Death has come too soon for too many in Marysvale.
Marysvale is the kind of town you want to grow old in. The area's beauty draws retirees from Nevada and California. They settle into old age in the shelter of peaks rising sharply from the valley floor, surrounded by brooks, breezes and hollows crammed with cottonwoods."Marysvale is mostly a retirement area now," Geraldine Frederick said.
Frederick was sitting on a porch that offered a breathtaking view of groves and meadows. The town has lots of ample porches and wide views that beg for hammocks and lounge chairs. But too many of Marysvale's men never saw the old age others have moved here to enjoy.
From the close of World War II through the 1960s, Marysvale was caught up in the frantic, glorious uranium boom that swept the world. Marys-vale's men spent those decades hundreds of feet below the ground chiseling out the precious yellow ore made priceless by the cold war.
Back then, a Marysvale man either went down into the mines or ran a farm. There was no other industry around. The mines were filled with radioctive radon gas, but back then, the miners didn't understand what that meant.
They used to come out of the ground at the end of the day and play with a Geiger counter.
"They'd blow their breath on the Geiger counter until it would shoot right up. They'd laugh about it and see who could make it go the highest," said Lane Johnson, a Marysvale farmer who worked briefly in the mines as a young man.
Those games with the Geiger counter have become the most bitter and oft-recounted memories of those boom years.
In 1979, the nation learned what Marysvale had begun to suspect: uranium mining practices used in the 25 years following World War II caused lung cancer in up to 70 percent of the miners. What Marysvale hadn't suspected and was horrified to learn was that the federal government knew before the uranium boom that those men would die - and did nothing.
Marysvale's men began dying in the 1950s. At first, the deaths went unnoticed in the eagerness for the work the mining offered.
"There had been quite a few of them die, but there wasn't so much thought of it," said Geraldine. "I don't think we worried a lot about it when we were younger. We needed the money. We lived in an area that didn't have very much work. They had the work out there and we took what we could get."
In the late '50s, the miners noticed. "We talked a little about it in 1958," said Rell Frederick, Geraldine's husband. "A couple of the guys said the others had died from dropsy, and they tried to find out what dropsy was. It seemed to be water on the lungs."
While the miners worried over their friends' deaths and tried to discover on their own what might be causing it, the federal government sent physicians and scientists in to track the level of radiation the men were exposed to and correlate it with the deaths.
The government tested the men because it was curious to see if the mortality rate would be as high in the U.S. mines as it was in the European mines in the 1920s. A European study conducted in 1932 showed that up to 70 percent of German miners died from lung cancer.
The government knew that. Companies that owned the mines knew that. They received word from the government in 1950. But safety standards were not implemented until 1971.
The doctors and scientists sent in to monitor the men were told to say nothing.
Time has satisfied the government's curiosity. Men died as fast in the U.S. mines as they did in the European mines nearly half a century earlier. Scores of those who worked in the Marysvale mines from 1950 to their closure in 1971 have died from lung cancer.
Forty-seven of the 80 men who worked in the mines for five months or more between 1950 and 1955 are dead. During those years, the men were exposed to levels of radioactive radon gas as much as 2,690 times higher than the maximum exposure recommended by the Public Health Service, said Robert Goldman, legislative director for Congressman Wayne Owens, D-Utah.
Nine of them died for unrelated reasons. Thirty-eight men - 80 percent of the dead - died from lung cancer or other respiratory ailments. Only 33 are still alive.
Those men play a waiting game - as do all of the men who worked in the mines during the subsequent 16 years until their closure.
Lung cancer's heaviest incubation period is the first 20 years after exposure, Owens said. But cancer can appear as long as 40 years after exposure.
Adam Cuff, Owens' brother-in-law, discovered he had lung cancer 37 years after he left the Marysvale mine. Cuff died from the cancer in April 1987.
In 1980, Rell discovered he had cancer. He was 48 years old. Doctors removed the cancerous lung but could make no promises about the future.
Today, he lives with persistent weariness that accompanies the loss of a lung. He earns money through odd jobs. His disability disqualifies him for the manual labor that is Piute County's bread and butter.
There are two other men in town who also have lost a lung to cancer.
"The rest of them are gone," Rell said.
He and his wife worry about money. He's not sure there will be enough money to see him and Geraldine through their old age.
"There is no way to answer that. I try not to even think about it. Either there will be or there won't."
Just before Rell found out about his lung, his mother died of cancer. "It was a terrible, painful death," he said.
He and his wife worry about his death. He has already prepared a living will that prohibits any life-prolonging efforts should the cancer return. "I don't want to lay and suffer with something."
Vivien Pearson's oldest child was 15, her youngest 8, when her husband, Lester Ralph Peterson, discovered he had lung cancer. The cancer was inoperable.
Her husband was devastated by the diagnosis. "He worried about the children," she said. He died less than three months after he was diagnosed.
The 11 years that followed were a nightmare. Her husband had started a new job when he was diagnosed with cancer. "He hadn't worked long enough that the insurance would pay off. He lacked a month."
When he died, his wife was broke, awash in medical bills and unemployed.
"After three months, with the help of my bishop, the Social Security started paying," she said. But she only got $213 a month.
"I cleaned houses. I worked in cafes. I did anything I could find."
Those years were poor, lonely and long. "I knew I'd make it one way or another. The older children were awfully good to pitch in when they could. I was a fighter. I wasn't going to give up."
Vonda L. Cropper's husband, Bill, died two weeks after he was diagnosed.
"I'm glad he didn't suffer like a lot of people I know did," she said. When he died, the insurance company gave her $1,000 - "which paid for his burial," she said.
The couple's savings were depleted in the years before his death. Bill was laid off when the Marysvale mines closed and he hadn't been able to find another job.
"He was out of work for two or three years before he died. I've got by. I don't have a whole lot of money. My kids help me out a lot."
Her husband died 20 years ago. She was angry when she discovered that the government deliberately exposed her husband to the radon gas that killed him.
"I was angry about a lot of things. But so many years have passed now."
Asked how she feels these days, she replied, "Just lonely."
Vonda was one of the many widows who tried to sue the federal government for negligence. Their case was thrown out of court after a six-year wait without even going to trial, Owens said.
"It is the most grievous of possible circumstances and the most obvious fault, but the government simply thumbed its nose at us," he said. He was one of the attorneys for the victims.
A subsequent suit against the mining company yielded a pittance.
The years of struggle to get redress have made the victims skeptical of Owens' chances for success this time around.
Vonda expects the bill to fail. "If they do give the victims money, I probably won't live long enough to see it." She is 74. Many of the others interviewed hadn't heard of the bill. When they did, they were indifferent.
"I know they are very cynical," Owens said. "You can't blame them. We took this case in 1978, so I have been working on this for 10 years. Their cynicism is born out of that 10-year period."