Atomic Veteran Hank Bolden living for ‘that one song that will tell it all’
New Haven Register, Conn. November 10, 2023
CHESHIRE, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — When Hank Bolden was being driven out to the Nevada desert and marched to a trench one day in 1955, he didn’t ask questions. He was taking orders from the U.S. Army.
Then, the bomb dropped. He shielded his face from the blast, which didn’t do much to dim the bright, colorful light but did give him X-ray vision. He saw straight through his flesh to the bones in his hand and arm, he says.
Bolden was scared, but the whole event was soon forgotten. No one talked about it afterward; the soldiers just brushed themselves off with the brooms they were given, not realizing the dust was nuclear fallout.
Bolden was one of the group of all-Black soldiers sent into the government’s nuclear weapons experiment called Operation Teapot with no protection besides a helmet. He said they were chosen for the operation because of their race, which he likens to the Tuskegee Experiment in which the federal government let hundreds of black men in a venereal disease study go untreated for four decades.
Bolden, who forged his birth certificate at age 16 to join the Army, has developed multiple cancers and a host of medical conditions that he still manages today. At the time, he could not tell anyone what he experienced, at threat of government fines.
“You were told to keep it a secret. However, you didn’t know what the secret was that you were supposed to keep,” Bolden said. “Because they never told you what you were going to be involved in or the reason. What was the secret that I was supposed to not talk about?”
But the 86-year-old New Haven native says he holds no ill will toward anyone. And throughout it all, music has been his outlet. He’s been playing saxophone since he was 14.
“I think now,” Bolden said, “I dwell more on how I’m going to play the next song I’m going to play than I do about this situation that presents itself medically.”
Bolden was told he had no more than four years to live when he was diagnosed with the blood cancer multiple myeloma in 1991. In 2008, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He’s had cataract surgery and is being treated for glaucoma. He said he’s developed these and other health conditions because of radiation exposure.
Bolden and other Atomic Veterans — like those involved in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and his counterparts in Operation Teapot — became eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits after Congress repealed the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Act in 1996.
But first, Bolden had to prove not only that he was exposed to ionizing radiation but that the Army dropped the bomb. He ended up footing the bill for a polygraph test that, among other efforts, helped him meet the burden of proof.
In 2019, Bolden was granted 100% total and permanent disability. He jokes that the government is now being “kind” to him.
“I was compensated because I didn’t quit in my quest to provide proof to them that what they said didn’t happen happened,” he said.
One of Bolden’s three children, 62-year-old Anthony Bolden, said the benefits don’t make up for what the government did to his father and other Black soldiers throughout history who have been treated poorly.
“The fact that, like he said, they’re being ‘kind’ to him now still doesn’t compare to what he actually had to experience,” Anthony Bolden said.
Hank Bolden’s family didn’t even know what he had experienced until about five years ago, Anthony Bolden said. After they found out, Bolden’s health conditions made more sense.
Bolden’s vision problems slow him down when reading music, but they don’t impair his ability to play. When he was auditioning for enrollment to the University of Hartfort’s Hartt School in 2019, his skills were evident.
“Once he played the blues, I just immediately said, ‘Why are you here? Because there’s nothing you need to learn about, per se,’” said Javon Jackson, an accomplished saxophone player and director of Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the Hartt School.
Bolden, who also plays flute, guitar, bass guitar, piano and organ, wanted to finish the degree he started at the Hartt School in 1958. He had dropped out to tour as a professional jazz musician, sharing the stage with greats like Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson and Lou Donaldson. He graduated this past June, paying for tuition with the government compensation he fought to receive.
Jackson said Bolden can immediately play back new material thanks to his “lickety-split” ears and years of adapting in real-time while performing. He described an “exuberance” and “happiness” that comes through when Bolden learns something new.
“I just try to be as flavorful as I can as I play,” Bolden said.
Bolden’s love for music also led him to meet the love of his life, Cynthia Bolden. In 1952, he spotted her from across the street dressed elegantly for the Elks Ball, an annual event held in the Goffe Street Armory.
She was 13, and he was 15. They started a friendship and married four years later when he was out of the Army. They were married for 67 years, and he took care of her during the end of her life. She died in August after struggling with dementia.
Thinking about the time he has left, Bolden said he wants to do more composing, playing and traveling. Between speaking engagements and recognitions, he practices almost daily and performs regularly, sometimes sitting in with his former Hartt professor and jazz bassist Nat Reeves.
Bolden said more than anything else, he would love to be remembered just for music.
“I have yet to write that one song,” Bolden said. “That one song that will tell it all.”
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