Monday, May 6, 2024

Essay on Radioactive Dirt Updated


Let’s be clear, I’m older than dirt. That would be radioactive dirt. Sure, radioactivity is around us all the time because it’s a natural thing in the environment with levels that are normally nontoxic. The dirt I’m referring to is the kind that became enriched with Strontium 90, a product of nuclear fission. Forget the spent fuel from nuclear reactors or their radioactive waste; I’m talking atomic and hydrogen bombs. The testing of those bombs, both above and below ground, was the cornerstone of the Cold War, and went on from WWII until a partial test ban was signed by Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1963.

As a child of a time without computers or the internet, I knew little of the larger world outside of my immediate family, my small town. But at some point, I did become aware of images of mushroom-shaped clouds over the desert sands, of horrific winds blowing away houses, and the danger it might present for my small self to get in the way of such things. Blame television. Blame the schools. Whoever were the ones to come up with “Duck and Cover” drills. The “make like a turtle” and hide under your school desk all tucked up into a ball. I’m here to tell you that even a socially-unconnected little kid from that era can figure out how valueless those tactics would ever be in the real situation.

One of the presents for my twelfth birthday was the Cuban Missile Crisis, the tense standoff between the US and the USSR. Seriously, the grownups around me were worried. So was I. The treat of nuclear war was real. I remember that I wanted to come to some kind of understanding with this scary scenario, this unthinkable end of everything. I wanted to find a way to go on with daily life without being paralyzed with fear. I wanted to just be a kid.

My solution then was totally childlike and naïve: I chose to trust that the grownups would not let me down. They would fix things. Keep me and everyone safe. And it happened. An agreement was reached, and everyone stepped back from the brink of disaster.

So, here it is decades later, and politics has us as bitterly divided, the newspaper headlines tell me the government has been shut down, there are new kinds of bombs out in the world, and homegrown terrorists seem to be shooting at random. I’m much too old and too cynical to wait silently on the sidelines.

It’s time for the current crop of adults to step up, work together, and fix things. Our children need to be safe, and it would be nice if they didn’t have to do all the work themselves.


I wrote that essay and posted it on my blog in March 2018. I don’t remember the exact shooting event that triggered my rant. It’s one of those things I come back to on occasion to edit and update. Unfortunately, with this revisit the menace in the news came from a child.

In this instance, a 14-year-old boy brought a rifle to a middle school in a small town uncomfortably close to my grandchildren. The school went on lockdown and parents received messages about an “active shooter.” No one walks away from a “scene” like that unscathed.

Back in the bad old days we armed ourselves with Nike missiles to counter the Soviet threat. An expensive solution fortunately never used. Not so with the deadly force rolled out for a pintsized terrorist. That midwestern boy ended up being the only one killed that day.

I’m reposting these thoughts along with a photo of a poster I found while touring a Nike missile base being preserved in California.