When a 17-year-old Almost Learned the Century’s Biggest Secret
I was 17 years old in the early 1940s, a graduate of Theodore Roosevelt High School in Chicago, when the University of Chicago accepted my application. Roosevelt, on the north side of the city, was highly structured with definite rules and regulations, but Chicago—wow!
The university was then operating under President Robert M. Hutchins’s Plan, which postulated that a student could absorb enough information in two years to graduate with a meaningless degree (at least, it was recognized by no other school) whose letters were PHB. We girls changed them in our minds to read MRS, because that was about all it would help us get.
Students were not required to attend classes as long as they passed the comprehensive examinations. These were part of the Plan. At the end of each year, there was one six-hour examination of study, both essay and multiple-choice questions in four subjects. There were no weekly exams, no midterms. One chance a year was all you had. Sink or swim.
One day the chemistry building was closed to all classes and became a restricted area; no one was allowed in without a special pass. A lot of our young physics and chemistry instructors disappeared into that building and never again taught our freshman classes (the full professors did). We sometimes saw them walking to and from the building, but students were never allowed to get close enough to say hello. After a time they moved to a squash court under the Amos Alonzo Stagg Field stands, which was off limits too.
I had made two good friends, a pretty blonde girl named June and Ev, a lingerie model. We had discovered the various taverns that ringed the area. June, Ev, I, and another friend—a voluptuous brunette named Doris—used to frequent them of an evening when our studying had gotten us “up to here.” We never drank very much. Money was tight and, anyway, we really went to relax and get away from the grind with good conversation and our peers.
Our favorite tavern was the University Tap at 55th and University. It was only a couple of blocks away, and if you felt like eating something, both the prices and the food were good. In deer-hunting season the owners would bring home their quota and the tavern cook would fix up a venison blue-plate special that cost 50 cents.
Then one evening the four of us decided to visit a different bar in the same area. This one was classier than UT; it had booths, plus tables. We sat down at a table directly across from four guys in a booth. They began to flirt and asked if they could buy us a drink. Three of them had been our lab instructors. We accepted their offer.
We sat and talked for about an hour. The fourth guy was drinking two to everyone else’s one. He finally got visibly drunk and began to babble. What he said was mostly unintelligible, and the words that did get through sounded highly technical. Suddenly two of his friends grabbed him under each arm, stood him on his feet, and, the third following behind, gave him the bum’s rush out of the room before he could say another thing. We never saw any of them again.
Of course we talked about the evening’s event as we walked back to the dorm. We were so naive, it never occurred to us to connect it with anything that was happening on campus. Our lives went on and we never speculated about it again.
It wasn’t until V-J Day when the news came out about where the atomic bomb had been been manufactured that we realized that was the reason the chem building and the Stagg Field stands had been closed, and the reason the guys had dragged their drunken friend out into the night.