Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

After seven decades in Arlington, William “Pless” Lunger remains awed by the historic role his father played in national security, the career that brought his family to the nation’s capital to help usher in the Atomic Age.

And equally, Lunger, a retiree now an officer with historical groups, recalls the tough-love he received through one of his father’s pranks.

In the early 1950s, Army Lt. Col. Richard T. Lunger was stationed in Los Alamos, N.M., where much planning for the hydrogen bomb unfolded.

His son Pless showed me a Life Magazine, April 12, 1954, with the first photos of the H-Bomb test (Operation Ivy). That epic event took place on the Pacific island of Elugelab (destroyed) in November 1952, in Eniwetok Atoll.

A photo shows Lunger’s father (unnamed) wearing a headset performing the countdown, the once-classified typescript for which survives. At H-Minus one minute, “observers having special density goggles should put them on,” it says.

“Do not…remove…until 10 seconds after detonation….The shock wave will not arrive for several minutes after zero time—keep firm footing until after the wave passes.”

The Eisenhower-era Cold War headline promised “the “Complete Story of H-Blast,” narrating, “5-4-3-2-1 and the Hydrogen Age Is Upon Us.” Life proclaimed it an “awesome new chapter in man’s history.”

Photos show the mushroom cloud 25-miles high, 100-miles wide. Atomic Energy Commission Chair Lewis Strauss “informed a stunned nation that one H-Bomb could incinerate a whole city.”

Graphics of an evacuation plan for the D.C. area relied on the bridges to Arlington, where 45,000 autos “could conceivably move its population.”

Lunger’s father, who died in 1974, received a letter of appreciation from Gen. Leslie Groves (head of the Manhattan Project and builder of Pentagon) and was eligible for compensation in later years for radiation exposure. Pless hears his father’s countdown regularly on The History Channel.

The older Lunger also used his national security perch to impress a lesson on his sons.

One day in 1960, Pless and older brother Ted were driving past the Arlington Courthouse neighborhood home of a known “stormtrooper” member of the American Nazi Party. They stopped when the Nazi gave the infamous salute. This prompted Pless to “tell him what I thought,” as he puts it.

A few days later, Pless’s father and his FBI friend called the boys in mysteriously and said they were going to Capitol Hill.

Soon they were ushered into the bunker for the powerful Joint Committee on Atomic Energy under the Rotunda.

Baffled, the teenagers were told federal agents wanted their statements on their whereabouts the previous Thursday night. They were then shown FBI surveillance footage of themselves at the Nazi’s home. “Your dad has lost his security clearance,” the agents said grimly.

“They raked us over the coals,” Pless recalls, and kept them alone in the bunker for hours. The boys had to walk back to Arlington.

Several days later, Pless’s father revealed that it had all been playacting, that he had arranged it with his friend over a beer.

The moral: stay away from shady characters.

*

I had to slam on my brakes for a pedestrian on a recent Saturday as I drove the speed limit on S. 12 St. in Crystal City. The young man and I made eye contact as he pointed indignantly at crosswalk stripes below his feet.

But that’s incorrect. “No pedestrian shall enter or cross an intersection in disregard of approaching traffic,” says the Virginia code.

True, the code also admonishes that “the driver of any vehicle…shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian…at any clearly marked crosswalk.”

And what kind of driver would hit a pedestrian to express his “rights”?

But while some jurisdictions give pedestrians total priority, Arlington’s police advice states that a “designated pedestrian…always waits for a safe break in traffic and never enters the crosswalk in disregard of approaching vehicles.”

There’s a reason your mother told you in kindergarten to stop and look both ways.