Welcome to Letters from Quotidia Postscripts Episode 9 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for listeners who enjoyed that Irish phenomenon- the crack! in the 200+ Letters and Postcards from Quotidia over the past 18 months. Quotidia remains that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
This saddest of postscripts commemorates an event that took place on the 6th of August, 77 years ago. The dropping of the first nuclear device over the Japanese harbour city of Hiroshima which ultimately killed 120,000 people heralded the new age in which a clever species on planet earth which had evolved only a mere eye blink before in the history of the planet, devised the means to end life as we know it. In this special podcast each of the five song refers to that grim reality from its own perspective.
First is Airman which I wrote in the late 1970s- with my sometime musical collaborator, Mark Dougherty, adding the bridge in 1981. For episode 38, I wrote: “I was born into the Age of Anxiety. In Aruba, in the early sixties, Castro was a renegade on the rampage not too far to the north- but somehow comic with his beard and cigar, a Latin Groucho Marx rather than the more imposing German, Karl. However, the Cuban missile crisis sparked nervous cocktail conversations in the patios of expatriate Americans: You can bet the refinery will be hit! The periodicals were full of details of how to build bomb shelters. The commies would, of course, be utterly destroyed. MAD was more than a magazine title, in those days…
On 6th August 1945 the crew of a B-29 captained by Colonel Paul Tibbets dropped a bomb nicknamed Little Boy on the Japanese city of Hiroshima killing 80,000 people instantly. Japanese poet, Sankichi Toge, who was in Hiroshima on that day, died at age 36 on the operating table in Hiroshima, wrote poetry about the bomb. I’ll preface the song with these lines from his poem, The Shadow: Burned onto the step, cracked and watery red,/the mark of the blood that flowed as intestines melted to mush:/a shadow. Who were you, shadow, and what were your dreams that morning as you approached those concrete steps?” [insert song]
The song you will hear now, Hiroshima, was written over a couple of days in early August 2005. It was written to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. However, as I was writing the song, I realised that there was another, more personal anniversary- of a sort- for this particular date also marked the passage of time where the duration of my son’s time on earth was balanced by the time since his passing. This realisation coloured the composition of the piece which had started out as a straight remembrance of that epoch-shattering event but morphed into a more personal threnody. [insert song]
In an earlier post, I referred to a cartoon from the 1960s by Ron Cobb, entitled Progress, the upper panel shows two cavemen brandishing bones at one another. Then, dividing the upper panel from the lower, is the word Progress. The lower panel shows two men in suits; one has a pistol with which he has just shot his rival dead. The next song inserts a few more panels outlining the history of war. Originally entitled Pentagon Progress, I thought, afterwards, this was unfairly restrictive (particularly in the light of Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal and China’s burgeoning defence budget) and so I just adopted the Cobb label. Nonetheless, the US accounts for most of the world’s total expenditure on the military but hosts just a fraction over 4% of the total population of the planet. [insert song]
Back in 1979, I wrote a song about Major Claude Eatherly, one of the pilots of the Hiroshima bombing raid of August 6, 1945. He piloted the Straight Flush, a weather reconnaissance plane and radioed the Enola Gay, the plane which carried the atomic bomb, Little Boy, that the weather was perfect for the strike on the unsuspecting city. My first reading about his life left me with the opinion that he was a hero. Later, I read material that painted him as a derelict husband and father, a crook and opportunist willing, for example, to bomb Havana, Cuba, for $100,000. To this day I remain torn between these readings. So, what to do?
The song, long written, was misplaced until I found it when fossicking in the front of my garage in September 2021. Anne I. Harrington, in The New York Times magazine of August 6 2020, the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, wrote: Passing judgment on whether he was a hero for speaking out about his suffering, or a malingerer out to capitalise on his wartime experiences became a way to stake a claim within the debate about nuclear weapons. Do we believe what we want to believe, then, regardless of facts? Does it really depend on which side of the nuclear debate we are on? Me? In a world where I’m lied to constantly by a variety of clever and manipulative government and non-government actors, all I know is that I’m on the side of music, poetry, compassion, and humanity. So, I’ll play you the song and leave you to decide whether Major Claude Eatherly is worthy of bouquets or brickbats: its title is, 237 Dollars, the amount of his monthly government pension. [insert song]
Canadian folk-singer Bonnie Dobson wrote the song which concludes this Letter after seeing the 1959 black-and-white film On the Beach The film depicts the aftermath of a nuclear war. The final scene shows, and thanks, Wikipedia, for this dramatic sentence: The empty windblown streets of Melbourne are punctuated by the rise of dramatic, strident music over a single powerful image of a previously seen Salvation Army street banner: “There is still time .. Brother”. Bonnie wrote the song, Morning Dew, the first of her career-and what a first!- after friends she was staying with in L.A. went to bed. It has been covered by a wide range of artists. It was first released in 1961, As recently as autumn 2021 she was touring at the age of 81- what a woman, eh? The song has universal themes- which I will not insult you by explicating here- the 21-year-old Bobbie Dobson set it out as clear as the morning dew. [insert song]
I leave the last words of this post to Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a modest Japanese engineer who avoided publicity for decades, choosing instead to raise his family away from the glare of the limelight, which he could have claimed early, had he so chosen. Mr. Yamaguchi, who died in 2010 aged 93, survived both atomic blasts; first, in Hiroshima, then, three days later, in Nagasaki. As mentioned previously, this unassuming employee of the Mitsubishi corporation shunned publicity for decades. In his daughter Toshiko’s words, he was so healthy, he thought it would have been unfair to people who were really sick. However, he did endure the cancer-related deaths of his wife, Hisako, and son, Katsutoshi, as well as the life-long illnesses of both his daughters before succumbing to stomach cancer himself.
Gradually, he began to realise that he had a responsibility to future generations, and he became engaged in anti-nuclear weapons activities. In the documentary Niju-uhi-baku (Twice Bombed, Twice Survived), screened at the United Nations in 2006 he’s finally able to weep, in his 80s, as he recalls watching bloated corpses floating in the city’s rivers and encountering the walking dead of Hiroshima, whose melting flesh hung like ‘giant gloves.’ He resorted to poetry over the years to try to encompass his experience usually tanka, 31-syllable poems. In 1969 he wrote, Thinking of myself as a phoenix,/I cling on until now,/But how painful they have been/ the years past.
He wrote hundreds of these, each one an ordeal. When he composed them, he would dream of the dead lying on the ground. One by one, they would get up and walk past him. Carbonised bodies face-down in the nuclear wasteland/all the Buddhas died,/and never heard what killed them. At 90, on his first trip abroad…in front of the UN, he pleaded for a non-nuclear world, If there exists a God who protects/nuclear-free eternal peace/the blue earth won’t perish. Amen, to that.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics and music (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.