A FILBERT IS A NUT
BY RICK RAPHAEL
That the gentleman in question was a nut was beyond question. He was an institutionalized
psychotic. He was nutty enough to think he could make an atom bomb out of modeling clay!
Illustrated by Freas
Miss Abercrombie, the manual therapist patted the old man on the
shoulder. "You're doing just fine, Mr. Lieberman. Show it to me when you
The oldster in the stained convalescent suit gave her a quick, shy smile
and went back to his aimless smearing in the finger paints.
Miss Abercrombie smoothed her smock down over trim hips and surveyed the
other patients working at the long tables in the hospital's arts and
crafts shop. Two muscular and bored attendants in spotless whites,
lounged beside the locked door and chatted idly about the Dodgers'
prospects for the pennant.
Through the barred windows of the workshop, rolling green hills were
seen, their tree-studded flanks making a pleasant setting for the mental
institution. The crafts building was a good mile away from the main
buildings of the hospital and the hills blocked the view of the austere
complex of buildings that housed the main wards.
The therapist strolled down the line of tables, pausing to give a word
of advice here, and a suggestion there.
She stopped behind a frowning, intense patient, rapidly shaping blobs of
clay into odd-sized strips and forms. As he finished each piece, he
carefully placed it into a hollow shell hemisphere of clay.
"And what are we making today, Mr. Funston?" Miss Abercrombie asked.
The flying fingers continued to whip out the bits of shaped clay as the
patient ignored the question. He hunched closer to his table as if to
draw away from the woman.
"We mustn't be antisocial, Mr. Funston," Miss Abercrombie said lightly,
but firmly. "You've been coming along famously and you must remember to
answer when someone talks to you. Now what are you making? It looks very
complicated." She stared professionally at the maze of clay parts.
Thaddeus Funston continued to mold the clay bits and put them in place.
Without looking up from his bench he muttered a reply.
A puzzled look crossed the therapist's face. "Pardon me, Mr. Funston. I
thought you said an 'atom bomb.'"
"Did," Funston murmured.
Safely behind the patient's back, Miss Abercrombie smiled ever so
slightly. "Why that's very good, Mr. Funston. That shows real creative
thought. I'm very pleased."
She patted him on the shoulder and moved down the line of patients.
A few minutes later, one of the attendants glanced at his watch, stood
up and stretched.
"All right, fellows," he called out, "time to go back. Put up your
There was a rustle of paint boxes and papers being shuffled and chairs
being moved back. A tall, blond patient with a flowing mustache, put one
more dab of paint on his canvas and stood back to survey the meaningless
smears. He sighed happily and laid down his palette.
At the clay table, Funston feverishly fabricated the last odd-shaped bit
of clay and slapped it into place. With a furtive glance around him, he
clapped the other half of the clay sphere over the filled hemisphere and
then stood up. The patients lined up at the door, waiting for the walk
back across the green hills to the main hospital. The attendants made a
quick count and then unlocked the door. The group shuffled out into the
warm, afternoon sunlight and the door closed behind them.
Miss Abercrombie gazed around the cluttered room and picked up her chart
book of patient progress. Moving slowly down the line of benches, she
made short, precise notes on the day's work accomplished by each
At the clay table, she carefully lifted the top half of the clay ball
and stared thoughtfully at the jumbled maze of clay strips laced through
the lower hemisphere. She placed the lid back in place and jotted
lengthily in her chart book.
When she had completed her rounds, she slipped out of the smock, tucked
the chart book under her arm and left the crafts building for the day.
The late afternoon sun felt warm and comfortable as she walked the mile
to the main administration building where her car was parked.
As she drove out of the hospital grounds, Thaddeus Funston stood at the
barred window of his locked ward and stared vacantly over the hills
towards the craft shop. He stood there unmoving until a ward attendant
came and took his arm an hour later to lead him off to the patients'
The sun set, darkness fell over the stilled hospital grounds and the
ward lights winked out at nine o'clock, leaving just a single light
burning in each ward office. A quiet wind sighed over the still-warm
At 3:01 a.m., Thaddeus Funston stirred in his sleep and awakened. He sat
up in bed and looked around the dark ward. The quiet breathing and
occasional snores of thirty other sleeping patients filled the room.
Funston turned to the window and stared out across the black hills that
sheltered the deserted crafts building.
He gave a quick cry, shut his eyes and clapped his hands over his face.
The brilliance of a hundred suns glared in the night and threw stark
shadows on the walls of the suddenly-illuminated ward.
An instant later, the shattering roar and blast of the explosion struck
the hospital buildings in a wave of force and the bursting crash of a
thousand windows was lost in the fury of the explosion and the wild
screams of the frightened and demented patients.
It was over in an instant, and a stunned moment later, recessed ceiling
lights began flashing on throughout the big institution.
