A chance meeting with a great, if cranky, American

July 16, 2016, marked the 71st anniversary of the first detonation of the Manhattan Project’s fission bomb. With President Obama’s recent trip to Japan and the controversy surrounding his speech (many felt it was one-sided and failed to address our reasons for using the bomb), I thought I would share the following story.

A leading physicist on the Manhattan Project was Hungarian-born Dr. Edward Teller. After the war, Teller tried to convince the government to develop the more powerful fusion bomb. The government wasn’t interested until the Soviets tested their own fission bomb in 1949. Eventually, Teller’s leadership led to our first successful test of a hydrogen bomb in 1952.

But Teller didn’t just fade away. Being an ardent anticommunist, it was Teller who convinced President Reagan to fund the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars.

It was inevitable then that Teller would eventually visit one of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s laser facilities at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico (the lab’s HQ is located here at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). And fortune would have it that I was chosen to host Teller. That was 1989.

Teller’s assistant told me they would arrive around 9 a.m. He told me to keep in mind Teller’s age, 81, that he couldn’t see or hear very well, and used a cane because of a street-car accident in Budapest years earlier. What he didn’t tell me was Teller’s reputation for being “difficult” was well earned.

Teller’s cane was first to exit the car. It was more of a crude crooked staff, akin to something you’d expect Moses to have used.

I greeted Teller and led him to a room where I had prepared a chair and oversized charts to provide an overview of events. The room was filled with researchers and higher-ranking civilian and military officials. As I began to talk, Teller interrupted, “Young man,” — I was young at the time — “I cannot see any of the charts; they might as well not even be there!”

Time stopped as I felt dozens of eyes fixed on me, waiting to see my Plan B. I responded, “That’s fine, these aren’t important, let’s go to our first demonstration.”

But just before one of the scientists could begin the demo, Teller stopped him. “I cannot start without coffee to take with my heart medication,” he said.

It was Saturday, and no one had made coffee. After what seemed forever, the coffee arrived and Teller, hands shaking, took his medication. When the demo was finished, Teller asked a technical question no one could answer to his satisfaction; he let us know of his disappointment.

That was how the morning went. From demo to demo, Teller was every bit as confrontational and unlikable as rumored. A few hours earlier, I had anxiously waited for Teller to arrive; now I couldn’t wait for him to leave.

After satisfying himself that he had seen enough, he turned to me and said, “Thank you very much, young man, I learned quite a lot this morning. You are doing great work.” And with that his handlers hustled him away.

I say this unapologetically — that one Saturday morning in 1989, I personally met a great American. And by one degree of separation, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan, and many others.

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Tony Corvo is one of our regular community contributors.

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