From Trap Door #7, edited by Robert Lichtman. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Imagine, if you will, a man. Let's call him "Ralph." (I have a cousin named Ralph, but this is another guy.) Ralph is about my age (40), a little paunchy, and losing his hair. He likes baseball and beer. Ralph works in a factory, and has to be there pretty early, too, so he's usually up before dawn. His wife gets up, too, to fix him breakfast. However, his teenaged daughter, Sara, won't be up for hours yet. Ralph has two kids, the aforementioned Sara, and Bill, who is a pilot in the Air Force.
Being a typical American, Ralph eats a typical American breakfast--bacon, eggs, toast, the works. Pat, his wife, just has a cup of coffee and a Stella Dora Diet Bar. She's watching her weight.
They talk a little bit. Nothing very important, just the usual chit-chat that goes down between two people who've been living together for years and years. They talk about their bills, the crab grass in the lawn, how the neighborhood seems to be going downhill,and so forth.
With breakfast finished, Ralph gets up, kisses Pat good-bye. He gets in his car, starts the engine, turns on the radio (he's partial to country music), and off he goes. As he pulls onto the highway, he thinks he's going to work but, unknown to him, Ralph has gotten into the fast lane to The Cracked Eye Zone (da, dum dum, da da, dum dum...).
Ralph arrives at the Plant and is waved past the protestors by the police. There's only a handful of them there today, but they're there every day. Ralph considers the protestors silly and deluded jerks, the product of too much education and Commie propaganda. Every day a few liberal media stars join the protestors for the sole purpose of getting arrested, so they can get publicity. Ralph considers the whole business disgusting.
Ralph is stopped by a guard at the front gate. He shows the guard his I.D. and is allowed to pass. There's a large mirror in the guard shack in which Ralph can see a reflection of himself and his car.
Ralph is inside the Plant now and heading for his division. He hitches a ride with a lift truck operator who's going his way. They talk about last night's game on TV and swap a few jokes about the protestors outside.
The Plant looks like factories all look, lots of big machines all over the place making a godawful racket. I forget who it was, but it might have been the poet Robert Burns who said that a visit to a factory was instructive, because it showed us what Hell was like. The only thing that sets the Plant apart from most others is that there are mirrors all over the place. Mirrors and lots of TV cameras. Security is really tight in the Plant, due to the very, very sensitive nature of the work done here.
Ralph, for instance, is the supervisor of a department that makes a particular component for "triggering devices." Neither Ralph nor anyone else in the Plant has ever seen a triggering device; they are, in any event, put together in another factory somewhere else. Ralph couldn't even assemble one if he had all the parts put in front of him; but then, that's not his job. Anywhere else in the world, this lack of information could be construed as ignorance, but inside the Plant it's called "security."
The morning goes by swiftly. His workers are an efficient crew. They do their jobs quickly and well. There is surprisingly little automation in this factory, mostly where the radioactive stuff is handled. Most of the assembly is done by hand. Every time there's a test, Ralph takes quiet pride in the knowledge that the bomb was built mostly by hand and that some things in America are still made the good old-fashioned way.
At noon, Ralph has lunch in the Supervisors' Cafeteria. There is one for the assembly line workers, one for the office workers, and one for the supervisors. Presumably, the management eats, too, but nobody's ever seen them do it. Ralph has never wondered why the cafeterias and only the cafeterias are separated along class lines like this (I'm afraid he's not a very reflective person, is he?). Everybody uses the same rest rooms, after all, except for the traditional sexual distinctions--again, except for the management. No one's ever seen them pee, either. It's a question even the Cracked Eye has no answer for, except to fall back upon the old adage, "You are where you eat."
Ralph has a buddy he usually eats with. We'll call him Ed (in honor of Edward Teller, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb). Ed works in another part of the Plant. Ralph doesn't know what Ed does, and Ed, of course, doesn't talk about it. Nobody talks about their work. They talk about baseball, TV, the weather, stuff like that. Ed often asks Ralph about his daughter, Sara. Ralph sees nothing unusual about this; he likes to talk about his kids.
