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Neil Kelly

My wife and I are traveling in Asia, and while in Japan she suggests we make a day trip to Hiroshima. I figure seeing the world's first atomic bomb target will provide me insights to share with my students at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. My wife, who teaches kindergarten, spends the high-speed train ride thumbing through the Lonely Planet guidebook while I absorb the rustic scenery and read newspaper articles about President Bush's plan to attack Iraq.

After two hours we arrive. We're in Hiroshima. The first thing we do is grab lunch right in the train station; we munch Big Macs next to a Japanese family whose two small girls eat Happy Meals while the sound system plays a song by Destiny's Child. After lunch, we visit a tourist office that features a cartoon-illustrated map of Hiroshima posted beneath a picture of a smiling orange-red sun. We locate the stop for the tram that will take us to the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

Outside in this city of more than a million people, there's a bright blue sky. For some reason I pictured Hiroshima in black and white, but I see little of those colors. I thought there would be something strange about the air here, and there is. Unlike in other Asian cities, I don't smell engine exhaust, but instead detect a hint of the nearby ocean. We board a tram and sit across from a Japanese woman who seems to appraise us, perhaps assuming what interests us about her city. Last January when I was visiting Manhattan, a New Yorker snidely said, "Are you here to see Ground Zero?" I had considered visiting the disaster site, but instead I made my first-ever visit to the top of the Empire State Building. On that bright day I saw the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the void on the skyline left by the collapse of the World Trade Center, where one of my former students was killed.

We travel along a vibrant thoroughfare while a recorded voice announces all the tram stops in Japanese, except for the one called "Atomic Bomb Dome." Before August 6, 1945, a domed stone building served as Hiroshima's municipal promotion center. Now, the ruin is a memorial that a plaque says will be preserved "forever." The trees surrounding the dome are full-grown, but not old, and provide welcome shade for my Irish skin. The dozens of other visitors to the Atomic Bomb Dome are Japanese who converse quietly. For some reason I expected Hiroshima to have a certain sound, perhaps a strange metallic echo, but all I hear is distant, rhythmic music. Later I will learn its source - a performance by a Japanese rock band called Godbreath.

My wife wanders off to take photographs, and I walk around the ruined dome. A plaque along the fence says the dome was designated a World Historical Sight on December 7, 1996. I wonder who chose the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which is some folks' justification for the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Hey," this argument goes, "they started it." The plaque is draped with chains of brightly colored origami cranes made by children to honor a twelve-year-old girl who died from radiation-induced leukemia. Up on the base of the dome, a real crane gazes at the sparkling Motoyasu River. My wife joins me. We cross a bridge where a guitarist plays the John Lennon song that imagines a world without dogma, greed, and militarism.

In the center of the Peace Park, a stone canopy covers the names of the victims of the bomb. Here a flame burns constantly, but a sign explains that it is not an eternal flame. It will be extinguished when the world is free of nuclear weapons. Nearby, atop a flagpole, the banner of the rising suns flaps in the hot breeze. Now I hear a sound I might have associated with Hiroshima - a shrill, buzzing noise emanating from the trees. I recall a haiku: Nothing in the voice/ Of the cicada/ Intimates how soon it will die.

Near a fountain where a sparrow bathes, two small boys chase pigeons. A statue of a Shinto goddess is, a recorded message explains, "a shrine offered to the children who would have had promising futures if there was no war." Later, my wife will tell me that in the park she felt especially safe - as if no evil would come to her in that space devoted to peace. I, too, felt secure there, but only because of that adage about where lightning never strikes twice.

During World War II, the United States used atomic bombs to force Japan's immediate surrender and minimize further American casualties. Additionally, the U.S. wanted to establish postwar dominance over the Soviet Union, and to assess the effect of the weapon in an actual attack. Hiroshima was selected as the first target for several reasons. The city was home to troop concentrations, was an important transportation hub and industrial center, and featured flat topography that lent itself to maximum destruction - it had no big hills to absorb the impact of the blast. Unlike most Japanese cities, Hiroshima had not been bombed earlier, so its pristine condition made it the perfect location for assessing the impact of the new weapon. The hypocenter of the blast was initially supposed to be above a Mitsubishi shipyard, but that was covered by clouds, so the B-29 named Enola Gay circled over a Mitsubishi factory instead. According to the Lonely Planet, the bombardier probably aimed at a T-shaped bridge over the Motoyasu River, and came close to hitting it. On the morning of August 6, 1945, thousands of citizens of Hiroshima were outside, having been mobilized to demolish buildings that were fire hazards. Many of these workers were school children. At 8:15 local time, the atomic bomb exploded. As a result of the blast, heat, and radiation, eighty thousand people died.

Inside the modern and spacious Peace Memorial Museum, there are photographs of Hiroshima before and after the bomb. A ten-by-ten-foot scale model of the city has an orange-red ball suspended above to indicate the point of detonation. A second scale model details the city after the bomb, and this exhibit thrills two Japanese boys. Devastation can fascinate. Weeks earlier in Thailand I taught an English lesson to fifth graders, and out of the blue a bright-eyed boy asked me about the collapse of the Twin Towers. When I was a boy, I thought it would be fun to strafe targets from a World War II aircraft such as the Lockheed Lightning or the Mitsubishi Zero.

Other museum exhibits include a video simulating the flight of the Enola Gay, and a replica of its payload, a bomb about twelve feet long called "Little Boy." Artifacts from August 6, 1945 include children's charred school uniforms and a wristwatch stopped at 8:15. At that moment a person was sitting on the steps in front of a bank, and an exhibit shows his shadow on the building's bleached stone. A diorama portrays wax figures of bomb victims walking through smoldering ruins as their skin sags from their limbs.

After an hour in the Peace Memorial Museum, we head toward the exit, stopping before a plaque inscribed, That autumn/In Hiroshima where it was said/'For seventy-five years nothing will grow'/New buds sprouted/In the green that came back to life/Among the charred ruins/People recovered/Their living hopes and courage. As I read this, a Japanese toddler races past me, pursued by his parents. The back of his tee shirt says "New York Giants."

We walk out into the sunshine of the Peace Park, wondering what to do next. We haven't seen the exact spot below where the atomic bomb exploded - and we never do see it. Instead, we head back to a small town near Osaka, where we join friends at an annual festival. That night, while we enjoy a performance by traditional dancers and a supper of spicy noodles and cold beer, I ponder what I'll tell my students about my day trip. It's not complicated. I'll tell them that Hiroshima is a nice place to visit - and, for all I know, to live.


Neil Kelly was born in Chicago and has lived most of his life in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He has traveled in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and he enjoys writing about his sundry safaris. A high school teacher with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in English, he often teaches courses in philosophy and comparative religion.

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