On Sunday, the Deseret News begins a three-part series on the legacy of nuclear testing in Nevada. Lee Davidson, our award-winning Washington correspondent, looks specifically at the government compensation program for cancer victims.
A few years ago, my father, LaVarr B. Webb, now nearly 77 years old, described the experience of one "Downwinder" family. He titled his essay, "A Soldier Comes Home to War."- - -
It was Aug. 6, 1945. The war in Europe was over. My combat engineers' battalion and several other combat-ready military outfits were on board a Liberty ship that had just sailed from Leghorn, Italy, en route to the Panama Canal, the Pacific Ocean and the invasion of Japan.
That day, I heard a loudspeaker stutter, and the ship captain announced that scientists had developed a new bomb, an atomic bomb, and that one such bomb had been dropped on a Japanese city named Hiroshima. Details were sketchy, but reports indicated the city had been annihilated.
Three days later, on Aug. 9, we were told that another Japanese city, Nagasaki, had also been destroyed. Two bombs, two cities annihilated, more than 150,000 civilians dead. And I, sitting on the bow of that Liberty Ship, remembered Revelations 13:10: "He that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword." And I wondered, "My country has deliberately picked up and wielded a new sword, an atomic sword. Will my country be attacked with the fearsome blows of similar swords?"
I could not know then that it would not be a foreign power, but my own government that would deliberately and without warning loose this awful sword on me, my family and my neighbors.
The bombing in Japan brought an end to the war. So rather than invade Japan, I went back to Salt Lake City and to wife, family and friends. In the early 1950s, my uncle wrote me a letter, saying he was going to sell the Old Mill Ranch adjacent to Zion National Park in southwestern Utah.
The ranch was a very private hideaway six miles northeast of the little town of Virgin, along North Creek. I loved that ranch, with its fields of hay, corn and wheat, its fruit trees, grape vines and garden plots - sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peas, beans and melons - as well as swimming holes, rattlesnakes and skunks. The happiest days of my childhood were spent on that ranch, riding horses, playing in the creek, working in the fields and sleeping under the canopy of the great mulberry trees with my cousins.
So I bought it and moved my wife and seven children into the old log ranch house. To me, it was a bit of paradise with day after day of enjoyable hard work. I loved the bird song, the peace and quiet, the narrow red and black rim-rocked canyon, the blue sky, the star-filled nights.
I purchased a small herd of dairy cows and, at the same time every morning, summoned by the jangle of a mechanical alarm clock, I would crawl out of bed to trudge to the barn to milk the cows.
But some mornings, in fact quite often, just as my big Webb feet would hit the floor, the house would shudder and shake. The rolling movement felt like an earthquake but, I reasoned, an earthquake wouldn't hit that often at that same time in the morning.
When I picked up my mail and newspapers at the Virgin Post Office, I learned the government was testing nuclear weapons in Nevada, off to the west. I read that people in Las Vegas were also feeling earthquake-like tremors shortly after each explosion.
About that time, my father, who wanted to find a uranium mine, would come down from Salt Lake City with his Geiger counter, and we would hike the flat plateaus north of the ranch, listening to the clicks of the radio activity indicator. I didn't realize the significance of his words when he would say, "The blasted background radiation is so high, I can't tell a uranium vein from a surface rock."
But I am sure there were scientists, military officials and bureaucrats who did know the significance, because by then they were aware of the effects of radioactive fallout in Japan.
Then, in the early '70s, the doctors found that my wife had breast cancer. She underwent surgery, radiation treatments and chemotherapy. She would cry, "Why me?" I didn't have an answer.
However, because many in southwest Utah believed the increase in cancer and leukemia rates was caused by fallout from the bomb tests, we joined the "Down-winders" organization and contributed modest amounts of money to fight federal apathy.
The cancer finally invaded my wife's vital organs. In desperation and at her request, I took her to Mexico three times, seeking a cure. But there was no cure, and at age 58, still with children at home, she suffered a slow, lingering death.
In 1982, the doctors discovered that I had leukemia and I was sent to a specialist in Salt Lake City. I asked the doctor, "What causes this form of leukemia?"
He said, "Low-level radiation," and I remembered the shock waves rolling through the house on North Creek and the steady clicking of Dad's Geiger counter.
I thought of the water my family drank from North Creek, contaminated by fallout. We swam in that water and washed clothes in it. I thought of the milk, cream, butter, ham and eggs, produced by cows, pigs and chickens that fed on pastures, hay and grains dusted with the residue of those horrible bombs.
And I thought of the spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes, peaches and apples we grew and ate, all contaminated by the poisons.
Only recently, researchers have told us that young children who drank raw milk and ate raw vegetables were (and still are) especially vulnerable to radiation-caused cancer.
The doctors told me that I would probably die within three years, but I didn't. The chemotherapy seems to keep me alive, although I periodically become very ill and my white cell count soars while my platelet count drops.
But my children haven't been so lucky. Julie, a dedicated schoolteacher and church worker, who as a little girl played in the clear waters of North Creek and drank raw milk and vegetables, died slowly, just as her mother did, only younger, at age 47. Her younger sister, Linda, also a talented teacher and loving mother and wife, died just the same way, at age 49.
Both left husbands and young families. And I am left with a deep ache in my heart, wishing it could be me rather than them, wondering which of my children will be next.
My family's experience with the "sword" of nuclear fallout is not unique. It only represents what many families have suffered. And I love my country, and I try very hard to suppress the deep bitterness and anger and sometimes guilt that wells within.