Dr. Strangelove, His Bombs and Blondes

I stood at the urinal early Monday morning, fly down and ready for business. Just prior to beginning, a waft of smoke crossed both nostrils. I turned my head away from the wall, hands still at the ready in front.

"What the hell is this?" I barked.

"This is the only way I can handle this building," came a voice from behind. I recognized it to be that of a Newsroom copy editor from the domestic edition.

I finished up and turned toward the row of stalls. White puffs were rising from the one in the middle.

"Yeah," I concurred, "the recent building smoking ban has caused me to chew off the end of more than one pencil, and I can set my watch by my hourly nic fit. But what about the smoke detectors?"

"Are you mad?" he demanded, then pausing for what must have been one more puff. "The average Japanese building doesn't even have functioning thermostats. And our chances of ever getting anything adequate are about as high as Japan getting a bomb to shut up Lil' Kim up north each time he rearranges his rocket set. In other words - never."

I entered the adjacent stall and took a seat. My fingers trembled like a prohibition speakeasy regular waiting for the day's first sip as he passed a single under the partition. I had my lighter in my shirt pocket.

After taking a merciful drag and exhaling, I spotted a file folder marked "classified" stuffed behind the paper roll. There were a few 8-pin dot matrix-printed pages inside. I started reading...

I first met the man I came to know as Strangelove at Charleston's in Roppongi. It was early evening on January 20, 1986, a memorable day because it was the same day I enrolled in Japanese school. But more remarkable in that from that point on I could never stop wondering if the man I'd just met was sometime going to set the world on fire.

A Japanese fellow in his early 30s, he sat at the bar hitting on a shapely blonde Askew Agency model whom I vaguely knew. I took a seat next to him. Introductions followed shortly afterwards.

In the beginning of the bubble-era of the '80s, Charleston's was one of Roppongi's hardcore meat markets for Japanese men with a taste for "foreign food." (For I know it still is, but then again I don't get out much anymore.) Its patio and open sliding glass doors faced south towards the parking lot across from the Hard Rock Cafe building with the three-meter plastic gorilla hanging off its exterior.

At the time, my karate sensei had me working for the landlord of the Askew Agency building, a converted Occupation-era apartment building for ex-pats near the Australian Embassy. Next door the landlord ran a media production house, which served as my main means of employ as a copywriter. I often made plays for the models living next door, with some odd success.

I had a strong relationship with my sensei. Even though I was lodged in the Washington Hotel in Shinjuku for the initial few weeks after I landed in Narita in 1984, he treated me like an extended member of the family. I now visit his grave at the appropriate Japanese intervals as his most loyal and favored disciple.

After a few minutes on the stool, I soon realized that my neighbor is handsome and well put together. He's got nice posture. He's quick; he catches several small things off the bar as they fall off without looking. It's obvious he's been trained in the martial arts. Then I noticed his shoes.

He was wearing round-cap, black oxfords - to be quite honest, police uniform shoes. My sensei had given me "lessons" on how to abuse Japanese cops with impunity. In Japan, even when you are undercover, you still have to wear the same shoes. So when you are in a bar, he'd say, always check the shoes of the guy next you before you start trying to sell a fake passport to a plainclothes cop. This cop-shoe lore applied to Japan circa mid-1980s, and is something I verified first hand many times during the late nights I spent at the local police box bailing out my drunken sensei.

So we started talking - and drinking, though not excessively. He was sporting a Brooks Brothers suit and French cuffs, but with the shoes I could see he wasn't a typical salaryman. Finally my interest got the best of me and I challenged him: "Keiji-san!"

He set down his drink louder than he intended. "I'm not a cop," he huffed in fair west coast English.

"Man, those are cop shoes." I pointed down at his shiny stomps.

"I work at the jietai," he shrugged.

"The what?"

"The Self-Defense Force. Specifically in my case the Japanese Air Force."

