I have lists of the dead in my file cabinet. Mothers, sisters, fathers, sons. Children and old women, veterans and sheep ranchers, baby boomers and gen-xers. Granddaughters and neighbors, teachers and tribal leaders.
Casualties of the Cold War, all of them. Radiological warfare is the gift that keeps on giving, implicating the rest of us in a conflict that ended before our children were born. We do not get a choice. We get rhetoric instead, about National Security. About terrorists, and staying vigilant. About the bombs that brought peace.
Its just been nonstop peace since 1945. Hasn’t it.
Nine years ago I went out hunting for these names, for people who remembered the dead, who had the energy left to tell these hard, ugly stories. Now they come to me unbidden, flowing into my inbox like disquieted ghosts.
Unbidden is the wrong word. I asked for their names, because I wanted to bear witness, because I’m not convinced that their stories ended with their deaths. Irma Thomas’s daughter believes her mother is still hanging around in the ether because she died with her work undone. She’s told me that I use phrases she only heard her mother use, like “damn it all to hell,”
I don’t know if I believe in ghosts,
but I do believe in Irma.
After the clouds passed over from the nuclear tests to the west she put on her husband’s coveralls and tied a dishcloth over her face and pulled her laundry off the line to rewash it. Her neighbors thought she was crazy. She asked them “do you want your kids sleeping on these sheets?” Despite her mother’s vigilance, her daughter lost the use of her legs as a teenager. She wanted to be a dancer. She’s survived cancer more times than I can count. She is the same age as my dad.
Sometimes I light candles on my writing desk, because we need ritual to face death. Sometimes I avoid working on my book and do laundry instead. How the hell could I possibly get it right?
I can get it right by letting them speak for themselves. From the grave, sometimes. I play back the tapes to myself when the house is quiet. I listen to the silences where they stopped to compose themselves when the tears came. I listen to the places we laughed together.
Whenever I visit a town to do an interview, I go to the cemetery. My mother taught me to go to the cemetery. Her dad died in a plane crash in 1962, and she spent my whole childhood looking for stories that would knit her past together. So in Hurricane, Utah, and Emmett, Idaho, and Mesquite, Nevada, I have gone to the cemetery. In Logan, in Cedar City, in St. George. In Red Valley, in Orem. In Salt Lake. I wander the headstones and I look at the dates.
There is no monument for the casualties of the uranium industry. Most local museums in the region do not mention the downwinders. The atomic museum in Vegas pretends they do not exist. We have been led to believe that American “supremacy” in the Cold War (and on the globe, by extension) was purchased without civilian casualties. Its a big, ugly lie. But while there are no placards about the uranium widows in the museums at Los Alamos and Las Vegas, there are cemeteries. And I stand alone in those cemeteries, the air thick with stories I cannot read, and I listen to the quiet. I visit the graves of the activists who fought until they could no longer draw breath and I let them remind me I do not have the privilege of growing weary of all this.