By Quinn Rosefsky
In late August of 1939, just prior to Germany’s invasion of Poland, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter written by Leo Szilard but signed yours very truly, Albert Einstein. In the letter, the two scientists explained to the President what they knew of Germany’s experiments with uranium and expressed their genuine concern that the Germans were working feverishly to develop the splitting of the atom, an atomic bomb. With a letter signed by Einstein, the two men hoped to influence Roosevelt to respond to the German threat. Listening as economist Alex Sax read the letter, trying to grasp the significance of so much nuclear science jargon, Roosevelt famously said: “Alex, what you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.”
While no longer active in earthly affairs, Roosevelt, Szilard and Einstein have not entirely disappeared. Even in the afterlife, Einstein, devastated that the bomb had been detonated against civilians, still regrets signing the letter. What would have happened if he had kept silent?
One recent bright, sunny morning, Einstein and Szilard met at a Starbucks not far from Harvard Square. (Coffee is as popular in the afterlife as it is here on Earth.) Roosevelt was busy with his stamp collection and had stayed at home.
Dressed casually, minding their own business, Einstein and Szilard fit in with the young crowd too absorbed with their laptops and crossword puzzles to notice two old men sitting in the corner.
“If you ver ez dedicated to chumanity ez I cheard you claim ven you chad your interview to get in, vy zeh chell ver you zo shrewd viz me zat day, gettink me to zign a letter vich put zeh vorld on zeh path to damnation?” Einstein asked. “Perhaps you left out somethink?”
“I meant what I said, but how was I to know? It’s not my fault what Truman chose to do, mister sophisticated smarty-pants.” Szilard replied, somewhat hurt. “Besides, Truman isn’t here to defend himself. He didn’t pass the entrance exam.”
“If I chad known vat vaz goink to chappen, zeh only vay you could get me to zign vud chaf been to chypnotize me. I vaz alvayz too shmart to let anyone do zat! Oyy, I’ve got such a cheadache.”
“Sounds like Freud could help you, but he didn’t make it, you know. Still, I hear he keeps busy.”
“Nu? Und I’ve regretted it ever zince. Mankind chaz never been zeh same. Now look at zem, liffing in zeh now, zeh future, zeh past, dreamers, all of zem. See zat man over zer with chiz little computer gizmo, zeh one viz zeh double latte?”
“Yeah, what’s so special about him?”
“Che’z been looking up information from zeh ether about zat letter of yourz, zeh one you wrote zat I signed ‘yourz very truly.’ Efen here, zer’s no place to chide.”
“Zer’s been almost ez much written about zeh atomic bomb ez zer chaz been about Mark Twain und zeh Civil Var. Personally, I prefer Mark Twain.”
“I’ll invite Mark out for coffee the next time.”
“Okay, but I never undershtood hiz zense of chumor. I’m goink to chaf to teach chim Yiddish.”
“What about Franklin?”
“Che von’t come. Zey don’t allow you to zmoke in public places anymore.”
It is strange to say I used to play the French horn in an orchestra. I used to study Japanese. I used to hike. I once walked across England from St. Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay. I was once a doctor…49 years’ worth of medicine. My children were once young. I tell myself to get on with it. Leave it behind. Now I paint with watercolors. Now I have given either nine or ten courses at BOLLI (and will do two more this fall.) Now I bag ten thousand-year-old lithics as a volunteer in an archaeology museum. Sometimes I write. Last year, I wrote and illustrated four short books for my now seven-year-old granddaughter who wants me to write something new, something about chopping the Evil Virus that plagues us into tiny pieces that will never come back to hurt anyone ever again. Yes! I have left “I used to” behind and think more about what I am “going to do.”