The drinking continued and we soon realized we had a place in common - Cheyenne Mountain, near Colorado Springs. He explained that he often travels there to work with the U.S. Air Force Academy. As a kid, I went to Colorado Springs myself with my great uncle. He was involved in strategic communications development during the Cold War at Cheyenne Mountain. He couldn't say exactly what he did but I do know that he was one of the boffins who created low-frequency communications for use in nuclear submarines.

By now, my new friend's necktie was loose, his shirtsleeves were rolled up, and he was tipping his stool back just slightly. He then reached out for his drink and my now slightly cloudy eyes focused on a small spot on his arm. At that, I nearly shot beer through my nose.

A bit of background: In 1973, I attended the University of Colorado and worked for a radiation biology lab as a work-study student - at least that was when I wasn't getting arrested during protests outside the nearby Rocky Flats nuclear facility. In radiation biology you have what is called a "fraternity pin." It is a scanning spot - a freckle-sized blue tattoo on your skin. It marks your long bone, twelve centimeters from the top of your wrist. There is also one on your shin. When you are working with nuclear materials, this point is scanned to check for long-term buildup of trace radioactivity in your bones.

"Wait a minute!" I coughed out, turning his forearm with my hand so we both could see his fraternity pin. "You don't work at Cheyenne Mountain." Our eyes met. "You work at Rocky Flats, man."

Right then, he lost his tailored-suit cool; his face looked like a helping of starch had been added. He never outright denied it, but he knew I knew.

Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant up until 1992 - when it was closed by the U.S. Department of Energy - manufactured "triggers," a name given to a plutonium bomb that occupies the center core - or pit - of a deuterium-filled thermonuclear bomb. The trigger is round; it looks like the outer shell of a medicine ball - a layman might call it a "suitcase bomb," though you'd need a volunteer of several meters in height to carry it because of its size. During detonation, the initial explosion of this core "triggers" the much more powerful thermonuclear reaction involving the outer layer of deuterium.

I considered the implications. Verification of a Japanese nuclear bomb program would dent the peace-loving image that so heavily influences the behavior of the Japanese people and simultaneously invalidate Japan's nuclear weapon-prohibiting constitution, crafted soon after the nuclear leveling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

And there he sat, the sharply-dressed gentleman with the answer to the big question: Does Japan really have the bomb?

To this point our conversations had revealed that he was a colonel in the Japanese Air Force; had a PhD in physics; worked as a liaison with the U.S. Air Force in Colorado Springs; and, obviously, was handling nuclear materials in a location known to manufacture bombs. I prodded further.

"Come on," I encouraged, "you are in the location, you have the opportunity, motive, mission, rank - it wouldn't be any higher than a colonel to be able to handle nuclear triggers. You are a physicist; that is what you studied in school, right? There is nothing a Japanese Air Force colonel, who is a nuclear physicist, could be doing in Rocky Flats except one thing."

His chin dropped to his chest. He couldn't utter a word. An affirmation? I still didn't know.

His name was Noboru Takahashi, but to me he became Dr. Strangelove.

I probably never would have met him again but on the next Monday I found him in the basement bar of a building in East Shinjuku that housed my Japanese school (which I heard a number of years later was raided by immigration dicks for employing 4 Japanese teachers and enrolling 4,000 Chinese students) and a barazoku eiga, a theater that specializes in gay porn films.

The bar's owner was an ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, a friend of Dr. Strangelove's. Most of the customers were English speakers from various ethnic backgrounds, a necessity because his constant travel to the U.S. required that he keep his English skills sharp.

I ended up drinking with him almost every weekday over the next year. He and I hit it off because he noticed that like him I was a booty-hound and not a booze-hound. He really had a thing for blondes; Askew models were his favorite.

His manner of speaking was that of a nuclear physicist, which he was, with phrasing that was very academic - a fact that didn't assist him in swinging girls. A proclivity for the word "investigate" was usually his big downfall.

Beer was his poison of choice if he drank at all. I never saw him drunk, certainly never blotto by any means, nor even tipsy. There are surprise blood tests for any professional pilot, and many more for Self-Defense Force personnel. So even as a liaison desk jockey, he had to stay flight-ready at all times.

