Saturday, August 11, 2007

Vikings in the New World

Olav Olavssen arrived in Chicago early in 1941. He had a feeling for how things went together and had decided that he may as well work in construction until something else came along; they were still building things in Chicago. He found work quickly, and a place to live. He had the competent, cleanly air of his late mother. He was an ideal colleague and tenant.
After the accident he considered doing something else with his life. One February Tuesday his left ankle was guillotined by a joist mishandled by frozen fingers twenty storeys up in the Illinois sky. Discharged from the Holy Cross some days later, spring’s imminence evident on every corner as he hobbled towards home Olav began to weep, for the first time in many years, for the loss of his once useful leg, which grieved him more with every other homeward step. He wiped his eyes on each shoulder, as if his hands were dirty, tried to persuade himself that the tears were somehow windborne. Eventually he found a bar, and a half-drunk priest within. Informed perhaps by an echo of his quiet, observant ancestry, Olav sat beside the priest and offered him another drink.

“What ails you son?” the priest asks. “No-one courts a cleric in a bar unless their world is a little out of shape.”
“I’ve ruined my leg, Father, and I’m not sure I’ve the nerve to go back to work.”
“What’s your job?”
“Construction,” says Olav.
“Enjoy it much? Does it inspire you?”
“Sometimes, I suppose. When the sun first appears on the lake like a straight line–“
“Well, there you are,” concludes the priest. “Believe in Him and God will give you strength.”

Fortified by these words, and by a little bourbon, Olav continued home to his uninspiring three-room apartment in Lakeview, close to great vacant dish of Wrigley Field.
He returned to work. He adapted. There were fewer tasks that he could perform; he was disabled, in effect. He was more cautious, inevitably, around the site and amongst the scaffolding, and though the men ribbed him about his useless leg they did so gently enough and at a distance. Olav was still a big man, who could throw a four-pound club hammer like a tomahawk.

That summer America slept, as the war consumed lives in Europe, aware of the distant conflict as a suburban guard dog might be aware of a burglary on the other side of the street. Olav, watching the bathers down at the end of 55th Street, met Susan who was doing the same thing, late one August afternoon. Susan had a dog, some kind of terrier, she thought, but anyway of dubious pedigree, and this dog, which she had named Muffin, took a liking to Olav. Susan had learned, by way of a number of deeply felt disappointments, that Muffin was a better detective of the innumerable flaws of men than she was. Olav chose to disregard her scepticism and Susan was not troubled by his impediment. He could lift her from the ground like the ninety pound teenager she occasionally saw, reflected as a palimpsest in the wardrobe mirror. The city was prospering and Susan had thickened with it. Olav didn’t know her younger self, took her, in fact, to be the same age as him, from which misconception, Susan felt, it was not immediately necessary that he be disabused. Their courtship proceeded at a stately pace. From time to time Olav would mention a girl he had been fond of back in Portland. Susan didn’t talk about the past.

Autumn came. Unsure that the romance could survive the chill of a Mid-Western winter without some sense of direction Olav proposed and was accepted, without any of the vacillation customary to such moments. Her feelings for him were unequivocal still, though she was obliged to Muffin for bolstering her resolve in the days and weeks that followed. They planned to marry the following June, when they had saved a few dollars.

The United States entered the war in December. Olav attempted at once to enlist. They didn’t want him of course. What would they do with a hobbling giant on the deck of a frigate, or in the turret of a tank? He couldn’t even drive an ambulance. Olav, who had contrived a way to continue to make a living in one of the more hostile civilian occupations in spite of his disability, was utterly chagrined. His fiancée offered few words of comfort. She was glad he had been rejected, knew that he sensed this, and did not wish to seem insincere.

Olav sulked through Christmas; his frustration seemed inescapable. On an icy Friday evening towards the end of winter he travelled downtown to the bar on the Southwest Side where he had encountered the priest the previous spring. Also visiting the bar that evening was Augustus Knuth, millwright, bourlingueur, and a friend of the owner.

Knuth achieved a degree of specific celebrity following his involvement with a project in which he would soon seek the assistance of Olav. His name appears in only a few accounts of the progress of this endeavour, Olav’s in none. Historically, one might suppose therefore, that these two men were not at all central to its success - were bystanders, perhaps, attendant labourers making up the numbers – in truth they knew how to do things that no-one else knew and were thus invaluable. The bar owner, whose name is not recorded, even here, introduced the two men.

