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I had a most unusual wartime career. I’m from Illinois but my great-grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. A touch of rebellion and a streak of belligerence runs in the family. The Depression hit us hard. Before Pearl Harbor, I was living in a tiny, fifth-floor, walk-up apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan, taking night courses in business administration at City College. I wrote stories in my spare time and worked for a midtown publisher, Street and Smith. On December 12, the morning after Hitler declared war on the USA, a friend and co-worker of mine joined the mobs at the recruiting station near the office. Bob and I both went Navy. That was the last I saw of him for a couple of years, and they were busy years. I was a radio operator on a sub tender in the south Atlantic. The Navy trained me well. I thought I had no natural aptitude for technology. It seems ironic given how things turned out.
In September 1943, mid-winter south of the Equator, I was suddenly shipped Stateside. No explanation. Two weeks later, I reported to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and was ordered to report for tests at the Naval Research Laboratory. They had some kind of psychological screening program. I was sent to a crowded waiting room at the base hospital. The air was blue with cigarette smoke, cursing, and boredom. Waiting, waiting, waiting. To my surprise, my old New York pal Bob walked in, but that moment, before we even had a chance to say hello, a duty officer appeared with a clipboard. When it’s alphabetical, I usually go first, like I did here. He barked out, “Arahant! Asimov! Heinlein! Hubbard! Get in here, on the double!”
We jumped to it. Bob and I nodded to each other. He seemed to know the two others as well, the little Jewish guy in civvies and a slack-looking lieutenant. Another angry bark, “No talking!” We filed into a small classroom. Here, several doctors and civilians seemed to be in charge.
“Gentlemen, we are going to ask you some questions. Nothing can leave this room. Is that understood?” Our mumbles of “Aye, sir” must have sufficed. To my great surprise, I saw a stack of Street and Smith fantasy magazines on the desk, mostly Astounding, some headlined stories by Bob and me, and also this Hubbard character. What the hell?
One of the docs spoke up. He had a cold smile. “You men have real imaginations.” From him, it didn’t sound much like a compliment. “We have certain problems at the War Department that you might be able to help us with. They involve security matters”. Now they split us up for individual interviews. I was handed over to a doc and two civilians.
“Lieutenant Arahant, can metal explode?” This was weird. “Sir,” I responded, “I’m not a chemist or an engineer.” “We know that, Arahant. We are finding out how much you can deduce about subjects you don’t know. Can metal explode?”
“Fire is rapid oxidation, and an explosion is very rapid oxidation, so if magnesium flares are burned, I suppose they could be made to explode.”
“Could two pieces of metal explode just because they’re placed too close to each other?”
“Sir, when we lay magnetic mines, we are careful not to put them too close to the ship. Is that what you mean?”
“Not exactly. Let me ask a different question. Suppose a four-engine bomber was set up to carry only one bomb. Why would we do that?”
“Sir, I’m Navy, not Air Corps.” “We know that, Lieutenant Arahant. Use your imagination. Why might we do that?”
“It could be a television-guided crew-less plane that goes off on impact.” They liked that answer.
“Yes, it could. Suppose it was crewed, though, at high altitude, and we told you the plane had to go into a steep dive in the two minutes immediately after releasing the bomb?”
“Dive? That seems like the last thing you wanted to do, unless you were doing it to pick up speed. Like going downhill. Plane goes three miles a minute, maybe four in a dive…you’d do it to be six, eight miles away when the bomb went off. And that would mean…” I was suddenly uneasily aware of the implication. By their smiles, I was clearly a star pupil. “Maybe you should just tell me what this is about.”
“That’s all, Arahant. Thank you. You’ll receive your orders. Dismissed.”
Two days later, I was assigned quarters at barracks outside Washington, seconded to the staff of Robert Lovett, the Assistant Secretary of War for Air. He had a hard-charging staff that was remaking the AAC into an Air Force. The sheer logistics were incredible, almost impossible. There were so many conflicting priorities, so much bureaucratic underbrush that had to be cleared away. Increasingly a lot of it was Buck Rogers stuff that had to be brought into being fast enough to beat the Germans and the Japs. There was no rule book for any of this, no existing Manual of Arms for radar or death rays or robot rockets. Now I was beginning to get an inkling into why they needed men like me. A background in writing science fiction and fantasy was, ironically, the basis of a useful military skill.
Studying business administration taught me the importance of process, the way complicated production decisions split off like widening branches of a tree. Designing systems was not easy or intuitive work. Statistical analysis became the most powerful tool we could apply to these critical decisions.
Dr. Vannevar Bush, FDR’s top science advisor, was in and out of our office all the time, mostly to see Lovett and Thornton. Lovett’s longtime friend from New York law, General “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of OSS, was his usual lunch companion. Gradually I was getting clued in.
It was an easy train ride to Princeton, where I was assigned to get a lagging project back on track, any way I had to do it. We were building a giant electronic calculating machine called ENIAC to supply firing tables for gunners as well as other possible uses. There were no moving parts. It was all vacuum tubes. I couldn’t advise them much on their electronic engineering bottlenecks, but I was doggedly forcing myself to learn its logical structure for solving problems, which was frankly all the War Department cared about. The ENIAC team was on the right track, so I recommended that we fund them to the limit. Actually, during the War there were no limits.
