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Oppenheimer was the most famous living scientist at the time of our encounter. I was hitchhiking back to WSC, back in Washington, and diverted my travel to visit with Oppenheimer. His greeting to me was a strange and most gracious event of my life. He recognized instantly that I was star stunned, and after taking me to his office, he offered me a beer. I, filled with jitters, declined. A coke? I declined. A glass of milk? I declined. So, he went off to fetch me a glass of water. So there I stood, suitcase beside me, with the most famous scientist in the world, the Father of the Atomic Bomb, fetching a glass of water for me.

Having nothing to do, I looked for a minute at a painting on the left side of the door I had just come through, into his office. I was looking at the one to the right side when Oppenheimer came back with the glass of water in his hand. He asked which picture I liked best, and I slightly apologetically said the portrait over to the left. He said he liked the one to the right. It was the one I was looking at and had been looking at the most.

Oppenheimer and Vincent Van Gogh

Oppenheimer in front of his favorite painting.

Years later I came across Oppenheimer standing in front of, what is obvious to me now, a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. Below is a more colorful copy I got from the internet.

Vincent Van Gogh

The Enclosed Field by Vincent Van Gogh

I understand that he inherited this painting from his family, so he may have been familiar with it for a long time. Van Gogh did several paintings with a sun just above the hills, but when I look at this one through Oppenheimer’s eyes I can’t help but think he would see it as an atomic bomb explosion beyond the distant hills.

We had a wonderful conversation because I had gone to high school in Richland, Washington, which was the home of the people who made the plutonium for the atomic bombs, and I knew the children of some of his friends. Also, three years before we met I was the closest living child to the reactors where the plutonium for the first bomb at Alamagordo was made, and the Nagasaki bomb too.

Hanford reactor, Richland, WA

I lived for two years in the lot beside the STOP sign before the dome was put over the reactor.

We had many things to talk about, and I mentioned having him come and talk to my Unitarian Church student group named the Channing Club back at Washington State College (WSC) in Pullman, Washington. It was a sore issue for him because earlier he had been denied permission to speak at the University of Washington, in Seattle. The reason given by the University president was that he might be a Communist. I assured Dr. Oppenheimer that everyone I knew was very favorably inclined toward him.

As I was about to leave and continue my hitchhiking back across the US, J. Robert Oppenheimer asked me to go see his garden. While there he picked a few strawberries for my trip.

When I got back to WSC I immediately contacted Cynthia Schuster, a professor of philosophy and the faculty advisor for my Channing Club, to make a formal request to the College to have Oppenheimer speak to my group. I never saw her again; she was instantly fired for corrupting the youth (me), and I was kicked out of the Air Force ROTC. We must remember that this was the height of the Joe McCarthy era.

A strange overlap between Vincent Van Gogh, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Charles Scamahorn.