Personal Narratives of “Disaster”
My middle- through high school years were spent in Middletown, PA, a small town on the Susquehanna river right outside of Harrisburg. It also happens to be the neighbor of Three Mile Island, a landmark I never knew was that big of a deal until I left Middletown for college. What I did know about TMI was what my grandparents told me about it in their story about “the accident”. Now, we didn’t gather around the fire on cold, dark winter evenings to hear this story and there generally wasn’t any grand context in which it was related to me. Which is why, I believe, I didn’t realize that the events of March 28th, 1979 were, as one website deemed it, the most serious commercial nuclear power plant accident in US history.
What I knew of the accident was this: One day, my grandfather was out running (as he was an avid runner) on the lovely, cornfield-lined roads near my grandparents’ home outside of town, when he started to get an awful taste in his mouth. He kept running, and eventually returned home. Sometime later my grandmother returned from work, and eventually they heard news of the accident on the radio. Apparently there was some talk of evacuation in the community, but my grandparents weren’t interested in the hassle of leaving, and (it would seem from the usual tone in their narration) thought it was silly that anyone would consider “running away”. So then life went on. End of story. Sort of.
The other stories that I heard circulating about TMI’s presence in the community were the fun kind , like three-eyed fish caught in the river that the island is situated in, or how, through some bizarre function of osmosis, the water in an old abandoned factory (known amongst us children as the “battery factory”) was radioactive, which is why it glowed green (it actually did glow green, but that was more likely because it was full of algae and one’s imagination is liable to run wild when trespassing in an abandoned building in what to young eyes appeared to be a scary swamp). My point is, that despite the very real terror of nuclear radiation, which is not so far-fetched in a town that had once experienced a core meltdown at its power plant, the general atmosphere I experienced was one of humor.
In my grandparents’ story, they didn’t exhibit fear, just a sense of annoyance and perhaps wry contempt for those fleeing the invisible threat. In the few legends that I caught hold of, wariness was neutralized by humorous fascination. Who doesn’t want to see a three-eyed fish? Where would the third eye go? But what other options are there when TMI seems to be sticking around and a working-class town doesn’t have the means to just pick up and move to an ecologically pristine elsewhere? Perhaps we tell these stories because in order not to be completely terrified in a situation that we cannot alter we are required to alter our perception of it. Rather than feel victimized by an inability to flee because their jobs and home and community were fixed next to a ticking (nuclear) time bomb, my grandparents chose to want to stay, and their story indicates a sense of calm in the midst of a minor, comical storm. Other stories in the community reflect a similar sentiment, and I wonder if the only reason I can consider thinking of the accident as anything more than just something that once happened in Middletown, is because I’ve left.