“She locked herself in the nursing home bathroom. ‘Until the SS stops marching by,’ she said.” My cousin relayed the story by phone – Aunt Barbara’s deep memories, surfacing as she neared death. Why had she not mentioned this in my interviews? I had long tried to extract details of her and my father’s childhood in Germany, between 1934 and 1946. 

Can’t ask Dad anymore. Three-pack-a-day smoker, dead since 1999. “Lung cancer,” the death certificate intones. But cancer is only one, final piece of his puzzle. Congestive heart failure, gout, alcoholism, schizophrenia. One too many electro-shock treatments at Bellevue? One too many stays in “Sparks”? – a city name, vernacular for the unspeakable: Nevada State Mental Hospital. 


By 2022, the Great Salt Lake had shrunk to one third its normal size, exposing earth long submerged. Desert winds dry this ancient, inland sea bed, conjuring arsenic-laden dust plumes to drift over Salt Lake City; poisoning residents to greater, and lesser degrees, unforeseeable. 


Uncle Bob (on Mom’s side) couldn’t see the mushroom cloud, but the pre-dawn sky glowed like lit magnesium. Up early, earning a uniquely Nevadan merit badge, he and his Cub Scout troop witnessed an above ground nuclear test in 1954, at a putatively safe remove.  

“Disorienting,” Bob said, “The sun rose in the south that morning.”

The Nevada Nuclear Test Site is 180 miles southwest of Ely, the small mining town where he, my mother, and I (a generation later) played in dirt and sage, and came of age. Where the dust from distant experiments sometimes fell like snow in the high desert.  


My sister Maggie puzzled over the ticker-tape snowing from above her thirty-fifth-floor office – until the paper became bodies, and a second plane flew directly overhead into the World Trade Center. A beautiful day for a twelve-mile walk home, through toxic dust clouds, to her apartment in Queens. A stone’s throw from Aunt Barbara’s place in Forest Hills. Near where Maggie would one day receive my mother – returning from an ill-fated quest to escape to die with her ancestors in Ireland – bearing secrets. 

“Did Mom ever tell you about Dad’s homosexual activities at that hotel?” Maggie asked, when I was forty-eight years old. 

No. She hadn’t.

I researched. The hotel was The Hotel St. George, in Brooklyn Heights. Author Hugh Ryan told me the hotel, particularly the opulent pool and steam bath, was an important hub of the nascent, emerging New York City gay culture in the early 1950s, pre-Stonewall.  In chat groups and internet memory-holes there was talk of scandal. 

“You really should go to the Kinsey Institute,” Hugh recommended. “Read the letters of Thomas Painter,” a major Kinsey contributor, who reported almost daily on his homosexual activities. “Research his reports on the lead lifeguard.”  Apparently, he ‘procured’ members of his staff for the residents.

Dad came of age as a lifeguard at The Hotel St. George in 1955. 


Meanwhile, his father, Grandpa Karl, was away in Greenland. A German émigré after World War II, he rapidly naturalized as an American citizen. He lived in Greenland for years – initially in secret, helping construct the front line of America’s nuclear missile defenses – Thule Air Force Base.  His arctic absence straddled both of his children’s comings of age. 

Karl hadn’t spent much time with his children in Germany, either. Consulting work allowed him home only on weekends.  Then the war. Karl stayed in Berlin, when bombs required the rest of the family to move to the “safety” of Wolfratshausen, Bavaria.  Next door to Waldram, the Dachau-satellite slave-labor camp supporting the largest munitions factory in Germany. A few miles north of the main Hitler Youth training camp.  Ten miles from SS headquarters in Bad-Tolz. 

Dad and Aunt Barbara moved to safety.  

Until the bombs came South. Until stray munitions disfigured Dad’s left eye; a never fading reminder of what a childhood consisting mostly of war made him. 


Grandpa Karl died in 1970. Mourning, Grandma visited us in Ely. I was 4. We toured Lehman Caves National Monument. The Park Ranger said stalactites form “tight” on the ceiling, when mineral-rich water seeps in from outside storms. A stalagmite grows on the cave floor, from stalactite drips accumulating, solidifying. Given enough time, and drips, the stalagmite “might” grow to become one with what made it.  


“You don’t seem like a product of divorce,” a well-meaning Catholic friend said to me in college, as if all stigma-laden events result in stigmata. 

I hadn’t seen Dad (any more than he had seen his father) since I was 13. Since he cleaned out our bank accounts to cover gambling debts, leaving Mom in the lurch with four kids.   

“I’m keeping us poor so you can get PELL grants and attend a good school,” Dad smirked, proud of his parental experiment, his words dripping sarcasm accumulating on me. 

I guess it worked. I entered Marquette University – a year after I left the Catholic Seminary in Dublin, Ireland, no longer convinced God had “called” me to spread the Gospel. Newly certain I should be an investigative journalist and spread “truth” like Dan Rather. Always seeking truth. Answers. Certainty.

“You left the Seminary? What happened?” 

“Not that!” 

Mentioning I was an altar boy-cum-wannabe-Priest framed me in others’ minds. Every time I revealed my religious history, assumptions were made, conclusions drawn. As certainly as mentioning my father’s first nine years of life were lived in Nazi Germany – or that he suffered mental illness – fashioned prejudicial pigeon-holes. 

What happened? Everything. Everything that has happened to me has happened. 

Every drip. Every dust-storm. Every delayed, or secret explosion. 

People believe they perceive causal sequences, and so can anticipate effects, or plan to avoid them. We are as wrong about what we see and assume, as about what we cannot see or expect, in the double-slit experiment of butterfly wing-flaps, leaps of faith, nuclear bombs, or nuclear families. 

