In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Dear Grandma Uchytil:
The Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety passed out potassium-iodide pills this month for citizens to take if the nuclear plant is blown up by terrorists. If we swallow them four hours before a release of radioactivity, our thyroids will be protected from cancer. A brochure that accompanies the pills warns, “We maintain that if there is a nuclear emergency, the safest thing you can do is get away as quickly as possible.” The brochure doesn’t say where we’re supposed to go, but I immediately thought about your place over in eastern Iowa.
I’m a long way from that city kid who rode the Empire Builder from Chicago to Iowa every summer. The boy who couldn’t wait to see you at the train station, barefoot and wearing your flour-dusted floral apron. You swept me up in that apron, clucking and cooing in Czech and chain-smoking Raleigh cigarettes, the ones with the coupons you saved and turned in for toaster ovens and alarm clocks. It was a deal with the Devil himself: the more you smoked, the more stuff you got, including colon cancer, which killed you long before I could properly thank you.
Every summer you spoiled me with raspberry kolacky, cords of sweet corn, and quarts of prickly-pear jam. You worked the city out of me. I sat on the back porch and snapped beans and shelled peas into silver bowls. When I got in your way, you sent me out back to weed the potatoes, pick berries, feed the rabbits, and catch blue racers. “Go on, get outa here!” you said. “It’s too nice to be inside.” I traded alleys and sidewalks for creeks and cornfields.
Everyone in Tama County knew what a character you were. You used to call the talk-radio shows in Cedar Rapids to complain about the way the country was being run. I thought you were famous when I heard your name on the air. “Hello? This is Georgia Uchytil, and I want to speak my mind! Now, this Vietnam thing . . .” And who could forget the time you were on the glassed-in porch shaking out the pink chenille and you heard Ray Charles singing “Georgia” on the radio? It was your fifty-fifth birthday, and you knew he was singing just for you.
We’re on orange alert right now, which is the second-highest alert level, just under red. Orange means we’re supposed to take “additional precautions at public events.” I hope that doesn’t mean our farmer’s market, because I need cucumbers and tomatoes. Mom called yesterday. She’s worried about anthrax, except she calls it “Amtrak.” “I’m worried about Amtrak,” she said. “Believe me, we all are,” I answered. This week army helicopters are swooping over the lake next to the nuclear plant. They haven’t let us fish there for a year. Some folks who’ve snuck down to the lake claim the bass are getting as big as dolphins.
I remember you visiting us in Chicago only once. It was hard for you to be away from your vegetable and flower gardens, and for you to leave Grandpa to his own devices, which usually meant heavy drinking followed by guilty sobbing in the garage. We lived in a century-old third-floor walk-up on the South Side. The city was in the middle of another heat wave.
This particular Midwest August night is a scorcher without a breeze. Mom and Dad are fighting. It must be near the end of their marriage. I am six or seven years old. The yelling gets louder. Somebody throws a punch. You quickly take me into my bedroom and close the door. I can hear the police climbing the stairs and more screaming. They are taking Dad away to the YMCA. I won’t see him for quite a while. We will move to Iowa, where I’ll attend first grade. Mom will sign up for secretarial school and work nights at a pizza parlor. But for now, you gather me into your arms and carry me to the windowsill. The room is dark except for the dim glow the streetlight casts our way. I bury my face in your grandmother body until the voices in the next room are muffled. You begin to rock me. You stroke my hair and softly call my name. You wipe away my tears. You tell me to be brave; there is no other choice. You sing me a Bohemian lullaby. You will not let go.
I’ve decided not to take the pills. Or buy a gas mask. Or pack a gun. Or sign up for the smallpox vaccine. I’m not even stashing away food and water. If I have to live in a world of perpetual biological and nuclear contamination, I want to be among the first to go. The world I want to inhabit is the one you gave to me each endless summer: A wide-open green world with plenty of lightning bugs and buzzing cicadas and lilacs. A world where a boy can get lost in his own big dreams while he’s chasing a rat snake up a tree. A world of perpetually rising loaves and canned goods; of fruit cellars you can hide in when the tornado sirens go off. And when I’m scared — and believe me, Grandma, I’m trying not to be, despite the alerts and the helicopters — I close my eyes, and I’m a small city boy again, burrowed in your bosom. You are rocking me back and forth. You call my name, and together we leave all the bad things behind. We have to be brave. What other choice is there?
Your grateful and loving grandson,
Stephen J. Lyons
I am an attorney for the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety and a Sun subscriber. Imagine my surprise to see our department mentioned in Stephen J. Lyons’s “Letter from Central Illinois” [April 2003].
I was interested in Lyons’s take on the potassium-iodide pills our department passed out. The pills were not distributed to protect citizens in the event of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant, per se. And, unfortunately, instructing the public to get away from the source of radiation is as precise as we can be without knowing where that source is.
I will say this: I’m with Lyons. I don’t have any pills. If he doesn’t mind, I’d like to join him in that green world and chase a few lightning bugs myself.