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.
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.
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
Seeking peace in nuclear times
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