We are a flawed species we Homo sapiens, are we not? We act before we think and say things we ought not to say and tweet things we ought not to write. We fail far too often to engage our brains before putting our mouths in gear, not caring less how much we can hurt with our words. We habitually allow our emotions to control our lives rather than us our emotions. We think of ourselves too much and others too little. We’re selfish. We’re unkind. We’re skilled at being the proverbial “pot calling the kettle black” judging others while blind to our own faults.
“We,” as the Methodist Church prayer for forgiveness recites, “break God’s law, rebel against his love, do not love our neighbors, and do not hear the cry of the needy.”
But amongst our many failures and faults, there are also sacred, Godly sparks in each of us. We are, after all, created in God’s image.
One of those sacred sparks, blessedly, must be pure, unadulterated luck. With all our imperfections, we should have by now blown ourselves back to pre-creation or, if not that far back, at least “back to the Stone Age” as U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay famously quipped in speaking about what our strategy should be in defeating the North Vietnamese.
Why must those God-fired sparks include luck? Because even though we’ve tried to blow ourselves back to the Stone Age dozens and dozens of times since we let the nuclear genie out of the bottle, we haven’t succeeded. Still, our own, self-created nuclear Armageddon has been closer than many of us know.
There have been at least 27 (reported) nuclear accidents involving American military aircraft carrying nuclear weapons since the 1950s. In these mishaps, nuclear bombs were dropped, crashed, burned, blasted, and/or lost but none of them resulted in the bomb achieving critical mass and a nuclear explosion. And those 27 reported American aviation accidents don’t count other nuclear powers’ aviation mishaps, anyone’s naval nuclear mishaps, near-nuclear war political events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, or nuclear reactor accidents in multiple countries like Three Mile Island (USA), Chernobyl (Soviet Union) and Fukushima (Japan).
Even quiet, humble Swansboro isn’t too far from one of these near-disasters. Sixty-one years ago, and a mere 232 miles away from our fair town in an unincorporated area located in our sister Carolina to the south, a nuclear catastrophe was averted: by an un-inserted nuclear fuel rod.
A U.S. Air Force B-47E StratoJet strategic bomber flying over and 6.5 miles east of Florence, S.C., that fine spring day, according to the curiosity Blog “Atlas Obscura” and several other sources, dropped a Mark 6 atom bomb nearby the house of Walter Gregg of Mars Bluff, S.C., on March 11, 1958.
“Navigator Captain Bruce Kulka went aft to investigate the cause of a fault light in the cockpit and in a colossal act of carelessness combined with a disturbing lack of safety features, accidentally hit the emergency release pin as he reached around the bomb to pull himself up. The 7,600-pound nuclear device dropped from its harness, crashed through the bomb bay doors and, as Kulka watched in horror, screamed 15,000 feet into the wooded rural area of Mars Bluff.”
“Near the 75 feet across and 30 feet deep crater that now existed where his garden was just moments before, following the sounds of their screams, a stunned and disoriented Walter Gregg frantically searched through the chaos for his family.”
“In a miraculous stroke of luck and because the devastating nuclear fuel rod had not been inserted into the weapon, the Gregg family was alive and miles of South Carolina countryside escaped Armageddon. Only the bomb’s high explosive detonator had gone off. The house and several outbuildings were destroyed, the garden pulverized, and several nearby homes were damaged by flying debris, but everyone walked away.”
Few travelers take the time to stop at the roadside historical placard commemorating the bombing of Mars Bluff. Its country location, the fact there were no deaths and no smart phones, social media, and 24-hour news coverage back then, and the federal government’s interest in downplaying the event, all quickly faded this near disaster from our collective memories after the U.S.A.F. paid the Greggs $50-some thousand dollars for their troubles.
Thank God that despite our best attempts – our creation of the means of our own self-destruction and our unavoidable human error compounded by all our other faults and failings as a species – we’ve somehow staved off Doomsday.
Though pockmarked, Mars Bluff is still on the map along with scores of other places – including Goldsboro in 1961 – narrowly avoiding obliteration caused by our nuclear blunders.
Perhaps the sacred sparks of luck that twinkle in our spirits are actually much more than luck. Could the sparks be Providence protecting us from our worst selves, shielding us from our many flaws including from our own self-destruction before God’s time for our demise?
I’d like to think so.
Bary Fetzer of Hubert is retired. This column is reprinted.