New Clear Glass? No. Unconscionable Pun ~ Me at the almost meltdown at Salem Nuclear Plant.

            Photo by Internet

PART ONE: INNER THOUGHTS. Since Friday, March 11thth, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time glued to watching television – not sleeping in front of the screen, as is my wont.  Why this change of habits? A steady stream of making and fielding of phone calls from various friends and relations was ongoing until Saturday. Then I finally quit the Japanese catastrophe as other world crises came rushing in.

It is the Japanese earthquake weighs heavily on our hearts. Human suffering is not a warm, fuzzy feeling for participants or spectators. We discuss what we see and hear, and, slowly, the nuclear danger worms its way into our consciousness. The powers that be in our nation insist we are not in danger, but the extremists in the blog world are trying to instill panic into our hearts. Bah! There is a reason they blog: mainstream media will have nothing to do with them.

One can watch Japanese television on cable: NHK. Our thoughts are close to nausea as we hear increasing proof of the lies vomited out by the Japanese Utility Companies and the Japanese government.             By Sunday, almost a full week later, we find our worst fears confirmed. Those two entities messed up … may I say it? With a capital F.

            For many weeks before the disaster, I had been lackadaisically working less and less on my creative writing projects because I was getting nowhere. My writing folder is now loaded with a half dozen unfinished projects. One unexpected effect of this feeling of writer’s block was a difficult project I had brought upon me – writing poetry. Late one night, chewing speculatively on some ice-cream and cookies, came recognition of me as an author. I cannot write poetry typing on a computer!  Now, where did this thought originate? I wondered.

Emotions often spoken aloud by some of us so they can be dissipated. Poetry, on the other hand, arises from the deepest feelings within the human condition, and are best expressed from within by paper and pencil.  Furthermore, I truly believe poets like me are not meant to be “green.” The sound of paper being crumpled, torn, stepped upon, and even thrown across a room are a necessary portion of my inner creative mind.  

Fortunately, the solution to my problem: I admit the challenges I have burdened myself lately, including the stern pledge to work on a sonnet using all the various parts of descriptive speech was empty. The research into the types of creative words is fascinating, it’s true. However, I have no intent of using them just because they happen to exist. I am a journalist, not a poet.  I’ve actually never been a poet. There are too many rapids, whirlpools, and rocks in my life for verse to flow freely. Whew! Good-bye poetry. Onward to reporting

 As my interest in the project evaporated, I immediately felt a sense of release. As. One caveat, limericks are exempt from this situation. Limericks are a game without deep feelings. I remember one a friend of mine wrote one about me back in the early 50’s. At that time, I worked in the white towers ofNew YorkHospital inManhattan as an electro-cardiograph technician. In those days, individual EKG units were taken from patient to patient. At each bedside we had to connect eight wires to the patient’s body. The results were printed out during the test on photographic paper and brought back to our office, located next to the morgue.

At that time, I was still unmarried, and my maiden name was Brooks. For a few months, Iwas dating one of the morgue doctors. We would eat our lunch watched over, so to speak, by the current tenant of the autopsy table. We were young, and did not think the situation bizarre. My friend wrote the following limerick about me.

There’s a sweet girl named Liz Brooks

Who gives cardiograms to sick schnooks.

She got tangled one day

In the wires they say:

You should see all the patients she cooks.

Life is real: the autopsy room was real, my adolescence was real. To my astonishment, I actually say it aloud. Life is real. Pause. I don’t want to write poetry. I’m a reporter. If I am to arouse emotions, let me do it within the parameters of people I observe, know, and have known. Writing is my weapon of choice.  

With relief I reflect, The vagaries and subtleties of the English Language need to be left to those who are gifted with speaking and writing with the educated and musical language of heart and soul. I feel deeply thankful when their finished gift is presented to me. I revel in the emotions the language and thoughts arouse, and I gain comfort as others’ multi-level thoughts weave a tapestry of passions and recognition within me.

One morning last week, as I watched the tv news about the possible nuclear meltdown, I felt a sense of release. Then a thought crossed my mind:  what would it would feel like to be in a nuclear plant as a meltdown began?

Like a bolt from the blue, I remembered. I was once in a nuclear plant when the core began to melt. My Lord! 

Immediately, I called my girlfriend. She and I discussed my unearthed memory at length. She clearly remembered the incident in the late 80’s when I was pursuing graduate courses.

PART II. ACADEMICS CAN LEAD TO ADVENTURE.

