RADIOACTIVE MEMORIES

I cannot deny that I’m a fan of television. It’s partly generational: anyone born in the fifties, with access to even a tiny black & white set, grew up battling for every opportunity to turn loose our minds on the images poured forth in often gentle waves from those miniscule (by today’s standards) screens. “The Wonderful World of Disney” was a Sunday evening event, complete with Swanson’s TV Dinners and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” This was the era of the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “I Dream of Jeanie,” and “The Munsters” and “Adams Family,” but those shows held little interest for my older brother and me compared with such gems as “Three Stooges” reruns or “The Man From Uncle.” Still, what really captured our attention was “Chiller Theater,” that weekly showcase of all things horrific and monstrous.

Whether from space or the depths of an unknown ocean, we were ready, and, more often than not, rooting for the monster! Such was the case with “The Monster From Piedras Blancas,” or “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” (unquestionably an influence for “Alien”), to say nothing of the “Famous Monsters of Film Land” collection of movie inspired plastic model kits——we built them all, never sparing the glue or Testors paint! But one can’t help holding a special place for the great Sci-Fi nuclear fallout monsters from the fifties. Damn, we couldn’t get enough of the mutant ants in “Them!,” and at some point our parents must’ve looked at us as not far removed from the creatures we so revered. We didn’t care, the movies were fun, we responded to the suspense, and more often than not, they never really showed the gruesome, flesh-ripping sights and sounds so common today (and lets face it: blood in black and white just doesn’t cut it). Of course, as we grew older we read more about how many of these films served as metaphors for the tensions between America and the Soviets, as well as cautionary lessons on the dangers of technology run amuck (I seem to remember some of those themes going all the way back to Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville). Maybe so, but once in a while my brother and I wanted to see the evil monster win!

Now, some 45 years later, my wife and I found ourselves watching the PBS show “Nature,” last night. (I must admit that our bedroom, HUGE screen projection television is thoroughly enthralling.) Normally, we’d be viewing some mindless sitcom, or marginally more engaging drama (“Mad Men,” “Justified,” we do like TV), but Nature was calling, so to speak, and the program, one of the most fascinating shows I’ve watched in recent memory, took me back to all those nuclear-fueled fears of movies past. The show is entitled: “Radioactive Wolves” and looks at the current ecological fallout 26 years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. Wolves have returned to the area, now kept devoid of humans—the radioactivity remains far to high…for us), along with an abundance of animal life that had thrived in this boggy zone before humans felt compelled to plop a poorly designed reactor in its center. I won’t summarize the research and conclusions in the program, but, instead, recommend its viewing (watch it for free on the PBS website). I was half-expecting, nay, HOPING, that some hideously huge, razor-fanged furry beast might escape from the radioactive zone and cause havoc throughout the Ukrainian countryside (would’ve been a nice metaphor for the end of Soviet Russia, no doubt), but that is not the case. The animals have proven far more resilient to the radioactivity than might be imagined, and even with the hulking remnants of once-filled skyscrapers—and, of course, one abandoned nuclear reactor—still marring the landscape, the area could now be considered wilderness. Fascinating stuff.

One final note while we’re still considering cautionary metaphors. Near the end of the program they discuss factors related to the stability of the animal populations, particularly how the wolf population is estimated to be the same as the area held before human population—despite the new and extraordinary abundance of prey. The reason? Human poaching.

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