Seeking peace in nuclear times

  • Folding Paper Cranes: An Atomic Memoir

  In Folding Paper Cranes: An Atomic Memoir, former U.S. Marine Leonard Bird offers a personal account of nuclear war. His story shifts between Japan — the only place atomic bombs have been used in combat — to the pockmarked Nevada deserts that for 40 years were ground zero for the U.S. nuclear test program.

Nearly all of the 1,030 announced nuclear weapons tests on this continent took place just 70 miles from Las Vegas at the Nevada Test Site. In fact, only two were conducted outside of the West, in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Radioactive fallout left lingering bruises on the West’s landscapes and on the people who lived downwind from the test site. Bird notes that radiation can lurk for decades in our blood, our lungs and our bones — a slow-motion assault that kills just as surely as a direct hit.

Most downwinders, like Bird, lived and worked in the West for the military or on farms and rangeland throughout Utah, Colorado, Nevada, northern Arizona and New Mexico. And many thousands of them suffer from or have already died because of radiation poisoning.

Bird’s Marine troop was present at some of Nevada’s atmospheric tests, including one called "Shot Hood," which was six times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. His experiences were emotionally and physically shattering: deafening winds and columns of fire resurfaced in his nightmares, and the radiation sank into his blood and bones, eventually causing multiple myeloma cancer.

In Folding Paper Cranes, Bird explores gentler dreams, too. Hiroshima’s Peace Park hosts a monument to Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of radiation poisoning shortly after the end of World War II. As she lay dying, Bird tells us, she prayed for a permanent spirit of peace to settle on the world. She folded origami cranes to count her prayers, saying: "I will write peace on your wings, and you will fly all over the world."

Bird seems genuinely hopeful that such prayers will be answered.