Book tour reflections

Bringing Downwind to Idaho: October Book Tour midpoint

During the early years of my research into the impact of nuclear testing in Nevada, I operated under a common misconception: that Southern Utah had borne the brunt of the contamination from the Nevada tests.  During the atmospheric testing era in Nevada (1951-1962) the Atomic Energy Commission tested only when the wind blew east, away from densely populated Las Vegas and California, and over the more sparsely populated regions of the American West.  While this meant that Southern Utah did receive more than its fair share of fallout, as it was sited directly east of the Nevada Test Site, the wind didn't always follow the same course.  Contamination was frequently carried south, into Arizona and beyond, and north, into northern Utah, southern Idaho, and the states that lay beyond to the east. In 1997 the National Cancer Institute released a study on fallout-related thyroid cancer,

providing a sobering look at all the far flung places the wind travelled to.

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The NCI study concerned itself with only one of many radioactive isotope produced by the nuclear tests: Iodine 131.  I-131 has a relatively short half-life of only eight days, but it remains very dangerous during that time. It began to make its way into the food chain as it drifted down on grazing lands and alfalfa crops which were subsequently consumed by cattle.  The contamination bioaccumulated, which means it increased in concentration as it moved up the food chain.  When humans consumed that I-131 contaminated cows milk, they received doses of radiation to their thyroids, particuarly dangerous in the developing bodies of children.

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The NCI study revealed the extent to which contamination had reached areas beyond southern Utah, and Idahoans struggling to make sense of alarming cancer clusters in their communities found the data particularly enlightening. They've been fighting for years to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to cover those counties in Idaho that we know were severely affected by radiological contamination from atmopsheric testing in Nevada.  During a gap in my Utah book tour events, I was able to dash up to Idaho to visit two community libraries to speak about these topics. 

 

 I spoke to a lovely audience at the library in Malad City, Idaho. A copy of  Downwind  has been donated to the Oneida County Library.

I spoke to a lovely audience at the library in Malad City, Idaho. A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Oneida County Library.

 Sunrise behind a wind farm. Early morning drive across Idaho from Malad City to Emmett.

Sunrise behind a wind farm. Early morning drive across Idaho from Malad City to Emmett.

In Emmett I had the honor of sitting down with four different residents who grew up in Gem County and interviewing them as a group about their memories of farm childhoods, early mentions of nuclear testing, and patterns of health problems in their community.   

 The stack of cards in this photograph represent one year of medical appointments for Emmett downwinder Billy Reynolds.  He has mylofibrosis, which his doctor believes could only have been caused by radiation exposure.  He lived in Emmett on a farm from 1951-1961, during the bulk of atmospheric nuclear testing to the south.  Emmett is located in Gem County, which ranks in the top five counties in the United States for fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing. "It seems like death is just a part of life here in Emmett.  My mother lived to be the oldest of her five siblings.  She died at 47.  Three of her siblings had brain cancer."   Billy's father and brother have also died of cancer.  I first met Billy two years ago.  At the time he was receiving regular blood transfusions to stay alive. Today he's on a new experimental medication that's improved his quality of life a great deal. It was dear to see him in Emmett.  A copy of  Downwind  has been donated to the Emmett library. 

The stack of cards in this photograph represent one year of medical appointments for Emmett downwinder Billy Reynolds.  He has mylofibrosis, which his doctor believes could only have been caused by radiation exposure.  He lived in Emmett on a farm from 1951-1961, during the bulk of atmospheric nuclear testing to the south.  Emmett is located in Gem County, which ranks in the top five counties in the United States for fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing. "It seems like death is just a part of life here in Emmett.  My mother lived to be the oldest of her five siblings.  She died at 47.  Three of her siblings had brain cancer."   Billy's father and brother have also died of cancer. I first met Billy two years ago.  At the time he was receiving regular blood transfusions to stay alive. Today he's on a new experimental medication that's improved his quality of life a great deal. It was dear to see him in Emmett.  A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Emmett library. 

 Emmett downwinder organizer Tona Henderson has copies of Downwind for sale at her bakery, the Rumor Mill.  

Emmett downwinder organizer Tona Henderson has copies of Downwind for sale at her bakery, the Rumor Mill.  

 Snapshot of the tour midpoint. 

Snapshot of the tour midpoint. 

Bringing DOWNWIND to the City of Salt

 Sunset from the roof of the Salt Lake City Public Library, Tuesday October 20

Sunset from the roof of the Salt Lake City Public Library, Tuesday October 20

In the past three days I've been able to present Downwind: A People's History in three different and really special Salt Lake City venues.  Tuesday night I visited the beautiful downtown library in SL and had a conversation with downwinder activist, playwright, KUED Director of Services, and all around force of nature, Mary Dickson.  It was a great format. Attendees sat in a semicircle of chairs and we sat in the center, sharing stories and fielding some fantastic questions.

 Mary and myself speaking to a lovely audience at the SL Library. Thanks to Christina McWhinnie for this and all other photos from this event.

Mary and myself speaking to a lovely audience at the SL Library. Thanks to Christina McWhinnie for this and all other photos from this event.

