They called our school Pleasant Ridge elementary and it sat on a hill in Cincinnati, Ohio, and one day in the 1950s, probably after our mothers quit going there to roll bandages for the Korean War, the workmen came by and put a big yellow thing on the roof.
It was the Civil Defense siren and it was to warn us of the time when the Communists were going to nuke all of us in Pleasant Ridge to smithereens. We practiced for it by going down to the basement where we were to Be Quiet and stand along the whitewashed concrete walls where, we had learned from our CD films, our chances were best.Then the all-clear siren would sound.
And on Sundays we would watch "The Big Picture" on television and the U.S. Army would tell us in no uncertain terms what they were doing to protect us. We saw the film clips of the A-bomb tests going off and blasting buildings off the face of the earth. Just like the bombs would have done to Pleasant Ridge elementary school in Cincinnati, Ohio.
But a growing body of scientific evidence now indicates after 25 years of governmental denials, that the United States did sustain civilian casualties of this atomic warfare.
Their names are etched on the headstones in the little cemeteries in rural Utah, Arizona and Nevada, and they were casualties not of Soviet or other enemy nuclear weapons.
They were, apparently, American casualties of American bombs.
No one told them to go stand in the basement of their local school, so while the kids walked to school and the ranchers herded their cattle and the women worked in their gardens, the Atomic Energy Commission rained radioactive fallout on them from more than 80 weapons tests from 1951 to 1962 at the Nevada proving grounds.
Then they would drink the milk from their own cows or from local dairies, and nobody knows how much bomb-test radiation they got along with it.
The childhood leukemia rate in Utah jumped after the bomb tests began and fell when they ended. Some of the soldiers on "The Big Picture" who were playing war on the Nevada desert under a bright nuclear neon light also suffered leukemia.
All of this can be said now in 1979 because a growing legion of journalists, scientists, politicians and fallout zone residents have revealed the extent of a quarter-century of death and illness -- and the U.S. government's unwillingness to acknowledge or even ascertain the consequences of the testing program.
But it has been said before, 22 years ago when social activist and journalist Paul Jacobs spoke and few listened and nuclear criticisms were said to spring from "scare stories" that were "Communist inspired."
On Sunday night at 8 on Channel 26, Paul Jacobs speaks his last words on the subject in a powerful one-hour documentary that is a wide-ranging and one-sided attack on all things nuclear. They are Paul Jacobs' final words because the reporter had become an unwitting and tragic participant in his story: Paul Jacobs was dying of cancer that he believed he contracted from his exposure to radiation while reporting in the fallout zone in 1957.
And he died before his documentary, "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang" was completed.
Others in the film have also died since they were interviewed -- Helen Reichman, Max Brinkerhoff, Elmer Jackson, Paul Cooper. It is compelling television, these people telling of their exposures to radiation and the illnesses that would strike them dead soon after.
Few scenes have the emotional draw of a dying Paul Jacobs interviewing a dying Paul Cooper, the soldier exposed to radiation at a 1957 test blast called Smoky. Cooper is propped in bed, living on tubes and just about dead.
And it is almost Strangelovian to hear these cancer victims' testimony interspersed with Official Explanations from a Defense Department employe with a German accent saying: "National security demanded what was done... the Army did the proper thing."
Meanwhile Paul Cooper talks of soldiers lighting up like X-rays at Smoky.
In fact, much of the strength of this program comes from such editing -- we are actually hearing a dialogue between the people and their government with sparse, somtimes too sparse, voice-over narration.
"Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang" is, nevertheless, a highly successful start for the Public Broadcasting System's "Non Fiction Television," a series of 12 programs produced under the Independent Documentary Fund. The fund was established last year with $500,000 in grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the arts to finance such programs by independent producers.
Without slighting this program though, it is clear that much of the best and most persuasive footage is that which was produced by the federal government itself. The '50s were, after all, great theater.
Official government footage from the '50s shows the whirlwind destruction of the test blasts -- followed by soldiers walking out to ground zero. A narrator reminds us as the troops march out, almost with envy, "the mushroom cloud [is] still hanging in the air."
It doesn't even look like it makes sense.
Then there's the Atomic Energy Commission film clips showing placid scenes of St. George, Utah, the American Hiroshima. A mother feeds her baby, another hangs wash, husbands go to work. It is a recreation of the day in May of 1953 when radioactive fallout from test blast Harry drove residents indoors for hours, covered their cars with fallout that had to be washed off, sent Helen Reichman to bed with radiation sickness and burned Elmer Jackson's face.
(His doctor in Salt Lake City has told me this exposure very probably caused Elmer Jackson's subsequent thyroid cancer.)
And the AEC film continues: "Actually, when the invisible cloud had passed, the total amount of radiation deposited on St. George was far from hazardous. Then, you may ask: 'Why were the people asked to stay indoors?' For a very simple reason. The Atomic Energy Commission doesn't take chances on safety."
It doesn't even sound like it makes sense.
Finally, there is "The Big Picture," reporting to us on soldiers running out there under the mushroom cloud, a sequence so patently poor in its amateur acting that only a frightened nation could believe it. But it raised nuclear weapons to the altar of a religion.
"First of all," a chaplain tells a fellow soldier in a trench, "one sees a growing, very bright light, followed by the shock waves and then you hear the sound of the blast. Then you look up and you see the fireball, as it ascends up into the heavens. It contains all of the rich colors of the rainbow.. it's a wonderful sight to behold."
This footage helped set a national mood against which these atomic test bombs were detonated.
There is, however, a troubling aspect to "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang." At some point, very subtly, this documentary becomes a wide attack on those seeknng to bring nuclear weaponry and energy into our lives. Power plant protests at Seabrook, N.H., become part of a story on the absurdity of how atomic weapons were tested.
Can they be so easily lumped together?
It is impossible to render that judgement.But it is impossible to forget that the experts criticized Paul Jacobs 22 years ago. Said he jumped to conclusions, didn't know what he was talking about. They recited their knowledge and credentials, gave us their assurances and crossed their hearts and hoped to die that everything was okay.
This is the bead-string that Paul Jacobs sees tying all the little nuclear pearls together. From A-bomb tests to weapons manufacturing to nuclear submarines to atomic power plants, his Nuclear Gang told the nation then -- and tells it now -- not to worry.
"All the predictions," Jacobs says in the final moments of his documentary and of his life, "have turned out not to be true," whether it be health hazards from fallout or the disposal of nuclear power plant waste.
His unstated question is whether the pressures to develop energy in the 1970s will be as great as the pressures to develop nuclear bombs in the 1950s. Will fear do today what it did then, and will it be 2004 before some bill comes due?
His answer is an implicit yes, but Jacobs does not say it. Rather, those who finished his documentary after his death allow one of those in the so-called Nuclear Gang itself to answer. He is an official of the Rocky Flats nuclear arsenal near Denver where triggers are made for atomic weapons and after he recites a list of atomic outrages he says:
"We look back at those things and say let's not let them happen again. They were done under the contingencies of the time, and, therefore, I'm not sure we can call them mistakes but things that we would do differ ently by virtue of more information at this time."
That is the message of "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang." If it is an excess, it is perhaps because Jacobs the reporter did become Jacobs the participant, with his terminal cancer.
He could be wrong or he could be right.