Kids today simply have no idea how cool it was to grow up in the 1970s. Telephones were the size of a loaf of bread and were tethered to the wall. Serious computers would fill a typical bedroom. Fashions of the day could precipitate blindness if gazed upon unduly, and big garish conversion vans were cool rather than creepy. And then there were the movies…
We are spoiled rotten to movies these days. Most anything ever put to film is just a few keystrokes away any time of the day or night. Back then, however, the movie theater was the cultural epicenter of my tiny little Southern town.
Ours was titled the Boswell Showcase, and it was not much larger than a decent barn. You found out what was playing by riding your bike by to check the posters outside or looking in the newspaper (an actual thing made of paper that later did double duty as a toy boat, hat or fire starter). When something extra cool debuted, it left the entire town abuzz. One such tour de force event was “Herbie: The Love Bug.”
The original “Herbie” movie hit the big screens in 1968. It was the second-highest-grossing film in theaters that year. The narrative orbited around an adorable little Volkswagen Beetle that was apparently, with the benefit of hindsight, demonically possessed.
The diminutive car sported a prominent racing stripe and the number “53” emblazoned along its side. The car drove itself, manipulated the humans around it to do its bidding, and just generally did adorable things that would be pretty darn horrifying in the real world. That first movie spawned four sequels. In 1977, that would be “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.”
1977 also saw the premiere of “Star Wars,” and Jaws hit two years before. The Hollywood bar was set fairly high. It became obvious that making Herbie’s latest escapades through the French Riviera financially viable was going to require some sort of gimmick. The gimmick in Clarksdale, Miss., came in the form of the coolest little Herbie go-kart.
A Near-Religious Experience
There were clearly not as many trial lawyers around back in 1977 as there are today because this thing was a death trap. The go-kart in question was a simple, no-frills rig powered by a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine and adorned with a fiberglass Herbie shell. It sat in the lobby of the movie theater so that all the passing kids could adequately lust after it. To make this rolling death machine your own, all you had to do was write your name and phone number on your ticket stub and drop it into a container. When the movie’s run was complete, they would raffle off the kart.
I likely saw that stupid movie half a dozen times. I coveted that go-kart in a manner that bordered upon unseemly. I literally prayed for that thing. No kidding, I promised God that if He would give me that Herbie go-kart, I would gladly become a preacher. I actually offered a life of full-time Christian service in exchange for that cheesy motorized suicide sled.
On the appointed day, not only did I not win the go-kart, but a scruffy little kid right down the street did.
You need to understand, in the 1970s, there were essentially no rules as we might imagine them. The little menace tore up and down public roads in that thing at all hours, and nobody cared. He bounced across lawns and spun out in driveways. Folks back then just thought it was cute. As I sat in my room and stewed over this travesty, I had to listen to that neighbor kid screaming back and forth right outside my window in what should rightfully have been my Herbie go-kart. It was enough to make an 11-year-old question his religion.
Then, one day I heard a fearsome commotion outside. I tore out my front door to find a modest crowd gathered around the Herbie go-kart, now upended. The lucky kid’s mom had taken a spin in the thing and had inadvertently gotten her foot through the bottom of the frame. As this was the 70s, she was wearing neither shoes nor a helmet. Her bare toes caught on the asphalt with predictable results. It was literally months and a couple of nasty surgeries before she could walk again.
The whole sordid experience taught me a great deal about life. I love my mom … I mean, a lot. I really wouldn’t want to see her foot all but torn off in a horrible go-kart accident.
Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, God knew more about what was best for me than I did. That simple yet timeless truth has since carried me through several careers, and a life aggressively lived. And that’s also how close I came to a career not as a physician, engineer, pilot, and writer, but as a Baptist minister.
The big Army helicopter churned through the black arctic night, threading through valleys and down riverbeds, picking a route through the snow. An Air Force radar station required some critical widget. National Security was on the line yet again. The pilot resigned himself to missing his third Christmas Eve in a row.
Using night vision goggles, the young Captain scanned the upcoming terrain through ever-intensifying snow showers and grew increasingly morose. They could very likely get weathered in at the radar station. No job was worth this kind of…
“Hey, sir, we’ve got a problem.”
“What is it, Chris?” the pilot asked tensely.
“It looks like a tripped debris screen latch on the combining transmission. It won’t reset, boss.”
The tripped latch could mean one of two things. The latch could be bad, in which case they would all be laughing about this tomorrow. Conversely, if the indicator was operating as advertised, the transmission was coming apart. The young pilot addressed the Warrant Officer in the other seat, “Rus, man, we gotta get on the ground.”
“I know, boss,” he responded. “Find a clearing and I’ll get the call off.”
The Captain spotted a tiny opening in the snow-covered forest below. The clearing was pitifully small, but you have to take what’s offered in the White Mountains of Alaska at night.
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is Army copter 90166 on guard. We are executing an precautionary landing in the White Mountains vicinity…” Rus spun the GPS up to present position. “Whiskey Golf niner seven three, four two niner.”
“Do you think anybody heard you?”