Instead, black iced tea, "Southern GI style" (heavily sweetened and dark enough to resemble 30-weight motor oil), was his non-alcoholic drink of choice. It fed his strange addiction to Sweet'N Low. Often I'd see him swipe the small pink packages from the holders on the table.

Over the months, I kept finding out details of the program only because he kept inadvertently spilling them. It wasn't long before he'd realized that I'd put it together on him. Really, he just loved talking about the nuts and bolts of the operation, even if it was a complicated subject like missile technology.

One time I brought up the Japanese space program.

I had heard that a NASDA rocket with a Toshiba satellite as payload had blown up the year before. (Actually, I didn't know for sure that's what happened; I was doing some freelance writing for a Toshiba PR video at the time and that was the pathetic reason I was given for not being paid.) I then postulated out of the blue that the fuel oxidizer NASDA was using must have been ridiculously complicated. Why not use something easy, like just plain old kerosene and liquid oxygen, I asked.

Dr. Strangelove charged back: "Ah, but if we do that we'll never be able to perfect solid fuel."

"Oh!" I exclaimed, grinning. "So that's what you're using, solid fuel."

He immediately buried his head in his hands.

To soothe his mental wounds, I went on to admit that in 1982 I had made a tidy sum on a stock investment in Morton-Thiokol (a Utah-based company specializing in rocket propulsion technologies) and that I had been following their solid fuel technology ever since - hence my knowledge in the field.

"Ah, Utah is full of Mormons - I can't stand those damn people," he moaned, vigorously stirring some Sweet'N Low into his mud-colored beverage with a spoon.

"What do you mean?"

"Those guys are a pain in the ass."

"When have you met any Mormons?"

"Sometimes I have to go to Provo."

"You go to the testing ground, too!"

Dugway Proving Grounds in Provo, Utah was used extensively for chemical and nuclear testing work. The area became infamous for the 6,400 sheep that were poisoned with a nerve agent in 1968. Of course, its involvement with his work was just a guess, but apparently not a bad one.

"You moron," I added with a big smile, "why are you telling me this?"

Once again, his forehead met his hands.

Dr. Strangelove would disappear for a few weeks on occasion, presumably to Rocky Flats. He was always traveling in a group. Once he mentioned something about Israelis being with him. He'd eventually reappear in that bar, though, iced tea and Sweet'N Low at the ready.

But then he just vanished for good, at least that is what I thought.

Three years later - with my Japanese classes behind me - and Dr. Strangelove fading from memory, Yokosuka Naval Base had me doing some subcontract research work inside one of their "antenna farms." This meant working in a field of antennas used for telecommunications. This led me to slowly become Mr. "tinfoil hat" - in other words, intently worried about electro-magnetic radiation exposure.

After leafing through the ads in the back of Scientific American, I ordered a broad spectrum Geiger counter for my 8hz, single-floppy, 8087 NEC notebook computer that I had just purchased. I took them both everywhere.

I cruised up, down, and around Tokyo's streets taking as many readings as the computer's one-hour battery life allowed. On the Yamanote Line, the electromagnetic radiation coming off the pantographs connecting the train with the electric lines was off the chart at three times that of health standards. In short, fry city! Passengers might as well have been living under a dozen high-tension power lines. But I knew I could find worse.

I thought back to my radiation biology days and remembered that the wildest places were around medical colleges. My good Pakistani friend, Dr. Khalid Mehmood, whom everyone simply called "Nasser" (for reasons I don't remember), was an orthopedic surgeon doing post-graduate studies at Tokyo University Hospital. That'd be my next spot.

I originally met Nasser at that same bar in Shinjuku, and what a hustler he was. With his wiry frame usually sharply attired in a Hong Kong suit (when he wasn't in his white lab coat), Nasser somehow managed to obtain a Hong Kong passport, a restaurant in Yoyogi, and a 1979 blue Nissan Cedric on his meager 180,000-yen a month stipend. Though heavily into girls, Nasser's results were slightly poorer than that of Dr. Strangelove - which is to say he struggled considerably.

