Reading List

The Decent Journalism topic is peppered with good articles, requests for posts and some discussion on journalism. This topic is just for articles. I’m going to post a few to start - most of which I haven’t read but which I saw recommended and which I have bookmarked to read at some stage. Some sport, some random topics. The ideal companion thread for a flight, a doctor’s waiting room or a bathroom visit.

Three-Man Weave

There are underdog stories…and there’s what happened in North Dakota in 1988

More than 23 years ago, a pair of low-profile junior college basketball teams played a forgotten game on a neutral floor in southeast North Dakota. The favored team was a school best known for its two-year forestry program; the underdog was a miniscule all-Native American college whose campus is located outside the Bismarck, N.D., airport. You’ve (probably) never heard of either school, and — in all likelihood — you will (probably) never hear of either one again. And if you remember this game, you (probably) played in it.

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Games described as forgotten typically earn that classification because they deserve to disappear; traditionally, it’s a modifier historians use to marginalize or dismiss a given event. But this game is “forgotten” in an actual sense: There’s almost no record of its existence. Fewer than 500 people watched it happen. It was not televised and there’s no videotape. It wasn’t broadcast on the radio. Only a couple of small-circulation newspapers made mention of what transpired, and — because it happened before the Internet — Googling the contest’s details is like searching for a glossy photograph of Genghis Khan. The game has disappeared from the world’s consciousness, buried by time and devoid of nostalgia. And this, of course, is not abnormal. Junior college basketball games from 1988 are not historic landmarks. We are conditioned to forget who won (or lost) the opening round of the North Dakota state juco tournament because those are moments society does not need to remember. They don’t even qualify as trivia.

But something crazy happened in this particular game.

In this particular game, a team won with only three players on the floor. And this was not a “metaphorical” victory or a “moral” victory: They literally won the game, 84-81, finishing the final 66 seconds by playing three-on-five. To refer to this as a David and Goliath battle devalues the impact of that cliché; it was more like a blind, one-armed David fighting Goliath without a rock. Yet there was no trick to this win and there was no deception — the team won by playing precisely how you’d expect. The crazy part is that it worked.

The only reason I know about this game is because I happened to see it, totally by chance: I was a 10th grader, and my older brother and I drove to this juco tournament because we had passing interest in the second game of that night’s doubleheader (it was also a Sunday evening and we didn’t have cable, so there was nothing else to do). The tournament’s opening game was between United Tribes Technical College and North Dakota State University at Bottineau — the Thunderbirds versus the Lumberjacks. In the years that have passed, I’ve sometimes wondered if the game I thought I saw actually happened; I’ve wondered if maybe I’d imagined the circumstances or unconsciously exaggerated the details. Whenever I found myself talking about the game to other people, the scenario I heard myself describing struck me as increasingly implausible. Like Wilt Chamberlain’s untelevised, scarcely witnessed, 100-point game in Hershey, Pa., it seems like a story someone made up in order to sound interesting. But this happened. And the game that occurred in reality is even crazier than the game I’d reconstructed in my mind.

If you write a story about this,” Barry Webster tells me, “you need to explain how much I ripped it up that season.” I’m talking to Webster over the telephone. He lives in Macy, Neb., the same reservation town in which he grew up. He’s standing in his kitchen, having just taken his Labrador and his Daschund for a walk around the town, which probably did not take very long (the population of Macy is 812). When his son meanders into the room, Webster hands him the phone, just to prove that a guy from ESPN is on the other line. Webster can’t believe someone is asking him about a game that happened more than two decades ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s not ready to talk: Our extemporaneous interview lasts more than an hour.

“I really did rip it up that year,” he repeats. “I think I averaged 27 points a game, with a high of 46. I really remember that. As a Native, you always start with a strike against you. People always thought they were gonna kick our ass when we showed up in the gym, and that made me want to blow them away. I know I must sound cocky, but that’s not how it was. I just knew the world was against me.”

I don’t need to remind Webster that he was the leader of the ’88 Thunderbirds. He knows he was the star. A 5-foot-10 lead guard with dynamic quickness (he claims to have run a 4.3 40 as a high school quarterback), Webster had received casual attention from a few Division I programs, but he knows he never had a real chance of going there. “According to my high school coach, I was getting looked at by Colorado,” Webster says. “But I was a jack-around. I didn’t take academics seriously. The junior college route was really my only option.”

Webster’s trajectory is not unusual — in fact, it’s the reason 1980s junior college basketball often bordered on the spectacular. Since major colleges were finally growing cognizant of academic standards and violations, there tended to be two types of kids who played hoop at the juco level: undersized high school gunners and D-1 prospects who didn’t like to read. The master of this universe was San Jacinto’s Walter Berry, the southpaw superfreak who dominated the 1984 NJCAA tourney before transferring to St. John’s and winning the John Wooden Award. Jucos were the collegiate equivalent of the ABA, saturated with shoot-first superpowers. Webster wasn’t even the best junior college player in North Dakota in ’88; that was Dan Schilz of Lake Region State College, a 2-guard who led the nation in scoring with 35.3 points a game (still the ninth-highest single-season tally in juco history, one slot ahead of Latrell Sprewell).

It was into this world that Webster stumbled, almost by accident. He majored in auto mechanics.

“I’d never been to North Dakota,” Webster recalls. “I didn’t even know the United Tribes existed.”

Not many people do. At the time, enrollment at United Tribes Technical College was somewhere between 200 and 300 students.1 Founded in 1969 by the five tribes of North Dakota, its brick campus buildings were originally built at the turn of the 20th century, intended as a military base. During World War II, the base was used an alien internment camp. Attending school at UT is the polar opposite of idyllic. But that’s just how college life was (and still is) for so many Native American students — it’s just that nobody pays attention. No American minority is less represented in the national consciousness.2 This was a collegiate program where the basketball team could not afford to print the name of its school on the front of its jerseys.

“We didn’t even have warm-up clothes,” says former United Tribe coach Ken Hall. “And Bottineau had those tear-away sweat pants! Half their team was dunking during pregame, and I didn’t have one guy over 6-foot. But as anyone who ever played for me will tell you, everybody on our roster was in the best shape of his life. We could run all day.”

This is how five Native Americans — and then four, and then three — defeated a team that should have routed them by 30: They ran and they ran and they ran. And then they stopped.

They had five kids they called the Iron Five.”

These are the words of Buster Gilliss, the current Athletic Director at Bismarck State College and the head coach of NDSU-Bottineau in 1988. In his high school and collegiate coaching career, Gilliss won 508 games. When I reach him by phone, he’s not especially excited to talk about a loss that (a) the world doesn’t remember but (b) he can’t forget. But he does anyway.

“They had five kids they called the Iron Five, and they played the whole game. They were a little older than most junior college kids — I feel like a few of them were in their mid-20s. But these were good players. I think they shot something like 78 percent from the field that night.”

The actual percentage was 61, but the general perception is accurate: The Thunderbirds were on fire, especially during the first half. Coming into the game, NDSU-Bottineau was 17-8 and had beaten United Tribes twice during the regular season; nobody seems to recall what UT’s record was, but it was definitely below .500 (Webster thinks they might have won 10 games that year, but Hall suspects it was more like seven or eight). The Tribe had opened the season with a full 12-man roster, but people kept quitting or getting hurt or losing their eligibility. By tournament time, they were down to five. It was bizarre to watch them take the court before tip-off — they didn’t have enough bodies for a layup line. They just casually shot around for 20 minutes.

“It was always so goofy to play those guys,” says Keith Braunberger, the Lumberjacks’ point guard in 1987-88. Today, Braunberger owns a Honda dealership in Minot, N.D. “I don’t want to diss them, but — at the time — they were kind of a joke. They would just run and shoot. That was the whole offense. I remember they had one guy who would pull up from half-court if you didn’t pick him up immediately.”

The five Thunderbirds would have dominated any 6-foot-and-under league — they were all guards and wings, and everyone had range. But they were completely overmatched by NDSU-Bottineau. It was Gilliss’ second year as head coach, and he’d developed a recruiting pipeline into Illinois and Maryland. The Lumberjacks roster included high-flying talent such as Jerome Gaines3 (a 6-5 helicopter) and Keith “The Total Package” Offutt4 (a 6-6 rebounding machine). Offutt had nicknamed himself.

“You had to know Keith to understand,” explains Darrell Oswald, the Jacks’ 6-6 swingman. “He’d had a terrible upbringing and some emotional problems. He gave himself that name. Probably the best athlete I’ve ever been around. Had a 42-inch vertical.”

The Bottineau roster represented the template for North Dakota juco basketball during the ’80s: a handful of hyper-athletic (read: black) players who were destined to play elsewhere, and a core group of local (read: white) players who were small-town legends. Braunberger was from Max, N.D., a community of 285. Oswald hailed from Wing, N.D., a town with fewer than 200 people (there were nine kids in Oswald’s graduating class — and that includes Anika, an exchange student from Sweden). The Jacks’ leading scorer was shooting guard Dan Taylor from New Rockford, N.D. (pop. 1229), a player everyone called “Opie” due to his resemblance to a young Ron Howard. On paper, there’s no way United Tribes should have been able to compete with this team. They probably shouldn’t have been in the same tournament.

But they did. And they were.

“You’d think a game like that would have made national headlines because the idea of playing three-on-five is so odd,” says Taylor, now a banker in his old hometown. “But no one even noticed.”

Even by North Dakota standards, Bottineau5 is a pretty small town to have its own college; according to the 2011 census, there are only 2,211 residents in the metro area. That’s part of the reason so little of this game is known: The Lumberjacks had a good team and real talent, but the weirdness of their season-ending defeat was more like a rumor that died in the translation. It wasn’t that embarrassing, simply because there weren’t enough people to feel embarrassed.

“By the time our bus got back to Bottineau, we’d supposedly played the whole second half against three Indians, which of course is not what happened,” says Gilliss. “But you know, to be honest, there were probably 10 people in the whole town who cared that we got beat.”

February 21, 1988, was an extremely North Dakota-like day in southeast North Dakota: It had been 45 degrees during the afternoon, but the temperature had plummeted to 7 when the sun disappeared. There was a trace of snow but nothing serious; United Tribes’ van arrived in Wahpeton, N.D., without any problem. The official site of the game was the North Dakota State College of Science campus, the host school for that season’s NDJCAA tournament (with the tournament winner advancing to the regional). With a seating capacity of 4,100 and a pristine red-and-black tartan floor, the NDSCS facility was as good as any junior college in the country. It was also as empty as a barn. As the Tribes and Bottineau got loose, the squeak of sneakers and a cacophony of dribbling dwarfed any murmuring from the stands. There might have been 2,000 people in the gym by the time NDSCS took on Bismarck State at 8:30 p.m., but the 6:30 opener didn’t even feel like a high school game; it was more like a swim meet without water.

This was Ken Hall’s first juco tournament, as this was his first year as United Tribes’ coach. At the time, he was 28. Hall is arguably the most recognizable Native American athlete in North Dakota history, but not because of this game or anything else that happened at UT; regionally, he’s best known as a high school icon, first as a player with New Town (where he twice took the team to state in the ’70s), and later as the head coach for Parshall (ending his 22-year career with a Class B title in 2007). But 1987-88 had been a frustrating season for Hall: He couldn’t keep anyone on the roster. With only five guys on the team, it became impossible to hold normal practices; when I asked Hall how they scrimmaged, he said (only half-joking) “shadows.” But after a while, they got used to it. And over time, he figured out how to win with a nonrotating five-man rotation.

“We had a very strict game plan,” says Hall. “This was ’88, so the shot clock was still 45 seconds. We set up a shot clock during practice and got used to running it down to 10 seconds on every possession. We’d spread the floor, and then Barry [Webster] would try to take his guy one-on-one. Bottineau played man-to-man the whole game. Barry would collapse the defense and kick it out to the perimeter. And if they didn’t collapse, Barry just went to the hole. We controlled the whole game, start to finish. It was really Barry who controlled it. He was a coach’s dream.”

Webster finished the night with 33 points. He remembers scoring 35, but that’s still pretty accurate for a 23-year-old memory.6 Webster also fouled out with four minutes remaining (he’d picked up his third foul before halftime), which initially felt like a deathblow. “Truthfully, I threw in the towel when I fouled out,” he says. “I was dejected. I thought the season was over. But then I looked over at the other coach, and he was just confused. How do you play defense against four people? Who prepares for that situation? I could see them panicking. So we still ran our basic set. We just didn’t have a fifth option.”

There wasn’t a lot of teamwork,” concedes Oswald. “There might have been a little panic. When it was five-on-four, we should have just pounded the ball inside. But defense wasn’t our forte, and we were behind. We still wanted to run. We pushed the panic button and tried to get it all back in two possessions.”

This, it seems, is what paradoxically slew the Lumberjacks: their own tempo. They refused to make the Tribes play half-court defense, which fueled Hall’s strategy. The Jacks were designed to outscore people; when I finally managed to locate Mr. Oswald7, he assumed I wanted to ask him about an altogether different game — a 1989 track meet versus Northland College in which the two squads combined for 308 points.8 Taylor echoed that sentiment. “Most of our games were more like 120 to 118,” he said. “I made 115 3-pointers as a freshman.9 That was how we played.”

When Webster fouled out at the four-minute mark, the Thunderbirds were still ahead by four. The remaining Birds — Miles Fighter, Vernon Woodhall, Roger Yellow Card and Harold Pay Pay — were now faced with the task of breaking the Jacks’ press without their best ball-handler (and without anyone to physically replace him). The lead started to melt. Fighter10 picked up his fifth foul with 1:06 on the clock; by now, Bottineau had managed to tie the game at 81. With a two-man advantage, it seemed unfathomable that the Tribes could hold on. But then the Thunderbirds got a break: The Lumberjacks’ Mark Peltier was called for charging, giving the rock back to UT. Hall called time out, and the Thunderbirds had to inbound the ball at midcourt.

This is when it happened.

“We didn’t know how to act,” says Webster. “We didn’t know how you celebrate something like that.”

Now, imagine you’re Ken Hall or Buster Gilliss. What do you do in this dead-ball situation? Hall had limited options; all he could really do was stack up two of his remaining three players and hope they set screens for each other. But Bottineau made a tragic — yet perhaps understandable — mistake: The Lumberjacks covered the man throwing the ball in, and they surrounded the other two Thunderbirds. It was like a little human prison — they face-guarded the front Bird, they played directly behind the back Bird, and they sandwiched the stack from both sides. Since one Thunderbird had to throw the ball in, it was a four-on-two situation. The Jacks assumed United Tribes would skew conservative and simply try to sneak the ball in-bounds. But that’s not what happened; instead, Pay Pay spontaneously broke to the basket. Woodhall11 lobbed the ball over Pay Pay’s shoulder, and he converted it into a breakaway layup. United Tribes were now up two with less than a minute go, and it suddenly seemed patently obvious they were going to win. There were still 40 seconds on the clock, but it was over. The Jacks had broken.

The crowd lost its collective mind. It felt like we were watching the Olympics.

“We had a psychological advantage, and that increased as the game went on,” says Hall, slightly understating the situation. “We literally had nothing to lose. We were the sixth seed in a six-team tournament.”

The precise conclusion of this game is something of a mess; it’s like a murder trial in which every individual account slightly contradicts every other testimony. What we do know is this: The Lumberjacks hustled the ball up court but lost possession without taking a shot. They immediately fouled Pay Pay, who went 1-of-2 from the line. Now down three, the Jacks’ Roger McGillis launched multiple treys in an attempt to tie; Offutt kept snaring the offensive rebounds, but Bottineau was never able to convert. Offutt laid in a meaningless bunny as the buzzer sounded, but the officials waved it off. 84-81. It was over.

“We didn’t know how to act,” says Webster. “We didn’t know how you celebrate something like that. We were all jumping around and celebrating, and I got hit right in the [groin]. I actually slumped onto the ground. It was almost like someone said, ‘Great job,’ but then twisted my [testicles]. But that’s still a good memory. We all went back to the hotel and called our parents, and then I went to sleep. I was pretty exhausted. I probably cried, honestly. I wish my dad could have seen that game, but he was too sickly. He had diabetes real bad. But if I did cry, I didn’t cry in front of anyone.”

This being a single-elimination tournament, United Tribes had to play again Monday, this time facing Lake Region State College and the aforementioned Schlitz. Amazingly, the Thunderbirds somehow won again, 63-61 (Webster had 28). But they didn’t advance to the regional; in Tuesday’s championship, they lost to NDSCS, 77-65. They were tired. They deserved to be tired: Most of the Iron Five had logged 120 minutes of floor time over the span of three days.

Many players from this game ultimately finished their hoop careers at four-year colleges. Webster did not — he hurt his knee and ended up applying to the University of Nebraska, where he got a teaching degree and met his future wife. However, he continues to be heavily involved with the sport: He runs the Native Elite basketball camp in Nebraska, a networking program that tries to connect Native American high school players with college programs searching for talent. It’s not easy. There continues to be a curious gap between the Native American community and the larger world of basketball. Despite the intense basketball tradition within many reservation cultures, there’s never been a high-profile Native American player at the pro (or even the collegiate) level. They’re almost never recruited.

“The stigma is that Native kids aren’t mentally tough,” Webster says. “There is this belief that if you recruit a Native kid, he’ll get homesick and quit school.” I mention that another long-standing prejudice — that Native kids tend to be heavy drinkers — might be just as detrimental (the fact that United Tribes’ nickname was the same as a cheap brand of wine was an insular joke when I was growing up). Webster concedes that this is true, but he didn’t want to mention it — it’s the kind of bias he doesn’t even like to demystify since denying it only serves to reinforce the original perception. Certain ideas will never disappear.

As I ended my conversation with Webster, I thanked him for talking and reiterated how this game — this random, unremembered juco shootout from 1988 — will always be the greatest sporting event I ever witnessed. Nothing has ever come close, before or since.

I could tell he was flattered. But he was not surprised.

“I do remember talking to Ken Hall that night,” he concludes, “and I said, ‘Somebody should really write about this game.’ I did say that. Pretty funny that it’s happening now.”



Inside the past, present and future of this country’s most inconvenient truth, by way of the most controversial black man in America

Any given weekend, being allowed to enter the Vintage Lounge seems highly probable, so long as you are 21 years of age and follow the rules of the sign on the door: no ball caps and no beanies, no loose-fitting T-shirts or oversized T-shirts, no baggy pants or baggy shorts, and no saggy pants and no saggy shorts and no sleeveless shirts and no biker vests and no sportswear. The Vintage Lounge is not open on Sundays.

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Staring at the poster in the street-facing window here, wondering which clothes are left to wear, I move my hand from up near my heart down into my shorts pocket, grasping for Tanya’s business card. Yes, just three hours ago I ate cheese grits in a West Oakland breakfast haunt called Brown Sugar Kitchen, and yes, the cooks were brown and the servers were brown, and yes, “Harvest For The World” by The Isley Brothers was stuck in my head, and yes, the owner was a black woman named Tanya who had given me a hug because my friend Ryan is her friend Ryan, and yes, the restaurant was on a parkway named after Nelson Mandela—yes, this had all just happened, just this morning, I was sure of it. But grasping reality doesn’t make it any easier to see this sign of the times, during this very moment. In the summer of 2017, following the 2016 that so many endured, to be surprised by discrimination masquerading as the rules of the game, as tradition, is to be harmfully naive.

But if you stop paying attention, even for a moment, you can still get caught with your guard down. Here in America, in the year 2017.

Those grits and smiles and hugs moisturized all five senses as I drove from Oakland to San Francisco 49ers training camp in Santa Clara, and then deep into the torso of Northern California—to a town you’re only ever in for a reason, a place called Turlock. I had come here, having taken note of interactions with dozens of friends and confidantes, following months of unsuccessfully waiting for a sit-down, to gather more perspective on the town’s most famous export: a 29-year-old named Colin Kaepernick.

I park my Kia Soul rental—as appropriately basic as it is blindingly white—on Main Street, across from a hair and nail salon called Paulished, which is promoting a “Botox Party” to take place in three weeks, from six to eight in the evening. The party includes something known as a Juvederm Filler, priced at $475 a syringe, the word “syringe” sitting to the left of the building’s American flag. I stroll across town, rapidly beginning to appreciate its charm, listening. Songs by Train and The Band Perry play through speakers attached to downtown telephone posts. I had never considered a town having a soundtrack, but Turlock certainly has one. “You Found Me” by The Fray whispers above the street, and I almost let the soft rock hypnotize me into giving this town the benefit of my doubt. Walking around, sipping an iced latte, I can understand how someone could live here, almost without a care in the world.

Suddenly, I see another black man in Turlock. I hope he’ll look up from his book so I can catch his eye—so we can do the nod thing—but he never does. Was that “another,” or was that the other black man in this town? My hand is back inside my pocket now, busily searching for Tanya’s business card. It’s gone, as is the charm this street once oozed. Yes, this is a good town, and yes, it is filled with good people— fine people—but this is not the full story; like any strong family with a reputation to maintain and everything to lose, they will put their fingers in their ears, in an effort to erase their secrets and hide their pasts.

Snapping back into consciousness, the desire to uncover the truth becomes addictive—the process telescopic—so I keep walking and find Jura’s Pizza Parlor, which used to display a red 49ers jersey, autographed by the hero of Turlock, in its largest dining area. The number seven hangs upstairs and around the corner now, easy to miss above an arcade claw machine.

The It’ll Grow Back barbershop in Turlock, before the kneel. “I’ve still got a Kaepernick jersey up,” says a longtime family friend. “And if anyone wants to make a negative comment about it, feel free. I frankly don’t give a shit.”(Photograph by Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Further down Main Street, past the Vintage Lounge and inside Hauck’s Grill, a signed KAEPERNICK jersey is still mounted in the main seating area. To the left of the bar, in a frame, a collage—the football player’s smile is identical in each photo, Captain America-perfect, atop his sculpted build, like it was on the cover of GQ , the September issue, in 2013. Also in the frame, a ticket for the 21st Annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast eight months later, during which Mayor John Lazar refers to the 49ers quarterback as “our favorite son” while presenting Colin Kaepernick, close-shaven in a brown sport coat, with the key to the city. He was loved, once.

Here in Turlock, he absorbed every survival skill necessary to live phenomenally among white people, so expertly that they begin to make assumptions—not that you think you’re white, but that you’ve stopped concerning yourself with That Race Stuff, that you are finally content. It is a commonly unfair expectation thrown upon many an agreeable non-white person in a white space in America. But as a black man with a black biological father and a white biological mother, adopted by loving white parents who raised him in a majority white town to become a star three-sport athlete, a God-fearing Christian and a model citizen, this went well beyond the experience of a privileged American jock. This was a unique finesse, somewhere between Orenthal and Obama.

“I’ve said what I meant,” former President Barack Obama told me once, with a tone. “I might not say it the way I say it if I’m on the basketball court with some of my buddies. But the trajectory of what I’ve said, what I care about around policy, I haven’t had to bite my tongue.”

Colin Kaepernick was treated so well in Turlock, he had an out: Just deny you have a tongue to bite. Don’t be black; just be Colin. Why go the difficult route of being the loud fly in the buttermilk? Chances are that fly drowns, after all.

The Kaepernick family in Turlock, before the NFL. “He was always very cordial, but he was always very introverted,” says the journalist who broke the national anthem story. “But then—wow, this is different.”(Photograph courtesy of the Turlock Journal)

In 1958, two years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott concluded, James Baldwin described the silent indignation he witnessed watching black bus riders sit where they pleased: “The whites, beneath their cold hostility, were mystified and deeply hurt. They had been betrayed by the Negroes, not merely because the Negroes had declined to remain in their ‘place,’ but because the Negroes had refused to be controlled by the town’s image of them. And, without this image, it seemed to me, the whites were abruptly and totally lost. The very foundations of their private and public worlds were being destroyed.”

So when Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem, people here in his hometown were angry—people were angry all over the damn place. Sure, their emotions were tied up in various tendrils of patriotism, but many of them felt burned, duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled. Settling up my tab, the Hauck’s Grill bartender says: “I mean, I don’t know what it is, why he’s got this big head now. When he was in college, he was a gunslinger. And he came out, they went to that Super Bowl against the Ravens. And he blew it. He blew it, man.”

To many white Americans—either irate or disgusted—that is the convenient post-betrayal history of Colin Kaepernick’s year adrift, the narrative that keeps their world spinning on its ever-precarious axis: once a hero, now bad, previously talented, then lost the Niners the Super Bowl, recently radicalized, currently hates the United States of America . And when you add it all up, the solution to the equation: He never existed. It is indeed a drastic change to have happened, at such a murmur, in such a short period of time. For a hero to disappear, after the opportunity of a lifetime—complete acceptance by white America—and with that afro, on that knee, in front of all these people, during blond-haired Jesus Christ’s favorite song, for the black man to turn all these people down. But these are drastic, bombastic times.

Listen closer, though. Remember everything that has happened to him in these past 12 months, and everything that he has done—a courageous witness in this hostile world. Pay attention to the black and brown people speaking privately with him when he was silent. Take note of the black people, aligning his silence to their public lambasts. Watch, as white people continue the hallowed tradition of undermining a black person with conviction, unafraid. And contemplate what it all means, that people of all backgrounds have taken to the streets to protest his absence from the current NFL season, on his behalf.

You can’t help but feel for this place—America, approaching its 250th year overdue for rehab, damned by the denial that its past is directly responsible for this country’s problems in the present. You feel bad for Colin too, of course, driven away from the game that he loves, the game he was willing to risk it all for. But right now, even and especially if you don’t care about the injury status of starting quarterbacks and the inexperience of their backups, you will realize that the least important important issue is Colin Kaepernick’s employment. This is bigger than him, which is something Colin seems to understand, but so many of us forget. And even if his leadership was clumsy at first, right now he is very much built for this, the life that he has brought upon himself, that he has imposed upon his home, that he has forced upon America.

The real question which faces the Republic is just how long, how violent, and how expensive the funeral is going to be…

—James Baldwin, 1961

You know when you’re hooping, and somebody’s talking shit?”

I couldn’t wait to hear where this story was going. This was Ameer Loggins on the other line, the Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, known to his people as Left. He was gearing up to make a point about his friend Colin Kaepernick, to whom he’d given guidance for some time, especially over the last year, with whom he’d traveled throughout Africa for a trip most people know only from an Instagram post.

“Or you’re talking shit, and you want to get in their head? So you try to figure out, What angle can I use?

I was loving this—one moment talking about Critical Race Theory, and in the next, making fun of racist white dudes and calling out opportunistic black folk by name. It was like talking to Dick Gregory, and then talking to Dick Gregory again.

“So you’re like, That’s why your ass can’t go right—you ain’t got no fucking jumper! You’re just trying to figure something out. Just throwing shit out there, hoping something sticks. That’s what they’re doing to Colin, to try and break his silence. Every week, they’re hellbent on trying to throw something out there to egg homie to speak out, to lash out. It keeps them relevant. They’re nervous.”

After spending the end of 2016 speaking on the record—vacillating between sophistication, work-in-progress and nah —Colin went considerably quiet (aside from social media posts), leaving us with months (and months, and months ) of opinions, and speculation, and anonymous statements, and conspiratorial conjecture about his motives and his future: Was he the leader of a movement? Simply a cause of it? Or was Colin in fact the movement itself?

It took an aerial photograph, tweeted by a beat writer, to kick-start a movement. It’s a bit like Where’s Waldo? , but this is the artifact, from August 2016, during Colin’s third act of silent activism—his publicly black baptism—that started the avalanche of shit, the longed-for tidal wave of justice.

The first time the public noticed Colin sitting, on August 26, 2016, which led to a season of kneeling.(Photographs by Jennifer Lee Chan / [left]; Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers via Getty Images [right])

After the game, Colin told the media he declined to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest both continued police brutality and the overall oppression of black people and other people of color. Overnight, this sitting on a metal bench rivaled the United States presidential election for public attention, both the inane and the intelligent. The rabid trajectory continued when other players joined him in kneeling closer to the sideline, closer to the gigantic American flags—on his team, and then on opposing teams, and then in non-49ers games, and then in non-NFL professional sports, and then in non-professional sports.

With each passing game, Colin continued to make statements, with his words and his actions. He said he’d donate $1 million of his salary to various organizations. (With another $100,000 pledged on the first day of the 2017-18 NFL season, to organizations focused on supporting the homeless and lobbying for immigration rights and supporting young baseball players and ending child incarceration, he almost has.) He addressed false rumors that he was Muslim. (Which were spread by people who treat that as an insult.) “I don’t want to kneel forever,” he said, but he also knew change doesn’t happen “overnight.” He received death threats, but he also wore socks with police officers depicted as pigs. (He’d been practicing in the socks for weeks.) “Cops are being given paid leave for killing people,” Colin said out loud. “That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.”

All of this happened in just two months, between August 14 and October 14.

The country was divided. To discuss Colin was to pick sides, loudly, on and off the field. In one moment, you had 49ers fans chanting We want Kap! during the fifth game of the team’s already abysmal season; a week later, at a Donald Trump rally in Green Bay, portions of the crowd chanted Kaepernick is a bum! At a rally in Greeley, Colorado, Trump claimed NFL ratings were down because of politics, but also because of Colin Kaepernick. The next week, Colin had the best first-half performance by a 49ers quarterback since Steve Young in 1997. It was a breakout game, one that should have been widely discussed. But it wasn’t. Because two days later, Trump won the presidency, after an election in which Colin chose not to vote.

“The nuclear option has never benefited us,” DeRay Mckesson, the activist who first spoke with Colin in 2016, years after his own stint as White Supremacy’s Public Enemy No. 1, tells me. “And when Colin went nuclear on the election, it was just like, You’re not performing blackness, because that’s not fair to you—but you are only starting to understand everything in play.

The day after Trump won, Colin said he “really didn’t pay too close of attention” to the election, alluding to both candidates as indistinguishable: “It’s another face that’s going to be the face of that system of oppression.”(Photographs by Getty Images)

By March of this year, Colin had opted out of his contract with San Francisco (he was going to be cut if he didn’t, according to the 49ers general manager) and had grown quiet—about football. On March 20, apparently citing a column in Bleacher Report, Trump bragged “that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that? I just saw that. I just saw that.”

Believe this: When the Seattle Seahawks general manager reached out to his people on May 12, Colin had been working out five days a week, sometimes more. The Seahawks flew him out 11 days later, but did not have him pick up a ball. It seemed like a great fit: a playoff team, a progressive city, teammates who had followed his anthem lead and spoken out about politics and criminal justice. But would that cause a rift in the locker room, with politically active players feeling more aligned to their politically active backup than their notoriously silent starter, Russell Wilson? Was this the type of “distraction” teams feared?

One person familiar with NFL team dynamics stressed to me the importance of coaches finding allies and leaders within the offense and defense, but also among the white players and black players. This person, a white man, says that the issues surrounding Colin’s NFL unemployment aren’t as complex as the media has made them out to be—that teams feared he would further complicate the already strained race relations in any locker room in the National Football League. That Race Stuff was already a thing, apparently.

Steve Wyche, the black NFL Network journalist who broke the anthem story into the open, tells me he believes the exact opposite to be true: “It seems to me that, the more the conversations that take place, it’s become less polarizing. I’m not saying Colin Kaepernick would work in every locker room, but that’s with any player—who knows if Aaron Rodgers would work in every locker room, or Russell Wilson? But I can only say that, in San Francisco last year, Colin Kaepernick was not a divisive element in the locker room. His teammates accepted him. It wasn’t a distraction.”

One year after Colin’s protest began, Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles joined his teammate Malcolm Jenkins during the national anthem. “Part of being an activist,” says the head of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, “is being prepared to be attacked or disliked for taking a position—it involves risk.”(Photograph by Getty Images)

These two football insiders highlight the reality inside white American culture: a crippling fear of the potential for discomfort, coupled with an insecure relationship alongside the unknown. As much because of his protest, then, as what his mere presence represents—the truth—Colin became a liability. And even among those who espouse a desire for equality, most would rather hope for progress to materialize from a comfortable distance, for us all to just shout “unity” at the same time, than be inconvenienced with the hard-hitting reality of our past.

Three days after a public vote of confidence in the controversial would-be backup from head coach Pete Carroll, the Seahawks signed quarterback Austin Davis, who had previously lost his job to Johnny “Football” Manziel, a quarterback with seven career passing touchdowns and seven career interceptions.

When 49ers general manager John Lynch spoke out on July 1, he insisted Colin “make a compelling case as to how bad he wants to be in the league.” It was a convenient campaign to continue, both couched in concern and dripping with deflection, that would leave Colin Kaepernick asking—begging—for a job. Through this lens, it’s easy to assume that’s how players typically get work—by showing repentance, so things can go back to normal.

When you are a minority and refute the notion that you were charitably allowed into a club—that you were being done a favor, not that you earned it—you will be punished, until it has been determined that you have learned your lesson. This has long been sport for white America, long before football. Slavery was for sport. Laws laced in hatred and hypocrisy were for sport. The invisible ceilings and roadblocks and hurdles—sport. The real tradition of this country is a testing of the limits of people of color, to see how far we can be pushed until we either give up (and give in) or fight back (and die).

The remaining option—to persist—is the one that has always been inconvenient for white America. Colin Kaepernick is inconvenient. To persist is to show strength, but also to be unpredictable, hard to define, impossible to control. And to grow stronger with every lash is to become dangerous—a threat not only to power, but to inspire others to follow suit. Leaders of color in this country have long been mythologized by white America when they teach their own to thrive within the confines of current rules, not when they demand that every rule be called into question. “In many ways, he is the quintessential sacrificial lamb,” Loggins says of his friend. “And we’re just trying to not let him get sacrificed.”

But Colin kept his cool and, thankfully, has still not learned his lesson. Because of that, he still does not have a job in the National Football League. But when the 2017 preseason began, Michael Bennett sat with a towel over his shoulders, during the national anthem. And Malcolm Jenkins raised a fist, during the national anthem. And, yes, the white defensive end Chris Long put an arm on Jenkins’ shoulder, during the national anthem, a song written by Francis Scott Key—a slave owner by inheritance—the song containing a third verse that’s as racist as nearly everything else created before 1865.

Colin with Michael Bennett at the Hot 97 studios in June. “To be able to constantly try to get support from players and the league, it’s always a hard thing,” Bennett says now. “I think it’s more about trying to create opportunities and create more action and get people out in the communities and try to make change.”(Photograph courtesy of Know Your Rights Camp)

Colin Kaepernick was gone, but he was not forgotten.

I might not get there with you.
But it really doesn’t matter with me now.
I don’t mind.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew his fight was nothing, if it started and ended with him. And while Kaepernick is no King, he may similarly not finish the fight that he began, on the field. But begin it, did he ever. It’s a business, the NFL, well behind the American professional basketball leagues in terms of activism. The WNBA in 2016 became center stage for bold statements about race and policing—on the court, in the locker room, through social media. And not just from the black players, but from full teams. After threatening fines to teams and individual players for speaking their minds, WNBA president Lisa Borders said the league was rescinding its punishment “to show them even more support.” And in the NBA, just this August after the unrest in Charlottesville, LeBron James acknowledged that he “has a voice of command” and used it to call Trump “the so-called president.” The most famous athlete in the world said: “It’s about all of us looking in the mirror and saying: What can we do better to help change?

NFL players needed Kaepernick to defibrillate the notoriously fossilized league. And they are, with a new group of leaders ready to carry—carrying—his torch on the sidelines, sparked by the endless news cycle of racially motivated violence, of ethnic discrimination, of immigrant fearmongering. Jocelyn Benson, CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, sees the sheer number of players still employed by the NFL—70 percent of whom are black, as of this time last year—as an activist advantage. “You’re going to see a diversity of tactics, opinions, priorities,” she tells me, “and it’s great to see these players expand in the number of ways they’re using their voice to advance change.”

That was where this story was going, a year after Colin first sat during the anthem. And then, on the eve of a nerve-wracked new season, video surfaced of Bennett pinned down by a police officer as he screams, declaring innocence. The same Seahawks player who had sat during the national anthem—who planned to keep sitting, who was “not going to be standing until I see the equality and freedom”—was now on the other side—on the sidewalk—as an alleged victim.

“I don’t think this is going to end,” Wyche, who spoke to Bennett before the start of the regular season, tells me. “As much as the police killings of Philando Castile and Michael Brown inspired Kaepernick and this first wave of people to protest, Charlottesville was kind of a trip wire for a lot of other players—and now, with the situation with Michael Bennett in Las Vegas, I just think it’s going to crank things up even more.”

He was right. Because four days later in Green Bay, I knelt in front of Bennett, both towering and soft-spoken, following a Seahawks loss to the Packers, before which he sat during the national anthem. The public support for his ongoing protest, Bennett told me, “has motivated me to keep going—keep pushing.”

The fact that King really loves the people he represents and has—therefore—no hidden, interior need to hate the white people who oppose him has had and will, I think, continue to have the most far-reaching and unpredictable repercussions on our racial situation.

—James Baldwin on Martin Luther King Jr., 1961

There’s a lot going on , intelligence-wise, between his ears, that some people just don’t seem to give him credit for. He was real serious about things, he wanted to be the best—it was probably always there.”

A longtime friend of the Kaepernick family from Turlock was off to the races, telling me Colin’s life story. There was a calm in his voice when he stuck to the facts, but the apprehension of small-town pressure arose when he waded into the waters of opinion, even as he spoke with unshakable pride. He told me about how, growing up, Colin had been recognized less for football than for baseball. (He once threw a no-hitter, with pneumonia, and was drafted by the Cubs.) The friend told me how, growing up, Colin loved Brett Favre. (He had a No. 4 jersey.)

The family friend’s excitement was a reminder of who Colin once was—before he really was on his own, before he really had fame, before he really had money, before he’d been championed, misrepresented and villainized, in front of an entire nation—as a boy in Turlock, California; as an educated young man in Reno, Nevada; and who Colin yet may be, as an activist in New York City.

Colin wasn’t just another star quarterback; he was his school’s first star. John H. Pitman High had been in existence for just four years when, in 2004, he won the town’s football rivalry game against Turlock High, the Harvest Bowl. He won it again the next year and, after an assistant football coach at the University of Nevada watched Colin excel in a Pitman basketball game while running a 102-degree fever, headed to Reno on a football scholarship.

Colin led Nevada to a 13-1 record his senior year, including what his coach called “the greatest victory this university has ever had.” But his education went well beyond the field.(Photograph by AP Images)

His football success began a trajectory to the NFL. (He also won the Wolf Pack’s “Fireman Award” for stepping up to replace the injured starting quarterback as a freshman.) But at under 4 percent black (the city of Turlock, according to the 2010 census, is 1.7 percent black), the University of Nevada-Reno was Colin’s Black Mecca. Here, he found black people, but also physical spaces, like the Center for Student and Cultural Diversity, to be comfortably black.

As a junior in 2010, much later than most and rarely for a quarterback at the university, Colin joined a historically black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. He pledged, alongside his teammate Brandon Marshall—currently a linebacker on the Denver Broncos—who knelt for the anthem last season, lost two endorsements and continued to kneel. Joining a black Greek letter organization at a primarily white college is an act of resistance—it’s fringe, it’s typically exclusionary and, most dangerously, it’s founded in pride through a lens unconcerned with white America. These are the decisions that make you confusing, that make you difficult to be controlled, that can prepare you to exist, comfortably, in both a black and white world, unafraid of both black and white people. Turlock did not see this, and neither did football fans.

“He still talks to us, he’s still our friend, we’ll go out to his house and hang out with him,” Gregory Elliott, a sophomore Kappa at the University of Nevada, told the school’s website during the 49ers’ Super Bowl run in 2012. “I do see him as a positive figure to young black men and young men in general, just to show what hard work can do, and how a person can persevere through life.”

If you become so engulfed in the present, it’s easy to forget just how immense the popularity of Colin Kaepernick was, once. During that Super Bowl run—after 49ers quarterback Alex Smith went down with a concussion and Kaepernick stepped in, and showed out—“Kaepernicking” became a thing, an ancestor of the dab, only with the added flair of a kiss to the bicep. GQ deemed him the most stylish player in the league. He became a very visible spokesman for Beats and secured an endorsement with Electronic Arts. He was likable, but he also exuded a confidence many took as flash without substance, the undertone being that Colin was dumb, that his motives were not to be trusted. His array of tattoos (they’re mostly religious) led one columnist to write: “NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility—he is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.” Colin was a target.

Colin exuded confidence that many took as flash without substance. “Behind the scenes,” says his friend Ameer Loggins, “people want to discredit Colin by way of affixing him to the stigma of the black athlete as being dumb.”(Photograph by Getty Images)

The 2014 NFC Championship Game was an important game, culturally, in football—two young black quarterbacks were vying to make the Super Bowl—but it was also meaningful, in the way their existence—and assumed values—were pitted against each other as archetypes. There was the side-by-side comparison of their Instagram photos, with captions outlining the “good” (Russell Wilson) and the “bad” (Colin Kaepernick). There was the caption pointing to Wilson “Hanging Out With His Best Fans,” and then a “Hanging Out With His Best Friends” next to an image of Kaepernick with clothes and shoes, some of which bore his likeness. There was Wilson, hanging out with a dog, next to Kaepernick, hanging out with J. Cole in what appeared to be the club. A Russell Wilson charity event, next to Colin Kaepernick with a private jet. And Wilson, in military fatigues, with the caption “Semper Fi”—next to Colin Kaepernick, Kaepernicking, with the caption “Semper Sigh.” With today’s thirst for polarity, this went viral, obviously.

In just a matter of years, Russell Wilson had become, on the surface, Turlock Kaepernick, while Colin floated into territory we’d never seen before—that of the black athlete who could simultaneously absorb the stereotype of a black “thug” and a white “bro.” During this moment, he was sandwiched between two Seahawks, Wilson and Richard Sherman, who was being labeled a thug, with people coming to a defense of Sherman’s character by way of “he went to Stanford.” Suddenly, the only one who didn’t fit into a convenient slot was Colin Kaepernick.

Unless he was your team’s quarterback, it was easy to not buy into the public brand Colin was building. I certainly didn’t. But I also ached for him, a tough reminder of the reality of being biracial in this country: While often seen as a privilege, because it often is, it can often feel like you are homeless.

Colin was navigating life in the public eye, and most of the judgments surrounding him were based on what you saw, publicly. But the reserved young man, that curious guy from The Center in Reno, he never left. And there is yet—or is yet to be—another side of Colin Kaepernick. If self-discovery and black pride and education are part of one’s past, do not be surprised when they are a part of one’s future.

They were both very distinguished and promising young people, which means that they were also tense, self-conscious, and insecure. They were inevitably cut off from the bulk of the Negro community and their role among whites had to be somewhat ambiguous, for they were not being judged merely as themselves—or, anyway, they could scarcely afford to think so. They were responsible for the good name of all the Negro people.

—James Baldwin, on the early courtship of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott

I like smart, intelligent, good-hearted—a woman that’s gonna stand up for something. Is that you?”

This was 45 days before we first elected Obama, and the rapper Common was answering a question, out in the Bay Area, about why it’s important for “us youngsters” to vote, from the on-air personality—the life force—Nessa Diab. But she just goes by Nessa. And you don’t fuck with Nessa.

Nessa, the DJ, prodded the banter. “Does that attract you to a woman, if she goes and votes?” But the earnestness was true: “I think it’s important that we hear it from you,” she told Common. “Celebrities always make an impact on the youngsters.” Nessa, the activist, brought up his pledge to stop using “nigga” and anti-gay lyrics in his songs.

While her future boyfriend, Colin Kaepernick, was still in college, passing and running for touchdowns and just beginning to scratch the surface of his identity, Nessa was already in the early stages of an accomplished career in radio, questioning famous people about who they were, really, or wanted to be. At 20 years old, she had earned political science and mass communications degrees from Berkeley. She had experience—exposure—in politics and culture by the time she began dating Colin in 2015, at age 31, while splitting her time between MTV and the legendary New York radio station, Hot 97.

Colin backstage with his partner at Hot 97’s Summer Jam, in the stadium where the Jets and Giants play. “Nessa’s his screener,” says the activist DeRay Mckesson. “She’s tough.”(Photograph by Getty Images)

As their relationship began to blossom, Nessa introduced Colin to a classmate of hers from Berkeley who held a master’s in African-American Studies and was pursuing his doctorate in African Diaspora Studies: Ameer Loggins. Left .

“Nessa wanted to have him in contact with people who she could trust not to steer him in the wrong direction,” he tells me, “but also to not exploit him to use him as a stepping stone for some capitalistic gain.”

Loggins took on a role as Kaepernick’s educational advisor, influencing less what his opinions should be , guiding more toward which ideas and beliefs exist . “Me and Colin started talking,” says Left. “And I gave him The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins was a text. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was a text. I might have said Ain’t I a Woman . But what I was really trying to do was give a well-rounded presentation—to develop a more nuanced framework to build upon.”

These conversations—this exposure—took place before Colin ever took a knee. Before the protests, while he was still studying the 49ers playbook and doing game-tape sessions and thousands and thousands of stomach crunches in the summer of 2016, Colin audited one of Loggins’ classes at Berkeley on black representation in popular culture. “He was on time every day,” Loggins says, “and then would drive back to San Jose.”

When Colin’s protests began a few weeks later, a common reaction was that something—or someone—had gotten to Colin Kaepernick, to make him break the rules. That he’d changed , been brainwashed —that this isn’t the Colin I thought I knew . And this is not just in the increasingly open borders of the right-wing conspiratorial internet, where the Obama Is Kenyan section, which became the Black Lives Matter Is A Terrorist Organization section, is now the Kaepernick section. This is Steve King, who sits on the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice of the United States Congress, saying, “I understand that he has an Islamic girlfriend that is his fiancee and that this has changed him and has taken on some different political views along the way” as well as “this is activism that’s sympathetic to ISIS.” This is Ray Lewis, who met with the president-elect at Trump Tower and who still has a job talking about football on television, saying that the Baltimore Ravens decided not to give Colin Kaepernick a multimillion-dollar job playing football because “his girl goes out and put out this racist gesture” on Twitter, which is a mess if a lie, a mess if the truth.

Colin backstage with Common (left) and Ameer “Left” Loggins (right) at the Know Your Rights Camp in Chicago, which Colin paid for out of his own pocket. “Colin represents an inconvenience,” Loggins says.(Photograph by Karl Ferguson Jr. via Know Your Rights Camp)

I’d been told theories about the brains behind Team Kaepernick, sometimes as a compliment, sometimes as an insult: “It’s Colin, but it’s really Nessa”; “What he’s doing, it’s all that dude Left.” The ideological homonyms echoed the simple sentiment—that a guy like Colin Kaepernick, intellectually, is easy prey. And when those kinds of assumptions are made in your direction, deriding your credibility and jumping to the assumption of either ignorance or radicalization, the natural human urge is to defend yourself.

But as the negative commentary piled up, Colin retreated. He bit his tongue a little, in the way Obama falsely claimed he himself had not—inviting not just attacks but legitimate questions about his mission, about a long-term strategy that no one could see, that we all thought we needed to see, that none of us deserved to see. What is he doing? What is he learning? What is he?

After a spring of being pitched to Team Kaepernick, as “the writer” of “his profile,” I began to allow the persistent hesitation of his people, their public clumsiness, to allow for an objective summer. When Nessa hosted a block party in Brooklyn with Reebok, I strolled through—and stuck around—even after I was told she had left. One morning, hours before her afternoon show at Hot 97, I hovered around the studio on Hudson Street, not far from her and Colin’s TriBeCa apartment building. As the summer, and Colin’s football unemployment, dragged on, a mutual acquaintance was asked by Team Kaepernick to decline an interview with me. Again and again, still, I’d float to people in Colin and Nessa’s inner circle that they still hadn’t talked to me—we’d talk about how foolish they were, how they didn’t get it, how it was important that we heard it from him.

Behind the skepticism of his public silence, however, Colin was speaking with people, making friends with figures he thought he needed to know. Colin wasn’t campaigning as an attempt to win over the court of public opinion. Colin Kaepernick just needed to get much better at thinking and speaking on behalf of Colin Kaepernick.

Mckesson likens his early role to being a “celebrity switchboard” of sorts. “He asked me to put him in touch with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mike Brown’s mom—I put him in touch with Solange, Jesse Williams; it was random,” Mckesson tells me. “But wait until you talk to him—he’s so malleable and he’s so kind. That’s why I feel bad for him: He’s like, ‘I just want to do right.’”

Colin backstage with Travon Free, Hasan Minhaj and J. Cole, whose Dreamville Foundation received a $34,000 pledge on Colin’s way to donating $1 million.(Photograph courtesy of Travon Free)

In August, for example, the Full Frontal with Samantha Bee writer Travon Free posted a photo of himself, along with the Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj, Colin and J. Cole, backstage at the rapper’s concert in Brooklyn. Looking at these guys—two comics, a jock and an MC, scrolling by on your feed—you could have mistaken it for a photo opportunity. But look closer—at Ali and Malcolm on Colin’s shirt, at I KNOW MY RIGHTS on Cole’s, at the shorts that say, in sports-jersey cursive, “Dreamville”—and it becomes clear that a necessary conversation ensued. Of course it did. The stakes are too high, and the instances all too infrequent, for four prominent adult men of color not to talk about how we are to survive, in America.

Even the people standing atop the avalanche of shit—at the forefront of the retweeting, free-flowing forum of hateration—can agree that Colin has the “right” to kneel, even though he doesn’t want to kneel forever. By that logic, the same should be true for his silence: that he has every right to grow in private, before he steps out in public. Being black is hard enough. And public blackness is not something you just put on comfortably, like a football jersey. Being publicly black is especially difficult if blackness wasn’t a topic of conversation throughout your upbringing—your home, your school, your church—which, for Colin and his loving, adoptive, white parents, it wasn’t, which makes Colin’s activism on behalf of black people and our systemic oppression all the more intriguing. But here in America, in the year 2017, the kneejerk reaction to becoming, gradually, publicly black—eventually, a public black leader—is that, in silence, you are hiding, not preparing. You either stay inside, until you’re a perfectly formed human being, or you step out and stay out until you slip up and are forced back in. Until you are forced to beg.

And the internet does not know a lamb who’s difficult to kill, so few things are riskier than stepping out before you’re fully polished. That catch-all “woke”—meaning everything and nothing—is overused now, not as a sticker for the well-informed and -intentioned, but as a stamp of disapproval for those who have messed up, and therefore aren’t. To be a work-in-progress is nearly unacceptable, because the currency that drives our culture is not self-improvement, but instead the ongoing erosive process of each person, on each side, designating who is wrong and who is right.

“You’ve got to give people space to develop thought, mature, change course,” the political commentator Angela Rye tells me, about Colin, about all of us. She, like many, was a vocal supporter of Colin, but had a moment of skepticism after he proudly spoke about not voting. The days (and weeks, and months, the year) after the election were an easy time to point fingers, considering the outcome. “But after the anger,” Rye says, comes the process of remembering the people who truly caused change in this country. “All of our advocates and protesters and agitators don’t come from perfection.”

The real role of the Negro leader, in the eyes of the American Republic, was not to make the Negro a first-class citizen but to keep him content as a second-class one.

—James Baldwin

“I tweeted about it,” the singer John Legend told me this past July—it being “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the reason being to question its history, to suggest perhaps a different song for this country to rally around, to show solidarity with Colin. Reflecting on the responses, Legend noted a frequent undertone—“this sense that we should be grateful to this country. Like we’re guests here, and should be more gracious guests, with the tone that we should be grateful that they tolerate us being here.”

“There have been a lot of great things that have happened for black people here,” Legend went on. “But it’s always going to be a bit of a conflicted feeling, because America has been really shitty to black people, for a long time.”

Legend was riled up for Colin—about how “it’s challenging to be this bold, publicly, about something like this,” and how proud he still was of Colin, whom he’d met when Colin was doing press at the Super Bowl, with whom he’s emailed over the last year. (Legend has not played the anthem publicly since, he tells me, and he’s still not sure he will.)

I thought about Colin’s many conversations with this intelligent black celebrity cohort after August’s unrest in Charlottesville, as a friend of my own—Asian-American—described being called a racist by his liberal, white, self-proclaimed-as-woke colleague, due to my friend’s online criticism of white America. “They need to tell you about everything they’re doing to reduce and fight racism,” he says, “like I should give you a cookie for cleaning up a shit you took in the corner.”

We talked, just hours before I’d had lunch with a new friend, multiracial by definition, black to the stranger, and treated by his elite white cohort as anything but—due to his success, the way he speaks, the company he keeps. “I’m the exception,” my new friend said. “I hate it.”

The clear, overt racism is a beast in itself to fight, without the faux-liberalism further complicating the matter. But the race to unity is, and has always been, a trap. The inconvenience that is Colin Kaepernick brings this denial to the forefront, a presumption that this country is anywhere near a hug. We’ve talked about shit, but we haven’t talked through anything. For white Americans to accept that things are bad—and then just jump ahead to kumbaya and #ImWithKap—is a profoundly deep-seated defense mechanism for hiding from what white America did, and continues to do, to the rest of us. The artist Kara Walker recently wrote “You Must Hate Black People As Much As You Hate Yourself” as a subtitle for a new work, but it could be this country’s permanent headline.

The truth hurts white people. Colin Kaepernick has hurt white people, and that is why it’s convenient to banish him, because he holds America’s worst nightmare: the mirror. And while the genuine apologies from the most Black-Lives-Matter-sign-in-the-front-yard white person are endless, there is a real difference between guilt and understanding—understanding that nothing will change unless you and people like you fix the mess that you unfairly inherited, from which you so unfairly still benefit, right now.

“What I’ve admired is that he’s learning as he goes along, and he’s publicly not just talking, but he’s putting his money where his mouth is,” John Legend says. “And he’s doing all that despite receiving so much hate and antipathy from so many people.”(Photographs courtesy of Know Your Rights Camp)

Of white liberals, Baldwin said that “our racism situation would be inconceivably more grim if these people, in the teeth of the most fantastic odds, did not continue to appear; but they were almost never, of course, to be found at the bargaining table.”

It rings, when you consider those who scold Colin Kaepernick for dividing us. And it stings, when Colin Kaepernick is castigated for the distraction of juggling activism and football. But Colin’s continued silence is a reminder that the bargaining table exists off the field, that the true battle is not about the potential backup quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Being white and progressive and putting your arm around a black player—that is necessary, proof that there is empathy for the situation that black Americans are facing right here, during this very moment. But to think that that’s it is to think unity is next, that the only direction to go is forward, not sideways or backward or any of the directions in the hard, difficult work that is progress.

It’s the worst thing about that word— progress —that it is some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card on the past. In the future, there’s hope, while the past represents baggage. For a long time, this was simply something that represented white America. But there’s also a black person, for whom only looking blindly forward brings a great deal of relevance, of power—to publicly square things up with white people is to gain favor that few people ever experience, with anyone. It’s levelheaded, it’s intelligent, it’s a relief —proof these black people exist.

I spent years not understanding the appeal of a black person’s catering so callously to conservative whites. I had many of the same questions people have about Colin Kaepernick. Who got to them? Were they lost? Had they been radicalized, by a country club membership? But then, six months before seeing Get Out , it all made sense, and it wasn’t hypnosis. In Cleveland, I found myself 10 feet behind Ben Carson at the Republican National Convention, as he did a lap inside the arena. The anxiety that I carried with me, as one of the handful of black people in the building, he did not show. Quite the contrary: Doctor Ben seemed as comfortable as ever as white people walked up to him to thank him, to remind him they’d given him money or to just touch his shoulder.

Dr. Ben Carson, once a staple in the Black History Month new school greatest hits section, had now even surpassed his standing in black America. To us, he was someone we could hold up as further proof that black people could excel at anything. But in that room, Doctor Ben was the Messiah, the black man who came down to clear the sins of any white person who would listen. He wasn’t black, that day. He was just Ben.

And it made sense, in an age when the wrong side of history doesn’t last as long as it used to: If you’re black and you criticize Colin Kaepernick’s tactics, from his kneeling to his silence, you will be a trending topic—which was better than before, when no one cared about you; which is a safe gamble, because other news will replace you, should there be a backlash.

Colin is an unlikely leader for our times. But, Loggins says, “his stance, it’s dangerous to some—this educational component—because people are learning.”(Photographs by Getty Images)

On Saturday, May 6 of this year, while President Trump was deciding how to fire the FBI director, and the white police officer who shot and killed the 15-year-old black football player Jordan Edwards was returning home on bail, Colin Kaepernick was hosting his third Know Your Rights Camp. (It was also the last. They got expensive to pay for, out of pocket, for a guy without a reportedly $400,000-per-week paycheck anymore.) This was Chicago, South Side. Common was there, and so was Loggins, the academic, the apparent brains behind the operation. The Nation columnist Dave Zirin chronicled the event, including Colin’s speech to the kids, wherein he spoke about how to deal with the cops, about how he loves his family back in Turlock, but also saying that “when I looked in the mirror, I knew I was different.”

Aware of what is assumed—speculation by those who don’t see Kaepernick in moments like these, or behind the scenes—Loggins is quick to explain what Colin’s role is, as well as where everyone else’s influences stop. “They were actually Colin’s concept,” Left says of the camps. “Behind the scenes, people want to discredit Colin by way of affixing him to the stigma of the black athlete as being dumb. So, I become this straw man of sorts so people can say, ‘Nah, it ain’t Colin, it’s the smart nigga that goes to Berkeley.’

“He’s not a figurehead. That dude makes these decisions.”

Yes, he has an act in kneeling that has been mimicked, all the way down to youth athletics, a powerful sign of trickle-down activism. Yes, Colin will have masses of followers, because bravery inspires those who want, who can’t and who might. And yes, Colin will be iconicized to a degree, from hashtags to outspoken celebrities such as Chance the Rapper and Dave Chappelle donning shirts of his defiant act, his afro doubling as a black fist of power. But ultimately, so far, Colin’s most defiant act of leadership has been educating himself—and offering a mirror into his consciousness. He may be unemployed, but being Colin Kaepernick, the leader, is very much a job. Full-time.

Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

More Bob Marley! ” A drunk old man is yelling at the one-man act Jamus Unplugged as he sings “Because I Got High” by Afroman, the Saturday night soundtrack for the dining area here at the Holiday Inn Express.

From the Detroit airport bar to this godforsaken hotel, I’d flown to a city you’d only ever visit for football Sundays, an American holy land known as Green Bay. I had come here, having spent months concerning myself with Colin Kaepernick, to witness the beginning of a season in which he is not yet a participant, to watch and speak with the man carrying his baton: a 31-year-old named Michael Bennett.

A place like Green Bay gives you perspective on why football matters. It’s for sport, but it’s also community—an entire town, excited to spend months together, once a week, in celebration of its home team. Running up South Oneida toward Lambeau Field shortly after 8 a.m., there are already Packer fans, preparing. Strolling up that street again at noon, pancakes and eggs and bacon and sausage and toast and hash browns and coffee and orange juice and water from IHOP deep in my belly, it’s already a carnival of green and yellow. Talk of activism seeps into my head— a boycott for Kap! —but that all disappears once I step inside the stadium.

Sitting at the back of the press box, with a Where’s Waldo? view of the Seahawks’ sideline, I can see the Blues Traveler frontman John Popper launch into “The Star-Spangled Banner” with his trusty harmonica. This moment—this is the America that could be sold in hell, disguised as fire.

Within a few notes, the majority in the front row of the press box pull out binoculars. You don’t need them for the flag, which is 40 yards long and 16 people wide. We are paying attention for the sideline—once a place of ritualistic unity, now the site of individualism. And on this legendary field, during this time-honored song, on one side, Seattle’s Michael Bennett, sitting on a metal bench; on the other, Green Bay’s Martellus Bennett—his brother—raising a fist.

At the first rally for Colin outside NFL headquarters in New York, maybe 100 people showed up. By August, more than 1,000 did.(Photographs by Getty Images)

It is a moment, but it is also one that will pass. In the first half, Martellus makes a catch for 12 yards and Michael gets a sack on Aaron Rodgers, punctuated by a pro wrestling-inspired pelvic thrust. It is a new season, and with it come new expectations. The on-field protests are now a thing that we do, which means—even with more frequency—that they are easier to block out. It’s what happens after these newfound leaders retreat to their locker rooms, their quiet spaces, that will dictate our path forward.

“Everybody wants to think that there’s not something going on,” Michael Bennett says to me while sitting in his locker, which is punctuated by a statue of Black Santa Claus. “But you’ve got to be able to show the truth and shed light on the things that are happening outside of sports—pushing that message that there are so many inequalities out there, and so many things happening to people of color, whether it’s African-Americans, Muslims, Hispanics.”

It’s one thing for a player to prioritize equality over football, away from the field, wherever Colin Kaepernick is today. But to sit in a locker room, here in the football holy land, here in the state that put Donald Trump over the top, just minutes after the conclusion of a game—to think freely and courageously—that’s absolutely necessary.

“Boycotting is a form of protest,” Bennett tells me. “I think if there is a boycott, it kind of shows that the consumer has power. But then it’s like: What’s the next step?”

Colin Kaepernick may never again play in the NFL. He also might, and if he does, protesting will be allowed. (“Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem,” the NFL had to say for itself, for this story.) Either way, he’s opened the door, one that people—not players, people —like Michael Bennett are willing to walk through. It’s a dangerous door for America, one we aren’t supposed to walk through—and one we were never supposed to find.

One of these days
When you made it
And the doors are open wide
Make sure you tell them exactly where it’s at
So they have no place to hide

Langston Hughes told Nina Simone that, before he died. And while Colin is no Langston (and Bennett no Simone), what’s behind that door has always been the true history of this country.

Through that door, the true history of this country. Through that door, the unpleasant reasons behind this country’s greatest success and failures. And through that door, flashbacks to all the times this country’s ways have helped you and the ones you’ve loved, all the ways it’s hurt.

Colin Kaepernick found that door. He’s been showing us where it is, for a year now. And it’s on us now—all of us: to invite discomfort enough to take that walk, down this dangerous road that so few travel, and understand that you could experience all this hurt, all this pain, then you could walk back out into the same America you left behind.

“I’m a combat veteran from the Vietnam war and I could not be more proud of what Colin has chosen to do,” the Kaepernicks’ family friend tells me, before hanging up the phone from Turlock. “It’s what I fought for, the opportunity for someone who has a firm conviction in their beliefs to stand up and speak their mind, or in this case take a knee for what he truly believes. And if anyone wants to make a negative comment about it, feel free. I frankly don’t give a shit. I admire him. He stood by his convictions. To be honest with you, I admire him more for what he’s done in this past year than what he accomplished going to a Super Bowl or football stats. To me, this is more admirable.”


I—A Noiseless Flash

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.

Click to read Part 1 of 2


At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit ; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

The Reverend Mr. Tanimoto got up at five o’clock that morning. He was alone in the parsonage, because for some time his wife had been commuting with their year-old baby to spend nights with a friend in Ushida, a suburb to the north. Of all the important cities of Japan, only two, Kyoto and Hiroshima, had not been visited in strength by B-san , or Mr. B, as the Japanese, with a mixture of respect and unhappy familiarity, called the B-29; and Mr. Tanimoto, like all his neighbors and friends, was almost sick with anxiety. He had heard uncomfortably detailed accounts of mass raids on Kure, Iwakuni, Tokuyama, and other nearby towns; he was sure Hiroshima’s turn would come soon. He had slept badly the night before, because there had been several air-raid warnings. Hiroshima had been getting such warnings almost every night for weeks, for at that time the B-29s were using Lake Biwa, northeast of Hiroshima, as a rendezvous point, and no matter what city the Americans planned to hit, the Super-fortresses streamed in over the coast near Hiroshima. The frequency of the warnings and the continued abstinence of Mr. B with respect to Hiroshima had made its citizens jittery; a rumor was going around that the Americans were saving something special for the city.

Mr. Tanimoto is a small man, quick to talk, laugh, and cry. He wears his black hair parted in the middle and rather long; the prominence of the frontal bones just above his eyebrows and the smallness of his mustache, mouth, and chin give him a strange, old-young look, boyish and yet wise, weak and yet fiery. He moves nervously and fast, but with a restraint which suggests that he is a cautious, thoughtful man. He showed, indeed, just those qualities in the uneasy days before the bomb fell. Besides having his wife spend the nights in Ushida, Mr. Tanimoto had been carrying all the portable things from his church, in the close-packed residential district called Nagaragawa, to a house that belonged to a rayon manufacturer in Koi, two miles from the center of town. The rayon man, a Mr. Matsui, had opened his then unoccupied estate to a large number of his friends and acquaintances, so that they might evacuate whatever they wished to a safe distance from the probable target area. Mr. Tanimoto had had no difficulty in moving chairs, hymnals, Bibles, altar gear, and church records by pushcart himself, but the organ console and an upright piano required some aid. A friend of his named Matsuo had, the day before, helped him get the piano out to Koi; in return, he had promised this day to assist Mr. Matsuo in hauling out a daughter’s belongings. That is why he had risen so early.

Mr. Tanimoto cooked his own breakfast. He felt awfully tired. The effort of moving the piano the day before, a sleepless night, weeks of worry and unbalanced diet, the cares of his parish—all combined to make him feel hardly adequate to the new day’s work. There was another thing, too: Mr. Tanimoto had studied theology at Emory College, in Atlanta, Georgia; he had graduated in 1940; he spoke excellent English; he dressed in American clothes; he had corresponded with many American friends right up to the time the war began; and among a people obsessed with a fear of being spied upon—perhaps almost obsessed himself—he found himself growing increasingly uneasy. The police had questioned him several times, and just a few days before, he had heard that an influential acquaintance, a Mr. Tanaka, a retired officer of the Toyo Kisen Kaisha steamship line, an anti-Christian, a man famous in Hiroshima for his showy philanthropies and notorious for his personal tyrannies, had been telling people that Tanimoto should not be trusted. In compensation, to show himself publicly a good Japanese, Mr. Tanimoto had taken on the chairmanship of his local tonarigumi , or Neighborhood Association, and to his other duties and concerns this position had added the business of organizing air-raid defense for about twenty families.

