Atom Boy: My Irradiated Days
by Jim Washburn
Did I just eat irradiated shrimp? Probably as a reaction to driving through the beef-laden heartland of America, I’ve eaten heaps of seafood in the past several weeks. I didn’t give it much thought until I was watching the NBC Evening News last week. Brian Williams was interviewing a Cajun shrimper about the consequences of the BP oil spill, and the fellow was doing his coon-assed best to supply Williams with some color. Sure he still ate the shrimp he caught, he said, been eatin’ shrimp every day of his life. If you want shrimp these days, he opined, you had a choice between ones from the Gulf with oil in their heads or ones from the Pacific that glow.
It is a new world we have made. A few decades ago, we were all convinced the sea was the “breadbasket of the future,” particularly for those keen on soggy, salty bread. Then came the knowledge that we’ve been cramming the oceanic food chain with mercury, dioxins, endocrine disruptors and other dubious nutrients, not to mention that we’ve overfished most waters and that fish have been getting together in creepy die-offs all over the place. When even creatures with the brains of a smelt are saying, “Fuck it, we’re outta here,” you know there’s rough sailing ahead.
And now maybe you’re worried about radiation in your seafood, since radioactive water sluicing into the ocean is one of the many no-end-in-sight perils of Japan’s ongoing reactor troubles.
Just how worried should you be? Is it a warning sign when your sushi talks to you? Is it still safe to watch Japanese “schoolgirl” porn on the internet? If not, what effects could the radiation have on your body?
I am more intimately acquainted than most with our friend the atom. I had six weeks of radiation treatment for cancer when I was 21, and, if that wasn’t enough bombardment for a lifetime, I also kicked around at ground zero at the Trinity site on the White Sands Proving Ground in mystic New Mexico, where the dirt has been radioactive since the first atomic bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945. Then I went to the Soviet Union not long after Chernobyl, and ate the fallout-tenderized reindeer in Finland. Plus, I’ve had more than my share of X-rays, MRIs and security scans.
I just had one of the latter at SeaTac, a new twist on the full-body scans I’ve previously enjoyed. With this one, you had to remove every single thing from your pockets, not just metal, but $100 bills, your passport, your particles of dog cookie. They don’t want to see nothin’ but you on their screens. I don’t know how detailed this new imaging is, but the TSA agent handed me a coupon offering $10 off on a circumcision. Ba-dum-ching. Did you hear, on all Southwest flights, you get a sunroof now? I just flew in from Raleigh, and, boy, are my wings tired.
I was born in 1955, and nuclear energy grew up alongside me. It was in December of ‘55 that the United States enacted the Atomic Energy Basic Act, Article 1 of which read:
The purpose of this Act is to secure energy resources in the future and achieve the progress of science and technology and the promotion of industries by encouraging the research, development and utilization of nuclear energy, and thereby contributing to the improvement of the welfare of human society and of the national living standard.
Then there was Article 2:
The research, development and utilization of nuclear energy shall be limited to peaceful purposes, and shall aim at ensuring safety, though we’re pretty sure this will end up with you impaled upon the mandibles of giant radioactive ants. We’re not liable—you should have read the fine print.
We tend to draw our monsters from the next big thing. When Christianity dropped (that’s industry-talk, folks), we had devils and apocalyptic beasts peopling our dreams. When electricity came along; its harbinger was the electrode-born Frankenstein monster. More recently, William Gibson named cyberspace and filled it with our doubts.
For my generation—one raised on Ovaltine, Maggio carrots, Fizz-Niks, and Regal Crown Sour Lemons (which we bought because they were “British,” like Beatle Boots, Aston Martins and Marianne Faithful)—the source of our fears was nearly always atomic.
Godzilla, the giant ants of Them! and hosts of other movie monsters were animated by runaway atoms, as were nearly all the villains and heroes in Marvel comics. These were troubled new heroes, like the Hulk and the Thing, turned into grotesque misfits by, respectively, an atom bomb blast and gamma rays. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider.
