On Wednesday, March 28, 1979, I was in ninth grade at Susquehanna Township High School, nine miles directly north of Three Mile Island.
I must admit, before that day I had never heard of the place, and thought, "What is this 'TMI' everyone is talking about?" By the end of the week, there wasn't a person who didn't know.
The next morning before going to school, I devoured the front-page article in the paper, noting on the map our neighborhood was within the 10-mile radius of the plant. News was constant, but nobody knew anything. Radiation had been released; radiation hadn't been released. The core was about to melt down; everything was under control. The governor was going to order an evacuation; better yet, maybe school would let out early. At lunch, I stepped outside the cafeteria to see if the air felt different. It was bright and hotter than normal for late March. Was this radiation or just an unusually warm spring day?
What I remember most about school that day was a disappointment: I was supposed to give a presentation on the Revolutionary War in history class and had somehow convinced the teacher that I be allowed to include "special effects" with my talk—including smoke bombs and firecrackers. As the period began, the teacher took me aside and suggested that, given the circumstances, it would be best to drop the props. I reluctantly and unhappily agreed. He had a point though. Parents had already begun pulling their kids out of class. Someone reported see a mother rush in with an umbrella clutched tightly over her head and whisk her two children out tightly packed under that same umbrella, I guess to protect them from all the fallout.
That night my friend Monty called. They were going to see The China Syndrome, which had opened the week before. My mother objected, but, now that I think about it, her reluctance probably had more to do with the fact that Monty had just gotten his driver's license than anything else. "We have to go," I told her. "This is historic! Besides, if there's a meltdown and evacuation who knows when we'll see our friends again!" She relented.
The theater was packed. At one point in the movie a character talks about the devastation that will be caused by a nuclear meltdown. "It would destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania!" the character says. The audience went wild. As we left the theater there was a TV news camera crew in the parking lot interviewing people about seeing a movie on a meltdown in the midst of a meltdown.
The governor announced it was unlikely there would be a full-scale evacuation, though it was strongly encouraged that pregnant women leave the area. My parents faced a conundrum. They were supposed to leave for a conference in the Poconos that weekend and were originally going to leave my brother and me with family friends. Finally, they decided we should just go with them. Everyone was still bracing for some sort of evacuation, and even if there wasn't a meltdown, they were concerned our family would be scattered. My brother and I packed as if we might not ever be back.
Come Monday, everything was back to normal. The crisis had passed. Only later, much later, would we find out about the partial meltdown, or how close we came to complete disaster. Meanwhile, the hottest item around was the "I Survived TMI" T-shirt, and my brother and I proudly wore ours throughout the summer. During my last couple of years in high school, I drew a comic strip for the student paper whose main character was a mutant named Fred, a glow-in-the-dark head with arms growing out of his ears. I even got Fred's "senior portrait" in the yearbook.
As for the radiation, who knows? Rusty, my oldest friend from Susquehanna Township, barely survived non-Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was 29. His mother died of cancer the same year. My brother, now an actuary, would say those facts are statistically irrelevant. However, for three decades now, no one I know who has gotten cancer hasn't wondered, even a little.