top of page

Living under a cloud

Having learned a few years ago that my father worked on and witnessed atomic bomb tests on Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the mid-1950’s, my appreciation has grown for the precarious world I was born into.

I came of age in the era of ‘duck and cover’. I felt envious of my friends who had bomb shelters. My most vivid childhood nightmares were of Russians, pointing guns at me in my nearby park. I knew my dad worked at a lab in Livermore when I was little—he called it LRL, or sometimes the rad lab—before going to work at the Stanford Linear Accelerator. I was pretty clueless about the implications of all that. Even though more than one science teacher was excited to learn where he worked so my class could go see the atom smasher. Even though, on a family trip to Washington DC, he made a point of taking us to the Smithsonian exhibit about a Livermore Lab project he once worked on. I thought it was cool that he worked on science experiments. You’d think I’d have been more inquisitive long before this.

A few weeks after learning about Dad’s work on cold war bomb testing, I happened to be road-tripping near Hanford, Washington, site of Reactor B, the huge facility that churned out the plutonium for the ‘Fat Man’ bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. It's now considered cleaned-up enough for the public—tours are managed by the park service as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The place is a feat of determination and engineering, a scientific triumph, belying a terrible purpose.

I’ve been working to process all of this chilling information ever since.

Now I’m giving expression to those nightmares. Part of my work considers the onset of the atomic age from all sides: the science, the wartime fear, the geopolitics, the terrifying bloodshed. I’ve pored over documentation of the slaughter visited on Japanese humanity. I’ve taken a deep dive into the physics history. Now Niels Bohr is my hero: he’s the Nobel laureate physicist who uncovered the structure of the atom, then exhorted the world to avoid an arms race. They didn't listen to him.

Hibakusha is the word for victims of our atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. With the greatest respect for the term, for the tragedy it signifies, I’ve given that title to a current work. A shirt, a sort of Memento Mori, set in stone. A moment in time captured, like a Vesuvius plaster figure. Skin peeling, exposing his humanity, blood and tears evaporating in a blinding instant.

I would not presume to put myself in a category with Anselm Kiefer of Germany, who has dedicated his work to waging a war on forgetting, calling up the horrors of his country’s Nazi past. But his long-time commitment to his message has influenced my own, instilled belief in the opportunity to express dread, a never-again message, a still-present danger.

Mitsugi Moriguchi was eight when the plutonium bomb exploded over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945. In March, 2018, he visited the Hanford site, apparently the first hibakusha to do so. He listened, he learned, he tried to understand. And he expressed his shock that nothing is said in the story of Hanford about the suffering. “I felt that eyes were closed to this part of it.”

With some world leaders dangling atomic threats about, with arms control treaties being abandoned, with a new arms race in the offing, are our eyes closed too? What are we doing to ensure: never again? Stuff of nighmares, right?

Image credits: top photo: Redwing Cloud, Hardtack video, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (There are almost 500 LLRL declassified atmospheric nuclear test videos here:

Su Cummings: Hibakusha, 2019. Mixed media: concrete, cotton fabric, acrylic, graphite. 36” x 22” x 4.5"

© 2019 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

Receive future essays

Search by tags
My other sites
  • instagram
bottom of page