Nuclear Town – Popo Ott
June 30, 2022
I call this series “Just Vignettes” because that’s what they are, just short snapshots of things that have happened to me or have been told to me. I can vouch that the stories you read here are mostly true.
Most of my childhood was spent in Richland, Washington, just downstream on the Columbia River from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. I imagine growing up there was like growing up anywhere else. Still, I can point to at least one difference.
For part of fourth grade, I attended Jefferson Elementary school in Richland. I remember only about three things from my fourth-grade time spent there. First, my homeroom teacher, a man whose name I have forgotten, used to read to us from the predictions of Nostradamus. Almost daily harping on his favorite, terrifying prediction that Paris, France, would be destroyed “by the air” in 1984. He explained many times how significant it was that Nostradamus, living at the time he did, could foresee the eventual use of airplanes, missiles, and nuclear weapons. As far as I know, the Paris prediction was not borne out.
The school had a very enthusiastic P.E. teacher, whose name I would probably have forgotten, except that she wrote a book, “Hooray! P. E. Today! Memoirs of a Physical Education Teacher.” Violet Druck Jones was a minor local celebrity having written the book, which was similar to the premise for Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
The trophy case outside the gym was a shrine to her service in the W.A.C.’s during WWII. Each week one of her photos was moved to the center of the trophy case, placed predominately over a big, hand-lettered sign that read, “Guess Who!” She didn’t leave it at that. She would line the class up in front of the trophy case each week and ask, “Can anyone guess who the mystery picture is this week?” Students never had trouble guessing.
An unusual event from those days was when journals were passed out to the class. We were instructed that we were part of a very important scientific experiment. We were to write in the journal, with the help of our parents, if necessary, every bite of food, every glass of water, including the quantity, and to be especially careful to accurately write down every glass of milk we drank for the next few weeks.
I followed the instructions with enthusiasm and a feeling of pride, having been selected to be a part of such an important science experiment. We were informed we would be part of a whole-body radiation scanning project.
At last, the big day came. A big tractor-trailer was parked in the front of the school, emblazoned with “Battelle Northwest” on the side. As instructed, we brought our journals to school and were asked to line up outside the trailer in groups of five. When my turn came, I climbed the stairs, and inside sat Mr. Honstead, who also served as a Scoutmaster at the Lutheran Church’s troop. He accepted my journal and reviewed it quickly to see if it was complete. Once satisfied, he instructed me to lay on a conveyor belt that ran most of the length of the trailer. Head facing the machine, hands at my side, he flipped a switch once I was in position. With a soft whirring, the conveyor belt moved me slowly into a dark tunnel underneath a box-like apparatus. Soon I emerged from the other side. I was told to stand up off the belt, exit the trailer, and tell the next student to come inside.
I never heard whether I or any of my classmates were radioactive, but I rather hope that since it didn’t kill me, it has made me stronger.