Ten days ago, the last of my grandparents died. Our family was given notice that my maternal grandfather, David Makepeace Poxson had gone into hospice on the last day of November, and I knew this was his last ascent into the skies.
I think the best way to sum up my grandfather is to say that he was a pilot and a story-teller. His was an expansive view of life, filtered through triumph, loss, and history. In the Second World War, he served in the Army and was stationed at Los Alamos during the development of the Atom Bomb. Later, he was at Bikini Atoll when the bomb was tested.
Growing up, it was always common knowledge that grandfather had been at Los Alamos, and we’d even seen the Army photos taken during the test, where if you looked closely, we imagined we could see the ships tossed end-over-end, tiny in the mushroom cloud. But Grandfather never really talked in detail about what he did for the Army, or, what he saw.
That changed over a family Thanksgiving in November 2008. We were sitting around the living room in my Grandfather Peck’s Topinabee house, with my Grandfather Poxson and he (Poxson) started talking about his time in the Army. As he spoke, and he could weave a tale even out of the simplest day that left you hanging on every word, he talked about what it meant to guard the “raw material” used for the bomb-making, how the scientists worked with the uranium (inside “little lead houses to prevent radiation leaks"), and what happened to one of the scientists when one of the doll-sized houses toppled. Radiation sickness is a horrible way to die.
Grandfather Poxson also talked about the spare, aching beauty of the Southwest, told us that for a while, he’d considered moving out there, and how, he wasn’t surprised that New Mexico is where my brother now makes his life. He told us about driving the "material" through the then, very bumpy back rodes of NM, how he and his fellow soldiers sweated those rides out, and how, though it in some ways seemed absurd, how his unit was keeping watch for spies and other unauthorized persons.
Then he told us about the explosion. For him, I believe, it was a life-changing experience; one that informed many of his choices after he returned to civilian life. He spoke quietly as he talked about the awesome power of the bomb, of seeing mighty warships blown into the air, and even one exquisitely beautiful Japanese Junk that was simply evaporated upon detonation. Even in his 90th year, he could describe the Junk as if it floated before him again. As he told his story, you could see him remembering the terrible power unleashed that day, and I believe, he then returned home to Michigan, and dedicated his life to protecting that which he could.
Our family has owned property in Northern Michigan for about a century, and it was to this land, and a tiny, four-room cabin (the Stone House), that he ultimately returned to. He spent his life protecting the land, as a member of the zoning board, and even in his late eighties, was forcing environmental and building compliance upon those who would deface his woods. When a neighbor poured a concrete slab that drained into the lake instead of using gravel, or just leaving a grass impression, he stood nose-to-nose with the millionaire offender, and said, “Go ahead, pour the slab, you’ll just be pulling it out tomorrow.” And he won.
The destruction he witnessed that day at Bikini, I think never left him, so he decided –perhaps- to work against it. How long his physical legacy, the land, will hold, I don’t know, but that righteous willingness to articulate and maintain beliefs, I hope and think is the lastingest part.
My grandfather was a sailor, pilot, wood-chopper, hunter, recipient of a Master’s Degree in English (story teller), and a connoisseur of pies and sour-dough pancakes. He was as exquisitely made as the Japanese Junk he so admired: David M. Poxson 1918-2010.