Radioactive Histories

The year I was born, a third
Philippine TV station was launched,
which I guess didn’t immediately matter
because we didn’t own a TV until I was
nearly ten. Unless they were reported
in newspapers, would we have known about
the first male chimpanzee put into a rocket
and sent to outer space; that Barbie was getting
a boyfriend named Ken, or that the Soviet Union
detonated the world’s largest nuclear device
over a test site in the Arctic? I wasn’t there,
but in the year of my birth, The Beatles first
performed under that name at the Cavern
Club in Liverpool. While children giggled
at the animated series about a house
cat and a mouse, prime ministers were hung
in public squares by soldiers. Before the year
was over, American helicopters landed in Saigon,
officially beginning the Vietnam War. It wasn’t
until I was in university that I learned how Bob
Dylan’s lyrics on answers blowing in the wind
pertained to that war, as much as to revolutions
fought on the streets in Manila—until finally,
the dictator was taken down. He and his family
fled to Hawai’i, butterflies with torn wings
still trying to haul suitcases stuffed with pearls
and dollar bills in their wake. Perhaps that’s one way
the past can drag you down; but mostly, we don’t even
see its invisible ripples, and how far and wide
they reach. I was twenty-five and a new mother
when, in dairy farms all over Europe, cows
eating grass ingested radioactive substances
in the fallout after Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor
exploded. I can remember how I broke my favorite
honey-brown platform sandals that year, but I can’t
remember what I did with unopened cans of imported
Birch Tree powdered milk in the pantry. Even now,
there are still reports of milk products testing
positive for above-normal levels of radioactivity.
Sometimes I wonder if my or my dairy-loving daughters’
shifts in mood are due to a gene trait far back in our
own family line, or to one of many buttons deployed
by history, ticking surreptitiously in the background.

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