I’m late for Memorial Day, and I have no new posts on it planned to make, so this is it. But I made old posts. So for Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, I always remember America’s atomic vets. I have at least one in my family — he died from the experimentation he was subjected to by the military — and until I heard his story, I’d heard of this kind of thing but had no idea my grandpa’s cousin was involved in what I’d thought of as just another part of history. And that’s the thing: History is made up of people. Every single one of us is history. That’s important. And it’s important that we understand where we and our families and friends are part of history.
US Army troops in Nevada, training for nuclear warfare. These troops are about 6 miles from Ground Zero. The Pixley Farm was about 120 miles away.
Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball
My father wrote this in his memoirs about living in the San Joaquin Valley on a farm called Pixley Farm during that time period, which meant Nevada where the nuclear testing happened was right over the other side of the Sierras:
In the early 1950’s, everyone was afraid of the communists, Russia and China in particular. In 1949, the communists took control of China and Russia exploded its first atomic bomb. Russia was supplying arms, ammunition, aircraft and tanks to the North Koreans and China. China joined with the North Koreans to fight UN troops in October of 1950. The mood in the United States was one of near paranoia. It seemed that war with Russia was inevitable. The specter of WW3 loomed on the horizon. It was at this time that Senator Joseph McCarthy began his famous communist witch-hunt. He contended that there was “A Red under every Bed”. The United States engaged in extensive Atomic Bomb testing in Nevada. From our vantagepoint on the farm, the flashes of light from the tests lit up the sky behind the Sierra Nevada mountains. Following the flash of light by a couple of minutes, we were jarred by the shock wave. The roar of the blast came many minutes later. It was an eerie experience. On one occasion, just before sunrise, I was helping Dad set siphon pipes when we saw the flash. We hung on to the pickup until the shock wave arrived. When it hit, it was so strong that it sloshed water out of the irrigation ditch. On another occasion, I was knocked out of bed by a shock wave. Atomic bombs were fearsome things to a nine-year-old kid. (They are fearsome things to a 66-year-old.)
Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball
This is the part where my dad talks about meeting the atomic vet in my family, who eventually died as a result of the radiation:
One afternoon, I came home from school and there was a strange man in the living room talking to Dad and Mom. He was one of Dad’s cousins and was home on leave from the Army. I sat and listened with wide eyes as he described his participation in the atomic bomb tests in Nevada. He along with many other soldiers had sat in a trench one mile from ground zero. They had dark goggles and ear protection that was their only special equipment. The bomb sat on a tall tower. They were told not to look at the tower or to raise their heads above the edge of the trench. When the bomb went off, Dad’s cousin saw a blinding flash, and was thrown backwards against the trench wall. He said that the blast was deafening and that a sheet of hot sand whistled over his head. We talked for a while and then he left. I never saw him again. Six years later, in 1958, I heard that he had died of leukemia.
I think it’s important to remember not only the soldiers who died in foreign countries, but also the soldiers who died right here in America. They died without volunteering to be experimented on by their own government. The government considered them expendable. Just human guinea pigs to see what the bomb would do to them. And while we’ve made progress, neither the living vets nor the people who died have been properly compensated for the mess created. This isn’t a partisan thing, and it’s not about whether you approve of the military or not, this is just messed up what happened to people.
It’s nice to find Okie-themed songs that aren’t by Woody Guthrie. Not that all of his were bad, but a lot of us have mixed feelings about him for all kinds of reasons both good and bad. (Mine are mostly around the fact he made a living off making fun of us as much as anything else. But tempered by the knowledge that is making a living in a situation where especially at first he had no guarantee of one.)
Anyway as far as I know this is just a straight-up story from Merle Haggard’s life. I’ve always liked Merle Haggard’s music. He was one of the pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound, basically Californian country music, mostly Okie in origin, that sounded very different from Nashville either at the time or since. Bakersfield being one of the largest cities in the San Joaquin Valley where the Okies lived, and one of the big centers for country & western music in California.
This is mostly about the way people from Oklahoma and surrounding states, largely but not entirely during the Dust Bowl and Depression eras, were lured into California with promises of a standard of living that didn’t pan out. A method of getting a cheap farm labor force into the state that hasn’t changed much. 😦
My family got lucky, after some time in the labor camps they were able to buy a series of small farms (one at a time, not owning several at once!) they spent the rest of their lives in debt over before being pushed out of farming altogether. Most Okies didn’t even get that.
