Read Bomb (9780547537641) Online

Authors: Theodore Taylor

Bomb (9780547537641) (2 page)

"Is it always this way in war?" Sorry had asked.

"I think so. Innocent people everywhere are harmed," Tara Malolo had answered.

Along with everyone else, for the past two years Sorry had watched and listened as the soldiers demanded coconuts, pandanus fruit, preserves, and taro, the starchy tuber plant, in addition to catches of seafood. If twelve reef lobsters were caught, the Japanese demanded six.

Wrinkled Grandfather Jonjen, the village man of God, who walked with a crooked stick and carried the Marshallese Bible almost everywhere he went, said, "The palms whisper 'Peace' all the time, but the soldiers never listen."

Sorry thought that the only good thing the Japanese had done was build catchments—large cisterns of concrete—to trap precious rainwater that flowed down sheets of corrugated iron.

He did not know how long he could contain his anger. He did know that if any soldier raped Lokileni he would use the ax, no matter what might happen to him.


In the 1920s, a new field of scientific research was introduced—study of the nucleus of the atom.


Memory of the sight, even the roar, of the planes remained with Sorry through

In the island tradition, they sat separately: Sorry and his grandfather; and about eight feet away, his mother, his grandmother, Lokileni, and Tara. Early light flooded the serene lagoon.

Behind the single street of crushed pink coral, there were twenty-six dwellings spread widely along the central part of the island. The eleven families lived outdoors; their cool, high-peaked pandanus houses, with movable thatch walls, were mainly for sleeping. In windy and rainy seasons, the decorated window matting could be unrolled. The song of rain on the leaf roofs had put Sorry to sleep on many summer nights.

Each clan had its separate small cookhouse, which was waist high and no wider than a spread of arms, but everyone was welcome to eat at any fire pit.

Breakfast was always leftovers from the night before. Fish or taro root or coconut meat or octopus or clams. Sorry and Lokileni always liked
the sweet sap of broken palm-blossom stalks, for this meal.

"I still don't know why the Japanese and Americans are fighting," Sorry finally said, sipping the

His mother answered gravely, "I don't know either. But it seems someone is always fighting out there."

Jonjen said solemnly, "It is always land and money, everywhere."

"There has to be more," Sorry said, looking at his grandfather. Though Jonjen's cheeks were sunken like Sorry's grandmother's eyes, his mind was still sharp. Most of his teeth were gone.

Money was not important to the islanders. There was really no place to spend it. The only money they ever received was from copra, the sun-dried meat of the coconut, supplied by twenty thousand-odd trees. First German marks, then Japanese yen. A small steamship would visit twice a year and a merchant aboard would either buy the copra or trade for it. What money they received went to cloth for dresses and trousers, canvas for sails, utensils, or tools. A shopping trip, by canoe, could take many weeks.

If possessions alone were counted, Jibiji Ijjirik was the richest man on Bikini. His family had a hand-powered sewing machine. The Rinamus had traded their six-month village copra share one year for a wooden chest of drawers and the ax.

"Land and money," Jonjen repeated, nodding. "Always land and money, everywhere."

Parcels of land were owned by clan members on each of the larger islands of the atoll. Nothing was more important to a Bikinian than land, even though it was always claimed by the
iroij lablab,
the paramount chief, Jeimata, who did not even live on the atoll. A family without some land, even a small parcel on another island, had not achieved dignity. The Badina Rinamus owned land on Lomlik and Bukor.

In addition to the Rinamus, there were the clans of Ijjirik, Kejibuki, and Makaoliej. They all treated each other as

Still thinking about the Americans, Sorry asked his grandfather, "Will it be the same if the Americans come? Will we be captives again?"

"We are smaller than ants and easy to crush," Jonjen answered. He was that way, seldom answering directly. Seldom a "yes" or "no," often a "perhaps."

Except for the pilots of those planes, Sorry had never seen an American, much less met one. He did not know whether they were cruel or kind. Tara said they were usually kind.

His mother said, "But they may care nothing about the Marshalls. Maybe they'll let all the islands become free if they win. I hope so."

