Writers on the Range: The bomb and me, 75 years later


By Paul Krza

SUN Columnist

It’s been a decade since I reflected on radiation, both the kind emitted by nuclear tests and the radium inserted up my nose to shrink swollen adenoids. 

The nuclear bomb and I became senior citizens in 2010. But this summer’s 75th anniversary of this country’s first exploded atomic bomb — dubbed Trinity — has been overshadowed by a virus that’s even pushed nukes aside.

To recap: Trinity was detonated into the atmosphere of New Mexico in the early morning of July 16, 1945, mere hours after I entered life the day before, in Rock Springs, Wyo. Trinity fallout probably dusted my baby body, blown north by southwest summer winds.

Several years later, my personal relationship with radioactivity took another turn. In the early 1950s, my parents traveled to Salt Lake City to visit Dr. David Dolowitz. He offered cutting-edge technology — “nasopharyngeal radium irradiation” — what the Saturday Evening Post called an “amazing” treatment to shrink swollen adenoids. 

Into each nostril went a small, radium-filled rod, left there for 10-15 minutes. More sessions followed and, altogether, my face received about a hundred times more radiation than Japanese nuke bomb survivors or the equivalent of several thousand dental X-rays. Musician Frank Zappa was among the estimated half million to 2 million children who were treated this way. 

More radiation wafted my way throughout my early life in Rock Springs, from the more than 100 above-ground tests in Nevada. Along with another 900 underground tests, the site earned the nickname, “the most bombed place on earth.”

Then, in 1999, my family moved from Casper, Wyo., to Socorro, N.M., only 45 miles from Trinity’s ground zero. Over the next 15 years, we learned much from locals about the test, vividly recalled by many as “the day of the double sunrise.” 

A few years later, a piece of “Jumbo” bomb casing from the Trinity site was installed at the city plaza, a few blocks from our new home.

Six years ago, we moved to Albuquerque, not far from Los Alamos, where the bomb was developed. To the south, stored in the Manzano Mountains, are a couple of thousand nuclear warheads, part of this country’s 6,000-plus nukes. The rest can be launched in minutes from missile silos in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, as well as from submarines and bombers.

Nearby, we hear about the lingering radiation effects on Navajo and New Mexican uranium miners, as well as their families living next to radioactive dumps. The Tularosa Basin “downwinders,” doused with Trinity’s radiation, continue to press for federal compensation for cancers and other diseases. And the subsequent Nevada testing also carried radiation downwind to residents of Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

Nukes are scattered about the world — Russia, with about 6,500 warheads — and another thousand-plus in seven other countries, from France to North Korea. In the USA, trillions of dollars are spent to maintain and “refurbish” the bombs. The Trump administration plans to buy 100 brand-new bombers for about $600 billion each.

Alas, unlike the modernized bomb, my body ages with childhood radiation lurking, sort of a “Nagasaki up the nose.” So far, I’ve avoided maladies attributed to radium irradiation — throat cancers, neck tumors or teeth falling out.

Yet I haven’t escaped unscathed: my ground-down teeth have all been crowned and I live with persistent nasal sores I suspect, but can’t prove, came from close brushes with radioactive rods. Last year, an ear, nose and throat doctor said all nasal passages looked fine. He also said he’d never heard of nasopharyngeal radium irradiation, which these days sounds like a bizarre treatment. 

But, so far, so good: I cross my fingers.

The atomic “doomsday clock,” maintained by nuclear scientists, ticks in 2020 “closer than ever … 100 seconds to midnight.” 

“Any belief that the threat of nuclear war has been vanquished is a mirage,” the scientists said. The Trump administration dumped the Iran nuclear deal, tore up or plans to withdraw from warhead reduction treaties and has discussed resuming nuclear tests. 

These days, though, worries about nukes have been overshadowed by virus fears. Just south of Trinity, a private federal prison in New Mexico’s Otero County is a COVID-19 hotspot, with nearly all 500-plus inmates testing positive. But while masks and social isolation efforts may have replaced duck and cover and bomb shelters, both viral disease and nuclear war remain threats that are insidious and deadly.

Paul Krza is a contributor to Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit devoted to lively conversation about the West. He is a writer in New Mexico.