Before six o’clock that morning, Mr. Tanimoto started for Mr. Matsuo’s house. There he found that their burden was to be a tansu , a large Japanese cabinet, full of clothing and household goods. The two men set out. The morning was perfectly clear and so warm that the day promised to be uncomfortable. A few minutes after they started, the air-raid siren went off—a minute-long blast that warned of approaching planes but indicated to the people of Hiroshima only a slight degree of danger, since it sounded every morning at this time, when an American weather plane came over. The two men pulled and pushed the handcart through the city streets. Hiroshima was a fan-shaped city, lying mostly on the six islands formed by the seven estuarial rivers that branch out from the Ota River; its main commercial and residential districts, covering about four square miles in the center of the city, contained three-quarters of its population, which had been reduced by several evacuation programs from a wartime peak of 380,000 to about 245,000. Factories and other residential districts, or suburbs, lay compactly around the edges of the city. To the south were the docks, an airport, and the island-studded Inland Sea. A rim of mountains runs around the other three sides of the delta. Mr. Tanimoto and Mr. Matsuo took their way through the shopping center, already full of people, and across two of the rivers to the sloping streets of Koi, and up them to the outskirts and foothills. As they started up a valley away from the tight-ranked houses, the all-clear sounded. (The Japanese radar operators, detecting only three planes, supposed that they comprised a reconnaissance.) Pushing the handcart up to the rayon man’s house was tiring, and the men, after they had maneuvered their load into the driveway and to the front steps, paused to rest awhile. They stood with a wing of the house between them and the city. Like most homes in this part of Japan, the house consisted of a wooden frame and wooden walls supporting a heavy tile roof. Its front hall, packed with rolls of bedding and clothing, looked like a cool cave full of fat cushions. Opposite the house, to the right of the front door, there was a large, finicky rock garden. There was no sound of planes. The morning was still; the place was cool and pleasant.

Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky. Mr. Tanimoto has a distinct recollection that it travelled from east to west, from the city toward the hills. It seemed a sheet of sun. Both he and Mr. Matsuo reacted in terror—and both had time to react (for they were 3,500 yards, or two miles, from the center of the explosion). Mr. Matsuo dashed up the front steps into the house and dived among the bedrolls and buried himself there. Mr. Tanimoto took four or five steps and threw himself between two big rocks in the garden. He bellied up very hard against one of them. As his face was against the stone, he did not see what happened. He felt a sudden pressure, and then splinters and pieces of board and fragments of tile fell on him. He heard no roar. (Almost no one in Hiroshima recalls hearing any noise of the bomb. But a fisherman in his sampan on the Inland Sea near Tsuzu, the man with whom Mr. Tanimoto’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law were living, saw the flash and heard a tremendous explosion; he was nearly twenty miles from Hiroshima, but the thunder was greater than when the B-29s hit Iwakuni, only five miles away.)

When he dared, Mr. Tanimoto raised his head and saw that the rayon man’s house had collapsed. He thought a bomb had fallen directly on it. Such clouds of dust had risen that there was a sort of twilight around. In panic, not thinking for the moment of Mr. Matsuo under the ruins, he dashed out into the street. He noticed as he ran that the concrete wall of the estate had fallen over—toward the house rather than away from it. In the street, the first thing he saw was a squad of soldiers who had been burrowing into the hillside opposite, making one of the thousands of dugouts in which the Japanese apparently intended to resist invasion, hill by hill, life for life; the soldiers were coming out of the hole, where they should have been safe, and blood was running from their heads, chests, and backs. They were silent and dazed.

Under what seemed to be a local dust cloud, the day grew darker and darker.

At nearly midnight, the night before the bomb was dropped, an announcer on the city’s radio station said that about two hundred B-29s were approaching southern Honshu and advised the population of Hiroshima to evacuate to their designated “safe areas.” Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, the tailor’s widow, who lived in the section called Nobori-cho and who had long had a habit of doing as she was told, got her three children—a ten-year-old boy, Toshio, an eight-year-old girl, Yaeko, and a five-year-old girl, Myeko—out of bed and dressed them and walked with them to the military area known as the East Parade Ground, on the northeast edge of the city. There she unrolled some mats and the children lay down on them. They slept until about two, when they were awakened by the roar of the planes going over Hiroshima.

As soon as the planes had passed, Mrs. Nakamura started back with her children. They reached home a little after two-thirty and she immediately turned on the radio, which, to her distress, was just then broadcasting a fresh warning. When she looked at the children and saw how tired they were, and when she thought of the number of trips they had made in past weeks, all to no purpose, to the East Parade Ground, she decided that in spite of the instructions on the radio, she simply could not face starting out all over again. She put the children in their bedrolls on the floor, lay down herself at three o’clock, and fell asleep at once, so soundly that when planes passed over later, she did not waken to their sound.

The siren jarred her awake at about seven. She arose, dressed quickly, and hurried to the house of Mr. Nakamoto, the head of her Neighborhood Association, and asked him what she should do. He said that she should remain at home unless an urgent warning—a series of intermittent blasts of the siren—was sounded. She returned home, lit the stove in the kitchen, set some rice to cook, and sat down to read that morning’s Hiroshima Chugoku . To her relief, the all-clear sounded at eight o’clock. She heard the children stirring, so she went and gave each of them a handful of peanuts and told them to stay on their bedrolls, because they were tired from the night’s walk. She had hoped that they would go back to sleep, but the man in the house directly to the south began to make a terrible hullabaloo of hammering, wedging, ripping, and splitting. The prefectural government, convinced, as everyone in Hiroshima was, that the city would be attacked soon, had begun to press with threats and warnings for the completion of wide fire lanes, which, it was hoped, might act in conjunction with the rivers to localize any fires started by an incendiary raid; and the neighbor was reluctantly sacrificing his home to the city’s safety. Just the day before, the prefecture had ordered all able-bodied girls from the secondary schools to spend a few days helping to clear these lanes, and they started work soon after the all-clear sounded.

Mrs. Nakamura went back to the kitchen, looked at the rice, and began watching the man next door. At first, she was annoyed with him for making so much noise, but then she was moved almost to tears by pity. Her emotion was specifically directed toward her neighbor, tearing down his home, board by board, at a time when there was so much unavoidable destruction, but undoubtedly she also felt a generalized, community pity, to say nothing of self-pity. She had not had an easy time. Her husband, Isawa, had gone into the Army just after Myeko was born, and she had heard nothing from or of him for a long time, until, on March 5, 1942, she received a seven-word telegram: “Isawa died an honorable death at Singapore.” She learned later that he had died on February 15th, the day Singapore fell, and that he had been a corporal. Isawa had been a not particularly prosperous tailor, and his only capital was a Sankoku sewing machine. After his death, when his allotments stopped coming, Mrs. Nakamura got out the machine and began to take in piecework herself, and since then had supported the children, but poorly, by sewing.

As Mrs. Nakamura stood watching her neighbor, everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She did not notice what happened to the man next door; the reflex of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three-quarters of a mile, from the center of the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house.

Timbers fell around her as she landed, and a shower of tiles pommelled her; everything became dark, for she was buried. The debris did not cover her deeply. She rose up and freed herself. She heard a child cry, “Mother, help me!,” and saw her youngest—Myeko, the five-year-old—buried up to her breast and unable to move. As Mrs. Nakamura started frantically to claw her way toward the baby, she could see or hear nothing of her other children.

In the days right before the bombing, Dr. Masakazu Fujii, being prosperous, hedonistic, and, at the time, not too busy, had been allowing himself the luxury of sleeping until nine or nine-thirty, but fortunately he had to get up early the morning the bomb was dropped to see a house guest off on a train. He rose at six, and half an hour later walked with his friend to the station, not far away, across two of the rivers. He was back home by seven, just as the siren sounded its sustained warning. He ate breakfast and then, because the morning was already hot, undressed down to his underwear and went out on the porch to read the paper. This porch—in fact, the whole building—was curiously constructed. Dr. Fujii was the proprietor of a peculiarly Japanese institution, a private, single-doctor hospital. This building, perched beside and over the water of the Kyo River, and next to the bridge of the same name, contained thirty rooms for thirty patients and their kinfolk—for, according to Japanese custom, when a person falls sick and goes to a hospital, one or more members of his family go and live there with him, to cook for him, bathe, massage, and read to him, and to offer incessant familial sympathy, without which a Japanese patient would be miserable indeed. Dr. Fujii had no beds—only straw mats—for his patients. He did, however, have all sorts of modern equipment: an X-ray machine, diathermy apparatus, and a fine tiled laboratory. The structure rested two-thirds on the land, one-third on piles over the tidal waters of the Kyo. This overhang, the part of the building where Dr. Fujii lived, was queer-looking, but it was cool in summer and from the porch, which faced away from the center of the city, the prospect of the river, with pleasure boats drifting up and down it, was always refreshing. Dr. Fujii had occasionally had anxious moments when the Ota and its mouth branches rose to flood, but the piling was apparently firm enough and the house had always held.

Dr. Fujii had been relatively idle for about a month because in July, as the number of untouched cities in Japan dwindled and as Hiroshima seemed more and more inevitably a target, he began turning patients away, on the ground that in case of a fire raid he would not be able to evacuate them. Now he had only two patients left—a woman from Yano, injured in the shoulder, and a young man of twenty-five recovering from burns he had suffered when the steel factory near Hiroshima in which he worked had been hit.

Dr. Fujii had six nurses to tend his patients. His wife and children were safe; his wife and one son were living outside Osaka, and another son and two daughters were in the country on Kyushu. A niece was living with him, and a maid and a manservant. He had little to do and did not mind, for he had saved some money. At fifty, he was healthy, convivial, and calm, and he was pleased to pass the evenings drinking whiskey with friends, always sensibly and for the sake of conversation. Before the war, he had affected brands imported from Scotland and America; now he was perfectly satisfied with the best Japanese brand, Suntory.

Dr. Fujii sat down cross-legged in his underwear on the spotless matting of the porch, put on his glasses, and started reading the Osaka Asahi . He liked to read the Osaka news because his wife was there. He saw the flash. To him—faced away from the center and looking at his paper—it seemed a brilliant yellow. Startled, he began to rise to his feet. In that moment (he was 1,550 yards from the center), the hospital leaned behind his rising and, with a terrible ripping noise, toppled into the river. The Doctor, still in the act of getting to his feet, was thrown forward and around and over; he was buffeted and gripped; he lost track of everything, because things were so speeded up; he felt the water.

Dr. Fujii hardly had time to think that he was dying before he realized that he was alive, squeezed tightly by two long timbers in a V across his chest, like a morsel suspended between two huge chopsticks—held upright, so that he could not move, with his head miraculously above water and his torso and legs in it. The remains of his hospital were all around him in a mad assortment of splintered lumber and materials for the relief of pain. His left shoulder hurt terribly. His glasses were gone.

Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, of the Society of Jesus, was, on the morning of the explosion, in rather frail condition. The Japanese wartime diet had not sustained him, and he felt the strain of being a foreigner in an increasingly xenophobic Japan; even a German, since the defeat of the Fatherland, was unpopular. Father Kleinsorge had, at thirty-eight, the look of a boy growing too fast—thin in the face, with a prominent Adam’s apple, a hollow chest, dangling hands, big feet. He walked clumsily, leaning forward a little. He was tired all the time. To make matters worse, he had suffered for two days, along with Father Cieslik, a fellow-priest, from a rather painful and urgent diarrhea, which they blamed on the beans and black ration bread they were obliged to eat. Two other priests then living in the mission compound, which was in the Nobori-cho section—Father Superior LaSalle and Father Schiffer—had happily escaped this affliction.

Father Kleinsorge woke up about six the morning the bomb was dropped, and half an hour later—he was a bit tardy because of his sickness—he began to read Mass in the mission chapel, a small Japanese-style wooden building which was without pews, since its worshippers knelt on the usual Japanese matted floor, facing an altar graced with splendid silks, brass, silver, and heavy embroideries. This morning, a Monday, the only worshippers were Mr. Takemoto, a theological student living in the mission house; Mr. Fukai, the secretary of the diocese; Mrs. Murata, the mission’s devoutly Christian housekeeper; and his fellow-priests. After Mass, while Father Kleinsorge was reading the Prayers of Thanksgiving, the siren sounded. He stopped the service and the missionaries retired across the compound to the bigger building. There, in his room on the ground floor, to the right of the front door, Father Kleinsorge changed into a military uniform which he had acquired when he was teaching at the Rokko Middle School in Kobe and which he wore during air-raid alerts.

After an alarm, Father Kleinsorge always went out and scanned the sky, and this time, when he stepped outside, he was glad to see only the single weather plane that flew over Hiroshima each day about this time. Satisfied that nothing would happen, he went in and breakfasted with the other Fathers on substitute coffee and ration bread, which, under the circumstances, was especially repugnant to him. The Fathers sat and talked a while, until, at eight, they heard the all-clear. They went then to various parts of the building. Father Schiffer retired to his room to do some writing. Father Cieslik sat in his room in a straight chair with a pillow over his stomach to ease his pain, and read. Father Superior LaSalle stood at the window of his room, thinking. Father Kleinsorge went up to a room on the third floor, took off all his clothes except his underwear, and stretched out on his right side on a cot and began reading his Stimmen der Zeit .

After the terrible flash—which, Father Kleinsorge later realized, reminded him of something he had read as a boy about a large meteor colliding with the earth—he had time (since he was 1,400 yards from the center) for one thought: A bomb has fallen directly on us. Then, for a few seconds or minutes, he went out of his mind.

Father Kleinsorge never knew how he got out of the house. The next things he was conscious of were that he was wandering around in the mission’s vegetable garden in his underwear, bleeding slightly from small cuts along his left flank; that all the buildings round about had fallen down except the Jesuits’ mission house, which had long before been braced and double-braced by a priest named Gropper, who was terrified of earthquakes; that the day had turned dark; and that Murata- san , the housekeeper, was nearby, crying over and over, “ Shu Jesusu, awaremi tamai! Our Lord Jesus, have pity on us!”

On the train on the way into Hiroshima from the country, where he lived with his mother, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, the Red Cross Hospital surgeon, thought over an unpleasant nightmare he had had the night before. His mother’s home was in Mukaihara, thirty miles from the city, and it took him two hours by train and tram to reach the hospital. He had slept uneasily all night and had wakened an hour earlier than usual, and, feeling sluggish and slightly feverish, had debated whether to go to the hospital at all; his sense of duty finally forced him to go, and he had started out on an earlier train than he took most mornings. The dream had particularly frightened him because it was so closely associated, on the surface at least, with a disturbing actuality. He was only twenty-five years old and had just completed his training at the Eastern Medical University, in Tsingtao, China. He was something of an idealist and was much distressed by the inadequacy of medical facilities in the country town where his mother lived. Quite on his own, and without a permit, he had begun visiting a few sick people out there in the evenings, after his eight hours at the hospital and four hours’ commuting. He had recently learned that the penalty for practicing without a permit was severe; a fellow-doctor whom he had asked about it had given him a serious scolding. Nevertheless, he had continued to practice. In his dream, he had been at the bedside of a country patient when the police and the doctor he had consulted burst into the room, seized him, dragged him outside, and beat him up cruelly. On the train, he just about decided to give up the work in Mukaihara, since he felt it would be impossible to get a permit, because the authorities would hold that it would conflict with his duties at the Red Cross Hospital.

At the terminus, he caught a streetcar at once. (He later calculated that if he had taken his customary train that morning, and if he had had to wait a few minutes for the streetcar, as often happened, he would have been close to the center at the time of the explosion and would surely have perished.) He arrived at the hospital at seven-forty and reported to the chief surgeon. A few minutes later, he went to a room on the first floor and drew blood from the arm of a man in order to perform a Wassermann test. The laboratory containing the incubators for the test was on the third floor. With the blood specimen in his left hand, walking in a kind of distraction he had felt all morning, probably because of the dream and his restless night, he started along the main corridor on his way toward the stairs. He was one step beyond an open window when the light of the bomb was reflected, like a gigantic photographic flash, in the corridor. He ducked down on one knee and said to himself, as only a Japanese would, “Sasaki, gambare! Be brave!” Just then (the building was 1,650 yards from the center), the blast ripped through the hospital. The glasses he was wearing flew off his face; the bottle of blood crashed against one wall; his Japanese slippers zipped out from under his feet—but otherwise, thanks to where he stood, he was untouched.

Dr. Sasaki shouted the name of the chief surgeon and rushed around to the man’s office and found him terribly cut by glass. The hospital was in horrible confusion: heavy partitions and ceilings had fallen on patients, beds had overturned, windows had blown in and cut people, blood was spattered on the walls and floors, instruments were everywhere, many of the patients were running about screaming, many more lay dead. (A colleague working in the laboratory to which Dr. Sasaki had been walking was dead; Dr. Sasaki’s patient, whom he had just left and who a few moments before had been dreadfully afraid of syphilis, was also dead.) Dr. Sasaki found himself the only doctor in the hospital who was unhurt.

Dr. Sasaki, who believed that the enemy had hit only the building he was in, got bandages and began to bind the wounds of those inside the hospital; while outside, all over Hiroshima, maimed and dying citizens turned their unsteady steps toward the Red Cross Hospital to begin an invasion that was to make Dr. Sasaki forget his private nightmare for a long, long time.

Miss Toshiko Sasaki, the East Asia Tin Works clerk, who is not related to Dr. Sasaki, got up at three o’clock in the morning on the day the bomb fell. There was extra housework to do. Her eleven-month-old brother, Akio, had come down the day before with a serious stomach upset; her mother had taken him to the Tamura Pediatric Hospital and was staying there with him. Miss Sasaki, who was about twenty, had to cook breakfast for her father, a brother, a sister, and herself, and—since the hospital, because of the war, was unable to provide food—to prepare a whole day’s meals for her mother and the baby, in time for her father, who worked in a factory making rubber earplugs for artillery crews, to take the food by on his way to the plant. When she had finished and had cleaned and put away the cooking things, it was nearly seven. The family lived in Koi, and she had a forty-five-minute trip to the tin works, in the section of town called Kannon-machi. She was in charge of the personnel records in the factory. She left Koi at seven, and as soon as she reached the plant, she went with some of the other girls from the personnel department to the factory auditorium. A prominent local Navy man, a former employee, had committed suicide the day before by throwing himself under a train—a death considered honorable enough to warrant a memorial service, which was to be held at the tin works at ten o’clock that morning. In the large hall, Miss Sasaki and the others made suitable preparations for the meeting. This work took about twenty minutes. Miss Sasaki went back to her office and sat down at her desk. She was quite far from the windows, which were off to her left, and behind her were a couple of tall bookcases containing all the books of the factory library, which the personnel department had organized. She settled herself at her desk, put some things in a drawer, and shifted papers. She thought that before she began to make entries in her lists of new employees, discharges, and departures for the Army, she would chat for a moment with the girl at her right. Just as she turned her head away from the windows, the room was filled with a blinding light. She was paralyzed by fear, fixed still in her chair for a long moment (the plant was 1,600 yards from the center).

Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor above collapsed in splinters and the people up there came down and the roof above them gave way; but principally and first of all, the bookcases right behind her swooped forward and the contents threw her down, with her left leg horribly twisted and breaking underneath her. There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.

II—The Fire

Immediately after the explosion, the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, having run wildly out of the Matsui estate and having looked in wonderment at the bloody soldiers at the mouth of the dugout they had been digging, attached himself sympathetically to an old lady who was walking along in a daze, holding her head with her left hand, supporting a small boy of three or four on her back with her right, and crying, “I’m hurt! I’m hurt! I’m hurt!” Mr. Tanimoto transferred the child to his own back and led the woman by the hand down the street, which was darkened by what seemed to be a local column of dust. He took the woman to a grammar school not far away that had previously been designated for use as a temporary hospital in case of emergency. By this solicitous behavior, Mr. Tanimoto at once got rid of his terror. At the school, he was much surprised to see glass all over the floor and fifty or sixty injured people already waiting to be treated. He reflected that, although the all-clear had sounded and he had heard no planes, several bombs must have been dropped. He thought of a hillock in the rayon man’s garden from which he could get a view of the whole of Koi—of the whole of Hiroshima, for that matter—and he ran back up to the estate.

From the mound, Mr. Tanimoto saw an astonishing panorama. Not just a patch of Koi, as he had expected, but as much of Hiroshima as he could see through the clouded air was giving off a thick, dreadful miasma. Clumps of smoke, near and far, had begun to push up through the general dust. He wondered how such extensive damage could have been dealt out of a silent sky; even a few planes, far up, would have been audible. Houses nearby were burning, and when huge drops of water the size of marbles began to fall, he half thought that they must be coming from the hoses of firemen fighting the blazes. (They were actually drops of condensed moisture falling from the turbulent tower of dust, heat, and fission fragments that had already risen miles into the sky above Hiroshima.)

Mr. Tanimoto turned away from the sight when he heard Mr. Matsuo call out to ask whether he was all right. Mr. Matsuo had been safely cushioned within the falling house by the bedding stored in the front hall and had worked his way out. Mr. Tanimoto scarcely answered. He had thought of his wife and baby, his church, his home, his parishioners, all of them down in that awful murk. Once more he began to run in fear—toward the city.

Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, the tailor’ s widow, having struggled up from under the ruins of her house after the explosion, and seeing Myeko, the youngest of her three children, buried breast-deep and unable to move, crawled across the debris, hauled at timbers, and flung tiles aside, in a hurried effort to free the child. Then, from what seemed to be caverns far below, she heard two small voices crying, “ Tasukete! Tasukete! Help! Help!”

She called the names of her ten-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter: “Toshio! Yaeko!”

The voices from below answered.

Mrs. Nakamura abandoned Myeko, who at least could breathe, and in a frenzy made the wreckage fly above the crying voices. The children had been sleeping nearly ten feet apart, but now their voices seemed to come from the same place. Toshio, the boy, apparently had some freedom to move, because she could feel him undermining the pile of wood and tiles as she worked from above. At last she saw his head, and she hastily pulled him out by it. A mosquito net was wound intricately, as if it had been carefully wrapped, around his feet. He said he had been blown right across the room and had been on top of his sister Yaeko under the wreckage. She now said, from underneath, that she could not move, because there was something on her legs. With a bit more digging, Mrs. Nakamura cleared a hole above the child and began to pull her arm. “ Itai! It hurts!” Yaeko cried. Mrs. Nakamura shouted, “There’s no time now to say whether it hurts or not,” and yanked her whimpering daughter up. Then she freed Myeko. The children were filthy and bruised, but none of them had a single cut or scratch.

Mrs. Nakamura took the children out into the street. They had nothing on but underpants, and although the day was very hot, she worried rather confusedly about their being cold, so she went back into the wreckage and burrowed underneath and found a bundle of clothes she had packed for an emergency, and she dressed them in pants, blouses, shoes, padded-cotton air-raid helmets called bokuzuki , and even, irrationally, overcoats. The children were silent, except for the five-year-old, Myeko, who kept asking questions: “Why is it night already? Why did our house fall down? What happened?” Mrs. Nakamura, who did not know what had happened (had not the all-clear sounded?), looked around and saw through the darkness that all the houses in her neighborhood had collapsed. The house next door, which its owner had been tearing down to make way for a fire lane, was now very thoroughly, if crudely, torn down; its owner, who had been sacrificing his home for the community’s safety, lay dead. Mrs. Nakamoto, wife of the head of the local air-raid-defense Neighborhood Association, came across the street with her head all bloody, and said that her baby was badly cut; did Mrs. Nakamura have any bandage? Mrs. Nakamura did not, but she crawled into the remains of her house again and pulled out some white cloth that she had been using in her work as a seamstress, ripped it into strips, and gave it to Mrs. Nakamoto. While fetching the cloth, she noticed her sewing machine; she went back in for it and dragged it out. Obviously, she could not carry it with her, so she unthinkingly plunged her symbol of livelihood into the receptacle which for weeks had been her symbol of safety—the cement tank of water in front of her house, of the type every household had been ordered to construct against a possible fire raid.

A nervous neighbor, Mrs. Hataya, called to Mrs. Nakamura to run away with her to the woods in Asano Park—an estate, by the Kyo River not far off, belonging to the wealthy Asano family, who once owned the Toyo Kisen Kaisha steamship line. The park had been designated as an evacuation area for their neighborhood. Seeing fire breaking out in a nearby ruin (except at the very center, where the bomb itself ignited some fires, most of Hiroshima’s citywide conflagration was caused by inflammable wreckage falling on cookstoves and live wires), Mrs. Nakamura suggested going over to fight it. Mrs. Hataya said, “Don’t be foolish. What if planes come and drop more bombs?” So Mrs. Nakamura started out for Asano Park with her children and Mrs. Hataya, and she carried her rucksack of emergency clothing, a blanket, an umbrella, and a suitcase of things she had cached in her air-raid shelter. Under many ruins, as they hurried along, they heard muffled screams for help. The only building they saw standing on their way to Asano Park was the Jesuit mission house, alongside the Catholic kindergarten to which Mrs. Nakamura had sent Myeko for a time. As they passed it, she saw Father Kleinsorge, in bloody underwear, running out of the house with a small suitcase in his hand.

Right after the explosion, while Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, S. J., was wandering around in his underwear in the vegetable garden, Father Superior LaSalle came around the corner of the building in the darkness. His body, especially his back, was bloody; the flash had made him twist away from his window, and tiny pieces of glass had flown at him. Father Kleinsorge, still bewildered, managed to ask, “Where are the rest?” Just then, the two other priests living in the mission house appeared—Father Cieslik, unhurt, supporting Father Schiffer, who was covered with blood that spurted from a cut above his left ear and who was very pale. Father Cieslik was rather pleased with himself, for after the flash he had dived into a doorway, which he had previously reckoned to be the safest place inside the building, and when the blast came, he was not injured. Father LaSalle told Father Cieslik to take Father Schiffer to a doctor before he bled to death, and suggested either Dr. Kanda, who lived on the next corner, or Dr. Fujii, about six blocks away. The two men went out of the compound and up the street.

The daughter of Mr. Hoshijima, the mission catechist, ran up to Father Kleinsorge and said that her mother and sister were buried under the ruins of their house, which was at the back of the Jesuit compound, and at the same time the priests noticed that the house of the Catholic-kindergarten teacher at the foot of the compound had collapsed on her. While Father LaSalle and Mrs. Murata, the mission housekeeper, dug the teacher out, Father Kleinsorge went to the catechist’s fallen house and began lifting things off the top of the pile. There was not a sound underneath; he was sure the Hoshijima women had been killed. At last, under what had been a corner of the kitchen, he saw Mrs. Hoshijima’s head. Believing her dead, he began to haul her out by the hair, but suddenly she screamed, “ Itai! Itai! It hurts! It hurts!” He dug some more and lifted her out. He managed, too, to find her daughter in the rubble and free her. Neither was badly hurt.

A public bath next door to the mission house had caught fire, but since there the wind was southerly, the priests thought their house would be spared. Nevertheless, as a precaution, Father Kleinsorge went inside to fetch some things he wanted to save. He found his room in a state of weird and illogical confusion. A first-aid kit was hanging undisturbed on a hook on the wall, but his clothes, which had been on other hooks nearby, were nowhere to be seen. His desk was in splinters all over the room, but a mere papier-mâché suitcase, which he had hidden under the desk, stood handle-side up, without a scratch on it, in the doorway of the room, where he could not miss it. Father Kleinsorge later came to regard this as a bit of Providential interference, inasmuch as the suitcase contained his breviary, the account books for the whole diocese, and a considerable amount of paper money belonging to the mission, for which he was responsible. He ran out of the house and deposited the suitcase in the mission air-raid shelter.

At about this time, Father Cieslik and Father Schiffer, who was still spurting blood, came back and said that Dr. Kanda’s house was ruined and that fire blocked them from getting out of what they supposed to be the local circle of destruction to Dr. Fujii’s private hospital, on the bank of the Kyo River.

Dr. Masakazu Fujii’s hospital was no longer on the bank of the Kyo River; it was in the river. After the overturn, Dr. Fujii was so stupefied and so tightly squeezed by the beams gripping his chest that he was unable to move at first, and he hung there about twenty minutes in the darkened morning. Then a thought which came to him—that soon the tide would be running in through the estuaries and his head would be submerged—inspired him to fearful activity; he wriggled and turned and exerted what strength he could (though his left arm, because of the pain in his shoulder, was useless), and before long he had freed himself from the vise. After a few moments’ rest, he climbed onto the pile of timbers and, finding a long one that slanted up to the riverbank, he painfully shinnied up it.

Dr. Fujii, who was in his underwear, was now soaking and dirty. His undershirt was torn, and blood ran down it from bad cuts on his chin and back. In this disarray, he walked out onto Kyo Bridge, beside which his hospital had stood. The bridge had not collapsed. He could see only fuzzily without his glasses, but he could see enough to be amazed at the number of houses that were down all around. On the bridge, he encountered a friend, a doctor named Machii, and asked in bewilderment, “What do you think it was?”

Dr. Machii said, “It must have been a Molotoffano hanakago ”—a Molotov flower basket, the delicate Japanese name for the “bread basket,” or self-scattering cluster of bombs.

At first, Dr. Fujii could see only two fires, one across the river from his hospital site and one quite far to the south. But at the same time, he and his friend observed something that puzzled them, and which, as doctors, they discussed: although there were as yet very few fires, wounded people were hurrying across the bridge in an endless parade of misery, and many of them exhibited terrible burns on their faces and arms. “Why do you suppose it is?” Dr. Fujii asked. Even a theory was comforting that day, and Dr. Machii stuck to his. “Perhaps because it was a Molotov flower basket,” he said.

There had been no breeze earlier in the morning when Dr. Fujii had walked to the railway station to see a friend off, but now brisk winds were blowing every which way; here on the bridge the wind was easterly. New fires were leaping up, and they spread quickly, and in a very short time terrible blasts of hot air and showers of cinders made it impossible to stand on the bridge any more. Dr. Machii ran to the far side of the river and along a still unkindled street. Dr. Fujii went down into the water under the bridge, where a score of people had already taken refuge, among them his servants, who had extricated themselves from the wreckage. From there, Dr. Fujii saw a nurse hanging in the timbers of his hospital by her legs, and then another painfully pinned across the breast. He enlisted the help of some of the others under the bridge and freed both of them. He thought he heard the voice of his niece for a moment, but he could not find her; he never saw her again. Four of his nurses and the two patients in the hospital died, too. Dr. Fujii went back into the water of the river and waited for the fire to subside.

The lot of Drs. Fujii, Kanda, and Machii right after the explosion—and, as these three were typical, that of the majority of the physicians and surgeons of Hiroshima—with their offices and hospitals destroyed, their equipment scattered, their own bodies incapacitated in varying degrees, explained why so many citizens who were hurt went untended and why so many who might have lived died. Of a hundred and fifty doctors in the city, sixty-five were already dead and most of the rest were wounded. Of 1,780 nurses, 1,654 were dead or too badly hurt to work. In the biggest hospital, that of the Red Cross, only six doctors out of thirty were able to function, and only ten nurses out of more than two hundred. The sole uninjured doctor on the Red Cross Hospital staff was Dr. Sasaki. After the explosion, he hurried to a storeroom to fetch bandages. This room, like everything he had seen as he ran through the hospital, was chaotic—bottles of medicines thrown off shelves and broken, salves spattered on the walls, instruments strewn everywhere. He grabbed up some bandages and an unbroken bottle of mercurochrome, hurried back to the chief surgeon, and bandaged his cuts. Then he went out into the corridor and began patching up the wounded patients and the doctors and nurses there. He blundered so without his glasses that he took a pair off the face of a wounded nurse, and although they only approximately compensated for the errors of his vision, they were better than nothing. (He was to depend on them for more than a month.)

Dr. Sasaki worked without method, taking those who were nearest him first, and he noticed soon that the corridor seemed to be getting more and more crowded. Mixed in with the abrasions and lacerations which most people in the hospital had suffered, he began to find dreadful burns. He realized then that casualties were pouring in from outdoors. There were so many that he began to pass up the lightly wounded; he decided that all he could hope to do was to stop people from bleeding to death. Before long, patients lay and crouched on the floors of the wards and the laboratories and all the other rooms, and in the corridors, and on the stairs, and in the front hall, and under the porte-cochère, and on the stone front steps, and in the driveway and courtyard, and for blocks each way in the streets outside. Wounded people supported maimed people; disfigured families leaned together. Many people were vomiting. A tremendous number of schoolgirls—some of those who had been taken from their classrooms to work outdoors, clearing fire lanes—crept into the hospital. In a city of two hundred and forty-five thousand, nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt. At least ten thousand of the wounded made their way to the best hospital in town, which was altogether unequal to such a trampling, since it had only six hundred beds, and they had all been occupied. The people in the suffocating crowd inside the hospital wept and cried, for Dr. Sasaki to hear, “ Sensei! Doctor!,” and the less seriously wounded came and pulled at his sleeve and begged him to come to the aid of the worse wounded. Tugged here and there in his stockinged feet, bewildered by the numbers, staggered by so much raw flesh, Dr. Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skillful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding.

Some of the wounded in Hiroshima were unable to enjoy the questionable luxury of hospitalization. In what had been the personnel office of the East Asia Tin Works, Miss Sasaki lay doubled over, unconscious, under the tremendous pile of books and plaster and wood and corrugated iron. She was wholly unconscious (she later estimated) for about three hours. Her first sensation was of dreadful pain in her left leg. It was so black under the books and debris that the borderline between awareness and unconsciousness was fine; she apparently crossed it several times, for the pain seemed to come and go. At the moments when it was sharpest, she felt that her leg had been cut off somewhere below the knee. Later, she heard someone walking on top of the wreckage above her, and anguished voices spoke up, evidently from within the mess around her: “Please help! Get us out!”

Father Kleinsorge stemmed Father Schiffer’s spurting cut as well as he could with some bandage that Dr. Fujii had given the priests a few days before. When he finished, he ran into the mission house again and found the jacket of his military uniform and an old pair of gray trousers. He put them on and went outside. A woman from next door ran up to him and shouted that her husband was buried under her house and the house was on fire; Father Kleinsorge must come and save him.

Father Kleinsorge, already growing apathetic and dazed in the presence of the cumulative distress, said, “We haven’t much time.” Houses all around were burning, and the wind was now blowing hard. “Do you know exactly which part of the house he is under?” he asked.

“Yes, yes,” she said. “Come quickly.”

They went around to the house, the remains of which blazed violently, but when they got there, it turned out that the woman had no idea where her husband was. Father Kleinsorge shouted several times, “Is there anyone there?” There was no answer. Father Kleinsorge said to the woman, “We must get away or we will all die.” He went back to the Catholic compound and told the Father Superior that the fire was coming closer on the wind, which had swung around and was now from the north; it was time for everybody to go.

Just then, the kindergarten teacher pointed out to the priests Mr. Fukai, the secretary of the diocese, who was standing in his window on the second floor of the mission house, facing in the direction of the explosion, weeping. Father Cieslik, because he thought the stairs unusable, ran around to the back of the mission house to look for a ladder. There he heard people crying for help under a nearby fallen roof. He called to passersby running away in the street to help him lift it, but nobody paid any attention, and he had to leave the buried ones to die. Father Kleinsorge ran inside the mission house and scrambled up the stairs, which were awry and piled with plaster and lathing, and called to Mr. Fukai from the doorway of his room.

Mr. Fukai, a very short man of about fifty, turned around slowly, with a queer look, and said, “Leave me here.”

Father Kleinsorge went into the room and took Mr. Fukai by the collar of his coat and said, “Come with me or you’ll die.”

Mr. Fukai said, “Leave me here to die.”

Father Kleinsorge began to shove and haul Mr. Fukai out of the room. Then the theological student came up and grabbed Mr. Fukai’ s feet, and Father Kleinsorge took his shoulders, and together they carried him downstairs and outdoors. “I can’t walk!” Mr. Fukai cried. “Leave me here!” Father Kleinsorge got his paper suitcase with the money in it and took Mr. Fukai up pickaback, and the party started for the East Parade Ground, their district’s “safe area.” As they went out of the gate, Mr. Fukai, quite childlike now, beat on Father Kleinsorge’s shoulders and said, “I won’t leave. I won’t leave.” Irrelevantly, Father Kleinsorge turned to Father LaSalle and said, “We have lost all our possessions but not our sense of humor.”

The street was cluttered with parts of houses that had slid into it, and with fallen telephone poles and wires. From every second or third house came the voices of people buried and abandoned, who invariably screamed, with formal politeness, “ Tasukete kure! Help, if you please!” The priests recognized several ruins from which these cries came as the homes of friends, but because of the fire it was too late to help. All the way, Mr. Fukai whimpered, “Let me stay.” The party turned right when they came to a block of fallen houses that was one flame. At Sakai Bridge, which would take them across to the East Parade Ground, they saw that the whole community on the opposite side of the river was a sheet of fire; they dared not cross and decided to take refuge in Asano Park, off to their left. Father Kleinsorge, who had been weakened for a couple of days by his bad case of diarrhea, began to stagger under his protesting burden, and as he tried to climb up over the wreckage of several houses that blocked their way to the park, he stumbled, dropped Mr. Fukai, and plunged down, head over heels, to the edge of the river. When he picked himself up, he saw Mr. Fukai running away. Father Kleinsorge shouted to a dozen soldiers, who were standing by the bridge, to stop him. As Father Kleinsorge started back to get Mr. Fukai, Father LaSalle called out, “Hurry! Don’t waste time!” So Father Kleinsorge just requested the soldiers to take care of Mr. Fukai. They said they would, but the little, broken man got away from them, and the last the priests could see of him, he was running back toward the fire.

Mr. Tanimoto, fearful for his family and church, at first ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent, and showed no expression whatever.

After crossing Koi Bridge and Kannon Bridge, having run the whole way, Mr. Tanimoto saw, as he approached the center, that all the houses had been crushed and many were afire. Here the trees were bare and their trunks were charred. He tried at several points to penetrate the ruins, but the flames always stopped him. Under many houses, people screamed for help, but no one helped; in general, survivors that day assisted only their relatives or immediate neighbors, for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery. The wounded limped past the screams, and Mr. Tanimoto ran past them. As a Christian he was filled with compassion for those who were trapped, and as a Japanese he was overwhelmed by the shame of being unhurt, and he prayed as he ran, “God help them and take them out of the fire.”

He thought he would skirt the fire, to the left. He ran back to Kannon Bridge and followed for a distance one of the rivers. He tried several cross streets, but all were blocked, so he turned far left and ran out to Yokogawa, a station on a railroad line that detoured the city in a wide semicircle, and he followed the rails until he came to a burning train. So impressed was he by this time by the extent of the damage that he ran north two miles to Gion, a suburb in the foothills. All the way, he overtook dreadfully burned and lacerated people, and in his guilt he turned to right and left as he hurried and said to some of them, “Excuse me for having no burden like yours.” Near Gion, he began to meet country people going toward the city to help, and when they saw him, several exclaimed, “Look! There is one who is not wounded.” At Gion, he bore toward the right bank of the main river, the Ota, and ran down it until he reached fire again. There was no fire on the other side of the river, so he threw off his shirt and shoes and plunged into it. In midstream, where the current was fairly strong, exhaustion and fear finally caught up with him—he had run nearly seven miles—and he became limp and drifted in the water. He prayed, “Please, God, help me to cross. It would be nonsense for me to be drowned when I am the only uninjured one.” He managed a few more strokes and fetched up on a spit downstream.

Mr. Tanimoto climbed up the bank and ran along it until, near a large Shinto shrine, he came to more fire, and as he turned left to get around it, he met, by incredible luck, his wife. She was carrying their infant son. Mr. Tanimoto was now so emotionally worn out that nothing could surprise him. He did not embrace his wife; he simply said, “Oh, you are safe.” She told him that she had got home from her night in Ushida just in time for the explosion; she had been buried under the parsonage with the baby in her arms. She told how the wreckage had pressed down on her, how the baby had cried. She saw a chink of light, and by reaching up with a hand, she worked the hole bigger, bit by bit. After about half an hour, she heard the crackling noise of wood burning. At last the opening was big enough for her to push the baby out, and afterward she crawled out herself. She said she was now going out to Ushida again. Mr. Tanimoto said he wanted to see his church and take care of the people of his Neighborhood Association. They parted as casually—as bewildered—as they had met.

Mr. Tanimoto’s way around the fire took him across the East Parade Ground, which, being an evacuation area, was now the scene of a gruesome review: rank on rank of the burned and bleeding. Those who were burned moaned, “ Mizu, mizu! Water, water!” Mr. Tanimoto found a basin in a nearby street and located a water tap that still worked in the crushed shell of a house, and he began carrying water to the suffering strangers. When he had given drink to about thirty of them, he realized he was taking too much time. “Excuse me,” he said loudly to those nearby who were reaching out their hands to him and crying their thirst. “I have many people to take care of.” Then he ran away. He went to the river again, the basin in his hand, and jumped down onto a sandspit. There he saw hundreds of people so badly wounded that they could not get up to go farther from the burning city. When they saw a man erect and unhurt, the chant began again: “ Mizu, mizu, mizu. ” Mr. Tanimoto could not resist them; he carried them water from the river—a mistake, since it was tidal and brackish. Two or three small boats were ferrying hurt people across the river from Asano Park, and when one touched the spit, Mr. Tanimoto again made his loud, apologetic speech and jumped into the boat. It took him across to the park. There, in the underbrush, he found some of his charges of the Neighborhood Association, who had come there by his previous instructions, and saw many acquaintances, among them Father Kleinsorge and the other Catholics. But he missed Fukai, who had been a close friend. “Where is Fukai- san ?” he asked.

“He didn’t want to come with us, Father Kleinsorge said. “He ran back.”

When Miss Sasaki heard the voices of the people caught along with her in the dilapidation at the tin factory, she began speaking to them. Her nearest neighbor, she discovered, was a high-school girl who had been drafted for factory work, and who said her back was broken. Miss Sasaki replied, “I am lying here and I can’t move. My left leg is cut off.”

Some time later, she again heard somebody walk overhead and then move off to one side, and whoever it was began burrowing. The digger released several people, and when he had uncovered the high-school girl, she found that her back was not broken, after all, and she crawled out. Miss Sasaki spoke to the rescuer, and he worked toward her. He pulled away a great number of books, until he had made a tunnel to her. She could see his perspiring face as he said, “Come out, Miss.” She tried. “I can’t move,” she said. The man excavated some more and told her to try with all her strength to get out. But books were heavy on her hips, and the man finally saw that a bookcase was leaning on the books and that a heavy beam pressed down on the bookcase. “Wait,” he said. “I’ll get a crowbar.”

The man was gone a long time, and when he came back, he was ill-tempered, as if her plight were all her fault. “We have no men to help you!” he shouted in through the tunnel. “You’ll have to get out by yourself.”

“That’s impossible,” she said. “My left leg . . .” The man went away.

Much later, several men came and dragged Miss Sasaki out. Her left leg was not severed, but it was badly broken and cut and it hung askew below the knee. They took her out into a courtyard. It was raining. She sat on the ground in the rain. When the downpour increased, someone directed all the wounded people to take cover in the factory’s air-raid shelters. “Come along,” a torn-up woman said to her. “You can hop.” But Miss Sasaki could not move, and she just waited in the rain. Then a man propped up a large sheet of corrugated iron as a kind of lean-to, and took her in his arms and carried her to it. She was grateful until he brought two horribly wounded people—a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn—to share the simple shed with her. No one came back. The rain cleared and the cloudy afternoon was hot; before nightfall the three grotesques under the slanting piece of twisted iron began to smell quite bad.

The former head of the Nobori-cho Neighborhood Association, to which the Catholic priests belonged, was an energetic man named Yoshida. He had boasted, when he was in charge of the district air-raid defenses, that fire might eat away all of Hiroshima but it would never come to Nobori-cho. The bomb blew down his house, and a joist pinned him by the legs, in full view of the Jesuit mission house across the way and of the people hurrying along the street. In their confusion as they hurried past, Mrs. Nakamura, with her children, and Father Kleinsorge, with Mr. Fukai on his back, hardly saw him; he was just part of the general blur of misery through which they moved. His cries for help brought no response from them; there were so many people shouting for help that they could not hear him separately. They and all the others went along. Nobori-cho became absolutely deserted, and the fire swept through it. Mr. Yoshida saw the wooden mission house—the only erect building in the area—go up in a lick of flame, and the heat was terrific on his face. Then flames came along his side of the street and entered his house. In a paroxysm of terrified strength, he freed himself and ran down the alleys of Nobori-cho, hemmed in by the fire he had said would never come. He began at once to behave like an old man; two months later his hair was white.

As Dr. Fujii stood in the river up to his neck to avoid the heat of the fire, the wind grew stronger and stronger, and soon, even though the expanse of water was small, the waves grew so high that the people under the bridge could no longer keep their footing. Dr. Fujii went close to the shore, crouched down, and embraced a large stone with his usable arm. Later it became possible to wade along the very edge of the river, and Dr. Fujii and his two surviving nurses moved about two hundred yards upstream, to a sandspit near Asano Park. Many wounded were lying on the sand. Dr. Machii was there with his family; his daughter, who had been outdoors when the bomb burst, was badly burned on her hands and legs but fortunately not on her face. Although Dr. Fujii’s shoulder was by now terribly painful, he examined the girl’s burns curiously. Then he lay down. In spite of the misery all around, he was ashamed of his appearance, and he remarked to Dr. Machii that he looked like a beggar, dressed as he was in nothing but torn and bloody underwear. Late in the afternoon, when the fire began to subside, he decided to go to his parental house, in the suburb of Nagatsuka. He asked Dr. Machii to join him, but the Doctor answered that he and his family were going to spend the night on the spit, because of his daughter’s injuries. Dr. Fujii, together with his nurses, walked first to Ushida, where, in the partially damaged house of some relatives, he found first-aid materials he had stored there. The two nurses bandaged him and he them. They went on. Now not many people walked in the streets, but a great number sat and lay on the pavement, vomited, waited for death, and died. The number of corpses on the way to Nagatsuka was more and more puzzling. The Doctor wondered: Could a Molotov flower basket have done all this?

Dr. Fujii reached his family’s house in the evening. It was five miles from the center of town, but its roof had fallen in and the windows were all broken.

All day, people poured into Asano Park. This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves. Mrs. Nakamura and her children were among the first to arrive, and they settled in the bamboo grove near the river. They all felt terribly thirsty, and they drank from the river. At once they were nauseated and began vomiting, and they retched the whole day. Others were also nauseated; they all thought (probably because of the strong odor of ionization, an “electric smell” given off by the bomb’s fission) that they were sick from a gas the Americans had dropped. When Father Kleinsorge and the other priests came into the park, nodding to their friends as they passed, the Nakamuras were all sick and prostrate. A woman named Iwasaki, who lived in the neighborhood of the mission and who was sitting near the Nakamuras, got up and asked the priests if she should stay where she was or go with them. Father Kleinsorge said, “I hardly know where the safest place is.” She stayed there, and later in the day, though she had no visible wounds or burns, she died. The priests went farther along the river and settled down in some underbrush. Father LaSalle lay down and went right to sleep. The theological student, who was wearing slippers, had carried with him a bundle of clothes, in which he had packed two pairs of leather shoes. When he sat down with the others, he found that the bundle had broken open and a couple of shoes had fallen out and now he had only two lefts. He retraced his steps and found one right. When he rejoined the priests, he said, “It’s funny, but things don’t matter any more. Yesterday, my shoes were my most important possessions. Today, I don’t care. One pair is enough.”

Father Cieslik said, “I know. I started to bring my books along, and then I thought, ‘This is no time for books.’ ”

When Mr. Tanimoto, with his basin still in his hand, reached the park, it was very crowded, and to distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open. To Father Kleinsorge, an Occidental, the silence in the grove by the river, where hundreds of gruesomely wounded suffered together, was one of the most dreadful and awesome phenomena of his whole experience. The hurt ones were quiet; no one wept, much less screamed in pain; no one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily; not even the children cried; very few people even spoke. And when Father Kleinsorge gave water to some whose faces had been almost blotted out by flash burns, they took their share and then raised themselves a little and bowed to him, in thanks.


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Mr. Tanimoto greeted the priests and then looked around for other friends. He saw Mrs. Matsumoto, wife of the director of the Methodist School, and asked her if she was thirsty. She was, so he went to one of the pools in the Asanos’ rock gardens and got water for her in his basin. Then he decided to try to get back to his church. He went into Nobori-cho by the way the priests had taken as they escaped, but he did not get far; the fire along the streets was so fierce that he had to turn back. He walked to the riverbank and began to look for a boat in which he might carry some of the most severely injured across the river from Asano Park and away from the spreading fire. Soon he found a good-sized pleasure punt drawn up on the bank, but in and around it was an awful tableau—five dead men, nearly naked, badly burned, who must have expired more or less all at once, for they were in attitudes which suggested that they had been working together to push the boat down into the river. Mr. Tanimoto lifted them away from the boat, and as he did so, he experienced such horror at disturbing the dead—preventing them, he momentarily felt, from launching their craft and going on their ghostly way—that he said out loud, “Please forgive me for taking this boat. I must use it for others, who are alive.” The punt was heavy, but he managed to slide it into the water. There were no oars, and all he could find for propulsion was a thick bamboo pole. He worked the boat upstream to the most crowded part of the park and began to ferry the wounded. He could pack ten or twelve into the boat for each crossing, but as the river was too deep in the center to pole his way across, he had to paddle with the bamboo, and consequently each trip took a very long time. He worked several hours that way.

Early in the afternoon, the fire swept into the woods of Asano Park. The first Mr. Tanimoto knew of it was when, returning in his boat, he saw that a great number of people had moved toward the riverside. On touching the bank, he went up to investigate, and when he saw the fire, he shouted, “All the young men who are not badly hurt come with me!” Father Kleinsorge moved Father Schiffer and Father LaSalle close to the edge of the river and asked people there to get them across if the fire came too near, and then joined Tanimoto’s volunteers. Mr. Tanimoto sent some to look for buckets and basins and told others to beat the burning underbrush with their clothes; when utensils were at hand, he formed a bucket chain from one of the pools in the rock gardens. The team fought the fire for more than two hours, and gradually defeated the flames. As Mr. Tanimoto’s men worked, the frightened people in the park pressed closer and closer to the river, and finally the mob began to force some of the unfortunates who were on the very bank into the water. Among those driven into the river and drowned were Mrs. Matsumoto, of the Methodist School, and her daughter.

When Father Kleinsorge got back after fighting the fire, he found Father Schiffer still bleeding and terribly pale. Some Japanese stood around and stared at him, and Father Schiffer whispered, with a weak smile, “It is as if I were already dead.” “Not yet,” Father Kleinsorge said. He had brought Dr. Fujii’s first-aid kit with him, and he had noticed Dr. Kanda in the crowd, so he sought him out and asked him if he would dress Father Schiffer’s bad cuts. Dr. Kanda had seen his wife and daughter dead in the ruins of his hospital; he sat now with his head in his hands. “I can’t do anything,” he said. Father Kleinsorge bound more bandage around Father Schiffer’s head, moved him to a steep place, and settled him so that his head was high, and soon the bleeding diminished.

The roar of approaching planes was heard about this time. Someone in the crowd near the Nakamura family shouted, “It’s some Grummans coming to strafe us!” A baker named Nakashima stood up and commanded, “Everyone who is wearing anything white, take it off.” Mrs. Nakamura took the blouses off her children, and opened her umbrella and made them get under it. A great number of people, even badly burned ones, crawled into bushes and stayed there until the hum, evidently of a reconnaissance or weather run, died away.

It began to rain. Mrs. Nakamura kept her children under the umbrella. The drops grew abnormally large, and someone shouted, “The Americans are dropping gasoline. They’re going to set fire to us!” (This alarm stemmed from one of the theories being passed through the park as to why so much of Hiroshima had burned: it was that a single plane had sprayed gasoline on the city and then somehow set fire to it in one flashing moment.) But the drops were palpably water, and as they fell, the wind grew stronger and stronger, and suddenly—probably because of the tremendous convection set up by the blazing city—a whirlwind ripped through the park. Huge trees crashed down; small ones were uprooted and flew into the air. Higher, a wild array of flat things revolved in the twisting funnel—pieces of iron roofing, papers, doors, strips of matting. Father Kleinsorge put a piece of cloth over Father Schiffer’s eyes, so that the feeble man would not think he was going crazy. The gale blew Mrs. Murata, the mission housekeeper, who was sitting close by the river, down the embankment at a shallow, rocky place, and she came out with her bare feet bloody. The vortex moved out onto the river, where it sucked up a waterspout and eventually spent itself.

After the storm, Mr. Tanimoto began ferrying people again, and Father Kleinsorge asked the theological student to go across and make his way out to the Jesuit Novitiate at Nagatsuka, about three miles from the center of town, and to request the priests there to come with help for Fathers Schiffer and LaSalle. The student got into Mr. Tanimoto’s boat and went off with him. Father Kleinsorge asked Mrs. Nakamura if she would like to go out to Nagatsuka with the priests when they came. She said she had some luggage and her children were sick—they were still vomiting from time to time, and so, for that matter, was she—and therefore she feared she could not. He said he thought the fathers from the Novitiate could come back the next day with a pushcart to get her.

Late in the afternoon, when he went ashore for a while, Mr. Tanimoto, upon whose energy and initiative many had come to depend, heard people begging for food. He consulted Father Kleinsorge, and they decided to go back into town to get some rice from Mr. Tanimoto’s Neighborhood Association shelter and from the mission shelter. Father Cieslik and two or three others went with them. At first, when they got among the rows of prostrate houses, they did not know where they were; the change was too sudden, from a busy city of two hundred and forty-five thousand that morning to a mere pattern of residue in the afternoon. The asphalt of the streets was still so soft and hot from the fires that walking was uncomfortable. They encountered only one person, a woman, who said to them as they passed, “My husband is in those ashes.” At the mission, where Mr. Tanimoto left the party, Father Kleinsorge was dismayed to see the building razed. In the garden, on the way to the shelter, he noticed a pumpkin roasted on the vine. He and Father Cieslik tasted it and it was good. They were surprised at their hunger, and they ate quite a bit. They got out several bags of rice and gathered up several other cooked pumpkins and dug up some potatoes that were nicely baked under the ground, and started back. Mr. Tanimoto rejoined them on the way. One of the people with him had some cooking utensils. In the park, Mr. Tanimoto organized the lightly wounded women of his neighborhood to cook. Father Kleinsorge offered the Nakamura family some pumpkin, and they tried it, but they could not keep it on their stomachs. Altogether, the rice was enough to feed nearly a hundred people.

Just before dark, Mr. Tanimoto came across a twenty-year-old girl, Mrs. Kamai, the Tanimotos’ next-door neighbor. She was crouching on the ground with the body of her infant daughter in her arms. The baby had evidently been dead all day. Mrs. Kamai jumped up when she saw Mr. Tanimoto and said, “Would you please try to locate my husband?”

Mr. Tanimoto knew that her husband had been inducted into the Army just the day before; he and Mrs. Tanimoto had entertained Mrs. Kamai in the afternoon, to make her forget. Kamai had reported to the Chugoku Regional Army Headquarters—near the ancient castle in the middle of town—where some four thousand troops were stationed. Judging by the many maimed soldiers Mr. Tanimoto had seen during the day, he surmised that the barracks had been badly damaged by whatever it was that had hit Hiroshima. He knew he hadn’t a chance of finding Mrs. Kamai’s husband, even if he searched, but he wanted to humor her. “I’ll try,” he said.

“You’ve got to find him,” she said. “He loved our baby so much. I want him to see her once more.”

III—Details Are Being Investigated

Early in the evening of the day the bomb exploded, a Japanese naval launch moved slowly up and down the seven rivers of Hiroshima. It stopped here and there to make an announcement—alongside the crowded sandspits, on which hundreds of wounded lay; at the bridges, on which others were crowded; and eventually, as twilight fell, opposite Asano Park. A young officer stood up in the launch and shouted through a megaphone, “Be patient! A naval hospital ship is coming to take care of you!” The sight of the shipshape launch against the background of the havoc across the river; the unruffled young man in his neat uniform; above all, the promise of medical help—the first word of possible succor anyone had heard in nearly twelve awful hours—cheered the people in the park tremendously. Mrs. Nakamura settled her family for the night with the assurance that a doctor would come and stop their retching. Mr. Tanimoto resumed ferrying the wounded across the river. Father Kleinsorge lay down and said the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary to himself, and fell right asleep; but no sooner had he dropped off than Mrs. Murata, the conscientious mission housekeeper, shook him and said, “Father Kleinsorge! Did you remember to repeat your evening prayers?” He answered rather grumpily, “Of course,” and he tried to go back to sleep but could not. This, apparently, was just what Mrs. Murata wanted. She began to chat with the exhausted priest. One of the questions she raised was when he thought the priests from the Novitiate, for whom he had sent a messenger in midafternoon, would arrive to evacuate Father Superior LaSalle and Father Schiffer.

The messenger Father Kleinsorge had sent—the theological student who had been living at the mission house—had arrived at the Novitiate, in the hills about three miles out, at half past four. The sixteen priests there had been doing rescue work in the outskirts; they had worried about their colleagues in the city but had not known how or where to look for them. Now they hastily made two litters out of poles and boards, and the student led half a dozen of them back into the devastated area. They worked their way along the Ota above the city; twice the heat of the fire forced them into the river. At Misasa Bridge, they encountered a long line of soldiers making a bizarre forced march away from the Chugoku Regional Army Headquarters in the center of the town. All were grotesquely burned, and they supported themselves with staves or leaned on one another. Sick, burned horses, hanging their heads, stood on the bridge. When the rescue party reached the park, it was after dark, and progress was made extremely difficult by the tangle of fallen trees of all sizes that had been knocked down by the whirlwind that afternoon. At last—not long after Mrs. Murata asked her question—they reached their friends, and gave them wine and strong tea.

The priests discussed how to get Father Schiffer and Father LaSalle out to the Novitiate. They were afraid that blundering through the park with them would jar them too much on the wooden litters, and that the wounded men would lose too much blood. Father Kleinsorge thought of Mr. Tanimoto and his boat, and called out to him on the river. When Mr. Tanimoto reached the bank, he said he would be glad to take the injured priests and their bearers upstream to where they could find a clear roadway. The rescuers put Father Schiffer onto one of the stretchers and lowered it into the boat, and two of them went aboard with it. Mr. Tanimoto, who still had no oars, poled the punt upstream.

About half an hour later, Mr. Tanimoto came back and excitedly asked the remaining priests to help him rescue two children he had seen standing up to their shoulders in the river. A group went out and picked them up—two young girls who had lost their family and were both badly burned. The priests stretched them on the ground next to Father Kleinsorge and then embarked Father LaSalle. Father Cieslik thought he could make it out to the Novitiate on foot, so he went aboard with the others. Father Kleinsorge was too feeble; he decided to wait in the park until the next day. He asked the men to come back with a handcart, so that they could take Mrs. Nakamura and her sick children to the Novitiate.

Mr. Tanimoto shoved off again. As the boatload of priests moved slowly upstream, they heard weak cries for help. A woman’s voice stood out especially: “There are people here about to be drowned! Help us! The water is rising!” The sounds came from one of the sandspits, and those in the punt could see, in the reflected light of the still-burning fires, a number of wounded people lying at the edge of the river, already partly covered by the flooding tide. Mr. Tanimoto wanted to help them, but the priests were afraid that Father Schiffer would die if they didn’t hurry, and they urged their ferryman along. He dropped them where he had put Father Schiffer down and then started back alone toward the sandspit.

The night was hot, and it seemed even hotter because of the fires against the sky, but the younger of the two girls Mr. Tanimoto and the priests had rescued complained to Father Kleinsorge that she was cold. He covered her with his jacket. She and her older sister had been in the salt water of the river for a couple of hours before being rescued. The younger one had huge, raw flash burns on her body; the salt water must have been excruciatingly painful to her. She began to shiver heavily, and again said it was cold. Father Kleinsorge borrowed a blanket from someone nearby and wrapped her up, but she shook more and more, and said again, “I am so cold,” and then she suddenly stopped shivering and was dead.

Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. Then he got out into the water and, though a small man, lifted several of the men and women, who were naked, into his boat. Their backs and breasts were clammy, and he remembered uneasily what the great burns he had seen during the day had been like: yellow at first, then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off, and finally, in the evening, suppurated and smelly. With the tide risen, his bamboo pole was now too short and he had to paddle most of the way across with it. On the other side, at a higher spit, he lifted the slimy living bodies out and carried them up the slope away from the tide. He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, “These are human beings.” It took him three trips to get them all across the river. When he had finished, he decided he had to have a rest, and he went back to the park.

As Mr. Tanimoto stepped up the dark bank, he tripped over someone, and someone else said angrily, “Look out! That’s my hand.” Mr. Tanimoto, ashamed of hurting wounded people, embarrassed at being able to walk upright, suddenly thought of the naval hospital ship, which had not come (it never did), and he had for a moment a feeling of blind, murderous rage at the crew of the ship, and then at all doctors. Why didn’t they come to help these people?

Dr. Fujii lay in dreadful pain throughout the night on the floor of his family’s roofless house on the edge of the city. By the light of a lantern, he had examined himself and found: left clavicle fractured; multiple abrasions and lacerations of face and body, including deep cuts on the chin, back, and legs; extensive contusions on chest and trunk; a couple of ribs possibly fractured. Had he not been so badly hurt, he might have been at Asano Park, assisting the wounded.

By nightfall, ten thousand victims of the explosion had invaded the Red Cross Hospital, and Dr. Sasaki, worn out, was moving aimlessly and dully up and down the stinking corridors with wads of bandage and bottles of mercurochrome, still wearing the glasses he had taken from the wounded nurse, binding up the worst cuts as he came to them. Other doctors were putting compresses of saline solution on the worst burns. That was all they could do. After dark, they worked by the light of the city’s fires and by candles the ten remaining nurses held for them. Dr. Sasaki had not looked outside the hospital all day; the scene inside was so terrible and so compelling that it had not occurred to him to ask any questions about what had happened beyond the windows and doors. Ceilings and partitions had fallen; plaster, dust, blood, and vomit were everywhere. Patients were dying by the hundreds, but there was nobody to carry away the corpses. Some of the hospital staff distributed biscuits and rice balls, but the charnel-house smell was so strong that few were hungry. By three o’clock the next morning, after nineteen straight hours of his gruesome work, Dr. Sasaki was incapable of dressing another wound. He and some other survivors of the hospital staff got straw mats and went outdoors—thousands of patients and hundreds of dead were in the yard and on the driveway—and hurried around behind the hospital and lay down in hiding to snatch some sleep. But within an hour wounded people had found them; a complaining circle formed around them: “Doctors! Help us! How can you sleep?” Dr. Sasaki got up again and went back to work. Early in the day, he thought for the first time of his mother at their country home in Mukaihara, thirty miles from town. He usually went home every night. He was afraid she would think he was dead.

Near the spot upriver to which Mr. Tanimoto had transported the priests, there sat a large case of rice cakes which a rescue party had evidently brought for the wounded lying thereabouts but hadn’t distributed. Before evacuating the wounded priests, the others passed the cakes around and helped themselves. A few minutes later, a band of soldiers came up, and an officer, hearing the priests speaking a foreign language, drew his sword and hysterically asked who they were. One of the priests calmed him down and explained that they were Germans—allies. The officer apologized and said that there were reports going around that American parachutists had landed.

The priests decided that they should take Father Schiffer first. As they prepared to leave, Father Superior LaSalle said he felt awfully cold. One of the Jesuits gave up his coat, another his shirt; they were glad to wear less in the muggy night. The stretcher bearers started out. The theological student led the way and tried to warn the others of obstacles, but one of the priests got a foot tangled in some telephone wire and tripped and dropped his corner of the litter. Father Schiffer rolled off, lost consciousness, came to, and then vomited. The bearers picked him up and went on with him to the edge of the city, where they had arranged to meet a relay of other priests, left him with them, and turned back and got the Father Superior.

The wooden litter must have been terribly painful for Father LaSalle, in whose back scores of tiny particles of window glass were embedded. Near the edge of town, the group had to walk around an automobile burned and squatting on the narrow road, and the bearers on one side, unable to see their way in the darkness, fell into a deep ditch. Father LaSalle was thrown onto the ground and the litter broke in two. One priest went ahead to get a handcart from the Novitiate, but he soon found one beside an empty house and wheeled it back. The priests lifted Father LaSalle into the cart and pushed him over the bumpy road the rest of the way. The rector of the Novitiate, who had been a doctor before he entered the religious order, cleaned the wounds of the two priests and put them to bed between clean sheets, and they thanked God for the care they had received.

Thousands of people had nobody to help them. Miss Sasaki was one of them. Abandoned and helpless, under the crude lean-to in the courtyard of the tin factory, beside the woman who had lost a breast and the man whose burned face was scarcely a face any more, she suffered awfully that night from the pain in her broken leg. She did not sleep at all; neither did she converse with her sleepless companions.

In the park, Mrs. Murata kept Father Kleinsorge awake all night by talking to him. None of the Nakamura family were able to sleep, either; the children, in spite of being very sick, were interested in everything that happened. They were delighted when one of the city’s gas-storage tanks went up in a tremendous burst of flame. Toshio, the boy, shouted to the others to look at the reflection in the river. Mr. Tanimoto, after his long run and his many hours of rescue work, dozed uneasily. When he awoke, in the first light of dawn, he looked across the river and saw that he had not carried the festered, limp bodies high enough on the sandspit the night before. The tide had risen above where he had put them; they had not had the strength to move; they must have drowned. He saw a number of bodies floating in the river.

Early that day, August 7th, the Japanese radio broadcast for the first time a succinct announcement that very few, if any, of the people most concerned with its content, the survivors in Hiroshima, happened to hear: “Hiroshima suffered considerable damage as the result of an attack by a few B-29s. It is believed that a new type of bomb was used. The details are being investigated.” Nor is it probable that any of the survivors happened to be tuned in on a short-wave rebroadcast of an extraordinary announcement by the President of the United States, which identified the new bomb as atomic: “That bomb had more power than twenty thousand tons of TNT. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British Grand Slam, which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.” Those victims who were able to worry at all about what had happened thought of it and discussed it in more primitive, childish terms—gasoline sprinkled from an airplane, maybe, or some combustible gas, or a big cluster of incendiaries, or the work of parachutists; but, even if they had known the truth, most of them were too busy or too weary or too badly hurt to care that they were the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power, which (as the voices on the short wave shouted) no country except the United States, with its industrial know-how, its willingness to throw two billion gold dollars into an important wartime gamble, could possibly have developed.

