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September 16, 2014
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A memory of James


“Maybe a Root Cellar?” said the note tucked into a book—one in a pile destined to get the heave ho. My husband John had been sorting through his books during spring break, adding to the heap of the kids’ outgrown winter clothes (and a few sacrificial stuffed animals) headed for the Salvation Army.

Really? Was John’s suggestion that this would make a good “column topic” (something of which I am always in quest) for real? What could I write?

The book, entitled “The Language of Nuclear War,” written by three Dartmouth students, Eric Semler, James Benjamin and Adam Gross (Harper &Row, 1987), is a Reagan era “dictionary” of nuclear weapons terminology including entries for weapons, strategies, slang, culture and history.

I flipped through the book with the thought that “Dr. Strangelove” is still alive and well in 2013. Especially in recent weeks, as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has directed menacing rhetoric against South Korea and the United States creating a diplomatic quandary.

As has been often reported of late, only a handful of countries have nuclear weapons. Others, such as North Korea and Iran, are said to be actively developing nuclear weapons.

And still, despite policies of non-proliferation as well as efforts to reduce Cold War arsenals, the world is littered with thousands of warheads. (As of December 2012, the U.S. was estimated to have a total of 7,650 warheads with 2,150 of those operational. The rest are in storage or awaiting dismantlement. Russia is estimated to have 8,420 total, with 1,720 operational, according to the Federation of American Scientists.)

The nuclear dictionary offers an obscene look at how language is twisted—indeed mutated—in the nuclear lexicon. In some ways this mutation can be scarier than any X-rated movie. For instance, the “Peacekeeper Missile” (the grim nickname of the MX missile) is a prime example.

And, it is interesting to see how nuclear terms have entered colloquial speech such as the phrase “nuclear winter” which was coined in 1983 to describe the possible aftermath of a nuclear war and has become the setting for a lot of dystopian fiction and movies. Another is the term “ground zero,” now used in reference to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001.

And, it is strange how memory works—how it sharpens to an idiosyncratic point and floods back with images. The book brought me back to second or third grade, when I was standing next to the radiator in my classroom with James Wormuth. Our marigolds in milk carton planters were on the window sill. He had a library book or encyclopedia and was showing anyone who would look a photo of a mushroom cloud. “It’s pretty,” I absently said. “That’s not pretty, that’s an atom bomb,” he retorted.

James will always be remembered as the boy in my class who was struck by lightning and died in the summer of his 14th year. I have also always remembered him for setting me straight on the atom bomb.