“The bomb burst on this bright morning over what President Truman described as a military target – a hospital.”
Every Sunday, my father took me somewhere on a tram. Mystery tours, rattling across a sprawling, jumbling, clanking weave-work of metal sunk into cobbled streets that ran for miles. Boarding at Glasgow Cross, sometimes we rattled beyond Broomielaw to marvel at the uncanny gods and fearful monsters that were too big to see in their entirety; bound by bars and bolted by rivets that ran into the millions, they were held fast in the chains of giants awaiting descent from Glasgow’s Govan shipyards to the earthly light of reason that was our ancestral passageway, the River Clyde.
We often caught a ferry across from there, and if fortunate would watch a mighty steam locomotive having its direction reversed on an iron turntable. Occasionally we would simply journey to the end of the line – and there were many possible endings. Given that my father’s only sisters, Caroline and Peggy, were killed by a tram in Glasgow during World War 2 – on Christmas Eve during the blackout – you would have thought…And yet he loved those unplanned journeys on the Glasgow trams as much as I did. He once said every life is unique, and every death is tragic, and I suppose he might have been thinking just that the night we stood under the old clock tower in the Trongate watching the soulless machines relentlessly ripping out the tram rails. We were stunned and heartbroken. Our journeys didn’t end with the death of the tram, but they were never quite the same.
On September fourth 1962, a Glasgow newspaper ran the headline, ‘Last tram to Auchenshuggle’, a district in the east side of the city. The editors could not have anticipated that in the following month the Cuban Missile Crisis would cause people across the world to turn over the possibility that a sizeable section of the human race might soon cease to exist. And anyone who glanced at that newspaper after the crisis, perhaps seeing it stacked on a pile by the fireplace ready for twisting tightly to get a coal fire started, may have stopped and reconsidered the gathering clouds of foreboding that the headline unwittingly embodied: ‘The end of the world?’
Once triggered, one could only speculate how fast global devastation would develop, but given Russia’s missiles couldn’t reach the USA – the rationale for siting them in Cuba – it followed European civilisation would come logically prior to all others on the wipe-out list. The response of the British government was to issue directives to hospital staff all over the country on the management of mass casualties, and burns were the top priority. It so happened I was in Glasgow Royal Infirmary at that time with burns, aged six, following an oil pan spill over my lower back and legs, and for some time was confined to a cage. Immediately after the accident I had been lifted up and rushed onto a bus that then cruelly crawled up the High Street – it was the wrong choice, but at the time it seemed quicker, to the mind of my panicking dad, than finding a phone box and calling an ambulance. The trolley bus hummed uphill like an infuriatingly slow toy that seemed all the slower as pain and panic passed through me in waves.
Strangely, I have a strong recollection of the small details that made up the environment around me on that journey: the little round light-bulbs in two perfectly neat rows brightening the interior of the bus, the rivets in the aluminium sheeting that made the ceiling, and the macabre faces smiling in small poster advertisements. I don’t suppose I was conscious of the concept of time up to that point, but now pain made it a marshy substance I had to wade through. The woman sitting opposite on the bus – I couldn’t hear anything she said – gripped the arm of the man next to her, scrunching up his lapel. The bus driver made no stops, no one could get on or off – undoubtedly leaving queues of bewildered people at the pavements – but still it took a lifetime to arrive. Eventually it stopped outside the hospital entrance, and I was scooped up and rushed into emergency. I screamed past the white-tiled walls to the ward and its antiseptic smells, and continued to scream when I was put into the arms of the white-coated strangers. I screamed until I slept.
In the event of a nuclear strike, one of the first places to be struck would be my Uncle George’s house on the Isle of Bute. With no public discussion, the British government allowed a foreign nuclear family to be moved into his neighbourhood, Holy Loch, and they most definitely brought with them the potential to bring down house prices. It is said Holy Loch acquired its name around the time of the Crusades when a ship crossing the loch carrying two sacks of soil from the Holy Land capsized – for the purposes of nomenclature one must at least be thankful they weren’t carrying two sacks of manure – but it now became the base for a doom-laden crusade of far greater magnitude and mayhem: the US Polaris submarine programme. In 1961 the firstborn of the demon seed, Proteus, sailed in. It was gunmetal grey. A year later, the human race sweated it out for thirteen days during the Cuban Missile Crisis before it got the all clear.