Mr. Tanimoto was still angry at doctors. He decided that he would personally bring one to Asano Park—by the scruff of the neck, if necessary. He crossed the river, went past the Shinto shrine where he had met his wife for a brief moment the day before, and walked to the East Parade Ground. Since this had long before been designated as an evacuation area, he thought he would find an aid station there. He did find one, operated by an Army medical unit, but he also saw that its doctors were hopelessly overburdened, with thousands of patients sprawled among corpses across the field in front of it. Nevertheless, he went up to one of the Army doctors and said, as reproachfully as he could, “Why have you not come to Asano Park? You are badly needed there.”

Continued below…

Published in the print edition of the August 31, 1946, issue.

Hiroshima continued

Click to read part 2 of 2

Without even looking up from his work, the doctor said in a tired voice, “This is my station.”

“But there are many dying on the riverbank over there.”

“The first duty,” the doctor said, “is to take care of the slightly wounded.”

“Why—when there are many who are heavily wounded on the riverbank?”

The doctor moved to another patient. “In an emergency like this,” he said, as if he were reciting from a manual, “the first task is to help as many as possible—to save as many lives as possible. There is no hope for the heavily wounded. They will die. We can’t bother with them.”

“That may be right from a medical standpoint—” Mr. Tanimoto began, but then he looked out across the field, where the many dead lay close and intimate with those who were still living, and he turned away without finishing his sentence, angry now with himself. He didn’t know what to do; he had promised some of the dying people in the park that he would bring them medical aid. They might die feeling cheated. He saw a ration stand at one side of the field, and he went to it and begged some rice cakes and biscuits, and he took them back, in lieu of doctors, to the people in the park.

The morning, again, was hot. Father Kleinsorge went to fetch water for the wounded in a bottle and a teapot he had borrowed. He had heard that it was possible to get fresh tap water outside Asano Park. Going through the rock gardens, he had to climb over and crawl under the trunks of fallen pine trees; he found he was weak. There were many dead in the gardens. At a beautiful moon bridge, he passed a naked, living woman who seemed to have been burned from head to toe and was red all over. Near the entrance to the park, an Army doctor was working, but the only medicine he had was iodine, which he painted over cuts, bruises, slimy burns, everything—and by now everything that he painted had pus on it. Outside the gate of the park, Father Kleinsorge found a faucet that still worked—part of the plumbing of a vanished house—and he filled his vessels and returned. When he had given the wounded the water, he made a second trip. This time, the woman by the bridge was dead. On his way back with the water, he got lost on a detour around a fallen tree, and as he looked for his way through the woods, he heard a voice ask from the underbrush, “Have you anything to drink?” He saw a uniform. Thinking there was just one soldier, he approached with the water. When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. (They must have had their faces upturned when the bomb went off; perhaps they were anti-aircraft personnel.) Their mouths were mere swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot. So Father Kleinsorge got a large piece of grass and drew out the stem so as to make a straw, and gave them all water to drink that way. One of them said, “I can’t see anything.” Father Kleinsorge answered, as cheerfully as he could, “There’s a doctor at the entrance to the park. He’s busy now, but he’ll come soon and fix your eyes, I hope.”

Since that day, Father Kleinsorge has thought back to how queasy he had once been at the sight of pain, how someone else’s cut finger used to make him turn faint. Yet there in the park he was so benumbed that immediately after leaving this horrible sight he stopped on a path by one of the pools and discussed with a lightly wounded man whether it would be safe to eat the fat, two-foot carp that floated dead on the surface of the water. They decided, after some consideration, that it would be unwise.

Father Kleinsorge filled the containers a third time and went back to the riverbank. There, amid the dead and dying, he saw a young woman with a needle and thread mending her kimono, which had been slightly torn. Father Kleinsorge joshed her. “My, but you’re a dandy!” he said. She laughed.

He felt tired and lay down. He began to talk with two engaging children whose acquaintance he had made the afternoon before. He learned that their name was Kataoka; the girl was thirteen, the boy five. The girl had been just about to set out for a barbershop when the bomb fell. As the family started for Asano Park, their mother decided to turn back for some food and extra clothing; they became separated from her in the crowd of fleeing people, and they had not seen her since. Occasionally they stopped suddenly in their perfectly cheerful playing and began to cry for their mother.

It was difficult for all the children in the park to sustain the sense of tragedy. Toshio Nakamura got quite excited when he saw his friend Seichi Sato riding up the river in a boat with his family, and he ran to the bank and waved and shouted, “Sato! Sato!”

The boy turned his head and shouted, “Who’s that?”


“Hello, Toshio!”

“Are you all safe?”

“Yes. What about you?”

“Yes, we’re all right. My sisters are vomiting, but I’m fine.”

Father Kleinsorge began to be thirsty in the dreadful heat, and he did not feel strong enough to go for water again. A little before noon, he saw a Japanese woman handing something out. Soon she came to him and said in a kindly voice, “These are tea leaves. Chew them, young man, and you won’t feel thirsty.” The woman’s gentleness made Father Kleinsorge suddenly want to cry. For weeks, he had been feeling oppressed by the hatred of foreigners that the Japanese seemed increasingly to show, and he had been uneasy even with his Japanese friends. This stranger’s gesture made him a little hysterical.

Around noon, the priests arrived from the Novitiate with the handcart. They had been to the site of the mission house in the city and had retrieved some suitcases that had been stored in the air-raid shelter and had also picked up the remains of melted holy vessels in the ashes of the chapel. They now packed Father Kleinsorge’s papier-mâché suitcase and the things belonging to Mrs. Murata and the Nakamuras into the cart, put the two Nakamura girls aboard, and prepared to start out. Then one of the Jesuits who had a practical turn of mind remembered that they had been notified some time before that if they suffered property damage at the hands of the enemy, they could enter a claim for compensation with the prefectural police. The holy men discussed this matter there in the park, with the wounded as silent as the dead around them, and decided that Father Kleinsorge, as a former resident of the destroyed mission, was the one to enter the claim. So, as the others went off with the handcart, Father Kleinsorge said goodbye to the Kataoka children and trudged to a police station. Fresh, clean-uniformed policemen from another town were in charge, and a crowd of dirty and disarrayed citizens crowded around them, mostly asking after lost relatives. Father Kleinsorge filled out a claim form and started walking through the center of town on his way to Nagatsuka. It was then that he first realized the extent of the damage; he passed block after block of ruins, and even after all he had seen in the park, his breath was taken away. By the time he reached the Novitiate, he was sick with exhaustion. The last thing he did as he fell into bed was request that someone go back for the motherless Kataoka children.

Altogether Miss Sasaki was left two days and two nights under the piece of propped-up roofing with her crushed leg and her two unpleasant comrades. Her only diversion was when men came to the factory air-raid shelters, which she could see from under one corner of her shelter, and hauled corpses up out of them with ropes. Her leg became discolored, swollen, and putrid. All that time, she went without food and water. On the third day, August 8th, some friends who supposed she was dead came to look for her body and found her. They told her that her mother, father, and baby brother, who at the time of the explosion were in the Tamura Pediatric Hospital, where the baby was a patient, had all been given up as certainly dead, since the hospital was totally destroyed. Her friends then left her to think that piece of news over. Later, some men picked her up by the arms and legs and carried her quite a distance to a truck. For about an hour, the truck moved over a bumpy road, and Miss Sasaki, who had become convinced that she was dulled to pain, discovered that she was not. The men lifted her out at a relief station in the section of Inokuchi, where two Army doctors looked at her. The moment one of them touched her wound, she fainted. She came to in time to hear them discuss whether or not to cut off her leg; one said there was gas gangrene in the lips of the wound and predicted she would die unless they amputated, and the other said that was too bad, because they had no equipment with which to do the job. She fainted again. When she recovered consciousness, she was being carried somewhere on a stretcher. She was put aboard a launch, which went to the nearby island of Ninoshima, and she was taken to a military hospital there. Another doctor examined her and said that she did not have gas gangrene, though she did have a fairly ugly compound fracture. He said quite coldly that he was sorry, but this was a hospital for operative surgical cases only, and because she had no gangrene, she would have to return to Hiroshima that night. But then the doctor took her temperature, and what he saw on the thermometer made him decide to let her stay.

That day, August 8th, Father Cieslik went into the city to look for Mr. Fukai, the Japanese secretary of the diocese, who had ridden unwillingly out of the flaming city on Father Kleinsorge’s back and then had run back crazily into it. Father Cieslik started hunting in the neighborhood of Sakai Bridge, where the Jesuits had last seen Mr. Fukai; he went to the East Parade Ground, the evacuation area to which the secretary might have gone, and looked for him among the wounded and dead there; he went to the prefectural police and made inquiries. He could not find any trace of the man. Back at the Novitiate that evening, the theological student, who had been rooming with Mr. Fukai at the mission house, told the priests that the secretary had remarked to him, during an air-raid alarm one day not long before the bombing, “Japan is dying. If there is a real air raid here in Hiroshima, I want to die with our country.” The priests concluded that Mr. Fukai had run back to immolate himself in the flames. They never saw him again.

At the Red Cross Hospital, Dr. Sasaki worked for three straight days with only one hour’s sleep. On the second day, he began to sew up the worst cuts, and right through the following night and all the next day he stitched. Many of the wounds were festered. Fortunately, someone had found intact a supply of narucopon , a Japanese sedative, and he gave it to many who were in pain. Word went around among the staff that there must have been something peculiar about the great bomb, because on the second day the vice-chief of the hospital went down in the basement to the vault where the X-ray plates were stored and found the whole stock exposed as they lay. That day, a fresh doctor and ten nurses came in from the city of Yamaguchi with extra bandages and antiseptics, and the third day another physician and a dozen more nurses arrived from Matsue—yet there were still only eight doctors for ten thousand patients. In the afternoon of the third day, exhausted from his foul tailoring, Dr. Sasaki became obsessed with the idea that his mother thought he was dead. He got permission to go to Mukaihara. He walked out to the first suburbs, beyond which the electric train service was still functioning, and reached home late in the evening. His mother said she had known he was all right all along; a wounded nurse had stopped by to tell her. He went to bed and slept for seventeen hours.

Before dawn on August 8th, someone entered the room at the Novitiate where Father Kleinsorge was in bed, reached up to the hanging light bulb, and switched it on. The sudden flood of light, pouring in on Father Kleinsorge’s half sleep, brought him leaping out of bed, braced for a new concussion. When he realized what had happened, he laughed confusedly and went back to bed. He stayed there all day.

On August 9th, Father Kleinsorge was still tired. The rector looked at his cuts and said they were not even worth dressing, and if Father Kleinsorge kept them clean, they would heal in three or four days. Father Kleinsorge felt uneasy; he could not yet comprehend what he had been through; as if he were guilty of something awful, he felt he had to go back to the scene of the violence he had experienced. He got up out of bed and walked into the city. He scratched for a while in the ruins of the mission house, but he found nothing. He went to the sites of a couple of schools and asked after people he knew. He looked for some of the city’s Japanese Catholics, but he found only fallen houses. He walked back to the Novitiate, stupefied and without any new understanding.

At two minutes after eleven o’clock on the morning of August 9th, the second atomic bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. It was several days before the survivors of Hiroshima knew they had company, because the Japanese radio and newspapers were being extremely cautious on the subject of the strange weapon.

On August 9th, Mr. Tanimoto was still working in the park. He went to the suburb of Ushida, where his wife was staying with friends, and got a tent which he had stored there before the bombing. He now took it to the park and set it up as a shelter for some of the wounded who could not move or be moved. Whatever he did in the park, he felt he was being watched by the twenty-year-old girl, Mrs. Kamai, his former neighbor, whom he had seen on the day the bomb exploded, with her dead baby daughter in her arms. She kept the small corpse in her arms for four days, even though it began smelling bad on the second day. Once, Mr. Tanimoto sat with her for a while, and she told him that the bomb had buried her under their house with the baby strapped to her back, and that when she had dug herself free, she had discovered that the baby was choking, its mouth full of dirt. With her little finger, she had carefully cleaned out the infant’s mouth, and for a time the child had breathed normally and seemed all right; then suddenly it had died. Mrs. Kamai also talked about what a fine man her husband was, and again urged Mr. Tanimoto to search for him. Since Mr. Tanimoto had been all through the city the first day and had seen terribly burned soldiers from Kamai’s post, the Chugoku Regional Army Headquarters, everywhere, he knew it would be impossible to find Kamai, even if he were living, but of course he didn’t tell her that. Every time she saw Mr. Tanimoto, she asked whether he had found her husband. Once, he tried to suggest that perhaps it was time to cremate the baby, but Mrs. Kamai only held it tighter. He began to keep away from her, but whenever he looked at her, she was staring at him and her eyes asked the same question. He tried to escape her glance by keeping his back turned to her as much as possible.

The Jesuits took about fifty refugees into the exquisite chapel of the Novitiate. The rector gave them what medical care he could—mostly just the cleaning away of pus. Each of the Nakamuras was provided with a blanket and a mosquito net. Mrs. Nakamura and her younger daughter had no appetite and ate nothing; her son and other daughter ate, and lost, each meal they were offered. On August 10th, a friend, Mrs. Osaki, came to see them and told them that her son Hideo had been burned alive in the factory where he worked. This Hideo had been a kind of hero to Toshio, who had often gone to the plant to watch him run his machine. That night, Toshio woke up screaming. He had dreamed that he had seen Mrs. Osaki coming out of an opening in the ground with her family, and then he saw Hideo at his machine, a big one with a revolving belt, and he himself was standing beside Hideo, and for some reason this was terrifying.

On August 10th, Father Kleinsorge, having heard from someone that Dr. Fujii had been injured and that he had eventually gone to the summer house of a friend of his named Okuma, in the village of Fukawa, asked Father Cieslik if he would go and see how Dr. Fujii was. Father Cieslik went to Misasa station, outside Hiroshima, rode for twenty minutes on an electric train, and then walked for an hour and a half in a terribly hot sun to Mr. Okuma’s house, which was beside the Ota River at the foot of a mountain. He found Dr. Fujii sitting in a chair in a kimono, applying compresses to his broken collarbone. The Doctor told Father Cieslik about having lost his glasses and said that his eyes bothered him. He showed the priest huge blue and green stripes where beams had bruised him. He offered the Jesuit first a cigarette and then whiskey, though it was only eleven in the morning. Father Cieslik thought it would please Dr. Fujii if he took a little, so he said yes. A servant brought some Suntory whiskey, and the Jesuit, the Doctor, and the host had a very pleasant chat. Mr. Okuma had lived in Hawaii, and he told some things about Americans. Dr. Fujii talked a bit about the disaster. He said that Mr. Okuma and a nurse had gone into the ruins of his hospital and brought back a small safe which he had moved into his air-raid shelter. This contained some surgical instruments, and Dr. Fujii gave Father Cieslik a few pairs of scissors and tweezers for the rector at the Novitiate. Father Cieslik was bursting with some inside dope he had, but he waited until the conversation turned naturally to the mystery of the bomb. Then he said he knew what kind of bomb it was; he had the secret on the best authority—that of a Japanese newspaperman who had dropped in at the Novitiate. The bomb was not a bomb at all; it was a kind of fine magnesium powder sprayed over the whole city by a single plane, and it exploded when it came into contact with the live wires of the city power system. “That means,” said Dr. Fujii, perfectly satisfied, since after all the information came from a newspaperman, “that it can only be dropped on big cities and only in the daytime, when the tram lines and so forth are in operation.”

After five days of ministering to the wounded in the park, Mr. Tanimoto returned, on August 11th, to his parsonage and dug around in the ruins. He retrieved some diaries and church records that had been kept in books and were only charred around the edges, as well as some cooking utensils and pottery. While he was at work, a Miss Tanaka came and said that her father had been asking for him. Mr. Tanimoto had reason to hate her father, the retired shipping-company official who, though he made a great show of his charity, was notoriously selfish and cruel, and who, just a few days before the bombing, had said openly to several people that Mr. Tanimoto was a spy for the Americans. Several times he had derided Christianity and called it un-Japanese. At the moment of the bombing, Mr. Tanaka had been walking in the street in front of the city’s radio station. He received serious flash burns, but he was able to walk home. He took refuge in his Neighborhood Association shelter and from there tried hard to get medical aid. He expected all the doctors of Hiroshima to come to him, because he was so rich and so famous for giving his money away. When none of them came, he angrily set out to look for them; leaning on his daughter’s arm, he walked from private hospital to private hospital, but all were in ruins, and he went back and lay down in the shelter again. Now he was very weak and knew he was going to die. He was willing to be comforted by any religion.

Mr. Tanimoto went to help him. He descended into the tomblike shelter and, when his eyes were adjusted to the darkness, saw Mr. Tanaka, his face and arms puffed up and covered with pus and blood, and his eyes swollen shut. The old man smelled very bad, and he moaned constantly. He seemed to recognize Mr. Tanimoto’s voice. Standing at the shelter stairway to get light, Mr. Tanimoto read loudly from a Japanese-language pocket Bible: “For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. Thou carriest the children of men away as with a flood; they are as a sleep; in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth. For we are consumed by Thine anger and by Thy wrath are we troubled. Thou has set our iniquities before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in Thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told. . . .”

Mr. Tanaka died as Mr. Tanimoto read the psalm.

On August 11th, word came to the Ninoshima Military Hospital that a large number of military casualties from the Chugoku Regional Army Headquarters were to arrive on the island that day, and it was deemed necessary to evacuate all civilian patients. Miss Sasaki, still running an alarmingly high fever, was put on a large ship. She lay out on deck, with a pillow under her leg. There were awnings over the deck, but the vessel’s course put her in the sunlight. She felt as if she were under a magnifying glass in the sun. Pus oozed out of her wound, and soon the whole pillow was covered with it. She was taken ashore at Hatsukaichi, a town several miles to the southwest of Hiroshima, and put in the Goddess of Mercy Primary School, which had been turned into a hospital. She lay there for several days before a specialist on fractures came from Kobe. By then her leg was red and swollen up to her hip. The doctor decided he could not set the breaks. He made an incision and put in a rubber pipe to drain off the putrescence.

At the Novitiate, the motherless Kataoka children were inconsolable. Father Cieslik worked hard to keep them distracted. He put riddles to them. He asked, “What is the cleverest animal in the world?,” and after the thirteen-year-old girl had guessed the ape, the elephant, the horse, he said, “No, it must be the hippopotamus,” because in Japanese that animal is kaba , the reverse of baka , stupid. He told Bible stories, beginning, in the order of things, with the Creation. He showed them a scrapbook of snapshots taken in Europe. Nevertheless, they cried most of the time for their mother.

Several days later, Father Cieslik started hunting for the children’s family. First, he learned through the police that an uncle had been to the authorities in Kure, a city not far away, to inquire for the children. After that, he heard that an older brother had been trying to trace them through the post office in Ujina, a suburb of Hiroshima. Still later, he heard that the mother was alive and was on Goto Island, off Nagasaki. And at last, by keeping a check on the Ujina post office, he got in touch with the brother and returned the children to their mother.

About a week after the bomb dropped, a vague, incomprehensible rumor reached Hiroshima—that the city had been destroyed by the energy released when atoms were somehow split in two. The weapon was referred to in this word-of-mouth report as genshi bakudan —the root characters of which can be translated as “original child bomb.” No one understood the idea or put any more credence in it than in the powdered magnesium and such things. Newspapers were being brought in from other cities, but they were still confining themselves to extremely general statements, such as Domei’s assertion on August 12th: “There is nothing to do but admit the tremendous power of this inhuman bomb.” Already, Japanese physicists had entered the city with Lauritsen electroscopes and Neher electrometers; they understood the idea all too well.

On August 12th, the Nakamuras, all of them still rather sick, went to the nearby town of Kabe and moved in with Mrs. Nakamura’s sister-in-law. The next day, Mrs. Nakamura, although she was too ill to walk much, returned to Hiroshima alone, by electric car to the outskirts, by foot from there. All week, at the Novitiate, she had worried about her mother, brother, and older sister, who had lived in the part of town called Fukuro, and besides, she felt drawn by some fascination, just as Father Kleinsorge had been. She discovered that her family were all dead. She went back to Kabe so amazed and depressed by what she had seen and learned in the city that she could not speak that evening.

Acomparative orderliness, at least, began to be established at the Red Cross Hospital. Dr. Sasaki, back from his rest, undertook to classify his patients (who were still scattered everywhere, even on the stairways). The staff gradually swept up the debris. Best of all, the nurses and attendants started to remove the corpses. Disposal of the dead, by decent cremation and enshrinement, is a greater moral responsibility to the Japanese than adequate care of the living. Relatives identified most of the first day’s dead in and around the hospital. Beginning on the second day, whenever a patient appeared to be moribund, a piece of paper with his name on it was fastened to his clothing. The corpse detail carried the bodies to a clearing outside, placed them on pyres of wood from ruined houses, burned them, put some of the ashes in envelopes intended for exposed X-ray plates, marked the envelopes with the names of the deceased, and piled them, neatly and respectfully, in stacks in the main office. In a few days, the envelopes filled one whole side of the impromptu shrine.

In Kabe, on the morning of August 15th, ten-year-old Toshio Nakamura heard an airplane overhead. He ran outdoor and identified it with a professional eye as a B29. “There goes Mr. B!” he shouted.

One of his relatives called out to him, “Haven’t you had enough of Mr. B?”

The question had a kind of symbolism. At almost that very moment, the dull, dispirited voice of Hirohito, the Emperor Tenno, was speaking for the first time in history over the radio: “After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in Our Empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure. . . .”

Mrs. Nakamura had gone to the city again, to dig up some rice she had buried in her Neighborhood Association air-raid shelter. She got it and started back for Kabe. On the electric car, quite by chance, she ran into her younger sister, who had not been in Hiroshima the day of the bombing. “Have you heard the news?” her sister asked.

“What news?”

“The war is over.”

“Don’t say such a foolish thing, sister.”

“But I heard it over the radio myself.” And then, in a whisper, “It was the Emperor’s voice.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Nakamura said (she needed nothing more to make her give up thinking, in spite of the atomic bomb, that Japan still had a chance to win the war), “in that case . . .”

Some time later, in a letter to an American, Mr. Tanimoto described the events of that morning. “At the time of the Post-War, the marvelous thing in our history happened. Our Emperor broadcasted his own voice through radio directly to us, common people of Japan. Aug. 15th we were told that some news of great importance could he heard & all of us should hear it. So I went to Hiroshima railway station. There set a loud-speaker in the ruins of the station. Many civilians, all of them were in boundage, some being helped by shoulder of their daughters, some sustaining their injured feet by sticks, they listened to the broadcast and when they came to realize the fact that it was the Emperor, they cried with full tears in their eyes, ‘What a wonderful blessing it is that Tenno himself call on us and we can hear his own voice in person. We are thoroughly satisfied in such a great sacrifice.’ When they came to know the war was ended—that is, Japan was defeated, they, of course, were deeply disappointed, but followed after their Emperor’s commandment in calm spirit, making whole-hearted sacrifice for the everlasting peace of the world—and Japan started her new way.”

IV—Panic Grass and Feverfew

On August 18th, twelve days after the bomb burst, Father Kleinsorge set out on foot for Hiroshima from the Novitiate with his papier-mâché suitcase in his hand. He had begun to think that this bag, in which he kept his valuables, had a talismanic quality, because of the way he had found it after the explosion, standing handle-side up in the doorway of his room, while the desk under which he had previously hidden it was in splinters all over the floor. Now he was using it to carry the yen belonging to the Society of Jesus to the Hiroshima branch of the Yokohama Specie Bank, already reopened in its half-ruined building. On the whole, he felt quite well that morning. It is true that the minor cuts he had received had not healed in three or four days, as the rector of the Novitiate, who had examined them, had positively promised they would, but Father Kleinsorge had rested well for a week and considered that he was again ready for hard work. By now he was accustomed to the terrible scene through which he walked on his way into the city: the large rice field near the Novitiate, streaked with brown; the houses on the outskirts of the city, standing but decrepit, with broken windows and dishevelled tiles; and then, quite suddenly, the beginning of the four square miles of reddish-brown scar, where nearly everything had been buffeted down and burned; range on range of collapsed city blocks, with here and there a crude sign erected on a pile of ashes and tiles (“Sister, where are you?” or “All safe and we live at Toyosaka”); naked trees and canted telephone poles; the few standing, gutted buildings only accentuating the horizontality of everything else (the Museum of Science and Industry, with its dome stripped to its steel frame, as if for an autopsy; the modern Chamber of Commerce Building, its tower as cold, rigid, and unassailable after the blow as before; the huge, low-lying, camouflaged city hall; the row of dowdy banks, caricaturing a shaken economic system); and in the streets a macabre traffic—hundreds of crumpled bicycles, shells of streetcars and automobiles, all halted in mid-motion. The whole way, Father Kleinsorge was oppressed by the thought that all the damage he saw had been done in one instant by one bomb. By the time he reached the center of town, the day had become very hot. He walked to the Yokohama Bank, which was doing business in a temporary wooden stall on the ground floor of its building, deposited the money, went by the mission compound just to have another look at the wreckage, and then started back to the Novitiate. About halfway there, he began to have peculiar sensations. The more or less magical suitcase, now empty, suddenly seemed terribly heavy. His knees grew weak. He felt excruciatingly tired. With a considerable expenditure of spirit, he managed to reach the Novitiate. He did not think his weakness was worth mentioning to the other Jesuits. But a couple of days later, while attempting to say Mass, he had an onset of faintness and even after three attempts was unable to go through with the service, and the next morning the rector, who had examined Father Kleinsorge’s apparently negligible but unhealed cuts daily, asked in surprise, “What have you done to your wounds?” They had suddenly opened wider and were swollen and inflamed.

As she dressed on the morning of August 20th, in the home of her sister-in-law in Kabe, not far from Nagatsuka, Mrs. Nakamura, who had suffered no cuts or burns at all, though she had been rather nauseated all through the week she and her children had spent as guests of Father Kleinsorge and the other Catholics at the Novitiate, began fixing her hair and noticed, after one stroke, that her comb carried with it a whole handful of hair; the second time, the same thing happened, so she stopped combing at once. But in the next three or four days, her hair kept falling out of its own accord, until she was quite bald. She began living indoors, practically in hiding. On August 26th, both she and her younger daughter, Myeko, woke up feeling extremely weak and tired, and they stayed on their bedrolls. Her son and other daughter, who had shared every experience with her during and after the bombing, felt fine.

At about the same time—he lost track of the days, so hard was he working to set up a temporary place of worship in a private house he had rented in the outskirts—Mr. Tanimoto fell suddenly ill with a general malaise, weariness, and feverishness, and he, too, took to his bedroll on the floor of the half-wrecked house of a friend in the suburb of Ushida.

These four did not realize it, but they were coming down with the strange, capricious disease which came later to be known as radiation sickness.

Miss Sasaki lay in steady pain in the Goddess of Mercy Primary School, at Hatsukaichi, the fourth station to the southwest of Hiroshima on the electric train. An internal infection still prevented the proper setting of the compound fracture of her lower left leg. A young man who was in the same hospital and who seemed to have grown fond of her in spite of her unremitting preoccupation with her suffering, or else just pitied her because of it, lent her a Japanese translation of de Maupassant, and she tried to read the stories, but she could concentrate for only four or five minutes at a time.

The hospitals and aid stations around Hiroshima were so crowded in the first weeks after the bombing, and their staffs were so variable, depending on their health and on the unpredictable arrival of outside help, that patients had to be constantly shifted from place to place. Miss Sasaki, who had already been moved three times, twice by ship, was taken at the end of August to an engineering school, also at Hatsukaichi. Because her leg did not improve but swelled more and more, the doctors at the school bound it with crude splints and took her by car, on September 9th, to the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima. This was the first chance she had had to look at the ruins of Hiroshima; the last time she had been carried through the city’s streets, she had been hovering on the edge of unconsciousness. Even though the wreckage had been described to her, and though she was still in pain, the sight horrified and amazed her, and there was something she noticed about it that particularly gave her the creeps. Over everything—up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks—was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. The bomb had not only left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them. Everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goosefoot, morning glories and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean, purslane and clotbur and sesame and panic grass and feverfew. Especially in a circle at the center, sickle senna grew in extraordinary regeneration, not only standing among the charred remnants of the same plant but pushing up in new places, among bricks and through cracks in the asphalt. It actually seemed as if a load of sickle-senna seed had been dropped along with the bomb.

At the Red Cross Hospital, Miss Sasaki was put under the care of Dr. Sasaki. Now, a month after the explosion, something like order had been reëstablished in the hospital; which is to say that the patients who still lay in the corridors at least had mats to sleep on and that the supply of medicines, which had given out in the first few days, had been replaced, though inadequately, by contributions from other cities. Dr. Sasaki, who had had one seventeen-hour sleep at his home on the third night, had ever since then rested only about six hours a night, on a mat at the hospital; he had lost twenty pounds from his very small body; he still wore the ill-fitting glasses he had borrowed from an injured nurse.

Since Miss Sasaki was a woman and was so sick (and perhaps, he afterward admitted, just a little bit because she was named Sasaki), Dr. Sasaki put her on a mat in a semi-private room, which at that time had only eight people in it. He questioned her and put down on her record card, in the correct, scrunched-up German in which he wrote all his records: “ Mittelgrosse Patientin in gutem Ernährungszustand. Fraktur am linken Unterschenkelknochen mit Wunde; Anschwellung in der linken Unterschenkelgegend. Haut und sichtbare Schleimhäute mässig durchblutet und kein Oedema, ” noting that she was a medium-sized female patient in good general health; that she had a compound fracture of the left tibia, with swelling of the left lower leg; that her skin and visible mucous membranes were heavily spotted with petechiae , which are hemorrhages about the size of grains of rice, or even as big as soybeans; and, in addition, that her head, eyes, throat, lungs, and heart were apparently normal; and that she had a fever. He wanted to set her fracture and put her leg in a cast, but he had run out of plaster of Paris long since, so he just stretched her out on a mat and prescribed aspirin for her fever, and glucose intravenously and diastase orally for her undernourishment (which he had not entered on her record because everyone suffered from it). She exhibited only one of the queer symptoms so many of his patients were just then beginning to show—the spot hemorrhages.

Dr. Fujii was still pursued by bad luck, which still was connected with rivers. Now he was living in the summer house of Mr. Okuma, in Fukawa. This house clung to the steep banks of the Ota River. Here his injuries seemed to make good progress, and he even began to treat refugees who came to him from the neighborhood, using medical supplies he had retrieved from a cache in the suburbs. He noticed in some of his patients a curious syndrome of symptoms that cropped out in the third and fourth weeks, but he was not able to do much more than swathe cuts and burns. Early in September, it began to rain, steadily and heavily. The river rose. On September 17th, there came a cloudburst and then a typhoon, and the water crept higher and higher up the bank. Mr. Okuma and Dr. Fujii became alarmed and scrambled up the mountain to a peasant’s house. (Down in Hiroshima, the flood took up where the bomb had left off—swept away bridges that had survived the blast, washed out streets, undermined foundations of buildings that still stood—and ten miles to the west, the Ono Army Hospital, where a team of experts from Kyoto Imperial University was studying the delayed affliction of the patients, suddenly slid down a beautiful, pine-dark mountainside into the Inland Sea and drowned most of the investigators and their mysteriously diseased patients alike.) After the storm, Dr. Fujii and Mr. Okuma went down to the river and found that the Okuma house had been washed altogether away.

Because so many people were suddenly feeling sick nearly a month after the atomic bomb was dropped, an unpleasant rumor began to move around, and eventually it made its way to the house in Kabe where Mrs. Nakamura lay bald and ill. It was that the atomic bomb had deposited some sort of poison on Hiroshima which would give off deadly emanations for seven years; nobody could go there all that time. This especially upset Mrs. Nakamura, who remembered that in a moment of confusion on the morning of the explosion she had literally sunk her entire means of livelihood, her Sankoku sewing machine, in the small cement water tank in front of what was left of her house; now no one would be able to go and fish it out. Up to this time, Mrs. Nakamura and her relatives had been quite resigned and passive about the moral issue of the atomic bomb, but this rumor suddenly aroused them to more hatred and resentment of America than they had felt all through the war.

Japanese physicists, who knew a great deal about atomic fission (one of them owned a cyclotron), worried about lingering radiation at Hiroshima, and in mid-August, not many days after President Truman’s disclosure of the type of bomb that had been dropped, they entered the city to make investigations. The first thing they did was roughly to determine a center by observing the side on which telephone poles all around the heart of the town were scorched; they settled on the torii gateway of the Gokoku Shrine, right next to the parade ground of the Chugoku Regional Army Headquarters. From there, they worked north and south with Lauritsen electroscopes, which are sensitive to both beta rays and gamma rays. These indicated that the highest intensity of radioactivity, near the torii, was 4.2 times the average natural “leak” of ultra-short waves for the earth of that area. The scientists noticed that the flash of the bomb had discolored concrete to a light reddish tint, had scaled off the surface of granite, and had scorched certain other types of building material, and that consequently the bomb had, in some places, left prints of the shadows that had been cast by its light. The experts found, for instance, a permanent shadow thrown on the roof of the Chamber of Commerce Building (220 yards from the rough center) by the structure’s rectangular tower; several others in the lookout post on top of the Hypothec Bank (2,050 yards); another in the tower of the Chugoku Electric Supply Building (800 yards); another projected by the handle of a gas pump (2,630 yards); and several on granite tombstones in the Gokoku Shrine (35 yards). By triangulating these and other such shadows with the objects that formed them, the scientists determined that the exact center was a spot a hundred and fifty yards south of the torii and a few yards southeast of the pile of ruins that had once been the Shima Hospital. (A few vague human silhouettes were found, and these gave rise to stories that eventually included fancy and precise details. One story told how a painter on a ladder was monumentalized in a kind of bas-relief on the stone façade of a bank building on which he was at work, in the act of dipping his brush into his paint can; another, how a man and his cart on the bridge near the Museum of Science and Industry, almost under the center of the explosion, were cast down in an embossed shadow which made it clear that the man was about to whip his horse.) Starting east and west from the actual center, the scientists, in early September, made new measurements, and the highest radiation they found this time was 3.9 times the natural “leak.” Since radiation of at least a thousand times the natural “leak” would be required to cause serious effects on the human body, the scientists announced that people could enter Hiroshima without any peril at all.

As soon as this reassurance reached the household in which Mrs. Nakamura was concealing herself—or, at any rate, within a short time after her hair had started growing back again—her whole family relaxed their extreme hatred of America, and Mrs. Nakamura sent her brother-in-law to look for the sewing machine. It was still submerged in the water tank, and when he brought it home, she saw, to her dismay, that it was all rusted and useless.

By the end of the first week in September, Father Kleinsorge was in bed at the Novitiate with a fever of 102.2, and since he seemed to be getting worse, his colleagues decided to send him to the Catholic International Hospital in Tokyo. Father Cieslik and the rector took him as far as Kobe and a Jesuit from that city took him the rest of the way, with a message from a Kobe doctor to the Mother Superior of the International Hospital: “Think twice before you give this man blood transfusions, because with atomic-bomb patients we aren’t at all sure that if you stick needles in them, they’ll stop bleeding.”

When Father Kleinsorge arrived at the hospital, he was terribly pale and very shaky. He complained that the bomb had upset his digestion and given him abdominal pains. His white blood count was three thousand (five to seven thousand is normal), he was seriously anemic, and his temperature was 104. A doctor who did not know much about these strange manifestations—Father Kleinsorge was one of a handful of atomic patients who had reached Tokyo—came to see him, and to the patient’s face he was most encouraging. “You’ll be out of here in two weeks,” he said. But when the doctor got out in the corridor, he said to the Mother Superior, “He’ll die. All these bomb people die—you’ll see. They go along for a couple of weeks and then they die.”

The doctor prescribed suralimentation for Father Kleinsorge. Every three hours, they forced some eggs or beef juice into him, and they fed him all the sugar he could stand. They gave him vitamins, and iron pills and arsenic (in Fowler’s solution) for his anemia. He confounded both the doctor’s predictions; he neither died nor got up in a fortnight. Despite the fact that the message from the Kobe doctor deprived him of transfusions, which would have been the most useful therapy of all, his fever and his digestive troubles cleared up fairly quickly. His white count went up for a while, but early in October it dropped again, to 3,600; then, in ten days, it suddenly climbed above normal, to 8,800; and it finally settled at 5,800. His ridiculous scratches puzzled everyone. For a few days, they would mend, and then, when he moved around, they would open up again. As soon as he began to feel well, he enjoyed himself tremendously. In Hiroshima he had been one of thousands of sufferers; in Tokyo he was a curiosity. Young American Army doctors came by the dozen to observe him. Japanese experts questioned him. A newspaper interviewed him. And once, the confused doctor came and shook his head and said, “Baffling cases, these atomic-bomb people.”

Mrs. Nakamura lay indoors with Myeko. They both continued sick, and though Mrs. Nakamura vaguely sensed that their trouble was caused by the bomb, she was too poor to see a doctor and so never knew exactly what the matter was. Without any treatment at all, but merely resting, they began gradually to feel better. Some of Myeko’s hair fell out, and she had a tiny burn on her arm which took months to heal. The boy, Toshio, and the older girl, Yaeko, seemed well enough, though they, too, lost some hair and occasionally had bad headaches. Toshio was still having nightmares, always about the nineteen-year-old mechanic, Hideo Osaki, his hero, who had been killed by the bomb.

On his back with a fever of 104, Mr. Tanimoto worried about all the funerals he ought to be conducting for the deceased of his church. He thought he was just overtired from the hard work he had done since the bombing, but after the fever had persisted for a few days, he sent for a doctor. The doctor was too busy to visit him in Ushida, but he dispatched a nurse, who recognized his symptoms as those of mild radiation disease and came back from time to time to give him injections of Vitamin B1. A Buddhist priest with whom Mr. Tanimoto was acquainted called on him and suggested that moxibustion might give him relief; the priest showed the pastor how to give himself the ancient Japanese treatment, by setting fire to a twist of the stimulant herb moxa placed on the wrist pulse. Mr. Tanimoto found that each moxa treatment temporarily reduced his fever one degree. The nurse had told him to eat as much as possible, and every few days his mother-in-law brought him vegetables and fish from Tsuzu, twenty miles away, where she lived. He spent a month in bed, and then went ten hours by train to his father’s home in Shikoku. There he rested another month.

Dr. Sasaki and his colleagues at the Red Cross Hospital watched the unprecedented disease unfold and at last evolved a theory about its nature. It had, they decided, three stages. The first stage had been all over before the doctors even knew they were dealing with a new sickness; it was the direct reaction to the bombardment of the body, at the moment when the bomb went off, by neutrons, beta particles, and gamma rays. The apparently uninjured people who had died so mysteriously in the first few hours or days had succumbed in this first stage. It killed ninety-five per cent of the people within a half mile of the center, and many thousands who were farther away. The doctors realized in retrospect that even though most of these dead had also suffered from burns and blast effects, they had absorbed enough radiation to kill them. The rays simply destroyed body cells—caused their nuclei to degenerate and broke their walls. Many people who did not die right away came down with nausea, headache, diarrhea, malaise, and fever, which lasted several days. Doctors could not be certain whether some of these symptoms were the result of radiation or nervous shock. The second stage set in ten or fifteen days after the bombing. The main symptom was falling hair. Diarrhea and fever, which in some cases went as high as 106, came next. Twenty-five to thirty days after the explosion, blood disorders appeared: gums bled, the white-blood-cell count dropped sharply, and petechiae appeared on the skin and mucous membranes. The drop in the number of white blood corpuscles reduced the patient’s capacity to resist infection, so open wounds were unusually slow in healing and many of the sick developed sore throats and mouths. The two key symptoms, on which the doctors came to base their prognosis, were fever and the lowered white-corpuscle count. If fever remained steady and high, the patient’s chances for survival were poor. The white count almost always dropped below four thousand; a patient whose count fell below one thousand had little hope of living. Toward the end of the second stage, if the patient survived, anemia, or a drop in the red blood count, also set in. The third stage was the reaction that came when the body struggled to compensate for its ills—when, for instance, the white count not only returned to normal but increased to much higher than normal levels. In this stage, many patients died of complications, such as infections in the chest cavity. Most burns healed with deep layers of pink, rubbery scar tissue, known as keloid tumors. The duration of the disease varied, depending on the patient’s constitution and the amount of radiation he had received. Some victims recovered in a week; with others the disease dragged on for months.

As the symptoms revealed themselves, it became clear that many of them resembled the effects of overdoses of X-ray, and the doctors based their therapy on that likeness. They gave victims liver extract, blood transfusions, and vitamins, especially B1. The shortage of supplies and instruments hampered them. Allied doctors who came in after the surrender found plasma and penicillin very effective. Since the blood disorders were, in the long run, the predominant factor in the disease, some of the Japanese doctors evolved a theory as to the seat of the delayed sickness. They thought that perhaps gamma rays, entering the body at the time of the explosion, made the phosphorus in the victims’ bones radioactive, and that they in turn emitted beta particles, which, though they could not penetrate far through flesh, could enter the bone marrow, where blood is manufactured, and gradually tear it down. Whatever its source, the disease had some baffling quirks. Not all the patients exhibited all the main symptoms. People who suffered flash burns were protected, to a considerable extent, from radiation sickness. Those who had lain quietly for days or even hours after the bombing were much less liable to get sick than those who had been active. Gray hair seldom fell out. And, as if nature were protecting man against his own ingenuity, the reproductive processes were affected for a time; men became sterile, women had miscarriages, menstruation stopped.

For ten days after the flood, Dr. Fujii lived in the peasant’s house on the mountain above the Ota. Then he heard about a vacant private clinic in Kaitaichi, a suburb to the east of Hiroshima. He bought it at once, moved there, and hung out a sign inscribed in English, in honor of the conquerors:



Quite recovered from his wounds, he soon built up a strong practice, and he was delighted, in the evenings, to receive members of the occupying forces, on whom he lavished whiskey and practiced English.

Giving Miss Sasaki a local anaesthetic of procaine, Dr. Sasaki made an incision in her leg on October 23rd, to drain the infection, which still lingered on eleven weeks after the injury. In the following days, so much pus formed that he had to dress the opening each morning and evening. A week later, she complained of great pain, so he made another incision; he cut still a third, on November 9th, and enlarged it on the twenty-sixth. All this time, Miss Sasaki grew weaker and weaker, and her spirits fell low. One day, the young man who had lent her his translation of de Maupassant at Hatsukaichi came to visit her; he told her that he was going to Kyushu but that when he came back, he would like to see her again. She didn’t care. Her leg had been so swollen and painful all along that the doctor had not even tried to set the fractures, and though an X-ray taken in November showed that the bones were mending, she could see under the sheet that her left leg was nearly three inches shorter than her right and that her left foot was turning inward. She thought often of the man to whom she had been engaged. Someone told her he was back from overseas. She wondered what he had heard about her injuries that made him stay away.

Father Kleinsorge was discharged from the hospital in Tokyo on December 19th and took a train home. On the way, two days later, at Yokogawa, a stop just before Hiroshima, Dr. Fujii boarded the train. It was the first time the two men had met since before the bombing. They sat together. Dr. Fujii said he was going to the annual gathering of his family, on the anniversary of his father’s death. When they started talking about their experiences, the Doctor was quite entertaining as he told how his places of residence kept falling into rivers. Then he asked Father Kleinsorge how he was, and the Jesuit talked about his stay in the hospital. “The doctors told me to be cautious,” he said. “They ordered me to have a two-hour nap every afternoon.”

Dr. Fujii said, “It’s hard to be cautious in Hiroshima these days. Everyone seems to be so busy.”

Anew municipal government, set up under Allied Military Government direction, had gone to work at last in the city hall. Citizens who had recovered from various degrees of radiation sickness were coming back by the thousand—by November 1st, the population, mostly crowded into the outskirts, was already 137,000, more than a third of the wartime peak—and the government set in motion all kinds of projects to put them to work rebuilding the city. It hired men to clear the streets, and others to gather scrap iron, which they sorted and piled in mountains opposite the city hall. Some returning residents were putting up their own shanties and huts, and planting small squares of winter wheat beside them, but the city also authorized and built four hundred one-family “barracks.” Utilities were repaired—electric lights shone again, trams started running, and employees of the waterworks fixed seventy thousand leaks in mains and plumbing. A Planning Conference, with an enthusiastic young Military Government officer, Lieutenant John D. Montgomery, of Kalamazoo, as its adviser, began to consider what sort of city the new Hiroshima should be. The ruined city had flourished—and had been an inviting target—mainly because it had been one of the most important military-command and communications centers in Japan, and would have become the Imperial headquarters had the islands been invaded and Tokyo been captured. Now there would be no huge military establishments to help revive the city. The Planning Conference, at a loss as to just what importance Hiroshima could have, fell back on rather vague cultural and paving projects. It drew maps with avenues a hundred yards wide and thought seriously of preserving the half-ruined Museum of Science and Industry more or less as it was, as a monument to the disaster, and naming it the Institute of International Amity. Statistical workers gathered what figures they could on the effects of the bomb. They reported that 78,150 people had been killed, 13,983 were missing, and 37,425 had been injured. No one in the city government pretended that these figures were accurate—though the Americans accepted them as official—and as the months went by and more and more hundreds of corpses were dug up from the ruins, and as the number of unclaimed urns of ashes at the Zempoji Temple in Koi rose into the thousands, the statisticians began to say that at least a hundred thousand people had lost their lives in the bombing. Since many people died of a combination of causes, it was impossible to figure exactly how many were killed by each cause, but the statisticians calculated that about twenty-five per cent had died of direct burns from the bomb, about fifty per cent from other injuries, and about twenty per cent as a result of radiation effects. The statistician’ figures on property damage were more reliable: sixty-two thousand out of ninety thousand buildings destroyed, and six thousand more damaged beyond repair. In the heart of the city, they found only five modern buildings that could be used again without major repairs. This small number was by no means the fault of flimsy Japanese construction. In fact, since the 1923 earthquake, Japanese building regulations had required that the roof of each large building be able to bear a minimum load of seventy pounds per square foot, whereas American regulations do not normally specify more than forty pounds per square foot.

Scientists swarmed into the city. Some of them measured the force that had been necessary to shift marble gravestones in the cemeteries, to knock over twenty-two of the forty-seven railroad cars in the yards at Hiroshima station, to lift and move the concrete roadway on one of the bridges, and to perform other noteworthy acts of strength, and concluded that the pressure exerted by the explosion varied from 5.3 to 8.0 tons per square yard. Others found that mica, of which the melting point is 900° C., had fused on granite gravestones three hundred and eighty yards from the center; that telephone poles of Cryptomeria japonica, whose carbonization temperature is 240° C., had been charred at forty-four hundred yards from the center; and that the surface of gray clay tiles of the type used in Hiroshima, whose melting point is 1,300° C., had dissolved at six hundred yards; and, after examining other significant ashes and melted bits, they concluded that the bomb’s heat on the ground at the center must have been 6,000° C. And from further measurements of radiation, which involved, among other things, the scraping up of fission fragments from roof troughs and drainpipes as far away as the suburb of Takasu, thirty-three hundred yards from the center, they learned some far more important facts about the nature of the bomb. General MacArthur’s headquarters systematically censored all mention of the bomb in Japanese scientific publications, but soon the fruit of the scientists’ calculations became common knowledge among Japanese physicists, doctors, chemists, journalists, professors, and, no doubt, those statesmen and military men who were still in circulation. Long before the American public had been told, most of the scientists and lots of non-scientists in Japan knew—from the calculations of Japanese nuclear physicists—that a uranium bomb had exploded at Hiroshima and a more powerful one, of plutonium, at Nagasaki. They also knew that theoretically one ten times as powerful—or twenty—could be developed. The Japanese scientists thought they knew the exact height at which the bomb at Hiroshima was exploded and the approximate weight of the uranium used. They estimated that, even with the primitive bomb used at Hiroshima, it would require a shelter of concrete fifty inches thick to protect a human being entirely from radiation sickness. The scientists had these and other details which remained subject to security in the United States printed and mimeographed and bound into little books. The Americans knew of the existence of these, but tracing them and seeing that they did not fall into the wrong hands would have obliged the occupying authorities to set up, for this one purpose alone, an enormous police system in Japan. Altogether, the Japanese scientists were somewhat amused at the efforts of their conquerors to keep security on atomic fission.

Late in February, 1946, a friend of Miss Sasaki’s called on Father Kleinsorge and asked him to visit her in the hospital. She had been growing more and more depressed and morbid; she seemed little interested in living. Father Kleinsorge went to see her several times. On his first visit, he kept the conversation general, formal, and yet vaguely sympathetic, and did not mention religion. Miss Sasaki herself brought it up the second time he dropped in on her. Evidently she had had some talks with a Catholic. She asked bluntly, “If your God is so good and kind, how can he let people suffer like this?” She made a gesture which took in her shrunken leg, the other patients in her room, and Hiroshima as a whole.

“My child,” Father Kleinsorge said, “man is not now in the condition God intended. He has fallen from grace through sin.” And he went on to explain all the reasons for everything.

It came to Mrs. Nakamura’s attention that a carpenter from Kabe was building a number of wooden shanties in Hiroshima which he rented for fifty yen a month—$3.33, at the fixed rate of exchange. Mrs. Nakamura had lost the certificates for her bonds and other wartime savings, but fortunately she had copied off all the numbers just a few days before the bombing and had taken the list to Kabe, and so, when her hair had grown in enough for her to be presentable, she went to her bank in Hiroshima, and a clerk there told her that after checking her numbers against the records the bank would give her her money. As soon as she got it, she rented one of the carpenter’s shacks. It was in Nobori-cho, near the site of her former house, and though its floor was dirt and it was dark inside, it was at least a home in Hiroshima, and she was no longer dependent on the charity of her in-laws. During the spring, she cleared away some nearby wreckage and planted a vegetable garden. She cooked with utensils and ate off plates she scavenged from the debris. She sent Myeko to the kindergarten which the Jesuits reopened, and the two older children attended Nobori-cho Primary School, which, for want of buildings, held classes out of doors. Toshio wanted to study to be a mechanic, like his hero, Hideo Osaki. Prices were high; by midsummer Mrs. Nakamura’s savings were gone. She sold some of her clothes to get food. She had once had several expensive kimonos, but during the war one had been stolen, she had given one to a sister who had been bombed out in Tokuyama, she had lost a couple in the Hiroshima bombing, and now she sold her last one. It brought only a hundred yen, which did not last long. In June, she went to Father Kleinsorge for advice about how to get along, and in early August, she was still considering the two alternatives he suggested—taking work as a domestic for some of the Allied occupation forces, or borrowing from her relatives enough money, about five hundred yen, or a bit more than thirty dollars, to repair her rusty sewing machine and resume the work of a seamstress.

When Mr. Tanimoto returned from Shikoku, he draped a tent he owned over the roof of the badly damaged house he had rented in Ushida. The roof still leaked, but he conducted services in the damp living room. He began thinking about raising money to restore his church in the city. He became quite friendly with Father Kleinsorge and saw the Jesuits often. He envied them their Church’s wealth; they seemed to be able to do anything they wanted. He had nothing to work with except his own energy, and that was not what it had been.

The Society of Jesus had been the first institution to build a relatively permanent shanty in the ruins of Hiroshima. That had been while Father Kleinsorge was in the hospital. As soon as he got back, he began living in the shack, and he and another priest, Father Laderman, who had joined him in the mission, arranged for the purchase of three of the standardized “barracks,” which the city was selling at seven thousand yen apiece. They put two together, end to end, and made a pretty chapel of them; they ate in the third. When materials were available, they commissioned a contractor to build a three-story mission house exactly like the one that had been destroyed in the fire. In the compound, carpenters cut timbers, gouged mortises, shaped tenons, whittled scores of wooden pegs and bored holes for them, until all the parts for the house were in a neat pile; then, in three days, they put the whole thing together, like an Oriental puzzle, without any nails at all. Father Kleinsorge was finding it hard, as Dr. Fujii had suggested he would, to be cautious and to take his naps. He went out every day on foot to call on Japanese Catholics and prospective converts. As the months went by, he grew more and more tired. In June, he read an article in the Hiroshima Chugoku warning survivors against working too hard—but what could he do? By July, he was worn out, and early in August, almost exactly on the anniversary of the bombing, he went back to the Catholic International Hospital, in Tokyo, for a month’s rest.

Whether or not Father Kleinsorge’s answers to Miss Sasaki’s questions about life were final and absolute truths, she seemed quickly to draw physical strength from them. Dr. Sasaki noticed it and congratulated Father Kleinsorge. By April 15th, her temperature and white count were normal and the infection in the wound was beginning to clear up. On the twentieth, there was almost no pus, and for the first time she jerked along a corridor on crutches. Five days later, the wound had begun to heal, and on the last day of the month she was discharged.

During the early summer, she prepared herself for conversion to Catholicism. In that period she had ups and downs. Her depressions were deep. She knew she would always be a cripple. Her fiancé never came to see her. There was nothing for her to do except read and look out, from her house on a hillside in Koi, across the ruins of the city where her parents and brother died. She was nervous, and any sudden noise made her put her hands quickly to her throat. Her leg still hurt; she rubbed it often and patted it, as if to console it.

It took six months for the Red Cross Hospital, and even longer for Dr. Sasaki, to get back to normal. Until the city restored electric power, the hospital had to limp along with the aid of a Japanese Army generator in its back yard. Operating tables, X-ray machines, dentist chairs, everything complicated and essential came in a trickle of charity from other cities. In Japan, face is important even to institutions, and long before the Red Cross Hospital was back to par on basic medical equipment, its directors put up a new yellow brick veneer façade, so the hospital became the handsomest building in Hiroshima—from the street. For the first four months, Dr. Sasaki was the only surgeon on the staff and he almost never left the building; then, gradually, he began to take an interest in his own life again. He got married in March. He gained back some of the weight he lost, but his appetite remained only fair; before the bombing, he used to eat four rice balls at every meal, but a year after it he could manage only two. He felt tired all the time. “But I have to realize,” he said, “that the whole community is tired.”

Ayear after the bomb was dropped, Miss Sasaki was a cripple; Mrs. Nakamura was destitute; Father Kleinsorge was back in the hospital; Dr. Sasaki was not capable of the work he once could do; Dr. Fujii had lost the thirty-room hospital it took him many years to acquire, and had no prospects of rebuilding it; Mr. Tanimoto’s church had been ruined and he no longer had his exceptional vitality. The lives of these six people, who were among the luckiest in Hiroshima, would never be the same. What they thought of their experiences and of the use of the atomic bomb was, of course, not unanimous. One feeling they did seem to share, however, was a curious kind of elated community spirit, something like that of the Londoners after their blitz—a pride in the way they and their fellow-survivors had stood up to a dreadful ordeal. Just before the anniversary, Mr. Tanimoto wrote in a letter to an American some words which expressed this feeling: “What a heartbreaking scene this was the first night! About midnight I landed on the riverbank. So many injured people lied on the ground that I made my way by striding over them. Repeating ‘Excuse me,’ I forwarded and carried a tub of water with me and gave a cup of water to each one of them. They raised their upper bodies slowly and accepted a cup of water with a bow and drunk quietly and, spilling any remnant, gave back a cup with hearty expression of their thankfulness, and said, ‘I couldn’t help my sister, who was buried under the house, because I had to take care of my mother who got a deep wound on her eye and our house soon set fire and we hardly escaped. Look, I lost my home, my family, and at last my-self bitterly injured. But now I have gotted my mind to dedicate what I have and to complete the war for our country’s sake.’ Thus they pledged to me, even women and children did the same. Being entirely tired I lied down on the ground among them, but couldn’t sleep at all. Next morning I found many men and women dead, whom I gave water last night. But, to my great surprise, I never heard anyone cried in disorder, even though they suffered in great agony. They died in silence, with no grudge, setting their teeth to bear it. All for the country!

“Dr. Y. Hiraiwa, professor of Hiroshima University of Literature and Science, and one of my church members, was buried by the bomb under the two storied house with his son, a student of Tokyo University. Both of them could not move an inch under tremendously heavy pressure. And the house already caught fire. His son said, ‘Father, we can do nothing except make our mind up to consecrate our lives for the country. Let us give Banzai to our Emperor.’ Then the father followed after his son, ‘ Tenno-heika, Banzai, Banzai, Banzai!’ In the result, Dr. Hiraiwa said, ‘Strange to say, I felt calm and bright and peaceful spirit in my heart, when I chanted Banzai to Tenno.’ Afterward his son got out and digged down and pulled out his father and thus they were saved. In thinking of their experience of that time Dr. Hiraiwa repeated, ‘What a fortunate that we are Japanese! It was my first time I ever tasted such a beautiful spirit when I decided to die for our Emperor.’

“Miss Kayoko Nobutoki, a student of girl’s high school, Hiroshima Jazabuin, and a daughter of my church member, was taking rest with her friends beside the heavy fence of the Buddhist Temple. At the moment the atomic bomb was dropped, the fence fell upon them. They could not move a bit under such a heavy fence and then smoke entered into even a crack and choked their breath. One of the girls begun to sing Kimi ga yo , national anthem, and others followed in chorus and died. Meanwhile one of them found a crack and struggled hard to get out. When she was taken in the Red Cross Hospital she told how her friends died, tracing back in her memory to singing in chorus our national anthem. They were just 13 years old.

“Yes, people of Hiroshima died manly in the atomic bombing, believing that it was for Emperor’s sake.”

A surprising number of the people of Hiroshima remained more or less indifferent about the ethics of using the bomb. Possibly they were too terrified by it to want to think about it at all. Not many of them even bothered to find out much about what it was like. Mrs. Nakamura’s conception of it—and awe of it—was typical. “The atom bomb,” she would say when asked about it, “is the size of a matchbox. The heat of it was six thousand times that of the sun. It exploded in the air. There is some radium in it. I don’t know just how it works, but when the radium is put together, it explodes.” As for the use of the bomb, she would say, “It was war and we had to expect it.” And then she would add, “ Shikata ga nai ,” a Japanese expression as common as, and corresponding to, the Russian word “ nichevo ”: “It can’t be helped. Oh, well. Too bad.” Dr. Fujii said approximately the same thing about the use of the bomb to Father Kleinsorge one evening, in German: “ Da ist nichts zu machen. There’s nothing to be done about it.”

Many citizens of Hiroshima, however, continued to feel a hatred for Americans which nothing could possibly erase. “I see,” Dr. Sasaki once said, “that they are holding a trial for war criminals in Tokyo just now. I think they ought to try the men who decided to use the bomb and they should hang them all.”

Father Kleinsorge and the other German Jesuit priests, who, as foreigners, could be expected to take a relatively detached view, often discussed the ethics of using the bomb. One of them, Father Siemes, who was out at Nagatsuka at the time of the attack, wrote in a report to the Holy See in Rome, “Some of us consider the bomb in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civilian population. Others were of the opinion that in total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?”

It would be impossible to say what horrors were embedded in the minds of the children who lived through the day of the bombing in Hiroshima. On the surface their recollections, months after the disaster, were of an exhilarating adventure. Toshio Nakamura, who was ten at the time of the bombing, was soon able to talk freely, even gaily, about the experience, and a few weeks before the anniversary he wrote the following matter-of-fact essay for his teacher at Nobori-cho Primary School: “The day before the bomb, I went for a swim. In the morning, I was eating peanuts. I saw a light. I was knocked to little sister’s sleeping place. When we were saved, I could only see as far as the tram. My mother and I started to pack our things. The neighbors were walking around burned and bleeding. Hataya-san told me to run away with her. I said I wanted to wait for my mother. We went to the park. A whirlwind came. At night a gas tank burned and I saw the reflection in the river. We stayed in the park one night. Next day I went to Taiko Bridge and met my girl friends Kikuki and Murakami. They were looking for their mothers. But Kikuki’s mother was wounded and Murakami’s mother, alas, was dead.” :diamonds:

A Roman to the Core, and the Core of Roma

Francesco Totti, a native Roman, has spent his entire career with A.S. Roma: 23 years and counting. He hopes to end his playing days in a Roma jersey.

ROME — Armed with spray cans, the vandals last descended on Via della Madonna dei Monti, a dead-end alley not far from the Colosseum, about six months ago. They come to this corner of Rome quite often, according to the street’s weary residents. They are sick of seeing their walls daubed with slogans, but they are resigned to it now.

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he mural at the end of the street is the problem. Some come to restore it, and then others return to deface it. Every time, each group adds a couple of inflammatory, insulting messages to the patchwork of tags that surrounds it. It goes on and on, an apparently eternal battle in the middle of the Eternal City.

Even when the mural is disfigured, though, anyone with even a fleeting interest in Italian soccer can recognize whom it depicts. That silhouette — one arm raised to the sky, the taped wrist and tapered torso — is so familiar that it bleeds through even the strongest aerosol blast.

Francesco Totti cannot be brushed off or sprayed away. A.S. Roma’s eternal captain is not so much etched onto the walls of his city as scoured into its very fabric. He is burned into its soul.

Totti, Roman born and bred, Roma to his core, has never hidden how much Rome means to him.

“It is my family, my friends, the people I love,” he said a few years ago, when asked why he had stayed at Roma. “It is the sea, the mountains, the monuments.”

He has not been short of opportunities: A.C. Milan and Real Madrid, to name but two, have made concerted attempts to coax him away in the 23 years since he first appeared as a cherubic teenager in the yellow and red colors of the team he supported as a child.

He could not bring himself to leave.

“I am fortunate to have only worn one shirt in my career,” Totti, 40, said in a recent interview. “It is something that is fundamental to me. It is something I have always wanted, to be one of these few who wear only one shirt, a fan and a player of the same team.”

During his apparently endless twilight — and despite the delicate politics between Rome’s two clubs, Roma and Lazio, as demonstrated in the continuing struggle on the Via della Madonna dei Monti — the city has done what it can to reward that loyalty, to reciprocate his affection.

He was not the best student — “he was only good for one thing, and that was football,” one teacher said — and in a city divided along partisan lines, it is not the ideal recruiting tool for the school to be so indelibly connected to a resolutely Roma idol.

That city officials pushed the mural through anyway is an indication of how much Totti means; the work was part of a series depicting iconic figures in Rome’s modern history. The mural is still there, covering an entire wall, three stories high, unscathed by the unwanted attentions of Lazio supporters. Totti belongs not just to Roma, but also to Rome. In return, there is a corner of the city that will always belong to him.

It is that relationship that has kept him going, long after many assumed his career would have run its course. Totti made his debut for Roma at 16 in 1993. He has played nearly 800 times for Roma and scored 306 goals. He regularly plays alongside teammates not born when he first entered Serie A.

Most of Totti’s peers, the pillars of his generation, have fallen by the wayside. He was part of the Italy of Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta and Christian Vieri, and the Serie A of Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Gabriel Batistuta. A couple of peers — Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo — linger on, but in less physically demanding positions or less mentally draining places. Only Totti remains.

“It is a love for both Roma and for football,” he said when asked what has sustained him. “I have married both of those things. Football, to me, is a passion, more than a game. It is everything. But more than anything, it is love for Roma. I have always been Roma. There has never been anything else.

A mural of Totti adorns his childhood school in the San Giovanni district of Rome.

A mural of Totti adorns his childhood school in the San Giovanni district of Rome.Credit…Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

“I keep on playing because I still enjoy it. I still have that passion. I want to come to training, to be with my colleagues, with the rest of the players. And I will keep going as long as it makes me happy.”

How long that will be is a matter of almost constant speculation. He is adamant that he is “not thinking” about life after soccer. He admits that he feels 40 “numerically, psychologically, but not physically,” but talks of “refining little things” in training, of his belief that he “can always improve.” He has not given up on his one unrequited ambition: making Roma champion of Europe.

“Never say never,” he said.

Everyone knows, though, that at some point, sooner rather than later, the curtain will fall. Giorgio Lucarelli runs the Roma 1927 pizzeria on Via Vetulonia, a few doors from Totti’s childhood home. The restaurant is a shrine to the team Lucarelli supports: Roma shirts, Roma scarves, pictures of Roma’s finest teams. Totti, an occasional visitor, features more prominently than anyone else.

“He is the best Roma has ever had,” Lucarelli said. “He can play on until he’s 50 as far as I am concerned. It is impossible to imagine Roma without him. But one day, we know we will have to face it.”

It will not be any easier for Totti. He has said he does not like change, describing himself as a man who moved out of his parents’ home only when he married his wife, Ilary.

Totti, shortly before turning 40 in September, playing against Sampdoria.

Totti, shortly before turning 40 in September, playing against Sampdoria.Credit…Alberto Pizzoli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“When I do retire, I will miss the trips with the team, the jokes with my teammates, the habits: having breakfast with them, playing with them, all the little things,” he said. “I am not thinking about life after football, but I know it will be another life, another world.”

And for soccer, it will be the dawn of a new era. Even Totti sees himself as an echo of another age, a remnant of a time when aesthetes took priority over athletes. Of all the players who have passed through Roma in Totti’s 23 years, the two who stand out most to him were Antonio Cassano and Vincent Candela, a French defender, because they were “both technicians.”

“Before, it was more tactical, and now it is more physical,” Totti said. “I preferred it before. It was more technical, more calm. To me, that is football. Football is technical and mental. Everything is in the head. You have to understand where the ball is and where you want it to go.”

That is the side of soccer that he enjoys most, the moments when the conscious overrides the instinctive. “I like it when I am thinking, about what I have to do, about whether to change my position,” he said. “When I think, it is difficult to make mistakes.”

It is also a side of soccer he fears is increasingly being lost in the sport’s thirst for tumult. It is telling that Totti’s most precious memories date back quite some way. He cited a goal against Sampdoria as his best, “a left-foot volley that showcased all of my characteristics,” and a back-heel against Werder Bremen, “back when I was very young,” as his favorite assist.

Fans of A.S. Roma displayed a giant portrait of Totti, the team captain, before a match against crosstown rival Lazio in 2015.

Fans of A.S. Roma displayed a giant portrait of Totti, the team captain, before a match against crosstown rival Lazio in 2015.Credit…Andreas Solaro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The one player he wishes he had called a teammate is not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but Ronaldo — Il Fenomeno, as the Italians call him. Totti calls Ronaldo a “player for history,” and he is, in more ways than one.

One day, the same will be said of Totti. Not just because of his style, but also because of his story: for the way he played and where he played it. Steven Gerrard has retired, and Ryan Giggs, too. Xavi Hernández is drifting to the end in Qatar. Totti is the last of what he calls the “tifosi-giocatori,” the fans who became players, the hometown heroes.

“I would like to think that in the youth teams there is someone who can do what I have done, what Daniele De Rossi is doing, and stay here for as long as possible,” Totti said, referring to his longtime Roma teammate. “But it is hard, in modern soccer.”