Ralph thinks Ed is a great kidder, too. Ralph once complained about how high his car payments were, and Ed jokingly offered to set fire to it, so Ralph could collect the insurance. Maybe that doesn't sound so funny to you, but Ralph thought it was a stitch. I guess you had to be there.
Several hours later, Ralph's work day comes to a close. He punches out at the time clock, goes out to his car, gets in, and he's gone. Well, not quite, because it's rush hour and quite a number of others are leaving the Plant as well. So Ralph takes his place in the narrow stream of cars that moves sluggishly through the front gate, then fans out into a broader, faster-moving current on the other side.
Ralph again stops at the front gate and again watches himself in the guardhouse mirror while the guard fusses with his I.D. Then he pulls out into the street and heads for home. The protestors are gone, but they'll be back tomorrow, and so will Ralph. On the way, he drives past a large, makeshift sign that the protestors have put up. It reads: "ONE ATOMIC BOMB CAN SPOIL YOUR WHOLE DAY." This makes very little impression on Ralph. In fact, he's had a pretty good day.
All of the foregoing proceeds from a chain of thought that started a few weeks ago when I sat down to breakfast and turned on the radio to catch the morning news. There was a story on how they were having trouble with the people working in our nation's atom bomb factories; it seems that there are some people getting on the nuclear payroll who shouldn't.
Wow! What a heavy concept to have with the corn flakes. Atom bomb factories? I had no idea they made those things in factories. No, really, I didn't. I mean, cars are made in factories. My parents (both of them) worked in a factory. Even I worked in one for a while. But it's hard for me to associate anything as glamorous and science-fictiony as A-bombs with factories.
I must be suffering from a sort of mental time-warp, because I was still thinking of these things as being made by the Manhattan Project--you know, Oppie and the gang. I can see them now, working away like crazy to develop the Bomb before the Germans, or the Russians, or the Iranians, or the Patagonians (or whomever we happen to be pissed at by the time you read this article). But I guess that's pretty silly, because there are zillions of bombs in the world today and more coming off the assembly line all the time. There's more than a small, dedicated group of scientists could produce in a lifetime. They'd be pretty worn out by now if they tried.
It appears that most of my thinking about the Bomb can aptly be described as fantasy. I see images of Walt Disney shows about genies out of bottles and Roger Corman flicks with irradiated cucumbers trying to devour dreary heroines who are invariably named Lee or Pat. And I also see my favorite superhero from the 1950s, Captain Flash.
Captain Flash was not what you'd call a big name superhero. He never attained the stature of Superman or the Flaming Carrot, for example, but he was pretty good for his time, which was the mid-Fifties. He wore this snappy red, white and blue outfit that was all one piece and covered him from head to toe. He also wore dark goggles and these little bowl-shaped jobbie-dos over his ears. I'm not sure what they were for. They must have made his ears awfully hot. (This may seem like a digression from our main topic, but stay with me. There is a connection.)
Captain Flash got his name from a habit he had of clapping his hands. You see, every time he did this (clap) there would be a loud noise (usually a BARROOM, but sometimes BLAM, or BAM) and a flash of light. He usually did this when he wanted to change clothes. It worked something like this: Captain Flash is walking along the street wearing his street clothes. Suddenly, he hears a cry for help. He looks up and sees a beautiful girl struggling against a slimy monster on a nearby roof top. He says, "This is a job for Captain Flash." He smacks his hands together (BLAM), there's a blinding flash, his street clothes fly to shreds, and he stands revealed in his super-underwear. Presumably he bought cheap suits.
Captain Flash worked for the Atomic Research Center, a government agency, where he was employed as a research scientist before he got his super powers. The A.R.C. was more like the kind of place I imagined A-bombs were made, with scientists in long lab coats laboring away in perfectly square rooms full of Jack Kirby-esque machinery behind doors labeled "TOP SECRET."
Anyway, Captain Flash was one of those scientists back when his name was merely John Doe, or Lamont Cranston, or whatever his name was (I don't remember now; it was a long time ago). But one day he was accidentally exposed to radioactivity. As a result, they fired him. Couldn't have careless people working for the A.R.C., after all, so they sent him packing.
