Einstein on the Porch

I wanted to leave as soon as I got there. Maybe it was the darkness in every room, where shellacked pine comprised floor, walls, and ceiling. Maybe it was the balding stuffed deer and muskrat. Or maybe it was because this wasn’t part of the plan, and I had really liked the plan.

It was a simple one: drive to Lower Saranac Lake in New York, get a friend’s motorboat from its slip, and settle in to an island campsite in time to enjoy sunset and a rib eye steak.

But we didn’t have a reservation, and the warden was deaf to our sweet-talking. One in our group knew a family staying over in Shingle Bay, so we motored over. Twenty minutes later, we were official (albeit accidental) houseguests in Cottage 4 at the Knollwood Camp, friends of a friend of a son who wasn’t even there.

Knollwood is one of the Adirondack Great Camps, built at the turn of the century by wealthy New York Jews who were excluded from the resort communities springing up in Saratoga Springs and Lake Placid. The architect William L. Coulter conceived of the compound in 1899 for a group of six friends and their families, among them Louis Marshall and Daniel Guggenheim. He put a massive, two-story boathouse on the water and set six Victorian-gone-rustic homes into the wooded slope overlooking the bay. The cottages are identical except for the design of their twig-work facades; the one on Cottage 4 is made of concentric diamonds.

We entered at the back of the house, into a small kitchen that had once been the domain of a few live-in servants. There we met our hosts and fellow guests—doctors, their wives, a lone physicist—all friends from way back.

During hors d’oeuvres on the porch, someone mentioned that Albert Einstein had been a frequent guest here at Knollwood. A great sailor, apparently, but he couldn’t swim. In the summer of ’41, the scientist capsized his boat and was saved from drowning by a 10-year-old who had been putzing around in a boat of his own.

Einstein was here, in fact, on August 6, 1945, the day that the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I realized that it was August 7, 2010. Sixty-five years ago yesterday, Einstein might have been sitting on this porch, smoking his pipe, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the event and weigh his own complicity in it. He had not been directly involved with the Manhattan Project, but he had spurred its creation when, in 1939, he helped persuade President Roosevelt to enter into an arms race with Germany. And he had given the world that beautiful and terrible equation, E = mc2.

The great physicist gave his first interview following Hiroshima here at Knollwood. “Atomic power is no more unnatural,” he told Richard Lewis from the Albany Times Union,  “than when I sail my boat on Saranac Lake.” By the time the article ran on August 12, the second bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki.

Much later that night, as I was trying to fall asleep in the old servants’ quarters on the top floor, the door swung open and banged against the wall. No one was there. A buzzing sound crackled out of the outlets in the room, and in the bathroom down the hall something creaked, or fell over.  Terrified, I took my sleeping bag down to the second-floor porch.

There, beneath a luminous Milky Way, I thought about Einstein again. Years after the end of the war, he would say that convincing FDR to develop the Bomb was the “one great mistake” in his life. Perhaps he decided this right away. Or maybe he just lay on the second-floor porch, looking up at the stars, knowing that something had happened that wasn’t part of the plan.

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