One afternoon Nasser had promised to take me on "Grand Rounds" - basically, a tour through the hospital of his more extreme cases: liver transplants, leprosy, things like that. My new toy was at the ready.

Near a loading dock in the back of a building filled with clinics and testing rooms, I hit an intense radiation source. A locked room near was six meters beyond the open doors leading into the building. The readings made the place out to be literally glow-in-the-dark land.

"We don't know what the deal is," Nasser said. "The government comes in every three or four months and they have access to that one locked room and then they go out. It's always the same guy - kind of a slick, handsome, American-speaking fellow."

It had been a while, but that description clicked, for whatever reason. I even found myself laughing at the thought.

"Well," I said, changing to a bit of a sarcastic tone, "let me take a wild guess: His name's Takahashi."

"You know him?"

"He wears black orthopedic-looking, round-cap shoes, right?"

"Yeah," Nasser said, pulling his left ear. "I was wondering about that..."

I then told him my Dr. Strangelove story while I swept the outside area with my probe.

"You've got a monstrous radiation source in here," I reported, "and you aren't using it for therapy?"

"No, no," maintained Nasser, "we only use cesium or iodine - and the doses are really low. X-ray machines put out more radiation than that stuff."

Given the intensity of the radiation I was detecting, I suspected that it was the plutonium trigger that was being kept at the medical center. I had no proof, of course. Heck, it could have been just some kind of sample or other testing material. But if it really was the real deal, I surmised that the deuterium would have to be at some other location. Ditto for the missile. Dr. Strangelove's presence would then mean that he was likely responsible for any necessary monitoring and getting the various pieces together in a time of crisis.

But when we'd meet the next time, he wouldn't be in the mood to divulge any sort of confirmation.

In May of that same year I boarded a morning flight from Santa Clara, California to Colorado Springs on the second day of my Golden Week vacation.

Guess whom I saw in the second to last row of business class as I walked down the aisle?

After takeoff and the brief meal service, I moved forward in the cabin from economy to remake acquaintances.

"You're still doing this?" I laughed.

He didn't budge.

"Hey man, where's your film badge?" I asked.

Like a fraternity pin, a radiation film badge is a simple means of monitoring exposure. It is a device that contains a piece of photosensitive film broken into regions with different light sensitivities. Radiation exposure can be determined by any darkening of the various regions of the film. When not in the lab, nearly all workers put the clip for the badge on the top of their shirt pocket and stuff the badge inside. This is exactly what he had done.

I again tried to fluster him, just like old times.

"Look at that sucker," I joked as I grabbed it from his shirt pocket. "It even looks fogged. I bet you can read your Sunday San Francisco Chronicle in the dark with it."

Nope. No dice. Not a hint of emotion. He didn't even rise up from his seat.

Though our meeting was brief, he was obviously a lot different from the guy I met in Roppongi three years before. His physical appearance was the same, but he was firm, almost stoic with a bit of a swagger about him. It would seem that he had settled into his job quite nicely - he was all grown up now.

Business class exited first upon landing and he didn't stick around for any goodbyes. After all, I was a security risk within the state lines of Colorado and not a drinking buddy.

That was the last time I saw him.

So what does it all mean? It could be nothing; it might just amount to a guy with knowledge of nuclear science and a lot of strange coincidences. Or then again it might mean everything, with Dr. Strangelove - or, given that this was over 10 years ago, his successor - scurrying about the city with each subtle murumur that emanates from North Korea in preparation for potential retaliation.

But like my karate sensei, I hope he's well, whatever he's doing. If I had to guess about his whereabouts, though, I'd say by now he's probably living out his retirement in Colorado Springs where one-third of the college co-eds are blonde.

Note: Charleston's is today known as Charleston & Son; the movie theater has recently been showing more mainstream fare; the bar in Shinjuku is now a coffee shop; and the hospital building has been either heavily modified or completely destroyed.

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