14 November 1943
The air was shedding its veneer of autumn as easily as a winter’s coat, and she stood at the rail looking out over the Atlantic as the great ship steamed to the southeast. Even from this modest height – and she guessed she was about thirty feet or so above the water’s surface – the sense of speed as the Iowa knifed through the sea was palpable. And it looked as though the destroyers and the nearby cruiser were working hard to keep up with the immense battleship, for indeed they were. Now, on their second day at sea, the small convoy was carrying the president to Morocco; from there the gathering of diplomats and soldiers would fly with him on to Tehran, where a meeting between the all the president’s men and both Churchill and Stalin was scheduled to take place.
“Why am I here?” she asked the wind. “What possible use could I be to him?”
She turned and saw him in his chair near the rail, perhaps fifty feet away, just under the huge sixteen-inch guns of the number two turret. The teak decks were mottled by random hits of spray, the three barrels cast giant, oblate shadows over Roosevelt and the deck under his chair, so that one moment he was alive in early morning sunlight, the next a wraith sheathed in shadow.
“That’s what we are,” she sighed, “the two of us. Sun and shadow, light and dark. Good and evil.”
Once the theoretical nature of their work had borne fruit, she had begun to see the real contours of darkness inside Roosevelt’s Pandora’s Box. And she had begun to see her role uncovering this darkness; indeed, until recently she’d not known exactly what would be released. And now that she did she understood she wasn’t simply a passive receptacle standing idly by while others did the work of unraveling the darkest fire man had ever kindled, and yes, she understood she was more than just an active participant, too. She had grown into one of the most important members of the group designing the charge that would induce fission, and she was helping Sealy and his team work with Boeing on the B-29’s modifications. She would help bring the ultimate irony to humankind: she would help usher in a new era, the atomic era, and the world would never be the same again. There might be peace…peace out of madness.
As she watched Roosevelt, she wondered what he would do with this immense power. Let the world know what he alone possessed, let the Germans and the Japanese understand the consequences of prolonging the war? Or, keep the power a secret? Unleash it on an unsuspecting world without any warning at all?
And she watched Roosevelt more closely now that she understood him better. She had never once considered how much his personal struggle with polio had redefined his character, how much the wounded man’s experience in Warm Springs had altered his patrician’s frame of reference. The entitled Assistant Secretary of the Navy would eventually become the Governor of New York, but only after defeating his own very personal demons. She’d never really known these things about the man, not until the night before, anyway. When they’d sat and talked on this very deck, under the stars.
And he seemed to know each and every star in the night sky, from the origins of their names to their uses as aids to navigation. He loved ships too, she soon discovered, everything about big ships. He’d championed the development of naval aviation – in the First World War of all things – and even submarines. She’d known so little about him when he was first elected, but now – after working with him off and on for four years, she thought of him almost as a father.
Fathers had been in short supply all her life, after all, and though she hardly ever thought about it she knew she had missed out on something important. Charles was Charles, a brother and never anything more, yet Charles had assumed the role of father when she was still quite young. And, as it turned out, he had never really had understood her very basic need. He became a friend, then a sort of career advisor, yet he never expressed any sort of familial love for her – and that was a scar that had never really healed. He cared, true enough, but he had never once expressed anything at all like love for her – never even a brother’s love. Because he wasn’t her brother…not really…and that was an unspoken truth between them.
And yet, Roosevelt had seen through her hastily erected veneers, had seen her need, and he had done so in an instant. After their first meeting in the White House he had begun writing letters to her, silly, half-affectionate fatherly missives she first at first dismissed as the ramblings of a lonely old man – then she had found something else in his words. A need to connect personally with the reality of her work, not only to understand her better, but to better come to terms with what they were building out there in the high New Mexican desert. And so she wrote to him, too. Long letters about the problems the team faced, little notes about how odd it was being one of the few women out there under the high stars. She was impressed a man with so many responsibilities took the time to correspond with her, then, as she wrote to him she would lapse back into the dream, see him standing by that window, looking at Saturn’s rings…
‘Why don’t you find a man, get married,’ he wrote once, and she thought about the answer to that question for a long time before she set out to craft a reply.
‘I thought I had, once,’ she wrote to the president. ‘Your physician, Ben Goodman. We spent a few days together in 1939, and I thought we had created something. Something real and lasting, only then he drifted away. I have no need to be hurt again…’
His next letter rocked her world.
‘He speaks of you often,’ Roosevelt wrote, ‘yet I was given to believe you had spurned his advances. Is that not the case?’