I grew up on stories of a great-grandma who slept with a hatchet under her pillow.
She was afraid the sheriff was coming for her, you see. This was supposed to confirm she was crazy.
Maybe she was crazy. I don’t know. But the thing is, the sheriff did come for her.
And he took her to the state mental institution.
And she eventually died there.
So if she was “paranoid”, if she was sleeping with a hatchet under her pillow, maybe she had reason to be.
Society treats institutionalization as the inevitable result of disability. It’s not. It’s a widespread, ongoing crime against humanity. Just because it’s socially acceptable doesn’t make any less of one.
There’s very little he’ll leave alone, if given the chance.
But the more I think about it… I like having a memorial shrine, I will put it back together again, but the cat will knock it over again unless I buy some museum putty or something, which I’m not sure I’m willing to do.
And the more I think about it, the more fitting it is that my dad’s things are sometimes all over the house, reminding me of him in everyday life.
I sleep with his rocks in my bed.
I wear his clothing.
I find things he owned everywhere.
I use his tools.
I’ve said before that objects are my best form of communication. With my father, this is true. All of his things don’t just each remind me of him. Each one had a specific relation to him.
Taken together, they point back to who he was with the precision of a laser beam.
And they will do that whether they are properly arranged on the shrine or scattered everywhere by the cat.
And I love remembering my father. I love finding him in my current life, in who I have become. I love relating to him in an ongoing way even though he is dead. Because who he was can’t be erased and his influence on the world still exists and will always exist.
I don’t idealize him the way some people do when someone dies, though. I remember the worst parts about him. But I don’t feel like I’d be remembering him if I did otherwise. It would feel like an insult to his memory to turn him into an image of something he never was.
But I also don’t feel the horrible feelings most people expect with grief, for the most part. I feel like he is still in my life, just not present. His things remind me of who he was, and his influences and actions ensure he’s still around in everything I do. I still have an ongoing relationship with him. Most of the time I remember him with joy.
Bottom line is, I love my father. And maybe sometimes overzealous kittens make you put things in perspective. Remembering my father is not confined to one part of the house, it is integrated into my life. Memorial shrines are a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but having them disrupted can make you think.
We all come to the world from a particular place. Each of us it’s a little different. Sometimes a lot different. Some of it is culture. Some of it is background and life experiences. Some of it is our families. Some of it is the way our body works. Some of it is location. There are so many things that influence our perspective on the world.
But we all have one particular perspective. And that perspective is important. Without many perspectives on the world, the world would be in a lot of trouble. We need people from different backgrounds, different thought patterns, lots of different things.
But every part of your perspective, everything that makes it up, is important. And that includes the things that seem to contradict each other. And all the things you’re ashamed of. Or afraid of. Or all the little details that seem to make things a little more complicated. Those things are all important to who you are, where you come from in the world, and what makes your perspective important.
I’ve talked before about being an Okie. I may have even talked about how ashamed I was and afraid I was for a long time of recognizing I was an Okie. There were a lot of reasons for this. But I could not understand myself, or my culture, or the things that made me different from my neighbors where I grew up. Not without understanding both that I was an Okie and what an Okie is. And the history behind Okies in California.
But it goes beyond just being an Okie. There are tons of specifics to it. There is how long most of my family was in Oklahoma and the surrounding area before coming to California. There is why each specific part of my family came to California. There is when they came to California. There is what opportunities were open to them and not open to them compared to other Okies. There is what states they came from both originally and before they came to California. There is who stayed behind, who came to California, and who went back. And why. There is the specific ethnicities of different parts of my family.
There is also the fact that we left that San Joaquin Valley and ended up in Silicon Valley. There is the fact that my father was a very specific kind of person who existed in Silicon Valley, even though their presence was rarely acknowledged. Which is he was an Okie techie. There were Okies who left what were usually farm jobs and made it into some part of the Silicon Valley tech industry.
