The threat of backseat hypoglycemia pulled us off a highway to the coast and into the town of Goldsboro, North Carolina. Pizza ordered, we began to size up the Flying Shamrock Irish Pub, taking stock of the front windows full of gaudy sports trophies, and the Thursday night procession of folk walking by with cue cases toward back rooms where voices of the in-folk called out their shots followed by the crack of balls sent flying into the pockets.
As we devoured our meal, I went online to draw back the curtain on this Carolina town. Nothing could have prepared me for what came to light there. Nothing in the casual demeanor of the regulars, the cast of the evening light, or the crust and topping of the pizza gave even the slightest clue of the truth behind the smalltown veneer. It turns out that Goldsboro is the only town in North America to have survived nuclear bombardment.
On a winter night in January, 1961 a B-52 Stratofortress from the nearby military base developed trouble during an airborne refueling operation. It was advised to return to base with its load of two thermonuclear devices. But during its descent the bomber began to come apart at the seams. The crew was ordered to bail out just before an entire wing failed. The aircraft crashed north of town. When the emergency team arrived on the scene their urgent focus was the fate of those two 3.8 megaton bombs. They had dropped from the bomb bays moments before the aircraft went down. One had parachuted to earth intact and now hung from the skeletal silhouette of a tree. The second had fallen to earth and plunged directly into a swampy section of field.
It was discovered that the intact bomb came within a hair’s breadth of detonation. Of its four safety devices three had failed leaving only a single, low-voltage switch preventing nuclear calamity. The second had been prevented from turning Goldsboro into a wasteland when its circuits shattered on impact with the ground. The remaining components were buried at a depth of almost 200 feet (55 meters) and were deemed beyond recovery because of uncontrollable water in the crater.
The authorities remedied the incomplete clean-up by purchasing a large circle of the farmer’s field as an exclusion zone. Now, 62 years later, that large circle is visible from satellites as a dot of mature trees and vegetation, nature’s bull’s-eye marking where hydrogen bombs rained down near a sleeping city but only narrowly missed visiting havoc on Wayne County, N. Carolina. 35° 29′ 34″ N, 77° 51′ 31.2″ W
The ironies of this toe-curling event stretch on as far as the eye can see: that the town fathers (and mothers) once fought to keep this bomber base in their vicinity, because it conveyed to them a feeling of safety. But in the end, it nearly obliterated them by thermonuclear friendly fire.
And there is this unnerving resonance with the Flying Shamrock’s Thursday night billiards, where the crack of cue sticks send atom-like balls careening into each other, scattering them across the green bias fabric.
Who can say if the safety switches will hold next time, too?