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An Earth Day Remembrance

Filed under: Activism, Environmental

dv028129In 1969 a man wrote a letter to a local newspaper entitled “Moon shot, Earth shot—and a pause.” In his letter was a comment about “making every day an Earth Day.” I thought that to be the single most intelligent observation ever made on the subject. I didn’t know a lot about the environment back then, only that it was my dad writing about it and that he must be right. I was just a kid.

That was the year that America was about to send men to the moon and Dad was mad as hell over it. He said to me that he thought that mankind should focus on the Earth instead of space travel. He wasn’t a stoic, against exploration in general or shortsighted, just a realist. Now I can see his wisdom. He also thought that what humankind had already done to the Earth’s environment was a disgrace. That all the space program would achieve would be to leave evidence of visits by man up in Earth’s orbit, heaping even more debris in a new, out-of-this-world place. Crap on the moon man’s face. “Space detritus,” as the good folk at NASA like to call it.

Dad was apocryphally right-on back then. There is so much junk in orbit now that every global space agency has to keep track of tens of thousands of pieces of space detritus—read “junk”—in order to avoid collision with minute particles that would penetrate the thin skin of space vehicles, to catastrophic end. On the moon we’ve left a scrap pile of landing craft, rovers and equipment. More still on distant planets. What has been left behind here on this planet, in the pursuit of these giant leaps for mankind and the military-industrial complex, is the associated pollution that has taken and will take a dreadful toll on Mother Earth and her inhabitants for generations to come.

Dad decided that enough was enough and that he and his whole Family Robinson were going to plant trees terrestrially in answer to these offenses of the extraterrestrial type. He proceeded to buy a large parcel of land on the New York-Pennsylvania state line. He bought a tractor, too: a red Farmall-100 with a single furrow plow blade, a wooden box for seedlings and a rusty metal seat welded to the plow. Sixty thousand trees planted three summers later and we had a small, oxygen-producing factory of our own located on a couple of hillsides, to counteract all the ill effects of rocket exhaust. Well, at least I could think that as a kid. A couple of years ago I flew over that plot of land in a small plane and, much to my pleasure, the graceful and beautiful trees were still there in all their glory and greenery, whole hillsides of them mature and full.

Life goes on, but sometimes not forever. Dad died a few years after the trees were planted and the oxygen plantation was sold. He never saw his hills robust in foliage. My adult life began and the rest of the family assimilated to life without Dad. My sister went off to college, my brother got married and I wandered around in a tie writing radio jingles and scripting TV commercials, promoting trinkets, marketing and generally enjoying a career as a business professional.

In the years that followed quickly, like a short shadow, I pretty much forgot about the environment. I was too consumed in my own day-to-day ritual to care much, though my conscience gnawed at me for not continuing in some small way my dad’s environmental ideology and wisdom.

Then I read with great interest a USA Today newspaper series published September 6-8, 2000, written by Peter Eisler and titled “Poisoned Workers, Poisoned Places.” Eisler wrote about private factories located throughout the country, particularly in places like Pittsburgh, Apollo and Chambersburg—from tiny industrial towns like Alloy, West Virginia to the mighty manufactory and hydroelectric roar of Niagara Falls—which were the real creators of the nuclear age that rose upon us only a couple of generations ago. The nuclear genesis, Eisler said, began in our backyards.

These facts certainly answered many of the questions that I had struggled with for a long time about the Rust Belt, its pitiful environmental condition, moribund local economies, shuttered factories and brownfield legacies. Our backyards are littered with materials from the madness of the Manhattan A-bomb Project, the Cold War arms race and all manner of military might and misery.

In nearly four years of research, I read about companies and places like Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation, Union Carbide, Jones & Laughlin’s Aliquippa Works, Heppenstall and others. I came to realize that our tear-streaked Rust Belt contributed more to war efforts than was ever meant to meet the private citizen’s eye. In my previous life and work, I had studied science, politics, history and industry, but never once spotted the atomic genie in our presence. Great secret-keeping, guys — but now the secret is out.

This new information answered many things for me—from poor politics and poor planning all across the Rust Belt, to poor people and even poorer environmental practices in their forgotten and dying neighborhoods. The shuttered factories and the shattered lives. The families with missing fathers, brothers, sisters and mothers—from the hot wars and cold, from bullets to breast cancer. Secret industries that to this day wish not to admit fully the environmental devastation created and left behind in many a backyard, yours and mine, by the economics of science and warfare.

When you think of sunshine and oranges, where is it that you think of? When you think of milk and
cheese, what great state immediately comes to mind? How about automobiles and production lines? Iron, steel and coke? If you’ve answered Florida, Wisconsin, Detroit and Pittsburgh, score yourself four points.

Now, when you think of atomic or chemical weapons, tank treads and tear gas? Not Los Alamos, Alamogordo or White Sands, but literally the same street as your kid’s elementary school and only few blocks from where you slept or perhaps still sleep at night.

Grades K through five for me was on a road called the Military Road, so maybe I should have figured out something was amiss several decades sooner. At the end of my street is where Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi acquired the graphite for the world’s first atomic reactor built under the bleachers at Stagg Field.

What’s at the end of your street?

Dad didn’t know what went on around this part of the country or he would have certainly started his tree farm years before he did. Or maybe he never would have settled in this area at all. Now, with what I know, the seeds of my own environmental awareness and discontent have sprouted and are growing. This Earth Day, plant a seed, a tree, or maybe just a good idea in a kid that might one day take root and provide shade or hope for those that will come after us. This week is Earth Day, a new moon, and next week is Arbor Day. How apropos. As a wise man once wrote a small-town daily newspaper, way back in 1969: Make Every Day Earth Day.

Louis Ricciuti has written more than 30 articles on the nuclear age, its environmental legacy and social consequence.