Jonjen said, after swallowing a chunk of charred tuna, "I've told you before, Sorry, that there was a time long, long ago, the time of the whalers—after the Spaniards, and before the Germans—when we were not so peaceful ourselves. Our warriors went out in canoes to raid any vessel anchored here. Any white man who came to the beach was murdered. There was a lot of blood spilled here in the early days." Grandfather Jonjen, like the other old men of Bikini, was a source of island history. Next to Lokwiar, who was eighty, Jonjen was oldest, at seventy-five.

In what beginning was known, he'd said there were seven Ralik clans, all from Namu Atoll. There was fierce fighting between them and the first clans of the Ratak chain. Headbanded warriors in canoes fifty feet long, armed with axes made of giant shells of
the saw-toothed clam, fought. Many were killed.

While Jonjen was talking, the husky, stern sergeant in charge of the weather station, wearing steel-rimmed glasses, walked by them without even glancing up. With him was another soldier carrying a rifle.

That was usual. Everywhere they went, the rifle went, too. It always threatened death, even when not pointed at the villagers.

They were going to Chief Juda's house. Whenever they came up the beach, it was always to give orders to Juda—too mild and giving a man, Sorry thought.

Staring at the soldiers, he asked himself,
What do they want now?
Then he stood up, shaking his head in dismay.

Sorry was barely five feet. His head was crowned with black curly hair. His skin was dark brown. He looked a lot like his late father, who had been short and stocky, a man of quiet strength. All sinew, no fat ... How Badina died out on the water, no one knew. The mystery troubled Sorry.

The answer to his question about the soldiers came a little later:
No cooking fires and no one on the beach after dark.
Chief Juda could not burn his kerosene lantern, a symbol of his importance.

The Japanese, afraid of invasion, demanded total blackness so the island would vanish in the night.

Tara Malolo said, "We must remain calm."


In September 1933, it occurred to a young Jewish-Hungarian physicist, Leo Szilard, that it might be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction and construct an atomic bomb.


Sorry remembered the first lesson taught by Tara Malolo in the one-room, pandanus-thatched, council place that also served as the school on Bikini Island.

Sitting on a stool cut from a palm trunk, she'd said with a wide smile, "Good morning. My name is Tara Malolo. I am one of yours. I was born on Rongelap. I'm twenty-four years old and with the grace of the good Lord, I'll be here the next few years as your teacher."

She had trained at the missionary college in Majuro, funded by Hawaiians, and she spoke enough English to be able to talk to people from the outside world. She had soft, dark hair and a full mouth, a beautiful smile, and skin the color of oil-rubbed mahogany. She always wore a flower in her long, shining hair, and her cotton dresses from Hawaii had flower prints. Though she was the prettiest woman on the island, the Japanese did not molest her. They respected her as a teacher and were even polite to her; no one else received these courtesies.

She had brought some seeds from Majuro—yellow and red hibiscus, pink bougainvillea and oleander, mango and coral tree. She tended the plants with love,
sparingly fed them coconut water during the dry period. They were flourishing, like she was.

The missionary college had provided her with one copy each of books written in Marshallese on geography, history, spelling, and arithmetic; a world atlas; and a blackboard, with chalk. She had debarked from the trading steamer when there was still peace in the mid-Pacific, and did not have a permanent home on Bikini. She stayed with a different family each week so that no one would become jealous.

Along with the thirteen other morning-class students, Sorry sat on a pandanus mat over sand. School for his group was on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; the young ones attended Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. For his class the hours were eight to twelve, with occasional interruptions so they could help net fish in the lagoon. Outside it was sunny and breezy and hot, as usual; a typical winter day.

Adults often craned their heads in through the open spaces that served as windows in the leaf-mat walls to listen to Tara Malolo. In fact, for most of the first year that she taught, regular work by the adults was often neglected. She'd said it was a different school in that no grades were given and no homework assigned, so anyone could participate.

That first morning, in late November 1941, she said, "How many of you know anything about the history of Micronesia and this island in the Marshalls?"

was a Greek word for tiny islands. There were more than two thousand of them spread over three million square miles of Pacific Ocean.

