Well, the Manhattan Project cost taxpayers $2 billion. It cost considerably less for set builder and prop fabricator Paul Falcon to make the life-size replica of Little Boy that showed up at Community Forklift a few weeks ago. It sits atop a metal shelving unit, above an assortment of wooden dressers, chairs and tables.
Paul made the bomb around 2008 for a National Geographic documentary on the Enola Gay’s mission to drop an A-bomb on Hiroshima.
“We took special care in creating the accuracy of the bomb, down to the fins and all of the apparatus that made it work,” Paul told me.
Paul’s company, Bella Faccia Inc., also replicated the interior of the Enola Gay’s fuselage so that actors playing crew members could scurry around the “bomb,” preparing it for its mission.
Paul fashioned the bomb by making a wooden box, covering it with foam, then using a lathe to smooth it before it was painted a dull green. Charging plugs were made from wooden dowels. Quarter-inch steel tubes sprout from the side of the bomb. They are the radar antenna that helped calculate the altitude for Little Boy’s detonation.
“It hung in my studio in Takoma for a long time,” Paul said of the bomb. “Then I moved my operation to Hyattsville.”
The bomb — about nine feet long — moved along with him.
In his 40-year career as a set builder, Paul, 62, has fashioned all sorts of things, from Tamburlaine’s chariot to Victorian pushcarts. But the coronavirus pandemic killed his business, he said. Theaters closed down, forcing Paul to fold his company and move out of the shop that held the raw materials he used to build his creations.
“I decided I’d rather give it away than throw it away,” he said.
It took eight trips in a 26-foot box truck to deliver all the plywood, timber, raw steel, metal tubing, doors and other material to Community Forklift. There was also a plastic foam and plaster-of-Paris statue he made for a production of “Arcadia” and lengths of railing custom-milled for a production of the 1705 play “The Gaming Table” at the Folger Theatre.
The A-bomb used to hang from the ceiling at Paul’s workplace. Like a real nuclear weapon, it was out of the way, but never entirely gone.
“It certainly had a presence in our studio,” he said. “In fact, we had a group of people come into the studio for a shoot — I can’t remember for what — and they were so transfixed by it.”
At the end of that particular project, Paul and his crew lowered the bomb from the rafters, positioned it in front of a white screen and let the clients take turns sitting on it, like Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove.”
Said Paul: “They all wanted to be riding the bomb.”
What a blast
In other bomb-related news: One Sunday a few weeks ago, Colleen Williams Vyas was doing some gardening in the yard of her Bethesda, Md., home. The bamboo can get pretty thick along the driveway.
As Colleen dug, she hit something hard. She thought maybe it was an old drain pipe. She tugged at it and decided it might be an old landscaping light.
“It was kind of conical,” said Colleen, 51, a video news editor. “It turned out that the roots were wrapped around the bottom of it. As soon as I started pulling it out, I dropped it and jumped back.”
It was not a landscaping light. It was a bomb — well, a mortar.
Colleen called Montgomery County police, who came out and said the mortar — which is missing its nose — looked inert.
Her house is not far from Westmoreland Circle, which is not far from Spring Valley, the D.C. neighborhood that was once home to a U.S. Army base that tested chemical weapons around World War I.
Colleen was afraid her bomb might have been related to that. Someone from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which has spent years cleaning up Spring Valley — came out and said it was a World War II-era mortar, an 81mm M43 HE mortar, to be exact.
Who knows how it ended up in Colleen’s yard. A wartime souvenir from a previous engineer? Colleen isn’t sure what she’ll do with it.
“My dad said to throw it in the trash. I guess I could. Is that proper disposal?”
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Little Boy as the first atomic bomb. The first bomb was detonated a month earlier at Trinity Site in New Mexico.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.