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The atomic bomb and me


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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].