“No sir, I don’t. Not out here,” the other pilot responded truthfully.
“I didn’t think so, either.”
The landing was uneventful, with the flight engineer and crew chief ensuring the Chinook’s massive rotor system cleared the trees all the way around.
“Guys, get into your gear, get up top, and pull the debris screen,” the Captain said, looking at them seriously. “You two gentlemen can build one of these machines out of Pez dispensers and band-aids. We’re counting on you to get us out of here. Got it?”
Chris, the Flight Engineer, smiled at the compliment and said, “Roger, on it.”
The Captain asked quietly, “Rus, what’s the OAT?”
He glanced at the outside air temperature gauge and whistled. “It’s minus forty two, boss.”
“This could get serious fast. Take the emergency transponder and your survival radio and find someplace high. See if you can raise an airliner or something. It’s way too cold to bag in the Boeing Hilton. I’m gonna get started on a shelter. We may be here a while.”
The Captain zipped up his parka, grabbed the entrenching tool off of his rucksack, and stepped out into the darkness.
The descending helicopter had cleared much of the snow, leaving a solid waist-high bank piled up against the spruces. He was five minutes into the snowdrift when a voice cut through the darkness.
“Hey, sir,” the sergeant called. “We’ve got the screen pulled. There aren’t any big metal chunks, but without another screen to try we don’t have any way of knowing if the transmission’s eating itself.”
“I don’t suppose we’ve got another screen in there anywhere, do we?” the Captain asked hopefully.
“No, sir, we don’t,” Chris answered. “I’m sorry, boss. I’d build you one if it were possible.”
“I know you would, Chris. Don’t sweat it, man.” The Captain launched into the snowbank like a man possessed, thinking some awfully vile thoughts about Alaska, Boeing engineers and the US Army. He was interrupted by a long howl uncomfortably close by.
“Rus!” he shouted. “Get back to the plane…now. Those are wolves.”
The aurora intensified, casting everything in a strange green glow as the other three crewmembers clambered back into the helicopter. The young officer struggled, but the snow rose to his thighs. The animals were upon him with terrifying speed. The Captain turned and raised his entrenching tool, his sole weapon. His breath caught in his chest as the lead animal, a massive creature with thick flowing fur and fiery eyes, charged out of the woodline.
Before the thundering monsters got close enough for the Captain to swing, the lead beast slid to a stop, as did the seven identical animals behind him. The tremendous sled they were pulling braked as well. The aurora ebbed for a moment and then brightened again, softly illuminating an enormous man as he trudged through the snow to where the young soldier stood helplessly.
“Hey, son,” the big man laughed heartily as he pointed to the upraised e-tool. “You doin’ a little prospecting?”
The newcomer was quite large —about six foot three — and he must have topped three hundred pounds. He wore a heavy sealskin parka over a pair of Carhart coveralls patched with duct tape. The man was 100% Alaskan and exuded a strangely benign air. His eyes glowed just a tiny bit green under the light of the dancing aurora.
The pilot lowered his e-tool sheepishly. “I’m sorry. We thought your dogs were wolves.”
“Well, they are, actually,” the big man returned with a friendly chortle. “But they’re pretty well-behaved.” He reached over and grabbed a handful of fur on the nearest muscular animal and gave it an affectionate shake. “You boys doin’ OK?” he asked, fresh concern in his voice.
“We’ve been better,” the Captain replied honestly. “We’ve got a bad debris screen on the c-box and…” He realized his audience and checked himself. “There’s a problem with the aircraft, and we need a part to get flying again. Until you showed up I thought we would be permanent fixtures.”
“Well, I’m not sure I can offer you a whole lot,” the big man said, now lighting a rough-hewn wooden pipe with a big lifeboat match. The man’s pleasantly weather-beaten face was wreathed with whiskers white with frost. “I doubt you need any food, and your gear is probably better than mine. When I get to Bettles I’ll be happy to call the fort and let them know where you are, though.”
The perplexed pilot thought for a moment. “What are you doing out here anyway? We didn’t see any trails or anything coming in.”
The big man rubbed a mitten across his thick beard, scraping away a liberal quantity of frost. “Oh, right place at the right time, I suppose,” he replied with another chuckle. He puffed his pipe in earnest, clearly savoring the warmth. “I live near here and come through these parts quite a lot. If the weather holds I’ll just make Bettles by morning.”
The Captain couldn’t place it but the strange man seemed almost unnaturally familiar, as though it was his grandfather packed away underneath all those thick clothes. “I know this sounds strange, sir, but I feel that I know you.”
At this the big man laughed mightily, “Lots of folks say that. Don’t exactly know why. No, son, I’ve been up here all my life…wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The aurora brightened again, and the big man took a last pull from his pipe before knocking its residue out in a shower of sparks against the rail on his sled.
“I really am sorry I couldn’t be of any more help,” the man said, pulling a handheld GPS receiver out of a pouch. He glanced at the little machine’s glowing screen and said, “I don’t know how I made it so long up here without one of these. I’d love to chew the fat for a while, but I’m runnin’ a pretty tight schedule.”
