Featured Post

“I’m saying a prayer for the whole world, George.”

 

IMG_6543

 

In the 1980s, there were exactly three things I really knew about Japan.

First: Speed Racer was from there, and I loved Speed Racer. Way past when I should have. I liked his look. I liked his car. I liked his song — Go, Speed Racer, Go! When Speed came on and no one was looking, I would kiss the screen.

Second: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible tragedies. Even when explained in the vague pablum given to children, the cities loomed large — horrifically present while also seeming like little more than a plot line in a distant movie.

One year, when I was 14 or so, I took part in a Hiroshima Day ceremony in which paper boats were set adrift with a candle and a wish for peace.

In my boat, a sincere apology:

I can’t believe I’m part of a country that did this. I wish I could make it up to you. But I feel so far away. And there’s nothing I can do.

And off my little floating wish boat drifted. Also hunkered in there — an ugly little stowaway — was my relief that it was someone else and not me who’d experienced the effects of the bomb. No immediate incineration; no slowly dawning radiation poisoning; no birth defects years later in my children.

Third: Godzilla. Really, it was the only movie we knew from Japan. A monster. A vague unclear threat. Fear itself.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 7.02.37 AM

 

We were living through the last decade of the Cold War’s nuclear shadow. At school we did drills where we got under our desks, a strategy which our teachers assured us would save us in the event of a nuclear explosion. The kids would talk about the movie The Day After, whose takeaway was that the best thing to do in a nuclear situation is die, because if you survive you’re in a world of hurt. There was a bomb shelter on my street.

I lived in a suburb of St. Louis. Florissant, to be exact. It’s a couple of miles past the home of the original Monster Truck. Specifically, Bigfoot — the WORLD’S BIGGEST MONSTER TRUCK. The Monster Truck that gave birth to the very idea of Monster Trucks. A beast. A dirt churner. The kind of truck that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake with little concern about what it crushes.

We’d moved to Florissant from St. Louis’ inner core, and so my suburban experience always felt a little surreal—roller skating at the rink, sun burning at the pool, and hanging out in this spot next to Coldwater Creek, in a micro-woods wedged between McDonald’s and a storage facility. The creek had been dug out and concreted, and the dirt mounds left behind were perfect for exactly two things — dirt biking and making out. To this day, if I smell Polo cologne, I am instantly transported there. Into the body of a girl with feathered hair, a Coca-Cola rugby and acid wash jeans, with some boy who smells like Doritos sticking his tongue down my throat.

 

8c687ayxi

 

During World War II there was this thing called the Manhattan Project.

St. Louis was home to a chemical manufacturer called Mallinckrodt, and Mallinckrodt had signed on to enrich the uranium that would make the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction. The uranium that led to the atomic bomb. It did so for fifteen years.

After a while, Mallinckrodt ran out of room to store what it called “the poisons” in its downtown facility, so the workers put it on trucks and sent it to a place far away where they knew no one would ever move, about 6 miles North to the airport.

Later, when they realized people totally did move out near the airport, they shoveled it back into barrels and trucked it up to a new place where they were sure no one would ever ever go. About 2 miles north of the airport, where they buried it in what is essentially a public park alongside a creek. The kind of creek that had been dug out and concreted, with dirt mounds left behind that were perfect for exactly two things — dirt biking and making out. Over the years, after season after season of flood and retreat, Coldwater Creek liberally delivered Uranium-238 with a half-life of 4.5 billion years and Thorium-232 with a half-life of 14 billion years to the backyards of homes in seven counties.

Ferguson. Hazelwood. Black Jack. Spanish Lake. St. Ann. Berkeley.

Florissant.

When they shored up the creek with concrete, the dirt they flung alongside the now-wider concreted creek was filled with radiation. Surely, it was in the hands and on the forehead and even on the lips of the sweaty dirt-biking boys I kissed.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 7.02.37 AM

 

I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2009. A year later, the news came out about the creek. As it turned out, it was not just me. Hundreds of people who lived along the creek, who kicked up the dirt when they ran around the baseball diamonds, were also sick. Their children were dying of rare cancers. They were too.

