When I first waded into the downwinder stories as a graduate student, my cohort members teased me good-naturedly about the “depressing” subject matter I’d chosen for my thesis research. It was difficult material, certainly, but so many of the important pieces of the past are stained with sadness and loss. Interwoven with that pain and tragedy there is also resilience and resistance, and it is those traits that I am drawn to study.
Fast forward a decade: I’m waiting tables because it gives me time to write, and allows me to support my family without putting my son in daycare. Once a year, I cover my shifts for a week or two and head back to downwinder country to do more interviews. I meet new activists who inspire me with their efforts, and mourn the loss of old friends. The book has been moving slowly through the academic publishing process, passing through developmental editing, several rounds of peer review, copy editing, and page proofs. Finally, in the Autumn of 2014, preorders begin making their way out in the mail. One evening, while I’m filling a tray of drinks, one of my regulars walks up to the bar beaming, holding up a copy of my book. After I deliver the drinks, I stop by her table to sign her copy. I’m still holding the pen over the page when she says, “you know, it’s very sad. I was surprised by how sad it was.”
As food sizzles on the flattop nearby and pint glasses thump hollowly onto wooden tables, I briefly wonder if I should have warned her in advance. She bought the book to support a waitress she’s fond of. I wrote the book because I didn’t want the stories to die, because I wanted to undermine the notion of Cold or bloodless war.
“There is a lot of sadness in it,” I agree. “This is a hard history to learn. But it is also redemptive. If housewives and rural sheepherders in the 1950s could apprehend the truth of government propaganda and toxic pollution and stand up to the powerful agencies and industries responsible, then maybe we ordinary people of this decade can meet our crises with similar bravery. We don’t need to be trained activists, or lawyers, or scientists. We can start where we are, by telling stories about our experiences to the people we care about. That’s why these stories are powerful to me.”
She nodded. I could see tickets piling up in the window, and remembering I was there as a waitress, I handed the book over and cleared her dishes.
We are a society that shies away from sadness, and difficult history. Enamored of optimism, technology and our own promise as a young nation, we do not dwell much in the past. But there are heroes there, people like us, and their stories can help us to make our way forward. If it weren’t for the activism of the downwinders, nuclear explosions would have continued to rattle the earth of the American West into the present day. If not for the uranium activists, toxic tailings and radon daughters and unsafe labor practices would pervade even more of the West than they already do. These ordinary people brought about major media coverage, congressional hearings, compensation legislation, environmental studies, cleanup efforts, citizen advocacy groups, and test ban treaties.
All they ask is that you listen to their stories. If you are moved, act. Retell their stories. Tell your own. Donate to the good organizations that are continuing to push for research, legislation, and public discourse on these critical issues.