In my father’s case, that meant he was an electronics technician. He, like many Okie techies, came from a small farming or farm working background. He grew up tinkering with electronics in the attic of his farm. His high school in Kern County had an excellent program. Every year, they built a house. The carpentry class would build it. And the electronics class, which my father was in, would wire it. And so on. They would sell it as cheap as they could to a family who needed a home, and use the money for next year’s house. My father got practical experience with electronics while still in high school.
He went to a two-year college and got a degree that allowed him to be an electronics technician. But like many Okie techies, most of what he learned in the world came from practical experience of some kind. His on-the-job experience gave him enough knowledge that he could do the work of an engineer without the schooling. He even trained engineering grad students.
This all meant that I was born in San Mateo County in the redwoods. Because this was very close to the physics research facility where my dad had a job when I was born. And it meant when we left the redwoods I grew up in Silicon Valley, mostly San Jose. I have also lived in the San Joaquin Valley, Santa Cruz County, Santa Barbara County, and other places. But that’s the basic area I was in.
And that means that while my culture was Okie, this was not the culture I was surrounded by. And I was exposed to a lot of things that most Okies would not believe in. Like all the stuff I call California dreaming. A large, destructive part of California’s culture where a lot of people try to live in a dream world. It’s most famous I guess as a Hollywood thing. Because it’s easy to see that Hollywood is based on a lot of people’s dreams about the world. But it’s around a lot of mainstream Californian culture. There’s a whole branch of the Silicon Valley tech industry where people live with their head in the clouds and don’t seem to have any idea that there is a basic physical world they have to live in. There are also the new agers who think you can wish physical reality into existence using only your mind.
And so I was exposed to all these ideas, even though within my family they got very short shrift. Because like anyone who’s done farm work pretty much knows that you depend on the physical world and you cannot wish it away. And any Okie with any sense remembers the dustbowl and how you could not wish or dream that mess away, and how people created that mess by ignoring the realities of their physical environment. So my cultural influences push me very far away from the sort of thinking that gives us dream worlds, and thinking the Singularity will save us or kill us or whatever, and things like The Secret and the Law Of Attraction. Which are a lot more connected within Californian culture than you would expect.
But exposure to those ideas while young led me to try them out. And I tried them out in a pretty spectacular way. And I never could shake a pretty iron sense of the real physical world, even though I did my best to pretend. And part of that is my cultural background kicking in. But I heard if you pretend something it’ll happen, so I tried my best to pretend reality didn’t exist. But I couldn’t pretend to myself at all. So these were these two influences fighting in my head. What I heard around me and what I kinda knew in my bones.
My exposure to those conflicting cultural values shapes my understanding of the world. If I had only been exposed to one or the other, or if I had come from a different direction, my perspective would be extremely different. And I do think my perspective on this gives me insight into things that are important.
There’s also the specifics of my family, like my personal specific family history. Three of my grandparents were Okies, the other was the daughter of Swedish immigrants. My mom’s family tended to be FDR Democrats, my father’s family were Republicans. Both of my parents had political and religious disagreements with their parents. There were frictions in the family over politics and religion. There is the combination of political liberalism or leftism and a sort of cultural conservatism or traditionalism that’s pretty hard to nail down in words, but that definitely exists in my family and in me. There’s a lot more diversity among Okies in this regard than you will ever hear. And these things factor into everything as well.
But all that, all those influences, all those oddly specific things about my personal, family, and cultural background. Those all and far more things that I could not get into, contribute to what my particular perspective is and what I have to offer based on that perspective. Even my weird little personal aversions to being an Okie, my attempts to hide from being an Okie, my attempts to become something I’m not, my final understanding that regardless of anything I am an Okie. All those things, all those twists and turns, are important to who I am.
It is all of these extremely specific things that are specific to each person that are very important in so many ways. And culture is just one part of what I am describing.
Like you can go into anything. And all the specifics matter.
Another example:I have a severe kind of inertia. So severe that in the medical world it’s been diagnosed as a form of catatonia since I was a teenager. First just as a description and later as an actual diagnosis. Severe enough that sometimes I need help with physical movement through physical prompting. But also not always that severe, fluctuating a lot throughout my lifetime. And fluctuating a lot based on a lot of things. And something that started out not as severe and became more severe over time.
That means that I intuitively understand a lot of the mechanics of how prompting works and does not work. I intuitively understand the vulnerabilities created by inertia. These vulnerabilities are not well-understood by most professionals or family. I understand how things can go right, and how things can go wrong. This is true of many of us who have this kind of inertia.