“Here’s Gus, an old friend, and a fellow artisan! This is Olav, he’s a cripple but you daren’t tell him so unless you want to swallow some teeth. Used to come in here all the time before he got some unsuspecting out-of-town girl in trouble.”
“How do you do,” says Olav, offering a hand. “My girl’s not pregnant, by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you,” says Knuth as they greet each other, their handshake making a sound like glass paper on sawn timber. He nods towards the bar owner. “He’s been spouting the same shit since Wilson was president. Artisan, my ass.” He gestures obscenely to the bar owner while at the same time making it understood that he requires another drink.

Knuth would presumably have been surprised to learn that this was how Olav thought of himself, as an artisan. He had come across the word in a book that Susan had been reading, written in the twenties by a fellow named Carey Lewis. The book was called “Work”, just that, and from what Olav could tell from a brief skim of its contents it was some kind of Red propaganda about the nobility of labour and the coming revolution and the earthly paradise which would surely ensue. He didn’t think much of that but he liked the word, he liked its overtones of deftness, and artistry. He was also impressed with one conceit he came across: -

…Are we to assume then that when God considered the mighty Cathedrals of Europe, built to his glory, he decided that only those who had paid for the construction should enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Or is it the more likely judgment, as Jesus Christ His Risen Son suggests, that the truehearted, God-fearing laborers who shifted the heavy stones and raised the scaffold should be recipients of His grace…?

Olav suspected that Carey Lewis didn’t believe in God at all and was just pretending to in order to make his point. Nevertheless, he thought, it was a good point to be making. The two artisans got to talking. Knuth listened to Olav’s grievances regarding his rejection by the armed forces. Then he offered him a job.

“Come up to Stagg Field on Monday. There’s someone you should meet. That’s all I can tell you.”

Knuth put one finger to his lips and the two men parted with another rough handshake. The following Monday, as instructed, Olav took the ‘L’ and walked to 57th Street, close to where he and Susan had met. Their relationship had cooled. She had taken to attending meetings, wearing a beret and reading Ibsen in public places. He was untroubled by these developments; now they were in each other’s orbits, he felt, neither of them could escape.

“This is your new boss, be gentle with him.” Walter Zinn, almost as tall as Olav, and with a scholarly bearing subverted somewhat by his blackened face and hands, and his prizefighter nose, introduced himself as a physicist and put Olav to work straight away. What they were doing, Zinn explained, was assembling a pile of material in order to test its suitability for use in a subsequent, much larger experiment. Sensibly he didn’t over-complicate things, detailing his requirements and setting Olav free. They made a series of cubes from graphite bricks, some of which were machined to accept pockets of uranium, from this they could calculate the purity of the graphite. It was filthy work, and not obviously rewarding, but Olav drove himself, and the small team of draft dodgers and petty criminals that Zinn had put at his disposal, with a zealot’s commitment. The results brought Olav to the attention of Enrico Fermi, the latter deciding that he might well require the new man’s services elsewhere. Olav was promptly poached, leaving Zinn to the mercies of his vagabond crew.

Enrico Fermi, it will be agreed, was one of the Great Men of the last century. Olav had never heard of him, but he knew what a Nobel Prize was and was suitably awed when it was revealed to him that his new boss had one all to himself. Zinn and Fermi were about as different as two men in the same profession are likely to be - where Zinn was erect, austere and earnest Fermi was stout, enthusiastic and a little wild - but both seemed to share a love of hard work. The diminutive Italian welcomed Olav into his consciousness, requiring his attendance at lectures and soirées and consulting him regarding the construction of the super-pile he was planning. Olav was entranced by Fermi, within hours, and though he had been denied his part in the war Olav felt that he had at last found a General, someone to follow, someone for whom he might risk everything. Olav’s huge frame and quiet demeanour reminded Fermi of Niels Bohr, who he greatly admired.

Olav takes Fermi to see the Cubs play at Wrigley, one afternoon in early July. Fermi knows a little about baseball and becomes agitated when the famed slugger Jimmie Foxx is announced as Chicago’s starting first baseman.
“I thought Foxx played for Boston,” says Fermi.
“He got traded.”
“Why would you trade a star player?”
“He’s not the player he was,” Olav explains. “He took a ball in the face a while back and he’s been shy ever since. They say he’s a rummy.”
Fermi looks at Olav and sees him angry for the first time. He changes the subject. In the fourth inning Foxx lashes a double into the ivy. Olav’s face, the physicist observes, glows with the fervour of a man vindicated.