Before the Captain could object, the big man was back on his runners and had his dogs, or whatever they were, straining against their harnesses. In what seemed nearly an afterthought, he dug a huge mitten underneath the canvas tarp lashed tightly across his sled and retrieved a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. He tossed the parcel in a lazy arc to the Captain, who caught it clumsily in his own heavy arctic mittens.
“You boys be careful and keep warm, now,” the man cautioned with a serious tone. “It’s a fearsome cold out here tonight.”
He made a strange sound and the team strained as one, forcing the heavy sled into motion. “Merry Christmas, Son,” the big man said, smiling in the green light. “Merry Christmas.”
“Wait…what…” the Captain started, but with surprising speed the man had already disappeared into the spruces.
The confused pilot stood silently for a moment in the snow. When the last sounds of the team had withered into the cold forest he turned around. His crewmates were clearly as perplexed as he.
The Captain had momentarily forgotten about the parcel. He slid one gloved hand out of his mittens and carefully tore the paper away from the package. Holding the little box up so that the faint glow of the aurora illuminated it fully he could just make out the stenciled inscription, “Transmission Debris Screen, Combining, 1 ea, CH-47D Helicopter, Boeing Vertol Inc., Philadelphia, PA.”
The law of conservation of mass states that in any closed system the ultimate mass of a system must remain constant over time. The law of conservation of energy posits that the total energy of an isolated system also must remain constant. Mass and energy are therefore said to be conserved over time. Both can change forms, but mass and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. They simply change from one state to another.
Take a match as an example. You strike a match and allow it to burn. What’s left is smaller and different from the original match. However, that excess mass didn’t just disappear. It changed forms. As the compounds in the wood degraded they gave off energy and some portion of it turned into a series of gases. That original stuff is not gone. It’s just different.
In the world of physics, this isn’t only not a good idea. It’s the law. However, there is one glaring exception. Albert Einstein codified the details within his extraordinary equation E=MC2.
In the case of nuclear fission, a small amount of matter actually transforms directly into energy. Unlike our burning match example, some mass of fissile material consumed in a nuclear reaction no longer exists in our universe. This matter is physically transformed into energy. The ratio is driven by that equation where E is energy, M is rest mass or invariant mass, and C if the speed of light. As the speed of light is a big number and you are squaring it, the resulting amount of energy you get for a small amount of transformed matter can be truly astronomical.
As weird as all this seems, we can see the practical results clearly enough. It is this reaction that propels American aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. It also drives nuclear power plants.
Despite their simply breathtaking size, aboard a nuclear-powered ship, a small amount of fissile material powers everything from propulsion and catapults to hot water and laundry. Producing 200,000 horsepower non-stop to power the USS Gerald Ford for a week requires less than nine pounds of enriched uranium fuel. These massive ships are expected to run for a quarter century without refueling. The tiny amount of fuel that is actually turned into energy in a nuclear reaction is even smaller yet. Now, hold that thought.
The Little Boy Test
The atomic bomb unleashed on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, was called Little Boy. This was a relatively simple gun-based device that burned enriched Uranium-235. The term enriched stems from the fact that only about one part in 140 of naturally-occurring uranium is the particular desirable U-235 isotope.
Building the bomb was fairly easy. Harvesting that specific uranium isotope was hard. That’s what the Iranians have been hell-bent on doing for the past decade.
Little Boy was little more than a stubby gun. An enriched uranium target sat at one end and a smaller uranium projectile resided at the other. At the point of detonation a chemical explosive fired the projectile down the internal barrel into the target and achieved critical mass for a spontaneous detonation.
The plutonium-based bomb, Fat Man, which dropped on Nagasaki three days later, was a more complicated implosion design. It was this mechanism that was detonated during the Trinity test in New Mexico. The first operational test of the Little Boy bomb was the Hiroshima attack. Most of the uranium used in Little Boy came from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo.
A Single Paperclip
Once ready to go Little Boy sported an all-up weight of 9,700 pounds. Of that mass was 141 pounds of enriched uranium. The average level of enrichment was around 80%. Upon detonation around two pounds of uranium underwent nuclear fission. Of the bit that burned, only 0.7 grams or around 0.025 ounce was actually transformed into energy. This is roughly the same mass as a dollar bill or a paperclip.
The bomb was deployed from the B29 Superfortress Enola Gay at 0815 in the morning. It fell for 44.4 seconds before its dual redundant time and barometric triggers fired the ignition charges. The weapon detonated 1,968 feet above ground, and the resulting explosion released 63 Terajoules’ worth of energy — the equivalent to 15,000 tons or 30 million pounds of TNT (Trinitrotoluene) high explosive.
The fireball was 1,200 feet in diameter with a surface temperature of 10,830 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly comparable to the surface of the sun. Every man-made structure within a mile of ground zero was instantly pulverized. The resulting firestorm was roughly two miles in diameter. Survivors reported a strong smell of ozone, as though they had been near a powerful electrical arc. This unprecedented explosion killed 66,000 people and injured another 69,000, all for the cost a single paperclip’s worth of enriched uranium.