Some people have never consistently done a voluntary unprompted movement. Unlike them, I have had a degree of privacy to develop certain abilities. When I was a certain age, I was able to go on the computer, in a room by myself, and dial in to BBSs.
A BBS, or Bulletin Board System, was a computer system or network that you dialed into using a modem. At its simplest, it would have message boards where people can leave messages for each other. Kind of like if you’ve ever used a web board for some topic or another. It could also have email, whether within the BBS or with an Internet feed. Sometimes it would have Usenet which was again kind of like a web board in its way. Sometimes it would have what we now call chat rooms. Sometimes it would just have the ability to chat with the sysop, or systems operator, who is the owner of the BBS. Sometimes it would even have Internet relay chat. But not all BBSs connected to the Internet. Many were one computer. Some had their own small networks like NirvanaNet. Which I used a lot.
But my time on BBSs was a time when I could type anything into a computer screen, and watch whatever reaction I got back. At that age, anything I said or typed had a lot of echo to it. So it was not necessarily reflective of what I was thinking. Sometimes it was. But that was not consistent for me. It was formative to privately and anonymously type words into a screen and get words back. Even if the fruits of that experience were in no way immediately obvious. My communication skills would never have been the same without that.
And there are people who have a lot of inertia. Who have the same awareness I have of how it works and does not work. But who because of either their life circumstances, or their degree and type of inertia, have never had that formative experience of typing with nobody seeing what you’re typing. Or speaking without anyone hearing what you are speaking. And as minor as that might sound to someone who doesn’t know what that means, it fundamentally and hugely affects many things about how you communicate and even what you can communicate.
It also affects what you can safely communicate about. Because if you are dependent completely on other people for your communication, there are things that have consequences if you say them. And some of those consequences may be having your communication taken away forever.
But even aside from the risks, the lack of the experience of ever having communication privacy has an enormous effect on a huge amount of things. For me, having the ability to at least some of the time, and for me it’s most of the time, communicate or even just use words in private means there’s a lot of things I am able to say. Including a lot of things about the mechanics of inertia. And the mechanics of prompting. And the inherent dangers of prompting that cannot ever be erased.
And talking about those dangers is hard for people who depend on physical prompting to communicate. Some people do it, some people try. But they can’t always manage it. And when they do manage it, they may face very severe consequences.
So there are these dangers built deeply into any way of helping someone overcome inertia. And I can’t get into all of what they are right now. I’m not always actually that good at describing the exact nature of them. But I am able to say they are there. I am able to say that they can’t go away.
I am able to say that they are different from, vastly different from, the dangers that most people are aware of. I am able to say they operate in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the fucking ideomotor effect. That human beings are not Ouija boards. That the fact that this takes place does not mean communication does not take place. But also the people who create, develop, and promote the many different forms of assisted typing do not understand this either. I don’t think some of them want to understand it. But others they just can’t understand if they’re not aware of what the actual problems are. And of course because of the stakes, there’s a lot of pressure to not even acknowledge there is a problem. Or to oversimplify the problem.
And the problem is someone like me is in a position to know and understand the dangers very well, and to be able to say hey there are dangers here. And that is so specific to my position in the world. Like my exact experiences with inertia. My exact experiences with prompting and assisted typing. My exact fluctuations in abilities. My exact background in this entire area, my entire personal history, the ability I had to experiment with language in private for years without anyone knowing who I was and what I was saying and why I was saying it.
And I’m also in a position to understand that even saying there are dangers carries dangers for those who rely on assisted typing of one kind or another. I know that anything I say can be used as ammunition to try and shut down attempts to allow people to communicate. And I take that very seriously, so if that’s your position on this is that all assisted typing is nonsense, I can tell you that is wrong. And I know exactly why it is wrong. Because I have used it.
So I exist in this borderland that is an extremely useful borderland to exist in. And all the twists and turns, all the little details, give me a perspective that is important to the world. I know other people with this particular perspective. Just as I know other people of my basic cultural and family background, both general and weirdly specific.
