The Bare Boughs of Winter Trees

Photograph by Kim Keever

IN THE BEGINNING God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

We’re on Lookout Mountain, Cotton and I, looking out over the valley of the Tennessee, where the big river winds for Suck Creek, the Great Gorge, and beyond, where the distant lights of Chattanooga glimmer through the bare boughs of winter trees.

I am reading and Cotton is dying and we are holding to our faith as best we can. Some call this place the Bible Belt, as if it were like the Rust Belt or the Sun Belt. You might carry your cell phone on your belt in Toledo, chain your wallet to it in Phoenix, but down here, our belts just hold up our britches. We carry the Bible in our hearts, all the glory, puzzlement, and heft thereof, every single ounce of it. It offers the faithful no easy answers, only the sure and certain hope that someday, somehow, God will reclaim His creation. He may do it through our hands, so we work. Or He may do it all alone, so we pray.

We work and we pray and we wait as God’s mill slowly grinds while the world starves for the bread of justice. And as our elders pass, we sing them out with hymns from the old Baptist hymnal, “Amazing Grace,” “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Or we gather round and pray them out with prayers from our hearts, or the Lord’s Prayer, or maybe what old Simeon prayed when he laid eyes on the Christ child. “O Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen the glory of thy salvation.”

I can find rough harmony in the company of good voices, but there are just the two of us here in this bedroom and prayer comes hard to me this night. So instead, I read Genesis 1.

And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.

Jews say Moses wrote Genesis, evangelical Christians claim it was God Himself. Whoever it might have been, four thousand-odd years ago, he understood something of nuclear physics. Particle, energy, or both, light is the prime mover of the universe, the c in mc², the power of the sun and the hydrogen bomb.

PAUL NEWTON HOLT, “Cotton” for a fine boyhood thatch of blond hair. But the hair is almost gone now, thinned by age and radiation therapy. Little remains of this man, bones and tight-stretched skin, 160 pounds withered now to less than 100, tightly shrouded in white blankets and sheets like he is already gone.

Cotton is not my blood, but he is my heart, the father of the woman I love and two other women who love me like the brother they never had. Paulette, Susan, and Jenny. Chattanooga girls, blond, long-boned, and graceful — limestone in the water, some say. I call them Paulette, Suzette, and Jennette.

I got the middle one. Susan was married twenty-eight years when I met her. But there was too much money, too much free time, and sundry self-indulgences that did neither of the pair any good. There were also three grown children and one grandchild, and when a woman ups and leaves a man worth fifty million for one worth fifty cents, folks are bound to ask questions.

If Cotton had questions, he kept them to himself. When Susan and I threw our shoes under the same bed, four hundred miles way, without sanction of law or clergy, Cotton fretted more over the distance than the arrangements. We both loved the same woman and now I was family and that was good enough.

And God divided the light from darkness, and God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And God said, let the waters under the heavens be divided unto one place and let the dry land appear. And God called the dry land earth, and the gathering together of waters He called seas, and God saw that it was good.

Cotton fell from a diving board in high school, broke his neck, but he disguised his injury and joined the navy in 1943. They sent him to boot camp and to the USS Salamaua, an escort carrier with twenty-six fighter planes. He was just eighteen, an expendable man on an expendable ship, one of thirty launched that year. The ship bristled with light guns, but had only one five-inch anti-aircraft cannon. Cotton was among the gun crew. “I liked it,” he told me once. “And never tell this to anybody — life was simple. You were going to kill him or he was going to kill you.”

Cotton shot true but not true enough. A kamikaze got by him off Okinawa. One bomb killed fifteen of his shipmates. The other was a dud, but it penetrated four decks and came out the far side at the waterline. Had it exploded, it would have surely blown Salamaua in two. And then there was a typhoon, 190-mile-per-hour sustained winds that scattered the fleet as the kamikazes could not. It peeled away a section of Salamaua’s flight deck “just like you’d open a can of sardines,” Cotton said. Salamaua went into the shipyard but was back in time for the surrender. Anchored alongside the USS Missouri, Cotton watched the signing from the flight deck — MacArthur, Umezu, Shigemitsu.

And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after its kind, and the tree yielding fruit after its kind, and God saw that it was good.

Cotton is hungry but he cannot eat, thirsty but cannot drink. I moisten his lips and he looks up at me with eyes the color of blue-green water in a limestone quarry pool. His breath is labored but even. My eyes water, too.