It has not always been easy for him. “There is more pressure, more responsibility, because I am Roman,” Totti said.

He would not, though, have had it any other way. It is the only thing he ever wanted.

“Just to wear this shirt,” he said. “That is the only thing.”

His shirt, and his city, marked indelibly for 23 years, a legacy that can never be erased.



Airline pilots were once the heroes of the skies. Today, in the quest for safety, airplanes are meant to largely fly themselves. Which is why the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, which killed 228 people, remains so perplexing and significant. William Langewiesche explores how a series of small errors turned a state-of-the-art cockpit into a death trap.

I. Into the Night

On the last day of May in 2009, as night enveloped the airport in Rio de Janeiro, the 216 passengers waiting to board a flight to Paris could not have suspected that they would never see daylight again, or that many would sit strapped to their seats for another two years before being found dead in the darkness, 13,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. But that is what happened. Air France Flight 447 carried a crew of nine flight attendants and three pilots—their numbers augmented because of duty-time limitations on a 5,700-mile trip that was expected to last nearly 11 hours. These were highly trained people, flying an immaculate wide-bodied Airbus A330 for one of the premier airlines of the world, an iconic company of which all of France is proud. Even today—with the flight recorders recovered from the sea floor, French technical reports in hand, and exhaustive inquests under way in French courts—it remains almost unimaginable that the airplane crashed. A small glitch took Flight 447 down, a brief loss of airspeed indications—the merest blip of an information problem during steady straight-and-level flight. It seems absurd, but the pilots were overwhelmed.

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To the question of why, the facile answer—that they happened to be three unusually incompetent men—has been widely dismissed. Other answers are more speculative, because the pilots can no longer explain themselves and had slid into a state of frantic incoherence before they died. But their incoherence tells us a lot. It seems to have been rooted in the very advances in piloting and aircraft design that have improved airline safety over the past 40 years. To put it briefly, automation has made it more and more unlikely that ordinary airline pilots will ever have to face a raw crisis in flight—but also more and more unlikely that they will be able to cope with such a crisis if one arises. Moreover, it is not clear that there is a way to resolve this paradox. That is why, to many observers, the loss of Air France 447 stands out as the most perplexing and significant airline accident of modern times.

The crew arrived in Rio three days before the accident and stayed at the Sofitel hotel on Copacabana Beach. At Air France, the layover there was considered to be especially desirable. The junior co-pilot, Pierre-Cédric Bonin, 32, had brought along his wife for the trip, leaving their two young sons at home, and the captain, Marc Dubois, 58, was traveling with an off-duty flight attendant and opera singer. In the French manner, the accident report made no mention of Dubois’s private life, but that omission then required a finding that fatigue played no role, when the captain’s inattention clearly did. Dubois had come up the hard way, flying many kinds of airplanes before hiring on with Air Inter, a domestic airline subsequently absorbed by Air France; he was a veteran pilot, with nearly 11,000 flight hours, more than half of them as captain. But, it became known, he had gotten only one hour of sleep the previous night. Rather than resting, he had spent the day touring Rio with his companion.

Flight 447 took off on schedule at 7:29 P.M. with 228 people aboard. The Airbus A330 is a docile twinjet airplane with an automated cockpit and a computer-based fly-by-wire control system that serves up an extraordinarily stable ride and, at the extremes, will intervene to keep pilots from exceeding aerodynamic and structural limits. Over the 15 years since the fleet’s introduction, in 1994, not a single A330 in line service had crashed. Up in the cockpit, Dubois occupied the left seat, the standard captain’s position. Though he was the Pilot in Command, and ultimately responsible for the flight, he was serving on this run as the Pilot Not Flying, handling communications, checklists, and backup duties. Occupying the right seat was the junior co-pilot, Bonin, whose turn it was to be the Pilot Flying—making the takeoff and landing, and managing the automation in cruising flight. Bonin was a type known as a Company Baby: he had been trained nearly from scratch by Air France and placed directly into Airbuses at a time when he had only a few hundred flight hours under his belt. By now he had accumulated 2,936 hours, but they were of low quality, and his experience was minimal, because almost all of his flight time was in fly-by-wire Airbuses running on autopilot.

Bonin switched on the autopilot four minutes after lifting off from Rio. This was standard procedure, as is the practice of flying by autopilot until just before touchdown. The route of the flight had been decided by company dispatchers in France and entered into the airplane’s flight-management computer at the gate: it was a direct course up the coast of Brazil, over the city of Natal, then northeast across the Atlantic. The initial cruising altitude was to be 35,000 feet. The only weather complication was a line of thunderstorms associated with the Intertropical Convergence Zone, spanning the Atlantic just north of the equator. Satellite pictures suggested a developing pattern perhaps stronger than normal, and with storm clusters too high to top, but with gaps that could be negotiated laterally.

For now the night was smooth and clear. Thirty-one minutes after takeoff, the autopilot leveled the airplane at 35,000 feet, nearly as high as the Airbus could fly, given the outside air temperature and the airplane’s weight; the automatic throttles set the thrust to achieve the selected 0.82 Mach, which in thin air translated into an aerodynamic speed of 280 knots, and, with the tailwind factored in, delivered a ground speed of 540 miles an hour. More than a thousand parameters were registered start to finish, for the entire duration of the trip, by the airplane’s data recorder. The cockpit voice recorder, by contrast, was a self-erasing loop, a bit more than two hours long, restricted because of long-standing privacy concerns by pilots. As a result, the voice recording opened on the scene two hours and five minutes before the end, or one hour and forty minutes into the flight.

It was 9:09 P.M. Rio time. Captain Dubois and the young Bonin had settled in for the ride, and the cockpit was mostly quiet. Someone shuffled papers. Someone adjusted a seat. At 9:24, Dubois mentioned that they might have to wait a bit longer for dinner, and Bonin replied affably that he too was getting hungry. Though they had not previously been acquaintances, the two men addressed each other using the informal “ tu, ” a mannerism that has become de rigueur among Air France pilots. But as subsequent exchanges would demonstrate, Bonin was almost too deferential, and perhaps too aware of rank.

A flight attendant entered the cockpit to deliver the meal. She said, “All is well?”

Bonin answered brightly, “Tutti va bene!”

Dubois said nothing. Apparently he was wearing headphones and listening to opera on a portable device. Addressing him, the flight attendant said, “And you too? All is well?”

Dubois said, “Huh?”

“All is well? No coffee, no tea?”

“All is well,” he said.

Dubois handed his portable device to Bonin, urging him to listen to the opera piece. Bonin did not say, “Thank you, no, we’re on autopilot, but I’m supposed to be the Pilot Flying,” or “Thank you, no, I’m not interested in your girlfriend’s music.” He put on the headset, listened for a few minutes, and said, “All that’s missing is the whiskey!”

That was the end of the opera. Dubois indicated a line on an electronic map and said, “It’s the equator.”


“You understood, I suppose.”

Bonin did not say, “Look, Captain Dubois, I’ve already flown five rotations to South America.” He said, “I figured . . . ”

Dubois said, “I like to feel where we’re going.”

Bonin agreed. He said, “Yeah.”

A weather text came in from the dispatchers in Paris, accompanied by a depiction of the developing line of thunderstorms ahead. Neither pilot made mention of it, but later comments hint that Bonin was growing nervous. Dubois then sowed confusion by answering an air-traffic controller’s call to another Air France flight and insisting on it despite Bonin’s weak suggestions that he had gotten the call sign wrong. After a few minutes the controller gracefully sorted out the tangle and gave Flight 447 a frequency change. Similar confusions arose over required reporting points and frequencies ahead, but Bonin did not intervene. Conversation in the cockpit was desultory, generally about flight planning, sometimes not. The airplane sailed over the port city of Natal and headed out to sea.

Dubois said, “We were not hassled by thunderstorms, huh?” This might have been an opportunity for Bonin to express his uncertainty about the weather ahead, but at that moment the cockpit door opened and a flight attendant walked in, asking that the temperature in the baggage hold be lowered because she was carrying some meat in her suitcase. Bonin lowered the temperature. Fifteen minutes later a flight attendant called the cockpit on the intercom to report that passengers in the back were cold. Bonin mentioned the meat in the baggage hold.

By 10:30 P.M., the airplane had moved well offshore, and beyond view of air-traffic-control radar. Dubois checked in with Brazilian oceanic control, known as Atlantico. He gave a position report and the time estimates for two waypoints to come. The controller thanked him and instructed him to maintain 35,000 feet. Bonin said, “Eh, well, there you are.” Dubois radioed, “Wilco.” The controller answered, “Thank you.” It was the flight’s last verbal exchange with land.

Bonin was anxious to cross the Intertropical Convergence Zone at a higher altitude in order to stay in smooth air by remaining above the clouds if possible. He was disturbed by Dubois’s acceptance of the altitude assigned. He said, “We won’t delay asking to climb nonetheless.” Dubois answered, “Yeah,” but did not make the request. As he saw it, there was nothing unusual about the Convergence Zone that night: they might encounter some turbulence during the crossing, but the heavy stuff could be avoided by using the airplane’s weather radar in a normal manner to zigzag loosely around the largest storms. Furthermore, there was no reason to believe that by flying a bit higher they would encounter significantly different weather. Finally there was this: the next-highest standard altitude for their direction of flight was 37,000 feet, which was shown on a screen as the current “recommended maximum,” or REC MAX. This was an altitude where, under current conditions, the performance margins would be tight, because the airplane would be flying at a relatively low airspeed and close to an aerodynamic stall. Standard procedure at Air France was to maintain greater margins by avoiding flight as high as REC MAX. Both pilots understood this. One of the enduring mysteries of Air France 447 is why Bonin kept wanting to climb.

All was black outside. Bonin saw the first storm on the radar, perhaps 200 miles in front. He said, “So we have a thing straight ahead.” Dubois barely answered. He said, “Yeah, I saw that,” and dropped the subject. A minute later, he commented on the outside air temperature, which was frigid at that altitude but 12 degrees Celsius warmer than standard. Bonin said, “Yeah, yeah, still, otherwise we’d have, we’d have a lot higher cruising altitude.” Dubois said, “Ah yeah . . . ” He was reading a magazine. He steered the conversation to an article about tax havens. Bonin tried to match his nonchalance. At 10:45 he said, “We’re crossing the equator. Did you feel the bump?”


“Did you feel the bump?”

“Oh shit, no.”

“Well, there you are.”

There were no bumps; the night remained smooth as the airplane gradually approached the weather. Dubois said, “ Bon, we’ll just take whatever measures are required.” It was the closest he came to advising Bonin of a plan. Bonin lowered the cockpit lighting and switched on the landing lights to illuminate the outside. They entered a cloud layer. Dubois answered an intercom call from a flight attendant, who told him she was taking the night duty in case he needed anything. He answered with a French endearment, “Yes, my flea,” and ended the call. Although thunderstorms lay ahead and were showing on the radar, no lightning was visible. They were in mild turbulence, without any need yet to deviate from the straight-line course. Bonin said, “It would have been good to climb, huh?” Dubois said, “If there’s turbulence.” He meant significant turbulence, which the record later showed they never encountered. Referring to rules associated with distance from potential diversionary airports, Dubois said, “We’re entering the ETOPS zone, the death zone,” and Bonin answered, “Yeah, exactly.” The airplane was building up a static charge, causing some popping on the radios. Bonin got the impression that they were flying close to the top of the cloud layer. Once again he suggested a climb. “We try to ask for 3–6 [36,000 feet] nonstandard? We’re really at the limits [of the layer]. Even 3–6 would be good.” Dubois for once was unambiguous. He said, “We’re going to wait a bit, see if this passes.” The ghostly lights of Saint Elmo’s fire danced across the windscreen.

With most of the weather still lying ahead and an anxious junior pilot at the controls, Dubois decided it was time to get some sleep. The chief French investigator, Alain Bouillard, later said to me, “If the captain had stayed in position through the Intertropical Convergence Zone, it would have delayed his sleep by no more than 15 minutes, and because of his experience, maybe the story would have ended differently. But I do not believe it was fatigue that caused him to leave. It was more like customary behavior, part of the piloting culture within Air France. And his leaving was not against the rules. Still, it is surprising. If you are responsible for the outcome, you do not go on vacation during the main event.”

Just before 11 P.M. Rio time, Dubois brightened the cockpit lighting, limiting the view outside, and he rang the flight-rest compartment, a small cabin containing two berths just behind the cockpit. A second co-pilot had been dozing there, and he knocked on the wall in response. He was David Robert, 37, another Company Baby who, however, had more than twice the flight experience of Bonin and was the senior of the two. Robert had graduated from ENAC, one of the elite Grandes Écoles, and had recently migrated into the airline’s executive ranks, where he now had a management job at the operations center. He had opted for this trip in order to maintain his currency as a pilot, and had flown the outbound leg from Paris, and had made the landing in Rio, his first in three months. After his summons to the cockpit, he took two minutes to arrive.

II. Cockpit Resource Management

In the short history of airline safety, the great turning point occurred in the 1950s with the introduction of jet airplanes, which were far more reliable and easy to fly than the complex piston-engine behemoths that preceded them. Over the next two decades, as the global jet fleet grew, whole categories of accidents related to mechanical failures and weather were largely engineered away. The safety improvement was dramatic. It opened the way to airline travel as we know it today.

But by the 1970s, a new reality had come into view. Though the accident rate had been reduced, the accidents that continued to occur were being caused almost entirely by pilots—the very people, many of them still at the controls, who had earned a nearly heroic reputation for having stood in the way of the mechanical or weather-related failures of the past. Pilot error had long been a recognized problem, but after the advent of jets it was as if an onion had been peeled to reveal an unexpectedly imperfect core. The problem was global. In Europe and the United States, a small number of specialists began to focus on the question. They were researchers, regulators, accident investigators, test pilots, and engineers. The timing was unfortunate for line pilots, who had begun to fight a futile rear-guard action, ongoing today, against an inexorable rollback in salaries and status. The rollback was a consequence of the very improvements in technology that had made the airlines safer. Simply put, for airline pilots the glory days were numbered, and however unfortunate that was for them, for passengers it has turned out to be a good thing.

In the late 1970s, a small team of researchers at a NASA facility in Mountain View, California, began a systematic assessment of airline-pilot performance. One of them was a young research psychologist and private pilot named John Lauber, who later served for 10 years as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board and went on to run the safety division at Airbus in France. As part of the NASA effort, Lauber spent several years riding in airline cockpits, observing the operations and taking notes. This was at a time when most crews still included a flight engineer, who sat behind the pilots and operated the airplane’s electrical and mechanical systems. What Lauber found was a culture dominated by authoritarian captains, many of them crusty old reactionaries who brooked no interference from their subordinates. In those cockpits, co-pilots were lucky if occasionally they were allowed to fly. Lauber told me about one occasion, when he entered a Boeing 727 cockpit at a gate before the captain arrived, and the flight engineer said, “I suppose you’ve been in a cockpit before.”

“Well, yes.”

“But you may not be aware that I’m the captain’s sexual adviser.”

“Well, no, I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, because whenever I speak up, he says, ‘If I want your fucking advice, I’ll ask for it.’ ”

At Pan American World Airways, once the de facto U.S. flag carrier, such captains were known as Clipper Skippers, a reference to the flying boats of the 1930s. NASA talked the airline into lending it a full-motion simulator at the San Francisco airport with which to run an experiment on 20 volunteer Boeing 747 crews. The scenario involved a routine departure from New York’s Kennedy Airport on a transatlantic flight, during which various difficulties would arise, forcing a return. It was devised by a self-effacing British physician and pilot named Hugh Patrick Ruffell Smith, who died a few years later and is revered today for having reformed global airline operations, saving innumerable lives. John Lauber was closely involved. The simulator runs were intended to be as realistic as possible, including bad coffee and interruptions by flight attendants.

Lauber told me that at Pan Am some of the operations managers believed the scenario was too easy. “They said, ‘Look, these guys have been trained. You’re not going to see much of interest.’ Well, we saw a lot that was of interest. And it had not so much to do with the pilots’ physical ability to fly—their stick-and-rudder skills—or their mastery of emergency procedures. Instead, it had everything to do with their management of the workload and internal communication. Making sure that the flight engineer was doing what a flight engineer needs to be doing, that the co-pilot was handling the radios, that the captain was freeing himself to make the right decisions.”

It all depended on the captains. A few were natural team leaders—and their crews acquitted themselves well. Most, however, were Clipper Skippers, whose crews fell into disarray under pressure and made dangerous mistakes. Ruffell Smith published the results in January 1979, in a seminal paper, “NASA Technical Memorandum 78482.” The gist of it was that teamwork matters far more than individual piloting skill. This ran counter to long tradition in aviation but corresponded closely with the findings of another NASA group, which made a careful study of recent accidents and concluded that in almost all cases poor communication in the cockpit was to blame.

The airlines proved receptive to the research. In 1979, NASA held a workshop on the subject in San Francisco, attended by the heads of training departments from around the world. To describe the new approach, Lauber coined a term that caught on. He called it Cockpit Resource Management, or C.R.M., an abbreviation since widened to stand for Crew Resource Management. The idea was to nurture a less authoritarian cockpit culture—one that included a command hierarchy but encouraged a collaborative approach to flying, in which co-pilots (now “first officers”) routinely handled the airplanes and were expected to express their opinions and question their captains if they saw mistakes being made. For their part, the captains were expected to admit to fallibility, seek advice, delegate roles, and fully communicate their plans and thoughts. Part of the package was a new approach to the use of simulators, with less effort spent in honing piloting skills and more emphasis placed on teamwork. This was known as line-oriented flight training. As might be expected, the new ideas met with resistance from senior pilots, many of whom dismissed the NASA findings as psychobabble and derided the early seminars as charm schools. As in the old days, they insisted that their skill and authority were all that stood in the way of death for the public. Gradually, however, many of those pilots retired or were forced to change, and by the 1990s both C.R.M. and line-oriented flight training had become the global standard, albeit imperfectly applied.

Though the effect on safety is difficult to quantify, because these innovations lie inseparably among others that have helped to improve the record, C.R.M. is seen to have been so successful that it has migrated into other realms, including surgery, where doctors, like pilots, are no longer the little gods they were before. In aviation, the change has been profound. Training has changed, co-pilots have been empowered, and the importance of airplane-handling skills by individual pilots has implicitly been de-valued. But the most important point as it applies to Air France 447 is that the very design of the Airbus cockpit, like that of every recent Boeing, is based upon the expectation of clear communication and good teamwork, and if these are lacking, a crisis can quickly turn catastrophic.

The tenets of C.R.M., which emerged from the United States, fit naturally into the cultures of Anglo-Saxon countries. Acceptance has been more difficult in certain Asian countries, where C.R.M. goes against the traditions of hierarchy and respect for elders. A notorious case was the 1997 crash of a Korean Air Boeing 747 that hit a hillside on a black night, while on approach to Guam, after a venerated captain descended prematurely and neither the co-pilot nor the flight engineer emphatically raised concerns, though both men knew the captain was getting things wrong. In the impact 228 people died. Similar social dynamics have been implicated in other Asian accidents.

And Air France? As judged from the cockpit management on display in Flight 447 before it went down, NASA’s egalitarian discipline has devolved within the airline into a self-indulgent style of flying in which co-pilots address the captain using the informal “ tu ” but some captains feel entitled to do whatever they like. The sense of entitlement does not occur in a void. It can be placed in the context of a proud country that has become increasingly insecure. A senior executive at Airbus mentioned to me that in Britain and the United States the elites do not become airline pilots, whereas in France, as in less developed countries, they still do. This makes them difficult to manage. Bernard Ziegler, the visionary French test pilot and engineer behind the Airbus design, once said to me, “First you have to understand the mentality.”

I said, “Do you really think they are so arrogant?”

He said, “Some, yes. And they have the flaw of being too well paid.”

“So there must be no problem in the United States.”

But Ziegler was serious. He said, “Second, the union’s position is that pilots are always perfect. Working pilots are perfect, and dead pilots are, too.”

In the case of Air France 447 the union has gone so far as to suggest that it is immoral to blame the pilots because they cannot defend themselves. At the extreme, a 447 victims’ family group has even taken their side. It is an old pattern, deeply rooted. In 1953, when an Air France crew flew a perfectly good Constellation into a mountain during a routine descent into Nice, Ziegler’s father, who was the airline’s managing director, went with the chief pilot to report to the French prime minister. The prime minister opened by saying, “What did your pilot do wrong?,” and the chief pilot answered, “Monsieur, the pilot is never wrong.”

Ziegler smiled ironically. He is so blunt that for a while he required police protection. He was building airplanes so docile, he once declared, that even his concierge could fly them. We spoke soon after Air France 447 had crashed, and before the recorders had been recovered. France is a great aviation nation. And Ziegler is a patriot. But he is also a modernist. He has designed the most advanced airliners ever built. His point was that at Air France the piloting culture has not changed with the times.

III. Loss of Control

On the night of May 31, 2009, the pilots of Flight 447 certainly did not serve their passengers well. After Captain Dubois left the cockpit to get some sleep, Robert, the senior co-pilot, sat on the left, serving as the Pilot Not Flying. Bonin, on the right, continued to handle the basic flying chores. The airplane was on autopilot doing .82 Mach, progressing toward Paris at 35,000 feet, mushing slightly with its nose two degrees up and its wings meeting the oncoming air at a positive angle of about three degrees—the all-important, lift-producing angle of attack.

As the angle of attack increases, so does lift efficiency—but only up to the point where the angle becomes too steep and the oncoming air can no longer flow smoothly over the tops of the wings. At that point, the airplane stalls. The phenomenon is characteristic of all airplanes and has nothing to do with the engines. When an airplane stalls, it loses lift and its wings begin to plow through the sky with enormous drag, far greater than engine thrust can overcome. The airplane enters a deep, mushing, nose-high descent, often accompanied by difficulties in roll control. The only solution is to reduce the angle of attack by lowering the nose and diving. This is counter-intuitive but basic to flight. The recovery requires altitude, but in cruise there is plenty of altitude to spare.

As usual with airliners at high altitude, Air France 447 was flying just shy of a problematic angle of attack. Three degrees higher, at 5 degrees, a warning would have sounded in the cockpit, and 5 degrees higher still, at an angle of attack of about 10 degrees, theoretically the airplane would have stalled. The last is theoretical because in the A330, under an all-encompassing automation regime known as Normal Law, the flight-control system intervenes to protect against the stall: it lowers the nose and advances the power in a manner that cannot be overridden by the pilots. Such interventions are extremely rare. Pilots spend their entire careers without experiencing them—unless something goes really wrong with their judgment.

Something went really wrong here, but for now nothing was out of the ordinary. In front of each pilot, Bonin and Robert, were two independently sourced flat-screen displays. The easiest for casual observers to understand were the navigational displays—moving maps showing heading, course, waypoints, and ground speed, with weather radar superimposed. But the more important were the primary flight displays, each built around a symbolic representation of the airplane in relation to a horizon line—showing pitch (nose up or down) and bank (wings level or not), along with heading, altitude, airspeed, and climb or descent rates. A third, standby display showed much the same, though in smaller form. It is on the basis of such marvels of informational presentation that pilots maintain control while flying by hand at night or in clouds, when the actual horizon cannot be seen.

After Dubois turned up the cockpit lights, the view outside was black. The airplane entered another cloud layer and was jostled by light turbulence. In the passenger cabin the seat-belt sign was on. Bonin rang the forward flight-attendant station and said, “Yes, Maryline, it’s Pierre up front. Listen, in about two minutes we ought to be in an area where it will start moving around a bit more than now.” He advised the cabin crew to take their seats and rang off with “I’ll call you when we’re out of it.” As it happened, he never did.

The turbulence increased slightly. Bonin kept lamenting the inability to climb. He mentioned again the unusually warm temperature outside: “Standard plus 13.” Then he said, “ Putain la vache. Putain! ” Very roughly this translates into “Fucking hell. Fuck!” There was no particular reason for his outburst. He was anxious. He said, “We’re really at the very top of the cloud deck. It’s too bad. I’m sure that with a nonstandard 3–6-0 [36,000 feet], if we did that, it would be good . . . ”

Robert did not respond. He was looking at his navigational display, which showed a thunderstorm dead ahead. He said, “You want to go a little to the left?” The suggestion was posed as a question. Bonin said, “Excuse me?” Robert said, “You can eventually go a bit to the left.” This was closer to a command. Bonin selected a heading 20 degrees to the left, and the airplane dutifully turned. The exchange was the first step in a confusing shift by which Bonin began to acquiesce to Robert’s authority without acceding to it completely.

They entered an area of heavier weather, and the cockpit filled with the muted roar of ice crystals hitting the windscreen. Bonin dialed back the airplane’s speed by selecting .80 Mach. Robert shrugged verbally. He said, “It costs nothing.” The automatic throttles responded by reducing the thrust. The angle of attack slightly increased. The turbulence was light to occasionally moderate. The noise of the ice crystals continued.

Unbeknownst to the pilots, the ice crystals began to accumulate inside the airplane’s three air-pressure probes, known as pitot tubes, which were mounted on the underside of the nose. The clogging of that particular probe design was a known issue on certain Airbus models, and though it occurred only under rare high-altitude conditions and had never led to an accident, it was considered to be serious enough that Air France had decided to replace the probes with ones of an improved design and had sent out an advisory to warn pilots of the problem. The first of the replacement probes had just arrived in Paris and were waiting in a storeroom to be installed.

For Flight 447, it was too late: the probes were quickly clogged. Just after 11:10 P.M., as a result of the blockage, all three of the cockpit’s airspeed indications failed, dropping to impossibly low values. Also as a result of the blockage, the indications of altitude blipped down by an unimportant 360 feet. Neither pilot had time to notice these readings before the autopilot, reacting to the loss of valid airspeed data, disengaged from the control system and sounded the first of many alarms—an electronic “cavalry charge.” For similar reasons, the automatic throttles shifted modes, locking onto the current thrust, and the fly-by-wire control system, which needs airspeed data to function at full capacity, reconfigured itself from Normal Law into a reduced regime called Alternate Law, which eliminated stall protection and changed the nature of roll control so that in this one sense the A330 now handled like a conventional airplane. All of this was necessary, minimal, and a logical response by the machine.

So here is the picture at that moment: the airplane was in steady-state cruise, pointing straight ahead without pitching up or down, and with the power set perfectly to deliver a tranquil .80 Mach. The turbulence was so light that one could have walked the aisles—though perhaps a bit unsteadily. Aside from a minor blip in altitude indication, the only significant failure was the indication of airspeed—but the airspeed itself was unaffected. No crisis existed. The episode should have been a non-event, and one that would not last long. The airplane was in the control of the pilots, and if they had done nothing, they would have done all they needed to do.

Naturally the pilots were surprised. At first they understood only that the autopilot had disengaged. Light turbulence tilted the airplane into a gentle bank. Bonin reached for the side-stick to his right, a device similar in appearance to a gaming stick. He said, “I’ve got the controls!,” and Robert answered, “O.K.” A C-chord alert sounded because the indications of altitude had deviated from the selected 35,000 feet. It is likely that Bonin was gripping his control stick much too hard: the data recorder, which measures stick movements, later showed that he was flailing from the start, trying to level the wings but using high-amplitude inputs like a panicked driver over-controlling a car. It caused the airplane to rock left and right. This was possibly the result of Bonin’s unfamiliarity with handling the Airbus in Alternate Law, particularly at high altitude, where conventional roll characteristics change. Had he been more seasoned, he might have loosened his grip—backed off to his fingertips—and settled things down. The record shows that he never did.

But worse—far worse—was what Bonin did in the vertical sense: he pulled the stick back. Initially this may have been a startle response to the false indication of a minor altitude loss. But Bonin didn’t just ease the stick back—he hauled it back, three-fourths of the way to the stop, and then he kept on pulling. Alain Bouillard, the French investigator, equated the reaction to curling instinctively into a fetal position. The airplane responded by pitching up into an unsustainable climb, causing its speed to slow and its angle of attack to increase.

Six seconds after Bonin assumed control, with the C-chord altitude alert chiming in the cockpit, a brief stall warning sounded. It was a loud synthetic male voice. It said STALL one time. The C-chord alert resumed. Robert said, “What was that?” The airplane answered, STALL STALL, and again the C-chord sounded. Neither pilot grasped the message. The angle of attack had increased to about 5 degrees, and the wings were still flying well, but it was time to do something about the warning. Bonin said, “We don’t have a good indication of . . . speed!,” and Robert concurred, saying, “We’ve lost the speeds!”

With that realization—that the airspeed indications had dropped out—the problem should have been solved. Though Bonin had reacted wildly on the controls, the crew had assessed the failure correctly within 11 seconds of the onset, about as quickly as could be expected. The nose was 11 degrees up, which was excessive at high altitude but not in itself extreme. The solution was simple, and fundamental to flying. All Bonin had to do was to lower the nose to a normal cruising pitch—about to the horizon—and leave the thrust alone. The airplane would have returned to cruising flight at the same speed as before, even if that speed could not for the moment be known.

But Bonin continued to pull back on the stick, jerkily pitching the nose higher. Was he yearning for the clear sky he believed was just above? Was he remembering an “unreliable airspeed” procedure that is meant for low altitude, where power is ample and the biggest concern is to climb away from the ground? Did he think that the airplane was going too fast? Evidence emerged later that he may have, but if so, why? Even if he did not hear the stall warning, the nose was up, the available thrust was low, and with or without valid indications, high-speed flight in those conditions was physically impossible. A renowned cockpit designer at Boeing—himself a transport pilot—once said to me, “We don’t believe there are any bad pilots. We believe there are average pilots who have bad days.” He called this a principle that underlies Boeing’s cockpit designs. But if Bonin was an average pilot, what does that say about the average?

At least one answer takes the form of the man on his left. After Robert concurred that the airspeed indications had been lost, he looked away from the main flight displays, thereby abandoning his primary role as the Pilot Not Flying, which according to the tenets of C.R.M. should have been to monitor Bonin’s actions. Instead he started reading aloud from a message screen that ranks and displays certain system conditions, and in some cases provides abbreviated advice on procedures. In this case the advice was irrelevant to the situation, but it led Bonin to switch off the thrust lock, which caused the engines to spool up automatically to full thrust. It was the first of a series of seesaw power changes that complicated the picture for the pilots and must have caught the attention of some passengers.

Robert kept reading from the message screen. He said, “Alternate Law. Protections Lost.” This at least was relevant. It meant that the wings could stall, and that the warnings had to be heeded. It is not clear, however, that Robert had processed his own words or that Bonin had heard them.

Robert said, “Wait, we’re losing . . . ” He stopped. Twenty seconds had passed since the loss of airspeed indications. They were soaring upward through the thin air at 36,000 feet and bleeding off speed. The nose was 12 degrees up.

Robert returned to the primary flight displays. He said, “Pay attention to your speed! Pay attention to your speed!” By this he must have meant the airplane’s pitch, since the airspeed indications remained obviously invalid. Bonin may have understood the same, because he said, “O.K., I’m going back down!” He lowered the nose, but by only half a degree. The airplane continued to climb.

Robert said, “You stabilize!”

Bonin said, “Yeah!”

“You go back down!” Robert pointed to a measure of climb rate or altitude. “We’re climbing, according to this! According to all three, you’re climbing! So you go back down!”


“You’re at . . . Go back down!”

This is not the time for a dissertation on the Airbus flight-control system, which is criticized by Boeing, but to the extent that it embodies a mistake in design, it is that the pilot’s and co-pilot’s side-sticks are not linked and do not move in unison. This means that when the Pilot Flying deflects his stick, the other stick remains stationary, in the neutral position. If both pilots deflect their sticks at the same time, a DUAL INPUT warning sounds, and the airplane responds by splitting the difference. To keep this from causing a problem in the case of a side-stick jam, each stick has a priority button that cuts out the other one and allows for full control. The arrangement relies on clear communication and good teamwork to function as intended. Indeed, it represents an extreme case of empowering the co-pilot and accepting C.R.M. into a design. More immediately, the lack of linkage did not allow Robert to feel Bonin’s flailing.

Bonin pushed the stick forward, and the nose pitched down, but a little too quickly for Robert’s taste, lightening the load to 0.7 G’s, a third of the way to weightlessness. Robert said, “Gently!” Apparently he realized only now that the engines had spooled up. He said, “What is that?”

Bonin said, “We’re in climb! ” It seems that one of the pilots now pulled the throttles back to idle, and six seconds later the other advanced them again. It is not clear who did what, but it seems likely that Bonin opted for idle and Robert for thrust. Bonin by then had gotten the nose down to a six-degree pitch, and the climb had tapered. Though they remained in an untenable position, all he had to do was lower the nose another few degrees and they would have been back where they started. But Bonin for some reason did not do it, and Robert seemed to run out of ideas. He kept trying to rouse the captain, Dubois, by repeatedly pushing the call button to the flight-rest compartment, behind the cockpit. He said, “Fuck, where is he?”

Bonin began to pull back on the stick again, raising the nose 13 degrees above the horizon. The angle of attack increased, and three seconds later the airplane began to shake with the onset of a stall. The shaking is known as a buffet. It occurs as the flow of air boils across the wings. As the stall develops more fully, it becomes rough enough in the cockpit to make the instruments hard to read.

Carried by inertia, the airplane continued to climb. A flight attendant called onto the intercom, apparently in response to Robert, who may unintentionally have rung her while trying to rouse the captain. She said, “Hello?” As if the buffet weren’t enough of an indication, the stall warning erupted again, alternating between STALL STALL STALL and a chirping sound. The warnings sounded continuously for the next 54 seconds.

The flight attendant said, “Yes?”

Robert ignored her. He may have realized that they had stalled, but he did not say, “We’ve stalled.” To Bonin he said, “Especially try to touch the lateral controls as little as possible.” This is a minor part of stall recovery, and nothing compared with lowering the nose.

The flight attendant said, “Hello?”

Struggling with the controls, and with increasing difficulty keeping the wings level, Bonin said, “I’m at TOGA, huh?” TOGA is an acronym for maximum thrust. It is another minor part of stall recovery, especially at high altitude, near an airplane’s propulsive ceiling, where maximum thrust means very little thrust at all. Bonin kept raising the nose, pulling it as high as 18 degrees.

Robert said, “Fuck, is he coming or not?”

The flight attendant said, “It doesn’t answer,” and hung up with a click.

By then the pitot tubes had unfrozen, and the airspeed indicators were working normally again—though this would not have been obvious to Bonin or Robert, in part because they had no idea of the speed that the indications at this point should have shown, and apparently did not have the presence of mind to extrapolate from the G.P.S.-derived ground speed, which had been displayed on the navigational screen all along. For the next 12 seconds, neither pilot spoke. Amid repeated stall alarms, the airplane ran out of the inertial ability to climb, topped a parabolic arc at 38,000 feet, and started down on the far side with its nose up and, out at the wings, an angle of attack as steep as 23 degrees. One minute and 17 seconds had passed since the trouble had started, and that is a very long time. The descent rate rapidly grew to 3,900 feet per minute, and as a result, the angle of attack further increased. The buffeting grew heavy.

Dubois finally knocked on the cockpit wall, signaling that he was coming. Robert kept urgently ringing the call button anyway. He said, “But we’ve got the engines! What the hell is happening?” STALL. STALL. STALL. He said, “Do you understand what’s happening, or not?”

Bonin said, “Fuck, I don’t have control of the airplane anymore! I don’t have control of the airplane at all!” Because the right wing was stalled more deeply than the left, the airplane was rolling in that direction.

Robert said, “Controls to the left!” Using the priority button on his side-stick, he assumed control of the airplane. He had it for only a second before Bonin, using his own priority button, and without saying a word, took control back. This left Robert with a sense that his side-stick had failed. He said, “Fuck, what’s going on?”

Bonin said, “I have the impression we’re going crazily fast.” With the nose up and little thrust available? How could he have been so confused? We do not know.

The cockpit door opened, and Dubois entered. All was commotion. Rather calmly he asked, “What’s happening?” STALL. STALL. STALL. The cockpit was shaking heavily.

Robert did not say, “We lost airspeed indications, and this guy pulled up. We’re in Alternate Law. We climbed to 38,000 feet, and now we’re going down.” He said, “I don’t know what’s happening!”

Bonin said, “We’re losing control of the airplane!”

The Airbus was passing through the original altitude of 35,000 feet; the nose was 15 degrees up; the descent rate was 10,000 feet per minute and increasing; the angle of attack, though not indicated in the cockpit, was an incredible 41 degrees; the right wing was down unstoppably by 32 degrees; and the airplane was arcing off course through the blackness over the mid-Atlantic.

Robert said to Dubois, “We completely lost control of the airplane, and we don’t understand anything! We tried everything!”

IV. Flying Robots

Robert’s confusion was later reflected in the frustration of engineers and air-safety specialists worldwide. The A330 is a masterpiece of design, and one of the most foolproof airplanes ever built. How could a brief airspeed-indication failure in an uncritical phase of the flight have caused these Air France pilots to get so tangled up? And how could they not have understood that the airplane had stalled? The roots of the problem seem to lie paradoxically in the very same cockpit designs that have helped to make the last few generations of airliners extraordinarily safe and easy to fly.

This is as true for Boeing as for Airbus, because, whatever their rivalries and differences, both manufacturers have come to similar cockpit solutions. The first was the elimination of the flight-engineer position, despite loud objections by the pilots’ unions, which claimed that safety would be compromised. This occurred in the late 1970s, at the same time that John Lauber and the NASA researchers were pursuing their systematic studies of flight-crew performance and were coming up with the idea of Crew Resource Management. By then the individual aircraft systems—engines, fuel, electronics, pressurization, hydraulics, and so on—had become sufficiently self-regulating that there was no longer a need for a third crew member to control them manually. Airbus was the underdog, hemorrhaging public funds and making airplanes that did not sell. It decided on a no-compromise gamble to produce the most technologically advanced airliners that could be designed. Ignoring the union clamor, it started by imposing a two-person cockpit on its models, kicking off an argument about the value of pilots that still comes into view every time an Airbus crashes. Boeing, which was developing the 757 and 767 concurrently, took a more polite position, but the writing was on the wall. The Boeing 737 and Douglas DC-9 had already been certified to operate with two-pilot crews, without a flight engineer aboard. After a presidential task force in the United States studied the matter and concluded that a third crew member in the cockpit constituted, if anything, a distraction, the unions accepted defeat.

The question was how to design cockpits for the two-pilot crews, particularly in light of advances in micro-computing power, digital sensing, bright-screen displays, and new navigational possibilities that invited the use of electronic moving maps. The manufacturers scrapped the crowded electro-mechanical panels of the past and, using proof-of-concept work done by NASA, equipped their new airplanes with “glass” cockpits built around flat-panel displays. The new displays offered many advantages, including the ability to de-clutter the cockpit by consolidating basic flight information onto a few screens, using improved symbols, and burying much of the rest—but in readily available form. Like C.R.M., it was all about getting better, more consistent performance from pilots—and it has done that.

Automation is an integral part of the package. Autopilots have been around since nearly the start of aviation, and component systems have been automated since the 1960s, but in glass-cockpit designs, the automation is centralized and allows the systems to communicate with one another, to act as parts of an integrated whole, and even to decide which information should be presented to the pilots, and when. At the core are flight-management computers—with keypads mounted on central pedestals—which are largely pre-programmed on the ground according to optimizations decided upon by airline dispatchers, and which guide the airplane’s autopilots through the full complexity of each flight. By the mid-1980s, many such airplanes, both Airbuses and Boeings, had entered the global fleet, for the most part leaving their pilots to simply observe the functioning of the systems. In 1987, Airbus took the next step by introducing the first fly-by-wire airliner, the smallish A320, in which computers interpret the pilots’ stick inputs before moving the control surfaces on the wings and tail. Every Airbus since has been the same, and Boeing has followed suit in its own way.

These are generally known as “fourth generation” airplanes; they now constitute nearly half the global fleet. Since their introduction, the accident rate has plummeted to such a degree that some investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board have recently retired early for lack of activity in the field. There is simply no arguing with the success of the automation. The designers behind it are among the greatest unheralded heroes of our time. Still, accidents continue to happen, and many of them are now caused by confusion in the interface between the pilot and a semi-robotic machine. Specialists have sounded the warnings about this for years: automation complexity comes with side effects that are often unintended. One of the cautionary voices was that of a beloved engineer named Earl Wiener, recently deceased, who taught at the University of Miami. Wiener is known for “Wiener’s Laws,” a short list that he wrote in the 1980s. Among them:

Every device creates its own opportunity for human error.

Exotic devices create exotic problems.

Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.

Invention is the mother of necessity.

Some problems have no solution.

It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.

Whenever you solve a problem, you usually create one. You can only hope that the one you created is less critical than the one you eliminated.

You can never be too rich or too thin (Duchess of Windsor) or too careful about what you put into a digital flight-guidance system (Wiener).

Wiener pointed out that the effect of automation is to reduce the cockpit workload when the workload is low and to increase it when the workload is high. Nadine Sarter, an industrial engineer at the University of Michigan, and one of the pre-eminent researchers in the field, made the same point to me in a different way: “Look, as automation level goes up, the help provided goes up, workload is lowered, and all the expected benefits are achieved. But then if the automation in some way fails, there is a significant price to pay. We need to think about whether there is a level where you get considerable benefits from the automation but if something goes wrong the pilot can still handle it.”

Sarter has been questioning this for years and recently participated in a major F.A.A. study of automation usage, released in the fall of 2013, that came to similar conclusions. The problem is that beneath the surface simplicity of glass cockpits, and the ease of fly-by-wire control, the designs are in fact bewilderingly baroque—all the more so because most functions lie beyond view. Pilots can get confused to an extent they never would have in more basic airplanes. When I mentioned the inherent complexity to Delmar Fadden, a former chief of cockpit technology at Boeing, he emphatically denied that it posed a problem, as did the engineers I spoke to at Airbus. Airplane manufacturers cannot admit to serious issues with their machines, because of the liability involved, but I did not doubt their sincerity. Fadden did say that once capabilities are added to an aircraft system, particularly to the flight-management computer, because of certification requirements they become impossibly expensive to remove. And yes, if neither removed nor used, they lurk in the depths unseen. But that was as far as he would go.

Sarter has written extensively about “automation surprises,” often related to control modes that the pilot does not fully understand or that the airplane may have switched into autonomously, perhaps with an annunciation but without the pilot’s awareness. Such surprises certainly added to the confusion aboard Air France 447. One of the more common questions asked in cockpits today is “What’s it doing now?” Robert’s “We don’t understand anything!” was an extreme version of the same. Sarter said, “We now have this systemic problem with complexity, and it does not involve just one manufacturer. I could easily list 10 or more incidents from either manufacturer where the problem was related to automation and confusion. Complexity means you have a large number of subcomponents and they interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Pilots don’t know, because they haven’t experienced the fringe conditions that are built into the system. I was once in a room with five engineers who had been involved in building a particular airplane, and I started asking, ‘Well, how does this or that work?’ And they could not agree on the answers. So I was thinking, If these five engineers cannot agree, the poor pilot, if he ever encounters that particular situation . . . well, good luck.”

In the straight-on automation incidents that concern Sarter, the pilots overestimate their knowledge of the aircraft systems, then do something expecting a certain result, only to find that the airplane reacts differently and seems to have assumed command. This is far more common than the record indicates, because rarely do such surprises lead to accidents, and only in the most serious cases of altitude busting or in-flight upsets are they necessarily reported. Air France 447 had an additional component. The blockage of the pitot tubes led to an old-fashioned indication failure, and the resulting disconnection of the autopilot was an old-fashioned response: trust the pilots to sort things out. There were definitely automation complications in what followed, and to that mix one can add the design decision not to link the two control sticks. But on Air France 447, the automation problem ran still deeper. Bonin and Robert were flying a fourth-generation glass-cockpit airplane, and unlike the pilots who think they know more than they do, these two seemed to fear its complexities. The Airbus was reacting in a conventional manner, but once they ventured beyond the routine of normal cruise they did not trust the nature of the machine. It is hard to imagine that this would have happened under the old Clipper Skippers, the stick-and-rudder boys. But Bonin and Robert? It was as if progress had pulled the rug out from beneath elementary aeronautical understanding.

V. The Final Descent

Captain Dubois entered the cockpit 1 minute and 38 seconds after the pitot tubes malfunctioned. It is not known whether he knelt or stood behind Bonin and Robert, or sat in the jump seat. Likewise, the conditions in the passenger cabin are not known. Though the unusual motions must have been noticed by some, and the passengers seated in front may have heard the cockpit alarms, there is no evidence that panic broke out, and no screams were recorded.

In the cockpit, the situation was off the scale of test flights. After Dubois arrived, the stall warning temporarily stopped, essentially because the angle of attack was so extreme that the system rejected the data as invalid. This led to a perverse reversal that lasted nearly to the impact: each time Bonin happened to lower the nose, rendering the angle of attack marginally less severe, the stall warning sounded again—a negative reinforcement that may have locked him into his pattern of pitching up, assuming he was hearing the stall warning at all.

Dubois pointed to an indication on a flight display. He said, “So, here, take that, take that.”

Robert repeated the order more urgently. “Take that, take that! But try to take that!”

The stall warning erupted again. Bonin said, “I have a problem—it’s that I don’t have a vertical-speed indication anymore!” Dubois merely grunted in response. Bonin said, “I have no more displays!” This was not correct. He had displays but didn’t believe them. The descent rate was now 15,000 feet per minute.

Robert was suffering from the same disbelief. He said, “We don’t have a single valid display!”

Bonin said, “I have the impression we’re going crazily fast! No? What do you think?” He reached for the speed-brake lever and pulled it.

Robert said, “No. No! Above all don’t extend the brakes!”

“No? O.K.!” The speed brakes retracted.

At times both of them were on their side-sticks, countermanding each other on the controls. Bonin said, “So, we’re still going down!”

Robert said, “Let’s pull!”

For 23 seconds Captain Dubois had said nothing. Robert finally roused him. He said, “What do you think? What do you think? What do you see?”

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Dubois said, “I don’t know. It’s descending.”

It is said in his defense that he faced an indecipherable scene, having arrived after the loss of control, but his observer status was actually an advantage. He knew nothing of the original airspeed-indication failure. Now he had a functional panel, showing low airspeeds, a low ground speed, a nose-high attitude, and a big descent under way. Add to that the repeated stall warnings, the telltale buffeting, and the difficulty in controlling roll. It might have been helpful to have an angle-of-attack display—one capable of indicating such extremes—but what else could this be but a stall?

Bonin had managed to come out of the sustained right bank. He said, “There you are! There—it’s good. We’ve come back to wings level—no, it won’t . . . ” The airplane was rocking between left- and right-bank angles up to 17 degrees.

Dubois said, “Level the wings. The horizon, the standby horizon.”

Then things got even more confused. Robert said, “Your speed! You’re climbing!” He probably meant that Bonin was raising the nose, because the airplane was emphatically not climbing. He said, “Descend! Descend, descend, descend!,” again apparently referring to pitch.

Bonin said, “I am descending!”

Dubois picked up the language. He said, “No, you’re climbing.”

Bonin may have realized that the reference was to pitch. He said, “I’m climbing? O.K., so we’re going down.”

Communication in the cockpit was withering. Robert said, “O.K., we’re at TOGA.”

Bonin asked, “What are we now? In altitude, what do we have?” Apparently he was too busy to see for himself.

Dubois said, “Fuck, it’s not possible.”

“In altitude what do we have?”

Robert said, “What do you mean ‘in altitude’?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m descending, no?”

“You’re descending, yes.”

Bonin never got his answer, but the airplane was dropping through 20,000 feet. It rolled into a steep, 41-degree bank to the right. Dubois said, “Hey, you, you’re in . . . Put, put the wings level!”

Robert repeated, “Put the wings level!”

“That’s what I’m trying to do!”

Dubois was not happy. He said, “Put the wings level!”

“I’m at full left stick!”

Robert moved his own side-stick. A synthetic voice said, DUAL INPUT.

Dubois said, “The rudder.” This did the trick, and the airplane righted. Dubois said, “Wings level. Go gently, gently!”

In confusion, Robert said, “We’ve lost everything on the left wing! I have nothing left there!”

Dubois answered, “What do you have?,” then “No, wait!”

Though precise modeling was never pursued, the investigators later estimated that this was the last moment, as the airplane dropped through 13,000 feet, when a recovery would theoretically have been possible. The maneuver would have required a perfect pilot to lower the nose at least 30 degrees below the horizon and dive into the descent, accepting a huge altitude loss in order to accelerate to a flying angle of attack, and then rounding out of the dive just above the waves, pulling up with sufficient vigor to keep from exceeding the airplane’s speed limit, yet not so violently as to cause a structural failure. There are perhaps a handful of pilots in the world who might have succeeded, but this Air France crew was not among them. There is an old truth in aviation that the reasons you get into trouble become the reasons you don’t get out of it.

Bonin said, “We’re, we’re there, we’re getting to level 100!” Level 100 is 10,000 feet. It’s a standard call in normal operations. It used to be said that below 10,000 you were in “Indian country.” Now it’s said that the cockpit should be sterile, meaning there must be no distractions.

Robert said, “Wait! Me, I have the, I have the controls, me!” He did not push his priority button, and Bonin did not relinquish his stick. The synthetic voice said, DUAL INPUT. The airplane’s angle of attack remained at 41 degrees.

Bonin said, “What is it? How is it that we’re continuing to descend so deeply?”

Robert directed Captain Dubois to the overhead switching panel. He said, “Try to see what you can do with your controls up there! The primaries, etc.”

Dubois said, “It won’t do anything.”

Bonin said, “We’re getting to level 100!” Four seconds later he said, “Nine thousand feet!” He was struggling to keep the wings level.

Dubois said, “Easy on the rudder.”

Robert said, “Climb, climb, climb, climb!” He meant, Pitch up!

Bonin said, “But I’ve been at full-back stick for a while!” DUAL INPUT.

Dubois said, “No, no, no! Do not climb!” He meant, Do not pitch up!

Robert said, “So go down!” DUAL INPUT.

Bonin said, “Go ahead—you have the controls. We are still in TOGA, eh.” Someone said, “Gentlemen . . . ” Otherwise, for the next 13 seconds none of them spoke. Count it on a clock. Robert was doing the flying. The cockpit was lousy with automated warnings.

Dubois said, “Watch out—you’re pitching up there.”

Robert said, “I’m pitching up?”

“You’re pitching up.”

Bonin said, “Well, we need to! We are at 4,000 feet!” But pitching up is what had gotten them into trouble to start with. The ground-proximity warning system sounded. A synthetic voice said, SINK RATE. PULL UP.

Dubois said, “Go on, pull.” With that, it seems, he had resigned himself to death.

Bonin was younger. He had a wife in the back and two little children at home. He assumed control, saying, “Let’s go! Pull up, pull up, pull up!”

Robert said, “Fuck, we’re going to crash! It’s not true! But what’s happening?”

In sequence the alarms were sounding PULL UP, C-chord, STALL, C-chord, PULL UP, PRIORITY RIGHT. At the same time either Robert or Bonin said, “Fuck, we’re dead.”

Dubois calmly said, “Ten degrees pitch.”

Thousand one, thousand two. Flight 447 then pancaked into the equatorial Atlantic. The time in Rio was 11:14 P.M., 4 hours and 15 minutes into the flight, and 4 minutes and 20 seconds into the upset. Two years later, when the flight-data recorder was retrieved, it showed that by the last moment the airplane had turned 225 degrees off course and was flying due west with its nose 16 degrees up and its wings nearly level; thoroughly stalled, it was progressing at merely 107 knots, but with a descent rate, despite full thrust, of 11,000 feet per minute. The impact was shattering. Everyone aboard died instantly, and the wreckage sank in deep water. In the small debris field soon found floating on the surface lay 50 bodies, including that of Captain Marc Dubois.

VI. Brave New World

For commercial-jet designers, there are some immutable facts of life. It is crucial that your airplanes be flown safely and as cheaply as possible within the constraints of wind and weather. Once the questions of aircraft performance and reliability have been resolved, you are left to face the most difficult thing, which is the actions of pilots. There are more than 300,000 commercial-airline pilots in the world, of every culture. They work for hundreds of airlines in the privacy of cockpits, where their behavior is difficult to monitor. Some of the pilots are superb, but most are average, and a few are simply bad. To make matters worse, with the exception of the best, all of them think they are better than they are. Airbus has made extensive studies that show this to be true. The problem in the real world is that the pilots who crash your airplanes or simply burn too much fuel are difficult to spot in the crowd. A Boeing engineer gave me his perspective on this. He said, “Look, pilots are like other people. Some are heroic under pressure, and some duck and run. Either way, it’s hard to tell in advance. You almost need a war to find out.” But of course you can’t have a war to find out. Instead, what you do is try to insert your thinking into the cockpit.

First, you put the Clipper Skipper out to pasture, because he has the unilateral power to screw things up. You replace him with a teamwork concept—call it Crew Resource Management—that encourages checks and balances and requires pilots to take turns at flying. Now it takes two to screw things up. Next you automate the component systems so they require minimal human intervention, and you integrate them into a self-monitoring robotic whole. You throw in buckets of redundancy. You add flightmanagement computers into which flight paths can be programmed on the ground, and you link them to autopilots capable of handling the airplane from the takeoff through the rollout after landing. You design deeply considered minimalistic cockpits that encourage teamwork by their very nature, offer excellent ergonomics, and are built around displays that avoid showing extraneous information but provide alerts and status reports when the systems sense they are necessary. Finally, you add fly-by-wire control. At that point, after years of work and billions of dollars in development costs, you have arrived in the present time. As intended, the autonomy of pilots has been severely restricted, but the new airplanes deliver smoother, more accurate, and more efficient rides—and safer ones too.

It is natural that some pilots object. This appears to be primarily a cultural and generational matter. In China, for instance, the crews don’t care. In fact, they like their automation and rely on it willingly. By contrast, an Airbus man told me about an encounter between a British pilot and his superior at a Middle Eastern airline, in which the pilot complained that automation had taken the fun out of life, and the superior answered, to paraphrase, “Hey asshole, if you want to have fun, go sail a boat. You fly with automation or find some other job.”

He kept his job. In professional flying, a historic shift has occurred. In the privacy of the cockpit and beyond public view, pilots have been relegated to mundane roles as system managers, expected to monitor the computers and sometimes to enter data via keyboards, but to keep their hands off the controls, and to intervene only in the rare event of a failure. As a result, the routine performance of inadequate pilots has been elevated to that of average pilots, and average pilots don’t count for much. If you are building an airliner and selling it globally, this turns out to be a good thing. Since the 1980s, when the shift began, the safety record has improved fivefold, to the current one fatal accident for every five million departures. No one can rationally advocate a return to the glamour of the past.

Nonetheless there are worries even among the people who invented the future. Boeing’s Delmar Fadden explained, “We say, ‘Well, I’m going to cover the 98 percent of situations I can predict, and the pilots will have to cover the 2 percent I can’t predict.’ This poses a significant problem. I’m going to have them do something only 2 percent of the time. Look at the burden that places on them. First they have to recognize that it’s time to intervene, when 98 percent of the time they’re not intervening. Then they’re expected to handle the 2 percent we couldn’t predict. What’s the data? How are we going to provide the training? How are we going to provide the supplementary information that will help them make the decisions? There is no easy answer. From the design point of view, we really worry about the tasks we ask them to do just occasionally.”

I said, “Like fly the airplane?”

Yes, that too. Once you put pilots on automation, their manual abilities degrade and their flight-path awareness is dulled: flying becomes a monitoring task, an abstraction on a screen, a mind-numbing wait for the next hotel. Nadine Sarter said that the process is known as de-skilling. It is particularly acute among long-haul pilots with high seniority, especially those swapping flying duties in augmented crews. On Air France 447, for instance, Captain Dubois had logged a respectable 346 hours over the previous six months but had made merely 15 takeoffs and 18 landings. Allowing a generous four minutes at the controls for each takeoff and landing, that meant that Dubois was directly manipulating the side-stick for at most only about four hours a year. The numbers for Bonin were close to the same, and for Robert they were smaller. For all three of them, most of their experience had consisted of sitting in a cockpit seat and watching the machine work.

The solution might seem obvious. John Lauber told me that with the advent of C.R.M. and integrated automation, in the 1980s, Earl Wiener went around preaching about “turn-it-off training.” Lauber said, “Every few flights, disconnect all that stuff. Hand-fly it. Fly it like an airplane.”

“What happened to that idea?”

“Everybody said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. We gotta do that.’ And I think for a while maybe they did.”

Sarter, however, is continuing with variations on the theme. She is trying to come up with improved interfaces between pilot and machine. In the meantime, she says, at the very least revert to lower levels of automation (or ignore it) when it surprises you.

In other words, in a crisis, don’t just start reading the automated alerts. The best pilots discard the automation naturally when it becomes unhelpful, and again there appear to be some cultural traits involved. Simulator studies have shown that Irish pilots, for instance, will gleefully throw away their crutches, while Asian pilots will hang on tightly. It’s obvious that the Irish are right, but in the real world Sarter’s advice is hard to sell. The automation is simply too compelling. The operational benefits outweigh the costs. The trend is toward more of it, not less. And after throwing away their crutches, many pilots today would lack the wherewithal to walk.

This is another unintended consequence of designing airplanes that anyone can fly: anyone can take you up on the offer. Beyond the degradation of basic skills of people who may once have been competent pilots, the fourth-generation jets have enabled people who probably never had the skills to begin with and should not have been in the cockpit. As a result, the mental makeup of airline pilots has changed. On this there is nearly universal agreement—at Boeing and Airbus, and among accident investigators, regulators, flight-operations managers, instructors, and academics. A different crowd is flying now, and though excellent pilots still work the job, on average the knowledge base has become very thin.

It seems that we are locked into a spiral in which poor human performance begets automation, which worsens human performance, which begets increasing automation. The pattern is common to our time but is acute in aviation. Air France 447 was a case in point. In the aftermath of the accident, the pitot tubes were replaced on several Airbus models; Air France commissioned an independent safety review that highlighted the arrogance of some of the company’s pilots and suggested reforms; a number of experts called for angle-of-attack indicators in airliners, while others urged a new emphasis on high-altitude-stall training, upset recoveries, unusual attitudes, flying in Alternate Law, and basic aeronautical common sense. All of this was fine, but none of it will make much difference. At a time when accidents are extremely rare, each one becomes a one-off event, unlikely to be repeated in detail. Next time it will be some other airline, some other culture, and some other failure—but it will almost certainly involve automation and will perplex us when it occurs. Over time the automation will expand to handle in-flight failures and emergencies, and as the safety record improves, pilots will gradually be squeezed from the cockpit altogether. The dynamic has become inevitable. There will still be accidents, but at some point we will have only the machines to blame.



Recalling Duncan Spencer, the cricketer who lived fast and bowled even faster

Duncan Spencer played football as a kid, before taking up cricket and becoming a batsman. Then he found his sporting superpower: he could bowl ‘quite quick’

You may not have heard of Duncan Spencer. If you have, you’ll probably recall one or all of the following things: he bowled at the speed of light to Sir Viv Richards on live TV, he had serious injury problems, and he was the first player in Australian cricket to be banned for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

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All those are true, but a 140-character biography barely skims the surface of an extraordinary life story. Spencer might just be England’s great lost fast bowler. And Australia’s. Even in a golden age of quick bowling, his volcanic pace stood out. Richards said Spencer was the fastest bowler he’d faced. Ricky Ponting, who almost had a fight with Spencer in the middle of a Sheffield Shield match, said he and Shoaib Akhtar were the quickest he came up against. Dennis Lillee described Spencer as “frightening”.

All of these compliments referred to the period before he retired due to injury at the age of 26, his body in such a state that he could barely dress himself. “He had a reputation a mile high and could have made a million dollars – he was that quick,” said Daryl Foster, his coach with Kent and Western Australia. “Unfortunately, he kept breaking down with back problems.”

For Spencer, fast bowling really was backbreaking work; he had four stress fractures by the age of 24. His speed was the gift that kept on taking. He was blessed with the ability to bowl at close to 100mph and cursed with a body that wouldn’t allow him to do that for long. The misfortune did not end there. When he made an improbable comeback with WA a few years after retiring, he found there was a sting in the fairytale. Spencer, who lived fast and bowled even faster, was brought down by a man called Speed – Malcolm Speed, the CEO of the Australian Cricket Board. Spencer was banned for 18 months after failing a drug test, a verdict that many perceived as savage.

In the end he played just 16 first-class games, taking 36 wickets at 39.22, and 20 List A games, in which he managed 23 wickets at 29.56. Those look like the numbers of a mediocre seamer who wasn’t quite up to it. They don’t tell much of a story either.

Spencer was born in Nelson, Lancashire, in 1972, and his family emigrated to Perth when he was five. An outdoors upbringing involved all kinds of sport, not just cricket. “I was probably a better soccer player than cricketer,” he says, “but you couldn’t really make it out here, the level wasn’t great.” Australia are football World Cup regulars now but they only reached the tournament once in the 20th century. Cricket, by contrast, was a way of life.

He started as a batsman and for a long time was unaware of his superpowers. Spencer was a third-change bowler until, one day, all those in front of him were injured and he had to take the new ball. “I bowled quite quick,” he says, “and that was the start of it all.” He was so impressive in fourth-grade cricket that he was fast-tracked into the first grade for the last two games of the season. He was 15 years old and bowling to Geoff Marsh, the Australian vice-captain, in his first game. Spencer caught Marsh’s eye, almost literally. Marsh relayed his admiration through his brother-in-law, who was captain of Spencer’s club. It was such a huge compliment that Spencer gave up all other sports, thinking for the first time that cricket might become a career.

Although he was short, and never grew beyond 5ft 8ins, Spencer was able to generate paint-stripping pace. “When I first played against him, at under-15s and under-17s, he looked like his run-up and action had been produced by a computer,” says Ryan Campbell, the Australia and Hong Kong batsman who both faced and kept to Spencer. “It was absolutely perfect. He had a very fast arm action as well. Because he’s a shorter guy he had a very large delivery stride; there was quite a big jump into his action.” That jump meant that, on the harder wickets in Perth, Spencer would land with such force that the spikes on his boots would often bend back. “That momentum through the run-up and the explosion at the crease were just incredible. We always joked that he had a V8 engine in the body of a Mini because he bowled so fast yet he was such a short guy. He wasn’t much fun to face in the nets, when no-balls weren’t exactly policed!”

Spencer became a rising star in WA and the only things that stalled his progress were two stress fractures when he was 17. A back operation was a complete success. Western Australia had a serious pace attack, with five Test bowlers in Bruce Reid, Terry Alderman, Brendon Julian, Jo Angel and Martin McCague. Foster brought McCague to England in 1991 and Spencer two years later. Both had dual citizenship, and McCague was famously called “the rat who joined the sinking ship” before his spectacular Test debut for England in the 1993 Ashes.

Spencer’s first high-profile match was against England, or rather England A, during a tour match at the WACA in 1992–93. He bowled 42 no-balls in 35 overs, a reflection of how things could go wrong when his rhythm was not quite right, yet he still made an impression and dismissed Mark Lathwell, Graham Thorpe and Graham Lloyd. He was so quick that the keeper Campbell stood outside the 30-yard circle. “He had us hopping around,” remembers Lloyd. “Very unpleasant to face: short in stature, quite erratic, but extremely fast through the air. Our batsmen were saying things like, ‘I don’t think I’ve faced anyone as fast as that.’” Lloyd played with Wasim Akram at Lancashire and felt Spencer’s pace was comparable: “I’d say he was as fast as Wasim, possibly even a bit quicker through the air in certain spells. He seemed to come and go pretty quickly. But as a one-off, and certainly at Perth, he was as fast as anything I faced.”

Spencer arrived in England a month later, just after his 21st birthday, with his girlfriend Tracy. “We’d only been together a few months,” he says. “I said to her: come over and enjoy it if you want, it’s a free holiday.” They are still together and have been married for over 20 years. One of the first things that struck Spencer when he arrived in England, as it would anybody from Perth, was how cold it was. He had no idea how significant that would be.

In his first three-day game for Kent’s second XI, against Leicestershire, Spencer took a hat-trick and had figures of six for 26 in the first innings. Two were bowled, three lbw. He was too fast, too straight, too much. “Nice way to start,” he chuckles. “The sun was out, I think.” When he made his County Championship debut a week later, the wicket-keeper Steve Marsh stood more than a pitch length away. At that stage he was a fantasy cricketer but not a Fantasy Cricketer: Spencer was still learning how to consistently turn his pace into the hard currency of wickets. He took none in 24 overs in his first four-day match against Essex and, in part because of injury, did not play another Championship match that season.

Spencer was used to playing just weekend cricket in Perth, so Foster wanted to ease him on to the county treadmill by using him in limited-overs matches.“I was very much aware of his history and how it could react on him,” says Foster. “We made sure not to overbowl him.” In his first season at Kent he did most of his work in the AXA Equity &Law Sunday League. These were glamorous times in domestic one-day cricket, which had been dragged kicking and screaming into the late 1970s: there was coloured clothing for the first time, and 50 rather than 40 overs to bring it in line with ODIs (though England still played 55 overs in home ODIs until their humiliation at the 1996 World Cup).

Kent were attempting to win their first trophy since 1978. They had a fine side, including England players past, present and future in Dean Headley, McCague, Mark Benson, Alan Igglesden, Mark Ealham, Matthew Fleming and Min Patel, not to mention Carl Hooper, a run-machine with charm and soul. The burden of history, however, was heavy: since winning their previous trophy, Kent had been runners-up seven times across all four domestic competitions.

Spencer’s first significant contribution came in a vital win over their title rivals Surrey in August. His first over in the first team for three months was a spectacular affair that included two no-balls, a wide, five consecutive short balls, a six, 14 runs – and the top-order wickets of Monte Lynch and David Ward, the latter cleaned up by a scintillating yorker.

His next match, a month later, was effectively a semi-final. If Kent lost their penultimate game to Northants, it was likely Glamorgan would win the Sunday League with a game to spare. Kent needed only 166 in 50 overs but slipped from 48 for 1to 141 for 7. Past failures seemed to have infiltrated their subconscious. Spencer came to the crease at No9 and hurried them over the line with some swaggering leg-side flicks. “He displayed the exuberance and blissful ignorance of youth by hitting four sumptuous fours,” wrote Jack Bailey in the Times. He only made 17 not out but in the context of the season, and the collapse, it was the best innings of his career to date.

