Cloud Cover

In February 1955, Corporal Max Frankel was dispatched to Nevada on “an errand of disloyalty.” The ambitious journalist, then serving as a clerk in the Army’s Office of the Chief of Information, was ordered to Camp Desert Rock in Nevada. It was the training site for 3,000 men who would take part in maneuvers with tactical nuclear weapons, an exercise that the Atomic Energy Commission had classified as top secret. But the Army was convinced that its soldiers’ participation in and contribution to this “innovation in modern warfare [was] worth bragging about in releases and recordings sent to the hometown of every G.I.,” Frankel remembered in his autobiography, The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times (1999). To insure that the army received the press it wanted, the enlisted newsman was commanded to violate the A.E.C.-imposed silence.

He first had to be illuminated. One dawn, he and a thousand others marched into a series of trenches, crouched down with their eyes closed and heads tucked beneath their arms; at detonation, they were staggered as a “fierce light penetrates clear through our closed and covered eyes and the earth throbs beneath our boots.” After counting to ten, the soldiers scrambled out of the trenches to watch as a “great fireball soars skyward”; lighting the way across the eerie landscape were ten thousand flaming yucca shrubs, “torches without bearers.” As they made their way to Ground Zero, while whisking off flakes of fallout, the men felt “cheerful, even privileged, to have done something more significant than cleaning tents and latrines.”

It was time to leak the government’s business. Driven to Las Vegas, Frankel prowled the casinos and bars in search of reporters whom the A.E.C. had barred from the base. To the besotted crowd, he spilled that morning’s dramatic events, recounted the “quick, safe deployments across Ground Zero,” and promised to return after the next round of test shots. “I assume that my divulgences helped the army to obtain millions more in appropriations for ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons,” Frankel noted, although his reward for breaking the news and the law was “less tangible”: he lost ten bucks at the tables and “gained an entirely new appreciation for government ‘secrets.'”

Those whose lives are chronicled in Learning to Glow would appreciate Frankel’s sense of the absurd and manipulable nature of secrecy in the American nuclear regime. What people knew and did not know, what they could and could not say about the impact of the “hidden holocaust” on their lives dominates the memories woven throughout this often-gripping anthology. The twenty-four essays are not uniformly moving; some are so self-referential or so self-involved or so discursive that they hold little interest. Others are as heart-breaking and thoughtful, as they are enraging, lending credence to historian Paul S. Boyer’s cover blurb: “This intensely personal collection captures the meaning of the nuclear age for ‘ordinary’ Americans.”

The meanings are many. The most troubled of these may be the sickening link between the authorities’ lies and the public’s willingness to believe. It was forged well before The Bomb, and the war it brought to a such shuddering close. There was, for instance, the unsettling matter of luminous dials on wristwatches. How did they glow in the dark? Beginning in the Twenties, when the Radium Dial Company of Ottawa, Illinois opened its doors, two generations of women hand-painted radium and tritium on a variety of timepieces. Assuring their workers that the material was perfectly safe, Radium Dial supervisors “allowed” the women “to place camel’s hair brushes between their lips to get a fine point”; with each “lick of her brush, a dial painter swallowed a little radium and added forever to the deadly burden carried in her bones.” Turning this killer gloss into make-up only intensified this burden: “We used to paint our eyebrows, our lips, and our eyelashes,” Marie Rossiter Hunter remembered, “and then look at ourselves in the darkroom – just for fun.” The laughter stopped soon enough: Hunter’s were not the only bones “honeycombed with radium”; other women also became dangerously anemic, suffered from bone and mouth cancers, or generated breast tumors. So extensive were the illnesses associated with those who had worked in the unventilated Radium Dial factory (which shut down in 1936 after a worker’s compensation lawsuit), and later at its successor plant, Luminous Processes, Inc. (which closed up in the mid-1970s) that the press dubbed the dial painters “The Society of the Living Dead.” Only later would these ghosts begin to address the double bind in which they found themselves. “We were very naive,” Mary Hougas recognized, a naivete that led them to be “victims of ignorance.” But they were also victimized by corporate leaders who knew the risks yet did nothing to protect the workers from them, and by “state officials and inspectors” who failed to safeguard the employees and delayed shuttering these deadly workplaces. “The only reason I speak out now is for my two grandchildren,” Hougas asserted. “I think we are going into an era when a lot of radioactive materials are going to be used … and if I can prevent it by talking about it, I will.”

