Nuclear collection stacks up

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Books and articles donated to the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library

By Roger Snodgrass

An unusually diverse assortment of books and other publications related to the atomic age has found a home at the state history museum.


A retired community planner who now lives in Peoria, Ariz., donated his library with some 8,500 items to the Fray Angélico Chavéz History Library at the Palace of the Governors.

“I became convinced that the nuclear age is a very comprehensive and encompassing factor in the way civilization operates these days,” said Al Bell in a telephone interview Tuesday from his home. “It’s a fundamental ingredient that wasn’t there before and it impacts our lives in ways we never think about.”

Bell began gathering books, periodicals, posters and other media, after a tour of duty as a Navy pilot at Iwakuni in 1959. Still the home of a Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni is located about 30 miles from Hiroshima, ground zero for the first atomic weapon used in war.

Bell said he had been trained to deliver nuclear weapons, but realized he knew very little about them

beyond “a few movie clips of Hiroshima.”

Since college, Bell said, he had been looking for a worthy subject, inspired by an article he had read in a newspaper. To get the most out of life, the article advised, find a subject you didn’t need to know and then learn everything about it that you could.

“From time to time I’d do a mental scan to see if anything came into focus,” Bell said, “And it didn’t until all of a sudden I was sitting in the base library at Iwakun, and all of a sudden it hit me.”

The pursuit of everything nuclear became his passion.

The first book in Bell’s collection was a first edition of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” a classic study of the survivors of the attack.

Over the next couple of months, he said he bought another half dozen or so books on the subject including “Nine who survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” by Robert Trumbull, published in 1957, about nine men who lived through the bombings.

“At first my focus was on trying to learn about the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said, “but all of a sudden it clicked with me that this was a very important subject area in all of our lives.”

Over time he realized he had chosen not only a fascinating subject, but one with profound implications for the planet and for everybody on it.

Most of his selection came from visiting used book stores while traveling. A member of what was then called the Barber Shop Quartet Society, he attended national conventions every year in different locations where he found material and also collected books abroad. Later, he added to his list from references and on-line research.

Some of the most fascinating reading, he said, is in the periodicals of his collection, where nuclear subjects inform articles on investments, uranium mines, plays about scientists, and pros and cons of irradiating foods among many other topics.

“It’s widely and deeply addressed in religious circles and the area of economic development, foreign policy and miltary affairs are obvious, but there is also the atom and its place in agricultural production,” he said. “It’s very pervasive.”

Tomas Jaehn, the director of the Fray Chavez library said the collection is not catalogued yet.

Among the items and titles that caught his attention, there was a Russian poster on what to do when the bomb drops, gallery guides from Hiroshima, a spectrum of science fiction (from “back when it was science fiction”), James Bond’s “Thunderball,” technical books on how to make the bomb and a Jay Cantor’s Krazy Kat comic book.”

“What I personally like about the collection is that he has everything in there,” he said. “I can tell you, to get such a collection is rare.”