Sorry said, "Only what my father and grandfather taught me."

"Well, I don't know what they have taught you, so maybe I'll repeat some of it. And if I tell you something entirely different from what they said, let's talk about it."

Sorry nodded.

He already knew, from Grandfather Jonjen's wisdom, that there were three types of islands in Micronesia: low atolls, barely above sea level, like Bikini; raised atolls, islands pushed up by underwater violence, usually volcanos, some with sand hills two hundred feet high; and high islands with rugged green mountains, like Guam, Palau, and Kosrae.

Bikini's reefs enclosed the blue and jade green lagoon, which was twenty-four miles long, east to west, and fifteen wide, north to south. Because the atoll's islands were so low, Sorry could not see them while standing on the beach. He had to go to the middle of the lagoon in an outrigger canoe to pick up the palm tops on the horizon across the way. Warm water washed the outer edges of the barrier reef on the windward side. Waters within the lagoon were even warmer and comparatively calm, except during summer storms.

Tara held up a large map of the Pacific Ocean and said, "A long, long time ago, thousands of years, many people of Indonesia—here on the map—fled from the Malay warriors of Asia and began to settle Australia and New Guinea. Then, much later, around fifteen hundred
, Pacific voyagers probably reached the Marshall Islands, our islands."

"Where are we?" asked Kilon Calep, of the Shem Makaoliej family.

"Way up here, in the Marshall archipelago," Tara replied. "But first let me tell you how we got here, or how some historians think we got here. They believe we became mixed with the dark-skinned people of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands—here. Many of the males of New Guinea have bushy hair. So do our men. So we likely have Indonesian, New Guinean, and Solomon blood in us. Then we, too, settled eastward, island by island, sailing our outrigger canoes. Now, look closely. Micronesia is on about the same latitude as Siam, the Philippines, Central America, and the Sudan in Africa. So it's hot here, and palm trees grow."

Sorry asked, "Do they have palm trees in Africa?"

Tara smiled. "The closest I've been to Africa is Majuro, but, yes, I think they do. Now, again, look at the map. On a north-south line, our islands lie south of Japan and north of New Guinea. Though most of Micronesia is ocean, with an area as large as the United States, there are ninety-five major atolls and large islands, and the total population is somewhere between forty-five and fifty thousand ..."

"Including us?" Tomaki Kejibuki, of the Uraki Ijjirik family, asked.

"Including us," Tara replied. "Now, how did
get here?"

Sorry said, "Grandfather Jonjen said that we came from Wotje, in the Ratak group, around a hundred and fifty years ago."

"I think your grandfather is mostly right, but I question the date. From what I've read, Bikini has been inhabited, more or less, since the seventeen hundreds. Maybe before that."

Sorry asked, "Are we a cowardly people?"

He remembered that his father said they were. They had lost the warrior spirit, he'd said.

Tara laughed, then said, "No, I don't think so. We are a gentle people, living the way we do. I don't think we are cowardly."

"My grandfather said we used to murder the white man."

"He's right about that, too. But we don't anymore, thank goodness."

Sorry fell in love with Tara Malolo that day. Her laughter was musical, and even better, she knew about the

Less than two weeks after that first session in Bikini school, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and the whole Pacific raged with war.


An Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, split the uranium atom in 1934, striking the initial sparks of a nuclear chain reaction. It was the first step toward the making of an atomic bomb.


Three mornings after the U.S. planes flew over the island, Sorry, who had gotten up to go fishing while it was still dark, broke the silence with a shout: "Ships! Ships!"

Grandfather Jonjen, who never slept much anyway, blew mightily on his treasured pink conch shell, the largest ever found on the atoll. The hollow
Ah-hoooo! Ah-hoooo! Ah-hoooo!
was a warning signal as old as the first warriors.

Again, everyone stumbled out of their dwellings.

A three-quarter moon lit the lagoon, painting it in mellow silver, and Sorry could see the ghostly outlines of two large ships and a smaller one, anchored about two thousand yards from the beach. They had not been there the night before. No lights shone from them. Warships, he guessed.

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