In America 7/4: Gunpowder and Sky

We were looking for the conservatory but got turned around wandering through the park, and came on the Field House by accident. The golden dome and intricate deco adornment of the place drew us inside, though, and we wandered up the stairs, remarking on the beauty of the place, the beauty and the emptiness. It was a Sunday afternoon, it was perfect summer weather. Doubtless everyone was outdoors, but our steps echoed and our voices carried yards.

We were four on a touristy pleasure trip, thinking of barbecue and beer and fireworks and sunshine. But the young woman at the door of the museum greeted us and assumed we were there to see the exhibition, and it would have been rude to walk away.

Museum, though it was little more than a closet, really, a space divided by a hallway at the top of a staircase in the very back of the building. We were the only people there, walking through the aftermath of the atomic bomb. Burned clothing, charred roof tiles from houses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A child’s notebook, scarred beyond recognition, a cap small enough to fit over my hand. And photographs, including one I couldn’t stop staring at, of a young woman picking her way across a field of broken stones, and at her feet a charred corpse, head still up and mouth still open, arms extended as though this man or woman was still clawing forward as the fire burned him or her to a cinder. The young woman, porcelain-skinned, alive, neatly dressed, did not look down.

My country tis of thee …

A Japanese television crew was there to film the exhibition and asked us to talk. They didn’t ask for our names and I don’t think it mattered. I looked at the numbers, did the vicious arithmetic. Tens of thousands dead in Nagasaki, tens of thousands dead in Hiroshima. What have we done in the name of our own dead? What nightmares do we inflict on each other in order to balance the scales?

What balance can there be?

The man making the film seemed angry; he asked me why a museum everywhere for the Holocaust, large buildings, war memorials of stone and metal in public parks where everyone comes to see, and this, this tiny place, for peace? I told him I didn’t know. I didn’t say what I thought, which is that we honor what we do not perceive to be our fault. I learned the oulines of the atomic bombings in history classes, I saw films of the aftermath, but we do not live with it, because it did not happen here. We do not know.

My father-in-law talked about the war Americans are fighting now, the war he opposed and despises. A war in which we are not even destroying the country that actually attacked us, instead, we are killing people who had nothing to do with our deaths, our 3,000. We use that number, we stand on that grave and we take pictures. The war supporters love to drag out beheading videos and say see, we have to do this and worse. What balance can there be?

Are all nightmares equal?

We wrote cards, which will be sent back to the peace museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We walked back out into the sunlight, we ate barbecue, we sat on a blanket and watched people walk by and made fun of bad fashion and laughed. We sat on the curb with children and cops and watched the fireworks light up the sky. The smell of sulphur drifted over us, the rocket light burning a trace, so that when we closed our eyes, we could still see the outline of the explosion.

Chicago Peace Museum.

Hiroshima/Nagasaki Exhibit.

A.