And so, when she had boarded the Potomac with Roosevelt a few days before, she was instantly on guard when she saw Goodman walk aboard just ahead of the president. Neither had looked her way; indeed, neither had acknowledged her presence in any way. And as the only female on a US Navy battleship steaming across an ocean full of U-boats, she had been locked away in the executive officer’s stateroom, apparently for the duration of the crossing, lest she distract the men, or so she was told…
Then, last night.
Roosevelt had asked that she come to his cabin after dinner. He wanted, the hand delivered note plainly stated, to talk with her about an idea or two.
When she was escorted to his cabin the door opened and she found him tucked into bed, sipping some sort of amber liqueur. “Could I pour you a snort?” Roosevelt asked, grinning.
“What is it?” she remembered asking.
She shrugged, a blank look on her face.
“It’s a liqueur, made from scotch whiskey,” another voice said, and she turned to see Goodman at a writing desk across the captain’s ceremonial in-port cabin.
“I see,” she said, though of course she didn’t. She couldn’t, not just now, because her vision had grown confined and dark, and her thoughts muddied as the currents of time slowed. She had watched Goodman pour her a glass, then turned to the president sitting in his bed. He was smiling, she saw, and looking not at all unlike another grinning Cheshire cat of some ill repute.
She had taken the glass and carried it too her nose, closed her eyes as the honied scent found her, then she took some of the liquid on her tongue and let it settle there. When she opened her eyes Goodman was sitting across from her, his eyes still full of a quiet, smoldering empathy.
“Like it?” Goodman asked.
“I do. Yes, very much, as a matter of fact.”
“Well then,” Roosevelt crooned, holding up his glass. “A toast! Here’s to swimmin’ – with bow-legged wimin’…”
Goodman grinned and shook his head, then took a sip, his eyes never leaving her’s, not for a single instant.
“I hope you’re not asking me to swim with a bunch of bow-legged women, Mr. President,” she laughed, almost under her breath.
“No, no, not at all, Claire. We were going over some production figures this afternoon when someone asked about the work on blast dynamics on the airframe. It’s been weeks since I read an update on that work, and I wanted to get your take on the problem.”
“Now, Mr. President?”
“Well, sir, as you know, the basic question is altitude versus the aerodynamic properties of the bomb itself. How long it will take the warhead to reach the target…”
“Are we still talking about that fused air-burst thing, or a ground impactor?”
“For all intents and purposes, Mr President, there won’t be much difference on delta-T. Our current working hypothesis has the aircraft dropping on the target from thirty-one thousand feet. We need to retard the bomb’s velocity in order to allow egress of the aircraft, as even if we can achieve a wing loading in the eighty pounds per square inch range it’s not likely the aircraft will survive.”
“What would an optimal range from detonation look like?”
“Twenty miles, Mr President. A minimum of twenty miles.”
“We discarded the idea, sir, after it was demonstrated that anti-aircraft fire might hit the bomb and disable it.”
“We’re looking at an enhanced climb profile that gets the aircraft to thirty-four thousand feet, then the crew would start a shallow dive at full power, make the drop at thirty and continue diving to around twenty-five thousand.”
“And their speed at that point would be?”
“We’re looking at roughly 320.”
“Will that get you to twenty miles?”
“No sir. Not quite.”
“Drag, Mr President. We’re designing the weapon to be as aerodynamically inefficient as possible.”
“Can the wings be further reinforced?”
“Boeing engineers have done about all they can…short of a complete redesign of the nacelles.”
“They’re still the problem?”
“Yessir. My modeling shows that the blast wave will start a series of oscillations on the outboard nacelles, eventually leading to failure of the wings near the main-spar-box. If they’re less than fifteen miles from detonation you might as well advise the crew it will be a one-way mission…”
“And as I mentioned earlier,” Goodman added, “the amount of exposure to the aircrew of this amount and kind of radiation poses unknown risks. The further away they are, the better.”
“So, it looks like we’ve got the means to make this weapon, but it also looks like we may sacrifice the crew if we use it? Is that about the size of it, Dr Aubuchon?”
“No, sir. I still feel quite confident we’ll solve the problem. Probably through a combination of methods, and I think the engineers have a few tricks yet up their sleeve. By the way, that wing is a work of art, Mr President. Wing loading, as it stands now, is in the seventy pounds per square inch range, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they can modify the aircraft to get to a hundred. If they can, and if the aircraft can hit 340 knots in a limited duration dive, then we aren’t going to have a problem.”
“Robert doesn’t share your optimism, Dr Aubuchon. Perhaps you could tell me why?”
“This isn’t his area of expertise, Mr President, and as he hasn’t spent as much time out in Seattle as I have, so he’s not up to speed on the specific range of options available to us.”
“It’s not your area of expertise either, is it, Claire?”