He went into seclusion on the family farm, where he confidently expected to waste away and die. But he didn't. His nose didn't even fall off. His hair turned blue, but everyone in comics has blue hair. In fact, instead of being sick from the radiation, he felt stronger than he ever had before. (In real life, of course, this never happens.) But he was still despondent about losing his job.
One day, while he was out walking around the north 40 and brooding about life, he kicked an old tree stump; it promptly disappeared in a flash of light. This was unusual, to say the least, but after experimenting with a few other stumps, he came to the conclusion that the dose of X-rays he'd been exposed to gave him the power to convert matter into energy merely by stomping on it. (Again, in real life all radiation does is give you the power to catch degenerative bone diseases.)
With great power comes great responsibility, so our hero vows to use his great power for the good of humanity. He offers his services to the FBI--not what you or I would do, probably, given the same circumstances, but back then it seemed like the right thing to do.
Well, anyway, the FBI takes him on, gives him a fancy suit, and dubs him "Captain Flash." Captain was an honorary rank given to older superheroes (e.g., Captain America, Captain Huey) and it signified to the readers that he was mature--in his thirties. I think in real life you have to be in your forties before you can be a captain, but in the comics by that age most superheroes were either dead or in retirement ("Ah'm hangin' muh tights up in thuh closet, Johnny Storm, an' that's where they're gonna stay!"). Really young superheroes were, of course, called "Kid" or something, and if he were over 21, he be called "man," like "Bulletman" or "Mighty Man." It's good to know these things... Since he was a scientist in his former life, it's surprising they didn't call him "Doctor Flash." Maybe he never got his degree.
The FBI decides to put Captain Flash to use ferreting out Commie infiltrators who are trying to steal our atomic secrets. So they give him a new name (I don't remember what...something), and disguise his appearance by changing his hair from blond to blue. They sent him back to his old job at the A.R.C. where he went merrily to work turning subversives into high energy particles.
Presumably his fellow scientists and former colleagues accepted the situation without interest and never saw through his wig. Pretty far-fetched, you might think, but then these guys never stopped to consider the ethical consequences of their jobs, either.
For every superhero there's a supervillain: For every Superman there's a Luthor, for every Fantastic Four a Doctor Doom. Captain Flash had the Mirror Monster. The Mirror Monster, however, was something truly different in the annals of supervillainy. He--or more properly, it--was a gigantic, squid-like critter from another dimension (clearly a far cry from your average psycho in a red rubber skull mask) who could get into our dimension through mirrors like a cephalopodic Alice. Since it was so big, though, it couldn't get its whole body through the mirror, only a tentacle or two. But, Jesus, that was enough! I could take most comic book characters in stride. What the heck, even at a tender age I doubted that vampires or ghouls really existed. But this goober really gave me the willies...because mirrors were real, and I could see that there was another world inside of them.
Besides being really creepy, the Mirror Monster was also a Commie agent. (I will not insult your intelligence by belaboring the obvious metaphor.) M.M.'s mode of operation went something like this: say you're a highly trained, brilliant, loyal American scientist with absolutely no thought of ever doing anything disloyal. But let's say that it's morning and you're in the bathroom. You're getting ready for work, shaving. Suddenly, the Mirror Monster's tentacles come out of the mirror and wrap around your head. Now, if M.M. is feeling mean this morning, he'll just strangle you and that's that. But if he thinks you're liable to subversion, he'll force his tentacles inside your head and take over your mind.
And thus, once loyal atomic scientists become pawns for the Red Menace. Pretty scary, huh?
Well, think of the dilemma this posed for Captain Flash. Here were all these atomic scientists either dropping dead or turning into traitors. As a government sponsored superhero, his job was to keep this sort of thing from happening, but he couldn't just go around stomping on people because they were deluded. (He could nowadays, of course, but in the Fifties, superheroes still had a sense of fair play.) Nor could he get to the source of the problem (M.M. himself), because, strictly speaking, M.M. didn't exist (he was only visiting).
