1965, Denver, Colorado
From: The Interpretation of Radium; Being the Substance of Six Free Popular Experimental Lectures Delivered at the University of Glasgow, 1908, by Frederick Soddy, M.A., 1909:
On another count also one’s thoughts almost unconsciously revert from radium to the transcendental phenomena of the larger universe, for in no other phenomena are we so reduced to the position of onlookers, powerless alike to influence or control…
It [radium] draws its supplies of energy from an hitherto unknown source and obeys as yet undiscovered laws. There is something sublime about its aloofness from and its indifference to its external environment. It seems to claim lineage with the worlds beyond us, fed with the same inexhaustable fires, urged by the same uncontrollable mechanism which keeps the great suns alight in the heavens over endless periods of time. This tiny speck of matter we can hold in our hands exhibits in perfect miniature many ancient mysteries, forgotten almost in their familiarity, or mistakenly and too easily dismissed as belonging and appropriate to the infinitely great dimensions of the universe. The “physical impossibility” of one era becomes the commonplace of the next…
“Alex, time to go home,” he shouted into the basement, “They’re saying that there’s more rain and maybe tornadoes south of town.”
“So what’s new with more rain?” came the response up the stairs. A light clicked off, and Alex appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “You go ahead, Karl. I’ll just check the doors and then head home.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow.”
Slowly, Alex climbed the old wooden stairs. He felt as creaky as the stairs sounded, but was strong as an ox, considering he was in his mid-50’s. Over thirty years of hauling freight and lifting crates had left him with inordinate strength.
He clicked off the light on the basement stairs, and locked the basement door. Moving through the empty building, he checked the outside doors and windows, and turned off the few remaining lights. He looked over the piles of goods awaiting transport, and checked a clipboard hanging on the wall for tomorrow’s deliveries.
He stretched and sighed, and hoped that Donny was waiting to walk him home. One benefit of this job, aside from being close to home, was quitting early most days to offset the early start. They had to be there early to meet the outgoing trucks, and get them loaded and away before the traffic got too heavy. It was nothing new. He had the same job when the container factory was in operation, but since it closed ten years earlier, he had continued to work for the several companies who had used the same huge building for warehouse space. He liked the feel of the old place, mostly brick and wood, not concrete and steel like the newer structures. Even empty the building seemed full, as if memories of past uses haunted the place.
Alex laughed to himself, remembering the story about the circus that wintered here back in the early 1900’s. One of the black boys that worked with him was afraid of snakes and apes, and worried that ghosts from those creatures lurked in the basement, waiting for him. Consequently, Alex usually got time alone in the basement building crates and pallets. He liked to think that the ghosts were there, and often felt that the shadows watched him as he worked. He almost believed he had seen an elephant in the shadows at the end of the room once, but it wasn’t there when he looked at it directly. Seeing snakes was a common occurrence, probably created by shadows of the makeshift wiring hanging from the basement rafters. Karl accused him of talking to the shadows while he worked, but maybe Karl just heard him talking to himself.
He let himself out the door to the loading dock, and looked at the darkened sky to the south. Tornado weather. And he guessed they would get more rain. He looked around to see if Donny was riding his bike over the hills at the north end of the property, then walked to the end of the dock to see if he was playing in the piles near the small stream. No sign of his grandson or his bike was apparent. Well, he must be playing with Julio, over towards the river, or maybe he was still at home. Better not be watching TV, though.
He headed up the hill to the house he shared with his son, Don, Don’s wife, Kathy, and of course, Donny. Don bought that TV with his first paycheck from his new job. Kathy liked having something to keep her busy during the day, but Alex thought she could have kept the place a little cleaner instead. Alex didn’t believe in TV for children, and felt it should only be used for serious shows like the news and Lawrence Welk. Informative and cultural programs was all they should allow. But Don liked many of the shows, and Kathy seemed to spend her days in front of the TV smelling up the house with her cigarettes. And now that he was thirteen, Donny had quit paying attention to his grandfather, quit listening to the stories, and quit reading to the old man as his wife had done when she was alive. Kids. They grew up too quick and too soon got too smart for their elders.
Don had done that, too, but who was it he turned to when he lost his job, and had to go back to school? Alex had taken them in, and actually liked having the house full again after his wife had died. Who knew if they would stay or leave, now that Don had a nice job downtown?
