Posted in family, history, Okies

Atomic Vets Again

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
The red marker that says E Terra Bella Ave shows roughly where Pixley Farm was located, where my dad could see the atomic testing over the mountains.

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.

Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball

I made a more detailed post on atomic vets awhile back, called America’s Atomic Veterans, if you want to read it.

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.

Posted in culture, history, music

The Eagle Flies Alone, and what does Armageddon mean today?

Sorry I can’t write out the lyrics.  Kruschshev must’ve really made an impression on Tony Carey as a kid, he’s always referencing the shoe-pounding incident.  I don’t know if I’ve ever shared my collection of Cold War songs in its entirety or not, but this is one of them.  (The vast majority are by this artist, he did a lot of Cold War inspired work both under his name Tony Carey and his sci-fi/historical dystopian band name Planet P Project which was basically just him with a synth and a lot of time on his hands.)

I find it interesting to hear the perspectives of different people who were there, writing songs about the Cold War during or shortly after the Cold War.  I’m at the tail end of the Cold War generations (I’m about as young as you can get and still have understood what was going on enough to absorb the historical context despite some massive comprehension problems on my part) and this guy is from close to the other end so it kind of bookends things for me.

To me, the end of the world is nuclear war.

Like.  Those two things mean the same thing

It’s taken me time to realize there are other ends.

It’s taken me even longer to realize the end of the world is not the end of the world.

It’s taken me even longer to convince anyone that nuclear war never stopped being a threat.  I never understood why everyone was so fast to think we were safe when the Cold War ended.

Like.  No.  Really.  I knew those nukes didn’t just vanish.  I knew the technology didn’t just vanish.  I knew the nature of modern human cultures didn’t just just vanish.  I was a kid but I wasn’t that oblivious to the world.

I wonder what Armageddon today’s kids are inheriting.

Understand I didn’t first hear Armageddon in a religious context.  It was another word for nuclear war.  I had no idea it was a religious metaphor or what religion it came from.

So I wonder what Armageddon means to today’s kids.

Does it mean this?

They were beginning to tell us stories like the above when I was a kid, but it was harder to grasp or believe.  Especially since I associated environmentalism with upper-middle-class and rich snobs trying to one-up each other’s status symbols.  So I had an aversion to taking them seriously.

This last song, I take as a call to action, to say, “This will happen if we don’t do something now.

But a friend warned me that the tone of the song can also signal despair, and stop people from hoping, and stop people from believing they have any obligation to carry on even in the face of loss of hope.

And I can see that.

So I’d remind people that the fact that each of us individually will die does not absolve us of our responsibilities while we are still alive, it only underscores them.  Because there will always be those who come after us.

And I’d remind people that the same is true of us as a species.

It still matters what we do for each other right now, because each of us matters right now.

It still matters what we leave for the next generation, and how hard or easy we make something that will never be easy.

It still matters, even in the event of extinction, what we leave for other life that may come after us.

It still matters what we do now.  Because everything now matters.

It still matters what we do for the future.  Because the future is not just any one of us, and it is not just all of us, it is a whole world, a whole universe, it is things we can’t understand or anticipate, and what we do has an effect and matters to all of that.

It matters because we are all on Julian of Norwich’s hazelnut together — this one tiny fragile nut that we have to take care of because it’s all we’ve got.  And if you think she lived a long time ago in simpler times, a reminder she lived during the frigging Plague in Europe, which sure looked like the end of the world at the time.

And just as death was considered a marker of social equality back in those days, another song from my Cold War collection references nuclear war just before saying “Ashes and diamond, foe and friend, we were all equal in the end.”

Wow I’m cheery today.

A Slovenian Danse Macabre mural

I actually love the symbolism of the Danse Macabre, though.  For real.  It says that death is the one thing that happens to every one of us, that makes us all equal.  It’s an art form depicting dead people dancing together, from all walks of life.  The Plague got people thinking that way.  That’s bleak optimism for you.

Ashes and diamond Foe and friend We were all equal in the end Pink Floyd, “Two Suns in the Sunset”

As far as I knew, growing up, the world ended with a flash.  The only difference you got was whether you were at the center of the flash and died quickly, or a further distance away and died slowly.  On 9/11, I was sure from FBI chatter (and lack of communication device) that I was headed towards the center of the flash.  I was a lot of things, but I wasn’t afraid.  I’d been ready for it my whole life.  It only took minutes to adjust to the “okay it’s finally happened, no time to feel bad about it” mentality.

