Tuesday, July 25, 2006

NUCLEAR DREAMS

I dream of the abyss. Not because I want to but because it is there, because it makes itself known. I dream of the abyss because it has loomed over my entire life. I have never known the world without The Bomb, without the power of The Atom. I can hear it singing to me at night through the darkness of the room. It signals me from the nightstand in the neon red glow of the clock radio, the numbers blurred when viewed through bleary eyes.

When I was young, I was certain that the world was going to disappear in mushroom clouds. I lived in a maelstrom of crosshairs: Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bangor Submarine Base, Keyport, McChord Air Force Base, Fort Lewis. I had a plan to grab a lawnchair and sit out on the roof of my family's house, put on sunglasses, open a soda, eat some potato chips, and melt away in the wave of fire and heat that I knew was surely coming.

On the Saturday morning that my lung collapsed in spontaneous pneumothorax, in my seventeenth year of life, the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl was heading toward the United States. I assumed that this was the new way to go: when my body was at its weakest, my lungs compromised, that The Cloud would have its way with me. And yet... And yet... I am still here. But that is little consolation.

What of those who have tasted of death from The Elements? I have had the opportunity to read two books that are eyewitness accounts to the very abyss that I have feared. The first, Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician: August 6 - September 30, 1945 by Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, is the diary of someone on the ground in Hiroshima the day that the United States, the only country to use a nuclear weapon in warfare, dropped the first atomic bomb. It was extensively quoted in the recent book Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Steven Walker who nicely balances the countdown to the bombing and its aftermath from the viewpoints of various persons involved in the event. Shockwave only gave glimpses into the horror that Dr. Hachiya experienced though. When I found Hiroshima Diary with the bargain books at Barnes & Noble, I knew that I would have to read it. Not to ambulance chase, but to hear Dr. Hachiya speak to me, calmly, quietly, about his life, his experience, his horror, his nightmare. I have not read the whole thing yet, but am reading it in small portions, and allowing the enormity of the event, of the experience, sink deep into the marrow of my soul.

The second book, a collection of eyewitness accounts of those living in The Zone around Chernobyl, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich, captures the horror of belief and faith in systems that destroy us. Many of the monologues from the victims of Chernobyl express the faith in the Soviet system, the faith in The State, even as it operates in opposition to their personal welfare. I have read the book twice, and am starting a third time, in order to understand why we as humans want to hold such great trust in our ability to control things that are perhaps ultimately beyond our control, things that are perhaps better left in the hands of God. And, as the coup de grace, the author Alexievich, during the three years she spent interviewing victims and officials she put her own life in jeopardy. In fact, she now suffers from an immune disorder most likely "contracted" due to time in The Zone.

And, why should we care? Because these voices are our voices. Or, they could be. Another book that should really be read by a larger audience is Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution by Marilynne Robinson. It examines the blatant disregard that nation-states, in this case Great Britain, have for their citizens, especially those who are poor. You have to read this book to see what the future holds for us if the hints in The New York Times Magazine article "Atomic Balm?" (July 16, 2006 - by Jon Gertner) are indicators of what is coming. Mother Country is a difficult book to find, however. You most likely won't find it as backstock on your local bookstore's shelves. When I special ordered it, it took me three attempts. Barnes & Noble couldn't seem to obtain it both times I tried, but Amazon finally procured a copy for me. And, if you actually live in Britain then good luck. Greenpeace (yes, the environmental group supposedly opposed to nuclear weaponry and nuclear reactors) sued Robinson for slander and won. Therefore, the book cannot be sold in Britain. Greenpeace merely had to show that the book could potentially damage them and slander would be proven, which it was. Robinson definitely does not paint a good picture of Greenpeace, but, hey, when there are funds to raise to keep your organization viable then by any means necessary. Right?

The Bomb is not going to go away. If anything, we should be worried now more than ever. Iran and North Korea are saber rattling as they move ever closer to developing The Bomb; Israel, which may have The Bomb, is running rampant over its neighbor Lebanon and its Palestinian citizens in Gaza and The West Bank; and the United States has considered using tactical nuclear weapons against bunkers in a potential invasion of Iran. It amazes me that the only country to use an atomic weapon in war would even consider it again. Maybe some of the planners need to sit down with some of my suggested summer reading...

So, I dream of the abyss again. I listen to the faint ticking sound of The Elements as they decay in the earth outside the concrete of my basement bedroom's wall. The atomic lullaby brings me ever closer to slumber. Eternal. Final. Forever and ever. Amen.

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