“Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah — from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities — and also the vegetation in the land.” – Genesis 19:24–25
I can’t forget to tell Andrea that I want to be cremated. No matter how much morphine they give me, I have to remember to tell Andrea. I’ll tell her when she comes to see me. If I’m awake, I’ll tell her. I don’t care where they spread me — maybe over an ocean somewhere. It doesn’t matter where they put me, as long as I am ash. My mind keeps flickering in and out, but I can’t forget to tell her. I have to be ash.
“I can’t forget to tell Andrea.”
“Tell her what, General Tibbets?” says my nurse.
My heart monitor beeps, slow and hypnotic. I grab the railing of my hospital bed and try to ground myself but in a moment I’m twelve and I’m with my mother at the Hialeah race track in Miami and I am disappointed. None of the things I expected to see at a carnival are here. Where are the men on stilts breathing fire? Where is the robed magician making bouquets of flowers disappear and saying “Now you see it. Now you don’t?”
Through the crowd, we see a biplane and my mother pays the barnstormer a dollar so I can fly. This is my first flight. I look down. The crowd is a cluster of moving specks and I am a giant in comparison.
“It only cost a dollar.”
“What did, General Tibbets?”
I’m a young man now — an old thirty. My crew and I have been flying all night in the Enola Gay, the plane I named after my mother. Beneath me, I see the tops of buildings and outlines of roadways, and I try to ignore the black specks that make the city move. When I spot the bridge, the T-shaped target in the middle of the city, I give the order. “Bombs away!” Then I hold my breath as the Little Boy falls. In my head, I count to forty-two. The cold sweat tickles my back before it soaks into my uniform as my count reaches forty-three. Forty-four. There’s a bright flash of light and my body relaxes because I know that my mission is successful.
When I look down, there’s a cloud and when it clears, there is a sea of fire where the city used to be. And I don’t have to ignore the specks anymore. They are gone. This is not what I imagined it would be. It used to take a thousand planes to do this, but all it took was two words from one little boy. I look back at the pillar of smoke that will never leave my memory as we fly safely away.
“They gave me the Distinguished Service Cross. Right when I landed. I got off the plane and they pinned it on me.”
“I know, General Tibbets.”
My skin is wrinkled now and the historians still call me to talk about that day. The History Channel is making a documentary — another one, filled with images of that pillar of smoke and burned skin and the shadows of people who disappeared in an instant. They can’t believe that I have no regrets.
I saved so many lives, avoiding an invasion. That’s what I tell myself, so that’s what I tell them. When they call and ask for an interview, I agree because I have to remind them about the lives I saved. I have to remind myself.
“I saved lives.”
“Yes, you did, General Tibbets.”
“But they don’t remember. They only remember Hiroshima.”
I turn my head on the rough industrial linen of my pillowcase and listen for the sound of Andrea’s voice in the hallway. She must know that I have to be ash. Any day now, it will happen. I expect that I’ll go out just like the sixty thousand did that day, with a flash of white-hot light. And I am not afraid, because I know that if I face God, I will be facing a Man who, like me, destroys cities to save lives.