People had cause to fear the Bible and electricity (God hurls lightning bolt: Ow!) but atomic energy arrived with a higher order of fears.
I’m rubbing an eyebrow right now, and wondering what that looks like on the sub-microscopic level. How many atoms have I just flung from my being, never to be joined again?
Finding out that we were made of atoms was rough for the human race. I spend a lot of time trying not to walk like a dork, and that is hard enough without also having to be aware of the billions of minute solar systems that implausibly have agreed to hang around and form my body. Think of your physical being as a multi-level discothèque, where waves of sunlight and particles of dirt and water like to mingle and dance. It’s the energy of those hard-working atoms that binds them into particles. We’re pure energy, folks, even if it’s pure energy that mainly sits around watching other energy emit from our TVs.
So there’s that. There’s also the little matter of the manner in which atomic energy was introduced. In showbiz, there’s a process of gradually introducing your product called the “soft opening,” which the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima was not.
First on the list, right off the bat, we used our barely-hatched knowledge of atoms to build an atomic bomb, a device of biblical proportions, made to put asunder that which had been joined for billions of years.
Less than a decade after the discovery of atomic fission, we saw its worst-case scenario writ large in the sky over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever the justifications, the barbarity of those attacks set a new benchmark in the annals of war.
My generation, and those younger, in their muted way, have grown up with nuclear destruction hanging over our heads like a school desk waiting to clunk us. In grade schools in Hollywood, La Puente and Buena Park, I did those “duck and cover” drills, and grew up with the shrill cry of air raid sirens being tested. We knew people with their own bomb shelters, and thought they were the coolest things ever. Who wouldn’t want a well-stocked underground rumpus room? You could just stay down there shooting pool and drinking Pepsis till the surface radioactivity dropped to “acceptable levels.” Then you could sift through what was left of your neighbors’ homes looking for electric guitars and Playboy magazines.
Barbaric. That’s also what my radiologist at Hoag Hospital said to me when I was at mid-point in my radiation treatments. I was pretty nauseous and listless by then, and he pulled me into his office for a pep talk. “You know, someday soon, we’re going to look back on what we’re doing to you and marvel at how barbaric it was.”
This was the late Dr. Robert Shapiro, who headed Hoag’s radiology department. He was hilarious, pretty much the Groucho Marx of radiologists. You don’t want the Zeppo.
He explained to me how the then-current technology was a blunt instrument, like a club used to bludgeon both your good and bad cells, on the theory that you’ve got more good cells, so you can kill plenty of them and still have some left over once you’ve killed the cancer cells. Someday it would be more targeted and precise—much of it is now—but not then, he said.
I’d had a surgery when I was two, and evidently a part of me that was supposed to be removed hadn’t been, and it turned cancerous, as atrophied parts of you are wont to do, to be discovered as a painful lump in 1976. I went to the doctor and was in surgery that night.
After a whole bunch of needles and tests, one of the doctors told me they’d got it all, but the tests were only 80% certain, so he was assigning radiation treatment. Groggy, I signed a form, since that’s what you did then when a doctor handed you one.
He explained the probable side effects in terms that were familiar to me. “You’ve seen the people who lived through Hiroshima and Nagasaki? They had radiation sickness. That’s what you’ll have. You’ll feel weak and like vomiting a lot of the time. Your hair may fall out, possibly in hunks.”
He went on to describe other probable side effects, none of them involving spider powers. Christ, are my nards going to shrivel? Is my hair going to go from emulating Randy California to Ed Cassidy? Am I going to mutate?
I did indeed lose some hair, gratefully not in hunks, and it’s thinner now than more elder male relatives. I felt weak and tired for months, and would trudge across the UCI campus mummy-style, because the radiation also slowed down the healing of my surgery wound. I felt nauseous most of the time (allieviated somewhat by marijuana, which even then my radiologist recommended over the prescription drugs), and I determined not to give in to the urge to vomit. I didn’t then, and haven’t since. I’m going for the world record in non-hurling.