I drank bourbon and Cotton drank beer. I hunted and he did not hunt and he had no patience for the fishing I did. He loved his golf and I did not play it. But we feasted on venison and swapped stories, lingering long over embers and clean-picked bones when everybody else had turned in and the moon eased up over the edge of the world.

And God said let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and for years.

Get-well cards line an end table; others are taped high on the opposite wall where he can see them, a road map of days and ways, from preachers and convicts, aldermen and laborers. A tall man with a big voice and a warm hand, Cotton hardly ever met a stranger. You’d see him in church on Sunday morning, then Monday afternoon he might be way down on MLK Boulevard, drinking beer with the cabbies, pool sharks, and shoeblacks. That was Cotton. No color, no class but his own class, and that was classy indeed.

Around the corner, pinned to a hallway bulletin board, is a notice from the local paper. The government will pay up to $150,000 to persons — or to the survivors of persons—who have contracted asbestosis, berylliosis, or cancer from working at the atomic weapons facility at Oak Ridge. There is a toll-free number and Cotton can’t call it, and likely wouldn’t if he could. Maybe he figures he’s lived his allotment of three score and ten and a little more. Maybe he thinks he was just doing his duty.

Out in the driveway is an ’80s-something Chevy pickup. Cotton has not driven it for a year, maybe more. The box is full of soggy leaves from the oaks and mountain maples, and the windshield is spidered from a falling hickory nut. On the rear bumper, a faded sticker reads NO PEARL HARBOR? NO HIROSHIMA!

Home from war, Cotton went to work for Rust Engineering, an Oak Ridge subcontractor, in a complex cryptically known as Y-12. The doings in Y-12 were symbolic of a world gone mad. While Cotton was battling kamikazes off Okinawa, firebombs killed 80,000 in Dresden, 100,000 in Tokyo, each in a single night’s work. A hurricane wind sucked people from the windows of their homes, rolled city buses like tumbleweeds toward the consuming flames. The next day, rescue workers poking through the ashes found bodies burned to what looked like charred rolled newspapers, foot-long sections of spine, nothing else.

But this madness was not enough. In Y-12, the government was processing uranium for an atomic bomb.

Albert Einstein himself had urged the project on President Roosevelt. When Roosevelt approached Tennessee Democrat K. D. McKellar, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and asked if large amounts of secret money could be secretly diverted to a secret project, McKellar is said to have replied, “Why certainly, Mr. President. Where in Tennessee do you propose to build it?”

Three thousand residents of New Hope, Scarboro, and three other small towns were given two weeks to vacate their homes. Sixty thousand acres were seized and seventy-five thousand people put to work. By 1943, Oak Ridge was the sixth-largest city in the state. And it was not on any map.

Locals still call it the Secret City. Y-12 was the complex where giant electromagnets separated the isotope U-235 from the more common and nonreactive U-238. There were over eleven hundred of them, wound with fourteen thousand tons of silver wire — spun from melted coins, because copper was being used to manufacture bullets and shell cases. First time they were activated, the magnets immediately ate up one-seventh of the nation’s entire electrical output and there was a brownout the length and breadth of the Tennessee Valley.

Madness. It cost nearly 5 billion of today’s dollars to produce just over 100 pounds of U-235, the most expensive substance on Earth at the time. Of the 130 pounds dropped on Hiroshima on August 7, 1945, less than 2 pounds reacted. And of this, only a single gram of matter — about the size of a drop of water — was converted into energy. E=mc². Like twelve thousand tons of TNT, enough to kill 140,000 people. But still, that was not enough. When Cotton got a job at Y-12 in 1954, they put him to work on a hydrogen bomb.

And God said, let us create man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowls of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth.

The hydrogen bomb is painful to comprehend, the power it unleashes, the rationale for it, but also how it works. Hydrogen — the lightest and most active element — has, like uranium, its own isotopes, deuterium and tritium. Under certain conditions, deuterium or tritium can be made to fuse and become our next-lightest element, helium. Some of the leftover pieces become pure energy, E=mc² all over again. This time the energy released is measured in millions of tons of TNT.