By the time Gus Knuth was called upon again, as Chicago froze in November, he was surprised to discover that Olav was now a confidant of a number of the physicists and was greeted generally as warmly as he was. It occurred to Knuth that he might have made a mistake, introducing this open-faced hulk to his rarefied circle of influence. He need not have worried. Olav was instantly deferential to Knuth, his referee, which elevated the perceived status of the millwright in the eyes of the scientists.

These men were going to change the world. The construction of the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile One, was an extraordinary undertaking: recreating the power of the sun in a squash court. The sun was a clue, the most efficient shape for such a pile was a sphere, and to build this sphere, and the timber structure to support it would require expertise beyond a collection of scientific minds. Fifty years of thought and experiment, three years of immediate application, thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars had been swallowed by the project. Only Knuth and Olavssen could build the pile.

Fermi concocted a rough blueprint for them to work to, based on the experiments that Olav’s lost boys had already laboured towards. The two carpenters, ignorant of the vast budget granted to the entire Manhattan Project grumbled privately that planed timber had been provided where less costly rough-cut would have served.

The pile rose in layers, like an onion being unsliced. Past the equator the structure became self-supporting and Knuth returned to other, less critical jobs. Olav remained, in thrall of Fermi and in the employ of the Government. He supervised the rest of the construction, directing future Nobel laureates, football stars and menaces to society in the art of bricklaying. The graphite bricks were texturally confusing; slippery but neither greasy nor moist. The workers finished their shifts in blackface, and the reform school boys complained that they were treated no better than filthy slaves. Olav would cuff them for this, call them foul and ungrateful, but then stand them a drink after work.

The pile was never completed, not at least as originally conceived, and Olav struggled to conceal his dissatisfaction. Fermi’s slide rule revealed that an abbreviated bun shape, a few layers shy of a sphere, would support a chain reaction and construction was halted. This victory of the pragmatic over the aesthetic disappointed the Artisan, but he kept quiet about it.
Advent arrived, and along with it gasoline rationing. Olav walked to work while fights broke out on the public transportation system. On the 2nd of December, the hundred ton pile having squatted overnight, kept sub-critical by tines of cadmium-wrapped timber, the experiment concluded. Olav gauged the importance of the occasion by the fact that Fermi was wearing a suit jacket beneath his lab coat. He found a place to stand a few feet behind the physicists on the gallery of the squash court. Inch by inch the cadmium toothpicks were removed from the sphere like cloves pulled incrementally from an orange. Nothing happened other than a corresponding increase in the clicking of the measuring equipment which then subsided. Lunch was taken. The other scientists deferred to Fermi and asked questions to which he knew all the answers. For Olav it felt good to see other people regard his General with the same mixture of wonder and affection that he felt.

In the afternoon the clicking increased and did not subside. The reaction became self-sustaining, energy was being produced from the most fundamental of fuels. Then he shut it down. Olav understood enough to imagine the triumph which Fermi was managing to disguise. Like Jimmie Foxx hitting one over the wall. Or Columbus sighting land. Unnoticed, unknown to all but a few, the world had changed irrevocably.

The following year Olav took Susan to Los Alamos, where they were eventually married, amongst barbed wire and military police, brilliant minds and the thin air above the desert. The train south was full of government men, checking papers and making people feel uneasy.
After the war they meant to make their way back to the Pacific Northwest, but made it no further than Santa Fe. They bought a house with cash and started all over again, filling their home with music and a couple of kids.

If you quizzed Olav about it, years later, a grandchild concealed beneath the footrest of his recliner, Susan preparing pastry in the kitchen, he would tell you that his involvement in the project had been rightly ignored. It was not that history had chosen to forget him, he believed, it was that he had chosen to forget history. He had sufficient reasons to be happy. He was a technician at best, he would assure you. Fermi was the real engineer. Then he would tell you this: -

“He was an extraordinary man, Fermi. He was a little, balding guy with protuberant ears and a smile never distant. If you didn’t know who he was you would have assumed that he was some kind of overlooked clerk, arriving late for work in ill-matched clothes. He had this charisma, which made this amazing thing happen, but I remember him most emerging from the lake at the 55th Street promontory, shivering, his eyes full of laughter. He was human, you see, very alive. But he was driven by a different engine than the rest of us. Some people are born to do great things, I guess.”

The Olavssens still live in New Mexico, they are elderly. No-one knows who they are.


Nancy said...


Redbeard76 said...

Well done, I see you were inspired while on holiday. I must read it again, there was so much content this time.

hayes said...

Lovely Tom, just lovely.

I had to look up this word; palimpsest.


Bridget said...

Magnificent, as ever.