Alex heard the TV blaring, even before he pushed open the front door. Strangely, he didn’t smell any dinner, or hear the sounds of cooking from the kitchen. As he entered the living room, he saw Kathy perched on the edge of her chair eyes fixed on the TV, a pile of cigarette butts in the ashtray, surmounted by a lit cigarette sending its smoke uninterrupted up to the ceiling.
“Where’s Donny?” he asked.
Kathy jumped and looked around in surprise, “They’re saying that there are lots of tornados and massive thunderstorms just to the south. There may be flooding.” She looked at him, then asked, “Where’s Donny? He said he would walk back with you, after he and Julio rode their bikes back to his house.”
Alex shook his head, “Better start dinner, it’s getting late.” He went down the hall into his room, but could hear the announcer on the TV even with the door closed. Storms, rain — what did they expect in June in Denver?
He changed from his work clothes, and got his comfortable slippers out from under the bed. He wasn’t worried about Donny, but wished the boy would be a little more responsible. It was only three blocks to the old factory, and maybe another two to Julio’s on the other side. He’d wait a while and give the boy time to find his way home. It was hard to tell how late it was in summer, particularly with the cloud cover. He eased into the rocker for his before-dinner rest, and wished that Kathy didn’t have the TV on so loud.
A knock on the door, “Are you asleep?”
He stirred, “No, just a little rest. What is it, Kathy?” He must have dozed off, because he smelled something cooking.
“Father, Donny’s not home yet. It’s getting late and the TV says there’s funny things going on with the weather.” She looked worried, “Would you go look for him?”
Alex shook himself and stood up. “Okay, what time is it?” He began to put on his boots.
“Nearly six. Don’ll be home soon, but I don’t want to wait dinner if we don’t have to.”
From the next room, the announcer talked about the worsening storms across the upper ground south of the city, and warned about possible flooding. It worried Alex a little, but that was miles away. He nodded to Kathy, and headed wearily back down the hill.
As he approached the factory, he looked for a sign of the two boys. There were ruts over the piles around the building, but he couldn’t tell if they were recent. The piles consisted of several generations of waste from earlier operations, one of which was rumored to have made radium and some other chemicals. Alex had always hoped that enough would be left behind to light up the basement, like it did his watch dial, but all that was left were the piles of greenish and orange dirt. Donny used to build forts in the piles, while he waited for Alex, but recently the kids all rode their bikes over the piles, racing and jumping.
He headed for Julio’s house which was next to the Platte River. Since the Platte was usually nearly dry, the boys often played in the river bed. Approaching the house, he saw Julio’s brother playing basketball in the driveway.
“Hello, John. Have you seen Donny?”
“Oh, hi Alex.” John retrieved the ball before it landed in the trash cans, “Yeah, they went down to the river to wash their bikes.” When Alex turned to go, he added, “Tell Julio to get his butt back here. Mama’s been screaming at me to go get him, but I’m playing ball.” He dribbled across the drive, stopped, pivoted, and missed a long shot. He also missed Alex’s scowl.
Alex followed the street towards the river, pausing to cross the light traffic along the river road. He came to the bank where a path had been worn down to the bench of ground next to the channel. He was surprised at the depth of water in the river, and remembered Kathy’s concerns about flooding. Below, he saw the two boys peering into the channel. He called out but they couldn’t hear him over the noise of the churning water so he skidded down the wet track and went over to them. He saw Donny’s bike, but not Julio’s, and noticed that the boy was wet to the knees. Donny’s feet, legs, and his bike, were covered with the greenish-orange mud from the factory.
Donny saw him first, “Gramps,” he cried, with a look of anguish, “Julio’s bike got pulled into the river. We have to get it out.” Julio looked at him mutely, ready to cry.
“Where is it? Where did it go in?”
Donny narrated, “We got muddy at the factory, so I thought we should come over here to wash off the bikes.” The boy looked earnestly at his grandfather, “You know how mad Mom got the last time I came home muddy.” Alex did. “So we put the bike in here,” Julio pointed, ” but the river was too fast, and we couldn’t hold on to the handlebars. Julio nearly fell in.”
Julio nodded, “Donny saved me.”
