Our Man in Belize
By Richard Timothy Conroy
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1997 Richard Timothy Conroy
All rights reserved.
There I was, waist deep in mud, holding my machete up out of it for no good reason at all, and moving first one foot and then the other. I looked down. I was making slight waves in the mud, not quite like what beaters make in whipped cream when it's ready, but more like heavy cream before it begins to thicken.
Except that it was gray. Dark, neutral gray without any blue or brown in it. Sewage gray. Sewage, that's what it was. I wiggled my toes. Partly it was so I could find out whether my toes were still attached, but mainly to see if the mud had penetrated my yellow boots. It had.
My foot hit something. I sensed, or thought I sensed, a piece of corrugated metal roofing down deep in the opaque mud. Zincs, they called them because they were galvanized, and they could just about cut you in two if they had a good wind behind them. Wind that there had been plenty of during the long night that had just passed. I plodded on. Carefully.
Now something clung to my shoe, the left one, and I couldn't move that leg forward anymore. It felt like something or someone had ahold of my foot. Impossible. Something, maybe, but not someone. I put my weight on that leg and moved the other one up, exploring with my steel-capped toe. A nail, that's what it had to be. I had stepped on a nail and I was now attached, you might say nailed, to a piece of wreckage. I got my free foot up on it, whatever it was, then shifted my weight, raising the other foot. It held at first, then it came away, free. Free, but maybe now I had tetanus or was on my way to septicemia or something awful like gangrene. I took a last look at my left leg before they had to cut it off to save my life. It didn't do any good; I couldn't see anything below my waist. Not for the mud.
But my foot didn't particularly hurt and it seemed as if it should, unless the steel shank in my yellow boot had stopped the nail. I decided it had; that was a lot better than thinking about the alternative. I moved on, in the general direction of the river. Maybe. It was hard to be sure because the landmarks were all gone. And if I got to the river, maybe I wouldn't be able to cross. No telling. There had been a steel bridge, a pivoting span to let boats by. Maybe there still was, but it was nothing to worry about until I got there.
Bump. Something solid yet soft this time, or perhaps it was soft and heavy. It was at knee level, too high to step over, and it bumped me or I bumped it, it was hard to tell in this slow-motion mud. Reluctantly, I reached down into the mud with my free hand, the one not clutching my machete. I felt around, trying not to grasp it, but just to maybe touch it here and there and tell what it was. I didn't want to know, but I had to know, like you have to peer into the shadows where you just know there is going to be something horrible. It was. It was a body. But not very large. Maybe a child. I blanked off my imagination and grasped whatever it was. Furry or hairy, not a child. And too big for a cat. It had to be a dog. I let it go and pulled my arm out of the mud. I shook it to get rid of the stuff. That was a mistake; some of it splattered my face. I rubbed my face with the sleeve of my clean arm, my machete arm. I rubbed it until it felt as if I had scraped off the skin.
Then I took stock. I looked around me, around the gray sea. It seemed I was in the middle of it. God! I was sick and tired of it, the tediousness, the hopelessness of it. But if I just gave up and sat down, my head would be under it and I would drown or maybe smother. The idea horrified me. Enough so I forged on again.
A mine tailings pond, that's what it looked like and why it seemed oddly familiar. Copper mining, where I grew up, had created just such wastelands, the result of a century of extraction of metal from ore. But there was a difference. The muck around me now, these fine, gray colloidal particles, were the product of three centuries of human waste, a giant, dislocated septic tank. It belonged on the bottom of the harbor, where it had been since Belize was founded long ago by shipwrecked sailors.
I pressed on. My foot stopped suddenly, the other one, my right one. This time it hurt a little; my ankle had encountered something immovable. My ankle, protected only by the front of my yellow boot with its rawhide lacings. Carefully, I moved around the impediment. Thank God for my yellow boots, I thought yet again on that awful day. Thank God for the hydrogen bomb.
YELLOW BOOTS AND HYDROGEN BOMBS
The silver sea stretched out forever, it seemed. My toolbox floated away toward the cascade. I closed my mouth. No sense having all that mercury dissolve my fillings. I sat on the steel stairs. The steel gratings were a darker gray than the mercury below, and not shiny. And not yellow like me — in my yellow hard hat, my flameproof yellow coveralls, and my boots. Highly visible. I admired my new yellow boots. Short boots, but they laced up well over the ankles. Brand-new. I had been at the Y-12 nuclear plant for well over a year, first at Alpha 2 and now at Alpha 5. But I had just gotten my boots. Steel inner sole, steel toe and heel caps. Boots built like a panzer tank. And special order; I had — I have — a very narrow foot.
"Conroy! Ain't you goin' after your toolbox? If it makes it to the drain, it'll go clear down to the Clinch River."