Beyond the again-silent hills, a great pillar of smoke, topped by a
small mushroom-shaped cloud, rose above the gaping hole that had been
the arts and crafts building.
Thaddeus Funston took his hands from his face and lay back in his bed
with a small, secret smile on his lips. Attendants and nurses scurried
through the hospital, seeing how many had been injured in the
None had. The hills had absorbed most of the shock and apart from a
welter of broken glass, the damage had been surprisingly slight.
The roar and flash of the explosion had lighted and rocked the
surrounding countryside. Soon firemen and civil defense disaster units
from a half-dozen neighboring communities had gathered at the
still-smoking hole that marked the site of the vanished crafts building.
Within fifteen minutes, the disaster-trained crews had detected heavy
radiation emanating from the crater and there was a scurry of men and
equipment back to a safe distance, a few hundred yards away.
At 5:30 a.m., a plane landed at a nearby airfield and a platoon of
Atomic Energy Commission experts, military intelligence men, four FBI
agents and an Army full colonel disembarked.
At 5:45 a.m. a cordon was thrown around both the hospital and the blast
In Ward 4-C, Thaddeus Funston slept peacefully and happily.
"It's impossible and unbelievable," Colonel Thomas Thurgood said for the
fifteenth time, later that morning, as he looked around the group of
experts gathered in the tent erected on the hill overlooking the crater.
"How can an atom bomb go off in a nut house?"
"It apparently was a very small bomb, colonel," one of the haggard AEC
men offered timidly. "Not over three kilotons."
"I don't care if it was the size of a peanut," Thurgood screamed. "How
did it get here?"
A military intelligence agent spoke up. "If we knew, sir, we wouldn't be
standing around here. We don't know, but the fact remains that it WAS an
Thurgood turned wearily to the small, white-haired man at his side.
"Let's go over it once more, Dr. Crane. Are you sure you knew everything
that was in that building?" Thurgood swept his hand in the general
direction of the blast crater.
"Colonel, I've told you a dozen times," the hospital administrator said
with exasperation, "this was our manual therapy room. We gave our
patients art work. It was a means of getting out of their systems,
through the use of their hands, some of the frustrations and problems
that led them to this hospital. They worked with oil and water paints
and clay. If you can make an atomic bomb from vermillion pigments, then
Madame Curie was a misguided scrubwoman."
"All I know is that you say this was a crafts building. O.K. So it was,"
Thurgood sighed. "I also know that an atomic explosion at 3:02 this
morning blew it to hell and gone.
"And I've got to find out how it happened."
Thurgood slumped into a field chair and gazed tiredly up at the little
"Where's that girl you said was in charge of this place?"
"We've already called for Miss Abercrombie and she's on her way here
now," the doctor snapped.
Outside the tent, a small army of military men and AEC technicians moved
around the perimeter of the crater, scintillators in hand, examining
every tiny scrap that might have been a part of the building at one
A jeep raced down the road from the hospital and drew up in front of the
tent. An armed MP helped Miss Abercrombie from the vehicle.
She walked to the edge of the hill and looked down with a stunned
"He did make an atom bomb," she cried.
Colonel Thurgood, who had snapped from his chair at her words, leaped
forward to catch her as she collapsed in a faint.
At 4:00 p.m., the argument was still raging in the long, narrow staff
room of the hospital administration building.
Colonel Thurgood, looking more like a patient every minute, sat on the
edge of his chair at the head of a long table and pounded with his fist
on the wooden surface, making Miss Abercrombie's chart book bounce with
"It's ridiculous," Thurgood roared. "We'll all be the laughingstocks of
the world if this ever gets out. An atomic bomb made out of clay. You
are all nuts. You're in the right place, but count me out."
At his left, Miss Abercrombie cringed deeper into her chair at the
broadside. Down both sides of the long table, psychiatrists, physicists,
strategists and radiologists sat in various stages of nerve-shattered
"Miss Abercrombie," one of the physicists spoke up gently, "you say that
after the patients had departed the building, you looked again at
The therapist nodded unhappily.
"And you say that, to the best of your knowledge," the physicist
continued, "there was nothing inside the ball but other pieces of clay."
"I'm positive that's all there was in it," Miss Abercrombie cried.
There was a renewed buzz of conversation at the table and the senior AEC
man present got heads together with the senior intelligence man. They
conferred briefly and then the intelligence officer spoke.
"That seems to settle it, colonel. We've got to give this Funston
another chance to repeat his bomb. But this time under our supervision."
Thurgood leaped to his feet, his face purpling.
"Are you crazy?" he screamed. "You want to get us all thrown into this
filbert factory? Do you know what the newspapers would do to us if they
ever got wind of the fact, that for one, tiny fraction of a second,
anyone of us here entertained the notion that a paranoidal idiot with
the IQ of an ape could make an atomic bomb out of kid's modeling clay?
