The gentleman on the phone was in a bad mood. He said he'd been transferred all around The Post, and here I was telling him I probably wasn't the right person, either.
So I decided to see if I could help. What did he want?
He said he wanted to know why, when The Post does stories about veterans, it always mentions veterans of specific wars -- World War II, Vietnam, the Gulf War -- but never mentions atomic veterans? Did I even know what atomic veterans were, he asked?
I was immediately defensive. I know what atomic veterans are, I said. They're those goggle-wearing soldiers who marched toward mushroom clouds in the Nevada desert.
As for the scarcity of stories on them, I explained that we journalists look for the obvious. If we're going to write about veterans, we usually want stories of battlefield heroes or tragic victims or lucky survivors. The men and women who did their jobs in peacetime don't often make for headlines.
But he'd made me think, so after I hung up I started digging. I found 74-year-old Frank Wolff. He lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore now but in 1955 was a young Army officer sent to Nevada's Camp Desert Rock. The military wanted to see how armored vehicles would perform on the battlefield after a tactical nuclear weapon strike.
As he sat in his M-48 tank about 1,700 yards from ground zero just before sunrise, Frank heard the explosion. His 50-ton tank was jerked backward several feet by the blast wave. Five minutes after the bomb was detonated, his company got the order to "unbutton": Open the hatches and get moving.
Said Frank: "What I remember on the order to unbutton was looking up . . . directly underneath the now-building mushroom cloud and [seeing] a very eerie color, I'd say an odd shade of purple, in that early, early desert light."
Duane Robertson, 81, of Silver Spring saw his atomic blasts from the deck of a destroyer escort at Enewetok and Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1946 and '47.
"It seemed like as soon as you saw it, the heat wave hit you, a blast of hot air," said Duane, who by then had survived the sinking of the USS Yorktown in the Battle of Midway.
Frank and Duane said they didn't suffer any ill effects from the nuclear bomb blasts, but thousands who were exposed to ionizing radiation did, said R.J. Ritter of the National Association of Atomic Veterans. Close to a million service people were involved in the testing of nuclear weapons and the cleanup of various test sites. More than 280,000 medical claims have been submitted to the Department of Veterans Affairs; only 50 have been fully approved since 1980, he said.
R.J.'s wish for Veterans Day? That the American public would recognize that the weaponry and technology that made us the world's greatest superpower all came at a high price.
It's a price that our servicemen and servicewomen pay continuously. Between 1980 and 2003 some 20,000 U.S. military personnel died in accidents.
A Humvee turns over. A tank round falls short. A boat capsizes. A plane crashes. You don't have to be serving in Iraq or Afghanistan to face very real danger. A "routine" training mission can be risky enough.
I never met my Uncle Frank, and he never met me. He died in 1957, five years before I was born. His picture -- a handsome young man in an Air Force cap and radio headset, blue sky and wispy clouds above him -- always hung above the piano of my grandmother's house in Brookland.
On July 17, 1957, U.S. Air Force Lt. Francis B. Kelly Jr. was the navigator aboard a B-47 Stratojet that took off from Dyess Air Force Base outside Abilene, Tex. The plane was heavier than they thought it was, a mistake that cost the lives of all four men on board when the bomber crashed and burned just south of the runway. He was 24.
This week, for the first time, I went to see Uncle Frank, who rests among the 300,000 people buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I found him in Section 30, not far from JFK's eternal flame, his grave marked by a simple white headstone. All around him were soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
Some died as young men and women. Some died of old age. Some died in war. Some died in peace. But they're all veterans, and today we honor all of them.
That New Train Smell
I got a sneak peek at one of the new Metrorail cars the other day. It was a 6000 series car.
The 6000s are being evaluated now and won't go into "revenue service" until the spring. And the one I was on isn't one of the cars that will be stripped of multiple seats to test more spacious configurations.
It did have four fewer seats than a standard car. It was also missing all but two windscreens, those panels that Metro says make people bunch up near the doors. Also gone were vertical grab bars near the doors. Instead, there are more vertical grab bars running from the seat backs to the ceiling. This is all designed to move people farther into the cars.
But what I noticed most was how clean the car was. It was gleaming, from the chocolately brown accents painted on the front and sides to the unmarked vinyl seating.
There wasn't a single wadded-up Examiner or Express. There were no greasy headprints on the windows.
I will never be on as clean a Metro car again.
Join me today for my weekly 1 p.m. online chat. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.