I’m a thief. But I paid for it. Literally. I never returned, An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of Enola Gay, to the BaListon. Library. That year my Virginia tax refund had a state penalty deduction of $78.40. No criminal charges were ever filed.
The crime came after I flunked out of college once. It wasn’t my first attempt to earn a degree and it certainly wasn’t my last. It was an odd time in the middle when I registered for a course in Atomic History. That’s where the fascination started – that class.
I’m certain I got an A in the subject even though I only showed up for a few lectures. I read. I read all nine books assigned for the course simultaneously – a few chapters from one book and then a few more from another book. I kept them on rotation and my head swam with questions; the books had answers. Even after my failure, I still craved a greater depth of understanding.
The Manhattan Project was the topic of interest at the Ballston Library that day. As I scanned the shelves of the nearly abandoned section on nuclear physics, covert projects for atomic fission, and subatomic string theory, my eyes rested on one book that wasn’t like any other. I slid the hardcover copy off the shelf and read the sleeve. It described a planned art exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum encompassing the atomic bomb and the end of WWII. It was shut down the same year it was scheduled to open.
The year was 1995 – the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan – the fiftieth anniversary of the end of WWII. The original exhibition attempted to navigate the crossroads of an era when war and patriotism defined every nation. The Axis Powers lost; the Allied Powers won; and the bomb changed the world forever.
The attempt to mount an exhibition based on secrets at the highest levels of government during the war simultaneously coupled with an unblinking examination of the human casualties in Japan that came with the war’s end was distorted, politicized, negotiated, renegotiated, and, ultimately, undermined by fear…fear of facts and fear of dishonoring veterans of the war.
What I read in that book enraged me to my core. That book and its author, Martin Harwit, the ousted former Director of the Museum that designed the exhibit, gave me renewed purpose nearly twenty years after my fingertips first turned those pages.
It’s no coincidence that through all the years in between then and now – joining the Army; moving to Germany; getting married; returning to America; getting divorced; jumpstarting a federal career; working from a GS-4 trainee to a GS-11 expert in my field; making four cross-country moves; leaving it all behind; embracing my true passion for writing; returning to college; finishing my degree – through all those years, I never lost my stolen treasure. I never lost that book. Everything else came and went like the rising and setting sun.
Why did I hold on so long? Because I have to tell that story with a film.
I researched Dr. Harwit – an astrophysicist, academic, and writer. I called him and asked if I could write a screenplay adaptation of his book. After we verified his right do so with his publisher, he agreed.
I conducted research at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington, D.C. While there, I met with Martin. He invited me to join him and his wife, Marianne, at their home the same evening.
As I entered, I was astounded to see original editorial cartoons that had been published during the year of national controversy over the exhibit before its cancellation. They were hung in frames cascading up the wall along the spiral staircase to the second floor. I found copies of the same cartoons at the archives only days earlier.
It struck me hard…decades after the cancellation of the exhibition, The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II, Martin and Marianne embraced that time in their lives – that tumultuous experience. Collecting the cartoons was Marianne’s idea.
Over a robust red wine, we discussed my intentions for the adaption. I made it as clear as I could. I want to show the world what they were never allowed to see.
That book – it isn’t done with me, yet.
~ Jenn Whittaker