I grew up a few miles from Three Mile Island. I was five when it leaked. My mom was pregnant with my younger brother, Ryan so we were told we had to evacuate. Rob and I were in school at the time. I was in Kindergarten. He would have been in the 2nd grade. My mother showed up unannounced and signed us out for the day. It was confusing and different, and for a five-year-old, a little exciting.
“Where are we going?” Rob asked.
“To grandma’s house.” My mom answered.
“Cool! For how long?”
“I don’t know.”
We piled into our wood-paneled station wagon and set off with the bare necessities, the ones my mother had chosen for us. We weren’t even able to go home first.
My dad was still at work. He couldn’t yet leave but planned on meeting us in New Jersey if he was told to do so.
Told by whom? I didn’t know. I didn’t ask.
I was five, so I know I can’t recall EXACTLY what went on that day. And my mother will have a different memory. My older brother will as well. They may have a more precise one than I do, and by precise I mean, had that day been recorded, their memory might coincide with video evidence. But that’s not really what matters when it comes to memory, especially for children. For a child, it doesn’t matter what actually happened, because when a kid experiences something, what they process and how they feel becomes their reality.
What I guess I’m trying to say is that the details don’t really matter here, not for this story. For example, maybe we did stop at the house first, but that doesn’t matter. That won’t change anything. Because the memory that grew that day seeded itself and grew into something strong and everlasting. I believe it had a profound impact on my childhood, not good or bad impact, just a weighty one.
What I remember seeing that day was silence. That day held the absence of normal; it was the absence of everyday life that stood out to me. The lack of normalcy and the mundanity of everyday life. The only other time I have witnessed anything like this in my life was right after September 11th, 2001. I lived in New York City at the time and the absence of the usual movement was surreal. Subways stopped running. No planes flew overhead. The sky was empty of contrails. Stores were shuttered. Life stood still, at least for a while. No one knew what was going to happen next.
Back in March of 1979, I remember driving downtown, which was an absolute ghost town. But it shouldn’t have been at that hour. It should have been filled with people running errands (mostly women; it was the late 70s, after all). Businesses should have been bustling with people. But no one was outside on the streets. Behind every windshield, was a serious face seated with serious looking passengers. The cars moved along with us, leaving town. Going anywhere else.
My mom did her best during the three hour drive to explain what was happening and why we were leaving. There had been a leak at the power plant. Dangerous chemicals could be floating through the air and those chemicals could be bad for young children, babies, and babies that were still in the bellies of their mommas.
“Can you see the chemicals?”
“What do the chemicals do to someone?”
“It could give them cancer. It could burn them. It makes people very sick.”
Five-year-old brains tend to fill in the blanks and gaps that parents leave empty. And what children come up with is often a great deal more interesting than reality. In my case, those blanks and gaps would be filled with information taken from my dreams and nightmares as well as what I pieced together from radio broadcasts and adult conversations I wasn’t meant to hear. It haunted me that the air around us, something so innocuous yet necessary, could be carrying something invisible and dangerous.
Crossing the street required looking for moving vehicles so you don’t get squished. That made sense. Swimming means making sure you could touch the bottom or that a grownup or a lifeguard is there to protect you. If you see fire or smoke? You were to call 911 and then stop, drop and roll. Don’t take any medicine that isn’t handed to you by a grownup or a doctor. Make sure you’re not outside if you see lightning. (I ignored this warning as a kid because thunderstorms are awesome.)
But this was different. This danger was moving within something invisible, something necessary for our basic survival: air. And the air we had been breathing all along might now hold a chemical which could burn a person from the inside out. That day, I learned that the place a few miles from my home, the place that had been supplying us with electricity, also had the capability of killing a vast number of people. This became perfect fodder for creating some pretty terrifying, post-apocalyptic nightmares, not that I really knew what that meant at age five. But boy did I have some pretty kick ass dystopian dreams! Most of them reoccurring. They happened so frequently, I started to take comfort in them because I knew what to expect and I knew they were just dreams. Perhaps it was my brain’s way of saying, “Don’t worry so much about this, Michele.” Or it was my unconscious self saying, “HOLY SHIT, YOU NAIVE FIVE-YEAR-OLD. THIS IS TERRIFYING STUFF. BY THE WAY, THERE ARE ALSO BOMBS HOLDING THIS POWERFUL INVISIBLE SHIT.”
Thankfully, at five, I couldn’t fill in all those gaps. Those gaps got filled in a few years later.
The last thing I remember about the drive to grandma’s house, is how I consciously tried very hard not to breath. Obviously, this wasn’t possible, but I did cut back a lot. And I was pretty proud of myself, at age five, I felt my survival instincts were on point. The breaths I did take, were small and quick—just enough to fill my lungs so I wouldn’t die from asphyxiation. When we stopped for gas and my mother opened the car door, I held my breath the entire time the door was open. I did everything possible to not inhale the air around me. And I remember that as we moved further and further away from home, East and into New Jersey, I let myself breath a little more with every passing mile. I began to take deeper breaths. Poisoned air didn’t care much for New Jersey.
Recently someone (who isn’t a fan) asked me, “Why do you like The Walking Dead so much?” And I thought about this later because I didn’t really have an answer. But this is why. This story is why. At the age of five I developed a strange obsession and fondness for the post apocalyptic world. Only I had no clue what that even meant at the time. I just knew I found excitement and intrigue in all things that came after the silence, after people begin to let themselves breath again, after you realized death wasn’t imminent.
A funny thing that took place as I was writing this. I started writing this post yesterday, Monday, January 2nd at about 3:30 PM. Right when I got to the paragraph directly above this one, the power went out. My computer still worked, but when I tried to save the post, it just spun and spun. Worried I might lose everything, I shut it down for the day. It was a rainy afternoon, so it was rather dark already and the sun sets early these days. So I gathered up and lit all my candles, started a fire in the fireplace, and grabbed the latest book I’ve been reading—a book in a series of books I’ve purchased recently about a post-apocalyptic world: Alas, Babylon.
The book was written in 1959 and it’s about a post-nuclear war between the USSR and the United States. I opened the book up to the last page I’d read and continued just as the main character begins preparing for what’s to come. He goes out to buy food. He visits the bank to cash in checks for cash. He goes home and gathers up as many candles as he can, knowing that in all likelihood the grid was about to go down and the power would go out.
And by the flickering of candlelight, this made me laugh out loud.
Alas, Babylon is one of my favorite books. I pull it out and reread every 4-5 years. I think the situation is one that anyone who grew up during the Cold War or during the decades of nuclear threat could easily identify with, and its flat out just a great story about human perseverance.