The win ensured their final game at home to Glamorgan two weeks later would be a title decider. For Spencer, the match had even greater meaning: Glamorgan’s overseas player was his boyhood hero.

Spencer had started as a batsman, so Viv Richards was one of his idols, along with Lillee and Malcolm Marshall. He had posters on his bedroom wall – the result of working at Slazenger, where Richards was a brand icon. In 1988, a 16-year-old Spencer had a special treat after school one night: he was used as a net bowler in Perth during West Indies’ tour of Australia. “I got Viv’s autograph, and that was a big thrill,” says Spencer. A bigger thrill was denied him. “I didn’t get to bowl to him in the nets. I was bowling to some of the other batters and I tried to sneak across, but I kept getting in trouble.”

The idea of bowling to Richards within five years, especially in such a big game, was unthinkable. “I didn’t say anything to anyone but I was desperate to play,” he says. “I didn’t really care what happened, to be quite honest, I just wanted to bowl to him.” Spencer was in decent form, and had routed a strong Zimbabwe top order in a tour match a week earlier. He was twelfth man for the four-day match, which was played alongside the Sunday League game, and had a bat signed by Richards on the Saturday night. “I was having a shower when he walked in – we had open showers back then – and he said: ‘Hi Duncan, how you going? I saw you bat against Northants, that was beautiful.’ I was amazed he even knew me.”

The Championship match was a dead rubber, so when Kent led by 380 after the first innings they decided not to enforce the follow-on. The plan was to rest their bowlers and tire out Glamorgan’s before the Sunday League decider the following day. Reports of what happened next vary, but it would be fair to say Richards was not entirely enamoured of the decision. His reaction has gone down in Glamorgan folklore; their players talk with wonder of Richards, wearing nothing but a towel, banging on doors and shouting at the Kent captain Steve Marsh: “You fuck with the game, Marsh, the game will fuck with you!” Some of the Kent team, including Marsh, have no memory of it, though Spencer says he can “vaguely remember a bit of shouting going on.” Whether it was a sincere reaction or a contrived grievance to raise spirits, it worked; the downbeat mood among the Glamorgan players disappeared almost instantly.

A crowd of 12,000 turned up for the title decider the following day. Many started queuing at 4am, and Canterbury became a temporary colony of Wales. Glamorgan had been 500-1 to win the league with some bookies after a poor start to the season. They were seeking their first trophy in 24 years; Kent were chasing their first in 15 years. Even the gods were caught up in the romance of the occasion: they gave the match a glorious backdrop by providing rare late-September sunshine.

Deep down Spencer knew he would play, though it was not confirmed until the morning of the match. A nervous Kent made 200 for 9 batting first. It was under par, especially against a batting line-up that included Richards, Hugh Morris, Steve James, Matthew Maynard and Adrian Dale, who was in the form of his life and had just been picked for his first England A tour.

They were cruising at 81 for 1 after 24 overs when Spencer gave the match an intravenous injection of adrenaline. Glamorgan had heard about his pace on the grapevine but had never seen him bowl. His first ball was a rabble-rouser, short and aimed at the head. Dale shaped to sway outside the line of the ball, realised it was following him and ended up lunging inside the line. It screamed past the back of his head to prompt a lusty roar from the crowd. There were oohs and aahs in the BBC commentary box from Jonathan Agnew and Vic Marks. “Well, that’s sharp!” exclaimed Agnew. “Not bad for a loosener,” said Marks. “Dale ducked almost posthumously.”

The rest of the over included a wide yorker that beat Dale for pace, another yorker that was superbly defended, a full-length delivery that kicked to such an extent that the keeper Marsh took it at shoulder height, and finally another nasty short ball that followed Dale and cracked his rib. The non-striker Morris walked down to see if Dale was OK. “Sharpen up,” said Dale. “This boy’s got pace.”

In one over, Spencer had completely changed the mood of the match. Kent fans had fresh hope; neutrals were caught up in the primal thrill of seeing a proper fast bowler for the first time. Even Agnew and Marks – experienced, high-class broadcasters – conveyed a childlike excitement.

The batsmen were not the only ones forced to take a backward step: within a few deliveries of the first over, the Kent captain and wicket-keeper Marsh had gone back 10 yards. “He had serious, serious wheels,” said Marsh. For the next few exhilarating overs, Glamorgan’s batsmen were either beaten or beaten up. The number of times the ball vroomed past the bat, often when the batsman was barely halfway through his stroke, verged on the comical.

Dale was dismissed by Headley in the next over, and the new batsman Maynard didn’t last long; Spencer beat him for pace and trapped him plumb lbw. “Had he bowled that the next 10 times he played against me, he probably would have got me out 10 times,” says Maynard. “He had some proper gas, did Duncan.”

Spencer broke into a boyish smile as he high-fived his team-mates. It was a dual-purpose wicket: he had dismissed Maynard and brought Richards to the crease. There was a standing ovation from both sets of supporters as Richards, playing his last professional game, sauntered to the wicket. At 41, he was 20 years older than Spencer. Some players are intimidated or overwhelmed by bowling at their heroes. When Arthur Mailey dismissed Victor Trumper, he said he felt like “the boy who had killed a dove”. There were no such concerns for Spencer, who bowled like a man who wanted to skelp the aged. Straight away he hit Richards in the ribs and split his batting glove with a vicious lifter.

When another short ball was dug in soon after, Richards’ pride kicked in and he snapped into a pull shot. It was on him far too quickly and looped up in the air to David Fulton at square leg. Richards was walking off the field when everyone realised that the umpire David Constant had signalled a no-ball – one of only two from Spencer in the innings. The front-on replays suggested the ball was only at chest height, although Spencer thought it was given for height. “I walked back and looked at my footmark, and my foot was landing in the hole beautifully every time. And it was a pretty late call. I never actually asked because I didn’t want to know.” Constant did not begin to signal a no-ball with his left hand until after Richards top-edged the ball towards Fulton, though he says he had called it long before then. The more one-eyed Kent supporters thought it was a sympathy call because it was Richards’ last game. It became a bit of unsolved mystery among Kent fans, especially as there were no side-on replays to show where Spencer had landed. Constant says it was “definitely a front-foot jobby,” and disputes that it was a late call. “All my no-ball calls throughout my career were at the same tempo, as were my ‘out’ signals to the batsmen,” he says. The square-leg umpire Gerry Stickley and the non-striker Morris are also sure it was for overstepping rather than height. James, the Glamorgan opener, said in his autobiography that it was a case of the game fucking with Kent, just as Viv had promised 24 hours earlier.

After that Richards put away the hook, a significant compliment to Spencer, but the reprieve winded Kent. “We knew we had to get Richards out to win the game,” says Foster. “I don’t think we really recovered from that.” Richards gave a couple of reminders of his pomp, most notably a storming drive over mid off for four off Spencer, but this was primarily a triumph of will rather than skill. He played with fierce determination and dragged Glamorgan towards victory.

When Spencer returned for a second spell late on, he knew it was over. “I had nothing left,” he says. “I was so tired from the adrenaline and the emotion. I’d never played in front of a crowd like that or in a situation like that. I couldn’t keep my emotions in control – I was knackered before I even bowled! It was so exciting for me. I had the shakes. I gave it my all for those first six overs and I was done.”

Glamorgan won comfortably, by six wickets and with 16 balls to spare. Richards was still there, 46 not out, when Tony Cottey hooked the winning runs, and wept with joy in the dressing-room after the game. Spencer ended with figures of 8.4-1-43-1. There are lies, damned lies and bowling figures.

Richards did not say much to Spencer during the game – just a quick “Sorry, my man” as they high-fived after an accidental collision, a playful image that was on the cover of the next month’s Wisden Cricket Monthly. “I remember Viv talking about him after the game,” says Dale. “He said: ‘That boy hit the bat hard,’ and he really pronounced it. ‘He hit the bat hhhhhhhard.’”

After the game Spencer sought out Richards to congratulate him on the win and his career. “And he actually said to me, ‘That’s the quickest bowling I’ve ever faced.’ I looked at him and said: ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Man, that was fucking quick! And that’s a slow wicket.’”

When Spencer returned to Perth to play for WA in the Australian summer of 1993–94, his Kent team-mate Igglesden didn’t expect to see him again, except on his TV screen. “Spencer’s one of the fastest bowlers I’ve ever seen, he’s quite phenomenal really,” he said. “He’s just unbelievable, and I honestly can’t see him coming back to Kent. Australia are playing a lot and I can see him getting an ODI appearance at least.”

The England A squad to tour South Africa had been named a few days before the Glamorgan match. The impression Spencer made in that game was such that, had the squad been announced a few days later, he might well have made the tour on potential. Word was starting to spread, and he was the subject of a full-page feature in the Melbourne Age, with the headline “The Great White Hype”. “They don’t come any quicker in world cricket,” said Foster, “except maybe Allan Donald.”

Foster gave Spencer his Sheffield Shield debut just over a month after his duel with Richards. “I didn’t have a great season,” says Spencer, who played eight matches and took 20 wickets at 37.50. “I felt I should have taken more wickets and bowled a little bit better, but I was starting to learn my trade and find my rhythm a lot more.”

It was a unique education. This was the most powerful era of domestic batting in the game’s history: a year later, in the quadrangular one-day tournament also involving England and Zimbabwe, Australia A had a top six of Greg Blewett, Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn, Michael Bevan, Justin Langer and Ponting. That was the reserve team. Adam Gilchrist couldn’t even get in the squad.

Spencer chuckles regularly as he reflects on his run-in with Ponting on a flat one at Hobart in 1993, though there wasn’t much mirth at the time. Ponting, the golden child of Australian cricket, and Jamie Cox were cruising towards centuries when, after tea, WA captain Geoff Marsh asked Spencer to raise hell. “I gave him three bouncers in a row,” remembers Spencer, “and he turned to the umpire and said: ‘How many are you going to let him fuckin’ bowl?’ I said: ‘What are you fuckin’ whingeing about, you’re on 90-odd and this pitch is a road!’”

They were playing testosterone cricket. The next ball was short, wide and smashed towards gully, where Julian took a blinder. “It was an absolutely awesome catch. We were all yahooing and telling him where to go, and then the umpire called no-ball! Of course Ponting had a smirk on his face, so the boys were pretty upset. I gave him another short one and he spat the chewy again and then I thought: ‘I’ve got to pitch this one up or the umpire’s going to nail me.’

“I pitched it up, he blocked it and it went off towards cover. He shaped like he was going to take a run, so I picked it up and threw it at the stumps. Trouble was that as he turned to get in the way of the stumps, it just went past his head. If it hit the stumps I reckon he might have been out. He turned around and said: ‘You do that again, I’ll wrap this fuckin’ bat around your head.’ I walked down the wicket and said: ‘Well, don’t let me hold you back!’”

Ponting dropped his bat and the two players ran at each other, bumping chests in the middle of the pitch before players and umpires separated them. After a couple more overs, mostly pitched up, Spencer was given a rest. That night, after play, he went to a nearby pub for a meal with his captain Marsh and bumped into Ponting – though not literally this time. “I went up to him and said: ‘How you goin’, mate?’ and then we had a beer together and a laugh,” Spencer says. “We played against each other again and we never had a problem. It was two young blokes with massive egos and a bit of passion.”


Duncan Spencer in 1993. Photograph: John Gichigi/Getty Images

Allan Donald calls it “a touch of the Rodney Hoggs” – the bit of bully that all fast bowlers need. Hogg was the nasty Australian fast bowler of the 1970s and 1980s who was described as a “lunatic” – by himself, in the title of his autobiography. In Spencer’s view, “As a quickie, you’ve got to have that bit of shit about you. If you don’t, you’re about as good as a blow-up dartboard.” Ryan Campbell, who kept to and faced Spencer, agrees: “He is a magnificent fella, who loves a beer and loves to enjoy life, but he also had the white-line fever and he wanted to kill everyone. If you had a bat in hand you were enemy No1. It’s the same with all fast bowlers.”

Though Spencer thrived on confrontation, he felt he bowled better when he was calm rather than angry – as against Glamorgan, where he had a relaxed rhythm and was in the zone. The more Spencer played, the less he sledged. He resented players who “hid behind the white line” by becoming tough guys when they went on the field. His guiding principle was: “Would you say that to someone in the pub?”

The grind of county cricket also inadvertently helped calm him down. “We played so often and I ran out of lines in the first two games. You can’t call everyone a wanker! You get angry anyway – that’s part of the job of fast bowling – and I always had an aggressive nature. But I became a better cricketer by controlling my aggression. I found I bowled a lot better and was able to get my rhythm a lot more.”

When he had that rhythm, he joined an elite club. “What power there is in bowling fast!” wrote Frank Tyson in 1961. “What a sensation of omnipotence, and how great the gulf between this sublime sensation and ordinary, mundane everyday existence!” Spencer is one of maybe 20 or 30 people to frequently experience that sublime sensation.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he says. “If you get your rhythm and timing and everything just clicks, it feels effortless. Some days it’s going through and it feels like nothing; other days you’re running and bustling in and really trying to bowl fast, and you think you’re bowling fast but you’re not.”

Some sceptics thought that was down to attitude; that there were days when he didn’t fancy the hard yakka. Spencer and Foster say it was about rhythm rather than mood. “I was always pretty ordinary if I didn’t get my rhythm,” says Spencer. “I’d search for it and sometimes, by doing that, I’d make it even worse. Guys would come up to me and say, ‘Why aren’t you bowling quick, what’s going on?’ I’d say, ‘I’ve got no rhythm!’ You could see they thought I was holding back or whatever. It’s hard to explain to guys who haven’t done it.”

Foster, who watched him bowl more than anyone at Kent and WA, agrees. “He varied a lot. When he had his rhythm and he didn’t have his niggles, he was as quick as anybody. He was a very difficult customer at his peak, though that didn’t always happen. He didn’t have the ideal body type to be a fast bowler, so you had to accept that some days would be better than others. He tended to get a few soft-tissue injuries. Quite often they weren’t enough to put him out of the game, but they were enough to impede his performance. A fast bowler has to be seasoned. You can’t just expect them to come out and bowl fast every time. But when he was on song he was magnificent. He was a natural athlete with freakish ability. You don’t expect a short bloke, even with such a smooth run-up, to bowl as fast as that.”

Spencer gathered momentum through a menacing run-up of around 16 paces, before an explosion from his shoulder at the crease. “The run-up was really important to me,” he says. “I always accelerated through my run-up so when I hit the crease I was generally flat out. If I had a good rhythm from my run-up I tended to bowl really fast.”

He certainly bowled fast against Glamorgan. To the naked eye it looks comfortably in excess of 95mph, though we will never know for certain. Spencer’s speed was only ever recorded when he was a teenager, when he won a competition despite bowling off three paces because of injury. The speed gun was not regularly used until the late 1990s. Cricket fans thought in acronyms rather than metrics: RM, RFM, RF. Spencer was more of an RFF. “There are two types of fast bowling,” says Campbell. “There’s fast, like the guys we face today who bowl 140kmh; that’s quick. But then there’s the next bracket, and with the next bracket you know you’re alive as it’s winging past your ears. It’s appreciably faster. I faced Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee, and Duncan was up there with those two. There’s no doubt that at times he hit the mid-150s.”

In his autobiography, Ponting said that Spencer and Shoaib were the fastest bowlers he faced. “I was quite surprised by that,” says Spencer. “When you realise both Ponting and Viv have said it, you think: ‘Yeah, I must have been up there.’” Although his run-up was important, there was no magic secret. “You can’t teach people to bowl fast,” he says. “It’s like sprinters. You’re born with fast-twitch muscle fibres that fire quicker than anyone else’s, and that’s why you can bowl fast. You can teach people to bowl better but you can’t teach them to bowl fast.”

He agrees with Kevin Pietersen’s observation that anyone who says they enjoy facing fast bowling is a liar. “Yeah, absolutely. You’d have a few beers with batters after the game, and the first thing they’d say is: ‘Ah, I love it when you bounce me, the hook shot’s my favourite shot.’ All this sort of stuff. Then they get a few beers into them and they go, ‘I’d love to bowl as fast as you because I’d just bowl a bouncer every ball!’ You just think, ‘Yeah mate, no worries, you dumb prick, you’ll cop it tomorrow!’ That’s batters, mate, can’t hold their piss.

“Did I enjoy scaring batsmen? Well, yeah! Who doesn’t? It’s a natural instinct. It’s almost like being a bully. You don’t want to refer to yourself as a bully, but you’ve got a power the batsmen don’t have. You always felt that if you could intimidate a batsman then you had a big chance of getting him out. Whatever it took. I hurt a couple of guys badly. I broke a guy’s jaw – that was a colts game, I was only about 17 – and I hit another guy and crushed his thumb. I hit Ronnie Irani on the helmet, bust his helmet in half. Mind you, he was on about 160 at the time.”

Those moments were put in a different context by the death of Phillip Hughes in 2014, when Sean Abbott bowled a bouncer that had unimaginable consequences. “I spoke to a good mate of mine, Paul ‘Blocker’ Wilson [who played one Test for Australia in the 1990s],” says Spencer. “We both said: ‘Jeez, that could have happened to us at any time in our career.’ We both hit a lot of blokes. You want to hit them and even hurt them, make no mistake, but you want to see them get up. It’s a really fine line. I hit someone in grade cricket and smashed his helmet to pieces. It bust his jaw and everything. He went down immediately, and straight away a couple of the boys grabbed me and took me back to my mark. They didn’t want me to look at him because he was a bit of a mess. I felt a bit crook in the guts, to be quite honest. He went to hospital, I sent my best wishes and hoped he was alright, and he was. I caught up with him a few months later and he was fine; he didn’t hold any grudges. We ended up playing against each other again and he played really well. I did bounce him, yeah.”

The decline in fast bowling saddens Spencer. He admires players such as Ben Stokes – “He’s got a bit of shit about him, hasn’t he?” – but wishes there was more extreme pace. “There aren’t many guys who bowl really fast with genuine hostility, so someone like Mitchell Johnson really stood out because he was aggressive and bowled bouncers. Well, fuck me, there were four West Indians doing it in the ‘80s and ’90s!

“It might be a generational thing – it is hard work being a fast bowler, and the guys work out pretty quickly that if they want to make money from the game, they should back off a bit. I didn’t have the temperament to do that. I didn’t know when to stop, or when to back off and bowl within myself. I couldn’t slow down.”


Duncan Spencer bowls to Viv Richards in 1993. Photograph: Patrick Eagar/Getty Images

At the start of the 1994 English summer, Spencer felt better than ever. “I got really, really fit after the Shield season, because the wear and tear is pretty hard in England,” he says. “I was a bit quicker, starting to really hit my straps and was learning a lot more.” After watching New Zealand’s Danny Morrison, he smoothed his run-up to get closer to the stumps, which increased his chances of lbws and made his bouncer harder to evade. Ray Illingworth, the new England supremo, put him on a long list of players to watch. “I didn’t really have a preference between England and Australia,” Spencer says. “I’d have been very happy to play for either.”

At the start of May, he took 7 for 47 in a second XI game at Taunton despite suffering with flu to the extent that he did his warm-up stretches in a boiling-hot bath. His pace was such that a young Marcus Trescothick gloved a six over third man. Spencer bowled even better in a Sunday League match at Chelmsford, stealing some of the headlines from Graham Gooch, who had been recalled by England that morning. He bowled Nick Knight and Nasser Hussain in the same over and ended with figures of 2 for 16 from eight overs.

There were bad days too. Bill Athey took him for 25 in a single over of a County Championship match at Tunbridge Wells, and he had a poor game against Nottinghamshire in front of the selector Brian Bolus. But he was a regular in the four-day team and was clearly going in the right direction. The manner in which the Lancashire batsmen effused about his pace put him on the radar of the England captain Mike Atherton, and he was mentioned in dispatches in a couple of previews of the England squad announcement for the second Test against New Zealand.

A consequence of being a four-day regular was an increased workload – not helped by the fact that Spencer wanted to bowl long spells. At the start of June he began to feel back pain, a concern for anybody who has had stress fractures as a teenager. He spoke to Foster and they both concluded it was just muscle soreness, another soft-tissue injury. You get pains in your legs before a stress fracture, and Spencer had none of that.

On Sunday 12 June, he was included in the Kent side to play Middlesex. “I was bowling my fourth over to Mark Ramprakash, I think, and I started getting a bit sore during the over,” he says. “I thought: ‘There’s something not right here.’ So I backed off a bit. Then, and I don’t know why, I really decided to let one go.”

It’s often said that tired bowlers can’t feel their legs. Spencer literally couldn’t. The bottom half of his body went numb as he bowled the ball, and the next thing he knew he was lying flat out on the pitch. Eventually he was helped off the field and into the dressing-room. Spencer is a tough man, but he broke down in tears straight away. “I knew I’d done something bad,” he says wearily. “Yeah, I knew.”

Spencer was living in a flat at Kent’s ground at the time. He went home and “tried not to think about it” for the night. He had x-rays the following day; they showed no stress fractures and he began his rehab. But there was no improvement, so a couple of months later, he flew back to Australia to prepare for the 1994–95 season. He continued to make no progress, however, and was used as a guinea pig for a new MRI machine. It showed two stress fractures, one on each side of the back, joint damage, “the whole works”. He had an operation and missed the entire Australian summer.

“The biggest problem I had was that I kept playing,” he said. “I ended up bowling with stress fractures, because you don’t want to be called a weak prick, you know? I destroyed facet joints and things like that. The only thing I didn’t have was disc problems, thank god. I wanted to keep bowling, but my back couldn’t handle that. It was no one’s fault. With fast-twitch muscle fibres, your body takes a lot longer to recover – I know that now, but I didn’t then – and so you’re bowling when you’re still really sore. I’d talk to other guys and ask: ‘Are you sore?’ and they’d say, ‘Nah, I’m not too bad.’ And then people question your fitness and things like that. But I was pretty fit and strong. I was a strong boy, I just couldn’t handle the day-in, day-out of it all.

“I was young and didn’t really understand how to look after myself. I was training a few nights a week in 40-degree heat, playing on a Saturday and occasionally on a Sunday; then all of a sudden I’m in England trying to bowl fast every day. The cold weather probably did a fair bit of damage – I still don’t like the cold, it makes me bloody ache even now.”

In his book One-Man Committee, a superb document of a fascinating period in English cricket, Illingworth makes it sound as if Spencer had a series of minor niggles. “Spencer turned out to be a big disappointment,” he wrote, “mainly because he could not stay fit and played only four games all summer.” In 1994, with the internet in its infancy, news travelled slowly. Atherton recalls how Lloyd, who was fascinated with Spencer’s pace, would look at the county scores in the Lancashire dressing-room every morning and announce: “Spencer’s still not playing!”

To all intents and purposes, Spencer disappeared. He was unable to bowl for two years, but captained WA second XI in 1995–96 and played as a batsman, finishing as second-highest run-scorer. “I could actually bat,” he says. “I probably didn’t apply myself enough at first-class level. I could have done better with the bat – confidence-wise, I didn’t back myself enough.”

He came back to Kent for the 1996 summer with a view to bowling again. “I just wanted to play. I think I came back a bit early. The stress fractures from 1994 hadn’t healed fully; I kept opening those guys up. I remember coming off after a second XI game, and the coach said to me: ‘Mate, you alright?’ And I said: ‘Nah, nah, I’m not.’ He said: ‘Mate, you’re white as a ghost.’

“I was playing in total pain, I had pain going down both legs to my feet, and I was really, really struggling. So I flew home, back to the doctor, another stress fracture, and it wouldn’t heal. It’s the time it takes as well – over those years everything took so much time with the rehab and recovery. I’d come back, and then I’d do it again. It was so frustrating. It meant more x-rays and more rehab and more time away from the game. In the end I thought, ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough.’ I retired.” He was 26.

In the next couple of years, Spencer started to reshape his life. “Mentally it was pretty tough. I couldn’t play golf, I couldn’t cast a fishing rod, I couldn’t even mow the lawn. It was just pathetic. When you’re a very physical guy, it’s very hard when you struggle even to put your undies on in the morning.” His doctor eventually prescribed Nandrolone to heal the muscle wastage after his last operation. “He told me I had little option,” says Spencer. “I had to go to work, and get on with everyday life.” He did a few odd jobs for mates, but money was tight and, with his first child on the way, Spencer decided to take a series of diplomas in fitness training. He set up his own studio as a personal fitness trainer and also became a bodybuilder.

“With all my back injuries, I took a keen interest in finding out what was going on,” he says. “I felt the physios weren’t quite right in what they were saying because I wasn’t getting any better.” Later his local club asked him to coach, and he started to bat in the nets. He returned to the gym, too, and was free of pain for the first time in years.

He stopped taking Nandrolone in July 2000. A few months later, Spencer tried to bowl medium pace in the nets. To his surprise, there was no pain. “So I just went a little bit quicker and a little bit quicker and built up, and I felt like I was 20 years old again.” He had been bowling for around a month when he returned to grade cricket with Melville. He took a five-fer in his first game against a Midland-Guildford side that included Tom Moody, who was also captain of WA. Even after so long out of the game, he was probably faster than anyone else in Australia, bar Brett Lee. “I had to make a lot of changes to my action,” he says. “I was still sharp but I was nowhere near as quick as I was. I don’t think I was anyway.”

After the game Moody told Spencer to get fit as he was going to play in the second half of the Mercantile Mutual Cup, Australia’s main domestic one-day tournament, a couple of months later. “You’re dreaming, Tom,” said Spencer, and thought nothing more of it. On New Year’s Eve, two days before the tournament resumed, Spencer got a call to say he was playing. He had to arrange time off work, and didn’t even have his own shirt. In his first game, the man with Robbie Baker’s name on his back took 4 for 43 in a seven-run victory over Victoria. He went back to work the next day. It was all very ad hoc; Spencer was given a contract in the car park. “I didn’t even know what it was,” he says. “I thought it was fan mail, so I took it home with me. I read it and was surprised by the figure so I thought: ‘Yeah, I’ll sign that!’” When someone offers you a fairytale, you don’t read the small print.

Despite missing the first half of the tournament, he was one of the leading wicket-takers with 11 at 22.36, and his strike rate of 21.81 was the second-best in the tournament. Western Australia got to the final, where they were beaten by a Michael Bevan masterpiece. Shane Warne, who was dismissed for a golden duck by Spencer during the tournament, wanted him at Hampshire and arranged talks with the chairman Rod Bransgrove. Kent were also interested in taking him back to Canterbury. Spencer had a week to make his decision. Then the phone rang.


Duncan Spencer bowling at Canterbury in 1993. Photograph: Patrick Eagar/Popperfoto/Getty Images

“Tested positive for what?” Spencer was confused when was told by a lady on the phone that he had failed a routine drug test after the final of the Mercantile Mutual Cup. He was told it was for Nandrolone, which made him even more confused: he had not taken it for over six months. “What I didn’t realise is that this stuff stays in your system for up to 18 months.” When he had last taken Nandrolone, he had no idea he would ever play grade cricket again, never mind for WA. “That was one of the big issues. At no stage was I given a drug talk or anything like that, because I came in halfway through the season. The WA doctor copped an earful from the ACB but I didn’t blame him or the procedures. I didn’t blame anything; it was just one of those things.

“I was backed by a guy called Doc Larkins, who’s a doctor for the AFL and pretty high profile. He read the story and said: ‘There’s no way he’s done anything wrong,’ and he was happy to put his reputation on the line. Even the Australian doctor said the levels I had in my system would have given me no benefit whatsoever. Yet they still banned me from all cricket for 18 months. It was Malcolm Speed. He was going for the ICC job, so he was just trying to prove he was tough and able to deal with things.”

Drugs in sport were a big issue at the time, with the ACB introducing an anti-doping policy in 1998, and many felt Spencer was a political patsy. His ban was reduced from the minimum 24 months to 18, with the Anti-Doping Committee acknowledging a number of mitigating factors, including the relatively small level of Nandrolone in his system, the fact he had not received a copy of the ACB drug policy and the improbability of him playing for WA when he took Nandrolone.

The official report of the hearing has not been made public but a Cricket Australia spokesman said the Committee regarded his back trouble as the “primary but not sole motivation” for taking Nandrolone, and that they thought he was “seeking to improve his back to the point where he could bowl fast again”. Spencer does not agree.

The Committee did not describe Spencer as a cheat. It didn’t matter; in the media, his name was still casually etched onto the list of drug cheats.“That’s uneducated people taking potshots from the outside,” says Campbell, who was in the WA squad with Spencer. “We were with him the whole time, and the fact is that he took medication from his doctor to get his life back, so that he could look after his kids and things like that. It was an administration error that wouldn’t happen today. In the modern world, if you make a mistake you’re a drug cheat. I understand why the drug agencies have to do that but unfortunately some people get caught in the middle and Duncan was one of them.”

Being called a cheat rankled, as did subsequent shorter bans for higher-profile players such as Shane Warne. “They proved they don’t give a shit about the small person in the game,” says Spencer. His voice is normally chipper and effervescent. Even when he is describing the bad times, his stories are punctuated with laughter; now, suddenly, he sounds sad and weary. “Everyone knows I didn’t try to cheat. It’s just bollocks, man. Being called a drug cheat really pissed me off.

“I copped a few pretty bad articles that were completely inaccurate. I spoke about where I stuffed up, and my lack of knowledge of how long it stayed in your system. To be fair, I’d do it again. I got my life back. The only thing I’d do differently is that, if I knew I had a banned substance in my system, I wouldn’t have played. I had plenty of supportive phone calls from players around Australia. The people who’d had a beer with me from other teams knew what I was like, and that it wasn’t my way of doing things. I didn’t cheat. That certainly wasn’t the issue. I sleep at night.”

Western Australia would not pay for Spencer to appeal and he decided it was not worth the financial risk. “I decided to cop it on the chin,” he says. “If I was younger and I didn’t have a family, I probably would have taken them on. But we’d just had two boys, we were just keeping our heads above water, and there was no way I was going to put the house on the line.”

In some ways the ban is a red herring in the Spencer story. He was 29 and had a new life. The back injury against Middlesex in 1994, when he seemed to be hurtling towards stardom, is the biggest “what if” of his career. “By 2001 I had a job; my career was over really. After about two weeks it started to die down and I just got on with my life.”

Spencer served his ban and then resumed playing grade cricket at weekends while doing his day job as a fitness trainer. After an excellent winter with Melville in 2005–06, he was recommended to Sussex by the former Zimbabwe batsman Murray Goodwin. He was given a short-term contract and, at the age of 34, played first-class cricket for the first time in 12 years. He also took the wicket of Kumar Sangakkara – Spencer’s last in first-class cricket. After two months he left Sussex, unhappy with their offer. “I wasn’t going to play for peanuts,” he says. “You either want me or you don’t.” The Northamptonshire coach Kepler Wessels wanted him – and then Wessels was sacked. Spencer flew back to Australia, returning to play for Buckinghamshire and also Tring later in the English summer along with his mate Blocker Wilson. They offered him a contract for 2007. “To be quite honest, I’d just have been taking the money because I’d lost the passion for it then.” This time, he retired for good.

There are some who might sniff at Spencer’s career figures – 16 first-class matches, an average of 39.22 – and wonder what the fuss is about. Those who saw him, and especially those who stood 22 yards away, will be able to explain.

Besides, all bar two of those matches were played by the age of 22. Spencer was still learning how to bowl. When he collapsed against Middlesex in 1994, he had taken 34 first-class wickets at 36.97. At the same age, Tyson and Jeff Thomson – the two fastest bowlers of all time – had taken one first-class wicket between them.

The infinity of potential appeals to the romantic in most sports fans. Add that to Spencer’s charisma and raw speed, the most thrilling thing in cricket, and it’s no surprise he is remembered by many. In a parallel universe he might be a superstar. “People say, you’d have done this and you’d have done that, but we’ll never know,” he says. “The first couple of years when I was injured I was really frustrated, but after that I knew I was finished. I’m pretty well at peace with it now. There’s more to life. You don’t realise that until you get a bit older.”

Foster is not sure how good he could have been.“It’s hard to tell. He was very, very talented and very, very promising. I felt sorry for Duncan because I knew what potential he had if he could have developed some seasoning. I think he had a limited [career] span because of his body. I have no doubt about that.”

After he retired in the late 1990s, Spencer’s studies belatedly taught him what he might have done differently. “With hindsight I would’ve pumped a few more weights as a younger guy and got a bit stronger that way – particularly in my legs, to build them up to handle the punishment. When I was young the big thing was: ‘Don’t do weights, don’t do weights.’ Well, I’m a big believer in weights, and when I did weight training and did a lot of power work later in my career, I didn’t get injured. From 28 onwards I think I had one soft-tissue injury – a little side strain, that was it.

“I probably wouldn’t have started bowling when I was 14 or 15. I would have left it a few more years, just let the body grow, because it’s the impact that really nailed the body. Everyone says younger kids have got to bowl more and bowl more. Well, it’s the joints that go first, so if you can save your joints you’ll have a longer career. You don’t have to bowl flat out until you’re a bit older and the body can handle it.

“Even the recovery was different. We didn’t have ice baths until later in my career. I’d walk off the field shattered and struggling to lift my legs; then I’d have an ice bath and do my recovery and I’d walk out of there feeling like I hadn’t even bowled. I wish I’d had that when I was 20 or 21.”

There are other reasons why Spencer might wish he had been born a decade later. Even with his back problems, he would have had a lucrative, high-profile Twenty20 career like Shaun Tait or Tymal Mills. “Yeah,” he laughs, “I try not to think about that! I don’t really think about my career that much these days. I do other things in life. I just don’t have that much interest in cricket. I don’t even watch it much anymore.

“I made some great friends in my career and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I had a great time with Kent and WA. It was probably a bit more close-knit with Kent, because you travel so much, and there was a lot of laughter in the dressing-room. Graham Cowdrey was funny as hell. They were really good blokes and I really enjoyed my time there. I’d play for Kent in a heartbeat. My back’s not too bad now. I have my moments where I get a bit stiff and sore, but not too bad considering. I think the bodybuilding really helped with that.”

A 10-minute video on YouTube of his performance against Glamorgan has introduced Spencer to a new audience – including some of his workmates. “A few of the younger generation don’t know who Viv is!” It’s the happiest memory of his career. “That was a pretty special day for me given that Viv was my hero growing up. I caught up with him a few years ago. He came out for a talk for a footy club. I had a mate who played for them who asked me if I wanted to come. We caught up, he remembered me, and we had a beer. He’s just a fantastic guy.”

Spencer is proud that people still mention him, over two decades after that spell to Richards, as one of the fastest bowlers of modern times. “All the other people they mention are people who played for their countries, so to be mentioned in that group, yeah, it’s nice. I was only around for a short time but I must have made a bit of an impact.

“I think people liked the way I bowled. I wasn’t the greatest bowler or anything like that, but I bowled bouncers, I got into blokes, I took wickets, I was exciting to watch. I would do anything to get a batter out. If that meant running through the crease or bowling six bouncers in a row then I would do that, I would take the consequences. And people like that.”

These days he gets his speed kicks through riding dirt bikes, and vicarious sporting thrills through watching his sons play AFL. He now works at a mining camp in Perth. “I came up to the mines to run the gym and got friendly with a few blokes up here. I had a few mates who worked at other mine sites who drove the trucks, so yeah, I got into that. Now I drive the biggest trucks in the world and the biggest loaders. It’s good fun.”He works two weeks on, one week off. “It’s tough but the money’s pretty good, so it’s a bit of a golden handcuff.”

When we talk, Spencer has just finished for the day. “I’m just sitting in my room. We’re on shift change, so we go to nights tomorrow.” He breaks into that distinctive warm laugh one last time. “I’ll go and have a couple of beers now.”

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My President Was Black

A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next

“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


“Love Will Make You Do Wrong”

In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was. “This is classic!” he said. Then he flashed the smile that had launched America’s first black presidency, and started dancing again. Three months still remained before Inauguration Day, but staffers had already begun to count down the days. They did this with a mix of pride and longing—like college seniors in early May. They had no sense of the world they were graduating into. None of us did.

Click to read Part 1 of 2

The farewell party, presented by BET (Black Entertainment Television), was the last in a series of concerts the first couple had hosted at the White House. Guests were asked to arrive at 5:30 p.m. By 6, two long lines stretched behind the Treasury Building, where the Secret Service was checking names. The people in these lines were, in the main, black, and their humor reflected it. The brisker queue was dubbed the “good-hair line” by one guest, and there was laughter at the prospect of the Secret Service subjecting us all to a “brown-paper-bag test.” This did not come to pass, but security was tight. Several guests were told to stand in a makeshift pen and wait to have their backgrounds checked a second time.

Dave Chappelle was there. He coolly explained the peril and promise of comedy in what was then still only a remotely potential Donald Trump presidency: “I mean, we never had a guy have his own pussygate scandal.” Everyone laughed. A few weeks later, he would be roundly criticized for telling a crowd at the Cutting Room, in New York, that he had voted for Clinton but did not feel good about it. “She’s going to be on a coin someday,” Chappelle said. “And her behavior has not been coinworthy.” But on this crisp October night, everything felt inevitable and grand. There was a slight wind. It had been in the 80s for much of that week. Now, as the sun set, the season remembered its name. Women shivered in their cocktail dresses. Gentlemen chivalrously handed over their suit coats. But when Naomi Campbell strolled past the security pen in a sleeveless number, she seemed as invulnerable as ever.

Cellphones were confiscated to prevent surreptitious recordings from leaking out. (This effort was unsuccessful. The next day, a partygoer would tweet a video of the leader of the free world dancing to Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”) After withstanding the barrage of security, guests were welcomed into the East Wing of the White House, and then ushered back out into the night, where they boarded a succession of orange-and-green trolleys. The singer and actress Janelle Monáe, her famous and fantastic pompadour preceding her, stepped on board and joked with a companion about the historical import of “sitting in the back of the bus.” She took a seat three rows from the front and hummed into the night. The trolley dropped the guests on the South Lawn, in front of a giant tent. The South Lawn’s fountain was lit up with blue lights. The White House proper loomed like a ghost in the distance. I heard the band, inside, beginning to play Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

“Well, you can tell what type of night this is,” Obama said from the stage, opening the event. “Not the usual ruffles and flourishes!”

The crowd roared.

“This must be a BET event!”

The crowd roared louder still.

Obama placed the concert in the White House’s musical tradition, noting that guests of the Kennedys had once done the twist at the residence—“the twerking of their time,” he said, before adding, “There will be no twerking tonight. At least not by me.”

The Obamas are fervent and eclectic music fans. In the past eight years, they have hosted performances at the White House by everyone from Mavis Staples to Bob Dylan to Tony Bennett to the Blind Boys of Alabama. After the rapper Common was invited to perform in 2011, a small fracas ensued in the right-wing media. He performed anyway—and was invited back again this glorious fall evening and almost stole the show. The crowd sang along to the hook for his hit ballad “The Light.” And when he brought on the gospel singer Yolanda Adams to fill in for John Legend on the Oscar-winning song “Glory,” glee turned to rapture.

De La Soul was there. The hip-hop trio had come of age as boyish B-boys with Gumby-style high-top fades. Now they moved across the stage with a lovely mix of lethargy and grace, like your favorite uncle making his way down the Soul Train line, wary of throwing out a hip. I felt a sense of victory watching them rock the crowd, all while keeping it in the pocket. The victory belonged to hip-hop—an art form birthed in the burning Bronx and now standing full grown, at the White House, unbroken and unedited. Usher led the crowd in a call-and-response: “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” Jill Scott showed off her operatic chops. Bell Biv DeVoe, contemporaries of De La, made history with their performance by surely becoming the first group to suggest to a presidential audience that one should “never trust a big butt and a smile.”

President Obama onstage at BET’s “Love & Happiness” event in October 2016, the last in a series of concerts the first couple hosted at the White House (Lawrence Jackson / White House)

The ties between the Obama White House and the hip-hop community are genuine. The Obamas are social with Beyoncé and Jay-Z. They hosted Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean at a state dinner, and last year invited Swizz Beatz, Busta Rhymes, and Ludacris, among others, to discuss criminal-justice reform and other initiatives. Obama once stood in the Rose Garden passing large flash cards to the Hamilton creator and rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda, who then freestyled using each word on the cards. “Drop the beat,” Obama said, inaugurating the session. At 55, Obama is younger than pioneering hip-hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and Kurtis Blow. If Obama’s enormous symbolic power draws primarily from being the country’s first black president, it also draws from his membership in hip-hop’s foundational generation.

That night, the men were sharp in their gray or black suits and optional ties. Those who were not in suits had chosen to make a statement, like the dark-skinned young man who strolled in, sockless, with blue jeans cuffed so as to accentuate his gorgeous black-suede loafers. Everything in his ensemble seemed to say, “My fellow Americans, do not try this at home.” There were women in fur jackets and high heels; others with sculpted naturals, the sides shaved close, the tops blooming into curls; others still in gold bamboo earrings and long blond dreads. When the actor Jesse Williams took the stage, seemingly awed before such black excellence, before such black opulence, assembled just feet from where slaves had once toiled, he simply said, “Look where we are. Look where we are right now.”

This would not happen again, and everyone knew it. It was not just that there might never be another African American president of the United States. It was the feeling that this particular black family, the Obamas, represented the best of black people, the ultimate credit to the race, incomparable in elegance and bearing. “There are no more,” the comedian Sinbad joked back in 2010. “There are no black men raised in Kansas and Hawaii. That’s the last one. Y’all better treat this one right. The next one gonna be from Cleveland. He gonna wear a perm. Then you gonna see what it’s really like.” Throughout their residency, the Obamas had refrained from showing America “what it’s really like,” and had instead followed the first lady’s motto, “When they go low, we go high.” This was the ideal—black and graceful under fire—saluted that evening. The president was lionized as “our crown jewel.” The first lady was praised as the woman “who put the O in Obama .”

Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing “mere” about symbols. The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the black poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.

Much as the unbroken ranks of 43 white male presidents communicated that the highest office of government in the country—indeed, the most powerful political offices in the world—was off-limits to black individuals, the election of Barack Obama communicated that the prohibition had been lifted. It communicated much more. Before Obama triumphed in 2008, the most-famous depictions of black success tended to be entertainers or athletes. But Obama had shown that it was “possible to be smart and cool at the same damn time,” as Jesse Williams put it at the BET party. Moreover, he had not embarrassed his people with a string of scandals. Against the specter of black pathology, against the narrow images of welfare moms and deadbeat dads, his time in the White House had been an eight-year showcase of a healthy and successful black family spanning three generations, with two dogs to boot. In short, he became a symbol of black people’s everyday, extraordinary Americanness.

Whiteness in America is a different symbol—a badge of advantage. In a country of professed meritocratic competition, this badge has long ensured an unerring privilege, represented in a 220-year monopoly on the highest office in the land. For some not-insubstantial sector of the country, the elevation of Barack Obama communicated that the power of the badge had diminished. For eight long years, the badge-holders watched him. They saw footage of the president throwing bounce passes and shooting jumpers. They saw him enter a locker room, give a businesslike handshake to a white staffer, and then greet Kevin Durant with something more soulful. They saw his wife dancing with Jimmy Fallon and posing, resplendent, on the covers of magazines that had, only a decade earlier, been almost exclusively, if unofficially, reserved for ladies imbued with the great power of the badge.

For the preservation of the badge, insidious rumors were concocted to denigrate the first black White House. Obama gave free cellphones to disheveled welfare recipients. Obama went to Europe and complained that “ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs.” Obama had inscribed an Arabic saying on his wedding ring, then stopped wearing the ring, in observance of Ramadan. He canceled the National Day of Prayer; refused to sign certificates for Eagle Scouts; faked his attendance at Columbia University; and used a teleprompter to address a group of elementary-school students. The badge-holders fumed. They wanted their country back. And, though no one at the farewell party knew it, in a couple of weeks they would have it.

On this October night, though, the stage belonged to another America. At the end of the party, Obama looked out into the crowd, searching for Dave Chappelle. “Where’s Dave?” he cried. And then, finding him, the president referenced Chappelle’s legendary Brooklyn concert. “You got your block party. I got my block party.” Then the band struck up Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”—the evening’s theme. The president danced in a line next to Ronnie DeVoe. Together they mouthed the lyrics: “Make you do right. Love will make you do wrong.”


He Walked on Ice but Never Fell

Last spring, I went to the White House to meet the president for lunch. I arrived slightly early and sat in the waiting area. I was introduced to a deaf woman who worked as the president’s receptionist, a black woman who worked in the press office, a Muslim woman in a head scarf who worked on the National Security Council, and an Iranian American woman who worked as a personal aide to the president. This receiving party represented a healthy cross section of the people Donald Trump had been mocking, and would continue to spend his campaign mocking. At the time, the president seemed untroubled by Trump. When I told Obama that I thought Trump’s candidacy was an explicit reaction to the fact of a black president, he said he could see that, but then enumerated other explanations. When assessing Trump’s chances, he was direct: He couldn’t win.

This assessment was born out of the president’s innate optimism and unwavering faith in the ultimate wisdom of the American people—the same traits that had propelled his unlikely five-year ascent from assemblyman in the Illinois state legislature to U.S. senator to leader of the free world. The speech that launched his rise, the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, emerged right from this logic. He addressed himself to his “fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, independents,” all of whom, he insisted, were more united than they had been led to believe. America was home to devout worshippers and Little League coaches in blue states, civil libertarians and “gay friends” in red states. The presumably white “counties around Chicago” did not want their taxes burned on welfare, but they didn’t want them wasted on a bloated Pentagon budget either. Inner-city black families, no matter their perils, understood “that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn … that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”

Perceived differences were the work of “spinmasters and negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’ ” Real America had no use for such categorizations. By Obama’s lights, there was no liberal America, no conservative America, no black America, no white America, no Latino America, no Asian America, only “the United States of America.” All these disparate strands of the American experience were bound together by a common hope:

It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

This speech ran counter to the history of the people it sought to address. Some of those same immigrants had firebombed the homes of the children of those same slaves. That young naval lieutenant was an imperial agent for a failed, immoral war. American division was real. In 2004, John Kerry did not win a single southern state. But Obama appealed to a belief in innocence—in particular a white innocence—that ascribed the country’s historical errors more to misunderstanding and the work of a small cabal than to any deliberate malevolence or widespread racism. America was good. America was great.

Over the next 12 years, I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history. He was phenomenal—the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people. This was the core of his 2004 keynote, and it marked his historic race speech during the 2008 campaign at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center—and blinded him to the appeal of Trump. (“As a general proposition, it’s hard to run for president by telling people how terrible things are,” Obama once said to me.)

But if the president’s inability to cement his legacy in the form of Hillary Clinton proved the limits of his optimism, it also revealed the exceptional nature of his presidential victories. For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell. Nothing in that time suggested that straight talk on the facts of racism in American life would have given him surer footing.

Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention launched his rise from Illinois state senator to president of the United States. (David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe / Getty)

I had met the president a few times before. In his second term, I’d written articles criticizing him for his overriding trust in color-blind policy and his embrace of “personal responsibility” rhetoric when speaking to African Americans. I saw him as playing both sides. He would invoke his identity as a president of all people to decline to advocate for black policy—and then invoke his black identity to lecture black people for continuing to “make bad choices.” In response, Obama had invited me, along with other journalists, to the White House for off-the-record conversations. I attempted to press my points in these sessions. My efforts were laughable and ineffective. I was always inappropriately dressed, and inappropriately calibrated in tone: In one instance, I was too deferential; in another, too bellicose. I was discombobulated by fear—not by fear of the power of his office (though that is a fearsome and impressive thing) but by fear of his obvious brilliance. It is said that Obama speaks “professorially,” a fact that understates the quickness and agility of his mind. These were not like press conferences—the president would speak in depth and with great familiarity about a range of subjects. Once, I watched him effortlessly reply to queries covering everything from electoral politics to the American economy to environmental policy. And then he turned to me. I thought of George Foreman, who once booked an exhibition with multiple opponents in which he pounded five straight journeymen—and I suddenly had some idea of how it felt to be the last of them.

Last spring, we had a light lunch. We talked casually and candidly. He talked about the brilliance of LeBron James and Stephen Curry—not as basketball talents but as grounded individuals. I asked him whether he was angry at his father, who had abandoned him at a young age to move back to Kenya, and whether that motivated any of his rhetoric. He said it did not, and he credited the attitude of his mother and grandparents for this. Then it was my turn to be autobiographical. I told him that I had heard the kind of “straighten up” talk he had been giving to black youth, for instance in his 2013 Morehouse commencement address, all my life. I told him that I thought it was not sensitive to the inner turmoil that can be obscured by the hardness kids often evince. I told him I thought this because I had once been one of those kids. He seemed to concede this point, but I couldn’t tell whether it mattered to him. Nonetheless, he agreed to a series of more formal conversations on this and other topics.

The improbability of a black president had once been so strong that its most vivid representations were comedic. Witness Dave Chappelle’s profane Black Bush from the early 2000s (“This nigger very possibly has weapons of mass destruction! I can’t sleep on that!”) or Richard Pryor’s black president in the 1970s promising black astronauts and black quarterbacks (“Ever since the Rams got rid of James Harris, my jaw’s been uptight!”). In this model, so potent is the force of blackness that the presidency is forced to conform to it. But once the notion advanced out of comedy and into reality, the opposite proved to be true.

Obama’s DNC speech is the key. It does not belong to the literature of “the struggle”; it belongs to the literature of prospective presidents—men (as it turns out) who speak not to gravity and reality, but to aspirations and dreams. When Lincoln invoked the dream of a nation “conceived in liberty” and pledged to the ideal that “all men are created equal,” he erased the near-extermination of one people and the enslavement of another. When Roosevelt told the country that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he invoked the dream of American omnipotence and boundless capability. But black people, then living under a campaign of terror for more than half a century, had quite a bit to fear, and Roosevelt could not save them. The dream Ronald Reagan invoked in 1984—that “it’s morning again in America”—meant nothing to the inner cities, besieged as they were by decades of redlining policies, not to mention crack and Saturday-night specials. Likewise, Obama’s keynote address conflated the slave and the nation of immigrants who profited from him. To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased. That is the tradition to which the “skinny kid with a funny name” who would be president belonged. It is also the only tradition in existence that could have possibly put a black person in the White House.

Obama’s embrace of white innocence was demonstrably necessary as a matter of political survival. Whenever he attempted to buck this directive, he was disciplined. His mild objection to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009 contributed to his declining favorability numbers among whites—still a majority of voters. His comments after the killing of Trayvon Martin—“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”—helped make that tragedy a rallying point for people who did not care about Martin’s killer as much as they cared about finding ways to oppose the president. Michael Tesler, a political-science professor at UC Irvine, has studied the effect of Obama’s race on the American electorate. “No other factor, in fact, came close to dividing the Democratic primary electorate as powerfully as their feelings about African Americans,” he and his co-author, David O. Sears, concluded in their book, Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America . “The impact of racial attitudes on individual vote decisions … was so strong that it appears to have even outstripped the substantive impact of racial attitudes on Jesse Jackson’s more racially charged campaign for the nomination in 1988.” When Tesler looked at the 2012 campaign in his second book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era , very little had improved. Analyzing the extent to which racial attitudes affected people associated with Obama during the 2012 election, Tesler concluded that “racial attitudes spilled over from Barack Obama into mass assessments of Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Charlie Crist, and even the Obama family’s dog Bo.”

This photograph of a 5-year-old boy patting the president’s hair in 2009 became an icon of the Obama White House. (Pete Souza / White House)

Yet despite this entrenched racial resentment, and in the face of complete resistance by congressional Republicans, overtly launched from the moment Obama arrived in the White House, the president accomplished major feats. He remade the nation’s health-care system. He revitalized a Justice Department that vigorously investigated police brutality and discrimination, and he began dismantling the private-prison system for federal inmates. Obama nominated the first Latina justice to the Supreme Court, gave presidential support to marriage equality, and ended the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, thus honoring the civil-rights tradition that had inspired him. And if his very existence inflamed America’s racist conscience, it also expanded the country’s anti-racist imagination. Millions of young people now know their only president to have been an African American. Writing for The New Yorker , Jelani Cobb once noted that “until there was a black Presidency it was impossible to conceive of the limitations of one.” This is just as true of the possibilities. In 2014, the Obama administration committed itself to reversing the War on Drugs through the power of presidential commutation. The administration said that it could commute the sentences of as many as 10,000 prisoners. As of November, the president had commuted only 944 sentences. By any measure, Obama’s effort fell woefully short, except for this small one: the measure of almost every other modern president who preceded him. Obama’s 944 commutations are the most in nearly a century—and more than the past 11 presidents’ combined.

Obama was born into a country where laws barring his very conception—let alone his ascendancy to the presidency—had long stood in force. A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama—a black man with deep roots in the white world—was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable.


“I Decided to Become Part of That World”

When Barack Obama was 10, his father gave him a basketball, a gift that connected the two directly. Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii and raised by his mother, Ann Dunham, who was white, and her parents, Stanley and Madelyn. They loved him ferociously, supported him emotionally, and encouraged him intellectually. They also told him he was black. Ann gave him books to read about famous black people. When Obama’s mother had begun dating his father, the news had not been greeted with the threat of lynching (as it might have been in various parts of the continental United States), and Obama’s grandparents always spoke positively of his father. This biography makes Obama nearly unique among black people of his era.

In the president’s memoir, Dreams From My Father , he says he was not an especially talented basketball player, but he played with a consuming passion. That passion was directed at something more than just the mastering of the pick-and-roll or the perfecting of his jump shot. Obama came of age during the time of the University of Hawaii basketball team’s “Fabulous Five”—a name given to its all-black starting five, two decades before it would be resurrected at the University of Michigan by the likes of Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. In his memoir, Obama writes that he would watch the University of Hawaii players laughing at “some inside joke,” winking “at the girls on the sidelines,” or “casually flipping lay-ups.” What Obama saw in the Fabulous Five was not just game, but a culture he found attractive:

By the time I reached high school, I was playing on Punahou’s teams, and could take my game to the university courts, where a handful of black men, mostly gym rats and has-beens, would teach me an attitude that didn’t just have to do with the sport. That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn’t back it up. That you didn’t let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions—like hurt or fear—you didn’t want them to see.

These are lessons, particularly the last one, that for black people apply as much on the street as they do on the court. Basketball was a link for Obama, a medium for downloading black culture from the mainland that birthed the Fabulous Five. Assessing his own thought process at the time, Obama writes, “I decided to become part of that world.” This is one of the most incredible sentences ever written in the long, decorated history of black memoir, if only because very few black people have ever enjoyed enough power to write it.

Historically, in black autobiography, to be remanded into the black race has meant exposure to a myriad of traumas, often commencing in childhood. Frederick Douglass is separated from his grandmother. The enslaved Harriet Ann Jacobs must constantly cope with the threat of rape before she escapes. After telling his teacher he wants to be a lawyer, Malcolm X is told that the job isn’t for “niggers.” Black culture often serves as the balm for such traumas, or even the means to resist them. Douglass finds the courage to face the “slave-breaker” Edward Covey after being given an allegedly enchanted root by “a genuine African” possessing powers from “the eastern nations.” Malcolm X’s dancing connects him to his “long-suppressed African instincts.” If black racial identity speaks to all the things done to people of recent African ancestry, black cultural identity was created in response to them. The division is not neat; the two are linked, and it is incredibly hard to be a full participant in the world of cultural identity without experiencing the trauma of racial identity.

Obama is somewhat different. He writes of bloodying the nose of a white kid who called him a “coon,” and of chafing at racist remarks from a tennis coach, and of feeling offended after a white woman in his apartment building told the manager that he was following her. But the kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of his generation—beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building—were mostly abstract for him. Moreover, the kind of spatial restriction that most black people feel at an early age—having rocks thrown at you for being on the wrong side of the tracks, for instance—was largely absent from his life. In its place, Obama was gifted with a well-stamped passport and admittance to elite private schools—all of which spoke of other identities, other lives and other worlds where the color line was neither determinative nor especially relevant. Obama could have grown into a raceless cosmopolitan. Surely he would have lived in a world of problems, but problems not embodied by him.

Instead, he decided to enter this world.

“I always felt as if being black was cool,” Obama told me while traveling to a campaign event. He was sitting on Air Force One , his tie loosened, his shirtsleeves rolled up. “[Being black] was not something to run away from but something to embrace. Why that is, I think, is complicated. Part of it is I think that my mother thought black folks were cool, and if your mother loves you and is praising you—and says you look good, are smart—as you are, then you don’t kind of think in terms of How can I avoid this? You feel pretty good about it.”

As a child, Obama’s embrace of blackness was facilitated, not impeded, by white people. Obama’s mother pointed him toward the history and culture of African Americans. Stanley, his grandfather, who came originally from Kansas, took him to basketball games at the University of Hawaii, as well as to black bars. Stanley introduced him to the black writer Frank Marshall Davis. The facilitation was as much indirect as direct. Obama recalls watching his grandfather at those black bars and understanding that “most of the people in the bar weren’t there out of choice,” and that “our presence there felt forced.” From his mother’s life of extensive travel, he learned to value the significance of having a home.

That suspicion of rootlessness extends throughout Dreams From My Father . He describes integration as a “one-way street” on which black people are asked to abandon themselves to fully experience America’s benefits. Confronted with a woman named Joyce, a mixed-race, green-eyed college classmate who insists that she is not “black” but “multiracial,” Obama is scornful. “That was the problem with people like Joyce,” he writes. “They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people.” Later in the memoir, Obama tells the story of falling in love with a white woman. During a visit to her family’s country house, he found himself in the library, which was filled with pictures of the woman’s illustrious relations. But instead of being in awe, Obama realized that he and the woman lived in different worlds. “And I knew that if we stayed together, I’d eventually live in hers,” he writes. “Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.”

After college, Obama found a home, as well as a sense of himself, working on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer. “When I started doing that work, my story merges with a larger story. That happens naturally for a John Lewis,” he told me, referring to the civil-rights hero and Democratic congressman. “That happens more naturally for you. It was less obvious to me. How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit? And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community] and specifically the South Side community, the low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal. So I’m in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community. And I can fit the African American struggle for freedom and justice in the context of the universal aspiration for freedom and justice.”

Throughout Obama’s 2008 campaign and into his presidency, this attitude proved key to his deep support in the black community. African Americans, weary of high achievers who distanced themselves from their black roots, understood that Obama had paid a price for checking “black” on his census form, and for living black, for hosting Common, for brushing dirt off his shoulder during the primaries, for marrying a woman who looked like Michelle Obama. If women, as a gender, must suffer the constant evaluations and denigrations of men, black women must suffer that, plus a broad dismissal from the realm of what American society deems to be beautiful. But Michelle Obama is beautiful in the way that black people know themselves to be. Her prominence as first lady directly attacks a poison that diminishes black girls from the moment they are capable of opening a magazine or turning on a television.

The South Side of Chicago, where Obama began his political career, is home to arguably the most prominent and storied black political establishment in the country. In addition to Oscar Stanton De Priest, the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century, the South Side produced the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; Jesse Jackson, who twice ran for president; and Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman to win a Senate race. These victories helped give rise to Obama’s own. Harold Washington served as an inspiration to Obama and looms heavily over the Chicago section of Dreams From My Father .

Washington forged the kind of broad coalition that Obama would later assemble nationally. But Washington did this in the mid-1980s in segregated Chicago, and he had not had the luxury, as Obama did, of becoming black with minimal trauma. “There was an edge to Harold that frightened some white voters,” David Axelrod, who worked for both Washington and Obama, told me recently. Axelrod recalled sitting around a conference table with Washington after he had won the Democratic primary for his reelection in 1987, just as the mayor was about to hold a press conference. Washington asked what percentage of Chicago’s white vote he’d received. “And someone said, ‘Well, you got 21 percent. And that’s really good because last time’ ”—in his successful 1983 mayoral campaign—“ ‘you only got 8,’ ” Axelrod recalled. “And he kind of smiled, sadly, and said, ‘You know, I probably spent 70 percent of my time in those white neighborhoods, and I think I’ve been a good mayor for everybody, and I got 21 percent of the white vote and we think it’s good.’ And he just kind of shook his head and said, ‘Ain’t it a bitch to be a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave?’

“That was Harold. He felt those things. He had fought in an all-black unit in World War II. He had come up in times—and that and the sort of indignities of what you had to do to come up through the machine really seared him.” During his 1983 mayoral campaign, Washington was loudly booed outside a church in northwest Chicago by middle-class Poles, Italians, and Irish, who feared blacks would uproot them. “It was as vicious and ugly as anything you would have seen in the old South,” Axelrod said.

Obama’s ties to the South Side tradition that Washington represented were complicated. Like Washington, Obama attempted to forge a coalition between black South Siders and the broader community. But Obama, despite his adherence to black cultural mores, was, with his roots in Kansas and Hawaii, his Ivy League pedigree, and his ties to the University of Chicago, still an exotic out-of-towner. “They were a bit skeptical of him,” says Salim Muwakkil, a journalist who has covered Obama since before his days in the Illinois state Senate. “Chicago is a very insular community, and he came from nowhere, seemingly.”

Obama compounded people’s suspicions by refusing to humble himself and go along with the political currents of the South Side. “A lot of the politicians, especially the black ones, were just leery of him,” Kaye Wilson, the godmother to Obama’s children and one of the president’s earliest political supporters, told me recently.

But even as many in the black political community were skeptical of Obama, others encouraged him—sometimes when they voted against him. When Obama lost the 2000 Democratic-primary race against Bobby Rush, the African American incumbent congressman representing Illinois’ First Congressional District, the then-still-obscure future president experienced the defeat as having to do more with his age than his exoticism. “I’d go meet people and I’d knock on doors and stuff, and some of the grandmothers who were the folks I’d been organizing and working with doing community stuff, they weren’t parroting back some notion of ‘You’re too Harvard,’ or ‘You’re too Hyde Park,’ or what have you,” Obama told me. “They’d say, ‘You’re a wonderful young man, you’re going to do great things. You just have to be patient.’ So I didn’t feel the loss as a rejection by black people. I felt the loss as ‘politics anywhere is tough.’ Politics in Chicago is especially tough. And being able to break through in the African American community is difficult because of the enormous loyalty that people feel towards anybody who has been around awhile.”

There was no one around to compete for loyalty when Obama ran for Senate in 2004, or for president in 2008. He was no longer competing against other African Americans; he was representing them. “He had that hybridity which told the ‘do-gooders’—in Chicago they call the reformers the do-gooders—that he was acceptable,” Muwakkil told me.

Obama ran for the Senate two decades after the death of Harold Washington. Axelrod checked in on the precinct where Washington had been so loudly booed by white Chicagoans. “Obama carried, against seven candidates for the Senate, almost the entire northwest side and that precinct,” he said. “And I told him, ‘Harold’s smiling down on us tonight.’ ”

Obama believes that his statewide victory for the Illinois Senate seat held particular portent for the events of 2008. “Illinois is the most demographically representative state in the country,” he told me. “If you took all the percentages of black, white, Latino; rural, urban; agricultural, manufacturing—[if] you took that cross section across the country and you shrank it, it would be Illinois.”

Illinois effectively allowed Obama to play a scrimmage before the big national game in 2008. “When I ran for the Senate I had to go into southern Illinois, downstate Illinois, farming communities—some with very tough racial histories, some areas where there just were no African Americans of any number,” Obama told me. “And when we won that race, not just an African American from Chicago, but an African American with an exotic history and [the] name Barack Hussein Obama, [it showed that I] could connect with and appeal to a much broader audience.”

The mix of Obama’s “hybridity” and the changing times allowed him to extend his appeal beyond the white ethnic corners of Chicago, past the downstate portions of Illinois, and out into the country at large. “Ben Nelson, one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, from Nebraska, would only bring in one national Democrat to campaign for him,” Obama recalls. “And it was me. And so part of the reason I was willing to run [for president in 2008] was that I had had two years in which we were generating enormous crowds all across the country—and the majority of those crowds were not African American; and they were in pretty remote places, or unlikely places. They weren’t just big cities or they weren’t just liberal enclaves. So what that told me was, it was possible.”

What those crowds saw was a black candidate unlike any other before him. To simply point to Obama’s white mother, or to his African father, or even to his rearing in Hawaii, is to miss the point. For most African Americans, white people exist either as a direct or an indirect force for bad in their lives. Biraciality is no shield against this; often it just intensifies the problem. What proved key for Barack Obama was not that he was born to a black man and a white woman, but that his white family approved of the union, and approved of the child who came from it. They did this in 1961—a time when sex between black men and white women, in large swaths of the country, was not just illegal but fraught with mortal danger. But that danger is not part of Obama’s story. The first white people he ever knew, the ones who raised him, were decent in a way that very few black people of that era experienced.

I asked Obama what he made of his grandparents’ impressively civilized reception of his father. “It wasn’t Harry Belafonte,” Obama said laughingly of his father. “This was like an African African. And he was like a blue-black brother. Nilotic. And so, yeah, I will always give my grandparents credit for that. I’m not saying they were happy about it. I’m not saying that they were not, after the guy leaves, looking at each other like, ‘What the heck?’ But whatever misgivings they had, they never expressed to me, never spilled over into how they interacted with me.

“Now, part of it, as I say in my book, was we were in this unique environment in Hawaii where I think it was much easier. I don’t know if it would have been as easy for them if they were living in Chicago at the time, because the lines just weren’t as sharply drawn in Hawaii as they were on the mainland.”

Obama’s early positive interactions with his white family members gave him a fundamentally different outlook toward the wider world than most blacks of the 1960s had. Obama told me he rarely had “the working assumption of discrimination, the working assumption that white people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity or judge me [other than] on the basis of merit.” He continued, “The kind of working assumption” that white people would discriminate against him or treat him poorly “is less embedded in my psyche than it is, say, with Michelle.”

In this, the first lady is more representative of black America than her husband is. African Americans typically raise their children to protect themselves against a presumed hostility from white teachers, white police officers, white supervisors, and white co-workers. The need for that defense is, more often than not, reinforced either directly by actual encounters or indirectly by observing the vast differences between one’s own experience and those across the color line. Marty Nesbitt, the president’s longtime best friend, who, like Obama, had positive interactions with whites at a relatively early age, told me that when he and his wife went to buy their first car, she was insistent on buying from a black salesperson. “I’m like, ‘We’ve got to find a salesman,’ ” Nesbitt said. “She’s like, ‘No, no, no. We’re waiting for the brother.’ And I’m like, ‘He’s with a customer.’ They were filling out documents and she was like, ‘We’re going to stay around.’ And a white guy came up to us. ‘Can I help you?’ ‘Nope.’ ” Nesbitt was not out to condemn anyone with this story. He was asserting that “the willingness of African Americans [in Chicago] to help lift each other up is powerful.”