Alex peered into the muddy brown water, but could see nothing. Looking down the bank, he found a piece of pipe about six feet long, and pushed it into the water to feel for the bike. He walked downstream from the place Julio had indicated, until he hit something that wasn’t the bottom. It was only a few feet out from the edge, but he was unable to hook it with the pipe. He sent Donny to scrounge for some wire or rope along the bank, then considered whether to take his boots off. The water wouldn’t ruin them but they wouldn’t dry out by tomorrow, either. A glance at the glass and trash along the edge convinced him.
Taking the electrical wire that Donny found, he made a loop in one end and had the boys hold the other. Using the pipe for a support, he waded in. The water came up to his knees, and he almost lost his balance. He felt with his feet, and sure enough, found the bike. Using the pipe for balance, he hooked the bicycle seat with the wire, and ordered the boys to hold firm. He turned, almost fell as the current pulled at him anew, and regained the shore.
He let the boys pull the bike in, watching to make sure they could get it. His boots were full of mud, his pants dripping, and it had begun to rain, making it nearly too dark to see Julio’s tears as he hugged his rescued bike. He looked at Alex and said something softly, but Alex didn’t need to hear it to know it was thanks. He smiled and nodded.
Suddenly, a powerful light cut through the dusk and rain, and someone shouted at them. Alex held his hand up to shield the glare. “Are you crazy,” the voice yelled, “Get out of there! The river’s flooding.”
Quickly they ran back up the bank, grabbing Donny’s bike on the way. The policeman that warned them helped get the bikes up to the top of the bank. “Haven’t you heard the sirens?” he asked. “You could have been killed down there.”
Alex thanked him, and quickly moved them toward Julio’s house. The boys rode circles around him as he walked. At Julio’s driveway, he patted the boy on the head and Donny got off his bike to walk with him.
“I tell you what,” He told the boy, “Let’s stop by the factory and wash off some of this mud. Maybe your momma won’t be so mad at us for being late.”
Donny grinned up at him.
It was raining for real by the time they got to the factory. He had Donny wheel his bike inside so they could take it to the basement to wash it off. Just inside the door, Alex stopped at the phone and called home. Don answered, but Alex could hear Kathy’s constant complaint in the background of their conversation. Alex confirmed that they were safe, and away from the river, but wet. He promised to be home shortly.
Donny followed him down the stairs, helping to hold the back of the bicycle. He turned on the light at the bottom of the stairs, and noticed Donny’s fearful expression.
“Come on,” he led the boy to one wall, and uncoiled a hose next to a floor drain, “The only ghosts in here are friendly.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?” the boy asked.
Alex laughed, “Only in the good ones.” He turned on the water for Donny to rinse off the bike and his shoes.
“Like the circus animals?”
Alex was startled, “How did you know about those? Oh, yes. From the stories.” He remembered telling Donny stories about the days when the circus animals lived in the basement and the troupe used the big space up above to practice their tricks. He had often envisioned what a high wire would look like thirty feet above the first floor, with a family of acrobats walking the wire. In one story he had told how a family of pythons lived in the basement, using the drains to go to the river to hunt. So Donny remembered the stories, too.
“Yes, if there are ghosts here, it is the ghosts of the circus animals come back to a warm, familiar place where they could rest and relax from the toils of the road.” He pointed to the big shadow at the far end of the basement. “Once, I thought I saw an elephant there. And sometimes I think I see snakes, big slow pythons in the rafters, but they are just shadows.”
Something gurgled in the floor drain, and Donny looked startled. Alex laughed and turned off the water. Water began to back up in the drain, and it emitted a series of burps. They stepped away to avoid being splashed, and started back to the stairs.
Outside, the flood had come — not as floods before, rushing down the river bed — but as a wide wall of water and mud twenty feet high, gathering strength and momentum in its thirty mile charge down the Platte Valley. To the south, it had decimated several subdivisions and a trailer court, adding house trailers and debris to the destructive wave. When it reached bridges, it slammed into the pilings, and many were pulled down. Ironically, many of the bridges that survived were the older ones, the modern bridges caved before the merciless onslaught. Pushing through, over and around the bridges, the main force of water followed the channel, but the water flooded all the low spots either side of the main stream. In the bends and twists of the river, the channel couldn’t accommodate the flow, so it went overland, like a great, rolling log; pushing what could move in front of it; and destroying what defied its strength.