I looked at Agnew with my "you're out of your mind" expression. I had used it often since my buddy Theo had burned his hands. Of course I used to use it often enough with Theo. It was mostly Theo's fault that I was stuck with Agnew. Theo and I had been up on one of the scrubber towers changing out a level controller when something went haywire with one of the pumps and hot, caustic lithium hydroxide came gushing out at us. Suddenly, that catwalk fifty feet up off the floor seemed awfully small and no place to linger.
I did the sensible thing and flung myself out into space and managed to land on another steel grating in a less hazardous location. But Theo thought he was Tarzan and went swinging hand over hand on a pipe to the next scrubber tower. If he had been paying attention, he would have seen that his pipeline carried superheated steam instead of grape sap. All the pipes had to be identified because there were so many of them, so it was clearly his fault.
Anyway, Theo figured out it was a steam pipe about the time he was halfway across and his rubber gloves started to melt. And then there was no help for it, he had to keep going. So there I was, stuck with Agnew.
To somebody who didn't know Agnew, that might not have seemed so bad, particularly since Theo wasn't any prize, either. And to be perfectly honest about it, I wasn't such a good instrument mechanic that the company would be particularly sorry to see me leave the next year when I decided to become a diplomat. But that was in the future, and for all I knew then, an instrument mechanic was all I would ever be.
I was going to tell you about Agnew, but first you need to understand about the mercury. And the bomb. And a little about me, I guess. This was back when we were really getting serious about the nuclear arms race, and it seemed the way to go was with the hydrogen bomb. To make the bomb you needed a whole lot of mercury, such as most of the mercury available in the free world (as it was then called). Instead of using a heavy, radioactive metal such as is required for an atomic bomb, an Hbomb requires an isotope of a light metal. To be specific, you need a lot of lithium 6 isotope. And mercury is the way to get lithium 6.
Ordinarily, the two main isotopes of lithium, 6 and 7, come from the store all mixed together. However, an H-bomb requires relatively pure lithium 6. And the way to separate these two isotopes is to plate the lithium onto mercury, in great big electrolytic trays, then to churn the amalgam around through a series of great big scrubbing towers with mercury going in one direction and something called "aqueous" going in the opposite direction. The lithium 7 tends to wash out of the mercury and the lithium 6 tends to stay in, for reasons I never understood.
Eventually, if you keep the process going long enough and the whole thing doesn't break down, you can concentrate the lithium 6 isotope in the mercury. When the assay is high enough, the amalgam can be decomposed to separate out the lithium. You are now ready for the next step in making the bomb. Don't ask me what that is, because I don't know and don't want to know.
However, that is how it came about that just about all the mercury in the free world came to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and around and around it went, tons of it, in one direction. And the waste lithium was gathered in the flow that was pumped in the opposite direction through miles of pipe and scrubber towers. And to keep some sort of order in this hydraulic nightmare, and to control all the pumps, all kinds of instruments were required.
Where you have instruments, you have to have instrument mechanics. I got the job because I knew a little chemistry and physics and could use a slide rule. I took the job because it paid twice as much as I got working for Social Security and because I had no idea what I was getting into.
Another thing entered into it, too. I had been working nights for a master's in labor economics and I had these three professors who couldn't agree on what kind of thesis I should write — historical, theoretical, or empirical. So I got the bright idea that if I went out to Oak Ridge, I could join the union and get a look-see at tripartite (the union, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the prime contractor) bargaining from the inside. Well, my mistake. Turned out I got a job on the maintenance side, and tripartite bargaining was all done on the construction side. Maintenance just followed along. In a way, it was a good thing, though. One of my professors, without me to get in his way, went on to win a Nobel Prize.
But I'm sure you can stand only so much digression, so to get back to this man, Agnew, he was transferred in from another nuclear facility and we should have been suspicious that they were so ready to let him go. Anyway, he took an uncommonly long time catching on. One day Wilbur Camm — he was the foreman — got put out with Agnew for messing up on something and generally getting in the way. "Agnew," Wilbur said, "go — why don't you go out on the cascade and see how the instruments work." That would keep him out of trouble, or so Wilbur thought.
Well, it wasn't long before the lights started coming on and the buzzers started sounding off in the control room. The control room at a nuclear facility is about the size of a tennis court, and three walls are covered with this particularly blah shade of green-enameled panels with all kinds of indicators, meters, chart drives with squiggly red and black pen markers, running lights (green), trouble lights (red), and no end of other things. Chemical operators pace around with clipboards and maybe a foreman or two and sometimes the general foreman, whom you can recognize by his necktie and the fact that he doesn't have on splashproof, flameproof, highly visible yellow coveralls. Everybody has on a yellow hard hat. If it's the day shift, engineers and the like are usually wandering through, pretending they know something the guys in the yellow suits don't. You hardly ever saw a woman; not in those days, anyway, in the fifties. They had better sense than to work in a place like this, and besides, after a shift of exposure to mercury and lithium, a shower was highly desirable, and there was only this one big shower room in the change-house.
