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My Brush with Greatness


My brush with greatness came a half century ago during my military service as an Electronic
Technician in the United States Navy. Just before graduation from the Navy’s E.T. school
I requested “Foreign Duty” and “Submarine Duty”, and was sent to Guided Missile Unit Ten
(GMU-10), Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor.

GMU-10 was the land facility on SubBase that maintained the airframe, electronic, and nuclear
components for the Regulus 1 missile, a subsonic missile with a nuclear warhead, somewhat like
todays cruise missiles, but without the super-accurate GPS guidance system used now.

At GMU-10 I worked on one of these older guidance systems, and became interested in the history
of development of nuclear weapons. Reading mostly from the Submarine Base Library near our barracks,
I learned of the development of the first nuclear weapons, led by Robert Oppenheimer, often called the
father of the atomic bomb. 

The two types of nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atomic bombs, but the
Regulus missile carried a hydrogen bomb, or thermonuclear bomb, using an atomic bomb for a trigger mechanism.

During the early 1960s, one of the hottest periods of the Cold War, atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons
were still being performed, and in 1962, in a test named Starfish Prime, a hydrogen bomb was detonated
at an altitude of 250 miles. The time and direction of the test was openly publicized, and I witnessed the
burst from the southwest side of the island of Oahu, near Waianae, about twenty-five miles from Pearl Harbor.

The 11pm burst was above Johnston Island, about 700 miles west of Oahu, on July the 9th. The light display
was spectacular, and frighteningly powerful, starting with a brilliant white flash, and finally fading to the
deepest purple about an hour later. This was the first test that showed the severe and widespread damage
that HEMP, or High Altitude Electro- Magnetic Pulses can cause, in electrical and electronic components and wiring.

A week or so later—the precise time is hazy in memory—I went to attend services at a small Baptist church
near Waianae. I arrived early. The time for Sunday School was listed as starting at 10:30am, but we were on
“Hawaiian Time”, an informal yet widely accepted custom that any non-commercial business would start
about an hour after the duly prescribed and appointed time. I walked up to the driveway entrance.

Waiting at the entrance to the driveway of the church, sitting on the stone fence was a man I guessed to
be near the age of sixty—a young person almost always overestimates the age of someone significantly older.

We nodded to each other in silent recognition. The man looked familiar, hauntingly so, and we moved to
sit closer. He moved carefully, slowly, with a halting gait.

After a short opening greeting and exchange of pleasantries, he started talking, asking what my name was,
where I was from, and what my work was. I told him, briefly, and mentioned where I was stationed.

Details of my job were secret, but it was no secret that I was stationed at a Guided Missile Unit—our uniform
shoulder patches boldly stated “Guided Missile Unit Ten”). At the mention of my duty station, and my work
with the Regulus missile, he turned and asked me: “Then you know who I am, don’t you?” I said that
“Yes, I think I do”, but my embarrassment was sufficient to prevent me from speaking his name, in spite of
my recognition of that famous head, with those dark as night, magnificent black eyebrows, large and thick
and alive like two fuzzy black caterpillars perched above his eyes.

He then spoke: “I’m Edward Teller”, confirming my suspicions. At this, he grew silent for a moment,
and my awe, confirmed by his admission, was monumental. Here before me, speaking to a third class
petty officer in the U.S. Navy, a Southern Baptist boy from Oklahoma, was Edward Teller, a Hungarian Jew,
the father of the hydrogen bomb! I was nearly dumbstruck with the realization of who I was talking with,
and my contribution to the conversation after this was very little, next to nothing.

He seemed to sense this, and graciously filled in the conversation with small talk, probably aware that
to some mortals such as me, his name, at least his presence, was overwhelming.

Years ago, a scant few before his death, I emailed him, but predictably, I received no reply, not even a
confirmation that he had been in Hawaii for the Starfish Prime test. But when I remember our chance
meeting fifty years ago, I recall those black, bushy eyebrows, and the sincerity and gentleness of his voice,
and couple that with the beautiful, frightening image of the Starfish Prime blast. 


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