The factory sat inside the bottom loop of a large, backwards S formed by two meanders in the channel of the Platte. The upper, southern loop wrapped around a city golf course that offered no impediment to the twenty-foot wave that washed over it. Crossing the channel, the wave struck a truck terminal, scattering semi-trailers like straw in a wind. Piles of tires stored behind the garage bays were swept up in the all-consuming mass of water, mud, trees, automobiles, dead livestock, lumber, trailers and debris.
Alex heard the crash and rush of the flood through the thick basement walls just before the high windows burst. Water cascaded into the basement through the windows, spraying over them. Sparks flashed from the exposed wiring over their heads and Alex managed to grab Donny’s hand just as the lights went out with a bright flash that hurt his eyes. The room was filled with noise and movement, and Donny hugged him tightly. The force of the water against his legs reminded him they had to get out, but with the lights gone and spots still visible from the flash, Alex didn’t know where to go. He began to walk to his left, one arm clinging tightly to Donny, and the other trying to feel the empty space for guidance. As the water reached his crotch, he realized how quickly the basement was filling. Something sparked again behind him, and his vision was etched with light and shadow, maybe the stairs were over there.
He tried to move more quickly, but Donny’s grip slowed him down. He reached over the boy’s shoulder and hooked his hand in Donny’s belt, lifting and pulling Donny up onto his shoulder, like he’d carried him when he was a baby. The boy clung to him tightly, and he could hear him crying through the noise. He shushed and comforted him, but kept trying to move toward the stairs, feeling the emptiness with his free hand.
The water level reached his waist and Donny was less of a burden, but it became harder to walk in the water. His hand struck what turned out to be a post, but he had no idea where it was relative to the stairs. The water moved higher, and he seemed to be able to make out shapes, but could not see the stairs. He forced himself to move on, and nearly lost his footing when his feet struck something. He began to use his free hand in a swimming stroke to keep himself balanced. Donny clung tighter as the water reached Alex’s chest. Still he moved, feeling his way with his free hand, and his feet. Something hit his leg, and he realized the water was afloat with items from the basement.
He could only see faintly the space around him when he realized they would have to swim. He got the boy to help him, but he couldn’t break his grip, so had to swim with one hand. Frantically, he sought something stable, something that would hold them up. He splashed, and kicked, but had to go under and push off the bottom to hold Donny up. Donny panicked when he went under, but he had no breath to explain.
Something hit his arm, then wrapped around his wrist. He tried to shake loose, but it pulled him to one side. His head stayed above the water, and he held tightly onto Donny with the other arm. His hand was held tight, and he felt something bumping his chest. They moved purposefully, and by kicking he could just barely keep his head above water. He couldn’t feel his hand in the tight grip, but he could feel rather than see something powerful rippling the water next to them.
They slowed, and his legs and chest hit the steps at the same time. His hand was free and only a minute was spared to catch his breath. He felt the stair rail to one side and pulled himself erect, with Donny still wrapped in his arm. The flood was still roaring in the windows as he led them up the dark stairs. He opened the door at the top of the stairs with difficulty, and was almost swept back down, as nearly a foot of water rushed into the basement. Behind them sparks erupted again, this time with loud popping noises.
Holding the door frame to keep his balance, he peered back into the basement. Donny mumbled a question, then repeated it at his urging.
“Will the snake be okay? Will he get out?” Alex took a deep breath, and nodded.
They waded across to the door by the loading dock, and Alex found a dry spot on top of a crate. He sat next to Donny and tried to make sense of what had happened. How had they gotten out of the basement? The flood itself had nearly sent him into shock, but what had helped them down there? He leaned against Donny who seemed to have relaxed some. He wanted to ask about the snake, but what could Donny tell him that he hadn’t seen, or felt better than the boy?
“Look, a light,” Donny pointed to the next room, where a dim fluttering light was casting shadows on the wall.
Alex called out, but no one responded. He told Donny to stay put, and walked to the doorway and peered into the room. His heart raced when he saw the flames floating up the wall from the switchbox. He thought to try to splash it out, but gave up the idea when he saw that it was still sparking. The flames slowly worked their way up the wall to the rafters beneath the roof. They would never stop it now.
He returned to Donny, stopping to pick up a flashlight from the tool kit near the door. Through the windows he could barely make out the moving flood outside. Large shapes rolled by, and Alex realized the water was still getting deeper. They’d have to move again before the burning roof caved in on them. Maybe someone would see the fire and come for them.