It took a lot longer to adjust to the reality of what’d actually happened.  But I was baffled by all the people saying “We’re not safe anymore.”  Safe?  Since when were we safe?  Did everyone forget so fast?  And honestly what happened for real was a lot less bad than what I imagined when I heard the snippets like “Plane headed for the Pentagon” and “We think downtown San Jose will be a target, we need to shut down San Jose” and people standing on street corners waving newspapers with “ATTACK ON AMERICA” in giant letters.

I mean — there was no context for planes flying into buildings, and anyone old enough to be reared on Cold War propaganda and unable to get access to the real news was gonna come to one conclusion.  My dad was coming out of an isolated part of the Sierra Nevadas and came to the same exact conclusion when the planes stopped flying over (he memorized plane routes and used them to help orient to both time and locations) and he could only get patriotic music on the radio.

And now we’re facing so many different ends.

And yet none of the ends are ends, if we look beyond ourselves, just as our own end isn’t the end, if we look beyond our own personal death.  And even what looks like the end of the species may be survivable for small tiny numbers of scattered people.  But end of person, end of most of our species, end of our entire species, end of many species, whatever it ends up being — we still have a responsibility right now.  To everyone who still exists, to everyone who will exist, to everyone within our species, to everyone beyond our species.  We have a responsibility.  That never goes away.

As for despair, this is worth keeping in mind:

It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. Gandalf the Grey, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I know I’ve said all this before.  But some things are worth repeating.  And the memory of the Cold War seems worth keeping alive.  Different eras in history shape not just big forces in the world, but also the lives and beliefs and perspectives of small people everywhere.  And those lives and beliefs and perspectives and memories are, each one of them, vitally important.  They are what history is really made of — each one of us, not a single one invisible — and why history matters.

Posted in family, history

America’s Atomic Veterans

Black and white photo of mushroom cloud in the distance with a number of men sitting on the ground in the desert, watching. Cacti are visible in between the men and the mushrom cloud.
Atomic bomb test in Yucca Flat, Nevada, April 22, 1952.

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.

-Ronald Baggs

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.

The Only Country that Ever Nuked America Was America.

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.

And most people don’t even know they exist.

Posted in Being human, Developmental disability service system, history

Why Vasili Arkhipov should matter to you.

Most people have never heard of Vasili Arkhipov, but it’s quite likely we all owe our existence to him.

Vasili Arkhipov, a true hero unrecognized in his lifetime.

He was in the Soviet military during the Cold War.  While serving aboard a submarine, he witnessed death and suffering from radiation during a nuclear accident.  This had a profound impact on him.

He played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis that changed the world in ways the Americans were not even aware of until relatively recently when his deeds came to light.

The Americans didn’t know that some of the submarines they were dealing with during the Cuban Missile Crisis were armed with nukes.

The Soviets in these submarines were suffering extreme physical and mental deprivation that was affecting their judgement.  They were overheated, dehydrated, exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide, going without food, and being bombarded by intimidation from the Americans, so they were pushed to their physical and mental breaking point.  Not a good situation for making rational decisions no matter how good your training is.

Vasili Arkhipov was aboard one of the subs.

In order to launch a nuke, normally there were only two people who had to agree:  The captain and the political officer.  Arkhipov was in a unique position, because he was second-in-command on this submarine, but he was also commander of the fleet.  This gave him a third-person veto power that didn’t exist on the other subs.

The captain and political officer aboard his sub decided to launch a nuke at the Americans.  A nuke the Americans were not even aware existed — they didn’t know the subs were armed in this way.  If the captain and political officer launched the nuke in the situation they were in, with the USA and USSR armed to the teeth, it’s likely that all-out nuclear war would have devastated most of the planet shortly thereafter.

Vasili Arkhipov remembered what radiation did to people.  And he argued against using the nuke.  He used the veto power he had.  It took an argument.  The captain still wanted to do it.  But Vasili Arkhipov prevailed and we are all still here as a result.

For his efforts, by the way, he returned to the USSR in disgrace, being told he’d have been better off going down with his ship, and never talked about it due to shame and embarrassment.

Vasili Arkhipov’s story is dramatic.  And now we know that he was one person standing in the way of all-out nuclear war.

Photo of Licorne nuclear test – French Polynesia, 1970.  Article on such tests:  French nuclear tests ‘showered vast area of Polynesia with radioactivity’.

What we don’t know is how many other times things like that happen, day after day, because someone decides to be the one person who says “No, this isn’t right.”

Probably the world has been saved many times over by the actions of people who will never understand the effects of their actions, and will never be recognized for them.

