First there was the high-pitched whine, increasing in intensity. The woman looked through the swirling dust storm frantically. Suddenly, bursting out of the dark, giant pincers….Them!
It was my favorite movie as a kid, and one I shared with my son when he was old enough. Even compared to the special effects available twenty years ago, it was very exciting and fun, and still is. (Starring James Arness, whose fame includes playing The Thing – the carrot-man from outer space, and James Whitmore, the self-sacrificing sidekick.). Giant ants, created from the fallout from nuclear testing in the Nevada desert, attacked Los Angeles. In one way, it was America’s answer to the Japanese Godzilla, disturbed from the depths of the Pacific Ocean by nuclear testing, and wreaking havoc on Tokyo.
Them! replaced all those monster movies I had liked before, usually watched through hands clenched over my eyes – Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman. But Them! had some real world connections for me. First, it took place in the US, no old musty castles or decrepit estates off in the wilds of eastern Europe. It wasn’t Texas, but it was a lot closer than Transylvania. Second, it was something related to the current days’ events. The Cold War was in full swing (duck and cover drills at school) and the Doomsday Clock was ticking towards nuclear winter; nukes were being tested across the planet and radioactive fallout was threatening us all. Humanity was on the brink of extinction, but the giant ants, well, James Arness and the US Army could handle Them.
A little later we became entranced with aliens, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Blob (where Steve McQueen started kicking butt!), but alien invasion seemed less real to me. Radiation was becoming a part of my life, what with X-rays at the dentist or doctor, and the machine at the shoe store that X-rayed my brother’s feet, which were hard to fit. Neighbors built fallout shelters, and high school classes discussed who should be let in and who kept out. We heard tales of uranium exploration and discoveries across the west, and Tom Swift led a field of boy heroes in various radiation-related adventures.
It wasn’t until the late sixties that I understood that radiation was inherently evil. I had read John Hersey’s Hiroshima and knew a little of the effects of the nuclear bombs. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki had already been devastated for all time, predictions of human extinction seemed all-too-real. Then Three Mile Island devastated the entire East Coast for all time; Chernobyl devastated eastern Europe for all time; and recently Fukushima devastated northern Japan for all time. Bomb factories like Rocky Flats, just up the road from my house, were going to devastate Colorado for all time.
The anti-nuclear fear machine was in high gear. The more people became terrified of any thing radioactive, the more clout and prestige (and funding) those people had. I know some were driven by a religious belief that war was evil and nuclear war was the ultimate evil. I agree, but that doesn’t have to mean anything radioactive was bad.
Somewhere along the way I noticed that people were still living and thriving in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima. Wildlife was thriving in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, the predicted massive die-offs across the Ukraine were not realized, and nothing much had happened in Pennsylvania. Over two thousand nuclear tests had been performed, many above ground causing world-wide fallout. I didn’t notice any massive drop off in human or natural populations, and didn’t see references to world-wide devastation in the literature.
Between man and God, it seems that we’ve been trying to kill ourselves off since Cain and Abel. Today we wonder if our changes to the climate will be what does us in. Gay marriage is feared to bring down the wrath of God. Zombie apocalypse may be another candidate for our doom, but between Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil), Brad Pitt (World War Z) and Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead), I think we could handle it.
So, nuclear disasters are bad, but in my opinion rise no higher than the level of catastrophe of chemical and natural disasters. We need to do what is necessary to prevent and control them, but not throw the baby out with the bath water. We are surrounded by natural radiation – cosmic and terrestrial. We use radioactive materials in our home smoke detectors and to fight cancer and heart disease. Our bricks, beer and bananas are radioactive to some extent. Radiation-producing machines check our health and detect terrorists. They assure us that welds on our pipelines, bridges and machinery are sound, and that our foundations meet specs. And, radiation is used to provide 20% of the power needs in the US, with a very minimal carbon footprint compared to coal, oil and natural gas.
In spite of all the anti-nuclear rhetoric and doomsday predictions, radiation doesn’t seem to cause giant city-devouring lizards, fifty-foot women, or man-eating mutants.
Some days I think that’s a shame, since I never got to see the giant ants, and hear that piercing whine coming out of the dark.