Life on the road starts at the next exit
“The single, blinding release of pure energy over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, marked a startling and permanent break with our prior understandings of the visible world,” began a story by David Samuels in the Dec. 15 edition of The New Yorker. Titled “Atomic John,” it told of the man who, a half century after the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has published the most accurate to-date account of how those bombs were put together. Atom Bombs is the title of the book (available on Amazon.com; see “Drive Into History,” p. 40).
Though its contents have officially been top secret since the bombs were developed, the author built his story on publicly available information, analyzing photographs, interviewing scientists and former airmen and doing his own calculations to join the “small and shrinking number of people who engage in painstaking, firsthand research,” Samuels wrote, “in order to separate the truth from the body of supposed facts” – with the ultimate effect, Samuels added, of keeping “the rest of us honest.”
John Coster-Mullen, a professional photographer turned truck driver and author based near Milwaukee, Wis., has been 15 years at work on the book. He’s built an accurate replica of the Little Boy bomb, which today sits in the museum in the operations office of soon-to-be-restored Wendover Airfield in Utah, and says that, at least in part, his second career has enabled his scholarly work. “When I was a road driver, cross-country,” he says of his first two years with J.B. Hunt, with whom he’s spent the last 12, “if I knew roughly where I was going to be I could call people up in advance and set up meetings.” Along the way he met with scientists who’d worked on the Manhattan Project and became friendly with airmen who’d flown on the missions above Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When he shifted to a Midwest regional dedicated account two years into his tenure with Hunt, he found himself with regular hours at home to spend working on his research. Reading his story, I was struck not only by its unlikely nature but by its ultimately representative aspect. Coster-Mullen stands as a perhaps extreme example of the reality of so many lives in work, where one’s principal passion lies outside the bounds of one’s livelihood.
The truck-driving profession has been noted as one akin to a veritable calling, its practitioners carrying a degree of common cultural interests and concerns significantly greater than those in other employment. Drivers bring the work home, in other words, and take home out on the road. But from where I sit, while that sentiment is on some level true for all of us, it’s more valid to say that truck driving, like most professions, is a means to an end. Whether that end is a happy family, a custom chopper built on the weekends, success in cage fighting or country music (or rock or hip-hop, for that matter) or getting to the end of the road in ever-evolving research toward telling the story of the first atomic bombs, real life on the highway has perhaps less to do with what’s going on at 70 mph behind the wheel than with where the attention is that last hour or two of the day at the desk in the sleeper.
That will be the concern of this column in issues to come. And so I want to know, ultimately: Where’s your attention? What’s your story?
Annals of Possibility When former Teamsters president Ron Carey passed away in December, I was struck by the differing trajectories of two men whose beginnings closely resembled each other. UPS driver Carey rose to the position of Shop Steward in his Queens, N.Y., local in 1956 looking to improve member services (a decade later he’d become secretary and then president of the local). That same year, Jim Harper of Minneapolis began his course toward events that would put him in the crosshairs of then union president Jimmy Hoffa. Harper’s story was chronicled in the 2007 book Crossing Hoffa: A Teamster’s Story, featured in these pages last July and which has since taken honors at New England, London, Hollywood and New York book festivals. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who noticed the similarities between Carey and Harper’s early lives. “I was thinking about my dad when I read of Carey’s passing,” Crossing Hoffa author Steven Harper told me. “Ironically enough, if their situations had been reversed – and Hoffa Sr. had not had his own reasons for wanting to silence my dad in Minneapolis from 1959 to 1961 – it seems plausible, maybe even likely, that my father would have followed a career path similar to Carey’s