But this does not happen easily. Tritium works but deteriorates over time — saber-rattling fireworks for sure, but useless for the military. So that leaves deuterium. A deuterium bomb requires an atomic bomb to set it off, a detonator almost as powerful as the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. Moreover, elemental hydrogen, or its isotopes, wants to combine with oxygen and somewhat less explosively go back to the water from which it was extracted, a process that, when controlled, drives fuel-cell cars, the current rage among futurists. In Y-12, deuterium was more or less stabilized when combined with lithium, an active metal in the sodium group. In the process, Oak Ridge scientists discovered yet another isotope, lithium-6. If lithium-6 were used, the stabilizing lithium would also react, giving the bomb another boost. The extraction of lithium-6 required mercury, and in the 1950s Oak Ridge had the largest stockpile of liquid mercury in the world. So there Cotton was, ass-deep in asbestos, beryllium, uranium, mercury — some of the most toxic substances known to man.

Cotton was inside a large tank in the lithium operation when a single drop of an unknown acid splattered onto the cuff of his sleeve. “Roger,” he told me, “it burned right through. Like a drop of melted lead. It didn’t even slow down!”

What did he do? “I got the hell out of that tank!” he said.

But by then, Cotton had a wife and two daughters and another on the way. So he did not quit his job. Besides, he was a patriot. He had risked his life for his country once before, and now he was doing it again. No, he would not get back into one of those tanks, but he would continue to work around them.

Bad choice. On June 17, 1955, a tank exploded from what the newspapers called “an accumulation of hydrogen gas.” The tank, with Cotton astride it, went straight up in the air. “Jump, Cotton, jump!” his co-workers yelled. But Cotton saw rods and long bolts protruding from the concrete floor and decided to ride it out. Halfway down, the tank hung on a cable and Cotton swung to the floor. Ten men went to the hospital.

Cotton was badly burned from the same acid that had eaten through his shirtsleeve, whatever it might have been. Oak Ridge officials paid a visit to his hospital room. “You can sue us if you want,” they said, “but you’ll never get a thing. The content of those tanks is a national secret and we will plead that in court.” They offered him two thousand dollars for his trouble. “Sign here,” they said, and thrust government papers into his scarred hands. Cotton signed.

Skin cancers came first, but Cotton is blond, fair-skinned, and spent a lot of time on the golf course, so maybe you could blame them on the sun. There was a tumor on his lung and the doctors cut out a lobe. Then there was another on his thymus, deep below his breastbone. “One tumor for the asbestos, one for the radiation,” he joked. But it was no joke. They would not chance splitting him open again, so they went after it with a robot, snaking the peach-sized lump through an incision between his ribs.

They called the operation a success and all the papers wrote it up, the first time such a thing had been attempted hereabouts. Afterward, Cotton felt well enough for a couple of rounds of golf, even shot his age, seventy-eight. A photographer followed for the first couple of holes and the papers ran the pictures, too.

But the cancer had already gotten into his bones, into his brain, and the radiation therapy did more harm than good. He came to see us one last time. He was too sick for a commercial flight, so we emptied the checking account and chartered a small plane. After he got here, we sat him in a sunny chair with a good view and that’s how he passed those days, in heavy socks, stocking cap, wool shirt in the middle of his last summer. I fed him sausage and grits one morning and he pushed them around his plate, ate just enough to be polite. Then he asked me for a glass of wine. “You think it’s gonna kill me?” he laughed.

“You know,” he said after the wine had loosened his tongue, “I used to worry about Susan. But I don’t anymore. You’ll take good care of her, won’t you?”

I promised him I would.

GOD MAY HAVE CREATED the heavens and the Earth, but we have created this. Every other disease, organism, being, seeks to perpetuate itself. But cancer, like us, carries the seeds of its own destruction. It dies along with its victim.

Now Cotton is cold, the death-chill deep in his bones. I pull the covers tight beneath his chin and smooth what’s left of the hair that gave him his name. I cannot see the scars from the burns on his chest, but I know they are there. And I know he will not see another sunrise.

And God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good.

I close the book, lay it on the nightstand, sliding it between the cards and the ranks of medicine bottles. Far below us a great river seeks the sea, and distant lights — like hope and faith — faintly glimmer through the bare boughs of winter trees.

ROGER PINCKNEY is the senior editor of Sporting Classics as well as a regular contributor to Gray’s Sporting Journal. He is a two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project. His latest book is Seventh Son on Sacred Ground. He lives on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina.