I am certain – it is not science which is at fault, but man, who seeks to use it for evil.  Generation of vipers – surely we shall be punished for this.
Oh, Mary – I wish I could talk to you tonight.  When I look about at these people and see that they are unaffected and unmoved, I realize how it could happen.  Maybe I am the one who is queer!

My grandfather and grandmother
Hawaii, mid-1960s

No letter from R.W. today – maybe there’ll be 2 tomorrow, I hope, I hope, I hope! Crockett, who is [unreadable] again, noted the omission and implied that I was ‘slipping’. But I assured him that the letters were still coming regularly, and that I was “the one.” He said he was sorry he didn’t get to Manchester to collect his kiss, and I sympathized with him in heartfelt fashion. Incidentally, he said he’d like to get the Beacon regularly, and I assured him that you would send it to him! Hope you don’t murder me for it!

Today was an ordinarily busy day, and the heat was just about as oppressive as always. The saluting campaign is still on – I was stopped by a Capt. (a returnee, too) who wanted to know why I didn’t salute him. I think before the interview was over he felt more foolish than I. But I didn’t tell him, as I told [unreadable] that I didn’t believe in all this stuff! He (V.L.A.) said nothing, but probably will hold it against me someday. Good!

Being excessively serious, I have not been in an especially humorous mood all day.  More than ever, if that can be possible, I have missed you every second.  If it were not for you, I’d have little to believe in – but as it is, I still have much hope, for us and for our generation.  I love you, Mary – don’t ever forget that.

Good night, darling
Gene

The same Helsinki intersection
1976 and 2011

I never knew my grandfather. He died over a year before I was born. I was his first grandchild, so the only memories I have access to of him came from my grandmother, or come from my mother (his daughter) and my father, who befriended him in the years they were acquainted. I know that they tell me I would have liked him, and he me. Based on the letter above, I know that’s true; there is a moral core to him, even at the age of 23, that is impressive. Not only in his reaction to the bomb, but in his reverence for science, in his sense of history and the future, and in his sly jabs at the hierarchical nature of the Armed Forces.

I know we would have bonded over photography; he was an avid photographer, and my father has spent hours scanning and preserving his family and travel photography from places as far-flung as Greenland and Russia to the suburban home where my mother and uncle grew up. A few years ago, just after my grandmother died and just before my wife and I were married, we traveled to Scandinavia, a trip my grandparents had taken 35 years earlier, not long before my grandfather’s death. My mother had recently become fixated on a photo he took on that trip: two men walking down a Helsinki street carrying massive bundles of balloons. It was, to her, a shot about his mortality, about the joy he took in life. I made it a point to find that street, and recreate the shot itself as a Christmas present to her (see above), and that felt like a connection.

One of my grandfather’s many photographs from
Greenland, where he was stationed after the end
of the Second World War

I also know that talking to him about this day, August 6, 1945 – and the days before it, as he served in the meteorology service of the Army Air Corps, looking at weather for convoys; and the days after it, in which he took a job in Massachusetts rather than at Los Alamos, a decision which influenced my own life tremendously – would have entertained me for hours; it probably would have entertained him too.

And that’s what often strikes me most when I read this letter, which is often. I assign it to my students after we discuss and debate the decision to drop the bomb; I have them write letters back to him to discuss their own points on the subject, but I always wish I could write back too. It’s strange to think that he wrote this letter when he was 14 years younger than I am now – such a young man, dealing with such a heavy burden, as were they all. I’d like to ask him about that; about whether his views changed with age or perspective, or history.

I’d like also to have another chance to talk to my grandmother about him. She was never shy in speaking about him, of course – my grandmother was never shy about speaking to anyone about anything. Yet somehow I feel like I never did the leg work to really give myself a sense of the man through her. That feeling came to me as I read this letter, collected from her belongings: like it was proof I’d missed an opportunity. Maybe that’s not really the case, but it often feels that way. I am proud of this letter; I’m proud I’m related to the person who wrote it, I’m proud that I kept it and that it has helped my students, and I’m happy I’ve now been able to show it to a wider audience. But I wish I had the chance to know the man who produced it. I hope he’d be happy that it survived, and has done good.

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