ST. GEORGE – In December, St. George resident and outspoken downwinder Michelle Thomas will travel to Austria to represent the United States of America at the Vienna Nuclear Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.
Speaking on the topic “The Collateral Damage of Nuclear Warheads and Testing,” Thomas will go before a global audience to tell a story rife with government hypocrisy, tragedy and sickness. It is a story that impacted and continues to impact the thousands of people who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site during the 1950s and 1960s, Thomas said, when the American government conducted several atmospheric and below-ground nuclear tests.
A child of the Cold War era, Thomas said she experienced firsthand the disastrous health effects brought on by living in the fallout zone of the Atomic Energy Commission’s testing, and she has worked for decades to educate the community, both at home and abroad, by sharing the heart-wrenching and often staggering tales of those who lived under the mushroom clouds – including her own.
Life in a fallout town
When she was a young girl, Thomas said, the propaganda being pushed on the nation was that Russia was bad and America was good. When she was in school, they would practice hiding under their desks – the “duck and cover drill,” Thomas said – and at home, they were encouraged to build bomb shelters in the event of an air strike.
Thomas said her biggest fear as a child was not being at home when the strike occurred. She was terrified of not being with her family, and she was terrified of Khrushchev’s bombs, she said.
At the same time that school children in St. George were practicing air raid drills and their families were building makeshift bomb shelters, roughly 100 miles away, nuclear testing was creating big, pink mushroom clouds in the sky, Thomas said, and children were encouraged to go out and watch them because the government told them they were making history.
Thomas said she and the other children would climb out from under their desks at the end of a drill only to be sent outside to play on a playground covered in a fresh layer of ash.
“Like snow from a bomb,” she said.
“There was so much dissonance coming from the government,” Thomas said, “being told one thing and living another. We were so wrapped up in Russia that we couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”
A one-woman war
Thomas’ mother was pregnant with her in 1951, when the testing started. Thomas said much of her own understanding about the testing came from hindsight; but her mother, Irma Thomas, was a vocal activist against the testing at a time when it was very unpopular to dissent.
In an opinion column written by Thomas and printed by the Salt Lake Tribune, Thomas quoted her mother:
This makes no sense at all Shelley. I am readying a bomb shelter to keep my family safe from Krushchev’s bombs, yet our own government is dropping bombs on our heads and telling us we’re safe.
At the time, St. George was still a relatively agricultural town, Thomas said. Milk came from local dairies, and most people grew vegetables, pomegranates and nuts in their own gardens. Because the Atomic Energy Commission continued reassuring residents they were not in danger from the fallout clouds, local people continued consuming locally grown goods, she said.
Except in the Thomas home. Thomas’ mother was perhaps ahead of her time, Thomas said, and she was hesitant to eat locally grown vegetables and began ordering her milk from a dairy in Fillmore, Utah, hoping that would help head off the danger.
Thomas’ mother was similarly mistrustful when strange men dressed in white lab coats began showing up and testing the local children and later sending them to Salt Lake City to have their thyroids removed. Thomas said her mother refused to let her go.
Many people in St. George began getting sick with cancer, thyroid disease, leukemia and strange illnesses with strange names, Thomas said. Birth defects and miscarriages became common, she said, but still the government denied the atomic tests were to blame.
Thomas said her mother kept a chart in their dining room – a map, of sorts, of all the homes within a three-block radius of theirs. Each time someone in one of those homes was diagnosed with a disease, Thomas said, her mother would put an “X” on the house.
“Dinner was often a depressing time,” Thomas said. “We would see another ‘X’ and wonder what happened at the neighbor’s house.”
When Thomas herself was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune muscle disease, “my mom drew an ‘X’ on our house,” she said.
After one of her mother’s best friends, Helen Reichmann, died of stomach cancer, Thomas’ mother launched her own personal war against the government, writing the president, congressmen, scientists and newspapers. She gathered together townspeople who were suffering from various diseases, had a group photograph taken, and then sent that photograph to the media.
“She kept writing letters,” Thomas said, “and she kept making a lot of noise because she was mad.”
Taking up the call
As a youth, Thomas said, her mother’s activism embarrassed her. She was preoccupied with popularity and becoming Miss St. George, she said, and she would often wonder why her mother said the things she did.
But, as it turned out, the apple did not fall very far from the tree.
Thomas, who wanted to become a dancer and a stage performer, missed the opportunity to do either because of her disease; additionally, she has suffered through breast cancer and lung cancer, though she has never touched a cigarette, she said.
“My DNA and my life were rewritten the day my (pregnant) mother was exposed to those radioactive isotopes,” Thomas said.
Thomas said many of her friends have died or are dying of cancer and other diseases at seemingly young ages. Thomas is in her early 60s.
“I don’t want to lose any more of my friends,” she said. “I am dying inside, and it is breaking my heart. This is the saddest life that anyone should live.”
Thomas said she is angry, too, and has taken up her mother’s call. Despite her own ongoing health battles, she has worked tirelessly for decades to fight against new nuclear testing and storage and to give other downwinders a voice in history.
To that end, she accepted the invitation to address the Vienna conference and tell her story on a global stage, where, she said, she hopes to spread her message and the messages of countless others like her. Because of her own deteriorating health, a constant care companion must make the trip with her.
“For every one of my stories, there are a thousand more,” Thomas said. “I am just an another ‘X’ on my mother’s chart, but people need to know this story. No country has the right to take the lives of their people and others so indiscriminately with nuclear weapons.”
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