They waded to the window, he opened it and they looked outside. The water brushed the window sill, which was less than two feet above the loading dock, and he knew the loading dock was another three feet higher than the ground. The water still moved fiercely by, and he knew they could never swim through the debris-ridden flood to the higher ground two or three hundred feet to the west.
They climbed out the window and he flashed the light toward the nearest dry ground. He left Donny in the window and walked out a little further, blinking the light on and off towards the imagined shore.
Something hit his leg hard, just below the water line, and he struggled to remain on his feet. A tire floated and rolled by him, and he quickly regained the comparative safety of the window next to Donny. Behind them, he could hear the popping of the fire. Luckily the didn’t keep many chemicals on site, or they’d have to worry about those catching fire or exploding. A large shape loomed by in the flood, briefly stopped and turned end-over-end and floated away. It looked like a propane tank to Alex, who began to rethink their relative safety.
He gave the light to Donny and had him flash it towards the shore. The boy began to flash the three dots and three dash pattern he’d learned in Boy Scouts. Alex went back inside to see how bad the fire was spreading. Smoke was beginning to build up inside, and flames were visible the length of the main room. Apparently the roof was still keeping the rain off the fire, which burned from below among the rafters and the underside of the roof. In the room where he had first seen the fire, everything on the far wall that was above the waterline was burning. The switchbox still sparked and flashed. Soon, he thought, others would add their sparks. Suddenly, the sparking stopped. He returned to the window, and noticed that street lights were no longer visible through the rain and gloom. He told Donny that all the power must have gone out. Through the rush of the flood, they heard the shrill blast of steam pipes from the south. The power plant is flooded, Alex thought.
Donny pointed out that several fires were visible through the gloom, and Alex joined him in the window sill. They took turns with the light.
After what seemed like a long time, Alex thought he heard an engine. He waved the light around, and suddenly the noise got louder. A motorboat swept around the north end of the factory, and battered its way up the flood toward them. He and Donny both yelled and waved their arms.
They were seen, and the boat pulled up toward the window with some difficulty. It held two men, one at the front with a searchlight, and another manhandling the outboard engine in the rear. As they approached, the one in front asked if there was anyone else in the building. Finding the current less forceful next to the building, the driver slowed the boat and brought up right next to the window.
“Boy, are we glad to see you,” Alex greeted them, and added, “There’s no one else, just us.” He held the front of the boat as Donny scrambled in.
“If the building wasn’t on fire I’d leave you here until tomorrow. This boat isn’t really safe in the flood. Are there any poles or tools you could get to help us push off the debris?”
Alex went back through the window and returned with a broom. He climbed in, and joined Donny in the middle of the boat. The man up front pushed them off, and they were quickly sucked away into the current. As they fought their way from the building, Donny touched Alex’s arm and pointed. The whole roof of the factory was on fire, and flames could be seen through the windows at each end. He put his arm around the boy and held him tight as they lurched and struggled through the torrent.
A week later, most of the standing water gone, Alex walked down the hill to join ranks of volunteers helping to dig out the debris and mud that covered the area. Every bridge had become a pile of lumber, trailers, tree trunks and other items carried by the flood. Buildings that had not been destroyed had collected looming piles of stuff that had to be dug out before the building’s safety could be determined.
As he passed the factory, he noticed the piles of waste from the earlier operations were no longer there. Several feet of mud capped what had been lower areas, and the familiar hills the boys rode on their bikes were flattened out. He and others spent three days removing the mud from the basement of an old brick structure across from the factory. In it he had recognized some of the familiar green-orange material from the piles.
Julio’s house had survived, though his bicycle had not been found. The fire had gutted the factory down to the waterline. The remaining brick walls were unstable and Alex wasn’t allowed to try to retrieve Donny’s bike from the basement. Donny pointed out that it wasn’t much use now anyway, since everything was covered with mud and their racecourse was gone.
The kids helped with the cleanup, but spent much of their time recovering useable items from the debris. At first, Julio was afraid there might be snakes, and didn’t understand Donny’s assurance that he wouldn’t be bothered. But after a few days, they found enough neat stuff, that he began to feel that way himself. And, anyway, they almost had enough parts to make one whole bicycle.