“People?” Who am I kidding? That has been the central organizing principle of my life: Plan and understand. Prepare for the future by analyzing the past. Sitting at a table, assembling the pieces of some unending puzzle that, when finished, would reveal… final “truth”?


Dad came back into my life in 1995. His second wife called, frenzied. 

“They’re taking him away! I mean… they took him away, after they got him to put the gun down.” 

Cutting phone lines. Hearing voices in the trailer walls. Swinging his one-year-old daughter by the leg. Resisting with a shotgun. The Sheriff had involuntarily committed Dad to Sparks. 

Me? Age twenty-nine. This was the day I first learned the extent of his illness. Protective cotton swathing, ripped from around my blinkered awareness. Leftover bandages in which Mom had wrapped her secrets and, knowing no other cure, applied to her children in turn.
“Well, he did hold me hostage in Helena, just after you were born,” she revealed then.


I never factored for serendipity, or things out of my control. I came to Milwaukee and Marquette from Nevada, sight unseen. First, because they had a journalism school, and second because I vaguely remembered that Dad had played for Marquette’s legendary basketball coach, Al McGuire in 1956, at Dartmouth College. After Germany. Before Bellevue. 

My presence in Milwaukee now – thirty-seven years after arriving, thirty-one years married – would be no more predictable than that Aunt Barbara would end up an attorney and vice president of a major New York bank, or her brother, my Dad, would die destitute in a trailer park in Battle Mountain, Nevada. 


They buried nuclear tests after 1961 – after they knew fallout killed, but long before they revealed it to those who would die. Still, even buried, dust from the 1962 Sedan blast swept over Ely and 13 million other Americans. Mom’s sister and mother both received posthumous payments as “Downwinders.” Compensation for pancreatic and colon cancers. The value of a life? $50,000, if you lived in the right place, at the right time, and died of any one of the “right” cancers the Government begrudgingly connected to fallout. 

In the early 1980s, I walked past a Geiger counter every morning on my way to high school. 

The Downwinders fund dried up in 2022, like the Great Salt Lake. The pay-outs have stopped, but the fallout of fallout has not. 


I opened my interview, “Aunt Barbara, I have a few questions about your, and my Dad’s, childhood in Germany.” 

“Oh yes,” she replied, “I have a lot of questions, too. But I no longer have anyone to ask.” 

She did not tell me then, amid happy stories of life as a 12-year-old schoolgirl, what I learned elsewhere: In April of 1945, the SS marched 7,000 emaciated prisoners out of Dachau, through her village of Wolfratshausen, shooting 56 of them in the village square. Poison memories, sequestered seventy years earlier, leaking through eroding barriers she stored them in.


Summer home from college, I worked a cyanide-heap-leach gold mine in Ely. The process extracts minuscule quantities of gold from “over-burden,” the useless “waste” earth previously mined for copper, or silver.  Sprinklers soak mounds of over-burden with cyanide laced water. Trickling through the dirt, the cyanide bonds with gold. The gold is harvested, and the cyanide water is stored in ponds the mining company promises will never leak.


Years after interviewing Aunt Barbara, I reinterviewed Mom, her lights just beginning to dim in the rolling evening fog of dementia. The first signs of the disease might have been her bombshell “filter-slip” to my sister – about Dad’s homosexual experiences at The Hotel St. George – which started me digging to find “truth” about him, attempting to discern his effects on my life. Seeking compensation for that fallout.

I returned to the Mother-lode, my source, one last time. To show her the puzzle I had almost completed? To sprinkle cyanide, and perhaps extract trace quantities of value? 

Mom says she’s worried. “Your brother asked why you’re researching? He asked if you had been sexually abused by Dad. I said no.”

Absolutely not, she says in one breath, and then the next, “There was one time I walked in on him bathing one of you boys and saw him… and I knew he did it, because he didn’t deny it! I never let him bathe any of you boys again after that… And don’t ask me any more questions about it because I WILL NOT talk about it more.”

I am one of “you boys.” 

She has kept her word, steadfastly refusing to speak further. Cyanide in pond. No gold in pocket.


“People have got to learn to live with the facts of life, and part of the facts of life are fallout.” 

– Frank Libby, US Atomic Energy Commission Director, in congressional testimony, 1955. 

I was angry when I found this quote. At the time, I erroneously believed that by “knowing” – by assembling the pieces – I could prevent recurrence; that “discovery” would limit, or protect me from life’s fallout. 

Discovery is fallout. Parenting is fallout. I am fallout.


Now in “Memory Care,” demanding more answers from Mom seems both cruel and too late. I once would have insisted on pushing, to complete the puzzle.

Perhaps, someday, something like Aunt Barbara’s revelation about the SS marching through her village will seep to the surface, or flutter in on winds from some ancient experiment.  All I know with confidence is there will be fallout, on my slowly decaying, half-lived half-life, focused so long on decoding what was, fearing what might be, oblivious to now. 

Instead, I talk with Mom about genetic gifts.  “I guess I should be happy I inherited your lack of wisdom teeth? Never had to have them pulled! You know, I passed that on to my son, yeah?  But maybe such benefits will be balanced out. We might be in line for dementia?” 

“Who in our family has THAT?” she demands, sinking further from awareness – of herself, or that her father and sister died of the disease – blissfully closer to taking arsenic secrets to where they may be protected from desert winds.

Until they’re not. 

— R.A. Schneider is an author and memoirist/essayist, raised in Nevada and currently living outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Posted in