I never felt anywhere near as bad as the people in the Hiroshima newsreels looked. The radiation certainly never dampened my libido. You can actually decapitate a 21-year-old guy, and the libido rages on unabated.
On my first day in radiology, the assistants had me under some device, and were administering painful pricks to various parts of my torso.
“Um, what are you doing?”
“We’re tattooing you, to mark off the areas to shield from radiation.”
“You mean tattooing tattooing?”
Yup. They tattooed everybody. Most of their patients were old people, most who might only be gaining a few months of listless life from their treatments, so what’s a few dozen tattoos when you’re about to slide into the grave? But I had decades of trying to impress women ahead of me. I didn’t want to look like a freak.
But they added something like 58 little black dots, in constellations over the front and back of my torso, which they then joined with a purple permanent marker. This allowed them to protect my vital organs, more or less, by aligning chunky shields of lead between me and their atomic zapper. It also allowed my then girlfriend to nickname me Atom Boy, and, after the purple lines wore off, for subsequent girlfriends to play connect-the-dots on my torso. I was like a walking rainy day activity book.
the Atomic Age at 12 seconds
I lived with the dots for a couple of decades, then had some sanded off by a dermatologist who also played the doumbek in a Persian-American orchestra. Then later “for the purposes of an article” I convinced another dermatologist to laser off most of the rest. I think he got bored near the end, because I still have a couple of the dots.
I also have scars from the skin cancers that more recently appeared on my torso, which doctors have credited to the radiation, as they had a scarring that formed on the sac encasing my heart a few years after the radiation. That has since vanished, but gave me years of concern.
It had recently been diagnosed when I went on a camping trip with friends that included a stop at Alamogordo to visit the Trinity Site, which was open to the public one day a year. Radiation? Don’t worry; it’s like getting an X-ray, the Alamogordo press release said.
It was on this trip that we met up with another friend’s Mescalero Apache friend, who, on that scant introduction, offered to put us up on the reservation that night. He met us in a parking lot, and handed each of us a boilermaker in a Hamm’s can. I tried to beg off, saying I’d recently been diagnosed with a heart condition.
“Bullshit. All you need is a good drink and a good woman,” he insisted, handing me the first. In retrospect, he appears to have been right. In retrospect, also, I never should have agreed to the radiation treatment. The odds had already been well in my favor, and they probably only pushed the treatment because they had all this latest-thing technology laying about. It doesn’t rate that high in my list of regrets. I lived, and got some good laughs out of it.
Back in the desert, we queued up in our vehicles in the parking lot of Alamogordo’s K-Mart, where a military representative explained that, well, the site’s radiation is really pretty different from an X-ray, and you might want to reconsider the jaunt if you’re pregnant, nursing, with young children, in poor health or, I inferred, sane.
I don’t recall anyone dropping out. We followed the military convoy out to the site, which didn’t look much different than the big-grained dirt and rock covering the rest of the desert. Scrappy plants were shooting up through the ground all over the place. Life endures, rough hew it how we may.
A rostrum was set up on a flatbed truck and an officer made a speech about the birthplace of “this great arsenal for democracy.” While he spoke, kids rolled around in the dirt, playing. Parents had been warned against just that, the dirt being somewhat RADIOACTIVE. But, then, the parents really didn’t look like the sort who coddle their kids.
We had also been warned against picking up any Trinitite, the green glass formed by the 1945 explosion, because it, too, was RADIOACTIVE. We saw one guy who was drinking from a Coke can. When no one official was watching, he stooped and scored a small piece of Trinitite. Then, perhaps worried we’d be searched for such keepsakes, he dropped it into his Coke can, from which he continued to sip.
If you are worried that the current batch of radiation from Japan might leave you with diminished capacities, perhaps it will reassure you to hear more about the man who was drinking that Trinitite float: Not only did he survive, but he went on to become the 43rd President of the United States.
That’s not true, though it could be. What is true is that you’re inundated with radiation anyway—from your cell phone, your microwave, in radon gas from the ground, and even from your granite countertop—and if you’re willing to put up with that, you can probably roll with anything else that comes your way.