"They'd crucify us, that's what they'd do!"
At 8:30 that night, Thaddeus Funston, swathed in an Army officer's
greatcoat that concealed the strait jacket binding him and with an
officer's cap jammed far down over his face, was hustled out of a small
side door of the hospital and into a waiting staff car. A few minutes
later, the car pulled into the flying field at the nearby community and
drove directly to the military transport plane that stood at the end of
the runway with propellers turning.
Two military policemen and a brace of staff psychiatrists sworn to
secrecy under the National Atomic Secrets Act, bundled Thaddeus aboard
the plane. They plopped him into a seat directly in front of Miss
Abercrombie and with a roar, the plane raced down the runway and into
the night skies.
The plane landed the next morning at the AEC's atomic testing grounds in
the Nevada desert and two hours later, in a small hot, wooden shack
miles up the barren desert wastelands, a cluster of scientists and
military men huddled around a small wooden table.
There was nothing on the table but a bowl of water and a great lump of
modeling clay. While the psychiatrists were taking the strait jacket off
Thaddeus in the staff car outside, Colonel Thurgood spoke to the weary
"Now you're positive this is just about the same amount and the same
kind of clay he used before?"
"I brought it along from the same batch we had in the store room at the
hospital," she replied, "and it's the same amount."
Thurgood signaled to the doctors and they entered the shack with
Thaddeus Funston between them. The colonel nudged Miss Abercrombie.
She smiled at Funston.
"Now isn't this nice, Mr. Funston," she said. "These nice men have
brought us way out here just to see you make another atom bomb like the
one you made for me yesterday."
A flicker of interest lightened Thaddeus' face. He looked around the
shack and then spotted the clay on the table. Without hesitation, he
walked to the table and sat down. His fingers began working the damp
clay, making first the hollow, half-round shell while the nation's top
atomic scientists watched in fascination.
His busy fingers flew through the clay, shaping odd, flat bits and clay
parts that were dropped almost aimlessly into the open hemisphere in
front of him.
Miss Abercrombie stood at his shoulder as Thaddeus hunched over the
table just as he had done the previous day. From time to time she
glanced at her watch. The maze of clay strips grew and as Funston
finished shaping the other half hemisphere of clay, she broke the tense
"Time to go back now, Mr. Funston. You can work some more tomorrow." She
looked at the men and nodded her head.
The two psychiatrists went to Thaddeus' side as he put the upper lid of
clay carefully in place. Funston stood up and the doctors escorted him
from the shack.
There was a moment of hushed silence and then pandemonium burst. The
experts converged on the clay ball, instruments blossoming from nowhere
and cameras clicking.
For two hours they studied and gently probed the mass of child's clay
and photographed it from every angle.
Then they left for the concrete observatory bunker, several miles down
range where Thaddeus and the psychiatrists waited inside a ring of
stony-faced military policemen.
"I told you this whole thing was asinine," Thurgood snarled as the
scientific teams trooped into the bunker.
Thaddeus Funston stared out over the heads of the MPs through the open
door, looking uprange over the heat-shimmering desert. He gave a sudden
cry, shut his eyes and clapped his hands over his face.
A brilliance a hundred times brighter than the glaring Nevada sun lit
the dim interior of the bunker and the pneumatically-operated door
slammed shut just before the wave of the blast hit the structure.
Six hours and a jet plane trip later, Thaddeus, once again in his strait
jacket, sat between his armed escorts in a small room in the Pentagon.
Through the window he could see the hurried bustle of traffic over the
Potomac and beyond, the domed roof of the Capitol.
In the conference room next door, the joint chiefs of staff were
closeted with a gray-faced and bone-weary Colonel Thurgood and his
baker's dozen of AEC brains. Scraps of the hot and scornful talk drifted
across a half-opened transom into the room where Thaddeus Funston sat in
a neatly-tied bundle.
In the conference room, a red-faced, four-star general cast a chilling
glance at the rumpled figure of Colonel Thurgood.
"I've listened to some silly stories in my life, colonel," the general
said coldly, "but this takes the cake. You come in here with an insane
asylum inmate in a strait jacket and you have the colossal gall to sit
there and tell me that this poor soul has made not one, but two atomic
devices out of modeling clay and then has detonated them."
The general paused.
"Why don't you just tell me, colonel, that he can also make spaceships
out of sponge rubber?" the general added bitingly.
In the next room, Thaddeus Funston stared out over the sweeping panorama
of the Washington landscape. He stared hard.
In the distance, a white cloud began billowing up from the base of the
Washington Monument, and with an ear-shattering, glass-splintering roar,
the great shaft rose majestically from its base and vanished into space
on a tail of flame.
Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction November 1959. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.