50 years ago in May 1953, my senior class at Middle Park High School at Granby, Colorado set out on a class trip in a district school bus through the Southwest. Visiting Taos pueblo, Painted Desert, Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam, little did we know that we would soon cross paths with the power and deadly pollution of the nuclear age.
After touring Hoover Dam, our faculty sponsors found accommodations at a small motel in Las Vegas, a very different place than it is today.
As we signed in, the owner said, "Now if you kids get up about 5 tomorrow morning and go outside and look northwest, you'll see a very bright flash in the sky, cause they're going to set off a nuke".
But we stayed up late horsing around and did not rise early, though now I wish I had. By nine we were on the road, bound for Salt Lake City.
But on the north edge of Las Vegas, we were stopped along with all other vehicles by white-coveralled men carrying Geiger counters. "You may know we conducted a nuclear test early this morning. There's been a shift in the wind but there's absolutely no danger. However if you choose to proceed you must promise that you will not leave your vehicle under any circumstances and you will not open any windows or doors until you reach St. George, Utah. If your vehicle is disabled, you will stay inside until help arrives. Again, there is no real danger."
Meeting our schedule, we continued north to Utah. At the tiny town of Littlefield, in NW Arizona, we saw residents going about their affairs.
And we again encountered men in white with Geiger counters, who again assured us of the lack of danger but that we should not leave our vehicles
under any circumstances until we reached St. George. The metal box of
the school bus got ever hotter, but we never opened a window for air. At St. George, there were the men in white coveralls at the edge of town, whose Geiger counter scan of the bus determined that we should be sent to a near-by car wash with many other vehicles for a free washdown.
In our youthful distraction, in our focus on graduation and the future, in the midst of the political repressiveness of the 1950s, when questioning government policies was considered subversive, we gave the events of the day little attention. Unlike the residents of SW Utah and NW Arizona living as "downwinders" just outside the Nevada test site, we were just passing through. They had been reassured repeatedly in print
and lecture that "there is no danger." From 1951 till 1963 dozens of
atmospheric atomic bomb explosions sent clouds of fallout over the area and indeed across the nation and around the globe.
In the years since, these events have come to mind when I have read of some of my classmates dying of cancers, but direct proof in such individual cases is near impossible. Only years later did secret details of the bomb tests of that era get declassified. The May 19, 1953 blast was code-named Harry but was soon tagged "Dirty Harry" due to the enormous amount of offsite fallout the bomb generated. In the desert lands of SW Utah, hundreds of sheep sickened, showed radiation burns, aborted lambs and died. AEC scientists told residents the sheep were suffering from "malnutrition" (true enough, in a perverse way). And a Hollywood film crew including John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Thomas Gomez were in the Escalante Desert near St. George that summer filming The Conqueror. More than 90 people on the film crew developed cancers years later, and many died including the three stars. And the residents of SW Utah, tagged by an Atomic Energy Commission official as a "low use segment of the population," were exposed to higher levels of radiation from the repeated bomb test fallout clouds than those near the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. Chains of cancerous diseases devastated whole families.
Over the last 58 years the nuclear weaponeers of the world have been conducting a worldwide non-consensual experiment on the whole chain of life. From the Trinity explosion in New Mexico in 1945 to the 1992 cessation of major power testing, in those 47 years nearly 2,200 atomic devices were tested. On average, that's an atomic explosion somewhere every nine days for 47 years! 511 of those tests were open-air tests, the explosive equivalent of 438 million tons of TNT, sending clouds of radioactive fallout into the upper atmosphere to be swirled by weather patterns around the globe, and dusting nearby downwind areas with repeated clouds of intense radioactivity. The increasing incidence of cancers worldwide may be one result. The atomic weaponeers and their political bosses worldwide rarely express any doubts or concerns, continuing their massive experiments on the chain of life with radiation whose deadly energies can break and mutate the genetic codes, extending their lethal effects through the generations. US military use of tons of depleted uranium shells is a new form of nuclear warfare affecting both civilians and military, and unborn generations.
As the Bush administration involves itself in revving up the development of new nuclear weapons here, and takes foreign policy actions which stimulate other nations to initiate their own nuclear weapons programs as possible deterrent to US military attack under the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, a new nuclear arms race looms. Will the hard lessons of the past be repeated?
Chester McQueary (via firstname.lastname@example.org) of Parachute, Colorado has worked on many peace, environment and social justice issues. In 1969 he and ten others entered the quarantine zone to protest the Project Rulison underground atomic blast in western Colorado.