ST. GEORGE — I’ve been stuck in the 1920s all week. Immersed in a WWI era saga that has very little to do with war itself but is nonetheless tragic and littered with dead.
The dead in this story are young women, cut down in the prime of their lives by an invisible threat: Radium.
In this case, infinitesimal amounts of radium ingested while they worked as watch dial painters in factories across America.
The girls, most of whom started employment in their teens, felt lucky to be dial painters. Both the pay and the comradery with gaggles of other young girls were extraordinary for the time.
Until the job they loved killed them.
With bone necrosis, sarcomas and grotesque hemorrhaging. And this, after years of inexplicable and debilitating pain in their hips, backs and jaws. After losing teeth and entire sections of their jaws. After losing unborn child after unborn child.
Their work as dial painters was as delicate as they were; it required precision, steadiness and youth. The girls were trained to fine point the bristles of the paintbrushes with their mouths after they dipped them in the radium paint.
That’s how the company got the watch hands to glow. That’s also how the radium got into their bodies.
And from there, it wreaked havoc.
As horrible as that is, it’s not the worst part of the story. The worst part is how the companies they worked for knew about the threat, and yet did nothing to keep the dial painters safe. They did nothing to help them when got sick. And they did nothing to help their medically destitute families after they died.
Until the companies were forced to by litigation.
Fast forward to current day. And to a little Indie film called The Peanut Butter Falcon. It’s a film about a young man with Down Syndrome.
Well, it’s more than that; it’s about a young man with Down Syndrome who has a dream of becoming a professional wrestler, like his hero, the Saltwater Redneck.
But instead of being able to freely follow his dream, Zach is sentenced to live as a ward of the state in an assisted living facility. For old people and invalids.
Zach is neither old nor invalid. He is full of life and adventure and love. Which is why he breaks out of the assisted living facility in search of his wrestling hero.
Along the way, he finds a friend who is on a journey of his own – a journey away from trouble and grief.
One night, as the two fugitives make their camp under the stars somewhere in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Zach confides something important to his new friend, Tyler: He is going to be a “bad guy wrestler.” Why? Because his family abandoned him. And because coaches and teachers told him he is “retarded.”
Tyler challenges this idea, telling Zach being a good guy or bad guy doesn’t have anything to do with all of that; it has to do with what’s in your heart. “And you,” Tyler tells Zach, “have a good guy heart.”
And that’s the real crux of the matter – in the movie, with the story of the radium girls, and in life – what it means to have a “good guy heart.”
The watch factory executives let their interest in making profits supersede their interest in taking care of their employees. And history has shown their hearts.
But it’s not always so easy to see.
Tyler from The Peanut Butter Falcon is not so sure what kind of heart he has. He knows he has caused significant hurt and pain. To others and to himself.
But his unlikely charge knows the truth about him: Tyler has a good guy heart, too.
And not just because he has clothed and fed, cared for and believed in Zach on his Odysseian voyage when no one else would.
Homer wrote, “yet taught by time, my heart has learned to glow for other’s good, and melt at other’s woe.”
If only the watch factory executives would have learned this, too. Like Homer and Tyler and Zach.
Kat Dayton is a columnist for St. George News, any opinions given are her own and not representative of St. George News.
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