During the late eighties, I began to take graduate courses in subjects in which I had a personal interest. They were exciting learning experiences that took me to the nooks and crannies of academia throughout theNew Jerseycollege system, and, once, to a National Audubon Camp located in remoteUpper Michigan. Most of the courses I took were paid for by specialized individual scholarships, making the experiences sweeter. These scholarships enabled me to embark on a heady course of learning and satisfaction, and, at the same time, enabled me to become an effective teacher. It was one of the most wonderful times of my life.

Going back in time to 1973, I received my B.Ed. in the rather boring, 2 dimensional world of undergraduate learning. In those days, CLEP (COLLEGE LEVEL EXAMINATION PROGRAM) didn’t exist, so I had to do my sixteen- class stints with most students young enough to be my own children. I was part of a dozen women who were called the old ladies by younger students and staff.  Most of us were in our thirties and several in their forties. Despite being married with children, we were resolved to get a degree and teach elementary school. One woman in her late fifties was determined to get a PhD in physics. It took thirteen years, but she succeeded, and is still a professor today in a northern university today.

It was different experience when I entered the graduate arena during the eighties. I still fondly recall some of my favorite academic experiences as I travelled through the state college system, picking and choosing my interests – botany, astronomy, children’s literature, science writing, news reporting, the geography of the national parks, geology, philosophy. During a two week stint at the National Audubon Camp inMichigan, I took a two week nature photography course, as well as an incidental introductory course to computers.

But my favorite course remains a six credit physics course that stretched over the entire academic year. I still don’t know how I got that scholarship. To my surprise, I was the only elementary school teacher in the class and the only teacher not on a degree track at the time. This Physics of Energy course was taught by one of my academic heroes, Dr. Fred Pregger, chairman of the physics department at Trenton State. For the entire academic year, we were immersed in physics, energy, and the then present applications of such. As the course progressed, we were introduced to the future applications expected. Over the years, into the 21st century, I have watched these projects turn into realities.

On Saturdays, we visited locations throughout New Jerseywhere we could see how energy was gathered and distributed. At that time, environmental concerns were unknown, and safety concerns within the parts of the plants we visited were, shall I say, sporadic. Standing high on a catwalk and seeing theDelaware River flowing calmly several hundred feet below did bring about some vertigo. And wading through highly secret “sewer pipes” under the Ramapo Mountains at the end of a winding dirt road was an unexpected adventure as we met all sorts of animals living in midnight blackness: no-leggers, four-leggers, six-leggers, and eight leggers. To this day, I do not know exactly what kind of energy production was going on in the tunnels, but the machinery was fascinating.

We visitedPrincetonon two separate occasions to see a cyclotron and other exotic concepts like fiber optics. We poked into the inner workings of energy plants that made and distributed electricity using various fuels such as water power, coal, oil, ocean temperatures, and nuclear energy. Dr. Pregger insisted we diagram and scientifically explain every venture through the language and formulae of physics. What fun!

Well, it was fun for the other students. My physics knowledge was zilch. I knew about Sir Isaac Newton, and several general formulae, but little else.

Dr. Pregger and I hit it off, though. We were about the same age, shared a sense of humor, and a love of knowledge and adventure, and the love of teaching. After our first quiz, which everyone but I aced, Dr. Pregger called me into his offices and asked me how many years it had been since I had taken physics in high school.

“Oh, I never took physics, sir.”

“What? Then how in heaven’s name did you get this scholarship?” He was truly incredulous.

“I stressed how important the sciences and their applications are to upper elementary school students, and also worked with my husband to compete the Thomas Edison Ogdensburg Iron Mines paper and presentation.”

“Oh, that’s right. I’ve read it. Your husband and you researched and mapped that area. But, NO physics?”

Sadly, I shook my head. “I couldn’t understand the subject.”

“Well, look,Anderson. You need to take this course. I enjoy you in class. HOWEVER, you need tutoring.” He paused. Then he smiled, “If necessary, I’ll tutor you myself.”

“Thank you, Dr. Pregger, but my cousin Ivan is an incredibly gifted engineer. He lives in Ridgewood and might be willing to come down toMt.Hollyon Saturdays to tutor me and teach me his favorite subject.”

Dr. Pregger looked skeptical. “Well. Try it. You have a quiz every week, and I expect passing grades. Every week. Say nothing to the other students. No physics!  Incredible!”

To make a long story short, Ivan taught me physics. I don’t know who was more grateful to him, Dr. Pregger or me. Parenthetically, during the first term’s final we had to answer questions about three types of nuclear plants, and then diagram a new kind of nuclear plant that we were to visit. I blanked out on the workings of the new Salem Nuclear Plant, so I diagrammed and fully labeled all three types. At one point, I came up to his desk for my fourth exam blue book. Dr. Pregger raised an eyebrow. I explained. He grinned and gave me the blank book.

