September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
During World War II, I served aboard USS Alabama in the United States Navy. Al Barkan, a shipmate more than ten years my senior, assumed the role of mentor to me. Al was a graduate of the University of Chicago and a natural teacher.
In the winter of 1943–44 our ship put in at Seattle, Washington, for an overhaul. Al and I were granted leave, and we traveled home by train, he to New Jersey, I to New York. On our return trip we came through Chicago very early one Sunday morning. Al, noting we had a layover of about five hours, suggested we take a tour of his alma mater, which he had been encouraging me to attend when the war was over.
We went to the campus, and Al, swelling with pride, described the history and architecture of every building. He saved a tour of the football stadium for the very last.
Al told me he had seldom watched any of the football games from the stands because his dormitory room was on an upper floor and its window overlooked the playing field. Nonetheless he wanted me to see the stadium from the inside. As we began to walk around it, he discovered that the iron gates at each of the entrances were shut and padlocked. Visibly disappointed, Al was about to give up hope of getting inside when I noticed that one of the gates a bit farther ahead of us seemed to be ajar. I ran ahead to try it.
Sure enough, the gate was open, and I could see clearly through the underside of the grandstand to the playing field itself. I hailed Al, and he came running.
Al thought it strange that the other gates were locked and looked around for someone who could explain the situation. There was no one to be seen that bright, early Sunday morning. Al hesitated; I urged him onward.
Once inside we waited for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, for the area was only dimly lit by a few hanging light bulbs. When our eyes focused, Al was stupefied by what he saw. I was delighted. The place looked like some weird laboratory, very similar to ones I’d seen in the movies. There were panels on which were mounted dials, switches, levers, knobs, and buttons. An inveterate toucher, I immediately began playing with the knobs, eager to see what I could make happen. Older and wiser Al thought we had stumbled onto something very ominous, and his impulse was to get the hell out of there. At his insistence we left without ever having visited the playing field.
It was not until after the war was over that I learned about the atomic bomb and its development. A newspaper article I read mentioned the research laboratory set up under the stands at Alonzo Stagg Stadium. Many of the most important scientists in America, including Enrico Fermi, conducted their experiments there.
To this day I thank God and Al for making us leave. But for them my brush with history might have included leveling the city of Chicago with the push of a wrong button.