I’m not saying that I’m uniquely important in my perspective. We all have, each one of us, because of all the specifics of everything about us, an important perspective. We need every perspective we have. Even, or maybe especially, where our perspectives contradict each other or disagree. It doesn’t mean every single one of us is right. But every single one of us has something important to give to the world in terms of how we see the world and how we react to it. And when we try to hard to force everyone into the same perspective, we lose that.
Even weird things matter. Like being seen as high IQ and being seen as low IQ, both officially. Having gone from an early entry college to special education high school in that order. All of these things create understandings of the world that each of us has. Each of us has weird little specifics in our life that all matter.
Often it’s the things we don’t want to know about ourselves, or don’t want to think about, that are important. It’s the things we’re ashamed of. It’s the things people give us crap for. It’s the things we’re afraid of. It’s the things that aren’t even true, but other people’s belief in them has changed our lives.
Painful as some of these things are to think about, the more we understand them, the more we accept that all these things are a part of us, the better equipped we are to understand where we’re coming from. The more you understand the perspective you’re coming from, the more you can contribute from that perspective. It lets you know your exact place in the world and that is a very powerful thing to know. It gives you choices. It gives you understanding. It gives you insights that you would not otherwise have. It gives you more of an in-depth comprehension of both the strengths and limitations of your particular point of view. It makes you understand your place within human diversity, and the importance of that diversity in all its forms. It makes you understand why and how it is that diversity can never be neatly summed up. It lets you know how you can use all of this.
So I’ve used a lot of examples of my own life here. But that’s to illustrate something that applies to every single person on this planet. Our culture matters. Our background matters. Our family matters. Our life experiences matter. Our physical body’s makeup matters. Everything about us contributes to this. And the less we can hide from the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see, and the things about this that are so painful we don’t want to look at them, the more powerful we can be. And the more powerful our perspectives and our use of those perspectives can be.
So I guess the short version of this is:Know thyself. But know thyself in detail. Know thyself fearlessly or at least courageously. Know all parts of thyself. Know the parts of thyself you would rather not know. Know the parts of thyself that you are proud of, that you’re ashamed of, that you’re indifferent to, that you are afraid of, all of them. Know how they all fit together. Know the parts of thyself that seem like contradictions and like they throw everything else about you into question. If something scares or repulses you, look twice, and look harder, and overcome the fear enough to see whatever is really there. I guarantee it’s important.
This is not navel gazing. This is how to understand where you fit in the world, where your perspectives come from, what contributions this makes you capable of or even obligated to, and what you can do about it. And it will go on your whole life. But the more you understand, the more power you have to do something good in the world.
I was raised on stories of atomic bomb tests, witnessed from afar. My father’s family were California Okies who lived and worked on a series of farms all over Kern County and Tulare County, California. My father told childhood stories of seeing flashes on the other side of the Sierras, then watching the shock wave roll towards them. The shock waves were often strong enough to knock you out of bed, or knock water out of the irrigation canals.
I didn’t know this story, though, until my father wrote his memoirs in his late sixties or early seventies. He was born in 1941, and this seems to take place in 1952:
One afternoon, I came home from school and there was a strange man in the living room talking to Dad and Mom. He was one of Dad’s cousins and was home on leave from the Army. I sat and listened with wide eyes as he described his participation in the atomic bomb tests in Nevada. He along with many other soldiers had sat in a trench one mile from ground zero. They had dark goggles and ear protection that was their only special equipment. The bomb sat on a tall tower. They were told not to look at the tower or to raise their heads above the edge of the trench. Wen the bomb went off, Dad’s cousin saw a blinding flash, and was thrown backwards against the trench wall. He said that the blast was deafening and that a sheet of hot sand whistled over his head. We talked for a while and then he left. I never saw him again. Six years later, in 1958, I heard that he had died of leukemia.
That’d be my first cousin, twice removed. (I had to look that up.) Family history meets just plain history.
The American military carried out these bomb tests regularly, and often they tested the effects on American citizens. Quite often, these were low-ranking military personnel who were not told what they were getting into and given no radiation protection. This is besides the effects of fallout on civilians, which was a huge problem in Nevada, surounding areas, and anywhere else weather patterns happened to take it. And testing on unwitting civilians, which happened as well. And the civilians in the Pacific Islands who because of all kinds of racist and colonialist crap were even more disregarded by America and France and other places that nuked the crap out of the region than most people I just talked about.