On the night Agnew was sent out to the cascade to see how the instruments worked, I was behind the control board changing out a chart drive. It was a nice place to be. The air was really fresh and clean, highly filtered for the instruments. Most of the instruments were pneumatic, a technology picked up from the oil companies, so each little instrument was bleeding a little bit of this clean, filtered air. There is a slight hiss, nothing you can actually hear as coming from a particular instrument, but in aggregate it's like being at the seashore on a calm day.
And then the alarms started going off and, back where I was, the click of contacts on the flasher motors. The end of the world had clearly arrived. I adjusted the chin strap on my hard hat.
"Agnew!" Wilbur bellowed. About the time I made it around the end of the control board, Wilbur made it to the main control desk and the microphone. "Agnew!" thundered throughout the huge building, echoing in from the far reaches. "Agnew, don't touch a fuckin' thing!" Wilbur pulled on his splashproof goggles over his safety glasses. He glanced at the cascade-level indicators to see where all hell had broken out and ran out of the control room.
Well, no need to go into it in detail, but quite a lot of mercury got washed into the Clinch River that evening. Recovery operations got a lot of it back, but I still wouldn't eat a Clinch River snail darter if I were you. So that was my shift buddy, Agnew. Not anybody's prize, though in this instance, the night my heavy steel box full of tools floated away, Agnew was not to blame. Not a bit.
"What'chew goin' t'do, Conroy?" asked Agnew.
"Sit here. Maybe if the mercury gets any deeper, I'll move up a step."
"You ought to at least —"
"No way I'm going to get mercury in my new boots."
"You can't just let —"
"Take me another year to replace my boots. I can get new tools the next time we're on day shift." I smiled at my boots. Smiled closed-mouthed to keep my fillings from dissolving. I'd wade barefoot through the mercury before I'd let that stuff get into the stitchings.
"Good God!" exclaimed Wilbur Camm, the foreman. "What happened?" He had appeared up on the entry deck. The floor of the cascade room was lower. Good thinking; it confined spills, but that wasn't the architect's reason — it was to allow for the long scrubber columns without making the whole building too high.
"I think," I said, muffled like a ventriloquist through my tightly closed lips, "the line on one of the mercury pumps has burst. See, over near the Moyono pumps, it looks like a silver curtain? Pretty, isn't it?" A shimmering gossamer screen seemed to hang fifty feet in the air at the far end of the room. The screen appeared stationary, but that was an illusion. It had to be produced by thousands of gallons of mercury spraying from a fractured pipe.
The pipe was the main one feeding mercury into the top of the cascade, which was made up of a dozen of those fifty-foot-high scrubber towers. The mercury wasn't making it to the top anymore, and alarms were going off everywhere. The glow of the blinking red lights was beginning to be picked up by the dazzling mercury screen. It was rather Christmassy. But wasted, since it was only April. Now the screen seemed lower, down to maybe forty-five feet now, as the pressure fell.
Supporting himself against the wall, Camm waded unsteadily through the mercury to the call box and pushed a button. "Control room! Come in control, emergency!" Camm had wide feet; he could get a new pair of boots any day he wanted to.
The call box crackled and a sleepy voice said, "Control. Who's that?"
"This is Camm. Shut down number three cascade, immediately!"
"You got a problem, Wilbur? Take fifteen minutes to do a complete shutdown. Never get it back on line again tonight."
"Cut it off, now!"
"That means a dump, Wilbur. Kill all the fish in the Clinch."
"Fuck you, I'm pulling the breakers at the cascade, if I can get to them!"
"Hold on, Camm, don't do that! Here's Van Hollan. He wants to talk to you."
General foreman Van Hollan spoke through the box. "What's going on, Wilbur?"
"Main mercury feeder line is busted. Place is knee-deep in the stuff. Don't matter if you dump everything; it's dumped already."
"If it's just a little spill —"
I sheathed my slide rule and opened my mouth, wide, long enough to yell over to the call box. "I figure eleven thousand gallons, sir, except for what's already gone down the drain." I closed up again, scrubbing my teeth with my tongue.
"Who's that? That you, Camm?"
"Nossir, that's Conroy. He's probably about right."
"Shutdown! Shutdown!" came over the call box as Van Hollan yelled to the operators in the control room.
Later, in the shower room, I stood naked, letting the water pour over me. I had scrubbed my skin until it was pink, my hair until I was six months ahead on the rate it was falling out, and now I opened my mouth and let the hot water pour into it and out again. My flameproof, splashproof, perhaps even bulletproof yellow coveralls were in a heap outside the showers. Highly visible. If I remembered, I was going to transfer them to the laundry hamper with a pair of tongs. I had taken my yellow, safety-toe, safety-sole, and safety-heel shoes into the shower with me and scrubbed down the outsides thoroughly, holding them upside down to keep the water out. I would take them home, and after they were dry, put them in the oven to boil off any mercury that remained. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Our Man in Belize by Richard Timothy Conroy. Copyright © 1997 Richard Timothy Conroy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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