In 1973, some of the waste was picked up and moved yet again, to the Westlake landfill in neighboring Bridgeton. It is buried there today. An exothermic reaction (read: underground fire) has been smoldering near where the waste lies for almost five years, and it’s getting closer. Experts are squabbling about the timeline, but some, including Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, have said it might reach the nuclear waste in three to six months time. Schools in at least four districts have sent home letters, outlining their emergency plan: Shelter in place. Stay home. Go into the basement, the bomb shelter. Leave. Go, Speed Racers. Go.

 

8c687ayxi

 

I think back to the boat ceremonies.

I think back to feeling how far away from everywhere else America seemed. I think back to seeing a plume of dirt rise up from a churning angry truck, circle around a track, and come back. I think: My backyard, your backyard. My dirt. Your dirt. My Bigfoot Monster Truck. Your Godzilla.

In the 1954 trailer, as Godzilla breaks through the electricity barrier and the people start running, the announcer says, “I’m saying a prayer for the whole world, George.”

Not Hiroshima. Not Tokyo. Not Ferguson. Not Florissant. Not America. Not Japan.

The whole world.

 

[Images: Cold Creek; The Author at Fourteen, both via Maud Kelly.]


Guest Author

Maud Kelly is a poet and essayist who feels pretty certain it's all going to be okay in the end. In the meantime, she's writing a book. ...more →

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

43 thoughts on ““I’m saying a prayer for the whole world, George.”

  1. Moving. I grew up in Nebraska in the same hazy era, not far from US Strategic Air Command HQ, wracked with guilt about our having dropped The Bomb (not once but twice, as if the point hadn’t been made clearly the first time). And loving Japanese pop culture, as it trickled across the Pacific to us (I had a Godzilla almost as large as I was at age 7). So sad that you are living with the echoes of that war (karma being a wheel just like a monster truck’s), like the Navaho who helped mine that uranium. The whole world needs a prayer, George, but the monsters aren’t big and green. Thank you for reminding us.

    Report

  2. Growing up in WI, I remember the Radon scares, that radioactive gas seeping up into basements from the decaying uranium ever present in the soil in that part of the country. The only reason it was an issue was because we dug basements, so we’d have a place to shelter from a tornado. At least it was something that could be managed, if you knew it was there.

    Report

  3. This reminds me of the story in the Times magazine about how DuPont poisoned drinking water for decades with a substance that they knew was toxic and harmful.

    Report

  4. Absolutely awesome. Thank you.

    (I’ve told this story before, and now I have opportunity to tell it again. I was in 3rd or 4th grade when The Day After came out. I remember that my teacher told the class that we didn’t have to worry about this because it wouldn’t happen until *AFTER* the Rapture. We all felt a lot better, as I recall.)

    Report

  5. Maud Burke- my brilliant, brave, funny childhood best friend… How I loved all of the time we spent growing up in Florissant with you, all of the memories we made along that creek, in those micro-woods. I can’t put into words as eloquently as yours how proud of you I am. You continue to be my hero. Excellent work on this article. I pray for your continued health and wellness. God Bless.

    Report

  6. Hi Maud. Amazingly, I too playing in the same creek, and many more areas around Florissant: St. Ferdinand Park, Knights of Columbus Park, softball and soccer fields at the park near McDonnell Douglas where barrels were stored (I hated that park because there was no grass that would grow, and I would always choke on the blowing dirt [long before anyone knew WHY grass wouldn’t grow there!]), and many other areas along the Coldwater Creek Watershed. Interestingly, the area you mention, between the McDonalds and the Storage Center, was just a field when I was growing up. The creek was in a more natural state back then; there were no concreted creeks back then. The creeks were more fun to play in, and even more lethal! Back then, everyone played outside. Now, several in my family have various cancers, auto-immune diseases, etc. I’m still here ….