Without malicious intent, my parents packed my sisters and me off to Uncle George’s house in Bute, near to the nuclear missiles, for our summer holidays. A boilermaker at the yards for over forty years, Uncle George’s working life was spent in a deafening din, and as an antidote his house was something of a sanctuary. Other than the gravel path to the front door that crunched noisily underfoot, and a few creaky floorboards inside the house, it was a peaceful place of sleepy-sounding clocks that seemed at times to be in lazy conversation with one another. From the garden it was still possible to hear the clocks gently chime, and I remember my sister looked at me strangely when I asked her if the bees buzzing by could hear the clocks. Was it possible for me to be aware of their world, but not for bees to be aware of mine, I wondered, and still wonder…In that garden we pulled up rhubarb – I would peel it and then dip the rhubarb in bowls of sugar – and my sisters showed me how to make daisy chains – an activity I could become absorbed in for hours. How long those chains became.
That was August. There would have been similar sorts of scenes in Hiroshima in that same month just seventeen years before, and it is not difficult to imagine children absorbed in the life of a garden, just as we were on the Isle of Bute – the younger children communing with the elder ones, asking profound questions and being fobbed off with cryptic answers. It is not difficult to imagine that perfectly still summer morning when Little Boy burst over little people with little fingers earnestly engaged, engulfing them in a blinding white light and making them vanish from existence. The bomb burst on this bright morning over what President Truman described as a military target, a hospital; there was a blinding flash in the sky, and a great cloud of swirling dust and smoke luminous with red carried the dissolved remains of everyone within the blast range up into the air. It cast a dreadful pall of darkness over the city, and for some days remnants of Hiroshima were still burning.
The last day of the thirteen-day crisis was my worst day in hospital. I was, of course, unaware that my parents were facing Hiroshima, and my condition must have added a dimension to their concern – around the hospital ward they would have seen lots of children with burns. My parents were sent out of the ward, ushered gently but firmly by a group of nurses straight through the swing doors and out into the corridor. A white coat commanding a group of pink uniforms with silly hats and strange masks quickly took their positions around my bed. Their cheerful words belied the concern in their eyes. Whilst I don’t know why I had to be conscious for the procedure, it quickly became clear why they needed a nurse team; the cage that covered me from the waist down was lifted away, and then the doctor, with concentrated effort, got a grip of my skin from somewhere around the hip and lifted it up and along my leg in one continuous sheet. He went back a few centimetres from dead to healthy skin, causing some bright red bleeding. The pincers fell with a clink into the bowl, and a nurse stepped in between the others, who were restraining me with some physical effort, to dab the raw, bleeding flesh with a stinging antiseptic. My screams added to the collective anguish, and whilst he gave the assurance – perhaps for the nurses – that it would soon be over, it was a long haul.
On the eve of destruction, the fate of the world depended, as they say in Hollywood movie trailers, on just one man. The same day the medical team lifted and cut away a sheet of my skin, Vasili Arkhipov swung round from his narrow bunk, picked up his boot, and began working in just enough polish to allow a bit of resistance and make it interesting. Always in this hypnotic activity he switched off, but his peace abruptly ended when a series of muffled explosions rocked the submarine and signalled everyone to their posts. The submarine, escorting a fleet armed with nuclear-tipped warheads, found itself trapped by US warships and subjected to depth charge bombardments to force it to the surface. The submarine rocked violently, and although the boat’s crew held on tight to whatever they could, most were thrown about and some were injured as the explosions intensified.
The discretionary power to launch nuclear warheads lay not with Moscow but with the submarine commanders, though two senior officers had to agree the launch. As sparks flew from electrical equipment and lights flickered on and off in the otherwise silent vessel, the eyes of the crew steadied on those officers. When the minute hand struck the hour precisely it also struck the darkest hour for humanity; the order was given to prepare to launch and the crew burst into a flurry of activity. Conscious that all the destructive force of the world ever imagined was being gathered and brought to its psychotic edge, Vasili Arkhipov prevailed on them not to fire. He reasoned with his fellow officers, he pleaded with them to resist retaliation, he urged them to do nothing. Finally the dam burst, his words got through, and the order was rescinded.
Pocket watches found in the wasteland that was once Hiroshima stopped at 8.15, a result of the magnetic effect of the blast. Most fused with sand or stone or glass through the intensity of heat. The people who had owned them had of course been vaporised; the basic power of the universe had been harnessed in a metal box and dropped above the city, and now a part of our universe was permanently lost. I once saw a photograph of a man with his family in Hiroshima. The children were involved in some form of industry reminiscent of the scene that runs in my head of my sisters and me threading daisy chains in Uncle George’s garden. His pocket watch was chained to his waistcoat, and as I looked ever more deeply into it I saw him winding on the hands into synchrony with a clock chiming peacefully indoors. Perhaps this, or some other gruesome example of time petrified in a clump, found its way into the modest treasures of Vasili Arkhipov – the man who saved the world.