Sometimes, they even had their test subjects stand up and walk towards Ground Zero after the bomb went off.
Many people, like my grandpa’s cousin, didn’t survive long.
But many people did. And many of them — and their children — had a lot of health problems that continue to this day, especially cancer. They were sworn to secrecy (sometimes under penalty of treason), but many began breaking that silence in order to protest lack of compensation or apology for being made into human guinea pigs for nuclear weapons.
Today, they’re known as atomic veterans. But most people don’t know, or only know in passing, that this happened, and what happened to them and their families. The following Retro Report video is a good overview with lots of interviews with atomic vets and their families:
It makes the point that while nuclear testing officially stopped, there are still atomic vets from after that era: People who were sent in to clean up earlier test sites.
This post may be late for Memorial Day, but on Memorial Day I always remember people like my grandfather’s cousin, completely forgotten casualties of the Cold War, killed by their own superiors in the military. They’re rarely given the recognition for this that they would be had they died in other military contexts.
Here’s a video shot by a guy whose dad died after being subjected to atomic testing in the Marines:
And he makes the also-good point that this is not a partisan issue, it’s a matter of basic respect.
So that’s what Memorial Day has had me thinking of. I have lots of vets both living and dead in the family, but the only one I know of who died because of something that happened during his service was used as a lab rat in Nevada without being told. My grandfather on the other side got a Purple Heart for a relatively minor injury in the Pacific Theater of World War II, but my other grandpa’s cousin got no recognition to my knowledge even though he died from the effects of the radiation.
Apparently they were usually sworn to secrecy under threat of treason charges, but he had no trouble telling family. I imagine that was common.
They’re still fighting for recognition and compensation, to my knowledge. The unfortunate joke among atomic vets — probably quite real — is that the government’s just waiting until most of them die.
Maybe it’s because I’m in Vermont. I don’t know. People come up with a lot of weird meanings for my hat. They think it’s a cowboy hat. Or an adventurer hat. Or some kind of costume. It’s not any of the above. It’s my father’s hat.
Maybe it’s an Okie thing. People wear hats. Wearing hats has specific meanings I can’t put into words easily. I can look back in generations of family photographs and find people wearing similar hats, similar clothes.
My father always wore a hat. But he wore them for different reasons.
One of my favorite memories of my father and his hats was the way he’d wear it when he was headed out to do something important. He might still be wearing his usual jeans and shirt, but the hat meant things were important and he was dressing up. You could tell by how deliberately he put it on.
And he wore these hats as if the hats grew out of his head.
I saw hats in family photos, hats on family members, I saw the way people treated their hats, the way they touched their hats, the way they wore their hats. Hats are important in my family and culture.
When my father died, he sent me a lot of his hats, and a lot of his shirts and suspenders. I began wearing his clothes, or his style of clothes, every day, including his hats.
People told me for the first time in my life I looked comfortable in my own skin.
It wasn’t a conscious thing.
But the clothes started looking like they grew on me, the same way they looked like they grew on him, the same way similar clothes look like they grew on many of our relatives who dress similarly.
I started feeling more connected to him.
It sounds like a cliché, but maybe some things are clichés for a reason: Wearing his clothes made me able to feel connected to him, I found the parts of me that he left deep inside of me when I wasn’t looking. It wasn’t about how I looked in the clothes, it was about how I felt in them. I felt connected to him, connected to my family, connected to my culture. I felt things that have no words, no names, more depth than you’d imagine from a set of clothing.
But then I always connected to the world well through objects and the connections between them.
And, it turns out, so did my father.
I continue to discover him inside of me in ways I could’ve never imagined.
I continue to discover the things he has passed down to me without word or instruction.
And those things, that love, are the most valuable things of all. They form connections and bonds between people. They’re important.
So when you see me in any of my dad’s hats. It’s not a costume. It’s not a cowboy hat. It’s not an adventurer hat. It’s a connection to things I didn’t even know were inside me, between me and my dad, between me and my family, between me and my culture. It’s remembrance and love but it’s so much more.
People are often taught to view clothing as superficial and vain. To view objects as just meaningless dead things. But clothing can tell you a lot about where you come from. It can connect you to your roots, however loving, uncomfortable, and complicated those roots might be. It can be a reminder of who you really are.