And even when it’s not on the scale of saving the world, being the one person who realizes the right thing to do and then does it can have a profound effect on the lives of other people.

Which means each of us has an obligation to try to be that person.

It doesn’t mean we’ll get it right.

It doesn’t mean we’ll know the effects of what we did.

It doesn’t mean we won’t be punished for our actions.

But it really is that important.

The developmental disability agency that provides me services seems to have a culture or policy that works against people doing the right thing when they see something wrong going on.

It works against them in many different ways.  There are all kinds of pressures on people.  To look the other way.  To decide they aren’t responsible if they don’t do anything to help a situation.  To assign all responsibility for the situation to other people and factors besides themselves.  To not act.  To not do the right thing.  Even if their conscience is crying out that everything they are participating in is hurting people, and that they could step in and do something.

A lot of agencies have this kind of culture, office politics, whatever you want to call it.

But not all agencies have it in the same way or to the same extent.

I used to receive services from a developmental disability agency in California.  There was a week where I wasn’t getting services.  I ran into trouble rapidly with food, water, medication, hygiene, and everything else I couldn’t do.

I somehow dragged myself into their office, turned my communication device up as far as it would go, and say I hadn’t eaten or had water and wasn’t leaving until I did.

The head of the agency came out of nowhere, drove me home, cooked me meals, made sure I ate, made sure I got water, and cleaned my apartment.

I didn’t ask him to do this.  He just saw there was a problem and stepped in to solve it.

That impulse to step in and do the right thing is a good impulse.

I have seen agencies that foster that attitude.

I have also seen agencies, like my current one, that do their best to suppress such pangs of conscience and their results, in their employees.

The thing is, even in an agency culture that tells you to look the other way, that it’s not your fault, that it’s an imperfect system failing someone and not in any way you as a part of it?  You can still fight against that.  You can still be a Vasili Arkhipov for someone. My agency sure as hell tries to blur the distinction between “We can’t do that for you” and “We refuse to do that for you,” but there is a distinction and it’s your responsibility to figure it out.

And if you do step in and do the right thing… you may not save the world from nuclear war, but you might save some people from needless suffering or even death.

And if you do that only once you’ll have had a major impact on the world for someone.

You can resist the pressure to pretend it’s not happening, pretend you have no responsibility, pretend it’s someone else’s problem.  I have seen agencies move mountains to do things that my current agency flat-out refuses to do as a matter of course.  I have also seen even individual workers within this current agency go out of their way to help people.  They are often punished for their efforts  But they know it is right so they do it.

All of us can take a lesson from Vasili Arkhipov.

All of us.

None of us is exempt from the good we are capable of doing.  Nor the evil we can allow and excuse if we decide to turn the other way.

A smaller example:

Before seatbelt laws, my mom was part of a preschool committee for my brother.  The committee ran by consensus.  Meaning instead of a majority vote, everyone had to agree to something.  There can be huge problems with consensus, but this is how it was run.

They were trying to make a decision about whether to make the kids were seatbelts on field trips.  Everyone in the room decided not to make them wear seatbelts.

My mother stood up.  She had worked on ambulances.  She described the imprint of a baby’s head on a windshield in graphic detail.

Everyone changed their minds.  The kids got seatbelts.  Lives may have been saved.  I grew up hearing that story, being told to always be that person if my conscience is yelling at me hard enough about something.  I can’t say I always manage, but I can say I try.

Next time your conscience is screaming at you, listen to it.  Listen hard.  Then do whatever you can.

Today I Found Out has a good summary of Vasili Arkhipov’s role in saving the world, if you’re interested.

And remember you don’t have to be a commander of a submarine fleet or anyone special at all to stand up for what you believe in.  And whether you save the world or not, you’ll still have an impact.  And you’ll be able to live with yourself a lot more if your conscience is clear.  J.K. Rowling emphasized in her Harry Potter series that there’s a choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s easy. What Vasili Arkhipov did should be a wake-up call for all of us.

So here’s my challenge to everyone:  Be Vasili Arkhipov for someone, sometime, and keep trying.  You may never know what good you’ve done.  This isn’t about feeling good about yourself, it’s not about recognition, it’s not about staying out of danger.  It’s about doing your best to follow what you know in your bones to be the right thing, no matter what.

tl;dr:  Listen to your conscience even — especially — when everything and everyone around you seems to be saying not to.  You may never know the good you’ll do by doing so.  You may never know the evil you might allow to happen if you don’t.