I watched an interview recently that featured a 70-year old man sitting in a wheelchair. He was mild-mannered and well kept and when prompted, spoke openly about his life and experiences.
He was born in the United States, but because his father was involved in the military, he found himself growing up in Okinawa, Japan, for his teenaged years. He talked lovingly about this time in Japan, how he lived next to the ocean and spent most of his free time snorkeling around the reefs near his home.
As he spoke, he would occasionally lift up his hand to move his hair or make a gesture. Initially, something seemed off. As I paid more attention, I finally noticed that his left hand was deformed, missing both the thumb and pointer finger.
At about this moment in the interview, he started to mention how he would discover old ammunition (left over from WWII combat missions) in the waters where he was snorkeling. He would collect the various spent artillery shells and bring them home to display in his bedroom.
An eerie feeling washed over me as I started to put the puzzle pieces together. Before long, he told the central, defining story of his life.
On one occasion, he found a complete mortar shell that was about a 10 inches long and 3 inches in diameter. He said he never worried about the ammunition exploding because they had generally been submerged in salt water for years, which corroded the fuses.
On Thanksgiving Day, he sat and ate dinner with his family and upon finishing, went into the garage, sat on the cement floor, placed the shell across his ankles, and started to cut it open with a hacksaw. A moment later, he described a bright flash and then an intense ringing in his ears.
As he spoke about this horrific experience, he began to weep. The sadness of how his life changed in that moment was palpable. He lost considerable hearing in his ears, two fingers on his left hand and both legs. Had he not been wearing glasses, he would have been blinded in both eyes.
Subsequently, he was in the hospital for months.
He was eventually fitted with prosthetics that allowed him to walk upright with a cane. He finished high school and then double-majored at college in chemistry and biology before finally attending graduate school. During his career he worked for the government, ironically, doing forensic analysis of explosives. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and got married.
At this point in the interview, I was dutifully impressed with the old man. It was impressive that someone could be dealt such a blow at a young age and still find the gumption to persevere. His journey said something about his character and will to live.
But then, just as quickly, the story turned again. After 38 years of marriage, his wife had recently left him. He didn’t make excuses; he knew it was his fault. He had begun to drink excessively, mostly to numb himself so he could sleep. What started out as a drink or two before bed, quickly escalated to full-fledged alcoholism.
He wept again as he spoke of his love for his wife and her unwillingness to forgive him. And once again, I felt searing pain watching him speak with such duress.
He had lost his life savings and his wife and was now homeless. And to add insult to injury, he had recently fallen and broken the small remaining bone in one of his legs, rendering him unable to walk with his prosthetics, thus forcing him into a wheelchair.
By the end of the interview, the old man looked exhausted and forlorn, having regurgitated his life to an unknown public, and in the process, realized his story was without a happy ending.
When I finished watching, I imagined what would have become of this man’s life had he never found that artillery shell 50+ years earlier. His good looks, charm, and intelligence likely would have written a very different story.
This week’s film, “Oppenheimer,” features another man with good looks, charm, and intelligence who also had a run-in with a bomb — except the detonation of this bomb would alter the course of mankind.
Robert Oppenheimer was a genius scientist who headed up the Manhattan Project, one of the most important government programs in history. But he was also a flawed human being who got caught up in a political firestorm that turned him from hero into villain.
Director Christopher Nolan’s intense character analysis does not disappoint and his robust cast delivers on every note. And while you must persevere through the 3-hour running time, the content is strong enough that you’ll never notice.
An explosive “A-” for Oppenheimer, now playing in theaters everywhere.
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