punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

You will be the lucky ones

On April 27, 1986, during a routine inspection, workers at a Swedish Nuclear power plant were discovered to have radioactive particles on their clothing. A quick search showed the particles were not coming from the plant, but from the air. The contacted their neighbors in Finland, and they discovered radioactive traces in dairy milk. The sources were stronger near Finland's border: the Soviet Union. Traces showed that a significant amount of radioactivity came from a place near Kiev. The world was put on alert, and all eyes focus on Russia. By the next day, we learned the obscure name of a Russian Power plant: Chernobyl. The EPA first learned about a possible radiological incident from press and citizen inquires coming in on Monday, April 28. The Agency's Press, Radiation, and International Activities offices began fielding calls while working with the State Department, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Energy to find out what was happening. Although the Soviet news agency TASS finally issued a brief statement that evening confirming the accident at the Chernobyl plant two days earlier, but the Soviets offered no further details.

Almost eighteen years have passed. It's history. I recall the slight hysteria at the time about whether the radioactive clouds would reach the US, because, you know, it's all about the US, right? Anyway, we were still super-depressed about the Challenger blowing up in January. I recall thinking, "It's all over, Russia. You blew it. Communism has made its big mistake." Well, I was 17, so it seemed logical at the time.

Duck and... forget it.  Die anyway.I followed the cold war with rapt attention back then. Of course, my knowledge of the cold war and politics was pretty crude, and I just ate up the media paranoia like a starving animal, hungry for the doom. I used to have daytime visions of the world blowing up, and honestly clung to a nuclear Armageddon as both and end and a salvation from the misery that was my life. I realize now the personification of my own struggles were played out through the media hype. "The Day After," as bad as that program was, burned like a fire in my belly.

When I was in junior high, we had a guy come to our science class to talk about nuclear war. I am sure he meant well, but I'll never forget his speech...

Kids, about a mile down the road is the CIA Headquarters. The Pentagon is just a 20 minute drive from here. There are several government installations both public and secret scattered all around the county. Each one has at least one Russian nuclear warhead aimed at it. Each warhead is about 20-25 megatons of nuclear bomb, and there are several to each missile. Each warhead has the explosive force of 25 Hiroshimas, and they will be exploded into the air for maximum blast damage. A few years ago, we used to have the "Duck and Cover" and other CD [Civil Defense] films, but do you want to know why we stopped showing them? Because the bomb that could have hit us in 1955 is a firecracker compared to what would hit us now. You'd have to be in an underground bunker almost a mile deep to avoid the blast. They used to say "if you see the flash, duck and cover!" I'll tell you the truth. By the time the light of the blast reaches your eyes, before the nerve impulse from your eyes reaches your brain to spell "flash", you will have been evaporated. Faster than drops of water on a red hot griddle. In Heroshimas, the flash was so intense, all that was left of people at Ground Zero were their shadows burned into the concrete. You will be the lucky ones. The fire storm that sweeps into the adjoining counties will travel at the speed of sound and burn everything in their path for at least 20 miles from the center of the blast. The shockwave will go another 30 miles, blowing shattered glass, jagged metal, and other debris like a hurricane. From each blast. It will kill everyone in its path. Adults, children, even animals. Those who live even further away will suffer the worst. They won't die right away. They will die slowly from radiation burns and poisoning. Civilization will crumble. But don't worry. The USSR will fare worse, we made sure of that. No matter what happens to you, please be assured that it will be twice as worse in Russia. President Reagan will be safe to rebuild the country for democracy.

I paraphrased, of course. The speech was much longer, and had details of how the President and the Bill of Rights would be spared by processes already put in place. I repeated key parts of this talk, the ones that burned like echoes all through my teen years:

Kids, about a mile down the road is the CIA Headquarters...
Each warhead has the explosive force of 25 Heroshimas...
before the nerve impulse from your eyes reaches your brain to spell "flash", you will have been evaporated...
No matter what happens to you, please be assured that it will be twice as worse in Russia...
President Reagan will be safe to rebuild the country for democracy...

I am sure most kids blew this off pretty cooly. I recall some kid named Andy Omkhe going, "Coool!" especially when they showed the films of the bomb tests, and the aftermath in Hiroshima. As dramatic as I was back then, I saw the faces of all those burned Japanese looking right at me, as if saying, "How COULD you?" I was totally stricken. My face turned cold and my stomach burned with fear. Years later, during "The Day After," I felt the same way again. Part of my confirmation of Doom and Gloom came by my idol at the time, Carl Sagan, who had published a bleak future of a "Nuclear Winter." For the first time, people not living at Ground Zero said, "Oh, this could affect me?" Anyone who was not the USSR and the USA went, "Uh... this SUCKS, dude!" When I caught a late night viewing of "Threads" on PBS, it seemed somehow more tragic because poor England! Caught in the middle for the final showdown of the Bear and the Eagle. Part of my suicidal episodes were carried over with, "It doesn't matter. Even if my life gets better, the world will end anyway."

[ cue Siouxsie and the Banshees melody here ]

Anyway, most of the Doom and Gloom melted away when the Berlin Wall fell, and Russia just fell apart, in mostly the way I predicted during my rare non-pessimist periods. I just didn't seem sustainable, although I feared it would just launch an attack at us as a last final "up yours" move. Funny, apparently they never saw us the same way we saw them. They saw the Chinese as we saw the USSR. Heh.

I was lulled into a calm for the next dozen or so years, until a Tuesday morning in 2001, when all that sense of security went to hell. On top of all that, Christine broke her ankles, my cat died, I came close to death with double pneumonia... all in a 6-month period. I don't think I have ever recovered, and this was really shown to light when I saw two sites: Pripyat Ghost Town and Lyubov Sirota Returns to Pripyat. Radiated toysPripyat was a town just 4 miles north of the Chernobyl incident. The place was evacuated, and just recently, they have let people come in small groups on tours. It's like some weird modern-day Pompeii; everything is frozen in time. Food left on tables, photos left on desks, and children's toys left where they were dropped 18 years earlier. They evacuated in a right hurry. The short term death toll was over 400,000 fatalities, and they expect it to top 9.5 million in the next 40-50 years from long term radiation exposure complications.

PompeiiSeeing these photos reminded me of those daydreams, or "waking dreams" as I called them back then (thanks to Frank Herbert), I would have of the world I saw outside my schoolyard. Maybe with the shadows of local people burned into ruined walls. Fear churned in my belly, and my brow furled with worry. I saw sun-bleached road signs with abandoned cars rusting in a sun that shone on no living thing. I saw the bleached skeletal remains of mummified corpses, their bodies still too toxic for even the most hardy of bacteria to return the flesh to the sterile soils. One image that kept playing in my mind over and over again was the images of ash casts from Pompeii. There were several images of mothers shielding children from the searing pyroclastic cloud that turned them into crispy husks of baked flesh in seconds. I saw a lot of these in my head. And as I read the long term effects of radiation still lingering in some Russian citizens, I think back to that guy in junior high.

You will be the lucky ones.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000412.html
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