It was quite a problem. And I'm not sure that he ever solved it, either. I followed the doings of Captain Flash and his ongoing struggle with the Mirror Monster for several months. Then, in a climactic episode, a couple of M.M.'s brainwashed zombies overpowered the Captain and locked him in a room...a room full of--mirrors!
I never saw another issue of Captain Flash comics. I don't know what happened to it. Maybe the distributor dropped it. Or maybe the publisher dropped it. Maybe the artist or the writer quit. All I do know is that Captain Flash has never been heard from since.
I have a theory, of course. I think what happened is this: the Mirror Monster got to Captain Flash. Maybe M.M. killed him, or maybe just took over the Captain's mind, but he got him. In fact, M.M. got everybody at the Atomic Research Center. M.M. got all the atomic scientists in Russia, too. Because, you see, the Mirror Monster wasn't really working for the Commies; he was working for himself.
Think about it. It stands to reason that the production of atomic weapons is out of human control. Oppie and the boys only built two or three of the things. It was the best they could do--even by staying up all night. But now there are zillions of them and more coming off the production lines all the time. Does that make sense? Even if we have a war, neither we nor the Russians will need to use even a fraction of all those bombs to destroy each other. And consider this: every large A-bomb stockpile in the country is located on a major faultline. Does that make sense?
Can all of this be explained by ideology, national defense, patriotism, survival, or just plain blind aggression? All of these things enter into the equation, of course. Oppie and the boys were patriotic but no ideologues. Ralph thinks that what he does is good for the national defense. He hates the Commies, but he doesn't want a war. After all, he has a son in the Air Force. Actually, making bombs is just his job.
That's probably as good an explanation as any; it's just his job. It's just a job for hundreds of Americans. And over in Russia it's just a job for hundreds of Russians. Making bombs has become an end in itself, irrespective of whether or not we'd need them in a war. In fact, we've had plenty of wars in my lifetime alone, but so far we've managed to avoid using even one of these zillions of A-bombs stacked up there on those geologic faults (with the exception of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of course).
We don't need all those A-bombs. So who does? Why, the Mirror Monster, of course. He's the one running the show. He's got everyone mesmerized. he wants us to make more A-bombs, and more, and more. As many as we can and as fast as we can. This may seem crazy to us, but it may make sense to someone with an alien psychology, like the Mirror Monster.
Or... Maybe M.M. has an ulterior motive for having us make all these bombs; one that is chillingly easy to understand. Maybe M.M. is tired of just sticking his pinkies into our dimension. Maybe he wants to haul his whole body over. To do that he'd need a massive rip in the time-space continuum. A rip so massive that it could only be made by the combined energy of a zillion atomic bombs exploding at once.
No...wait! This is Roger Corman stuff. Here we are discussing a serious social, moral and political problem and I'm talking mutated cucumbers. If only the problem were that glamorous and that simple. But it's not; it's prosaic and complicated. Bomb-making has become a part of our life style and a key element of our economy. Even if we could stop making them, what would happen to guys like Ralph? He's been working in trigger assembly for 25 years now. What if he were suddenly out of a job?
Speaking of jobs, remember how I said earlier that this whole chain of thought started from a story on the radio about how they were having trouble with some of the people working in the bomb plants. I got distracted then and didn't mention what the trouble was then, but I will now.
It seems that for years and years they've been hiring people to work in these places, but despite all the guards and mirrors and other trappings of high security, they haven't really been checking these people out; they haven't been checking their past records. As a result, some pretty sleazy characters have found their way into some pretty sensitive jobs.
The story mentioned the case of one character in particular, a supervisor in a high security area, who had been convicted of raping a teenaged girl and committing arson for a fee. And this guy was making decisions that could affect all our lives.
I hope they've canned him by now. But you never know; maybe they promoted him. When you think about it, rape and arson are pretty good qualifications for being in the bomb business. At least I'm sure the Mirror Monster would think so.
In relating the above story, the radio did not mention what this guy's name was. But I think we know who he is. We've met him. Let's call him Ed.