But that willingness to help is also a defense, produced by decades of discrimination. Obama sees race through a different lens, Kaye Wilson told me. “It’s just very different from ours,” she explained. “He’s got buddies that are white, and they’re his buddies, and they love him. And I don’t think they love him just because he’s the president. They love him because they’re his friends from Hawaii, some from college and all.

“So I think he’s got that, whereas I think growing up in the racist United States, we enter this thing with, you know, ‘I’m looking at you. I’m not trusting you to be one hundred with me.’ And I think he grew up in a way that he had to trust [white people]—how can you live under the roof with people and think that they don’t love you? He needs that frame of reference. He needs that lens. If he didn’t have it, it would be … a Jesse Jackson, you know? Or Al Sharpton. Different lens.”

That lens, born of literally relating to whites, allowed Obama to imagine that he could be the country’s first black president. “If I walked into a room and it’s a bunch of white farmers, trade unionists, middle age—I’m not walking in thinking, Man, I’ve got to show them that I’m normal ,” Obama explained. “I walk in there, I think, with a set of assumptions: like, these people look just like my grandparents. And I see the same Jell‑O mold that my grandmother served, and they’ve got the same, you know, little stuff on their mantelpieces. And so I am maybe disarming them by just assuming that we’re okay.”

What Obama was able to offer white America is something very few African Americans could—trust. The vast majority of us are, necessarily, too crippled by our defenses to ever consider such a proposition. But Obama, through a mixture of ancestral connections and distance from the poisons of Jim Crow, can credibly and sincerely trust the majority population of this country. That trust is reinforced, not contradicted, by his blackness. Obama isn’t shuffling before white power (Herman Cain’s “shucky ducky” act) or flattering white ego (O. J. Simpson’s listing not being seen as black as a great accomplishment). That, too, is defensive, and deep down, I suspect, white people know it. He stands firm in his own cultural traditions and says to the country something virtually no black person can, but every president must: “I believe you.”

Continued below…

My President Was Black

A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next

Click to read Part 2 of 2


“You Still Gotta Go Back to the Hood”

Just after Columbus Day, I accompanied the president and his formidable entourage on a visit to North Carolina A&T State University, in Greensboro. Four days earlier, The Washington Post had published an old audio clip that featured Donald Trump lamenting a failed sexual conquest and exhorting the virtues of sexual assault. The next day, Trump claimed that this was “locker room” talk. As we flew to North Carolina, the president was in a state of bemused disbelief. He plopped down in a chair in the staff cabin of Air Force One and said, “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one before.” He was casual and relaxed. A feeling of cautious inevitability emanated from his staff, and why not? Every day seemed to bring a new, more shocking revelation or piece of evidence showing Trump to be unfit for the presidency: He had lost nearly $1 billion in a single year. He had likely not paid taxes in 18 years. He was running a “university,” for which he was under formal legal investigation. He had trampled on his own campaign’s messaging by engaging in a Twitter crusade against a former beauty-pageant contestant. He had been denounced by leadership in his own party, and the trickle of prominent Republicans—both in and out of office—who had publicly repudiated him threatened to become a geyser. At this moment, the idea that a campaign so saturated in open bigotry, misogyny, chaos, and possible corruption could win a national election was ludicrous. This was America.

The president was going to North Carolina to keynote a campaign rally for Clinton, but first he was scheduled for a conversation about My Brother’s Keeper, his initiative on behalf of disadvantaged youth. Announcing My Brother’s Keeper—or MBK, as it’s come to be called—in 2014, the president had sought to avoid giving the program a partisan valence, noting that it was “not some big new government program.” Instead, it would involve the government in concert with the nonprofit and business sectors to intervene in the lives of young men of color who were “at risk.” MBK serves as a kind of network for those elements of federal, state, and local government that might already have a presence in the lives of these young men. It is a quintessentially Obama program—conservative in scope, with impacts that are measurable.

“It comes right out of his own life,” Broderick Johnson, the Cabinet secretary and an assistant to the president, who heads MBK, told me recently. “I have heard him say, ‘I don’t want us to have a bunch of forums on race.’ He reminds people, ‘Yeah, we can talk about this. But what are we going to do ?’ ” On this afternoon in North Carolina, what Obama did was sit with a group of young men who’d turned their lives around in part because of MBK. They told stories of being in the street, of choosing quick money over school, of their homes being shot up, and—through the help of mentoring or job programs brokered by MBK—transitioning into college or a job. Obama listened solemnly and empathetically to each of them. “It doesn’t take that much,” he told them. “It just takes someone laying hands on you and saying, ‘Hey, man, you count.’ ”

When he asked the young men whether they had a message he should take back to policy makers in Washington, D.C., one observed that despite their best individual efforts, they still had to go back to the very same deprived neighborhoods that had been the sources of trouble for them. “It’s your environment,” the young man said. “You can do what you want, but you still gotta go back to the hood.”

He was correct. The ghettos of America are the direct result of decades of public-policy decisions: the redlining of real-estate zoning maps, the expanded authority given to prosecutors, the increased funding given to prisons. And all of this was done on the backs of people still reeling from the 250-year legacy of slavery. The results of this negative investment are clear—African Americans rank at the bottom of nearly every major socioeconomic measure in the country.

Obama’s formula for closing this chasm between black and white America, like that of many progressive politicians today, proceeded from policy designed for all of America. Blacks disproportionately benefit from this effort, since they are disproportionately in need. The Affordable Care Act, which cut the uninsured rate in the black community by at least a third, was Obama’s most prominent example. Its full benefit has yet to be felt by African Americans, because several states in the South have declined to expand Medicaid. But when the president and I were meeting, the ACA’s advocates believed that pressure on state budgets would force expansion, and there was evidence to support this: Louisiana had expanded Medicaid earlier in 2016, and advocates were gearing up for wars to be waged in Georgia and Virginia.

Obama also emphasized the need for a strong Justice Department with a deep commitment to nondiscrimination. When Obama moved into the White House in 2009, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division “was in shambles,” former Attorney General Eric Holder told me recently. “I mean, I had been there for 12 years as a line guy. I started out in ’76, so I served under Republicans and Democrats. And what the [George W.] Bush administration, what the Bush DOJ did, was unlike anything that had ever happened before in terms of politicized hiring.” The career civil servants below the political appointees, Holder said, were not even invited to the meetings in which the key hiring and policy decisions were made. After Obama’s inauguration, Holder told me, “I remember going to tell all the folks at the Civil Rights Division, ‘The Civil Rights Division is open for business again.’ The president gave me additional funds to hire people.”

The political press developed a narrative that because Obama felt he had to modulate his rhetoric on race, Holder was the administration’s true, and thus blacker, conscience. Holder is certainly blunter, and this worried some of the White House staff. Early in Obama’s first term, Holder gave a speech on race in which he said the United States had been a “nation of cowards” on the subject. But positioning the two men as opposites elides an important fact: Holder was appointed by the president, and went only as far as the president allowed. I asked Holder whether he had toned down his rhetoric after that controversial speech. “Nope,” he said. Reflecting on his relationship with the president, Holder said, “We were also kind of different people, you know? He is the Zen guy. And I’m kind of the hot-blooded West Indian. And I thought we made a good team, but there’s nothing that I ever did or said that I don’t think he would have said, ‘I support him 100 percent.’

“Now, the ‘nation of cowards’ speech, the president might have used a different phrase—maybe, probably. But he and I share a worldview, you know? And when I hear people say, ‘Well, you are blacker than him’ or something like that, I think, What are you all talking about?

For much of his presidency, a standard portion of Obama’s speeches about race riffed on black people’s need to turn off the television, stop eating junk food, and stop blaming white people for their problems. Obama would deliver this lecture to any black audience, regardless of context. It was bizarre, for instance, to see the president warning young men who’d just graduated from Morehouse College, one of the most storied black colleges in the country, about making “excuses” and blaming whites.

This part of the Obama formula is the most troubling, and least thought-out. This judgment emerges from my own biography. I am the product of black parents who encouraged me to read, of black teachers who felt my work ethic did not match my potential, of black college professors who taught me intellectual rigor. And they did this in a world that every day insulted their humanity. It was not so much that the black layabouts and deadbeats Obama invoked in his speeches were unrecognizable. I had seen those people too. But I’d also seen the same among white people. If black men were overrepresented among drug dealers and absentee dads of the world, it was directly related to their being underrepresented among the Bernie Madoffs and Kenneth Lays of the world. Power was what mattered, and what characterized the differences between black and white America was not a difference in work ethic, but a system engineered to place one on top of the other.

The mark of that system is visible at every level of American society, regardless of the quality of one’s choices. For instance, the unemployment rate among black college graduates (4.1 percent) is almost the same as the unemployment rate among white high-school graduates (4.6 percent). But that college degree is generally purchased at a higher price by blacks than by whites. According to research by the Brookings Institution, African Americans tend to carry more student debt four years after graduation ($53,000 versus $28,000) and suffer from a higher default rate on their loans (7.6 percent versus 2.4 percent) than white Americans. This is both the result and the perpetuator of a sprawling wealth gap between the races. White households, on average, hold seven times as much wealth as black households—a difference so large as to make comparing the “black middle class” and “white middle class” meaningless; they’re simply not comparable. According to Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University who studies economic mobility, black families making $100,000 a year or more live in more-disadvantaged neighborhoods than white families making less than $30,000. This gap didn’t just appear by magic; it’s the result of the government’s effort over many decades to create a pigmentocracy—one that will continue without explicit intervention.

Obama had been on the record as opposing reparations. But now, late in his presidency, he seemed more open to the idea—in theory, at least, if not in practice.

“Theoretically, you can make obviously a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps,” Obama said, referencing the gulf in education, wealth, and employment that separates black and white America. “That those were wrongs to the black community as a whole, and black families specifically, and that in order to close that gap, a society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it’s not in the form of individual reparations checks but in the form of a Marshall Plan.”

The political problems with turning the argument for reparations into reality are manifold, Obama said. “If you look at countries like South Africa, where you had a black majority, there have been efforts to tax and help that black majority, but it hasn’t come in the form of a formal reparations program. You have countries like India that have tried to help untouchables, with essentially affirmative-action programs, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the structure of their societies. So the bottom line is that it’s hard to find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts.”

Obama went on to say that it would be better, and more realistic, to get the country to rally behind a robust liberal agenda and build on the enormous progress that’s been made toward getting white Americans to accept nondiscrimination as a basic operating premise. But the progress toward nondiscrimination did not appear overnight. It was achieved by people willing to make an unpopular argument and live on the frontier of public opinion. I asked him whether it wasn’t—despite the practical obstacles—worth arguing that the state has a collective responsibility not only for its achievements but for its sins.

“I want my children—I want Malia and Sasha—to understand that they’ve got responsibilities beyond just what they themselves have done,” Obama said. “That they have a responsibility to the larger community and the larger nation, that they should be sensitive to and extra thoughtful about the plight of people who have been oppressed in the past, are oppressed currently. So that’s a wisdom that I want to transmit to my kids … But I would say that’s a high level of enlightenment that you’re looking to have from a majority of the society. And it may be something that future generations are more open to, but I am pretty confident that for the foreseeable future, using the argument of nondiscrimination, and ‘Let’s get it right for the kids who are here right now,’ and giving them the best chance possible, is going to be a more persuasive argument.”

Obama is unfailingly optimistic about the empathy and capabilities of the American people. His job necessitates this: “At some level what the people want to feel is that the person leading them sees the best in them,” he told me. But I found it interesting that that optimism does not extend to the possibility of the public’s accepting wisdoms—such as the moral logic of reparations—that the president, by his own account, has accepted for himself and is willing to teach his children. Obama says he always tells his staff that “better is good.” The notion that a president would attempt to achieve change within the boundaries of the accepted consensus is appropriate. But Obama is almost constitutionally skeptical of those who seek to achieve change outside that consensus.

Obama visited North Carolina A&T State University in early October for a conversation about My Brother’s Keeper, his initiative for disadvantaged youth. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

Early in 2016, Obama invited a group of African American leaders to meet with him at the White House. When some of the activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter refused to attend, Obama began calling them out in speeches. “You can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position,” he said. “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable—that can institutionalize the changes you seek—and to engage the other side.”

Opal Tometi, a Nigerian American community activist who is one of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, explained to me that the group has a more diffuse structure than most civil-rights organizations. One reason for this is to avoid the cult of personality that has plagued black organizations in the past. So the founders asked its membership in Chicago, the president’s hometown, whether they should meet with Obama. “They felt—and I think many of our members felt—there wouldn’t be the depth of discussion that they wanted to have,” Tometi told me. “And if there wasn’t that space to have a real heart-to-heart, and if it was just surface level, that it would be more of a disservice to the movement.”

Tometi noted that some other activists allied with Black Lives Matter had been planning to attend the meeting, so they felt their views would be represented. Nevertheless, Black Lives Matter sees itself as engaged in a protest against the treatment of black people by the American state, and so Tometi and much of the group’s leadership, concerned about being used for a photo op by the very body they were protesting, opted not to go.

When I asked Obama about this perspective, he fluctuated between understanding where the activists were coming from and being hurt by such brush-offs. “I think that where I’ve gotten frustrated during the course of my presidency has never been because I was getting pushed too hard by activists to see the justness of a cause or the essence of an issue,” he said. “I think where I got frustrated at times was the belief that the president can do anything if he just decides he wants to do it. And that sort of lack of awareness on the part of an activist about the constraints of our political system and the constraints on this office, I think, sometimes would leave me to mutter under my breath. Very rarely did I lose it publicly. Usually I’d just smile.”

He laughed, then continued, “The reason I say that is because those are the times where sometimes you feel actually a little bit hurt. Because you feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?’ ”

I asked Obama whether he thought that perhaps protesters’ distrust of the powers that be could ultimately be healthy. “Yes,” he said. “Which is why I don’t get too hurt. I mean, I think there is a benefit to wanting to hold power’s feet to the fire until you actually see the goods. I get that. And I think it is important. And frankly, sometimes it’s useful for activists just to be out there to keep you mindful and not get complacent, even if ultimately you think some of their criticism is misguided.”

Obama himself was an activist and a community organizer, albeit for only two years—but he is not, by temperament, a protester. He is a consensus-builder; consensus, he believes, ultimately drives what gets done. He understands the emotional power of protest, the need to vent before authority—but that kind of approach does not come naturally to him. Regarding reparations, he said, “Sometimes I wonder how much of these debates have to do with the desire, the legitimate desire, for that history to be recognized. Because there is a psychic power to the recognition that is not satisfied with a universal program; it’s not satisfied by the Affordable Care Act, or an expansion of Pell Grants, or an expansion of the earned-income tax credit.” These kinds of programs, effective and disproportionately beneficial to black people though they may be, don’t “speak to the hurt, and the sense of injustice, and the self-doubt that arises out of the fact that [African Americans] are behind now, and it makes us sometimes feel as if there must be something wrong with us—unless you’re able to see the history and say, ‘It’s amazing we got this far given what we went through.’

“So in part, I think the argument sometimes that I’ve had with folks who are much more interested in sort of race-specific programs is less an argument about what is practically achievable and sometimes maybe more an argument of ‘We want society to see what’s happened and internalize it and answer it in demonstrable ways.’ And those impulses I very much understand—but my hope would be that as we’re moving through the world right now, we’re able to get that psychological or emotional peace by seeing very concretely our kids doing better and being more hopeful and having greater opportunities.”

Obama saw—at least at that moment, before the election of Donald Trump—a straight path to that world. “Just play this out as a thought experiment,” he said. “Imagine if you had genuine, high-quality early-childhood education for every child, and suddenly every black child in America—but also every poor white child or Latino [child], but just stick with every black child in America—is getting a really good education. And they’re graduating from high school at the same rates that whites are, and they are going to college at the same rates that whites are, and they are able to afford college at the same rates because the government has universal programs that say that you’re not going to be barred from school just because of how much money your parents have.

“So now they’re all graduating. And let’s also say that the Justice Department and the courts are making sure, as I’ve said in a speech before, that when Jamal sends his résumé in, he’s getting treated the same as when Johnny sends his résumé in. Now, are we going to have suddenly the same number of CEOs, billionaires, etc., as the white community? In 10 years? Probably not, maybe not even in 20 years.

“But I guarantee you that we would be thriving, we would be succeeding. We wouldn’t have huge numbers of young African American men in jail. We’d have more family formation as college-graduated girls are meeting boys who are their peers, which then in turn means the next generation of kids are growing up that much better. And suddenly you’ve got a whole generation that’s in a position to start using the incredible creativity that we see in music, and sports, and frankly even on the streets, channeled into starting all kinds of businesses. I feel pretty good about our odds in that situation.”

The thought experiment doesn’t hold up. The programs Obama favored would advance white America too—and without a specific commitment to equality, there is no guarantee that the programs would eschew discrimination. Obama’s solution relies on a goodwill that his own personal history tells him exists in the larger country. My own history tells me something different. The large numbers of black men in jail, for instance, are not just the result of poor policy, but of not seeing those men as human.

When President Obama and I had this conversation, the target he was aiming to reach seemed to me to be many generations away, and now—as President-Elect Trump prepares for office—seems even many more generations off. Obama’s accomplishments were real: a $1 billion settlement on behalf of black farmers, a Justice Department that exposed Ferguson’s municipal plunder, the increased availability of Pell Grants (and their availability to some prisoners), and the slashing of the crack/cocaine disparity in sentencing guidelines, to name just a few. Obama was also the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. There was a feeling that he’d erected a foundation upon which further progressive policy could be built. It’s tempting to say that foundation is now endangered. The truth is, it was never safe.


“They Rode the Tiger”

Obama’s greatest misstep was born directly out of his greatest insight. Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him. In some sense an Obama presidency could never have succeeded along the normal presidential lines; he needed a partner, or partners, in Congress who could put governance above party. But he struggled to win over even some of his own allies. Ben Nelson, the Democratic senator from Nebraska whom Obama helped elect, became an obstacle to health-care reform. Joe Lieberman, whom Obama saved from retribution at the hands of Senate Democrats after Lieberman campaigned for Obama’s 2008 opponent, John McCain, similarly obstructed Obamacare. Among Republicans, senators who had seemed amenable to Obama’s agenda—Chuck Grassley, Susan Collins, Richard Lugar, Olympia Snowe—rebuffed him repeatedly.

The obstruction grew out of narrow political incentives. “If Republicans didn’t cooperate,” Obama told me, “and there was not a portrait of bipartisan cooperation and a functional federal government, then the party in power would pay the price and they could win back the Senate and/or the House. That wasn’t an inaccurate political calculation.”

Obama is not sure of the degree to which individual racism played into this calculation. “I do remember watching Bill Clinton get impeached and Hillary Clinton being accused of killing Vince Foster,” he said. “And if you ask them, I’m sure they would say, ‘No, actually what you’re experiencing is not because you’re black, it’s because you’re a Democrat.’ ”

But personal animus is just one manifestation of racism; arguably the more profound animosity occurs at the level of interests. The most recent Congress boasted 138 members from the states that comprised the old Confederacy. Of the 101 Republicans in that group, 96 are white and one is black. Of the 37 Democrats, 18 are black and 15 are white. There are no white congressional Democrats in the Deep South. Exit polls in Mississippi in 2008 found that 96 percent of voters who described themselves as Republicans were white. The Republican Party is not simply the party of whites, but the preferred party of whites who identify their interest as defending the historical privileges of whiteness. The researchers Josh Pasek, Jon A. Krosnick, and Trevor Tompson found that in 2012, 32 percent of Democrats held antiblack views, while 79 percent of Republicans did. These attitudes could even spill over to white Democratic politicians, because they are seen as representing the party of blacks. Studying the 2016 election, the political scientist Philip Klinkner found that the most predictive question for understanding whether a voter favored Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was “Is Barack Obama a Muslim?”

In our conversations, Obama said he didn’t doubt that there was a sincerely nonracist states’-rights contingent of the GOP. And yet he suspected that there might be more to it. “A rudimentary knowledge of American history tells you that the relationship between the federal government and the states was very much mixed up with attitudes towards slavery, attitudes towards Jim Crow, attitudes towards antipoverty programs and who benefited and who didn’t,” he said.

“And so I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race. But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority electrifying certain communities, and didn’t have a problem with the interstate highway system being built, and didn’t have a problem with the GI Bill, and didn’t have a problem with the [Federal Housing Administration] subsidizing the suburbanization of America, and that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them—then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.”

Racism greeted Obama in both his primary and general-election campaigns in 2008. Photos were circulated of him in Somali garb. Rush Limbaugh dubbed him “Barack the Magic Negro.” Roger Stone, who would go on to advise the Trump campaign, claimed that Michelle Obama could be heard on tape yelling “Whitey.” Detractors circulated emails claiming that the future first lady had written a racist senior thesis while at Princeton. A fifth of all West Virginia Democratic-primary voters in 2008 openly admitted that race had influenced their vote. Hillary Clinton trounced him 67 to 26 percent.

After Obama won the presidency in defiance of these racial headwinds, traffic to the white-supremacist website Stormfront increased sixfold. Before the election, in August, just before the Democratic National Convention, the FBI uncovered an assassination plot hatched by white supremacists in Denver. Mainstream conservative publications floated the notion that Obama’s memoir was too “stylish and penetrating” to have been written by the candidate, and found a plausible ghostwriter in the radical (and white) former Weatherman Bill Ayers. A Republican women’s club in California dispensed “Obama Bucks” featuring slices of watermelon, ribs, and fried chicken. At the Values Voter Summit that year, conventioneers hawked “Obama Waffles,” a waffle mix whose box featured a bug-eyed caricature of the candidate. Fake hip-hop lyrics were scrawled on the side (“Barry’s Bling Bling Waffle Ring”) and on the top, the same caricature was granted a turban and tagged with the instructions “Point box toward Mecca for tastier waffles.” The display was denounced by the summit’s sponsor, the Family Research Council. One would be forgiven for meeting this denunciation with guffaws: The council’s president, Tony Perkins, had once addressed the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens with a Confederate flag draped behind him. By 2015, Perkins had deemed the debate over Obama’s birth certificate “legitimate” and was saying that it “makes sense” to conclude that Obama was actually a Muslim.

By then, birtherism—inflamed in large part by a real-estate mogul and reality-TV star named Donald Trump—had overtaken the Republican rank and file. In 2015, one poll found that 54 percent of GOP voters thought Obama was a Muslim. Only 29 percent believed he’d been born in America.

Still, in 2008, Obama had been elected. His supporters rejoiced. As Jay-Z commemorated the occasion:

My president is black, in fact he’s half-white,
So even in a racist mind, he’s half-right.

Not quite. A month after Obama entered the White House, a CNBC personality named Rick Santelli took to the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and denounced the president’s efforts to help homeowners endangered by the housing crisis. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?,” Santelli asked the assembled traders. He asserted that Obama should “reward people that could carry the water” as opposed to those who “drink the water,” and denounced those in danger of foreclosure as “losers.” Race was implicit in Santelli’s harangue—the housing crisis and predatory lending had devastated black communities and expanded the wealth gap—and it culminated with a call for a “Tea Party” to resist the Obama presidency. In fact, right-wing ideologues had been planning just such a resistance for decades. They would eagerly answer Santelli’s call.

One of the intellectual forerunners of the Tea Party is said to be Ron Paul, the heterodox two-time Republican presidential candidate, who opposed the war in Iraq and championed civil liberties. On other matters, Paul was more traditional. Throughout the ’90s, he published a series of racist newsletters that referred to New York City as “Welfaria,” called Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Hate Whitey Day,” and asserted that 95 percent of black males in Washington, D.C., were either “semi-criminal or entirely criminal.” Paul’s apologists have claimed that he had no real connection to the newsletters, even though virtually all of them were published in his name (“The Ron Paul Survival Report,” “Ron Paul Political Report,” “Dr. Ron Paul’s Freedom Report”) and written in his voice. Either way, the views of the newsletters have found their expression in his ideological comrades. Throughout Obama’s first term, Tea Party activists voiced their complaints in racist terms. Activists brandished signs warning that Obama would implement “white slavery,” waved the Confederate flag, depicted Obama as a witch doctor, and issued calls for him to “go back to Kenya.” Tea Party supporters wrote “satirical” letters in the name of “We Colored People” and stoked the flames of birtherism. One of the Tea Party’s most prominent sympathizers, the radio host Laura Ingraham, wrote a racist tract depicting Michelle Obama gorging herself on ribs, while Glenn Beck said the president was a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” The Tea Party’s leading exponent, Andrew Breitbart, engineered the smearing of Shirley Sherrod, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s director of rural development for Georgia, publishing egregiously misleading videos that wrongly made her appear to be engaging in antiwhite racist invective, which led to her dismissal. (In a rare act of cowardice, the Obama administration cravenly submitted to this effort.)

In those rare moments when Obama made any sort of comment attacking racism, firestorms threatened to consume his governing agenda. When, in July 2009, the president objected to the arrest of the eminent Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. while he was trying to get into his own house, pointing out that the officer had “acted stupidly,” a third of whites said the remark made them feel less favorably toward the president, and nearly two-thirds claimed that Obama had “acted stupidly” by commenting. A chastened Obama then determined to make sure his public statements on race were no longer mere riffs but designed to have an achievable effect. This was smart, but still the invective came. During Obama’s 2009 address on health care before a joint session of Congress, Joe Wilson, a Republican congressman from South Carolina, incredibly, and in defiance of precedent and decorum, disrupted the proceedings by crying out “You lie!” A Missouri congressman equated Obama with a monkey. A California GOP official took up the theme and emailed her friends an image depicting Obama as a chimp, with the accompanying text explaining, “Now you know why [there’s] no birth certificate!” Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin assessed the president’s foreign policy as a “shuck and jive shtick.” Newt Gingrich dubbed him the “food-stamp president.” The rhetorical attacks on Obama were matched by a very real attack on his political base—in 2011 and 2012, 19 states enacted voting restrictions that made it harder for African Americans to vote.

Yet in 2012, as in 2008, Obama won anyway. Prior to the election, Obama, ever the optimist, had claimed that intransigent Republicans would decide to work with him to advance the country. No such collaboration was in the offing. Instead, legislation ground to a halt and familiar themes resurfaced. An Idaho GOP official posted a photo on Facebook depicting a trap waiting for Obama. The bait was a slice of watermelon. The caption read, “Breaking: The secret service just uncovered a plot to kidnap the president. More details as we get them …” In 2014, conservatives assembled in support of Cliven Bundy’s armed protest against federal grazing fees. As reporters descended on the Bundy ranch in Nevada, Bundy offered his opinions on “the Negro.” “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” Bundy explained. “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

That same year, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri. It found a city that, through racial profiling, arbitrary fines, and wanton harassment, had exploited law enforcement for the purposes of municipal plunder. The plunder was sanctified by racist humor dispensed via internal emails among the police that later came to light. The president of the United States, who during his first year in office had reportedly received three times the number of death threats of any of his predecessors, was a repeat target.

Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to understand the Tea Party protests, and the 2016 presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, which ultimately emerged out of them. One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

Christopher S. Parker and Matt A. Barreto, political scientists at the University of Washington and UCLA, respectively, have found a relatively strong relationship between racism and Tea Party membership. “Whites are less likely to be drawn to the Tea Party for material reasons, suggesting that, relative to other groups, it’s really more about social prestige,” they say. The notion that the Tea Party represented the righteous, if unfocused, anger of an aggrieved class allowed everyone from leftists to neoliberals to white nationalists to avoid a horrifying and simple reality: A significant swath of this country did not like the fact that their president was black, and that swath was not composed of those most damaged by an unquestioned faith in the markets. Far better to imagine the grievance put upon the president as the ghost of shambling factories and defunct union halls, as opposed to what it really was—a movement inaugurated by ardent and frightened white capitalists, raging from the commodities-trading floor of one of the great financial centers of the world.

That movement came into full bloom in the summer of 2015, with the candidacy of Donald Trump, a man who’d risen to political prominence by peddling the racist myth that the president was not American. It was birtherism—not trade, not jobs, not isolationism—that launched Trump’s foray into electoral politics. Having risen unexpectedly on this basis into the stratosphere of Republican politics, Trump spent the campaign freely and liberally trafficking in misogyny, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. And on November 8, 2016, he won election to the presidency. Historians will spend the next century analyzing how a country with such allegedly grand democratic traditions was, so swiftly and so easily, brought to the brink of fascism. But one needn’t stretch too far to conclude that an eight-year campaign of consistent and open racism aimed at the leader of the free world helped clear the way.

“They rode the tiger. And now the tiger is eating them,” David Axelrod, speaking of the Republican Party, told me. That was in October. His words proved too optimistic. The tiger would devour us all.


“When You Left, You Took All of Me With You”

One Saturday morning last May, I joined the presidential motorcade as it slipped out of the southern gate of the White House. A mostly white crowd had assembled. As the motorcade drove by, people cheered, held up their smartphones to record the procession, and waved American flags. To be within feet of the president seemed like the thrill of their lives. I was astounded. An old euphoria, which I could not immediately place, gathered up in me. And then I remembered, it was what I felt through much of 2008, as I watched Barack Obama’s star shoot across the political sky. I had never seen so many white people cheer on a black man who was neither an athlete nor an entertainer. And it seemed that they loved him for this, and I thought in those days, which now feel so long ago, that they might then love me, too, and love my wife, and love my child, and love us all in the manner that the God they so fervently cited had commanded. I had been raised amid a people who wanted badly to believe in the possibility of a Barack Obama, even as their very lives argued against that possibility. So they would praise Martin Luther King Jr. in one breath and curse the white man, “the Great Deceiver,” in the next. Then came Obama and the Obama family, and they were black and beautiful in all the ways we aspired to be, and all that love was showered upon them. But as Obama’s motorcade approached its destination—Howard University, where he would give the commencement address—the complexion of the crowd darkened, and I understood that the love was specific, that even if it allowed Barack Obama, even if it allowed the luckiest of us, to defy the boundaries, then the masses of us, in cities like this one, would still enjoy no such feat.

These were our fitful, spasmodic years.

We were launched into the Obama era with no notion of what to expect, if only because a black presidency had seemed such a dubious proposition. There was no preparation, because it would have meant preparing for the impossible. There were few assessments of its potential import, because such assessments were regarded as speculative fiction. In retrospect it all makes sense, and one can see a jagged but real political lineage running through black Chicago. It originates in Oscar Stanton De Priest; continues through Congressman William Dawson, who, under Roosevelt, switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party; crescendos with the legendary Harold Washington; rises still with Jesse Jackson’s 1988 victory in Michigan’s Democratic caucuses; rises again with Carol Moseley Braun’s triumph; and reaches its recent apex with the election of Barack Obama. If the lineage is apparent in hindsight, so are the limits of presidential power. For a century after emancipation, quasi-slavery haunted the South. And more than half a century after Brown v. Board of Education , schools throughout much of this country remain segregated.

There are no clean victories for black people, nor, perhaps, for any people. The presidency of Barack Obama is no different. One can now say that an African American individual can rise to the same level as a white individual, and yet also say that the number of black individuals who actually qualify for that status will be small. One thinks of Serena Williams, whose dominance and stunning achievements can’t, in and of themselves, ensure equal access to tennis facilities for young black girls. The gate is open and yet so very far away.

Obama campaigning in central Florida before the unthinkable—Donald Trump’s victory—happened (Ian Allen)

I felt a mix of pride and amazement walking onto Howard’s campus that day. Howard alumni, of which I am one, are an obnoxious fraternity, known for yelling the school chant across city blocks, sneering at other historically black colleges and universities, and condescending to black graduates of predominantly white institutions. I like to think I am more reserved, but I felt an immense satisfaction in being in the library where I had once found my history, and now found myself with the first black president of the United States. It seemed providential that he would give the commencement address here in his last year. The same pride I felt radiated out across the Yard, the large green patch in the main area of the campus where the ceremony would take place. When Obama walked out, the audience exploded, and when the time came for the color guard to present arms, a chant arose: “O-Ba-Ma! O-Ba-Ma! O-Ba-Ma!”

He gave a good speech that day, paying heed to Howard’s rituals, calling out its famous alumni, shouting out the university’s various dormitories, and urging young people to vote. (His usual riff on respectability politics was missing.) But I think he could have stood before that crowd, smiled, and said “Good luck,” and they would have loved him anyway. He was their champion, and this was evident in the smallest of things. The national anthem was played first, but then came the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” As the lyrics rang out over the crowd, the students held up the black-power fist—a symbol of defiance before power. And yet here, in the face of a black man in his last year in power, it scanned not as a protest, but as a salute.

Six months later the awful price of a black presidency would be known to those students, even as the country seemed determined not to acknowledge it. In the days after Donald Trump’s victory, there would be an insistence that something as “simple” as racism could not explain it. As if enslavement had nothing to do with global economics, or as if lynchings said nothing about the idea of women as property. As though the past 400 years could be reduced to the irrational resentment of full lips. No. Racism is never simple. And there was nothing simple about what was coming, or about Obama, the man who had unwittingly summoned this future into being.

It was said that the Americans who’d supported Trump were victims of liberal condescension. The word racist would be dismissed as a profane slur put upon the common man, as opposed to an accurate description of actual men. “We simply don’t yet know how much racism or misogyny motivated Trump voters,” David Brooks would write in The New York Times . “If you were stuck in a jobless town, watching your friends OD on opiates, scrambling every month to pay the electric bill, and then along came a guy who seemed able to fix your problems and hear your voice, maybe you would stomach some ugliness, too.” This strikes me as perfectly logical. Indeed, it could apply just as well to Louis Farrakhan’s appeal to the black poor and working class. But whereas the followers of an Islamophobic white nationalist enjoy the sympathy that must always greet the salt of the earth, the followers of an anti-Semitic black nationalist endure the scorn that must ever greet the children of the enslaved.

Much would be made of blue-collar voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan who’d pulled the lever for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then for Trump in 2016. Surely these voters disproved racism as an explanatory force. It’s still not clear how many individual voters actually flipped. But the underlying presumption—that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could be swapped in for each other—exhibited a problem. Clinton was a candidate who’d won one competitive political race in her life, whose political instincts were questioned by her own advisers, who took more than half a million dollars in speaking fees from an investment bank because it was “what they offered,” who proposed to bring back to the White House a former president dogged by allegations of rape and sexual harassment. Obama was a candidate who’d become only the third black senator in the modern era; who’d twice been elected president, each time flipping red and purple states; who’d run one of the most scandal-free administrations in recent memory. Imagine an African American facsimile of Hillary Clinton: She would never be the nominee of a major political party and likely would not be in national politics at all.

Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.

In the week after the election, I was a mess. I had not seen my wife in two weeks. I was on deadline for this article. My son was struggling in school. The house was in disarray. I played Marvin Gaye endlessly—“When you left, you took all of me with you.” Friends began to darkly recall the ghosts of post-Reconstruction. The election of Donald Trump confirmed everything I knew of my country and none of what I could accept. The idea that America would follow its first black president with Donald Trump accorded with its history. I was shocked at my own shock. I had wanted Obama to be right.

I still want Obama to be right. I still would like to fold myself into the dream. This will not be possible.

By some cosmic coincidence, a week after the election I received a portion of my father’s FBI file. My father had grown up poor in Philadelphia. His father was struck dead on the street. His grandfather was crushed to death in a meatpacking plant. He’d served his country in Vietnam, gotten radicalized there, and joined the Black Panther Party, which brought him to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover. A memo written to the FBI director was “submitted aimed at discrediting WILLIAM PAUL COATES, Acting Captain of the BPP, Baltimore.” The memo proposed that a fake letter be sent to the Panthers’ co-founder Huey P. Newton. The fake letter accused my father of being an informant and concluded, “I want somethin done with this bootlikin facist pig nigger and I want it done now.” The words somethin done need little interpretation. The Panthers were eventually consumed by an internecine war instigated by the FBI, one in which being labeled a police informant was a death sentence.

A few hours after I saw this file, I had my last conversation with the president. I asked him how his optimism was holding up, given Trump’s victory. He confessed to being surprised at the outcome but said that it was tough to “draw a grand theory from it, because there were some very unusual circumstances.” He pointed to both candidates’ high negatives, the media coverage, and a “dispirited” electorate. But he said that his general optimism about the shape of American history remained unchanged. “To be optimistic about the long-term trends of the United States doesn’t mean that everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line,” he said. “It goes forward sometimes, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it zigs and zags.”

I thought of Hoover’s FBI, which harassed three generations of black activists, from Marcus Garvey’s black nationalists to Martin Luther King Jr.’s integrationists to Huey Newton’s Black Panthers, including my father. And I thought of the enormous power accrued to the presidency in the post-9/11 era—the power to obtain American citizens’ phone records en masse, to access their emails, to detain them indefinitely. I asked the president whether it was all worth it. Whether this generation of black activists and their allies should be afraid.

“Keep in mind that the capacity of the NSA, or other surveillance tools, are specifically prohibited from being applied to U.S. citizens or U.S. persons without specific evidence of links to terrorist activity or, you know, other foreign-related activity,” he said. “So, you know, I think this whole story line that somehow Big Brother has massively expanded and now that a new president is in place it’s this loaded gun ready to be used on domestic dissent is just not accurate.”

He counseled vigilance, “because the possibility of abuse by government officials always exists. The issue is not going to be that there are new tools available; the issue is making sure that the incoming administration, like my administration, takes the constraints on how we deal with U.S. citizens and persons seriously.” This answer did not fill me with confidence. The next day, President-Elect Trump offered Lieutenant General Michael Flynn the post of national-security adviser and picked Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as his nominee for attorney general. Last February, Flynn tweeted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL” and linked to a YouTube video that declared followers of Islam want “80 percent of humanity enslaved or exterminated.” Sessions had once been accused of calling a black lawyer “boy,” claiming that a white lawyer who represented black clients was a disgrace to his race, and joking that he thought the Ku Klux Klan “was okay until I found out they smoked pot.” I felt then that I knew what was coming—more Freddie Grays, more Rekia Boyds, more informants and undercover officers sent to infiltrate mosques.

And I also knew that the man who could not countenance such a thing in his America had been responsible for the only time in my life when I felt, as the first lady had once said, proud of my country, and I knew that it was his very lack of countenance, his incredible faith, his improbable trust in his countrymen, that had made that feeling possible. The feeling was that little black boy touching the president’s hair. It was watching Obama on the campaign trail, always expecting the worst and amazed that the worst never happened. It was how I’d felt seeing Barack and Michelle during the inauguration, the car slow-dragging down Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd cheering, and then the two of them rising up out of the limo, rising up from fear, smiling, waving, defying despair, defying history, defying gravity.

Roger Federer as Religious Experience

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.

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The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do. We’ve all got our examples. Here is one. It’s the finals of the 2005 U.S. Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today’s power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner…until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side…and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner — Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands. And there’s that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe with his color man’s headset on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), “How do you hit a winner from that position?” And he’s right: given Agassi’s position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of “The Matrix.” I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.

Anyway, that’s one example of a Federer Moment, and that was merely on TV — and the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.

Journalistically speaking, there is no hot news to offer you about Roger Federer. He is, at 25, the best tennis player currently alive. Maybe the best ever. Bios and profiles abound. “60 Minutes” did a feature on him just last year. Anything you want to know about Mr. Roger N.M.I. Federer — his background, his home town of Basel, Switzerland, his parents’ sane and unexploitative support of his talent, his junior tennis career, his early problems with fragility and temper, his beloved junior coach, how that coach’s accidental death in 2002 both shattered and annealed Federer and helped make him what he now is, Federer’s 39 career singles titles, his eight Grand Slams, his unusually steady and mature commitment to the girlfriend who travels with him (which on the men’s tour is rare) and handles his affairs (which on the men’s tour is unheard of), his old-school stoicism and mental toughness and good sportsmanship and evident overall decency and thoughtfulness and charitable largess — it’s all just a Google search away. Knock yourself out.

This present article is more about a spectator’s experience of Federer, and its context. The specific thesis here is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a “bloody near-religious experience.” It may be tempting, at first, to hear a phrase like this as just one more of the overheated tropes that people resort to to describe the feeling of Federer Moments. But the driver’s phrase turns out to be true — literally, for an instant ecstatically — though it takes some time and serious watching to see this truth emerge.

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.(1)

Credit Rob Tringali/Sports Chrome

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s. You too may find them so, in which case Spain’s mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man’s man for you — he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exhortations. Plus Nadal is also Federer’s nemesis and the big surprise of this year’s Wimbledon, since he’s a clay-court specialist and no one expected him to make it past the first few rounds here. Whereas Federer, through the semifinals, has provided no surprise or competitive drama at all. He’s outplayed each opponent so completely that the TV and print press are worried his matches are dull and can’t compete effectively with the nationalist fervor of the World Cup.(2)

July 9’s men’s final, though, is everyone’s dream. Nadal vs. Federer is a replay of last month’s French Open final, which Nadal won. Federer has so far lost only four matches all year, but they’ve all been to Nadal. Still, most of these matches have been on slow clay, Nadal’s best surface. Grass is Federer’s best. On the other hand, the first week’s heat has baked out some of the Wimbledon courts’ slickness and made them slower. There’s also the fact that Nadal has adjusted his clay-based game to grass — moving in closer to the baseline on his groundstrokes, amping up his serve, overcoming his allergy to the net. He just about disemboweled Agassi in the third round. The networks are in ecstasies. Before the match, on Centre Court, behind the glass slits above the south backstop, as the linesmen are coming out on court in their new Ralph Lauren uniforms that look so much like children’s navalwear, the broadcast commentators can be seen practically bouncing up and down in their chairs. This Wimbledon final’s got the revenge narrative, the king-versus-regicide dynamic, the stark character contrasts. It’s the passionate machismo of southern Europe versus the intricate clinical artistry of the north. Apollo and Dionysus. Scalpel and cleaver. Righty and southpaw. Nos. 1 and 2 in the world. Nadal, the man who’s taken the modern power-baseline game just as far as it goes, versus a man who’s transfigured that modern game, whose precision and variety are as big a deal as his pace and foot-speed, but who may be peculiarly vulnerable to, or psyched out by, that first man. A British sportswriter, exulting with his mates in the press section, says, twice, “It’s going to be a war.”

Plus it’s in the cathedral of Centre Court. And the men’s final is always on the fortnight’s second Sunday, the symbolism of which Wimbledon emphasizes by always omitting play on the first Sunday. And the spattery gale that has knocked over parking signs and everted umbrellas all morning suddenly quits an hour before match time, the sun emerging just as Centre Court’s tarp is rolled back and the net posts driven home.

Federer and Nadal come out to applause, make their ritual bows to the nobles’ box. The Swiss is in the buttermilk-colored sport coat that Nike’s gotten him to wear for Wimbledon this year. On Federer, and perhaps on him alone, it doesn’t look absurd with shorts and sneakers. The Spaniard eschews all warm-up clothing, so you have to look at his muscles right away. He and the Swiss are both in all-Nike, up to the very same kind of tied white Nike hankie with the swoosh positioned above the third eye. Nadal tucks his hair under his hankie, but Federer doesn’t, and smoothing and fussing with the bits of hair that fall over the hankie is the main Federer tic TV viewers get to see; likewise Nadal’s obsessive retreat to the ballboy’s towel between points. There happen to be other tics and habits, though, tiny perks of live viewing. There’s the great care Roger Federer takes to hang the sport coat over his spare courtside chair’s back, just so, to keep it from wrinkling — he’s done this before each match here, and something about it seems childlike and weirdly sweet. Or the way he inevitably changes out his racket sometime in the second set, the new one always in the same clear plastic bag closed with blue tape, which he takes off carefully and always hands to a ballboy to dispose of. There’s Nadal’s habit of constantly picking his long shorts out of his bottom as he bounces the ball before serving, his way of always cutting his eyes warily from side to side as he walks the baseline, like a convict expecting to be shanked. And something odd on the Swiss’s serve, if you look very closely. Holding ball and racket out in front, just before starting the motion, Federer always places the ball precisely in the V-shaped gap of the racket’s throat, just below the head, just for an instant. If the fit isn’t perfect, he adjusts the ball until it is. It happens very fast, but also every time, on both first serves and second.

Nadal and Federer now warm each other up for precisely five minutes; the umpire keeps time. There’s a very definite order and etiquette to these pro warm-ups, which is something that television has decided you’re not interested in seeing. Centre Court holds 13,000 and change. Another several thousand have done what people here do willingly every year, which is to pay a stiff general admission at the gate and then gather, with hampers and mosquito spray, to watch the match on an enormous TV screen outside Court 1. Your guess here is probably as good as anyone’s.

Right before play, up at the net, there’s a ceremonial coin-toss to see who’ll serve first. It’s another Wimbledon ritual. The honorary coin-tosser this year is William Caines, assisted by the umpire and tournament referee. William Caines is a 7-year-old from Kent who contracted liver cancer at age 2 and somehow survived after surgery and horrific chemo. He’s here representing Cancer Research UK. He’s blond and pink-cheeked and comes up to about Federer’s waist. The crowd roars its approval of the re-enacted toss. Federer smiles distantly the whole time. Nadal, just across the net, keeps dancing in place like a boxer, swinging his arms from side to side. I’m not sure whether the U.S. networks show the coin-toss or not, whether this ceremony’s part of their contractual obligation or whether they get to cut to commercial. As William’s ushered off, there’s more cheering, but it’s scattered and disorganized; most of the crowd can’t quite tell what to do. It’s like once the ritual’s over, the reality of why this child was part of it sinks in. There’s a feeling of something important, something both uncomfortable and not, about a child with cancer tossing this dream-final’s coin. The feeling, what-all it might mean, has a tip-of-the-tongue-type quality that remains elusive for at least the first two sets.(3)

A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.

One thing it is not is televisable. At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television’s slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we’re not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what’s lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting. This loss is simple to explain. TV’s priority, during a point, is coverage of the whole court, a comprehensive view, so that viewers can see both players and the overall geometry of the exchange. Television therefore chooses a specular vantage that is overhead and behind one baseline. You, the viewer, are above and looking down from behind the court. This perspective, as any art student will tell you, “foreshortens” the court. Real tennis, after all, is three-dimensional, but a TV screen’s image is only 2-D. The dimension that’s lost (or rather distorted) on the screen is the real court’s length, the 78 feet between baselines; and the speed with which the ball traverses this length is a shot’s pace, which on TV is obscured, and in person is fearsome to behold. That may sound abstract or overblown, in which case by all means go in person to some professional tournament — especially to the outer courts in early rounds, where you can sit 20 feet from the sideline — and sample the difference for yourself. If you’ve watched tennis only on television, you simply have no idea how hard these pros are hitting the ball, how fast the ball is moving,(4) how little time the players have to get to it, and how quickly they’re able to move and rotate and strike and recover. And none are faster, or more deceptively effortless about it, than Roger Federer.

Federer at Wimbledon is meticulous, down to the hang of his blazer. Credit Antoine Couvercelle/DPPI/Icon SMI

Interestingly, what is less obscured in TV coverage is Federer’s intelligence, since this intelligence often manifests as angle. Federer is able to see, or create, gaps and angles for winners that no one else can envision, and television’s perspective is perfect for viewing and reviewing these Federer Moments. What’s harder to appreciate on TV is that these spectacular-looking angles and winners are not coming from nowhere — they’re often set up several shots ahead, and depend as much on Federer’s manipulation of opponents’ positions as they do on the pace or placement of the coup de grâce. And understanding how and why Federer is able to move other world-class athletes around this way requires, in turn, a better technical understanding of the modern power-baseline game than TV — again — is set up to provide.

Wimbledon is strange. Verily it is the game’s Mecca, the cathedral of tennis; but it would be easier to sustain the appropriate level of on-site veneration if the tournament weren’t so intent on reminding you over and over that it’s the cathedral of tennis. There’s a peculiar mix of stodgy self-satisfaction and relentless self-promotion and -branding. It’s a bit like the sort of authority figure whose office wall has every last plaque, diploma, and award he’s ever gotten, and every time you come into the office you’re forced to look at the wall and say something to indicate that you’re impressed. Wimbledon’s own walls, along nearly every significant corridor and passage, are lined with posters and signs featuring shots of past champions, lists of Wimbledon facts and trivia, historic lore, and so on. Some of this stuff is interesting; some is just odd. The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, for instance, has a collection of all the various kinds of rackets used here through the decades, and one of the many signs along the Level 2 passage of the Millennium Building(5) promotes this exhibition with both photos and didactic text, a kind of History of the Racket. Here, sic , is the climactic end of this text:

Today’s lightweight frames made of space-age materials like graphite, boron, titanium and ceramics, with larger heads — mid-size (90-95 square inches) and over-size (110 square inches) — have totally transformed the character of the game. Nowadays it is the powerful hitters who dominate with heavy topspin. Serve-and-volley players and those who rely on subtlety and touch have virtually disappeared.

It seems odd, to say the least, that such a diagnosis continues to hang here so prominently in the fourth year of Federer’s reign over Wimbledon, since the Swiss has brought to men’s tennis degrees of touch and subtlety unseen since (at least) the days of McEnroe’s prime. But the sign’s really just a testament to the power of dogma. For almost two decades, the party line’s been that certain advances in racket technology, conditioning, and weight training have transformed pro tennis from a game of quickness and finesse into one of athleticism and brute power. And as an etiology of today’s power-baseline game, this party line is broadly accurate. Today’s pros truly are measurably bigger, stronger, and better conditioned,(6) and high-tech composite rackets really have increased their capacities for pace and spin. How, then, someone of Federer’s consummate finesse has come to dominate the men’s tour is a source of wide and dogmatic confusion.

There are three kinds of valid explanation for Federer’s ascendancy. One kind involves mystery and metaphysics and is, I think, closest to the real truth. The others are more technical and make for better journalism.

The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan,(7) who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one. There are probably a half-dozen other examples since 1960. And Federer is of this type — a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.

This thing about the ball cooperatively hanging there, slowing down, as if susceptible to the Swiss’s will — there’s real metaphysical truth here. And in the following anecdote. After a July 7 semifinal in which Federer destroyed Jonas Bjorkman — not just beat him, destroyed him — and just before a requisite post-match news conference in which Bjorkman, who’s friendly with Federer, says he was pleased to “have the best seat in the house” to watch the Swiss “play the nearest to perfection you can play tennis,” Federer and Bjorkman are chatting and joking around, and Bjorkman asks him just how unnaturally big the ball was looking to him out there, and Federer confirms that it was “like a bowling ball or basketball.” He means it just as a bantery, modest way to make Bjorkman feel better, to confirm that he’s surprised by how unusually well he played today; but he’s also revealing something about what tennis is like for him. Imagine that you’re a person with preternaturally good reflexes and coordination and speed, and that you’re playing high-level tennis. Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it. That is, you won’t experience anything like the (empirically real) quickness and skill that the live audience, watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur, will attribute to you.(8)

Velocity’s just one part of it. Now we’re getting technical. Tennis is often called a “game of inches,” but the cliché is mostly referring to where a shot lands. In terms of a player’s hitting an incoming ball, tennis is actually more a game of micrometers: vanishingly tiny changes around the moment of impact will have large effects on how and where the ball travels. The same principle explains why even the smallest imprecision in aiming a rifle will still cause a miss if the target’s far enough away.

By way of illustration, let’s slow things way down. Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand — you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively; keeping it perpendicular will produce a flat, spinless drive. Horizontally, adjusting the racket face ever so slightly to the left or right, and hitting the ball maybe a millisecond early or late, will result in a cross-court versus down-the-line return. Further slight changes in the curves of your groundstroke’s motion and follow-through will help determine how high your return passes over the net, which, together with the speed at which you’re swinging (along with certain characteristics of the spin you impart), will affect how deep or shallow in the opponent’s court your return lands, how high it bounces, etc. These are just the broadest distinctions, of course — like, there’s heavy topspin vs. light topspin, or sharply cross-court vs. only slightly cross-court, etc. There are also the issues of how close you’re allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you’re using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight’s moving forward, and whether you’re able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent’s doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you — coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic’s first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it’s 78 feet from Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you.(9) This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.

The upshot is that pro tennis involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action. Temporally, we’re more in the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc.

Besting Jonas Bjorkman, who said he was pleased to “have the best seat in the house.” Credit Antoine Couvercelle/DPPI/Icon SMI

Successfully returning a hard-served tennis ball requires what’s sometimes called “the kinesthetic sense,” meaning the ability to control the body and its artificial extensions through complex and very quick systems of tasks. English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on. For promising junior players, refining the kinesthetic sense is the main goal of the extreme daily practice regimens we often hear about.(10) The training here is both muscular and neurological. Hitting thousands of strokes, day after day, develops the ability to do by “feel” what cannot be done by regular conscious thought. Repetitive practice like this often looks tedious or even cruel to an outsider, but the outsider can’t feel what’s going on inside the player — tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change’s effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness.(11)

The time and discipline required for serious kinesthetic training are one reason why top pros are usually people who’ve devoted most of their waking lives to tennis, starting (at the very latest) in their early teens. It was, for example, at age 13 that Roger Federer finally gave up soccer, and a recognizable childhood, and entered Switzerland’s national tennis training center in Ecublens. At 16, he dropped out of classroom studies and started serious international competition.

It was only weeks after quitting school that Federer won Junior Wimbledon. Obviously, this is something that not every junior who devotes himself to tennis can do. Just as obviously, then, there is more than time and training involved — there is also sheer talent, and degrees of it. Extraordinary kinesthetic ability must be present (and measurable) in a kid just to make the years of practice and training worthwhile…but from there, over time, the cream starts to rise and separate. So one type of technical explanation for Federer’s dominion is that he’s just a bit more kinesthetically talented than the other male pros. Only a little bit, since everyone in the Top 100 is himself kinesthetically gifted — but then, tennis is a game of inches.

This answer is plausible but incomplete. It would probably not have been incomplete in 1980. In 2006, though, it’s fair to ask why this kind of talent still matters so much. Recall what is true about dogma and Wimbledon’s sign. Kinesthetic virtuoso or no, Roger Federer is now dominating the largest, strongest, fittest, best-trained and -coached field of male pros who’ve ever existed, with everyone using a kind of nuclear racket that’s said to have made the finer calibrations of kinesthetic sense irrelevant, like trying to whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert.

According to reliable sources, honorary coin-tosser William Caines’s backstory is that one day, when he was 2½, his mother found a lump in his tummy, and took him to the doctor, and the lump was diagnosed as a malignant liver tumor. At which point one cannot, of course, imagine…a tiny child undergoing chemo, serious chemo, his mother having to watch, carry him home, nurse him, then bring him back to that place for more chemo. How did she answer her child’s question — the big one, the obvious one? And who could answer hers? What could any priest or pastor say that wouldn’t be grotesque?

It’s 2-1 Nadal in the final’s second set, and he’s serving. Federer won the first set at love but then flagged a bit, as he sometimes does, and is quickly down a break. Now, on Nadal’s ad, there’s a 16-stroke point. Nadal is serving a lot faster than he did in Paris, and this one’s down the center. Federer floats a soft forehand high over the net, which he can get away with because Nadal never comes in behind his serve. The Spaniard now hits a characteristically heavy topspin forehand deep to Federer’s backhand; Federer comes back with an even heavier topspin backhand, almost a clay-court shot. It’s unexpected and backs Nadal up, slightly, and his response is a low hard short ball that lands just past the service line’s T on Federer’s forehand side. Against most other opponents, Federer could simply end the point on a ball like this, but one reason Nadal gives him trouble is that he’s faster than the others, can get to stuff they can’t; and so Federer here just hits a flat, medium-hard cross-court forehand, going not for a winner but for a low, shallowly angled ball that forces Nadal up and out to the deuce side, his backhand. Nadal, on the run, backhands it hard down the line to Federer’s backhand; Federer slices it right back down the same line, slow and floaty with backspin, making Nadal come back to the same spot. Nadal slices the ball right back — three shots now all down the same line — and Federer slices the ball back to the same spot yet again, this one even slower and floatier, and Nadal gets planted and hits a big two-hander back down the same line — it’s like Nadal’s camped out now on his deuce side; he’s no longer moving all the way back to the baseline’s center between shots; Federer’s hypnotized him a little. Federer now hits a very hard, deep topspin backhand, the kind that hisses, to a point just slightly on the ad side of Nadal’s baseline, which Nadal gets to and forehands cross-court; and Federer responds with an even harder, heavier cross-court backhand, baseline-deep and moving so fast that Nadal has to hit the forehand off his back foot and then scramble to get back to center as the shot lands maybe two feet short on Federer’s backhand side again. Federer steps to this ball and now hits a totally different cross-court backhand, this one much shorter and sharper-angled, an angle no one would anticipate, and so heavy and blurred with topspin that it lands shallow and just inside the sideline and takes off hard after the bounce, and Nadal can’t move in to cut it off and can’t get to it laterally along the baseline, because of all the angle and topspin — end of point. It’s a spectacular winner, a Federer Moment; but watching it live, you can see that it’s also a winner that Federer started setting up four or even five shots earlier. Everything after that first down-the-line slice was designed by the Swiss to maneuver Nadal and lull him and then disrupt his rhythm and balance and open up that last, unimaginable angle — an angle that would have been impossible without extreme topspin.

Extreme topspin is the hallmark of today’s power-baseline game. This is something that Wimbledon’s sign gets right.(12) Why topspin is so key, though, is not commonly understood. What’s commonly understood is that high-tech composite rackets impart much more pace to the ball, rather like aluminum baseball bats as opposed to good old lumber. But that dogma is false. The truth is that, at the same tensile strength, carbon-based composites are lighter than wood, and this allows modern rackets to be a couple ounces lighter and at least an inch wider across the face than the vintage Kramer and Maxply. It’s the width of the face that’s vital. A wider face means there’s more total string area, which means the sweet spot’s bigger. With a composite racket, you don’t have to meet the ball in the precise geometric center of the strings in order to generate good pace. Nor must you be spot-on to generate topspin, a spin that (recall) requires a tilted face and upwardly curved stroke, brushing over the ball rather than hitting flat through it — this was quite hard to do with wood rackets, because of their smaller face and niggardly sweet spot. Composites’ lighter, wider heads and more generous centers let players swing faster and put way more topspin on the ball…and, in turn, the more topspin you put on the ball, the harder you can hit it, because there’s more margin for error. Topspin causes the ball to pass high over the net, describe a sharp arc, and come down fast into the opponent’s court (instead of maybe soaring out).

So the basic formula here is that composite rackets enable topspin, which in turn enables groundstrokes vastly faster and harder than 20 years ago — it’s common now to see male pros pulled up off the ground and halfway around in the air by the force of their strokes, which in the old days was something one saw only in Jimmy Connors.

A between-the-legs return against Nicolas Kiefer at last year’s U.S. Open. Credit Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Connors was not, by the way, the father of the power-baseline game. He whaled mightily from the baseline, true, but his groundstrokes were flat and spinless and had to pass very low over the net. Nor was Bjorn Borg a true power-baseliner. Both Borg and Connors played specialized versions of the classic baseline game, which had evolved as a counterforce to the even more classic serve-and-volley game, which was itself the dominant form of men’s power tennis for decades, and of which John McEnroe was the greatest modern exponent. You probably know all this, and may also know that McEnroe toppled Borg and then more or less ruled the men’s game until the appearance, around the mid-1980’s, of (a) modern composite rackets(13) and (b) Ivan Lendl, who played with an early form of composite and was the true progenitor of power-baseline tennis.(14)

Ivan Lendl was the first top pro whose strokes and tactics appeared to be designed around the special capacities of the composite racket. His goal was to win points from the baseline, via either passing shots or outright winners. His weapon was his groundstrokes, especially his forehand, which he could hit with overwhelming pace because of the amount of topspin he put on the ball. The blend of pace and topspin also allowed Lendl to do something that proved crucial to the advent of the power-baseline game. He could pull off radical, extraordinary angles on hard-hit groundstrokes, mainly because of the speed with which heavy topspin makes the ball dip and land without going wide. In retrospect, this changed the whole physics of aggressive tennis. For decades, it had been angle that made the serve-and-volley game so lethal. The closer one is to the net, the more of the opponent’s court is open — the classic advantage of volleying was that you could hit angles that would go way wide if attempted from the baseline or midcourt. But topspin on a groundstroke, if it’s really extreme, can bring the ball down fast and shallow enough to exploit many of these same angles. Especially if the groundstroke you’re hitting is off a somewhat short ball — the shorter the ball, the more angles are possible. Pace, topspin, and aggressive baseline angles: and lo, it’s the power-baseline game.

It wasn’t that Ivan Lendl was an immortally great tennis player. He was simply the first top pro to demonstrate what heavy topspin and raw power could achieve from the baseline. And, most important, the achievement was replicable, just like the composite racket. Past a certain threshold of physical talent and training, the main requirements were athleticism, aggression, and superior strength and conditioning. The result (omitting various complications and subspecialties(15)) has been men’s pro tennis for the last 20 years: ever bigger, stronger, fitter players generating unprecedented pace and topspin off the ground, trying to force the short or weak ball that they can put away.

Illustrative stat: When Lleyton Hewitt defeated David Nalbandian in the 2002 Wimbledon men’s final, there was not one single serve-and-volley point.(16)

The generic power-baseline game is not boring — certainly not compared with the two-second points of old-time serve-and-volley or the moon-ball tedium of classic baseline attrition. But it is somewhat static and limited; it is not, as pundits have publicly feared for years, the evolutionary endpoint of tennis. The player who’s shown this to be true is Roger Federer. And he’s shown it from within the modern game.

This within is what’s important here; this is what a purely neural account leaves out. And it is why sexy attributions like touch and subtlety must not be misunderstood. With Federer, it’s not either/or. The Swiss has every bit of Lendl and Agassi’s pace on his groundstrokes, and leaves the ground when he swings, and can out-hit even Nadal from the backcourt.(17) What’s strange and wrong about Wimbledon’s sign, really, is its overall dolorous tone. Subtlety, touch, and finesse are not dead in the power-baseline era. For it is, still, in 2006, very much the power-baseline era: Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner. It’s just that that’s not all he is. There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.

Which sounds very high-flown and nice, of course, but please understand that with this guy it’s not high-flown or abstract. Or nice. In the same emphatic, empirical, dominating way that Lendl drove home his own lesson, Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men’s tennis, and for the first time in years the game’s future is unpredictable. You should have seen, on the grounds’ outside courts, the variegated ballet that was this year’s Junior Wimbledon. Drop volleys and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three shots ahead — all as well as the standard-issue grunts and booming balls. Whether anything like a nascent Federer was here among these juniors can’t be known, of course. Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.

Correction: August 27, 2006

An article in PLAY magazine last Sunday about the tennis player Roger Federer referred incompletely to a point between Federer and Andre Agassi in the 2005 United States Open final and incorrectly described Agassi’s position on the final shot of the point. There was an exchange of groundstrokes in the middle of the point that was not described. And Agassi remained at the baseline on Federer’s winning shot; he did not go to the net.

Too many interactive elements to copy and paste

“I Killed Them All.” The Life Of One Of America’s Bloodiest Hitmen

“Look, Jose,” the cop said to the genial grandfather sitting across the desk. “The fact is, you’re being charged with murder.”

Tim McWhorter, the chief investigator for the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office in rural Alabama, was reaching. He had very little to tie Jose Manuel Martinez — a soft-spoken man with an easy smile who’d spent much of the last few months playing soccer and make-believe with his grandchildren — to the bloody body of a young man found in a nearby hayfield.

But Martinez seemed to make a decision. “You guys have been real respectful to me, and I appreciate that,” he said. “Do you want me to tell you the truth?”

McWhorter nodded.

“Yeah, I killed that son of a bitch.” Martinez’s eyes, which McWhorter had found so friendly moments before, were now black and cold. “He said some bad stuff about my daughter. I stand up for my family. I don’t let anyone talk about my family.”

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McWhorter was still trying to make sense of that when Martinez delivered a much bigger revelation: “I’ve killed over 35 men in my life.”

Martinez, who was born and spent most of his life in California, said that for three decades he had worked as a gun for hire, collecting debts and killing people across the United States. Police say that work was often for Mexican drug cartels, though in a few cases he also killed people just because they pissed him off. Martinez refused to say anything about the drug business, including whom he worked for or with. But he was more than happy to talk about bodies. And about his own prowess in killing. They called him El Mano Negra, he said — the Black Hand.

The dead were young and old, drug dealers and farm laborers, fathers and husbands. But always men. They were scattered across as many as 12 states, but his primary killing ground was Tulare County, a little-populated land of vast green fields and listless, sunblasted farm towns in California’s Central Valley, where Martinez had been born and raised.

“You want to know who killed them all?” he asked at one point. “I killed them all.”

Marion County Sheriff’s Office via FOIA A crime scene in Tulare County, California, where one of Martinez’s victims was found, 2011.

And they deserved it, he said, because in addition to whatever else they’d done, he claimed that many of them had abused women or children.

With a lethal professionalism, Martinez set up a fake traffic stop or a false business front or hired honeypots who lured men to lonely places. Then he killed, often with a bullet to the head. Afterward, he collected his money and slipped back into his quiet, unassuming life, taking his children to Disneyland and on other adventures. “Good parents take their kids camping,” he told police officers.

It was for his family, Martinez said, that he had chosen just days before to leave the safety of a glorious beach on the Sea of Cortez, where he had been enjoying himself with a cold Corona and a beautiful young woman. He had heard that police intended to question one of his beloved granddaughters about the dead body in the hayfield, and he couldn’t bear the thought of it. “My family don’t have to pay for any of the stupid things I done in my life,” he insisted.

His story seemed fantastical, but he urged McWhorter to call around. It turned out that Martinez had been suspected of involvement in plenty of murders, though he had never been charged. After months of investigating on the part of police officers from at least three states; after consulting Martinez’s hand-drawn maps of where he dumped bodies; after marveling that he remembered the number and caliber of each bullet he fired, the angle and repose of each fallen victim — detectives from departments across the country decided it was true.

“Holy crap,” was how McWhorter put it. “We have caught an evil man.”

It was a long time coming. Martinez maintains he was able to go for decades without getting caught because he was “so damn good” at killing, and because so many police officers are “so stupid.”

Police in the Central Valley say they failed to catch Martinez because he is a smart and remorseless sociopath, expertly dispatching victims he had little connection to and leaving behind little in the way of witnesses or evidence. Kavin Brewer, a homicide detective in Kern County, California, calls him “the best I ever heard of, in my 35 years of law enforcement.”