    Report

  7. I believe this is an amalgamation of time periods. The storage facility was built much later, well into the late 90’s. The story refers to the wooded area between the 7/11 at the Shackelford intersection of Lindsay Lane, and the McDonalds–just before one gets to the Schunck’s at Shackelford and Mullanphy. This area backs up to the “explorers” neighborhood where all the streets are named Estes,Cortez, Ensenada, Francisca etc. The “woods” are barely there any longer.

    Report

    • Yes, Jake. That’s right. I thought about specifying that it was a field at that time and is now a storage facility, but I am a slave to momentum, wordwise. Thanks for time/space mapping it.

      Report

  8. Pingback: West Lake Landfill | Green Spiral Tours

  9. Although I now live within a stones throw of cold-water creek I grew up in the 80s and 90s playing in maline creek. They both start off at the airport and run through north county just on opposite sides of hwy 270. I’m just wondering why one is getting exposure and the other is being ignored.
    I grew up in bellefontaine and the creek ran right behind my house. We almost got swallowed up by the floods of 93. My generation had video games but nothing like the systems they have today. We spent most of our time outdoors playing in the woods and also in the creek. People would tell us that it was nothing but a big sewer but we didn’t listen heck my generation didn’t have hand sanitizer or flu shots all we had was asprin and nyquil. Now that I’m older and wiser I would not let our kids play in either creek.
    I really appreciate this post and enjoyed it. North county is still a very nice place to live but I feel like we need to be educate more about all the toxic waste and chemicals that may be harmful to us and our children. We need to educate ourselves and others and come up with a solution to a problem the government and these municipalitys don’t want us to know about

    Report

  10. I too grew up in Florissant. I remember playing in that concrete creek… My Mother, Father and older Brother all died of cancer and I remember wondering after they died that there must be something behind this high rate of cancer in our family. Now I know…

    Report

  11. Thank you for making the story personal and thought provoking. Grew up by Maline Creek and even in the late 70’s, city governments were taking about the problems. (worked for Jennings right out of college). And it is still a major problem. Sort of reminds me of the water in Flint, a very serious problem, but no action. So happy to be reading your work. Friend of Chris and Mike.

    Report

  12. Thank you for such a well written, enlightening article. I pray your health will improve dramatically. We lived on Lindsay Lane in Florissant for 30 years. My husband died 18 years ago from an astrocytoma brain tumor. I was diagnosed with a meningioma brain tumor 5 years ago. 93% of the tumor was removed and I was blessed that it was diagnosed benign. We have 2 grown children and 5 grandchildren and pray they will be spared any health issues from this tragic reality!

    Report

  13. I played on the banks of the creek in spots where it was still naturally meandering in Hazelwood, but was always afraid to get my feet in the water. Played in the concrete Coldwater Creek behind my babysitters house, where the boys would catch crawdads after the rain with coffee cans. That couldn’t have been good.

    Report

  14. Maud, Thank you so much for sharing. i am in Massachusetts right now (but spent some time growing up on the banks of Coldwater) as you know we are still trying to get U.S. to clean up Manhattan Project U-235, Radium, Radon, Thorium, U-238 and decay products. When a group of Japanese Buddhist monks (including my friend Nepashi, who I met in the Southwest) came to St. Louis I brought them to the fence line of one of the waste sites where we held a prayer vigil . . . . we then walked to Clayton, MO and held a vigil at what was then the Hq. of General Dynamics maker of the Trident Sub.

    I really like your style . . . my two colleagues (Ray and Kat) and I have a radio show in St. Louis on Sunday evenings at 6 PM Central Time . . . . on WGNU 920am if you feel like sharing (reading some of your work on the air) we would love to have you 314-880-0808
    http://www.wgnu920am.com

    Report

Comments are closed.