“No, it isn’t, Mr President. But Boeing’s engineers have to work with the numbers I give them, so I’ve learned a lot about this aircraft’s strengths and limitations working with them. The math is simple and straight-forward, I might add.”
“I’ll have to take your word for that, Claire,” Roosevelt said, grinning again. “Well, Ben? Think I could take some sea air this time of night?”
“Yessir, I think that might do us all some good, just remember what the captain said. No smoking out on deck, sir.”
“Bosh! Damn U-boats!”
“I’ll go get Roy, sir. Claire? Would you come with me, please?”
She followed Goodman out into the passageway while Roosevelt’s valet went in the cabin to help dress the president, and they waited for Roosevelt’s naval escort, this time a colonel from the Marines, before heading topsides.
A few chairs had been hastily placed on the main deck, just ahead of the number two turret, and the tiniest sliver of a crescent moon hung above the horizon off to their left. Roosevelt used his shoulders to move from his wheelchair to the deck chair, then huffed and puffed for a moment – getting his wind back as he looked out over the infinite sea.
“By Golly, Claire, there’s nothing like the sea at night. Surrounded by stars, as we were in the beginning. And look at that! Even the moon is cooperating tonight…and just look at Orion, would you!”
Both she and Goodman turned and looked up at The Hunter, his bow drawn through the millennia. “I was out earlier, Mr President,” the Marine said, “and I do believe after your vision settles you’ll see the pink smudge in the scabbard.”
“Really? It’s been years and years since I’ve seen that. Too many years, I think.”
“It’s nice to feel summer air again,” Goodman added. “I’m already dreading winter.”
“Are you indeed?” Roosevelt said. “Maybe it’s time you moved out west. Berkeley, perhaps?”
Goodman looked at the president, not sure what to say.
“Maybe it’s time you settled down, tried to have a family?” Roosevelt added. “Family saved me, of course, though I had very nearly destroyed mine. Losing the use of my legs, finding my way to Georgia, getting involved with those kids…”
“Sir?” Claire said, sounding puzzled.
“Warm Springs. I went down there for the waters. Hot, ninety degree water, waters full of magnesium. It was this ramshackle place, almost beyond repair, the people who came to take the water were as afraid of us polio patients and lepers in the middle ages. I came to understand discrimination for the first time in my life, as well as despair. I suppose it goes without saying, but I don’t think one can experience hope without first experiencing deep despair, but then again I may not have been the first person to think that.”
“What happened down there,” she asked, “to change your mind?”
“I felt so sorry for myself. For the loss of my future, I suppose you could say.” Roosevelt looked away for a moment. “Yet it was the children down there taught me how to live again, to see beyond my legs. Eleanor helped me buy the place, and we’ve turned it into a facility for treating children with polio.”
“I had no idea,” Claire said.
“Ben’s been down to help out a time or two, haven’t you?”
“Yes, Mr. President. And it’s been an honor.”
“Indeed. There’s a humility in suffering, isn’t there. Especially when children suffer. Humanity’s burden, I think it is, too. Every suffering child we let pass into the night is an unconscionable burden on our souls.”
“Yes it is, sir,” Goodman added.
“Anyway, that’s what I was getting at, Ben. You’ll miss out on one of life’s greatest joys if you miss out having children of your own.”
“Perhaps when this all over, Mr President,” Goodman sighed heavily.
“Ben, this will never be over. Don’t you understasnd that yet?”
“This war will never be over, Ben. It can’t ever be over. Once the music stops playing, industry will collapse again. We learned that after the First War, if you’ll recall. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy I was charged with demobilizing the Atlantic Fleet, and we scrapped almost half those vessels in a matter of months. I fought to preserve our submarine fleet, and to increase research on aircraft carriers, and whatever else I could, but both Wilson and Harding were adamant…we didn’t need a peacetime navy. Short-sighted bastards! Of course, mobilizing for war in 1916, and again in 1940, pulled us out of the economic doldrums, yet that may be the one vital lesson lost on most people both in and outside of Washington. Military spending props up the rest of the economy, simple as that.”
“But with these new weapons,” Claire began, “haven’t we made war obsolete?”
“Obsolete? You mean, no one would dare attack us now?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And how long before another country has these weapons? A country, perhaps, not quite so friendly to our interests. Remember, today’s friend might not always be so friendly…”
“You mean, Russia?”
“It doesn’t really matter who, Claire. It will happen, and the how or the why won’t really matter then. It will happen, and the sword will be poised above all our necks, then.” Roosevelt’s eyes swept the horizon, then he turned to Claire. “What about you, Claire? Ready for a life of domestic tranquility?”
“I don’t know that I could let go just now, Mr President. I want to see this through.”