Some in the small California towns where Martinez lived and committed so many of his murders offered an additional explanation: Life is cheap here, and the people Martinez murdered and the communities where they came from, with their transient populations of impoverished, often undocumented farmworkers, didn’t count. Drugs and money pound through this part of California in ceaseless, violent streams, but many towns don’t even have police stations. Patrols, when they do come through, don’t tend to develop deep ties to communities.

That he killed so many for so long suggests a dark truth about law enforcement in the US: Kill the right people — in his case, farmworkers and drug dealers, few of whom had anyone to speak on their behalf — and you just might find there’s no one to stop you.

Cassi Alexandra for BuzzFeed News Jose Martinez


Martinez pleaded guilty to the murder in the Alabama hayfield. He went on to plead guilty to nine other murders in California, for which he was sentenced to multiple life terms. He’s now in a county jail in Ocala, Florida, awaiting trial for the murder of two construction workers whom he conned into thinking he was going to hire them. Florida prosecutors decided it was worth bringing him to trial in Florida, one was quoted saying, because they think they can have him executed. Martinez’s trial is set to start next year, and he expects to be put to death. “It doesn’t scare me,” he said. “I should have been dead a long time ago. I mean, a long time ago.”

Awaiting his day in court, Martinez, who has a round, friendly face and a frequent smile, remains courteous and solicitous. The guards assigned to him in jail say he is a model inmate. He listens to people when they talk, and nods and laughs at all the right moments. Moreover — as many cops have noted with appreciation — he is funny, a witty, wry observer of the world around him.

Sitting in his cell, he writes to his beloved granddaughters and other family members, dispensing advice and showering praise. He has also written his life story, twice. He suggests headlines for this article, including, in one letter over the summer: “True Evil has a face you know and a voice you trust. El Mano Negra.” He also revealed that he has done research on me and my editors, even obtaining a photo of us, which he keeps in his cell.

Cristian Rossel / BuzzFeed News

He reads almost anything he can get his hands on, including crime books and romance novels by Danielle Steel. And he writes love letters, such as a two-page missive to Melania Trump. “I don’t care if I get a federal charge for loving a woman,” he explained. “I’m very, very good to do love letter. I mean real good.”

Occasionally, he appears despairing. “I remember when I was a free man,” he wrote in a recent letter to BuzzFeed News. “I had everything, girls, money, guns drugs, Power, freedom, now i don’t have shit. Only this 8x12 cell where I spend most of my day doing love letters and thinking of all the bad things I done in life.”

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Some of those bad things may only now be coming to light, after BuzzFeed News pored through cold cases in places around the country where Martinez said he killed people, identified those that fit Martinez’s patterns, and then set out to determine if he was the killer. Many of the cases had sat unsolved for years or decades — during which Martinez continued killing, depositing more bodies in more lonely fields. After BuzzFeed News began making inquiries, at least one homicide detective flew in from Oregon to question Martinez in his Florida jail.

Born and raised in a state notorious for its fascination with serial killers, Martinez was, by the numbers, one of the most deadly. His claims put him on par with the Night Stalker, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy — and far above the 12 now attributed to the Golden State Killer, whose recent arrest sparked nationwide headlines.

Yet catching Martinez fell to a small sheriff’s office in Alabama. McWhorter, its chief investigator, had followed his father into law enforcement right after high school and had never lived outside his tiny northwestern corner of the state. His department was so unprepared to investigate a drug-world contract killer that to interview one of their suspects, they had to call in the high school Spanish teacher and football coach to translate for them.

But that tiny department did what dozens of police in more sophisticated and well-funded departments across the country had for so long failed to do: It brought to justice one of the deadliest hit men in modern American history.

Martinez has confessed to more murders in California that have yet to be solved. He claims to have committed additional homicides in 11 other states: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Missouri, Colorado, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Iowa, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.

Jessica Gallagher for BuzzFeed News Tim McWhorter, the former chief investigator for Lawrence County, at the site where Jose Ruiz was killed in Alabama.

But the response to Martinez’s confessions mirrors the response to his crimes: Few seem to care that much. Even now, five years after his stunning admission, he is barely known outside the tiny, dusty towns where he struck terror, leaving families bereft and searching for justice. And law enforcement around the country has made little apparent effort to account for most of the murders he’s bragged about committing. While stories of the gruesome actions of cartel-backed assassins have made headlines across Mexico and in border cities, Martinez’s confessions appear to have sparked little concern about cartel contract killers sowing violence across a wide swath of the United States.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Gene Mitchell, the sheriff of Lawrence County. Martinez, he said, is “saying a lot of stuff that ought to be interesting to law enforcement.” He added: “How many other contract killers could he have given them? He probably knows them.”

Indeed, Martinez told BuzzFeed News: “I know three guys that — shit, one done about 30-something murders.” He gave no details.

After Martinez began confessing, McWhorter said he dutifully reached out to places where Martinez said he left bodies, to try to interest detectives in combing through their cold cases.

He didn’t get a lot of takers, he said. One officer in Seattle, McWhorter recalled, just laughed at him and said, “Yeah, we’ve had 25 murders in the last six months.”

Marion County Sheriff’s Office via FOIA


About halfway down California’s long Central Valley, as the peaks of the Sierra Nevada march upward toward Mount Whitney and the tule fog mixes with hazy smog blown up from Los Angeles, Tulare County feels like a place the 21st century has passed by, and maybe the last half of the 20th, too. Life here in California’s second-poorest county moves with the rhythm of planting and harvest; cellphone coverage is spotty; and most social life is rigidly segregated between rich and poor, white and Latino. South of Visalia, the county seat, a series of sleepy hamlets — Earlimart, Pixley, Richgrove — appear down Highway 99 like scattered remnants of California’s agrarian past.

Martinez was born near here, in Fresno, in 1962, to farmworker parents from Mexico. His choices, like those of the people he would eventually kill, were constricted and warped by the brutal limits of this place and that era.

About 40% of the fruits and nuts grown in the United States are harvested here. These towns, which may have begun as optimistic centers of commerce, with banks and mercantile stores, have faded into isolated, dusty settlements, some barely more than labor camps for migrant workers. There are few stoplights or grocery stories. In 2011, a United Nations investigator visited Tulare County, called it “the poorest” (actually the second-poorest) “county in California,” and singled out the lack of safe drinking water in many communities.

Martinez and his siblings spent part of their childhood in Mexico, near the town of Cosalá, in the remote, misty cool of the Sierra Madre, the mountain range that runs through the states of Sinaloa and Durango. In California he lived in the flat middle of the valley, on a ranch between the towns of Delano and Earlimart. His mother and stepfather managed housing for migrant farmworkers.

The family lived at the center of one of the greatest civil rights struggles of the 20th century: the epic battle to organize farmworkers. César Chávez, who led the struggle, passed through the area frequently. Martinez saw Chávez a few times but wasn’t interested in the movement or in farmwork. “I don’t like to get up at 5 a.m. in the morning and go to the fields,” he said.

Martinez’s stepfather, Pedro Fernandez, helped line up work crews for grape growers, but was also a “businessman,” as his stepson put it; according to family members and newspaper accounts from the 1970s, his business was heroin. Before Martinez was even out of middle school, Fernandez tapped him to run drugs. As a bilingual, American-born teenager, he could move between worlds and below law enforcement’s radar. In the spring of 1976, his stepfather sent Martinez “on the Greyhound bus to Indio to pick a package for him on my graduation day.” That trip was so seminal that Martinez used it in the opening pages of an 84-page autobiography he wrote in the fall of 2014 while awaiting sentencing in California.

“When I pick the package, I told the guy what was in it, He told me it was Heroin. I was a kid. I din’t knew much about it.”

BuzzFeed News

After he returned to the US from Mexico and enrolled in elementary school, “People were making fun of me because I didn’t know how to speak English,” he said in an interview. He was obviously bright, but he dropped out of high school after only a couple of months. “I din’t realize how important education was!” he wrote.

He got a car, which allowed him to move heroin, and also to pick up girls. In 1977 he was 15. “That the year I stole my first wife. I say stole because she got in my car” — a 1969 yellow Ford Galaxie — “and I took off with her.” He added: “I think she like it, because we live together for almost 10 years or more.”

In September 1977, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided the ranch where Martinez lived, seizing $2.5 million worth of drugs and several firearms. His stepfather was sent to Lompoc federal prison, according to Martinez, who said he was washing his car when the agents stormed the place. “That was the first time they put handcuffs on me,” Martinez recalled in a letter. “They also made a mess of my bedroom.”

As for his stepfather and the others arrested that day, Martinez recalled: “A couple years later, they all came out. All happy like nothing had happened.”

“You feel something relax in your heart when you take revenge.”

But around the same time, tragedy struck: Martinez’s sister Cecilia was murdered. Her body was dumped near Bombay Beach at the edge of the Salton Sea, the vast, eerie lake that straddles Imperial and Riverside counties. She had followed a man down there, and now she was dead.

Martinez accompanied his distraught mother to the Riverside County sheriff to make a statement, but said he figured out on his own who her boyfriend and his associates were.

“That was the first three motherfuckers I killed,” he said.

Martinez said he dumped the bodies in unmarked graves. (Riverside County Sheriff’s officials in a statement said they have “an open homicide investigation” into the death of Cecilia Martinez and are “aware of the accusations” that Martinez took revenge on the killers, but have not substantiated them.)

It’s an origin story Martinez has told many detectives since his confession. He even got Los Corceles de Durango, a band whose songs often celebrate the exploits of the drug trade, to perform “El Corrido de Cecilia,” which tells the story of his sister’s death and the rough justice he administered.

“I was a nice man, until they killed my sister,” he said. “And since then, I said, ‘Fuck the rapers. And the child molesters.’ When my father was in the funeral, I told my dad, ‘I’m going to get those motherfuckers.’ He said, ‘Son, let God take care of them.’ I said, ‘Dad, God ain’t gonna do shit.’”

When he killed the people he believed were responsible for his sister’s death, “I feel so proud,” he recalled. “It was, I don’t know, you feel good. You feel something relax in your heart when you take revenge.”

No matter how many murders he cops to, he won’t be giving up the location of those three bodies. Those bones, he said, don’t deserve to be found.

Matt Rota for BuzzFeed News

“Easy money”

On the morning of Oct. 21, 1980, Martinez sat in the passenger seat of a friend’s car outside the home of David Bedolla. Bedolla emerged just before dawn, accompanied by his wife, headed for a grueling day picking grapes for subsistence wages. Martinez and his friend followed Bedolla’s little yellow car as it wound its way in the early morning gloaming down country roads, stopping once to pick up another worker.

Just a few hundred yards before the car reached the long rows of vines where the group would be working, Martinez fired a .22-caliber gun. Two bullets whipped past Bedolla’s wife and into the windshield. Two more hit Bedolla in the head. The car careened off the road and into a vineyard. Bedolla was killed.

Martinez had agreed to the job just hours before, while he was hanging out with a friend and getting high. Suddenly the conversation had turned serious. His friend had said his sister had been raped.

“500 Dollars were handy. Point & Shoot easy money.”

The friend — who, like all accomplices, Martinez refused to name — said his sister was still in Mexico but that the man who raped her was now living in California, in the farm town of Lindsay, with his wife and young son.

Martinez — who was just 18, with his own young son as well as a baby daughter who “made me so happy,” and a young wife — didn’t hesitate.

“I told him, I could help him for five Hundred Dollars,” he recalled. In a letter he added, “I felt anger when I heard the word Abuse. And 500 Dollars were handy. Point & Shoot easy money.”

When, 23 years later, he confessed to the murder, Martinez was matter-of-fact. “He raped a 16-year-old girl,” he said.

Bedolla’s death devastated his wife and clouded the future of their young son, creating a sorrow and emptiness that has yet to heal. “Since that date, we haven’t been happy,” she testified in court in 2015. “I’ve always — I’ve always had that in my mind.”

It had a more positive impact on Martinez.

Matt Rota for BuzzFeed News

“You worth the same dead or alive”

In June 1979 , in a small town deep in the Sierra Madres, about 50 people gathered for a party, held at the home of a man who, like many others in his community, moved back and forth between Mexico and the agricultural communities of central California.

La Cofradía was far from cities, from paved roads. It was a town where people got around on horseback and fended for themselves, and where the drug trade was becoming more central to the economy.

At some point in the night a dispute arose over who was dancing with whom. Pistols came out. Four people were killed. Families vowed revenge.

In September 1982, Martinez was at home in Earlimart when he got a visit from a friend who said that one of those killed was a distant relative of Martinez’s. And he told him that two of those responsible were now in California.

One of the men, Silvestre Ayon, was living in Santa Barbara County — away, so he thought, from people who might recognize him.

On Oct. 1, according to Martinez’s own account, he and three other men set out from Kern County in the Central Valley and drove over the coastal range to Santa Ynez, an agricultural region that would later become famous for its pinot noir.

One of the men Martinez refers to only as “Mr. X.”

Mr. X would soon become a very important figure in Martinez’s life.

Just a few miles down the road from Ronald Reagan’s ranch, Martinez said he found Ayon driving a tractor and opened fire. Police reports say there were at least two shooters.

“Mr. X give me twenty five hundred Dollars,” Martinez wrote in his autobiography. “I really din’t want the money, I wanted to be like the same level he was. I wanted to show him what im capable of doing.”

Mr. X gave Martinez a pager, and he was in business.

“You have two hours to come up with the money.”

Two weeks later the beeper went off. Mr. X was “having a little problem” with a man who owed him $95,000. By midnight, Martinez was in his car, speeding north on Highway 99 through orange orchards past the lights of Fresno that glow yellow through the valley haze.

As morning rose, Martinez found the debtor and brought him to an empty garage. “For me, you worth the same dead or alive,” he said he told him. “I’m still getting paid. You have two hours to come up with the money.”

Martinez drove the cash straight to Mr. X, he said, who gave him $30,000 for his troubles.

This kind of collection, according to both Martinez and police, was the bulk of his business, along with smuggling. In both endeavors, his steady nerves were his best asset. He recalled a time he was pulled over en route to Chicago. The officer said he was going to bring dogs to search his car. Martinez said he smiled and offered to help. Seeing Martinez so at ease, the officer decided to skip the search. If the dogs had come, Martinez said, they would have found 10 kilos of cocaine.

His work brought in a vast amount of cash. But Martinez’s daughter said he “didn’t care about money.” In fact, she said, he tended to give it away as soon as he got it, helping neighbors pay rent, buying things for his family, for his children, for anyone who seemed in need.

If smuggling and collecting paid the bills, murder was what set him apart. “I was so damn good,” he said.

Martinez said he taught himself to be an assassin in part by watching movies. He’s a fan of the Rambo series. “The first thing is not to get nervous,” he said. “And don’t leave evidence. Be patient.”

If the killings weighed on Martinez, he gave little sign of it. During the Ayon shooting, bullets also hit a teenage bystander, a high school student who worked on a ranch each morning before classes. Martinez barely shrugged. “Wrong place to be,” he wrote.

Martinez sometimes combined acts of violence with small gestures of empathy. He shot a man, Domingo Perez, merely for repeatedly parking in Martinez’s mother’s driveway. But Martinez knew the man’s family would need the car, so after the killing, he secretly returned it to their home. After a few days, no one had found Perez’s body, and Martinez said he heard that Perez’s mother “was going crazy” from worry. “I said to myself: Damn, I have a mother too.” So she could get some peace of mind, Martinez retrieved the corpse from where he’d left it, and he moved it to a more visible spot in an orange orchard, where it was soon found.

Marion County Sheriff’s Office via FOIA A crime scene in Kern County, California, where one of Martinez’s victims was found.


Three weeks after the early-morning murder of David Bedolla, the phone rang at the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office with a tip. Homicide detective Ralph Diaz, in his clear, careful handwriting, wrote down the caller’s name: “a subject identifying himself as Jose Martinez.”

The caller offered some remarkably specific guidance about the killing, which he said was revenge for a stabbing during a card game. The caller also said that Bedolla may not have been the intended target. Diaz made a plan to meet the caller for a personal interview. The file does not say whether the meeting took place.

Years later, Martinez confessed to the murder but denied making that call. Still, the name Jose Martinez weaves through this and other case files like a bright thread. His name turns up as a source in one murder. As a figure in the events leading up to another. On several occasions, police thought he could be the killer. Even then, they never charged him with murder.

In September 2009, Martinez killed a man named Joaquin Barragan in Earlimart. Within days, police had learned from the victim’s friends that a person known as El Mano Negra had been looking for him and threatening to kill him. They knew that El Mano Negra was Martinez’s nickname, and that he had an outstanding warrant for a parole violation and possibly another for auto theft. They found a woman who said Martinez had attempted to hire her to lure Barragan to an isolated place.

They arrested Martinez on the parole violation, but, he said, he managed to swallow the SIM card from one of his phones before officers could see his text messages. (Police reports indicate that one officer had the idea to replace it with the SIM card from a police phone, but found that didn’t solve the problem.) They tried to interrogate him but got nowhere. “I asked Martinez if he could explain why everyone in Earlimart believed he was the person who killed Joaquin,” the police report states. “Martinez stated he did not know, and told me everyone in Earlimart is lying.” The interview lasted less than an hour. Martinez did a few months in jail for the parole violation. The murder remained unsolved.

Cristian Rossel / BuzzFeed News

“This city’s got no law”

Walk the sunbaked streets of Richgrove, the farming hamlet where Martinez lived with his family for many years, and it’s not hard to find people who say they knew him.

Some recall him as a dedicated family man who helped his mother take care of her peach-colored house on a windswept cul-de-sac. Some say he was a friendly figure, offering a neighbor a cold soda at the end of a hot day. And some will confide they heard whispers that he was a killer, that he went by the name El Mano Negra.

But it’s hard to find anyone who was surprised that police here didn’t get him.

“This city’s got no law,” explained one man in Richgrove who, like others, did not give permission for his name to be published.

Indeed, in Tulare County, where Martinez committed six of the murders he’s pleaded guilty to, some residents have complained that they need more protection from police.

It’s hard to find anyone who was surprised that police here didn’t get him.

A 2017 report prepared by the county about Earlimart noted that “residents report that the Sheriff’s Department response time is unacceptable and that there is limited Sheriff patrol within the community.” The report added that people “are very concerned with the rise in shootings and drug related violence over the last couple of years.”

In Richgrove, people also complained of long response times, “inconsistent” patrols, and “crimes that go un-responded to.”

Marguerite Melo, a former prosecutor who now works as a civil rights lawyer in Tulare County, suggested that these factors might have contributed to law enforcement’s failure to catch Martinez for so long. “In this county, there is no question that Latinos are treated very differently from white people,” said Melo. “None of those victims mattered to them as much.”

She speculated that “if Mr. Martinez had been killing people with a strong voice in the community, he would have been caught much earlier, because resources would have been dedicated to solving these crimes.”

Scott Logue, until recently Tulare County’s assistant sheriff, strongly rejected that notion.

“We didn’t care if you were any kind of nationality, gender, political beliefs, anything like that,” he said. “Believe me, over the course of years, a lot of detectives were champing at the bit, wanting to prove Jose Manuel was responsible. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into the cases.”

Marion County Sheriff’s Office via FOIA One of the murder scenes in Kern County, California, 2007.

At the same time, the prevalence of the drug trade here, and its attendant violence, sometimes overwhelms police. “We’ve had more than our fair share of cartel crimes,” said Brewer, the Kern County homicide detective, ticking off murders, attempted murders, and then the murder of witnesses who might have testified in the trials of the original crimes. According to the most recent state statistics, Kern County had the second-highest homicide rate among mid-sized or large counties, and Tulare County came in at number seven out of 58 counties.

Though little noticed by the outside world, these small, sleepy towns play a key distribution role in the movement of drugs into the United States, and the transit of guns and money that accompany the trade. In many cases, law enforcement officials said, drugs coming from Mexico bypass Los Angeles or San Diego entirely and arrive in stash houses in the Central Valley before heading to points north and east. Guns, which are harder to buy in Mexico than in the US, flow in the opposite direction.

Not far away, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas that rise up east of Tulare County, officials are also waging a battle over marijuana being grown on public lands — often, officials said, by armed work crews that occasionally shoot one another, pollute national parks, or spark huge wildfires.

The lucrative trade has infiltrated law enforcement. In the last few years the nearby Kern County Sheriff’s Office and Bakersfield Police Department watched in dismay as four officers pleaded guilty to being involved in drug sales or tipping off a drug dealer to an investigation.

The area has also functioned as a kind of farm team for Mexico’s fearsome drug cartels, nurturing a surprising number of people who have gone on to play prominent roles in their lethal drug war.

One young man from Tulare County, José María Guízar Valencia, crossed the border to Mexico and became a high-ranking member of the vicious Los Zetas, a cartel notorious for its bloody tactics and its habit of dumping murder victims in acid or publicly displaying bodies hanging from bridges. (Guízar Valencia was arrested in Mexico City in February.)

And investigators, according to an indictment unsealed in 2014, heard suspects in another part of the Central Valley talking about “partying with El Mayo Zambada,” otherwise known as Ismael Zambada García, one of the most powerful leaders of the Sinaloa cartel.

As officers patrolled the flatlands of Tulare and Kern counties, some heard the gossip that El Mano Negra was a contract killer. But there was so much other crime. So much other violence. Witnesses, when there were any, had a way of turning frightened and forgetful. “There’s no corroborating witnesses. There’s no physical evidence,” said Logue, the retired head of violent crimes for Tulare County. Barring a confession, there was little they could do, and Martinez was “a good liar” and “a sociopath,” he said. “You can know someone did something, but until someone can prove it…” He paused. “We have to work within a framework set forth by the law. You can only do what you can do.”

Martinez, he said, just “got away with it.”

Henry Goldman / BuzzFeed News

“Deception is indicated”

And yet, sometimes it was almost as if Martinez were daring the Tulare sheriffs to catch him.

In March 2010, after he was released from prison on his parole violation, one of the first places he went was the violent crimes division of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office.

Martinez said he wanted his Chevy Suburban back. Sheriff’s officials had seized it when they questioned him about Barragan’s murder. He offered to talk to them again about what he knew.

This time, Martinez went so far as to suggest to police that he was a collector for a drug cartel, which he said was based in Guadalajara. He also told police, according to their report, “Barragan was not murdered because he owed money, but because Barragan was a rat.”

Detective Cesar Fernandez decided to seize the moment. He asked Martinez if he would be willing to submit to a lie detector test on the question of who killed Barragan. Lie detector results are generally not admissible in court in California, but police often use them while conducting investigations. Martinez agreed to the test.

He was asked several questions about the murder, including whether he knew who did it.

The examiner found that “deception was indicated” when Martinez said he did not know who murdered Barragan.

The examiner asked to do a second test, which would be focused more on whether Martinez had carried out the killing.

“Did you murder Joaquin?”

Martinez answered no.

The results: “Deception was indicated.”

A second investigator did his own analysis of the results. He agreed: Martinez was lying when he said he didn’t commit the murder.

And yet, he was never charged.

Asked why they had not taken more action, a spokesperson for the department said officials “don’t move forward until the case is thoroughly investigated,” explaining that “once an arrest is made the case becomes time sensitive as the suspect has a right to an arraignment within 48 hours.”

“We ethically can’t charge anyone in California that we don’t feel we can prove guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Assistant District Attorney David Alavezos, the prosecutor on the cases Martinez pleaded to. And he disputed the idea that law enforcement doesn’t care about these communities, noting that the county recently doubled the number of prosecutors in the area.

One of Barragan’s relatives gave the sheriff’s office credit for working the case hard. But still, he said, “They let him go, and he still killed more people.”

“Everybody knew,” he added. “Everybody is scared.”

Marion County Sheriff’s Office via FOIA A crime scene where another of Martinez’s victims was found in Kern County, California.


The Florida job had gone off without a hitch — or so Martinez thought.

Javier Huerta, a masonry contractor with an apparent side business in cocaine, had been accused of stealing 10 kilos from another drug distributor.

Martinez, hired to collect the debt, flew into town in November 2006 and discovered his target was 20 years old. “‘Damn,’ I said, ‘this punk stole 10 kilos?’”

Martinez watched Huerta for a few days, passing up one opportunity to grab him because the man’s child was present. As he recalled telling Huerta: “Your little girl has nothing to do with the stupid things you do in your life.”

So he posed as a homeowner in need of masonry work. When Huerta showed up to bid on the job, Martinez kidnapped him and forced him to hand over approximately $200,000 in cash, $150,000 of which had been buried in his backyard.

Then Martinez shot him four times. He put another four bullets into one of his coworkers. Their bodies, wrists bound with zip ties, were left to rot in a Nissan truck parked on a swampy stretch of road at the edge of the Ocala National Forest.

Police figured out fairly quickly that they were dealing with a drug hit. They heard about the stolen cocaine and the money. But they got nowhere on who had ordered the hit and who had carried it out.

Martinez headed to his daughter’s house in Alabama. By chance, it was his granddaughter’s birthday. “I told her, get in the car,” he recalled, and they drove to the nearest Toys ‘R’ Us, where he said she could get everything she could put her hands on during their visit.

“You don’t want to know how much I spent on the Toys ‘R’ Us store,” Martinez recalled proudly.

Back in Florida, detectives inspecting Huerta’s truck found a Mountain Dew can in the center console. They emptied it and found a cigarette butt, which they bagged and tagged into evidence and sent off to the crime lab for testing.

It should have hit. Thanks to his arrests on drug charges, Martinez’s fingerprints should have been on file, along with his DNA. But for some reason, the results of the DNA swab never came back to the sheriff’s office. And, overwhelmed with mountains of evidence that all seemed to be leading them nowhere, no one seems to have noticed. For six years.

At 5 p.m. on Oct. 9, 2012, detectives in the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in Ocala, Florida, earning overtime to reexamine cold cases, grabbed a thick case file labeled “Huerta,” sat down, and began to read.

They soon came across something startling: Some of the evidence, including the cigarette butt, had not been fully analyzed.

So they asked the crime lab at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to run the search.

In the intervening years, Martinez had killed at least four — and as many as six — more people. And he wasn’t done yet.

Matt Rota for BuzzFeed News

The final murder

Unaware of what was happening in Florida, Martinez arrived in Alabama in the winter of 2013 for an extended visit with his daughter and granddaughters.

He’d pick up his granddaughters from school and play with them for hours. He let them dress him up like a Disney princess and subject him to a game of “spa day,” which ended when he gobbled up the avocado facial as the girls howled with laughter. When one was sick, he kept vigil at her bedside all night.

And he threw himself into helping his daughter, who was divorced and working on building her own roofing business. She’d find him up on ladders, trying to hammer at roof tiles. She chased him down, explaining that her insurance didn’t cover him.

Eventually he found an opportunity to contribute. Jose Ruiz, a friend of her then-boyfriend’s, had a debt to collect for his business. Martinez figured he could lend his expertise, and in the process get Ruiz to tell him a little bit more about the man his daughter was dating.

Instead, Ruiz, according to police and Martinez, made a fateful mistake. Not knowing who Martinez was, or, more crucially, who his daughter was, Ruiz described his friend’s girlfriend as a bitch and a slut and a terrible mother.

Martinez was enraged. Ruiz, he decided, would have to die. But he said nothing at the time. He knew that he and Ruiz had been seen together. Ruiz’s DNA was all over the car Martinez was driving. Revenge would have to wait.

So he went home to California to be with his mother. As the winter sky hung low over the fields, parched after years of drought, his anger over Ruiz’s comments festered.

Marion County Sheriff’s Office via FOIA A cigarette butt with Martinez’s DNA was found in a Mountain Dew can.

Evidence Item 28

On Feb. 27, 2013 , Detective T.J. Watts, of Marion County, Florida — six years late — finally got the crime lab report on the forgotten cigarette butt.

It revealed that Evidence Item 28, a cigarette butt from a Mountain Dew can, had hit a match against a man once held in prison in California: Jose Manuel Martinez, of Richgrove, California.

The victim had frequently driven workers and clients to job sites. The cigarette butt could belong to any one of those people. There was no reason to assume that one DNA match would solve the case — much less that the suspect was a serial murderer and that acting quickly could save other lives.

“Drive, and keep your mouth shut.”

Martinez returned to Alabama from California, and on March 4, 2013, five days after detectives over in Florida received the lab report on Evidence Item 28, he found a pretext to go for a ride with Ruiz and his daughter’s boyfriend, Jaime Romero.

At Martinez’s direction, they drove south and west, through ever-smaller towns that petered out into fields of hay and then eventually dissolved into the Bankhead National Forest of dense, old-growth trees cloaking mossy green canyons and sparkling waterfalls. When they stopped next to a hayfield to stretch their legs, Martinez pulled out a gun.

The woman you bad-mouthed “is my daughter, you stupid son of a bitch,” Martinez said. He fired his gun, shooting Ruiz twice in the head.

Martinez watched Ruiz’s body crumple to the ground. He got back in the car and glared at the startled Romero.

“Drive,” he said, “and keep your mouth shut.”

In the remote field where Martinez shot him, Jose Ruiz’s body might not have been discovered for a long time. But as it happened, nearby hunters heard the shots and came upon it in less than an hour. Tim McWhorter, the Lawrence County Sheriff’s chief investigator, arrived at the scene and looked down at the lifeless body.

Matt Rota for BuzzFeed News

Police let him go

Martinez was back in California, at the Earlimart home where his sons lived, when local police showed up at his door on April 16. With the murder he had committed in Alabama fresh in his mind, Martinez took one look at them and bolted out the back.

Tulare County Sheriff’s Deputy Christal Derington gave chase. But Martinez had run for nothing. Derington didn’t know anything about the Alabama killing. She was part of a task force investigating a series of violent, drug-related robberies, one of which involved an allegation of attempted sexual assault.

Henry Goldman / BuzzFeed News Christal Derington

Martinez was not a suspect, but he was a felon in possession of ammunition. As cops were cuffing him, a colleague whispered to Derington that he was El Mano Negra, the man who was rumored to be a hired assassin, the man who had been suspected of involvement in at least four local murders.

This man? With his pleasant air and wry humor?

During the drive to the station, Derington told Martinez about the string of stash-house robberies. Hearing the part about a young woman threatened with gang rape, Martinez appeared almost on the verge of tears. He told her he couldn’t bear the idea of men hurting women.

Derington said she was not naive. She knew the man in the back of her car was a criminal, likely a violent, manipulative one. She knew he was working some kind of angle, although she didn’t know what it was. But he was also fascinating to talk to.

Authorities could have locked Martinez up for the ammunition they found, but they let him walk free with a promise that he would help them.

“Clue number one”

On Thursday, April 25, 2013 , Detective Watts, on the cold-case beat in Florida, reached the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Martinez was not a prime suspect in the murder Watts was investigating. He was just curious about why a cigarette butt with the DNA of a California man had been all the way in Florida.

The phone call changed things.

Brewer, a longtime homicide detective in the department, told Watts about Martinez’s history, including, according to Watts’s report, that he had “been involved in approximately five homicide cases in their area.” Some involved zip ties, just as Watts’s Florida murders had.

Doug Engle / Ocala Star Banner Officer TJ Watts

“That gave me clue number one, that I may have my man,” Watts said. “It was far-fetched, but I was starting to think, This guy could be one of those cartel guys.

But it also left Watts with questions. What had Martinez been doing in Florida? And why on earth were Tulare officials enlisting Martinez’s help to solve lesser crimes instead of building a murder case against him?

“I was more than shocked by it,” Watts said. “I said, ‘Man, this guy ain’t no informant — he’s a killer.’”

Figuring Tulare and Kern officials would keep him in their sights, Watts flagged Martinez as a person of interest and went back to trying to find other leads.

In May, Martinez got antsy. He drove to Bakersfield, dumped his car, picked up another one that couldn’t be traced back to him, and drove 300 miles to the border.

He was in Mexico, a country that rarely extradites people accused of murder to the United States, particularly if there is a chance they will face life in prison or death. Martinez had escaped.

Jessica Gallagher for BuzzFeed News A memorial where the body of Jose Ruiz was found in Lawrence County, Alabama.

“I was trembling, waiting to talk to that guy”

Standing in the dirt , staring at Ruiz’s corpse in the Alabama hayfield, Detective McWhorter noticed the dead man’s face and said: “I know that guy.”

One of his colleagues shook his head. McWhorter had to be mistaken, his colleague said, because all Mexicans look the same.

But McWhorter did know Ruiz. He had hired him to put a new roof on his home. McWhorter, who had spent his whole life in these parts, knew a lot of people in the area. From Moulton, the county seat, he had spent part of his childhood in nearby Hartselle and then, after high school, moved straight back to Moulton, where he followed his father into the sheriff’s office. He started at age 19 as a jailer, then worked as a school resource officer and patrol officer, and finally as an investigator. Along the way, he had four boys.

“I said, ‘Man, this guy ain’t no informant — he’s a killer.’”

He didn’t make much money — even with nearly two decades on the force his salary was only around $50,000 a year. To generate extra income, he has a side business building cabinets. Sometimes, his day job, with its constant exposure to the worst instincts of humanity, made him so cynical that he would sit in church, look at his fellow parishioners, and wonder what evil things they had done. Still, whenever other departments tried to lure him for better-paying jobs in bigger places, he turned them down. He was proud of his department: During the seven years he was chief investigator of the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, he said, there had never been a killing that he and his team couldn’t solve. What’s more: “This is home,” he said. “You know the people here.”

McWhorter recalled Ruiz as a nice guy. Who would want to kill him?

Clues fell into place very quickly. But they did not point to Martinez.

Next to Ruiz’s body, officers found a Walmart receipt. One of the store’s many surveillance cameras led them to images of Romero, Ruiz’s friend, the one who was dating Martinez’s daughter.

They found Ruiz’s truck in a parking lot in Decatur, and they found more surveillance camera footage showing a truck pulling up next to Ruiz’s not long before the murder. They ran the license plate. It came back registered to Romero.

“Jaime’s the guy that done this,” McWhorter recalled thinking.

On the afternoon of March 11, 2013, McWhorter and his team traced Romero to Martinez’s daughter’s house and banged on the door.

Martinez’s daughter, who has her dad’s warm brown eyes and quick wit — and who asked that her name not be used in this article — told BuzzFeed News she had no idea her father was a contract killer, but she did know he was a criminal. She knew he had smuggled people across the US–Mexico border. He had even tried to get her to join the United States Border Patrol, the better to help his business.

In her own life, she was determined to walk a very different path. She had always followed the rules, even when it seemed like those rules were set up to keep people like her extended family of farmworkers down. After high school, she got as far away from home as possible. She enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany before settling in Alabama. She and her husband live on a country lane that affords vistas of giant white clouds and rolling fields, and are raising a family that now includes six children whom they shuttle to school and soccer games and gather around the kitchen table each night for dinner and homework.

And yet, she adored her dad. When the Army gave her a choice of jobs, she picked mechanic, because her dad was great with cars and she thought it would make him proud. When he came to visit, she dropped everything to make his time with her special.

His long visit in 2013, when he had so doted on his grandchildren, had exceeded all her expectations. She had begun to entertain hopes for a future in which her dad gave up his criminal activities and lived with her for at least part of every year, a steady, loving presence in her children’s lives in the way he had not always been in her own.

But now, a phalanx of cops was standing on her doorstep. And they were hauling off her boyfriend, Romero, who was wanted for murder.

Her father tried to help. Full of affable humility, Martinez went down to the police station, presented himself as just a loving father visiting his daughter from California, and swore that Romero had been with him at the time of the murder.

McWhorter recalled being taken in, as so many cops had been before, by Martinez’s “aw-shucks kind of guy” persona.

But as they were wrapping up their conversation, McWhorter, perhaps fishing for a regional compliment, asked Martinez whether he found people in Alabama to be more courteous than folks in California.

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Martinez answered that for the most part he did, but he had recently had “a bad encounter.” Dropping one of his granddaughters at school, he had been so focused on waving goodbye that he had bumped into another parent, who refused his apology and told him to “watch where the hell you’re going.”

McWhorter vividly remembered what Martinez said next: “I looked at her and said, ‘Bitch, get out of my way.’”

“You could see the anger,” McWhorter marveled. “It was like you flipped a switch.”

The alibi Martinez offered for Romero didn’t work. A month after his arrest, Romero, with murder charges still hanging over him, requested to speak to McWhorter. In person.

Romero didn’t speak English, and the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office didn’t have anyone who spoke Spanish. So McWhorter called in the high school football coach and Spanish teacher.

“I want to tell you the whole story,” Romero said. He wasn’t the killer. It was the man who had come to vouch for him. His girlfriend’s father. Jose Martinez.

Remembering his brief glimpse of Martinez’s fury, McWhorter believed he could be the killer. “But I was thinking, OK, maybe Romero put him up to it .” McWhorter called Tulare officials and said he learned that Martinez had a criminal record for drugs and had been a person of interest in a shooting. Soon after that call, McWhorter learned Martinez had left the state and was probably in Mexico. Which was only the most obvious of the many obstacles McWhorter faced.

“We knew as far as a conviction, we were lacking a whole lot,” he said.

Still, McWhorter decided to try. “I said, ‘This is all we’ve got, this is where we’re at, and I think we owe it to the victim’s family to try. If it fails, we’re going to fail trying.’”

“If you let it go like some people might,” added McWhorter’s then-boss, Sheriff Mitchell, “you let a murderer walk off totally free, just because you didn’t want to get embarrassed a little bit in court by having a weak witness.”

McWhorter got his warrant. And very shortly thereafter, he got his man.

On Friday, May 17, Martinez walked back into the United States on the pedestrian-bridge border crossing from San Luis Río Colorado in the Mexican state of Sonora. A routine records check revealed the newly filed warrant.

“They told me I had a warrant for murder,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘Warrant from where?’”

Martinez was packed off to jail in Yuma, Arizona, to await transfer to Alabama.

Jessica Gallagher for BuzzFeed News Tim McWhorter in his office in Lawrence County, Alabama.

A killer confesses

McWhorter got the call and together with another investigator flew down to Arizona to collect Martinez. On the plane home, they deliberately avoided asking him anything about the crime, instead chatting with him about life, the military, and the surprising deliciousness of the pizza they shared during a refueling stop in Lubbock, Texas. McWhorter was surprised by how unconcerned Martinez seemed to be about the fact that he had been arrested on murder charges.

When McWhorter and Martinez arrived at the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, Detective Watts from Florida, who had been alerted to Martinez’s arrest, was already there, eager to talk to him.

McWhorter told Watts he had to wait.

“No hard feelings, buddy, but you got DNA. We need a confession,” he said he told him, before practically shutting the door of the interview room in Watts’s face.

“I was trembling,” Watts said, “waiting to talk to that guy.”

“No hard feelings, buddy, but you got DNA. We need a confession.”

Neither detective expected Martinez to confess. McWhorter said he thought Martinez would tell him to “pound sand” and then sit in jail for a while and maybe slip up on a recorded line on the prison phone system. Best-case scenario, McWhorter said, was that Martinez might admit to being at the murder scene, but try to pin it all on Romero.

Instead, Martinez confessed almost immediately to killing Ruiz.

After McWhorter let Watts have a go, Martinez made a confession in the Florida murder, too, giving detailed descriptions of the crime scene and the number of bullets used and telling him: “If I didn’t do the job, someone would have.”

He told Watts that he was confessing because he had decided the time had come to pay for what he had done.

He said there were some things in California that he wanted to get off his chest as well. He asked McWhorter to call Derington, the sheriff’s deputy from Tulare County.

When she walked into the interview room, Martinez smiled warmly and inquired politely about her journey. Then he got right to the point: He was a contract killer.

The Tulare County victims came so fast, Derington could hardly keep track. Sitting across from Martinez, she frantically texted her bosses back in Visalia with names, dates, and descriptions of roads, orchards, and ditches where Martinez said he had left bodies.

Brewer, the Kern County homicide detective, flew out next. The confessions he took home from that meeting allowed him to close two murder cases. In the process, he fell in love with northwestern Alabama and said he’d considered retiring there.

Some police were skeptical. Maybe Martinez knew about such crimes, but could he really have committed them all? But in case after case — even some that were 30 years in the past — he mentioned details that only the killer could know. Police were stunned by the quality of his memory.

“The place, the kind of car he was driving, the caliber of bullets. Even the shell casings. ‘You found this many shell casings at the scene,’” McWhorter recalled him saying.

Police would step out of the room and shake their heads in wonder, McWhorter said, telling each other: “Man, that is spot-on.”

Martinez didn’t know much about the lives of the people he had killed, how many children they had, what their jobs were. But he was sure — though he couldn’t offer proof — that they had hurt women or children, so he had no doubt they deserved what they got.

“He told me he had never killed a good person,” recalled McWhorter.

About the people he was working for or with, however, he wouldn’t say a word.

“You had to do everything with Jose on his terms,” McWhorter said. He told other investigators, “Don’t come in and try to bulldog him. Don’t try to act like a cop.” The goal was to keep Martinez talking.

Martinez recalled that FBI agents came from Washington, DC, to interview him — but mostly seemed interested in whether he knew where to find Joaquín Guzmán Loera, more commonly known as El Chapo, the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel. Guzmán was captured in 2016 after a gun battle ended one of the most far-reaching manhunts in Mexican history.

Martinez said he told the FBI to “have a nice trip” home, adding that murder was not a federal crime (though the department does have jurisdiction in cases like Martinez’s) and he wasn’t going to tell them anything.

Another topic that Martinez did not like, some officers said, was guilt.

Logue, from Tulare County, told Martinez toward the end of one interview session that he wanted to know “why you did what you did, how you feel about it, the psychology of it.”

“Do you have remorse for what you did?” he asked.

Martinez leaned forward. “What does that mean?”

“Are you sorry?” Logue asked.

Martinez nodded like a student who knew the right answer. “Yes. Yesterday the priest came and talked to me.”

“How about before the priest came — were you sorry?”

“No,” he shot back, staring straight at Logue’s face. “I hated those guys. For example, when they molested a little girl, the little girl going to have that on her mind, the rest of her life, every time she sees a man.”

Tulare County Jose Martinez in a confession video.

“Why? Why? Why?”

From his jail cell in Florida, Martinez writes his granddaughters and other members of his family long, loving letters full of advice that could be issued from any church pulpit or parenting book, stressing the importance of being kind and considerate.

Meanwhile, Martinez’s family, the families of his victims, and the police officers who finally brought him to account for at least some of his crimes struggle to make sense of his actions.

His daughter, who left California with her mother and brothers when her parents split up, grew up thinking her father was a mechanic. She would see him “greasy from fixing cars” with a giant smile and brimming with love.

After the murder of Ruiz, she said, “it set in that he could kill someone. It felt unreal.” She and her children visited him in jail in Alabama and now video chat with him in his Florida jail, and what they see “is their funny, loving, storytelling, caring grandfather,” she said, “not a serial killer. And that is what I see also. A loving father.”

“He confessed because he was tired of it. Tired of hiding and tired of always watching behind his shoulder.”

She said she can’t bring herself to dig into the publicly available information about his killings, but she believes they were part of a twisted pursuit of justice, a vigilante action against bad people who were hurting others and getting away with it.

As for his confession, she is sure that it was a gesture toward redemption.

“He confessed because he was tired of it,” she said. “Tired of hiding and tired of always watching behind his shoulder. Finally being able to breathe, and not necessarily be free, but be free of all that in his head.”

She is convinced that her father’s extended visit with her in Alabama, the one that culminated in the murder of Ruiz, had a profound effect on him. “It was the first time he really felt surrounded by the love of a family, and it changed him.”

The family members of Martinez’s victims, meanwhile, continue to reel. Years and even decades later, they remain shadowed by loss and fear.

“We are not the same people we were before,” the mother of one Martinez victim told a judge in 2015. “My husband became a very bitter person. We stopped celebrating our birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s, for a while. Nothing was the same anymore. Then we would have a normal gathering. We would start out okay, but end up crying for him, because we miss him dearly.”

Another young woman, who was a child when Martinez murdered her father but who did not want her name used because she is still frightened of Martinez and his associates, said she used to write her father a letter every night for years after he died, desperate to hold onto him and keep his memory alive.

The family struggled not only with suffocating grief, but also with financial hardship. They lost their house and had trouble keeping food on the table.

Finances are better now, but the empty space remains. Recently, she said, her young daughter asked her if she had a grandpa like her friends, and she felt the grief rear up.

Terror continues to consume her. She is obsessed with stories of serial murderers and afraid to stay at home by herself. At any mention of the crime, she falls into a spiral of fear and despair.

“My dad is dead,” she said. “Why? Why? Why?”

Matt Rota for BuzzFeed News


In the five years since Martinez began confessing, authorities have used the information to close a number of old murder cases. He’s pleaded guilty to nine murders in California and one in Alabama. The two in Florida he is facing trial on bring the total to 12.

The various police agencies celebrated these accomplishments with press releases touting their diligent work and the closure brought to families.

Those 12 killings are not, however, even half of the total number Martinez has claimed to have carried out.

Martinez told at least three different agencies that he had murdered more than 30 people. At one point, he showed officers in Alabama a piece of paper — which McWhorter kept — on which he had listed, in his careful handwriting, the names of 12 states, accounting for a total of about three dozen victims. He told BuzzFeed News the figure was 36.

That means, police acknowledge, there are many families still waiting and wondering what happened to their sons or fathers. So BuzzFeed News attempted to do what many police officers around the country didn’t when news of his confessions broke: reexamine cold cases.

Some of the places where Martinez said he killed people are big cities, such as Seattle and St. Louis, where there are so many unsolved murders from the 1980s and ’90s that it would be difficult to try to identify cases that fit Martinez’s MO.

But Martinez also said he killed men in smaller, less populated jurisdictions, such as Salem, Oregon, and Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1985; Walla Walla, Washington, in 1986; and Waterloo, Iowa, in 1988. Though he gave no details beyond place and approximate year, BuzzFeed News went searching for open, unsolved cold cases from that period, looking for any that fit Martinez’s pattern — male bodies of Latino origin, left in isolated fields, stabbed or shot.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in October 1986, according to a story that year in the Salem Statesman Journal, 15-year-old Jeromy Landauer, out for a day of fishing near Horseshoe Lake, instead “found a corpse.”

The paper reported that the “odor of decomposing flesh wafted from among the brush and trees.” Jeromy ran to his friend, looking “white as a ghost,” then called police.

The medical examiner determined that the body was male, likely of Latino descent and in his thirties. He had been tied up, and was therefore probably a victim of murder, and had likely been killed elsewhere and then “just dumped.” Police also noted that the victim had several distinctive tattoos, including of a scorpion. A sidebar story, which included an interview with a tattoo artist, speculated — without much explanation — that the tattoos had been inked either in prison or in Mexico.

The story also noted that Detective Ralph Nicholson, an 18-year veteran officer, was stumped. “Not many murderers have left him with such a cold trail,” the story said.

And that was that. Several more short stories over the years noted that the killer was still at large and police, apparently, still stumped.

Outside Twin Falls, Idaho, in the town of Buhl, a pair of teenage Boy Scouts in the spring of 1985 came upon what they initially thought was a cow skeleton. It turned out to be the skeleton of someone police later said had likely been stabbed to death. Authorities determined the victim was likely male and Mexican or Mexican American. After talking to local farmers, they concluded the body may have been dumped there in the summer of 1984.

“Do they have any reward on those cases? We can be partners on the reward, Crime Pays. You know what I mean.”

Police got a welter of confusing tips. Among them: that the crime involved farmworkers, that it involved the Mexican Mafia, that the motive was to avenge a rape, that the motive was to punish someone who had stolen cocaine, and that it had all stemmed from a fight at a labor camp. The case went cold.

Both the Oregon murder at Horseshoe Lake and the Idaho cold case matched details that Martinez described in one of his autobiographies. When asked about the murders last year, Martinez wrote: “Do either of those ring any bells? Yes. Do they have any reward on those cases? We can be partners on the reward, Crime Pays. You know what I mean.”

Later, in a telephone interview, Martinez said he is responsible for the Idaho killing. “For drug debt, something like that.” He didn’t remember the name, but said it might have been 1984 or 1985, maybe in the spring.

And the body at Oregon’s Horseshoe Lake? “Shot him,” Martinez said. “A couple of times” with a 9-millimeter. “My favorite gun.”

He also added that he had said as much to Oregon Detective Mike Myers from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, who came to visit him in Florida in late February or early March — three decades after the killing at Horseshoe Lake, but only shortly after BuzzFeed News began asking the department about it. Myers, Martinez said, arrived with a sheaf of papers and a lot of questions.

Myers declined to comment. Nicholson, the original detective on the case, did not respond to phone messages. Jeromy Landauer, the 15-year-old who found the body, could not be reached. In an email, the sheriff’s office’s public information officer wrote: “I am sorry I am still unable to provide any information regarding this case.”

In a phone interview, Martinez added a chilling coda: The man he murdered in Oregon, he said, “was a mistake.” A “random guy.” It was the second time that had happened, he said.

There are plenty more potential leads.

Martinez said he left three bodies in Tulare County. He wouldn’t give their names or many details, but he drew a rough map.

Officials obtained an excavator and visited the site with a cadaver dog on loan from Los Angeles County. The dogs picked up a scent, not where Martinez had directed them, he said, but in a different spot. That’s where officials dug. They found nothing.

Martinez insists the bodies are still there, and, in one letter, promised to reveal their exact location soon. “Be ready to travel to Richgrove,” he wrote me. “Don’t forget a shovel and a camera crew.” He added, unbidden, that he would not be shelling out for funeral expenses.

Cristian Rossel / BuzzFeed News

“They were so close to me”

Martinez has another way of passing the time in prison: He pores over police reports of his killings, analyzing all the ways the cops slipped up.

The officers in Tulare are the ones he knows best. Over the years, they arrested him repeatedly for lesser crimes, questioned him about murders, searched his cars, seized his guns, and talked to his family members. But they never nailed him.

“I always said, and always will say, Tulare County sheriffs are so stupid,” he wrote in a letter.

The agency that did the best job, he said, was the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. After he murdered Ayon in Santa Ynez in 1982, he said, “they were fucking — they were so close to me.”

Indeed, the case file on that murder stretches over a decade. Officers on that case included Bruce Correll, who later advised the best-selling mystery novelist Sue Grafton as she sent her character, private eye Kinsey Millhone, tromping across “Santa Teresa” to solve crimes. Officers visited multiple counties, including Fresno, Del Norte, and Martinez’s home turf of Tulare. They searched a home in Los Angeles County and found wads of cash; “receipts for Rolex wristwatches”; “many pairs of expensive men’s cowboy boots in exotic hides”; and ammunition for multiple guns, including more than 100 rounds for an AK-47. Within a month of the murder, Santa Barbara detectives had identified a possible connection between the killing in their county and another murder Martinez ultimately pleaded to in Tulare County. In July 1991, Santa Barbara detectives even went to the Martinez family home in Richgrove to interview a witness.

“Martinez was good, but he was also lucky,” said Correll, who retired in 2002 as a chief deputy of Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department and said he has since worked on the Golden State Killer case.

In the end, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office arrested a suspect and turned him over to Mexican authorities. But they didn’t get Martinez.

“Martinez was good, but he was also lucky.”

The irony was not lost on McWhorter. He remembered talking about it with Martinez: “You’ve been in all these big cities, and never been caught, and you come to Lawrence County, Alabama, and you get caught.”

McWhorter said Martinez laughed. Then he told the small-town cop not to get too full of himself. The only reason McWhorter caught him was that Martinez made a mistake: He left Romero alive.

Like almost all the detectives who worked the Martinez case, McWhorter said he had never met a criminal quite like him. “I’ll be honest with you,” McWhorter said. “When he got to talking about these other murders, all I needed was a tub of popcorn. We just sat there in silence.”

McWhorter said he thinks Martinez “was just very proud of what he had done. So he thought, ‘They’ve got me. This is my opportunity to get fame or glory.’”

McWhorter himself gleaned a bit of glory from the Martinez case. He was quoted in newspapers when Martinez confessed and he was invited to speak at a law enforcement conference. But more recently he was fired from the department, in a tangle of accusations and counteraccusations. McWhorter has requested an investigation to clear his name.

Martinez, the subject of so much of McWhorter’s attention, appears to have returned the favor, making a shrewd study of his examiner. From his jail cell, he’s managed to learn a great deal about the detective, including what his salary was, who his father was, and where he lived.

What did he make of the man who finally got him? Martinez’s answer was simple: “He’s an asshole.” And McWhorter hadn’t really caught him, he clarified. “He was trying to interrogate my little granddaughter, and I didn’t like that. That’s why I’m in jail. I came back.”

But up until the last moment, he wasn’t necessarily planning to confess.

“I was going to come back and shoot his ass.” ●

The one about the flight is very good

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Nick Kyrgios, the Reluctant Rising Star of Tennis

He has been called the most talented player since Roger Federer. But does he even want to win?

By Louisa Thomas

July 3, 2017

Nick Kyrgios, the twentieth-ranked tennis player in the world, stepped to the baseline. He briskly bounced the ball and rocked forward to begin his serve, his arms swinging. He has a narrow waist and strong shoulders, a greyhound’s look, and a greyhound’s air of languid indifference. Kyrgios, a twenty-two-year-old Australian, is the only active player ever to defeat Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic in their first meetings; he has beaten Nadal and Djokovic twice, in fact, and came within a few points of a second victory over Federer earlier this year. “I think Nick is the most talented player since Roger jumped on the scene,” Paul Annacone, a former coach of Federer and Pete Sampras, has said. Kyrgios is also the most mercurial. Jon Wertheim, the executive editor of Sports Illustrated , once called him “tennis’ id.”

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It was the second round of the Open Parc Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Lyon, a small tournament in the run-up to the French Open. There was a charge in the air, as there always is when Kyrgios plays. He is known for his spectacular shots: he has the skill and the imagination of Federer or John McEnroe. His matches have also featured epic displays of ranting, racquet-wrecking, and trash-talking. Kyrgios once flagrantly tried to lose a match, bopping in a serve like a beginner, and starting to walk off the court before it bounced. At some point in almost every match, he tends to do something brilliant—or he snaps.

Twisting, eyes wide, he opened his shoulders and tossed the ball. Then he reared up and whipped his racquet toward the toss. It is an efficient, brutally effective motion. In a match in March, Kyrgios aced Djokovic, the greatest returner in the history of the game, twenty-five times in two sets. He hits flat serves more than a hundred and forty miles per hour. He slices the ball so that it skids the line. He can put on so much spin that the ball arcs in at eighty-four miles per hour and then leaps up above the returner’s head, as if the ground were a trampoline.

Across the net from Kyrgios was Nicolas Kicker, a twenty-four-year-old Argentine who is ranked ninety-fourth in the world. Serving at 5–2, 40–15, Kyrgios already had five aces. This serve, down the T, made it six. His forward momentum carried him toward his chair, as if that were his destination all along.

It was a lovely afternoon—mid-May, the golden hour—but something seemed wrong. Kyrgios winced and grabbed his hip. An old injury had flared up in Madrid two weeks earlier; he’d been forced to withdraw from a tournament in Rome. He started to shorten points, to limit the strain on his hip. He hit drop shots from well behind the baseline which died on the net. He went for aces, on both first and second serves. Kyrgios, who has an unusually aggressive game, often uses such tactics to great effect. But as the match wore on he appeared to be exhibiting not strategy but impatience. After one error, he bounced his racquet in disgust and caught it on the handle. The crowd murmured expectantly. They were ready for a meltdown. Instead, he bounced the racquet and caught it again, and again, as if to distract himself.

Kicker, serving for the set, hit a drop shot that hung in the air on the bounce. Kyrgios has tremendous speed; ordinarily, he could have covered the ground. Instead, he took only one step into the court, ceding the point. A few minutes later, he served and rushed the net, letting Kicker’s return fly by him; the ball landed well inside the lines. Point, Kicker. Down set point, with a second serve, Kyrgios went for the ace. It clipped the top of the net. Double fault. Kyrgios spent the changeover flipping a little Evian water bottle.

Kicker started swinging more freely. His serve got more pop. He hit several successful drop shots, testing Kyrgios’s sore hip. It started to look like the final at Roland Garros on Kicker’s side of the net, and an exhibition match on Kyrgios’s. Kyrgios ran around his forehand to hit a tweener—a between-the-legs shot—from the doubles alley, which Kicker easily blocked back into the open court. When Kicker broke his serve and took command of the set, Kyrgios slammed his racquet into the dirt. His hip seemed increasingly to bother him. So, perhaps, did his spirit; his grandfather, who helped rear him, had died a few weeks before. In the end, Kicker easily took the second and third sets, beating a top-fifty player for the first time. Kyrgios trudged to the net to shake his hand.

Half an hour after the match, I was waiting for the elevator in the lobby of my hotel, when I heard Kyrgios request a new room key. He was still in his kit: black shorts, a magenta Nike top, shoes smeared with ochre clay. His beard was trimmed tight along his jawline, his dark hair shaved on the sides of his head and sculpted on top like a flame.

He stared at his phone as he shuffled to the elevator. As he stepped inside, he looked up. We had met the previous day, and he sounded surprisingly cheerful as he greeted me. “Sorry about the match,” I said.

He gave a quick, harsh laugh, and then his voice lightened. “It’s all right. It’s not a big deal,” he said.

He stepped out of the elevator, and I watched the doors close behind his slumped shoulders. There are message-board threads dedicated to Kyrgios’s posture, with dozens of comments debating whether the curvature of his upper back requires surgery, interferes with his hormone circulation, or is a faker’s lazy pose.

Kyrgios says that he doesn’t want to be Federer. So what does he want? When you’re a tennis player who claims not to like playing tennis, when half the world (including most of Australia) seems to have an opinion of your character, and when you’re twenty-two years old, the answer can be complicated.

People tend to tell one of two stories about Kyrgios. Either he is a talented kid who is wasting his gift with a bad attitude and a terrible work ethic, or he is a talented kid who has struggled, sometimes severely, with his motivation, but who is maturing. A column in the Sydney Morning Herald was headlined “ Nick Kyrgios Is a National Embarrassment .” Other people believe that he could be the future of men’s tennis.

“I think he has the most talent of anyone twenty-five and under,” Brad Gilbert, an ESPN commentator and Andre Agassi’s former coach, told me. “If you put the total package around him”—coaches, trainers, focussed practice sessions, strenuous training blocks—“and he embraced that, I would be shocked if he didn’t win multiple slams and become top two in the world.”

“People tell me I need to change, but it has to come from me,” Kyrgios told me before playing Kicker in Lyon. We were sitting in the hotel restaurant, with his agent, John Morris, in the lull between breakfast and lunch. Kyrgios wore long blue shorts and a Vince Carter jersey with a chain tucked into the neck. He drank a tiny glass of orange juice.

“I don’t think I want it enough,” Kyrgios said. He shook his head and said it again. Perhaps he was tired. His beloved Celtics had had a playoff game against Cleveland the night before, and he had been up at 3 A.M. , to watch. “The thing about tennis life is that it’s the same thing every day,” Kyrgios said. “You train. You come back to the hotel. You get treatment. You eat. You sleep. You get up.” It is unglamorous and exhausting, a life spent half in airports and hotels, thousands of miles from home. Almost every trip is punctuated, often early, with a loss. Some players orient themselves by the familiarity of their routines. Not Kyrgios: he gets homesick, injured, and bored. He wants to be playing basketball; he’d rather be fishing; he misses his dogs, his girlfriend, his family, his friends.

Other young players, such as Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, may be safer bets to win a slam soon. Zverev, a twenty-year-old German, recently beat Djokovic in Rome, becoming the youngest player to win a Masters title since Djokovic himself, in 2007. I asked Kyrgios whether Zverev’s win motivated him. “I’m incredibly happy for him,” he said, and it was obvious that he meant it. “But I don’t know if it motivates me. I didn’t feel, as soon as he won, Man, I’m going to go train, or anything. He won a tournament. It’s good, but it’s more weeks on the road where we’re going to play tennis matches, and that’s it.”

Many people assume that Kyrgios is in denial about his ambition. “I think deep down, in his own way, he’s becoming more professional,” Paul McNamee, a retired Australian player and a former C.E.O. of the Australian Open, told me. “But to admit that and to fail—he would not cope with that, maybe.” Kyrgios resists that analysis. “Some days, I’m really good,” he said. “I like going out on the practice court and training with my mates. But I don’t know about fully engaging and giving everything to it. It’s just a game. It’s just a sport. It’s such a small part of my life.”

I asked Kyrgios why he doesn’t quit. “I’d rather be doing that than working at Chipotle or something,” he said. “For me, it’s an easy way to make money. I’m just hitting a ball over a net.” He added, “Of course, I’ve grown up with it. It’s a part of me. It’s all I really know how to do.”

Kyrgios got up from his chair; he had a doubles match in a few hours. I was left with Morris, a compact Englishman with a thoughtful look. “He doesn’t do it for the money,” Morris said. “He doesn’t know what he has in the bank. He’s a competitor. He’s always competing.”

“So why does he sometimes stop trying to win?” I asked.

“I don’t know. He’s a bit of an enigma. I wish I knew. I think Nick probably wishes he knew more about it, too.”

Kyrgios’s first love was basketball. He spent countless hours watching “Space Jam” and playing the video game NBA Live. Eventually, he persuaded his parents to get a cable-TV package that included N.B.A. games. He’d wake up early to watch the Celtics and then go outside to shoot baskets, pretending that he was Paul Pierce. When he was fourteen, he was selected for a regional team. “I love the game. I love the sound of the basketball court,” he told me. “I love the team environment.”

He also played tennis, beginning group lessons when he was seven. “My mum wanted us to participate,” his sister, Halimah, explained. Nick’s father, George, a housepainter, came from Greece as a child; his mother, Nill, a computer engineer, was born in Malaysia. They reared three children, Christos, Halimah, and Nicholas, in a split-level house in a suburb of Canberra. George’s parents and Nill’s mother lived nearby and looked after the kids during the day. Halimah recalled that Nick, the youngest, “was just a cute little thing—very competitive, but I think that comes from Christos. When you’re the youngest, you’re always fighting to be better than the rest.”

He was best at tennis. A local coach, Andrew Bulley, recognized Kyrgios’s talent and started giving him private lessons. He hated to practice. “As soon as it became boring, he’d lose interest,” Bulley recalled. “He wanted scoring.” Kyrgios, who was overweight and asthmatic, couldn’t run well, which meant that he had to develop an original game. When he was out of position, he learned to hit winners off his heels or the back foot, using his loose arm to generate speed. He scraped deep shots off the bounce or delicately half-volleyed them instead of moving his feet. He did everything he could to play a point on his terms. “I had to work out way more to be more aggressive than the average player,” Kyrgios said.

By the time Kyrgios was ten, he was playing in Australia’s twelve-and-under national championships. By his early teens, he was travelling to Europe and Asia to play tournaments. Tennis is one of the most expensive sports to play at an élite level—travel and coaching can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars per year—and Kyrgios’s talent strained the family’s finances. Halimah recalled, “My parents had to decide, ‘Do we put in the money, all the money we have, to trust that it’s going to get somewhere?’ ” When Kyrgios was fifteen, Tennis Australia, the country’s governing body for the sport, and the Australian Institute of Sport, a national training center, offered him help in funding his career and a spot at the A.I.S. “My dad kind of just came out and said, ‘What’s easier to make it in, in Australia, playing basketball or tennis?’ Obviously, I knew the answer was tennis,” Kyrgios said.

At the A.I.S., he was miserable at first. He liked the camaraderie of the training center, but he missed basketball, and he hated the repetition required on the court. Still, his game got better, his diet improved, and, when he was fifteen, he had a growth spurt that left him lean, even skinny. At seventeen, in 2013, Kyrgios won the junior title at the Australian Open. The following year, he faced Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 player in the world, at Wimbledon. On the first point of the match, Kyrgios hit an ace down the T; Nadal barely had time to flinch. Kyrgios aced him thirty-seven times, hitting seventy winners in all. At 3–3 in the second set, he flicked his racquet behind his back and through his legs. The ball barely cleared the net, landing just inside the line. The tweener became his signature shot. Kyrgios won the match in four sets. He dropped his racquet and held his head in his hand. Morris told me, “You don’t see that same joy, sheer joy, anymore.”

Kyrgios won ten matches in slams before he won two in regular events. Off the main stage, he began to struggle with the demands of the tour. At the moment when most top players build up an entourage of coaches, physiotherapists, and trainers, Kyrgios split with one coach and then another, and struck out on his own. “Every coach I had tried to tame me, tried to make me play more disciplined, tried to make me do drills,” he told me. “All through my career, there were people trying to tell me to play a more normal style of tennis.” But, he went on, “I’ve just been kind of playing on instinct. I feel like it’s been successful, so I don’t know why there’s a good reason to stop that.”

Not having a coach meant that there was less accountability in practice. In Lyon, I watched him hit with another Aussie, Matt Reid, two days before the match against Kicker. Kyrgios did it his way. Warming up, he entertained the little crowd of kids gathered at the chain-link fence by punctuating his grunts with the names of other players (“Dominic UH Dominic UH Thiem EH-UH Jo-Willy UH Jo-Wilfried UH ”). He started hitting one-handed topspin backhands, a shot I’d never seen him hit in a match. He and Reid began to play out the points. “Fucking move your legs, you shit!” Kyrgios yelled at himself. Another backhand miss: “Make it!” A few shots later, he was smiling.

Those who know Kyrgios talk about his easy nature and his sense of humor. Yet he became prone to smashing racquets, arguing with umpires, and berating ball kids. He once prolonged a changeover at Wimbledon by theatrically changing his socks. At many tournaments, he racked up thousands of dollars in fines for unsportsmanlike conduct. Most appalling, he told Stan Wawrinka during a match that a friend had “banged” his girlfriend.

Last fall, in Shanghai, Kyrgios had his episode of openly trying to lose a match. “I was just done,” he told me. “I was, like, Next week, I get to go home, and the only thing that’s holding me back is this match.” He was fined twenty-five thousand dollars and suspended for three months, a penalty that was reduced to eight weeks after he agreed to see a psychologist. “Tennis, for me—it’s a completely different me,” he said. “The person I am on the court is not who I am off the court.”

Kyrgios is hardly the first to struggle with the warping pressure of being on tour and alone on the court. Suzanne Lenglen, the French player who dominated the women’s game between 1914 and 1926—she was nicknamed La Divine—drank brandy and cried during matches. Jimmy Connors made lewd gestures at fans. John McEnroe shouted at officials. “I shouldn’t be playing tennis now,” he told the Times after a loss in 1986. “I’m letting things affect me and I’m embarrassed.” He left the tour for six months.