 I met Mary over ten years ago, when I was first begining my research on these issues.  I'd gone to hear writer and downwinder Terry Tempest Williams speak at USU in November of 2004. After her talk I waited in line to meet her and I told her that I was thinking about writing my master's thesis on the downwinders. She clasped my hands, gave me her best wishes, and told me I'd better call Mary, whose number she scribbled down on the margin of a program.  Mary immediately agreed to let me interview her, but she quickly became more than an informant for my project. She took me out to eat, she took me to the movies, she shared everything she knew. We spent one long night sitting up eating Girl Scout cookies and making postcards to send to elected officials in protest of the planned Divine Strake test.  Several years later Mary wrote a remarkable play, Exposed, about her journey to awareness as a downwinder, which was performed in SL and around the state to critical aclaim.  It was an honor and a pleasure to be reunited at this event to talk about our respective journeys and our work. This event (and in fact, most of my Utah tour) wouldn't have been possible without the help of several key folks. Rob DeBirk (who happens to be Mary's nephew) who worked for many years with HEAL, connected me to Michael McLane of Utah Humanities. Michael set up this and most of my other Utah tour events, lending his passion for the subject and his extensive connections around the state.

 Michael McLane, the organizer of the Utah Book Festival and most of the  Downwind  Utah tour. Michael is an  exceptionally talented writer  and a particularly kind human being, to boot.  

Michael McLane, the organizer of the Utah Book Festival and most of the Downwind Utah tour. Michael is an exceptionally talented writer and a particularly kind human being, to boot.  

    The SLC Public library audience was full of really lovely people. I so appreciated each of their questions, comments, and stories, and their willingness to come out and participate in this event. Also, big thanks to SLC's   Weller Book Works , who sold books at this and my Utah Archives Event. They have signed copies available in their store. 

 

The SLC Public library audience was full of really lovely people. I so appreciated each of their questions, comments, and stories, and their willingness to come out and participate in this event. Also, big thanks to SLC's Weller Book Works, who sold books at this and my Utah Archives Event. They have signed copies available in their store. 

On Wednesday I visited the Utah State Archives as a guest of Archives Month, where I spoke to a great crowd of archivists and community members about some of the archival documents that informed Downwind. (A link to a video of my talk can be found in the caption of the slide image below). Prior to my talk, Justin Sorenson and Heidi Brett of the University of Utah Downwinders Archive offered a short presentation about the remarkable work they are doing to preserve and share Downwinder oral histories, documents, and data. 

 Click  here  to access a video of my presentation at the Archives. 

Click here to access a video of my presentation at the Archives. 

After my talk, archivist Jim Kichas gave me a fantastic tour of the facilities. People, there are SO MANY BOOKS in this room waiting to be written.  Get yourself to an archive and ask a brilliant archivist like Jim what's good. Its pretty magical when they set down that box on the table and you get to pull out those folders and see the literal pieces of history tucked inside.  

 Behind the scenes at the Utah State Archives.  

Behind the scenes at the Utah State Archives.  

Thursday I joined staff and several very special supporters of HEAL Utah for a luncheon to discuss Downwind and the work of building awareness and action around these stories.  Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the work to be done on this issue, I take great comfort from clicking over to HEAL's website to be reminded of the incredible work they are are doing every day to advocate for the environment and the people of Utah. It was amazing to meet them in person, and to hand over my small, heartfelt donation from the first year of Downwind's royalties. Keep up the good work, you amazing people. 

 with the fantastic staff of HEAL Utah: Laura, Ashley, Matt, and Sophia. (Their official titles with HEAL are in caption below).

with the fantastic staff of HEAL Utah: Laura, Ashley, Matt, and Sophia. (Their official titles with HEAL are in caption below).

 HEAL staff and some of the remarkable people who support HEAL's work through their own extraordinary activism, scholarship, civic engagement, and political work.  Back row: Professor Danielle Endres of U of U, Matt Pacenza, Executive Dir of HEAL, downwinder activist Eve Mary Verde, former Utah State Representative Jennifer Seeling. Middle row: Ashley Soltysiak, HEAL Senior Policy Associate, Jean Welch-Hill of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Front row, Laura Schmidt, HEAL Outreach Coordinator, Mary Dickson, downwinder activist and KUED Dir of Services, and me. Not pictured because she was taking the picture: HEAL Associate Director Sophia Nicholas.

HEAL staff and some of the remarkable people who support HEAL's work through their own extraordinary activism, scholarship, civic engagement, and political work.  Back row: Professor Danielle Endres of U of U, Matt Pacenza, Executive Dir of HEAL, downwinder activist Eve Mary Verde, former Utah State Representative Jennifer Seeling. Middle row: Ashley Soltysiak, HEAL Senior Policy Associate, Jean Welch-Hill of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Front row, Laura Schmidt, HEAL Outreach Coordinator, Mary Dickson, downwinder activist and KUED Dir of Services, and me. Not pictured because she was taking the picture: HEAL Associate Director Sophia Nicholas.

I've had the great pleasure of staying with dear friends in SLC... thanks Christina and Sadiki! Now its on to events in Malad, Idaho and Emmett, Idaho this weekend.