He gave me a B for the course and permitted me to take the second half. By that time, I knew my physics and was able to present many projects to him and the class. Many of these projects were eventually presented to my classes through the years.          

The aforementioned Salem Nuclear Plant was a long anticipated visit we were to make that second term. At that time, we all had to undergo high security clearance so we could see the inner workings of this new concept on Delaware Bay. Inner workings meant exactly that. We were going to see the reactor!

On the appointed Saturday morning, our group was duly checked out and given certain protective gear to wear. We were told if a long whistle blast started, we were to don the gear and not move “an inch!” from where we were standing.

One of the managers was our escort, and as the tour began, Dr. Pregger pointed out horizontal cranes running on railroad wheels and tracks high overheard. They were transporting military tanks and huge trucks. I knew those cranes! Thomas Edison had received the patent for them back in the 1890’s when he was involved in the Ogdensburg Project. What a delightful personal feeling of pride I got when he invited me to share the details of that piece of trivia with my classmates. I proudly did so.

We spent the next two hours touring part of the plant. At one point we were taken into a research library and shown a version of the internet we had never seen. The computers were different from the ones we were used to. We were told there were still some kinks to be straightened out and the machines would still unexpectedly shut down.

The computers themselves looked like our modern desktop cases, and the screens were sixteen inches diagonally and in color. Through the machines, we were able to be see the plant’s rooms, laboratories, and general layout right down to the reactor. My! That water was blue, and we would going there in a short while. The computer also stored a huge reference library, and was able to make civilian and military internet connections all over the world. How exciting! I was enthralled.

Out of the blue, our guide and Dr. Pregger were paged. As they left they told to wait in the library until they came back. I’m an extremely curious person, and wondered if I could get back into those reference libraries. So I pressed the computer screen key, and was asked for my name and ID number. I typed in my name and the number on my badge. The screen changed and I was asked for my password. I gave the date of my birth. The computer shut down. I tried again. Shut down. As I pressed the button to turn the machine on, I heard some quiet gasps from my classmates sitting by the windows, and, at the same time, I sensed two people standing on either side of me. I looked. Their guns were drawn and pointed at me.

The senior officer demanded an explanation. As I explained, Dr. Pregger came back, sized up the situation and walked over to the unfolding drama.  “Oh, it’s just Liz. She fine. She’s curious like that, being an elementary school teacher.” Everyone laughed except me. I don’t like having guns pointed at me.

Our tour continued, and after lunch, we went to one of the control rooms. There’s a T.V. cartoon tv show in which the main character works in such a place. Oh, yes – Homer Simpson. His control room today looked likeSalem’s then. By that time, everyone in the plant, it seems, had heard about my adventure, and people kept coming in, asking for me by name, and said hello. I was asked to have my picture taken with my finger on a red button. Suddenly a screeching siren went off. I wet my pants.

“Testing.” said the laughing technician and the other officers. “Don’t ever touch anything unless told to do so, Miss Liz.”

Ten minutes later we were in a Clean Room prior to visiting the core deep underground and several stories below. With difficulty, we changed into our protective clothing: shoes, visored helmet, gloves. All were lined with lead. It was very difficult to move.

Abruptly a siren went off throughout the whole plant. As it wailed, announcements were repeated that there was a problem in the core and no one in the entire plant was to move from where they were. Ten long minutes later, the siren was still going, but we, in our spaceman clothing, were escorted to a series of adjoining clean rooms. In each room, a Geiger counter was passed over every square inch of our bodies by guards in protective clothing. No one spoke to us. Then we were taken to the next room. Finally, after three or four of these disquieting experiences, we were taken to an outside door, but just before we stepped through, we were abruptly pulled back by strong hands and pinned to the wall. Yes, we were frightened. The good news was that my underwear was already wet.

Four men, who, we were told, had been in the core when it began a meltdown, were rushed through to waiting helicopters be flown to the vicinity ofWashingtonDCfor treatment.

After liftoff, we were unceremoniously stripped of our protective clothing, rushed to the entrance building and locked into yet another room. Two silent armed guards stayed with us. About ninety minutes later, the all clear sounded, and we were escorted out, told our trip was over, and we would be able to go home after someone talked to us.

It was suggested by an assistant director we say nothing to anyone we knew, “Including spouses, “because you know how false and frightful rumors begin. This is a matter of national security, and you don’t want to breach that, you know. You do understand me, don’t you? We will send a representative to talk to you on Monday. Be in class.”

We nodded silently. At that point, only one word can describe our feelings: numb.

Monday night class atTrentonStatecame.  A “representative” visited our class as promised.  He mumbled something indistinct about being “in a government group”, flashed an ID card and explained “national security” issues to us in no uncertain terms.

None of us said an official word for years.

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