One day a Hungarian-accented, flashily dressed know-it-all showed up to take charge of the scientific end. He was a civilian with a blonde girlfriend, a shiny, late prewar convertible Buick, and an apparently unlimited gasoline allotment, all three of them in very short supply, and it was easy to resent the SOB. There were women working on ENIAC—they were the only labor supply left—and the professor introduced himself to every one of them, “Call me Johnny”. But with me, it was strictly Doctor Von Neumann. At first, he didn’t have any great respect for me. “So tell me, ah, Arahant, what is the status of the mercury delay lines? Why is the cathode ray storage unit not in place? Why are tubes burning out so quickly?” I replied evenly, “I don’t know, Doctor, and that’s the job of the electrical engineers. I’d be happy to introduce you. All I care about is the logical decision-making structure of ENIAC, and it matters little to me whether it’s done with tubes, relays, or water wheels”. My irritated bit of insolence brought a wan smile to his face. “Right you are, Lieutenant. Perhaps you know what you’re doing after all. Carry on with your work”.
I soon found out what Von Neumann was here for, and why this obscure project was of such interest. Vannevar Bush had given him a calculation puzzle that only ENIAC could solve, if anything or anyone could. It chilled the blood. If, just for the sake of argument, of course, you could instantaneously create a temperature of ten million degrees, would it set fire to the atmosphere of the entire Earth, incinerating the planet? I knew this was no mere hypothetical. We worked frantically through the spring and early summer of ’45 on the problem. To my immense relief, ENIAC said no. I handed the classified paper to Von Neumann, who laughed his mirthless laugh. “Glad to know, Arahant. Thanks.”
Three weeks later, the Second World War was over. After a national thrill of gratitude and relief, the challenges of the postwar era faded in. Gradually, millions of men returned to their prewar civilian jobs. I was still in uniform, but I was granted leave to visit my parents and my brother in Joliet. In January 1946 I was finally discharged. I pinned on my “Ruptured Duck”—an honorable service lapel pin—and applied for a job at Lehman Brothers on Wall Street. Well, Secretary Lovett wasn’t going to stand for that. I wasn’t even sure he knew I existed, but evidently, he did, and pulled instant strings to get me a better offer from Brown, Brown, and Harriman, his firm, as a business consultant.
In name only, at least at first. My real job was working with his now-privatized staff assisting Bill Donovan’s now-privatized staff in keeping the ghost of OSS alive after the war. Robert Lovett was appointed head of a committee to establish a permanent US intelligence agency. I didn’t really fit in with the tweedy, old money Ivy League crowd there—we joked it stood for “Oh So Social”—but I made myself useful helping run spies in resource-rich Brazil and Argentina, where I’d had some wartime experience. We used Ford and General Motors’ extensive business operations there as cover, with their consent. As part of the cover, I made frequent airliner trips to Michigan, which I fell in love with and would make my home.
I kept in contact with Bob Heinlein. Throughout 1946 he sent me clippings about the emerging conflict with the USSR. He was doing fine, getting published again, as was his Philadelphia pal Isaac Asimov. They were the hard science boys. In my scrivener days, I was strictly fantasy, especially historical fantasy. Bob’s other pal L. Ron Hubbard was also a fantasy writer, not really a science fiction man, but he shared with Bob a more-than-lively interest in the fairer sex, emphasis on the sex. I enjoyed those breezy phone calls with Heinlein but I was no longer part of that world.
Two big developments in 1947 affected my future. In February, the Central Intelligence Agency was established, and I was appointed to administer its portfolio of strategic investments, a multibillion-dollar fund to secure resources and influence world commerce. Then, near my old ENIAC post in central New Jersey, Bell Laboratories perfected a tube-less chemical compound replacement for the thousands upon thousands of vacuum tubes we’d used. I shifted Agency investments into AT&T as well as companies like Fairchild Instruments, and David Packard’s lab in California, and Eckert and Mauchly, the ENIAC boys, who were struggling to get an electronic computer out of the labs and into the mainstream of American business life.
We were building the future together. I’d become one of the biggest decision-makers on the Street, yet hardly anyone knew my name. I liked it that way, as did CIA, as did my bosses at Brown, Brown, and Harriman.
By New Year’s Day, 1950, my personal holdings stood at 10 million dollars. I was determined that in my lifetime, my goal would be to exceed 100 times that.
I reached it by mid-1951.
You have been reading the account of the creation of the Arahant we would come to know in Ricochet Silent Radio, introduced in the very first feature-length RSR adventure, The Wire Men (2015), which is the continuation of this story. Arahant serves as the backdrop, motivator, and plotter behind most of the subsequent RSR stories to grace these web pages since then. The real-life R> member @arahant is a skilled and gifted writer of historical fantasy whose books are available on Amazon.
Ricochet Silent Radio is unofficial fan fiction based loosely on the personalities and writings of actual Ricochet members, and the personal history, dialog, and actions attributed to them are entirely fictional. An equally fictional account of the start of the Ricochet Silent Radio Network can be found here.