The atomic bomb and me

  • Paul Krza

 

This year, the bomb and I became senior citizens. We were both born 65 years ago at nearly the same time in different parts of the West. Since then, nuclear reality has come to define everybody’s lives. But for me there’s even more of a connection, because of the radiation still lurking inside my body from a controversial childhood treatment.

I still remember those trips to Salt Lake City about a half-century ago. It was a big deal back then, that jaunt from rural Rock Springs, Wyo., to the big city, where we stayed overnight at the imposing Newhouse Hotel. But it wasn’t for fun; I was there to see a doctor. And not just any doctor, I learned later.

Dr. David Dolowitz pioneered a cutting-edge medical procedure called nasopharyngeal radium irradiation. Into my nose went 50 milligrams of radium, at the tip of a rod I always feared would penetrate my brain. It held a hundred times more radiation than Japanese bomb survivors received -- "Nagasaki up the nose," as a later researcher characterized it.

But back to my birth in Rock Springs, Wyo., on July 16, 1945. Just a few hours later, at 5:29:45 a.m., the world’s first atomic bomb, dubbed Trinity, exploded with the force of 21,000 tons of TNT. The first fallout from a nuclear blast probably even dusted me on my first day on earth, likely blown north by southwest summer winds. Then during the years 1945 to 1962 -- roughly my entire childhood right up to high school graduation -- the U.S. government "tested" 106 nuclear bombs in aboveground blasts in Nevada. That’s about one blast every other month, ranging from the pleasantly named 1.2 kiloton "Sugar," in 1951, to "Hood," a huge 1957 test of a hydrogen bomb that the government kept secret until 1974. Most of the radioactive-laden atmospheric debris -- the H-bomb test was by far the dirtiest -- drifted right over my Wyoming home.

Bomb tests subsequently went underground, but my close encounters with nukes continued. An hour's drive from Laramie and the University of Wyoming where I went to college, Cold War missiles with nuclear bomb warheads were placed in underground silos, always ready for action.

Eleven years ago, circumstances, or perhaps fate, sent me to New Mexico. My spouse, a native New Mexican, netted a promotion that brought us to Socorro, only 45 miles from Trinity’s ground zero. Now I’m living in the state that hosts Los Alamos National laboratory, home to years of bomb research, and lately, where leftover radioactive debris is stored near Carlsbad Caverns. And as I drive back and forth to Albuquerque, I pass by the "secret" U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile that’s buried deep in the Manzano Mountains. One local bumper sticker sums it up: "WMDs: New Mexico, 2,000; Iraq, 0."

Then there's the nose business. I’ve learned that the radium-rod treatment was developed at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medical School in the 1920s. It took off during World War II as a treatment for pilots suffering from pressure-deafness. A blast of radiation in the ear apparently took care of the problem. The same method worked to shrink adenoidal tissue, which is where I, and a couple of million other American children, came into the medical picture. The nuclear treatment had become the rage -- the Saturday Evening Post called it "amazing" -- and I guess my parents figured I should get it for my plugged nose. So off we went to Salt Lake City.

By then, the treatment had been refined, delivering doses of radium encased on reusable chopstick-like rods, left inside the nose for 10 minutes or so. Each session -- and I don’t know exactly how many I had nor have I been able to find out -- sent the equivalent of between 1,000 and 10,000 dental X-rays into my head.

Much of the information on the military and civilian use of radiation came as the result of 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in the Albuquerque Tribune, a now-defunct newspaper in my newly adopted state. Later research revealed the unsettling results of radium irradiation: Elevated rates of throat cancer, neck tumors -- even whole sets of teeth falling out.

So far, I’ve had no problems, although my otherwise healthy teeth have worn down, maybe from constant grinding, but maybe not. Thanks to my new proximity to Mexico, I secured 16 new crowns, so I’m OK there. Meanwhile, outside, the atomic threat still lingers. Plutonium is loose across the planet, coveted by terrorists. Just this year, the "doomsday clock" moved up a notch, closer to deadly midnight.

Meanwhile, inside me, my cells tick-tick-tick, seeded with that nuclear "cure."

Paul Krza is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Socorro, New Mexico.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Western Watersheds Project seeks a Tenth Circuit Staff Attorney to bring litigation in the interests of protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife, particularly focused...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....