Blasts, shadows on the horizon

A handful of Reno activists gather on Nagasaki Day to protest new nuclear weapon concepts

Tress Smith, 30, of Food Not Bombs serves up homemade soup at the anti-nuke rally. The group provides free vegan meals at noon on Sundays at Fisherman’s Park in Reno.<br>

Tress Smith, 30, of Food Not Bombs serves up homemade soup at the anti-nuke rally. The group provides free vegan meals at noon on Sundays at Fisherman’s Park in Reno.

Photo by David Robert

It was 58 years ago and half a world away. A person might not think the anniversary of the instantaneous deaths of 70,000 people in Nagasaki nearly six decades past would inspire a group of Reno activists to hold a four-hour rally. A four-hour rally close to downtown Reno. Close to downtown Reno where streets were closed for the little city’s biggest frenzy of the year.

As it turns out, the impact of the bomb called “Fat Man,” which dropped out of a B-29 bomber on Aug. 9, 1945, reaches from UNR’s Japanese student population to nuclear veterans living in Reno to “downwinders,” people who’ve experienced the disastrous effects of living too close to the Nevada Test Site. A few of each were on hand for the Rally to End the Nuclear Nightmare in UNR’s Manzanita Bowl Saturday. Though dozens of people wandered in and out of the Bowl, the crowd seemed sparse when compared with the hundreds who showed up for an anti-war protest in the same place a few months ago.

“There are virtually thousands here,” said Dan Morgan, a member of the Reno Antiwar Coalition.

“What we lack in numbers we make up for in spirit,” said Chris Good, an event organizer. He laughed, dubbing the event, “Hot August Nightmares.”

What concerns these activists are recent U.S. policy shifts that seem to encourage more development and the potential for the use of nukes.

In 2000, U.S. leaders agreed to the ratification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an extension of an agreement that stretched back to 1968 when many world leaders agreed to stop testing nukes “in the atmosphere, outer space or under water.” The leaders agreed to take steps toward the total elimination of nuclear arsenals, toward strengthening the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and reducing the operational status of stockpiled nuclear weapons.

It’s safe to say that the military’s enthusiasm for a nuke-free world has waned in the past couple of years. Nowadays, the United States Nuclear Posture Review affirms the important role that nukes have in U.S. national security policy. Plans are in the works to modify existing weapons and develop new weapons, like low-yield bombs designed to penetrate the earth and explode in underground bunkers. Full-scale underground nuclear tests are expected to be resumed.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved repealing the ban on research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons, though it hasn’t authorized testing, acquisition or deployment. It approved $15 million for research on a nuclear bunker buster.

Seems like a good time to call or write those congressional representatives, speakers urged throughout the hot August afternoon.

Young people folded paper cranes both in memory of a young Japanese girl, Sadako, who survived the nuking of Hiroshima at age 2 only to die of leukemia—“the atom bomb disease”—at age 12. Sadako was told of a Japanese legend that promised the granting of a wish to anyone who folded 1,000 paper cranes. In the hopes of getting well, Sadako folded more than 1,000 cranes before her death.

“The point is that she never gave up,” a UNR student read from a handout. “Today people all over the world fold paper cranes and send them to Sadako’s monument in Hiroshima.”

Nevada activists plan to send 1,000 paper cranes to each U.S. senator and representative from Nevada.

UNR professor Scott Slovic read an excerpt from an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, who also wrote “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” about her family’s struggles with cancer in the wake of above-ground nuclear tests in Utah.

Williams’ essay quotes Gen. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the B-29 bomber Enola Gay: “My God, what have we done?”

Japanese students read and translated poetry written by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Reno sky was clear and thick damp grass made a fine carpet for a handful of people. An ambulance drove by, sirens screaming. The classic car-filled streets of downtown were blocks away. The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits did not rock the sound system between sets.

Circling the Bowl, in the shade of a tree-lined perimeter, were tables and booths humanned by activists from Citizen Alert, the Reno Antiwar Coaliton, Sierra Interfaith Alliance and the Citizens to Defeat the Patriot Act. At the latter booth, folks signed a petition in opposition to the Patriot Act or registered to vote. A sign above the booth read: “When civil rights are outlawed, only outlaws will have civil rights.”

The Sierra Interfaith Action for Peace, the group that holds weekly peace vigils at the federal building in downtown Reno, offered preprinted cards to send to Rep. Jim Gibbons to support Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) proposal for a Department of Peace, introduced as HR 1673.

“Gibbons is well aware of the initiative,” said Haydn Bertelson of Sierra Interfaith. “We’re trying to keep it at the forefront of his mind.”

Kucinich (recommended if you like Ani DiFranco, Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, universal health care and/or a renewed commitment to diplomacy) is running for the Democrat Party’s nomination for president in 2004.

Tress Smith and several members of Food Not Bombs were on hand serving homemade vegan soup—a hearty veggie noodle soup with plenty of spice, chunks of potato, summer squash and carrots—out of a large plastic bucket slathered with stickers: “Don’t shop, it just encourages them” and “Runaway slaves unite! Follow the north star to meet at the rendezvous.”

Young women of the Antiwar Coalition did face painting—peace signs, butterflies and feathers.

Hans Frischeisen of Reno’s Everlasting Health rode to the event on his battered-looking bike—the bike that he just rode on a trip across Africa. His T-shirt read, “We have herbs for that.” Frischeisen, whose bicycling adventures have taken him across many continents including Europe and South America, said that he slathers his bike in latex paint as an anti-theft device. “I’ve never had a bike stolen,” he said, “except in Reno.”

As a member of the First Radiological Safety Support Unit of the Army Chemical Corps in 1955, Charles Laws of Reno saw enough nuclear explosions to be concerned with the direction that U.S. leaders are moving these days. There is no excuse for this kind of ignorance, Laws told those gathered in the Bowl. Even 10 years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions, scientists in the mid-’50s were largely ignorant of the long-term effects of ionizing radiation on living things.

“Certainly those who decided to produce the bomb and later to generate power were ignorant of the consequences,” Laws said. “In 50 years, we’ve developed a lot of information. Yet the leaders of governments continue to act as if they are ignorant.”

He spoke of our responsibility as informed citizens to educate elected officials. He reminded us that the environment has changed irreparably since 1945, that the lingering effects of ionizing radiation affect us all.

Laws said he hadn’t before spoken in public about the test explosions he witnessed on tropical islands. At one point during his talk, he became too choked up to speak. After the talk, he produced a printed copy of what he’d intended to say. These comments describe the nightmarish poetry of an atomic blast:

“A visible shock wave radiates out and finally rocks you on your heels and fills your head with a continuing thunder. The fireball seems quite beautiful, a mixture of a blue glow from the ionized air and an incandescent yellow orange heat of the boiling mass. … At one point, in a tropical predawn night, I looked in the opposite direction. Everything, including the air, lit up—except a small dark tunnel that seemed to disappear above the horizon. I later figured out it was my shadow.”