Thursday, March 28, 2013


I've asked Michael to post about the long journey required to write his best-selling memoir, The Atomic Times:

By Michael Harris

Three-eyed fish swimming in the lagoon.  Men whose toenails glow in the dark.  Operation Redwing where the F words were Fallout and Fireball. In 1956, I was an army draftee sent to the Marshall Islands to watch 17 H-bomb tests. An "observer," the Army called it. In plain English: a human guinea pig.

I knew at the time that the experience could make a fascinating book, and I wrote a novel based on it while I was still there. The problem was that Eniwetok was a security post. There were signs everywhere impressing on us that the work going on (I mopped floors, typed, filed requisitions and wrote movie reviews for the island newspaper “All the news that fits we print”) was Top Secret. “What you do here, what you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here leave it here.”

I was afraid they would confiscate the manuscript if they found it but a buddy who left Eniwetok before I did concealed the pages in his luggage. When he got back to the States, he mailed those pages to my father so I had what turned out to be a very rough draft.

What was wrong with the book?  Let me count the ways.  I didn’t know how to write action, plot and character.  I did know how to leave out everything interesting that was happening  around me. Back in the States after my discharge, I thought about writing Version #2 but for ten years, I had nightmares about the H-bomb almost every night.  I survived the radiation (unlike some of my friends), but the memories were also a formidable foe.  I tried to forget and more or less succeeded.

My perspective gradually changed over the years and I began to remember what I had tried to forget:
  • We were told we had to wear high density goggles during the tests to avoid losing our sight but the shipment of goggles never arrived—the requisition was cancelled to make room for new furniture for the colonel's house.
  • We were told we had to stand with our backs to the blast—again to prevent blindness. But the first H-bomb ever dropped from a plane missed its target, and the detonation took place in front of us and our unprotected eyes.
  • Servicemen were sent to Ground Zero wearing only shorts and sneakers and worked side by side with scientists dressed in RadSafe suits. The exposed military men developed severe radiation burns and many died.

The big breakthrough came when enough years had passed and I had overcome the anger and the self-pity resulting from the knowledge that I and the men who served with me had been used as guinea pigs in a recklessly dangerous and potentially deadly experiment. At last I had the perspective to understand my nuclear year in its many dimensions and capture the tragedy and the black humor that came along with 17 H-bomb explosions. In addition,  certain significant external realities had changed.
  • Top Secret documents about Operation Redwing had been declassified.  I learned new details about the test known as Tewa:  the fallout lasted for three days and the radiation levels exceeded 3.9 Roentgens, the MPE (Maximum Permissible Exposure).  Three ships were rushed to Eniwetok to evacuate personnel but were ordered back after the military raised the MPE to 7.  That, they reasoned, ensured everyone's safety.
  • I made contact with other atomic veterans who told me about their own experiences and in some cases sent me copies of letters written to their families during the tests.  As we talked, we also laughed:  about officers who claimed Eniwetok was a one year paid vacation;  about the officer who guarded the political purity of the daily island newspaper by deleting "pinko propaganda," including a speech by President Eisenhower.
  • By now, Ruth knew the material almost as well as I did and provided crucial perspective and detailed editing expertise.

At last, I was able to pull all the strands together.  After 50 years, I was able write the book I had wanted to in the beginning.

Having struggled to write a memoir for so long and having been asked for advice by others contemplating writing a memoir, I can pass along a bit of what I learned along the way. 
  • Make sure you have enough distance from the experience to have perspective on what happened.   Exposure to radiation and the resulting reactions—anger, terror, incredulity—produce powerful emotions that take time  to process.
  • Figure out how to use (or keep away) from your own intense feelings.  In the case of the H-Bomb tests, anger and self-pity were emotions to stay away from.  So was the hope of somehow getting “revenge.”
  • Sometimes the unexpected works. For me, finding humor in a tragic situation—  the abject military incompetence in planning and executing the H-Bomb tests—freed my memory and allowed me to write about horrific experiences.
  • Figure out (most likely by trial and error) how much or how little of yourself you want to reveal.
"A gripping memoir leavened by humor, loyalty and pride of accomplishment. A tribute to the resilience, courage and patriotism of the American soldier." Henry Kissinger


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