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Prometheus stole fire and gave it to men. But when Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to nail his body to Mount Caucasus. On it Prometheus was nailed and kept bound for many years. Every day an eagle swooped on him and devoured the lobes of his liver, which grew by night.
Apollodorus, The Library, book 1:7, second century B.C.
Writing American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer was an incredible intellectual task, one that was finished by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin after 25 years. Yes, 25 years in the research and writing.
The tome of 721 pages was a compelling analysis of the genius, and “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” Robert Oppenheimer. With admiration and wonder, it struck me that the writers’ dedication must have changed them forever. The deep study of one person was bound to tie them to Oppenheimer, just as Prometheus was bound to the chain of Mount Caucasus. When Oppenheimer died at the end of their inked feather, it must have been like losing a son to eternity.
Oppenheimer fell in love with the mountains and valleys around Los Alamos, New Mexico. When tired or distressed he returned to that region to renew his spirits, ride horses for hundreds of miles, and push on with his work. He later returned to the region the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and decided that the work on the atomic bomb would be conducted in Los Alamos. And it was.
The love of that region troubled him as he anticipated creating a more dangerous world from which there would be no escape. In August 10, 1931 – long before the nucleus of the atom was split and during the time he directed the birth of theoretical physics at University of California at Berkeley, he wrote of his anxiety:
I think that the world in which we shall live these next
thirty years will be a pretty restless and tormented place;
I do not think that there will be much of a compromise
possible between being of it, and being not of it.
The journey with Bird and Sherwin brought to mind the more general question why we tend to identify with the subjects of our study, the home from which we came, the loves we cherished and perhaps lost?
Identifying with another person, place, or an ideology provides comfort. For me, returning to old haunts that I love is like stirring the ashes of time in order to reignite warm moments of pleasure and pain. The experience allows new insights into my psychic stuff, and provides the continuity that only history can provide.
I remember, too, several instances in which people welded together by years of time establish a bond that unites until the last breath of life. It is not uncommon that when one spouse dies, the other spouse dies shortly thereafter. I had a friend, Bob Pidgeon who after many years of marriage died within hours of his spouse’s death – both natural deaths.
Once committed to a time, a place, a person, one is doomed to become that world and no other. Identification is complete and fate owns our times and our progress through life. Others may see sterility in our being caught in a time warp, but we all are, after all. For each of us those moments of identification act as a lens that lets light pass from time to time and gives us the reasons for pushing on, as Oppenheimer did after bathing again and again in the wilderness of New Mexico that he loved.
Del Wolf Thiessen, looking backward into the places and times that he loved. March 27, 2015.