Racquet smashing is the most common means of catharsis. Goran Ivanisevic had to default a 2000 match because he had broken all his racquets. In 2008, Mikhail Youzhny hit himself in the forehead with his racquet so hard that it left a bloody gash. Marat Safin, a two-time slam winner, who was as tormented as he was gifted, has estimated that he smashed seven hundred racquets in his career. He’s said to have played with shards of graphite embedded in his arm.

Almost every player smashes racquets, and all of them rant and mutter. “Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players,” Agassi wrote in his autobiography, “Open.” “Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely. Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers.” And, during a match, unlike boxers, tennis players can’t talk to or touch even their opponents, let alone a coach.

Andy Murray, the No. 1 men’s player, can keep up a monologue on the court for hours. He has become a mentor to Kyrgios, and FaceTimes with him regularly. “I’ve experienced a lot of what he is going through,” Murray wrote in an e-mail. “As athletes, we’re supposed to be mentally strong, and if you are seen to be talking about feelings or anything like that, not believing in yourself or backing yourself or struggling to cope with pressure, that’s seen as a negative.” He went on, “But there is also a lot of pressure and it’s not always that easy to deal with everything.”

Still, Kyrgios is not like Murray, who is one of the hardest workers on tour. Murray recently invited Kyrgios to join him for a training period. “That was a quick no for me, because I know he’s going to be training four, five hours a day,” Kyrgios said. “We were probably going to have to be doing these protein shakes.” Kyrgios is also not like McEnroe, who could never turn off his competitive instincts, or Agassi, though he comes closest to sounding like him. “When he was in it, Andre had amazing practice habits,” Gilbert, his former coach, told me. “He was a hard worker. Those are things you hear that Nick struggles with a little bit. Andre would have a patch where he wasn’t as committed, but when he was committed he put in the time—unbelievable—on the practice court.”

In January, at the Australian Open, Agassi gave a rare press conference, in which he talked about Kyrgios. Three days earlier, Kyrgios had crashed in the second round, after being up two sets to love against the unassuming Andreas Seppi. Thousands of people, in his native country, had booed Kyrgios off the court. Agassi cautioned against vilifying Kyrgios. “I do share your feelings that in watching him it feels, at first glance, very offensive to see so much talent, to see somebody in the sport that means a great deal to so many, sort of disregarded,” Agassi said. “But, with that being said, the journey I lived has taught me a lot about how deep one’s struggles can be and how much good can still exist at the same time. I don’t know his background. I know that I was always somebody that cared more than I portrayed, because it was my defense. It was my way of hiding myself from myself.”

“For me, it’s an easy way to make money,” Kyrgios said, of professional tennis. “I’m just hitting a ball over a net.”

After the Australian Open, Kyrgios was in a “dark place.” He went to Miami to be with his girlfriend, the Australian player Ajla Tomljanović, whom he’s been dating for two years. He thought about taking a break from tennis; he didn’t know for how long. But then he got a call from Lleyton Hewitt, a former champion who is now the captain of Australia’s Davis Cup team, urging him to play in the tournament. Top players rarely participate. But for Kyrgios it was a lifeline. “It was the best thing I could have done,” he said.

The other players were apprehensive about Kyrgios’s state of mind, but when he arrived in Melbourne, he was fully committed. He led the practice sessions with intensity; he was the first to start picking up balls. He spent extra time hitting with the youngest player. He embraced being part of a team. In February, the Australians defeated the Czech Republic. Two months later, they beat a strong American squad, with Kyrgios defeating Sam Querrey, a lanky big server, to clinch the tie. Afterward, Kyrgios lifted up Hewitt and carried him down to the court, before being engulfed by his teammates. “I love being on the bench, supporting someone else,” he said later. “I just love that you win together, you take a loss together.”

That match capped a remarkable run for Kyrgios. Between the two Davis Cup rounds, he beat Djokovic twice, and Zverev twice, and played Federer to nearly a draw in the semifinals of the Miami Open. It was a three-set, three-tiebreak affair in which the intensity never dropped. Brad Gilbert, who was courtside, told me that he considered it the highest-quality match this year. What really struck Gilbert, though, was how hard the crowd rooted against Kyrgios. They hissed; they tried to rattle him; they called balls out in the middle of points. For the most part, Kyrgios kept his cool. Then, on the last point, he pulverized his racquet. He was devastated to lose.

“I felt like I was pretty much unbeatable during that time,” Kyrgios told me. “I don’t know if I had a mind-set that this is what I want to be doing right now. I didn’t have a choice. But I felt like I had one goal, and that was to compete every day.” He seemed to be settling into his talent. In May, he announced that he had started working with a coach, Sébastien Grosjean, a French former player who lives in Boca Raton, where Tomljanović trains. “It’s a challenge, a big one,” Grosjean told me. He has been trying to persuade Kyrgios to get a fitness coach, to prevent injuries and to help him build up his body for the marathons of the slams. “He can be a better athlete. But it’s new for him. It has to come from him.” Grosjean sounded like Kyrgios. “He has to understand,” he added.

After his wins this spring, Kyrgios was on the short list of dark horses at the French Open. But, when he talked about his recent success, he didn’t first point to his results. He spoke about getting to spend a month with Tomljanović, having a single goal each day, and being part of the Davis Cup team.

The tour moved from hard courts to clay, which blunts Kyrgios’s power and makes him run. After his grandfather died, in May, he skipped a tournament in Estoril, Portugal, and flew back to Australia for a week. He picked up a racquet for only twenty minutes; when the time came to head to the next tournament, in Madrid, he told his family that he didn’t want to go. As soon as he arrived in Europe, homesickness set in.

His body wasn’t ready. He reinjured his hip and lost a desultory match to Nadal. He pulled out of Rome, lost in Lyon, and then lost in the second round of the French Open, to Kevin Anderson, a strong player but one Kyrgios should have beaten. He wrecked two racquets during the match and asked someone in the crowd for a beer. “Honest to God, get me one now,” he begged.

“You’re kidding,” the spectator responded.

“I don’t think so,” Kyrgios said.

He was later criticized for having played doubles the day before, when he and his countryman Jordan Thompson upset the No. 2 seeds, instead of saving his energy for singles. But he intends to play more doubles, not less. It removes the pressure of being alone on the court, he told me, and reminds him that tennis “can be fun.”

He arrived in London two weeks before the start of Wimbledon and rented a house. His mother and Tomljanović joined him, and his mom cooked; it felt a little like home. On June 19th, he played his first match of the grass-court season, in the Aegon International, at the Queen’s Club. Practicing, he looked relaxed. He has liked grass since he first played on it as a kid, at a tournament in Australia. It helps his big serve skid, and it suits his aggressive style.

At Queen’s, Kyrgios faced the American Donald Young in the first round. They were on serve halfway through the first set when Kyrgios’s right foot slipped on the newly laid grass; his left knee buckled unnaturally, and he went down, rolling over in pain. He had strained his hip again. Kyrgios limped through the rest of the set, which he lost in a tiebreak, and then retired from the tournament.

Still, he vowed to play Wimbledon. He thinks he can win. And if he doesn’t—not now, not ever? Kyrgios has said that he would like to emulate the career of Gaël Monfils, a Frenchman known for his leaping shots and questionable strategies, and for being one of the most talented players never to win a major. When I mentioned Monfils’s unfulfilled promise, Kyrgios challenged me. “He’s got to, I think, eight in the world,” he said. “He’s won a lot of tournaments. He’s been to semifinals of grand slams. He’s made a ton of money. He’s probably one of the happiest guys on tour.” He added, “Ultimately, he’s just a guy who wants people to enjoy watching tennis.”

Kyrgios sometimes elicits comparisons to Monfils, if only because they both have a propensity for tweeners. But Kyrgios doesn’t have the same carefree demeanor on the court. “I think he struggles with who he wants to be and who he is,” Rennae Stubbs, an Australian commentator and former player, told me. The question in the tennis world tends to be whether Kyrgios will figure out how to win consistently. But for Kyrgios maybe there’s a different project. “I just would like to be happy,” he said. “That’s a tough one for me.” :diamonds:

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Everyone Believed Larry Nassar

The predatory trainer may have just taken down USA Gymnastics. How did he deceive so many for so long?

Larissa Boyce was 10 when her coach, John Geddert, forced her legs into a split so hard she cried. He pulled her right leg up toward his torso, sending shooting pains through her groin and hamstrings, and he kept pulling. “Racking,” as it’s called, was common practice at the gym, but it was evidently too much for Larissa’s mother, who marched onto the mats and told Geddert to take his hands off her daughter. From then on, Larissa would train under Kathie Klages, a relatively low-key coach with unruly red hair and glasses at Michigan State University’s Spartan youth gymnastics team. Klages, like Geddert, considered herself a dear friend of an athletic trainer named Larry Nassar and sent her gymnasts to him.

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When, six years later, Larissa felt ready to talk about the fact that Larry had penetrated her with his hand without warning, she approached Klages. Larissa remembers her office as a small room with a desk, a window, and green carpet. “‘I have known Larry for years and years,’” Larissa recalls Klages saying. “‘He would never do anything inappropriate.’”

Larissa named another gymnast who had been touched, and when Klages called her into the office, she told her the same story. Klages countered by bringing in college gymnasts, who said that Larry had touched “around” the area but that it was never “inappropriate.”

“That’s not what happened to me,” Larissa said. Klages, who has been indicted for allegedly lying to police about this and another such instance, maintains that no one ever came to her with complaints of sexual abuse.

According to Larissa, Klages said she could report the allegations but doing so would have “very serious consequences” for both Larry and Larissa. Larissa couldn’t look at Klages, so she stared out the window. She didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. Afterward, she cried in the bathroom and resolved never to tell anyone again. She worried that Klages would tell Larry.

The next time she went to visit Larry, he closed the door, pulled up a stool, sat down, and looked at her. “So,” he said, “I talked to Kathie.”

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“I’m so sorry,” Larissa said. “I misunderstood. It’s all my fault.”

It was 1997. Most of Larry Nassar’s victims had not yet been born.

It has by the fall of 2018 become commonplace to describe the 499 known victims of Larry Nassar as “breaking their silence,” though in fact they were never, as a group, particularly silent. Over the course of at least 20 years of consistent abuse, women and girls reported to every proximate authority. They told their parents. They told gymnastics coaches, running coaches, softball coaches. They told Michigan State University police and Meridian Township police. They told physicians and psychologists. They told university administrators. They told, repeatedly, USA Gymnastics. They told one another. Athletes were interviewed, reports were written up, charges recommended. The story of Larry Nassar is not a story of silence. The story of Larry Nassar is that of an edifice of trust so resilient, so impermeable to common sense, that it endured for decades against the allegations of so many women.

If this is a story of institutional failure, it is also a story of astonishing individual ingenuity. Larry Nassar was good at this. His continued success depended on deceiving parents, fellow doctors, elite coaches, Olympic gatekeepers, athletes, and, with some regularity, law enforcement. Before getting caught, he managed to abuse women and girls whose names you know — Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney — and hundreds whose names you don’t.

As of November 5, it looks likely that Nassar has destroyed the sport’s governing body, USA Gymnastics. In an open letter citing the “struggle to change its culture,” the U.S. Olympic Committee began the process of decertifying USAG, which withheld knowledge about Nassar from its members for over a year and whose former president was recently arrested by U.S. Marshals for disappearing Nassar-related documents. The organization is being sued by hundreds of accusers represented by “37 or 38” law firms, according to the lawyer charged with organizing them; it’s hard to keep count.

If this is a story of institutional failure, it is also a story of astonishing individual ingenuity. Larry Nassar was good at this.

Nassar has pleaded guilty in three separate trials and been sentenced to a collective minimum of 100 years. Michigan State University has settled with 332 women for half a billion dollars. Karolyi Ranch, the dated, isolated training camp where Olympians were required to see Nassar, has been shut down. Yet strangely little has been said about the man, his strategies, his undeniable and persistent success in serving his own needs. One can read news reports for hours about athletes and judicial process and, inescapably, the triumph of “finding a voice” without being informed of what, precisely, this man had done to any of the athletes whose voices required finding. News broadcasts are hard to parse: a dozen medal-winning gymnasts, of three different generations, “speaking out” about what was typically and unspecifically called “abuse” but that many of them had understood to be “treatment.” There are logistical questions. How had he molested girls who were never alone with him? What, precisely, motivated coaches and administrators to protect him — at great risk to themselves? With what rhetorical magic had he argued himself out of complaint after complaint?

Nassar is neither charismatic nor smooth; he is nerdy, a little awkward, a little “Inspector Gadget,” as one gymnast put it. He is a man who laughs a lot and snorts when he laughs. He tells dad jokes and never dirty ones; his voice is nasal and his patter never-ending. His talkativeness, particularly on technical matters relating to the body’s response to injury, can verge on excessive, even logorrheic. “Sometimes,” says a former colleague, “it was like, ‘Okay, Larry, that’s enough, got it.’ ” Yet he projects such kindness, such determined, tireless selflessness, that people around him are rendered inarticulate when they attempt to express his essential benevolence. “He was such a kind man,” says the father of a girl Nassar abused many times, his voice bright with incredulity. “I really cannot say enough good about Larry, because he is just a wonderful man,” Nassar’s neighbor Jody Rosebush told the Detroit News last year after the allegations emerged. He had helped shovel snow; he had rushed across the street in bare feet when she’d had a sudden medical issue. “He will do anything in the world for anybody. We all love Larry. We really, really love Larry.” Jessica O’Beirne, the host of a podcast called GymCastic and perhaps the most biting editorialist about Nassar and his myriad enablers, had him on the show before the allegations were made public. “I just love Larry Nassar,” she said by way of introduction. “He’s totally amazing … He’s just amazing. I think he’s awesome. And that’s from personal experience. He’s just … he’s great.”

Much-loved Larry placed himself in a position of authority in the least-monitored space full of children and proceeded to become the most successful pedophile in sports history. Beyond the choice of medical school, the apparent research interest in the sacrotuberous ligament, the intense focus on a world populated by 11-year-old girls, the useful belief in alternative therapies, there was also this: his incredible brazenness. Nassar molested young girls in his office while their fathers watched. He molested elite athletes under blankets in busy gyms teeming with people. Even a paranoid parent would not have perceived a meeting with a doctor in an open gym, a few feet away, to be an encounter requiring vigilance. Your daughter was safe because you never left her side. When mothers might have a moment of pause, a flicker of suspicion, there was the reassuring thought that no man would try something right in front of them.

“It’s like that story,” the mother of a gymnast tells me, “ ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I believe it was a little child who finally says, ‘Doesn’t anybody know that the emperor has no clothes on?’”

It was a little child who alerted the townspeople in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, but upon reflection, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” demonstrates precisely the opposite lesson of that learned through the decades-long saga of Larry Nassar. In order to be heard, the little child does not need to age 20 years, join a chorus of other adults telling the same story, and be corroborated by digital evidence of the king’s depravity. The king, in Andersen’s story, is immediately exposed. The story of Larry Nassar is that of a man more skilled at deception and a world more credulous.

Simone Biles, who’s said of Larry Nassar, “It feels like he took a part of me that I can’t get back.” Photo: Alexey Filippov/Sputnik via AP

Trinea Gonczar, now 37, is the oldest of three in an athletic family and the most intense. At 6 years old, just starting out at Twistars — the gym owned by John Geddert, who had forced Larissa into a split — she looked at her mother and demanded to know why she hadn’t been put in gymnastics earlier. Three years later, the gym was her entire existence outside school and the only social life that mattered. “Those girls just melted into one another and became one,” says Dawn Homer, Trinea’s mother, a tall, soft-spoken woman and founder of a medical-billing company. “They were one another’s best lives. It was like a cult, and I don’t say that in a bad way.” Trinea’s sisters excelled at volleyball and basketball; Dawn noted that there was less cultlike intimacy on these teams. When Trinea was selected for Geddert’s team at 9 years old, Dawn was required to attend a meeting. “One hundred percent of the girls will be injured,” she recalls a coach saying. “But we have a trainer right here.”

Larry was, in Trinea’s words, the “dorky escape from John,” John being a man you’d need to escape from because he might, in a rage, twist your arm, shove you against a wall, and call it, as he did five years ago in conversation with police, a “discipline meeting.” (A prosecutor later ordered Geddert to undergo counseling.)

“I don’t have a good reference to compare him to,” Trinea says. “I don’t know another coaching style. We won. We were good. John made a good product. We were hand-selected. You were picked. Measured. Your toe point was measured, your muscles were measured, your splits were measured.”

Gymnasts were afraid to disappoint Geddert, afraid to admit to injury lest they be accused of lying. By contrast, Larry was unfailingly reassuring: He had a plan to make you better, a series of discrete steps to get you back on the mat. He knew what was wrong, had likely “attended a conference” or “given a lecture” on precisely the injury in question, and knew how to fix you. You might feel hopeless, but your career as a gymnast was not over. He pushed girls to talk about their goals, their dreams of gymnastic greatness.
Dawn Homer and other parents recall being moved to tears as Larry promised their worried girls that they’d continue to be the athletes they were meant to be.

In 1990, when Trinea was 9, her hip began popping out of its socket whenever she was on bars. Larry suggested that she needed more work than he could provide in the gym and asked if she might come over to his apartment with her mother. Trinea knew this invitation was considered an honor among the other 9-year-olds with whom she spent all her time, and she was proud.

When she arrived with her mother, another girl was leaving. Larry had filled his bath with ice water, and he left the room while Trinea undressed and lowered her shivering body into it. On the toilet, an egg timer ticked through 14 minutes. She flipped through a USA Gymnastics magazine he’d left by the tub. When she came out, in shorts and a T-shirt, he gestured toward a table in the living room.

There was a chair a few feet away, by the television, where Dawn sat that day and many, many days afterward. It was angled such that she could see only Trinea’s head and shoulders. Larry maintained a steady, quick patter with Dawn through the treatment. He asked about her other girls. He told them about his plans to move beyond athletic training and go to medical school; he wanted to be a doctor like his grandfather.

Trinea — 60-odd pounds, curly brown hair (it was 1990, and it was a perm), hands ripped from bar work — was all muscle. When she showed the neighborhood boys her six-pack, they told her she looked like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, which she did not take as a compliment. Like Nassar, she was a talker; at the mall, she greeted every single person until her mother told her to stop talking to strangers. Nassar bent her knees, placed her leg over her hip, turned her over, and placed her on her stomach. He moved the table, with her on it, while he worked. While she was on her stomach, out of her mother’s view but without breaking the flow of conversation with her, he penetrated Trinea with his ungloved hand.

“Anytime she is in pain,” Larry said to Dawn, “no matter what time, what day, you call me and I will get her in for treatment.”

It was true; he always did. Larry spent hours teaching Dawn how to tape Trinea’s shins. He came over to the house for dinner.

“Larry fixed my ankles,” Trinea says. “He fixed my shins. He fixed my knees. He fixed my shoulders. He fixed my wrists. We called it ‘the magic of Larry’ — he could fix you so you could compete. And I always wanted to compete.”

“We had the best clinic available to us for gymnastics injuries that anyone in the world could have. We had the best,” says Dawn. “We were so lucky.”

At Twistars, the idea of family was more than notional: Larry proposed to another athletic trainer at the gym and asked Geddert to be a groomsman. Trinea attended the wedding and thought Nassar’s bride the luckiest woman in the world. When Trinea was 15, a cyst ruptured on her ovary and she required surgery; it was the Nassars standing over her as she opened her eyes.

In the late ’90s, another gymnast came to Trinea and said Larry had penetrated her with his fingers. She was looking for corroboration, support for her intuition that something was not right. It’s a scene Trinea plays over and over in her head. “He does that to me all the time!” she said lightly, happy to be in the position to comfort someone. “You’re fine.” Trinea’s lawyer estimates that she was molested 856 times.

Nassar reaching out to an injured Kerri Strug at the 1996 Olympics. Photo: IOPP/AFP/Getty Images

Nassar’s interest in women’s gymnastics extends deep into his history, which matters because there are two stories one can tell about Larry Nassar: a man who drifted slowly into darkness and a man whose career goals were structured by desire. In high school and college, Nassar was an athletic trainer, essentially an on-site EMT for athletes, taping and icing and bandaging. By the late 1980s, he was working with USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, and John Geddert. He worked regional and national meets, shook hands, and dealt with injuries as they arose.

“He was tireless in taking care of the kids,” says William Sands, the research scientist who has probably published the most on the sport of gymnastics in exercise medicine and someone Nassar considered a personal hero. “He was up early and went to bed late. He would do anything for an injured athlete. He was an astonishingly giving person.”

Who was paying him to be at all these meets remains unclear because the people who can elucidate these economic relationships tend to be themselves subject to ongoing legal action or are employed by the legal quagmire that is USA Gymnastics. But a word that emerges frequently in conversations about Nassar is volunteer. He volunteered, for instance, at Geddert’s gym 20 hours a week. He volunteered at the 1987 Pan-American Games and volunteered at the 1988 Olympic trials. According to Sands, Nassar maxed out two credit cards working his way up, cementing a reputation as someone who could identify an injury, concoct a plan, and get an athlete back on the floor. Liked and trusted and ever present, he knew the body and knew the sport. Whereas another doctor might ban an injured athlete from competing altogether, Nassar could tell her which tricks were still safe to perform. He was, by almost all accounts, good at what he did.

By the late ’80s, Nassar had decided to become an osteopathic physician, which entails being trained in osteopathic manipulative therapy, learning to move a patient’s joints and muscles in ways said to relieve pain and dysfunction. OMT is based on the intuitively appealing but largely unsupported idea that a wide array of diseases spring from musculoskeletal irregularities, and one therefore expects to be touched differently by an osteopath than by an M.D.; one expects to be folded and bent and cracked. Manipulated. He chose, too, to practice alongside athletes in contexts that lacked the intermediary structures of a traditional doctor’s office — receptionists, insurance companies, medical records. After his residency, he was named the national medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics, the organization responsible for selecting and training Olympians.

If you’re old enough, you remember watching Kerri Strug hurl herself in the air, land hard on a badly injured ankle, collapse, and guarantee all-around gold for the American team. This was taken at the time to be evidence of athletic heroism and American grit, fodder for sponsorships and presidential photo ops and write-ups in which it was not mentioned that her vault had been, in the end, unnecessary; the team had the scores to win. But stick with the camera a bit, beyond memory, and watch coach Martha Karolyi carry a crying Strug toward a young, dark-haired physician. This is the moment Nassar becomes “the Olympics doctor,” the man who cares for the athletes millions of children aspire to be, and his access to girls widens inexorably, constrained only by the number of minutes in the day.

The prestige conferred on Nassar by his volunteer position at the Olympics, by both the parents of gymnasts and clinical sports medicine in general, is hard to overstate and hard, from the outside, to understand. That Nassar was an inexperienced physician who had just finished his residency in ’96 did not seem to matter, because in sports medicine the caliber of athlete one treats is taken to be correlated with curative power. Hospitals pay millions of dollars for the privilege of treating sports teams; UC–San Diego Health, for example, pays $1 million to treat the Padres.

Nassar covered the walls of his office with signed pictures of Olympians and gave girls he favored Olympics patches, pins, and jackets. Parents interviewed for this article come from diverse backgrounds and have daughters at very different levels of gymnastics competition, but they all once shared an astonished gratitude that Nassar would even see their kids. The circular quality of this claim to competence became clear in the testimony of parents of actual Olympians; they too were told their kids were lucky to see Larry, who wouldn’t be in his position if he didn’t know what he was doing. Whether they believed this or not, they were required to leave their kids for weeks in Huntsville, Texas, at Karolyi Ranch, where the showers were moldy and the blankets stained and the food so bad the kids were always hungry; where there were no parents, and cell-phone service was spotty, and Nassar would knock on their doors at night, bearing candy, to treat them in their beds. If this was drift, it was drift straight into the least-monitored space full of young girls, into a position of authority requiring a decade of career building, in a specialty that allowed him particular latitude.

Chloe Myers at home in Hawaii earlier this year. Photo: Alec Soth/Magnum Photos for New York Magazine

The trick was to establish traditional medical credibility and then get weird. A mother we’ll call Jane began bringing her gymnast daughter, Kate, to Nassar when Kate was 8 and suffering from back pain. Larry diagnosed her with spondylolisthesis, a spinal disorder. When a pediatric spine specialist confirmed the diagnosis, Jane, who has some medical training, was impressed that Larry, a generalist, had caught it. When he started using cupping — a practice in which suction is said to release muscles — she went with it. When he invited them over to his house to administer manipulations to Kate in his basement, she went with that, too.

William Sands, the scientist Larry idolized, was at Karolyi Ranch doing research when he walked in on Larry inserting acupuncture needles into a gymnast’s back. “I rolled my eyes and walked out,” he said. “This is such a crock of pseudoscientific bullshit that I don’t want anything to do with it. And cupping? Give me a freaking break.” Sands was so offended he cut off contact.

Alternative treatments, along with frequent references to presentations given and conferences attended, lent Nassar a useful air of the creative scientist. Who knew what he would try next? But his best cover — the story that would get him out of police stations and back into exam rooms — was not in fact pseudoscientific bullshit. As his career progressed, he began to develop a research interest in the musculature of the pelvis: the sacrotuberous ligament in particular. He developed, for instance, two PowerPoint presentations called “Pelvic Floor: Where No Man Has Gone Before” and “Pelvic Floor: The Final Frontier.” He was associating himself with evidence that back and hip problems can be addressed through pelvic-floor physical therapy, which is, according to J. Welles Henderson, an OB/GYN and clinical professor specializing in pelvic disorders at University Hospitals in Cleveland, “mainstream medicine,” “a first-line treatment,” and “backed by 30 years of well-established research” on patients with weak or spastic pelvic floors. (Sands, for his part, still considers it a “crock of shit.”)

There is, according to Rhonda Kotarinos, a pelvic-floor physical therapist and the author of several studies on the subject, a correlation between pelvic-floor dysfunction and strenuous exercise in young female athletes for reasons that remain speculative but may have something to do with the way developing the glutes over-recruits the pelvis, leading those muscles to shorten. Pelvic pain not uncommonly presents as lower-back pain. It would not be out of the ordinary for a trusted, almost always female specialist in pelvic disorders to enter the vagina, palpate the levator ani against the grain of the muscle fiber, and look for painful trigger points that suggest the muscle has lost the capacity to fully elongate or shorten. Opinions vary on whether PFPT is an appropriate treatment for young women, but unambiguously damning was the fact that Nassar hardly ever explained what he was doing, never gained consent, never used gloves, and found it necessary for ankle and knee injuries. He did not use the phrase “pelvic-floor physical therapy”; when he did explain himself, which was rare, he called it “myofascial release” or “intravaginal adjustment.”

He didn’t call it anything when he molested Chloe Myers, another young woman who was suffering from debilitating back pain with a bent coccyx and facet-joint syndrome. He covered Chloe in a blanket and positioned himself between her and her chatty, outgoing mother, Kristen, a few feet away. It wasn’t until he stopped and washed his hands that Kristen wondered where his hands had been. It occurred to her that he wouldn’t have to wash his hands if he had merely been touching her daughter’s leg. It occurred to her that if he had done an internal exam, she would have expected him to wear gloves. In the car on the way home, Chloe said that his hands had been “way up in there” and that it had been uncomfortable. Kristen was alarmed. But Chloe also said she felt much better. She continued to feel better every time she went back.

Like many women and many parents of female athletes, Kristen knew of treatments that involve vaginal penetration; Chloe’s chiropractor had mentioned something. “I did know there was a legitimate treatment that could help, internally, like an internal adjustment,” she says. “I was aware of it. And this was Larry. So it was no big surprise that he was trying some kind of alternative treatment.”

Some women were surprised. Directly after Nassar touched her in 2004, 17-year-old Brianne Randall filed a complaint with Meridian Township police and had a rape kit administered at the local hospital. Detective Andrew McCready called Nassar and asked him to come in for questioning, which he did. Nassar told McCready that he had indeed touched Brianne’s perineum, that it was part of a treatment called “sacrotuberous-ligament release,” and that the treatment was “published in medical journals and training tapes.” He also gave McCready his PowerPoint presentation on said ligament, in which he is pictured cupping a girl’s buttocks and pressing near a girl’s vulva. McCready then called Brianne’s mother to tell her the case would be closed and that “no crime was committed.”

When, in 2014, cheerleader Amanda Thomashow reported an assault to one of MSU’s Title IX investigators and university police, the latter launched an investigation and referred the case to prosecutors for review. The office of Ingham County prosecutor Stuart Dunnings concluded that the prosecution “would not be able to sustain [its] burden at trial” and declined to prosecute. Dunnings was later charged, imprisoned, and disbarred for soliciting prostitutes.

MSU Title IX investigator Kristine Moore launched her own investigation. She interviewed three osteopathic physicians and one athletic trainer. All four found Nassar’s conduct to be medically appropriate. All of them worked for MSU and knew Nassar personally. Dr. William Strampel, the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine at MSU, instructed Nassar to have a chaperone in the room and avoid skin-to-skin contact, though he never enforced these new rules and Nassar would not follow them. Strampel has since been arrested and charged with, among other things, sexually harassing and groping female medical students.

Thomashow, concluded Moore, failed to understand the “nuanced difference” between osteopathic manipulative medicine and sexual massage. “Dr. Nassar has presented on this nationally and internationally,” reads the Title IX report, “has videos posted to the web that explain the procedure, and is widely known for this work … We cannot find that the conduct was medically inappropriate and thus cannot find it was sexual in nature.” That “videos posted to the web,” presentations, and PowerPoints are distinct from peer-reviewed publications seems not to have occurred to MSU, the Ingham County prosecutor’s office, or Meridian Township detectives; nor does the idea that people Nassar has worked with, and in some cases mentored, are poor sources of objective testimony. This was not stellar police work, but it was the level of investigatory prowess available to the women of Michigan, and it was precisely the level of scrutiny Nassar’s cover was designed to weather, right up until the day a former gymnast named Rachael Denhollander emailed the Indianapolis Star.

When the Star broke the story, in September 2016, and all of elite gymnastics read it, not a single person interviewed for this piece believed that Denhollander and a second, anonymous accuser had been assaulted by Nassar. Dawn Homer asked Trinea Gonczar whether Larry could be capable of such a thing, and Trinea said, unreservedly, “No.” She waited patiently for medical experts to come forward and defend the practice.

“They’re describing,” Chloe Myers told her parents, “the exact same treatment I was receiving.” It had helped her back pain, she reasoned, and thus was legitimate. “They weren’t remembering right,” Chloe’s father concluded. Nassar asked his colleague, fellow osteopathic physician Steven Karageanes, to lend him his support, and Karageanes said he would.
Parents concluded that Nassar had, in his boundless generosity — all those extra appointments in his home, free of charge — “put himself in a bad position” and allowed his treatments to be “misconstrued.” William Sands thought it would all blow over. According to The Wall Street Journal, Dean William Strampel had this to say to students at a meeting at MSU: “This just goes to show that none of you learned the most basic lesson in medicine, Medicine 101: Don’t trust your patients. Patients lie to get doctors in trouble.” Kathie Klages asked her gymnasts to sign a card that read, thinking of you.

Denhollander’s allegations were backed by a growing list of accusers; there were by February 2017 at least 50 complaints to the police. If Michigan was paying attention, it was hard to tell. Parents of gymnasts continued driving their girls from Twistars to his house for treatments. Larry ran for school board, pulled out, and still got 2,700 votes. Not even Larissa Boyce, who had accused him of molesting her in 1997 and been shut down by Klages, believed Denhollander’s account. “I had convinced myself,” she says, “that it was a medical treatment.”

“No one was buying it yet,” says Karageanes. “There was no quote-unquote evidence. He had supporters lined up to defend him. It would have taken a monumental effort from the first people coming out to get the public on their side.”

Although, much later, the only story line American media would be able to process was one of a “survivor” who had “found her voice” and was ready to “take on” her abuser in open court, it did not appear to be a woman at all who had persuaded those closest to this story, including most of the “survivors,” to come forward. It was, rather, a set of external hard drives — tossed to the curb in the trash in the days after Denhollander went public, on a day when the garbage crew was behind schedule, and recovered by a police officer.* Had the crew been on time, had the officer been late, had the warrant come through a day after Nassar decided to dump his digital history on the street, he might still have the support of most of the people he abused.

Healthy people tend not to distinguish between varieties of child pornography or think much about the habits of its consumption, but Nassar’s accumulation of more than 37,000 images suggests an unusual level of deviance even among pedophiles. According to a sentencing memorandum issued by federal prosecutors for the Western District of Michigan, these images form a particularly “graphic” and “hard-core” collection, including children as young as infants and images of children being raped by adults.

Here was a fact that one simply could not integrate into the image of a dedicated doctor attacked by confused or malicious women. The story stopped making sense. Mothers struggled to find a way to ask their girls whether they’d been digitally penetrated at the gym. Parents awoke for the first time to the possibility that their daughters’ first sexual experience had taken place at the hands of Larry Nassar, often as said parent watched from a few feet away. “Did Larry do anything to you?” Michael Weiszbrod, an affable state administrator, asked his 13-year-old daughter, Ashleigh, a few times, and she shook her head no. He and his wife took this as authoritative until one day, months later, when Weiszbrod found himself watching Nassar’s sentencing hearing at work. He was thinking about another physician who worked at the gym, Brooke, whom Larry was training. When he got home, he put down his bag and turned directly to Ashleigh, who was hunched over her homework, legs crossed on the couch. “Did Larry touch you,” he asked, “different than Brooke touched you?” Ashleigh was very still, and then she was crying. She had seen Larry at Twistars once a week for three years.

Jane asked Kate, 14 at the time, whether she thought Larry was guilty, and Kate said no. Jane left it alone for a while. Later, in the car, Jane’s husband asked their daughter whether she knew what Nassar had been accused of, and she said yes. He asked if Nassar had done treatments to her that “fell into this category,” and she said yes. He asked if there had been penetration, and she said, “Dad, this is hard to talk about.”

In the light of day, parents thought about the choices they’d made, hearing them in a new and horrifying light. “All of a sudden, the stuff you think is normal coming out of somebody else’s mouth doesn’t sound normal,” says Jane.

It did not sound normal, for instance, that every week after practice, Jane had driven her daughter to a white three-bedroom house with green shutters, next to many identical houses in a development on a quiet street in Holt, Michigan, and taken her to see a man in the basement of that house. It didn’t seem normal that he never billed for these visits or that he always had hot chocolate waiting.

“I hear myself telling you this,” says Jane, “and I know it sounds crazy. It sounds crazy! But when I was pulling into his driveway, someone else would be pulling out.”

A detective told Trinea Gonczar that there were images of little girls in his bathtub — the bathtub in which she had waited, alongside the egg timer — but the detective could not tell her whether she was among them. “That’s when I started to think back and go deep into the places I had been with him,” says Trinea. “How many times I had been to his house. How many times I had been to MSU. How many times I had seen him at the gym. Realizing that there was probably never a time I didn’t have this treatment.”

The goodwill Nassar built is so resilient that even now it cannot be wholly erased. Trinea’s husband asked her to revise her testimony because it was too kind — people might get the wrong idea. “I don’t hate Larry,” she says. “I don’t want him to be raped and beaten in prison. I feel like the parents of someone who shot up a school. You still love them today like you did yesterday.”

“I’m still grateful to him,” says Chloe’s mother, and her father wonders aloud whether sometimes he really was just performing vaginal treatments in the interest of his daughter, who, after all, says she is “100 percent sure” the treatments she considers abusive helped her back pain every time. “I don’t know,” he says. “Is it 24/7? So every time he has someone in there? Are there times when he is just doing the treatment?” Says Dawn: “I really believe Larry at some point in his life thought it was the appropriate treatment. I don’t know when he went to the dark side and changed it.”

Is this their naïveté, or is it ours? Nassar “groomed the entire community,” reads a Lansing State Journal piece from January on the town of Holt. At a certain level of psychological reduction, every friendly conversation, every accurate diagnosis, every accommodation was part of Larry Nassar’s strategy. Did he shovel the neighbors’ snow as part of a plan to gain access to ever more girls? Apart from being an implausibly simplistic picture of a single human mind, this would not even seem to be the ideal psychology for a successful pedophile. A man who takes pleasure in going out of his way for people, who thrives on simple gratitude, who finds actual satisfaction in lifting the spirits of an injured gymnast, is one you risk letting into your life. One you call, as Trinea once did, family.

“Larry,” she said on the fourth day of Nassar’s sentencing hearing, staring straight at him, voice deep with controlled fury. She had known how young the other accusers would be, but somehow it hadn’t struck her until she walked into that room full of them. They were little girls. Her rage was such that she spoke slowly and almost in a whisper: “What. Have. You.
Done.” Between sobs she looked him straight in the eye, cocked her head, and raised her eyebrows, a look of profound disappointment and deep familiarity. Larry had sat emotionless, listening to other women he’d abused, for hours prior to this. Sometimes he shook his head, as if to deny their claims. During Trinea’s testimony, something changed. He started to shake, and then he started to cry.

“I think his heart broke because my heart broke,” she tells me later. “I was worried the other girls would hate me because of his reaction to me.” There’s pride in her voice, the triumph of having been the one, out of the hundreds, who actually broke through. This may be her win, or it may be his. There are a lot of ways to make a person feel special, and Larry Nassar knows all of them.

The Man Who Cracked the Lottery

When the Iowa attorney general’s office began investigating an unclaimed lottery ticket worth millions, an incredible string of unlikely winners came to light - and a trail that pointed to an inside job.

The file landed on Rob Sand’s desk with something less than a thud. Despite holding the contents of an investigation still open after more than two years, the file was barely half an inch thick. “Happy birthday,” his boss said.

Click to read the rest


It was not Rob Sand’s birthday. His boss, an Iowa deputy attorney general named Thomas H. Miller, was retiring in July 2014 after nearly three decades of prosecuting everything from murder to fraud. He hired Sand about four years earlier and made him the youngest prosecutor in a nine-attorney team that handled challenging cases all over the state. Now Miller was offloading cases to colleagues. This one, having to do with a suspicious lottery ticket worth $16.5 million, was full of dead ends. Investigators didn’t even know if a crime had been committed. The most tantalizing pieces of evidence were on a DVD: two grainy surveillance clips from a gas station. Sand slid the disc into his laptop and pressed play.

A man walked into a QuikTrip convenience store just off Interstate 80 in Des Moines. It was a weekday afternoon, two days before Christmas. The hood of the man’s black sweatshirt was pulled over his head, obscuring his face from two surveillance cameras overhead. Under the hoodie, he appeared to be wearing a ball cap; over the hoodie, he wore a black jacket. The man grabbed a fountain drink and two hot dogs.

“Hello!” the cashier said brightly.

The man replied in a low-pitched drawl, a voice that struck Sand as distinct: “Hell-ooooh.”

“Couple hot dogs?” the cashier asked.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied quietly, his head down.

The man pulled two pieces of paper from his pocket. They were play slips for Hot Lotto, a Powerball-like lottery game available in 14 states and Washington, D.C. A player — or the game’s computer — picked five numbers between 1 and 39 and then a sixth number, known as the Hot Ball, between 1 and 19. The prize for getting the first five numbers right was $10,000. But a much larger prize that varied according to the number of players who bought tickets went to anyone who got all six numbers right. The record Hot Lotto jackpot of nearly $20 million had been claimed in 2007. The jackpot at the time of this video was approaching the record. The stated odds of winning it were one in 10,939,383.

The cashier took the man’s play slips, which had already been filled out with multiple sets of numbers. At 3:24 p.m., the cashier ran the slips through the lottery terminal. An older man with a cane limped by the refrigerated section. A bus drove by. The cashier handed over his change. Once outside, the man pulled down his hood and removed his cap, got into his S.U.V. and drove away. The gas-station parking lot gleamed; there had been snow flurries that afternoon.

Two years into the case, that was virtually all the investigators had. Sand watched the video again and again, trying to pick up every little detail: the S.U.V.’s make; the man’s indistinct appearance: most likely in his 40s, and 100 pounds overweight, maybe more; the tenor of his voice.

Sand, a baby-faced Iowan who turned down Harvard Law School for the University of Iowa College of Law, had a background that seemed perfect for the case: a high school job writing computer code and doing tech support, a specialty in white-collar crime. His recent cases included securities fraud and theft by public officials.

The ticket in the video was purchased on Dec. 23, 2010. Six days later, the winning Hot Lotto numbers were selected: 3, 12, 16, 26, 33, 11. The next day, the Iowa Lottery announced that a QuikTrip in Des Moines had sold the winning ticket. But one month after the numbers were drawn, no one had presented the ticket.

The Iowa Lottery held a news conference. Phone calls poured in; dozens of people claimed to be the winner. Some said they had lost the ticket. Others said it was stolen from them. But lottery officials had crucial evidence that wasn’t publicly available: the serial number on the winning ticket and the video of the man buying it. One by one, they crossed off prospective claimants. One caller said his friend was a regular Hot Lotto player who had just died in a car wreck — should he go to the junkyard to search through his deceased friend’s car?

Three months after the winning ticket was announced, the lottery issued another public reminder. Another followed at six months and again at nine months, each time warning that winners had one year to claim their money. “I was convinced it would never be claimed,” says Mary Neubauer, the Iowa Lottery’s vice president of external relations. Since 1999, she had dealt with around 200 people who had won more than $1 million; she’d never seen a winning million-dollar ticket go unclaimed. “And then comes Nov. 9, 2011.”

A man named Philip Johnston, a lawyer from Quebec, called the Iowa Lottery and gave Neubauer the correct 15-digit serial number on the winning Hot Lotto ticket. Neubauer asked his age — in his 60s, he said — and what he was wearing when he purchased the ticket. His description, a sports coat and gray flannel dress pants, did not match the QuikTrip video. Then, in a subsequent call, the man admitted he had “fibbed”; he said he was helping a client claim the ticket so the client wouldn’t be identified.

This was against the Iowa Lottery rules, which require the identities of winners to be public. Johnston floated the possibility of withdrawing his claim. Neubauer was suspicious: The winner’s anonymity was worth $16.5 million?

One year to the day after the winning numbers popped up on the random-number-generator computers — and less than two hours before the 4 p.m. deadline — representatives from a prominent Des Moines law firm showed up at the Iowa Lottery’s headquarters with the winning ticket. The firm was claiming the ticket on behalf of a trust. Later, the Iowa Lottery learned that the trust’s beneficiary was a corporation in Belize whose president was Philip Johnston, the Canadian attorney. “It just absolutely stunk all over the place,” says Terry Rich, chief executive of the Iowa Lottery. The Iowa attorney general’s office and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation opened a case.

In an interview in Quebec City, Johnston told investigators that he had been contacted about the ticket by a Houston attorney named Robert Sonfield. Johnston also pointed investigators toward a Sugar Land, Tex., businessman named Robert Rhodes. A trip to Texas by Iowa investigators proved fruitless; during their several days there, both Sonfield and Rhodes managed to avoid them.

By the time the file ended up on the desk of Rob Sand in 2014, the case had acquired cultlike status in his office. It was spoken about with gallows humor: “We’ll find the guy who bought the ticket ended up getting offed,” Sand said. “That’s what this is going to turn out to be, a murder case.”

Miller had mentored Sand and saw in him a kindred spirit, someone for whom practicing law was a calling. Sometimes Sand’s moral compass was so steady that he came off as a square; his brothers-in-law nicknamed him Baby Jesus. Sand grew up in Decorah, in northeast Iowa, the son of a small-town doctor who still made house calls. He wanted to get into white-collar criminal prosecution because it focused not on crimes of desperation but on crimes of greed. “Crimes against gratitude,” Sand called them.

But all he had was grainy video of a man buying a lottery ticket worth $16.5 million. “We only had one bullet left in our revolver,” Sand says, “and that was releasing the video.”

On Oct. 9, 2014, nearly 46 months after the man in the hoodie left the QuikTrip, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation put out a news release that included a link to a 74-second clip of the surveillance footage. A few days later, in Maine, an employee of the Maine Lottery opened an email forwarded from his boss. The employee recognized the distinct voice in the video: It belonged to a man who had spent a week in the Maine Lottery offices a few years earlier conducting a security audit.

In Des Moines, a web developer at the Iowa Lottery who watched the video also recognized that voice: It belonged to a man she had worked alongside for years. A receptionist in another lottery office handed her earbuds to Noelle Krueger, a draw manager, and told her to listen. “Why am I listening to a video or listening to a tape of Eddie?” Krueger replied.


By Eddie, she meant Eddie Tipton, the information-security director for the Multi-State Lottery Association. The organization runs lotteries for 33 different states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was based in the Des Moines suburbs. Among the games it ran was the Hot Lotto.

Eddie Tipton cut a big, friendly figure around the office of the Multi-State Lottery Association. He grew up in rural Texas, but while his siblings were outside, he was always in his room, fiddling with his computer. He was a paranoid sort who rarely paid with credit cards, who worried about people tracing his identity. But he always wanted people to like him. When a co-worker was in a bad mood, one colleague said, Tipton would pat him on the shoulder and say, “I just want you to know I’m your friend.”

Tipton built a 4,800-square-foot, $540,000 house in the cornfields south of Des Moines. The house had five bedrooms and a huge basement, including a pool table, a shuffleboard table, a stadium-style home theater with couches and a space he considered turning into a basketball court. Friends wondered why a single man needed such a big house and how he could afford it on a salary just shy of $100,000 a year. In private moments, Tipton told them he was lonely and wanted a family more than anything, so he poured his savings into the house he hoped to fill with a wife and children. But the right partner never came. Instead, he hosted office Christmas parties, and he constantly asked friends to visit. His family, still in Texas, checked on him frequently.

His life revolved around his job. The Multi-State Lottery Association was a small organization, and Tipton felt overextended. He wrote software and worked on web pages. He handled network security and firewalls. And he reviewed security for lottery games in nearly three dozen states. He was putting in 60-hour weeks and staying at the office until 11 p.m.

When Ed Stefan, the chief information officer and chief security officer at the Multi-State Lottery Association, saw the surveillance video, he didn’t want to believe it. This wasn’t just some co-worker. This was Eddie Tipton, a man he had known for more than two decades, since they were in calculus class at the University of Houston. Stefan met his future wife while he and Tipton were on a charity bike ride in Texas; Tipton would later be in their wedding. Stefan helped Tipton get his job at the association. They bought some 50 acres of land together and built adjacent houses. They even applied for a joint patent for computer-based lottery security.

Stefan watched the convenience-store video for the first time after a former co-worker sent him the link that had been released by prosecutors. That just can’t be Eddie, he thought. Then: That’s Eddie. Why is he wearing a hoodie? I’ve never seen Eddie in a hoodie. Stefan got sick to his stomach: His friend, a man with deep knowledge of the computers that ran the lottery, was there onscreen buying a ticket that would be worth $16.5 million. Later, Stefan would tell investigators it was like finding out your mother was an ax murderer. He felt betrayed.

Jason Maher was another friend and colleague who didn’t want to believe what he was seeing on the video. He and Tipton had met at Taki, a Japanese restaurant outside Des Moines that they both frequented. The lifelong computer aficionados and gamers hit it off; Tipton joined Maher’s gaming clan, and they spent hours playing the multiplayer online game World of Tanks. Tipton suggested Maher apply for a job at the lottery association as a network engineer. Tipton, Maher told me, “had a heart of gold.”

So when Maher saw the video and heard that familiar low-pitched voice, he did what a computer whiz does. “That night I sat down — there’s no way Eddie did this,” Maher said. “There’s got to be something wrong.” He put the file of the surveillance tape into audio software, removed white noise and isolated the voice. Then he took footage from security cameras in his house — Tipton had just visited the night before — and compared Tipton’s voice in that footage with the convenience-store video. “It was a complete and utter match, sound wave and everything,” Maher said. The next day, he went to the QuikTrip where the ticket was purchased and measured the dimensions of the tiles on the floor, the height of the shelving units, the distance between the door and the cash register. He used the results to compare the hand size, foot size and height of the man in the video with the man he had become friends with.

“When the F.B.I. guys came in, I wanted to be able to tell them it wasn’t Eddie,” Maher said. “Once I did this, it was like, ‘Well, [expletive] — it’s Eddie.’ ”

In November 2014, state investigators showed up at Tipton’s office. They asked him whom he knew in Houston. He told them about his family — mother, sister and brothers, including Tommy, a former sheriff’s deputy turned justice of the peace near the Texas Hill Country. He did not mention Robert Rhodes, the man who initially passed the $16.5 million ticket to an attorney. By searching Tipton’s LinkedIn profile, investigators found that Tipton had been employed at Rhodes’s Texas-based software company, Systems Evolution, for six years as its chief operations officer. In fact, the two were best friends and vacationed together.

Tipton was arrested in January 2015 and charged with two felony counts of fraud. Half a year later, on a hot, sticky July morning, Rob Sand stood before a jury at the Polk County Courthouse. “This is a classic story about an inside job,” he began. “A man who by virtue of his employment is not allowed to play the lottery, nor allowed to win, buys a lottery ticket, wins and passes the ticket along to friends to be claimed by someone unconnected to him. This story, though, has a 21st-century twist.”

The prosecution knew Tipton had bought the winning ticket. The video, specifically the distinct voice that colleagues had recognized, made that pretty clear. So did cellphone records, which showed Tipton was in town that day, not out of town for the holidays as he claimed, and that he had been on the phone for 71 minutes with Robert Rhodes, the man who briefly had possession of the ticket. Investigators believed he’d fixed the lottery. But how?

Jason Maher, Tipton’s gaming buddy, told them about Tipton’s interest in rootkits: malicious software that can be installed via flash drive in order to take control of a computer while masking its existence until it deletes itself later. Sand theorized that Tipton went into the draw room six weeks before the big jackpot and, despite the presence of two colleagues, managed to insert a thumb drive into one of the two computers that select the winning numbers. That thumb drive contained the rootkit; the rootkit allowed Tipton to direct which numbers would win the Hot Lotto on Dec. 29, 2010.

Tipton’s defense attorney, Dean Stowers, called this the “Mission: Impossible” theory. Stowers characterized the story of a malicious, self-destructing rootkit (“magic software”), installed while two colleagues looked on, as preposterous. His closing arguments referenced a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you anywhere.”

But Sand called Stowers’s focus on this complicated rootkit theory a red herring. Sand told the jury to focus on the many ways Tipton could have fixed the lottery: He wrote the code. He had access to the random-number-generator machines before they were shipped to other states. You don’t have to understand the exact technology to convict Tipton, Sand argued; you just have to realize the near-impossible coincidence of the lottery security chief’s buying a winning ticket and that ticket’s being passed to his best friend. The prosecution had to prove only that Tipton tried to illegally buy lottery tickets as a Multi-State Lottery Association employee and tried to claim the prize through fraudulent means.

The jury found him guilty on July 20, 2015. He would be sentenced to 10 years in prison, and he would appeal. The State Supreme Court later dismissed his conviction on one charge, tampering with lottery equipment, and the case was sent back to District Court.

Six weeks after the trial concluded, Sand had returned to his desk. It had been a busy summer. But in the back of his mind, he was still thinking about Eddie Tipton. Sand knew white-collar criminals aren’t usually caught on their first attempt. The fact that Tipton’s attorney had demanded a 90-day speedy trial, an unusual maneuver that cut short the prosecution’s time to investigate, made Sand suspicious. His gut said other fraudulent lottery tickets were out there.

One morning Sand’s office phone rang, and an area code he recognized popped up: 281, from Texas, where Tipton used to live. Sand picked up. The caller had a drawl and told Sand he’d seen an article in the La Grange, Tex., newspaper about Tipton’s conviction. “Did y’all know,” the tipster asked, “that Eddie’s brother Tommy Tipton won the lottery, maybe about 10 years back?”

Richard Rennison’s phone rang at the F.B.I. office in Texas City, a port town on the shore of Galveston Bay. Sand was on the line, inquiring about a case that Rennison, a special agent for the bureau, investigated a decade before. At the time, it turned out to be nothing. But the case still stuck in Rennison’s mind. “Hey,” Rennison replied, “that’s my Bigfoot case.”

A man named Tom Bargas had contacted local law-enforcement authorities in early 2006 with a suspicious story. Bargas owned 44 fireworks stands in Texas. Twice a year — after the Fourth of July and after New Year’s — he had to handle enormous amounts of cash, more than a half-million dollars at once. A local justice of the peace who shod Bargas’s horses called him around New Year’s. The justice of the peace caught Bargas off guard: “I got half a million in cash that I want to swap with your money.” “What’s wrong with your money?” Bargas replied.


What’s a justice of the peace who makes around $35,000 a year doing with that much cash? Bargas thought. He called the sheriff and the police, who called the F.B.I. Soon, the bureau contacted Bargas. Federal agents outfitted him with a wire. Bargas met with the man, who pulled out a briefcase filled with $450,000 in cash, still in their Federal Reserve wrappers. As the F.B.I. listened, Bargas swapped $100,000 of worn, circulated bills for $100,000 of the man’s crisp, unused bills. To the F.B.I., this smelled like public corruption, and they went to work investigating the serial numbers on the bills.

One day a couple of months later, Rennison got a call from the Fayette County sheriff in La Grange, a place best known for the Chicken Ranch, the brothel that inspired “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” The sheriff was laughing so hard he could hardly speak. He told Rennison the justice of the peace was holed up in a Houston hospital with two shattered legs. He had fallen 31 feet out of a tree. He had been hunting Bigfoot.

“My grandmother was raised on a farm in Arkansas where this creature would come in and harass all the farm animals,” this man later told investigators. “My grandmother would tell me all these stories of this animal that harassed my family.” He went on: “I started hitting the woods. It was always that doubt in your mind. And then something happened to me in Louisiana where I actually watched these animals for a couple of hours, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Rennison visited the man in the hospital and then set up an interview once he was discharged. The man was a member of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. He told Rennison he’d won the lottery in Colorado while on a Bigfoot hunt. He was on the outs with his wife and was trying to keep the lottery winnings from her. A Bigfoot-hunting friend claimed the prize in exchange for 10 percent of the money. It all checked out. Case closed.

“Right before I leave, we’re still sitting down at this nice conference table, and he looks over at his attorneys and says, ‘Can I show him?’ ” Rennison recalled. “Hanging off the back of his chair is a plastic grocery bag. He pulls out a plaster cast of a footprint.”

Rennison put the footprint next to his own foot. They were roughly the same size. “That doesn’t look like Bigfoot,” the F.B.I. agent said. “It was a juvenile,” the man snapped. The man’s name was Tommy Tipton.

Now the hunt was on for more illicitly claimed tickets. Iowa investigators noticed that the friend who claimed the $568,990 Colorado Lottery prize for Tommy Tipton, a man named Alexander Hicks, was dead. “We first thought, Whoa — this is our first body related to this case,” Sand says. It wasn’t. Hicks had died of cancer.

The investigators collected a decade’s worth of winners from lotteries around the country associated with the Multi-State Lottery Association. They loaded data from approximately 45,000 winning tickets into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and searched for any connections to Eddie Tipton. They reviewed Tipton’s Facebook friends, pulled phone records and looked for matches with the spreadsheet.

In September 2015, they learned that a $783,257.72 payout for Wisconsin’s Very Own Megabucks Game had been claimed in early 2008 by a Texas man named Robert Rhodes, who wanted to deposit it into the account of a limited-liability corporation. That drawing took place on Dec. 29, 2007 — the same day the winning numbers on Tipton’s $16.5 million Iowa ticket were selected three years later. Rhodes was Eddie Tipton’s best friend. Another hit.

One evening over the holidays, Sand was at his parents’ house working on his laptop, sifting through records, using search commands on his computer again and again. He noticed that a Kyle Conn from Hemphill, Tex., won a $644,478 jackpot in the Oklahoma Lottery some years back. Tommy Tipton had three Facebook friends named Conn. Sand got a list of possible phone numbers for a Kyle Conn and cross-referenced them with Tommy Tipton’s cellphone records. Another hit.

Investigators noticed two winning Kansas Lottery tickets for $15,402 apiece were purchased on Dec. 23, 2010 — the same day Tipton had purchased the Iowa ticket, and the same day that cellphone records indicated he was driving through Kansas on the way to Texas for the holidays. One of the winning tickets was claimed by a Texan named Christopher McCoulskey, the other by an Iowa woman named Amy Warrick. Each was a friend of Eddie Tipton’s.

Early one morning, Sand and an investigator knocked on the woman’s door. She told them she’d gone on one date with Tipton, but their relationship became platonic. Tipton told her he wasn’t able to claim a winning lottery ticket because of his job. If she could claim it, Tipton said, she could keep a significant portion as a gift for her recent engagement.

“You have these honest dupes,” Sand says. “All these people are being offered thousands of dollars for doing something that’s a little bit sneaky but not illegal.” Investigators in Iowa now had six tickets they figured were part of a bigger scam. But the question remained: How did it work ?

Investigators in Wisconsin discovered they still had the random-number-generator computers used for the 2007 jackpot sitting in storage. Unlike Iowa’s computers, the hard drives had not been wiped clean; their software was the same as the day Robert Rhodes won $783,257.72. Wisconsin enlisted a computer expert named Sean McLinden to conduct an investigation that included forensic analysis and reverse engineering.

On Jan. 7, 2016, Sand’s phone rang. It was David Maas, an assistant attorney general in Wisconsin. He told Sand to check his email. Maas had sent him an attachment with 21 lines of “pseudocode,” a common-language translation of McLinden’s forensic analysis that showed part of Tipton’s malicious computer code. The code was small enough that it would not radically change the size of the file, which might create suspicion. And the code hadn’t been hidden. You just needed to know what to look for.

“This,” Maas says, “was finding the smoking gun.”

The smoking gun would help lead to a guilty plea from Tipton. In the plea deal, Sand insisted that Tipton come clean about how he fixed the lottery. This could help the lottery industry improve its security. If Tipton lied — or if another fraudulent ticket were found later — the deal would be voided, and Tipton would be subject to further charges.

Tipton’s program was called QVRNG.dll: Quantum Vision Random Number Generator. In Tipton’s telling, his wasn’t an evil plan to get rich. This was just a computer nerd’s attempt to crack the system. “It was never my intent to start a full-out ticket scam,” Tipton told investigators. “It occurred to me, like, Wow, I could do this, I could be making a living doing this.” He went on: “If this was, like, some mob-related thing, I’d just give this information to the mob and they would go out and win the lotteries left and right. Nobody would know. But that — I don’t have any mob ties. I don’t know anybody. I gave tickets to friends or family.”

More than a decade ago, Tipton told them, he walked past one of the organization’s accountants at the Multi-State Lottery Association. Tipton was conservative, the accountant liberal, and they often ribbed each other.

“Hey, did you put your secret numbers in there?” the accountant said, teasing Tipton.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you know, you can set numbers on any given day since you wrote the software.”

And that’s when the idea first came. “Just like a little seed that was planted,” Tipton said in his proffer. “And then during one slow period I just had a — had a thought that it’s possible, and I tried it and I put it in.” The code wasn’t a brazen “Mission: Impossible” stunt of sneaking into the draw room with a malicious thumb drive. It was a simple piece of code, partly copied from an internet source, inserted by the one man responsible for information security at an organization that runs three dozen United States lotteries.


Here’s how the Multi-State Lottery Association’s random-number generators were supposed to work: The computer takes a reading from a Geiger counter that measures radiation in the surrounding air, specifically the radioactive isotope Americium-241. The reading is expressed as a long number of code; that number gives the generator its true randomness. The random number is called the seed, and the seed is plugged into the algorithm, a pseudorandom number generator called the Mersenne Twister. At the end, the computer spits out the winning lottery numbers.

Tipton’s extra lines of code first checked to see if the coming lottery drawing fulfilled Tipton’s narrow circumstances. It had to be on a Wednesday or a Saturday evening, and one of three dates in a nonleap year: the 147th day of the year (May 27), the 327th day (Nov. 23) or the 363rd day (Dec. 29). Investigators noticed those dates generally fell around holidays — Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas — when Tipton was often on vacation. If those criteria were satisfied, the random-number generator was diverted to a different track. Instead, the algorithm would use a predetermined seed number that restricted the pool of potential winning numbers to a much smaller, predictable set of numbers.

So Tipton knew what no one else knew: For the Iowa Hot Lotto drawing on Dec. 29, 2010, there weren’t really 10,939,383 sets of possible winning numbers. There were only a few hundred. Late at night before a draw that fulfilled his criteria, Tipton stayed in his messy, computer-filled office. He set a test computer to the date and time of the coming draw, and he ran the program over and over again. For the first lottery he rigged, the Nov. 23, 2005, drawing in Colorado, Tipton wrote down each potential set of winning numbers on a yellow legal pad. He handed the pad — each sheet had 35 or so sets of six numbers — to his brother.

It was a cheat sheet; instead of playing every possible number combination to ensure one combination won, he had to play only a few hundred. “If you want a chance to win, you need to play all of these,” Tipton told his brother. “I don’t know if any of them will win, but you’re going anyway” — his brother was about to go on a Bigfoot-hunting trip to Colorado — and “these have a good chance of winning based on my analysis.

“Play them,” he said. “Play them all.”

On a clear, blue summer day in Des Moines last year, Eddie Tipton, a square-shaped, balding man who was then 54, trudged up the stairs of the Polk County Courthouse. He wore bluejeans and a short-sleeved salmon-colored button-up shirt, untucked and unbuttoned, with a blue T-shirt underneath. His hands were shoved in his pockets, and his head was down. He had accepted a plea agreement for masterminding the largest lottery scam in American history: one count of ongoing criminal conduct, part of a package deal that allowed his brother to be sentenced to only 75 days. Tipton was here for his sentencing.

In statements to prosecutors, Tipton painted himself in the most generous way possible, a kind of coding Robin Hood, stealing from the lottery and helping people in need: his brother who had five daughters, his friend who’d just gotten engaged. “I didn’t really need the money,” Tipton said. The judge noted that Tipton seemed to rationalize his actions — that Tipton didn’t think it was necessarily illegal, just a taking advantage of a hole in the lottery’s system. It wasn’t all that different, Tipton believed, from insider trading, except laws didn’t specifically prohibit him from fiddling with the random-number-generator code. His attorney equated what he did with counting cards at a casino. Tipton wasn’t robbing the casino at gunpoint; he was cheating the house.

The other side disagreed. Tipton was “nothing but a common thief who happened to be handed the keys to the candy store,” Miller, Sand’s former boss, told me. “It’s not a case of Sherlock Holmes’s archnemesis, Moriarty, being a criminal genius. This is just a regular schlub, who is a thief who happens to have knowledge of computer security.”

From Tipton’s point of view, it was complicated. He had done something to see if he could do it. To his surprise, it worked. He said he inserted that code only once; after the code was approved by Gaming Laboratories International, machines containing it were shipped all over the country. He had created a beast and sent it into the world. “You plant that money tree in your backyard,” as Maas, the Wisconsin prosecutor, put it, “and it’s hard not to keep picking at it.”

In interviews, investigators had asked Tipton if he was proud of the success of his code. “It was more like I’m ready for it to be gone,” Tipton said. “It was never my intent to go out there and start winning all these lotteries. It was just, like I said, step by step it happened.”

At sentencing, the judge asked if Tipton had anything to say. After a long pause, Tipton cleared his throat. Family members and former co-workers were in the courtroom. “Well,” Tipton said matter-of-factly, “I certainly regret my actions. It’s difficult to say that with all the people behind me that I hurt. And I regret it. I’m sorry.” As the case was being litigated, Tipton had confessed to friends that he was racked with guilt. At another point during the proceedings, Tipton leaned across a divide and extended his hand to Sand. Sand took the handshake as a sign of respect, as if Tipton had thought he outsmarted the system but the system figured him out. On the day of his sentencing, Tipton told the judge he’d been taking classes to go into ministry. A deputy placed Tipton in handcuffs and led him away.

Earlier in the summer, Tipton sat in a conference room with Sand and law-enforcement and lottery officials to give his full confession, as promised in his plea agreement. Eventually he would head to Clarinda Correctional Facility in southern Iowa, near the Missouri border, where he remains today, Offender No. 6832975. (Through his attorney, he declined interview requests for this article; Tipton did not respond to nearly a dozen emails through the prison email system.)

During a lunch break in Tipton’s hourslong confession, Sand and others involved in the prosecution walked a few blocks to the High Life Lounge. They ordered bacon-wrapped tater tots to celebrate. “Eddie sees himself as much brighter than the rest of the world, the sharpest tool in the toolbox,” Sand says. “It’s the kind of thing I see in white-collar case after white-collar case, people who think they’re better than everybody else, that people trust them and love them, and that no one will be able to figure this out.”

The judge sentenced Tipton to a maximum of 25 years in prison. His restitution payments to the various state lotteries came to $2.2 million even though, according to his attorney, Tipton pocketed only around $350,000 from the scam, the rest going to those who claimed the tickets. (Prosecutors did not believe that, pointing to Tipton’s massive house as well as the fact that Tipton and his brother owned 11 pieces of property either jointly or individually in Fayette County, Tex.) In Iowa, which has indeterminate sentencing, a 25-year sentence could mean Tipton is released much sooner; Sand expects Tipton to be released by the Iowa Board of Parole within seven years.

Sand says he felt a deep intellectual satisfaction in solving the puzzle: “The justice system at its best is really about a search for truth.” But it couldn’t go back in time and correct wrongs. At the end of this yearslong case, he came to a realization: He had grown weary of dealing with criminals. “In so much darkness,” Sand says, “I started to lose my light.”

A few months after the highest-profile case of his career, Sand went up to his boss and quit. He had decided to run for state auditor in the coming November election, so he could make positive changes. If he wins, he will be investigating government waste, abuse and fraud. “There’s no way I would make a move to get away from the darkness of prosecution without finishing this case first,” Sand says. “So finishing it, to me, was not merely satisfying. It was liberating.”

Great thread @Rocko
Thanks so much.

No worries. You asked me on the other thread for recommendations of a site. I tend to just bookmark stuff and have a long list of articles I get to eventually. But it’s easier to keep them all together here anyway.


I worked with one of the girls sisters. Sort of an unprecedented one to deal with when a family member dies in an aircraft crash. She (the sister) recovered well from it but it was horrific and awful for a long spell. Lot of speculation as to what they knew, what could have been avoided, freak of Booking etc