“Yes…there’s nothing so vital as having a purpose in life, yet there’s also nothing as important as having your own little sliver of immortality. Children are still our best shot at that, I guess you know?” Roosevelt added, turning to look at Goodman again.
“You’re correct, of course, Mr President.”
“Look at them,” Roosevelt sighed, the word drifting away in the slipstream as he pointed at the night sky. “Not even the stars will last forever. I know you two feel something for one another, and it would do me a world of good to see something nice and decent come from all this uranium nonsense. All I ask is that you think about it, alright? Just think about it, before it’s too late.”
Goodman stood and walked forward, past the number one turret and on to the foredeck, and two ratings walked along behind him – just in case – then Roosevelt turned to Claire. “No time like the present, I always say,” the president whispered. “Roy, I feel I’ve had enough of this air for now. You’d better get me inside.”
She turned away as Roosevelt struggled back into his wheelchair, but she watched his men wrestle his chair inside before turning to look at Goodman. He was leaning on a rail up forward, still looking up at the stars, and she looked at him for the longest while, then she turned and walked aft, back to her cabin.
She had expected Tehran to be unbearably hot, yet the city was pleasantly cool, almost cold at night. She was with Roosevelt’s party, staying at the Soviet embassy, and while Goodman’s room was next to her’s she did not see him once after they settled-in at the embassy. Roosevelt’s intrusion had rattled her, and she neither needed or wanted some sort of presidential imprimatur attached to any relationship she might have – even if that’s what she called this nascent thing between them.
They’d seen each other, from a distance, anyway, while still on the Iowa, even after one of the escorting destroyers accidentally launched a torpedo at the battleship, but Roosevelt didn’t summon her again. Perhaps Goodman had relayed what had happened, perhaps not, but the evening had unsettled her. Had it him, too?
And why had she gone back to her cabin? Why had she left him alone up there? What had she felt for him before? Friendship? Or had there been something more? Something beyond gratitude, that he had taken care of her at Georgetown when her “walking pneumonia” very nearly took her out? What of those long walks in the piñon out on the west side of Los Alamos? When they’d talked about California versus Maryland, of perhaps getting married and starting a family.
Yet she’d never once seen the slightest hint of love in his eyes. Empathy? Yes. Compassion? Again, yes. But love for her? Not in the slightest. Yet the first time she saw him around young men, good looking young men, his eyes sparkled – with pure, unbridled lust – and that had settled the matter. Still, she had to admit that lust had never been a powerful draw for her. She’d never had sex, not once, and she’d told herself more than once that if she went through life without experiencing lust that wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen.
And she almost believed that, too.
On one of their last walks together in New Mexico she’d asked him about that. About what he felt when he saw attractive young men. “I don’t know,” he’d replied hesitantly, his eyes looking away, his shame apparent. “Why do you ask?”
“Because you seem so full of desire.”
“What do you mean, ‘I do?’ Are you telling me you aren’t homosexual?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I might be…”
“You mean you’ve never…?”
“Good God, no!”
“But you’re attracted to men, right?”
“I don’t know,” he’d said with a sigh. “I suppose it’s possible.”
Yet as hard as she tried to believe him, she knew he was lying. She knew this was so because she could see deceit in his eyes when he spoke just then, something she’d never expected to see from him. So, when he’d walked away from Roosevelt that night on deck, he’d walked away from her too. From any idea of a future together.
Yet there was something about him that attracted her still. His empathic soul, perhaps. His ability to see into people, to understand them. Yes, it was simply ironic that he couldn’t see into his own soul, or that he was willing to walk away from what he saw about himself, but that only made his tragic flaw that much more intriguing.
So, she’d thought about him that first night in Tehran. She wondered if he might indeed be a good father, a good partner for the rest of their lives. Could she ignore his lustful impulses, contain them enough to keep him from destroying their lives? Would it be worthwhile to even live like that? Would she want the central equation of their lives reduced to an ongoing series of evasions?
Yet the very next day, while walking to the British embassy, she’d felt a young man fall in beside her…
“Dr. Aubuchon?” the man asked.
“My name is Trevor. Trevor Goldberg. I’m with the British delegation.”
“If you have some time after the next session, I’d like to talk with you, if I could.”
“Indeed. And why would I do that?”
“I’ve asked my minister to have a word with Secretary Hull; he’ll vouch for my status.”
“Alright, Mr Goldberg.”
“It’s doctor, if you don’t mind.”
“Ah. Your field, Dr. Goldberg?”
“I’ll explain later,” the man said, but he veered off and joined another group, and she watched him as they walked away, lost inside a peculiar thought.
She’d seen him before.
On that ship. On that ship, the ship looking out on Saturn’s rings.