March 28, 2011

Today is the anniversary of the start of what is known around here as simply “TMI.” More precisely, it is the anniversary of the start of the partial core meltdown in Unit Two at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Middletown, Pennsylvania, an event which began on March 28, 1979, and extended over several days.

I’m not sure what municipality TMI is officially in. I can see the cooling towers from where I sit right now, about 20 miles northwest in my studio high above the Susquehanna River. The first time I ever saw them was in 1968, driving back to Camp Hill from my college along Route 441. I didn’t know it then, that this scenic drive along the river where Route 999 out of Millersville stops was winding through the school district where I would become a teacher one year later. I still drive that way sometimes, and still recognize some of the names on mailboxes.

“What the hell is that?” I asked myself that day in 1969 as the wasp-waisted towers came into view. Nuclear power and its controversies were not on my radar then, absorbed as I was with ending the war, eliminating racism, and reforming education, all while attracting and maintaining the attention of a handsome classmate dedicated to the same causes.

By 1979 I didn’t really know much more. I knew that TMI was the employer of the parents of a number of my students. In 1974 a young woman joined our faculty whose husband was a construction engineer there. I observed that there were four towers but steam only came out of two of them.

“That’s Unit 1,” she said. “It just recently went online. When steam comes out of the other two, we leave.” She already knew where they would be going next: Seabrook, New Hampshire. She had a baby and left our faculty the next year, but we kept in touch for a while. I last saw her in the summer of 1977, a few months before TMI’s Unit 2 began operations.

On that day in March of 1979 I had just turned 32. I’d been married for three and a half years, not to the education reformer, whom I hadn’t seen since 1974, but to the first person I met after it became clear that other thing was not going to work out. I was completing my tenth year in the classroom, occupying a cramped space that had once been a storage closet, partially below ground level and with only two windows that opened. It was the year I started following the school’s baseball team, the year I acquired my first microwave oven, the year I read Values Clarification, a book that would change me as a teacher, by Dr. Sidney Simon, a man whose other work would help change me as a person. 

March 28 was a Wednesday. Tension built in the area as news was reported, some of it breezily reassuring, some of it troubling, much of it confusing. Tension was especially high at my school, since so many of the students lived within a few miles of the plant. The youngsters who would become my stepchildren, who lived then about 8 miles from the plant, were in eleventh grade, eighth grade, and seventh grade, the two younger ones at the opposite end of the building from my classroom, although I didn’t know them, nor their father, yet.

By Friday, tension was at its highest. Parents were coming to take their kids out of school. It was warm that day, getting stuffy in my classroom.  We opened the windows. A guidance counselor came to the door and called me out into the hallway.

“Civil Defense has asked us to close the windows,” he said, shrugging at the look I gave him that clearly said, and that’s going to help? “Don’t say anything to the kids. Just close the windows.” Over his shoulder I could see police cars setting up a barricade, shutting off access to Middletwon Road, the thoroughfare that connected our school’s site with Route 441.

I walked back into the classroom, took up the lesson again, and, still talking about imagery in whatever poem was at hand, I pulled the windows closed.

“Mr. Rhoads told you to close the windows, didn’t he,” said one of the baseball players. “We’re all gonna die.” Two girls began to cry.

At home, I was greeted by my husband, who had been busy making arrangements. We hadn’t considered leaving, although we’d noticed that our neighborhood, populated mostly by young professionals who had come to Harrisburg from elsewhere as the next stop on their career path, was looking deserted. But just in case . . .

My parents were already out of town so my father could give a speech at a convention. “Your parents will be going to your sister’s house,” Gerry said. My sister lived in an ordinary three-bedroom suburban house about a hundred miles southeast of here. “You and my parents will be going to Bob’s in New Jersey.” Bob was his childhood friend, who lived with his mother and sisters in a 19th century mansion with an attached guest house that had once belonged to a movie star.

“I want to be with my family,” I said.

“You’ll be with your family,” he said. “You’ll be with me and my parents.”

“I want to be with my real family.”

We did not leave that weekend. Our school was closed on Monday, and Tuesday as well, and for the rest of the week, students who lived in the two townships closest to the power plant (including my future stepchildren) were allowed extended absences. Gradually things returned to normal, mostly.

My first husband and I separated three years later, about a week before our seventh anniversary. Looking back, I know without a doubt that the moment I invoked my desire for “my real family” was the trigger, the beginning of the end. We never returned to normal.

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