The need to reclaim individual moral conscience and to reassert the collective power of speech is central to many of the reminiscences that make up Learning to Glow. The voiceless victims for which journalist Jim Carrier speaks are the innumerable animals who fell to the rain of death. His makes for grisly reading: “When the Cold War began, sheep in Utah died after eating fallout-dusted sagebrush. Ducks landing in Idaho waste ponds flew off with a human’s limit of radioactive iodine. Salmon in the Columbia River became radioactive from eating ‘hot’ insects.” Then there were the test animals. Countless rats, mice, and beagles were injected with radioactive chemicals to determine how tumors grew; pigs and other animals were caged or suspended in the air near blast sites to calibrate the rate and degree of flesh burns; “[r]abbits and monkeys were strapped in drone planes and flown through fallout to zap their organs.” These were the unheralded “shock troops, bellwethers of the Atomic Age, absorbing the first waves of radiation.”

Stunned in turn were some of those humans who caught a glimpse of this carnage. At the height of the A.E.C.-sponsored tests in 1958, just before the test ban went into effect, Ray Winn choppered into a detonation area to recover data and equipment. Amid the jumbled mass of “debris, wreckage and craters,” he spotted a mother coyote and her pup. “The baby was dead. The mother had her paws around it, and she was blind.” Winn saw what he must do: he waved off the disbelieving pilot, and trekked out across the smoldering, 200-rad site. “I left weapons. I was simply emotionally and physically exhausted. I had nothing left to give.”

Other humans could not so easily walk away. In the Four Corners region, Native Americans lost land and life to uranium strip-mining and nuclear testing, and their decades-long pleas for compensation have gone largely unheeded. Utah “downwinders” swallowed governmental bromides about the safety of the radiation that sifted into their homes and food chain, despoiling the domestic circle and haunting its emotional terrain. For Terry Tempest Williams, it was a recurring childhood memory that helped her finally understand the larger context of the breast cancers that killed her mother and six other women in her immediate family. Sharing with her father a recurring nightmare she had of a searingly bright flash in the desert night, she was startled when he assured her she was not imagining things. The family had been driving north from Las Vegas in September, 1957, a dozing Terry resting languidly in her mother’s lap, “when this explosion went off. We not only heard it, but felt it,” her dad confirmed. Then rising rapidly from the desert floor “we saw it, clearly, this golden-stemmed cloud, the mushroom. The sky seemed to vibrate with an eerie pink glow. Within a few moments, a light ash was raining on the car.”

Shrewd enough to know that this single, horrific moment probably did not trigger her mother’s demise, Williams knows too that the failure to speculate about the connections between the region’s uncommonly high cancer rates and sustained atmospheric nuclear testing is a form of complicity this Mormon daughter could no longer stomach. “I have watched the women in my family die common, heroic deaths,” she writes. After years of caring for them and bathing them, watching their strength fade with each injection of radiation therapy, and holding “their foreheads as they vomited green-black bile,” she would witness their “last peaceful breaths, becoming a midwife to the rebirth of their souls.”

Hers was simultaneously redeemed. Believing that the “price of obedience has become too high,” Williams joined with other women in acts of civil disobedience in “contaminated country,” challenging the acquiescence and accommodation that had traumatized so many lives. “The time had come to protest with the heart,” she concludes: to deny “one’s genealogy with the earth was to commit treason against one’s soul.”

Laughter may also be an essential antidote to the debased condition of “our social and ecological life,” an insight from Gary Snyder that closes one of the chapters. It is “too serious just to be angry and despairing,” the poet observes, too important because the first step must be to love the world rather than to fear it. Not all the contributors to Learning to Glow would concur, but impelling each one to action, however defined, is the same elusive quest – to find a silver lining in the mushroom cloud.

Contributing writer Char Miller teaches environmental history at Trinity University and is editor of the newly published Water in the West: A High Country News Reader (Oregon State University Press).

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Published at 12:00 am CST