High-culture sailing… I mean, trucking

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Updated Dec 14, 2009

It’s not often truck drivers and truck driving show up in the New Yorker, a magazine associated most often with upscale urban types and lonely fiction writers. Until recently, the last time to my recollection was writer John McPhee’s ride with tank-hauling owner-operator Don Ainsworth, published in February 2003, which later was included in McPhee’s great book about various transport modes and the people who run them, Uncommon Carriers.

But in this week’s issue, whose cover features an illustration of President Obama’s visage adorned with a powder wig much like that on George Washington’s on the dollar bill, writer Ben McGrath takes on the subject of our country’s community of dystopian thinkers, who see the American experiment on its way down the tubes, some so convinced that, like Russian-born software engineer Dmitry Orlov, they live on sailboats in Boston Harbor and contemplate a future where their wind-powered vessels will compete with fuel-strapped diesel trucks for freight along the coastlines.

But more compelling was the December David Samuels story about 12-year J.B. Hunt driver John Coster-Mullen, of Waukesha, Wis., who has over 15 years reverse-engineered the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. He’s published his technical and historical account, available at Amazon as Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man. Coster-Mullen’s goal? As Samuels puts it in the story: “>Coster-Mullen’s research project can be construed as a danger to mankind or as a useless antiquarian endeavor. Given that a functional atomic weapon can be constructed in myriad ways, why does it matter precisely how the first bomb worked? Yet Coster-Mullen is proud to have helped establish ‘a public, permanent record of the facts’ about the Manhattan Project … it is hard to imagine what America would look like without the small and shrinking number of people who engage in painstaking, firsthand research in order to separate the truth from the body of supposed facts, and who keep the rest of us honest. A corollary of this insight, of course, is that much of what we think we know is wrong….”

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It’s a great story, and worth reading (via the above link). I’ll be doing more on Coster-Mullen in upcoming issues , but when we talked a week ago he spoke of much, including how his life on the road in part enabled his research, which has put him, mind you, among the eminent scholars of the bombs. As for his time with Samuels, who was just off work on an emAtlantic Monthly story about Condoleezza Rice before visiting with Coster-Mullen, the Hunt hauler shared this anecdote about the former Secretary of State, whom Samuels had told about him. Apparently, when the then-Secretary learned of Samuels’ next story, about a truck driver who’d written the definitive account of the engineering specifics behind the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs, “>He said her face kind of brightened,” Coster-Mullen told me. “And she said, ‘Oh – my – God.’ … The people in the government at the highest levels are fully aware of my book” and have done nothing to stop its publication — the information necessary for the project is out there and publicly available, in the end, as Coster-Mullen is quick to point out, and has definite historical and cultural value beyond any potential threat after more than a half-century of nuclear proliferation.

Pretty interesting to hear of a cabinet secretary’s reaction to your story, particularly for a man who traffics between two disparate, yet parallel worlds. As Coster-Mullen puts it, “>The guys who know I’m a truck driver can’t believe I’ve written a book, and the folks who know I’ve written a book can’t believe I’m a truck driver.”

Listen to interviews with both Samuels and Coster-Mullen on the Milwaukee-based public radio program Lake Effect here.