Accidents Will Happen

It’s a ravishing Tuesday morning in May, one of those lengthening days in the sweet rush toward summer when all things seem possible.

1. Day of Health

It’s a ravishing Tuesday morning in May, one of those lengthening days in the sweet rush toward summer when all things seem possible. The sun is warming the soil, the trees are blossoming and the air is humming. We abandon our classroom duties and head for the woods. No university lectures today for my students on the varieties of religious experience in America or the checks and balances system in the three branches of the U.S. government; no discussions of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, and no asking these young Ukrainian men and women to compose their own Beat manifesto. Save that for tomorrow. For today is the Day of Health!

Hikes! Games! Fresh air! Swimming! Vigorous and capable youth, rejoice! You offspring of Volyn, land of the blue-eyed lakes, listen: Full-throated spring is singing. The forest calls you!

We hear. We heed. We begin our journey by bus. Some of us meet at the stop in front of the electrical plant—sited at an intersection of avenues formerly known as Engels and Marx—where a gray statue of a worker stands, legs spread, firmly grounded, holding aloft a wand from which lightning bolts blaze. Fiat lux. In the aftermath of the Revolution, Lenin declared that communism was the sum of Soviet power plus electrification. Behold!

Among the students waiting at the stop is Olya: round-faced, apple-cheeked, her blonde hair glowing in the brilliant sunshine. She sees me coming, smiles and calls sweetly, “Hellooo, Steve!”

Babushkas waiting at the stop turn and size me up. It is 1996. Americans are still an oddity in these parts. Mostly a welcome oddity, thankfully. The only foreigners who have been here longer than I have are a couple of missionaries from Iowa. Nice guys but, well, different.

Pollen swims around us in the morning air. Olya and I, and 20 other students and teachers, squeeze aboard a bus already packed full. We carry backpacks and plastic bags full of picnic goodies, and I try to maneuver my way to a window. Breathe, breathe.With a wheeze, the bus lurches into motion, and we steady ourselves against seats and bodies. We ride past the enormous half-completed dachas of the “New Ukrainians” (local parlance for nouveau riche) and the acres of battered little sheds that the rest of the people call their dachas—really places to keep a few tools for tilling narrow plots where potatoes and tomatoes and sunflowers grow row by row.

At a crossroads, the bus disgorges us, and we meet up with more dozens of expeditioners; there must be 200 of us loosed on nature for the day. We pound our chests, breathe deep the fresh air of the countryside and set off down the forest path, slapping away mosquitoes in the cool shady spots, laughing and singing, students squealing with delight.

“Did you hear about the accident at the atomic energy station?” Olya asks me.

“Accident?” I say. I feel like the cartoon coyote that’s just run off a cliff.

“Oh, yes. At Kuznetsovsk. It’s about 70 kilometers from here.”

Blood pounds in my head. The distance is actually more than 100 kilometers (or 62 miles), but that’s cold comfort.

“Thirty people from the plant are in the hospital,” she says. “We probably shouldn’t be here.” She shrugs, smiles, doesn’t slow her stride.

So what do we do now? Onward! Into the woods we go!Warning and sweet resignation are what I read in Olya’s face.

It’s the same warning I saw the first time I met Olya outside the classroom. She was walking her pet Doberman on a frosty morning. I slowly reached forward to pet the dog.

“Don’t do that,” she said cheerfully. “He bites.”


The path climbs over rocky hills and dips through mosquitoey glens, across meadows where cows and goats stand chained and grazing. The city girls laugh and shriek. Our merry band skirts the edges of fields belonging to collective farms, and a few students make forays into the rows of young vegetables. Alas, it’s too early in the season for there to be bounty ripe for the liberating.

Did you hear about the accident?

Nagging at us—now that I and those around me know, if secondhand rumor can pass for knowledge—is the shared awareness that we should sequester ourselves inside, tape shut the windows, watch television for evacuation news. That would be the safe thing to do. And depressing as hell: after all, this might be the last day we can walk in the forest for years to come. Besides, if the accident were truly awful, word would not spread quietly. Friends would have phoned friends. Klaxons would have sounded. Loudspeakers in every square would have carried the warning. The radiation meter in the town square would display, in numbers, the level of danger.

For this is the land of Chernobyl. The Day of Health comes a few weeks after the 10th anniversary of the disastrous explosion at that atomic plant, which is 500 kilometers to the northeast. Just in time for this year’s anniversary, brush fires burned out of control in the dead zone, kicking up radiation—how much, we don’t know. The explosion in the spring of 1986 and the official inaction, the rote denial, a government that lost the trust of tens of millions and a country that flew apart—never again.These are etched into the DNA of Ukraine now. They are blamed for every cough and dizzy spell, every two-headed calf born on a farm. Given that, you might think the citizens of this battered land would want to shutter nuclear reactors for good. You would be wrong. This is also a country that cannot yet supply all the energy it uses—not through oil or gas or electricity. The lightning-wanded statue of the electrical worker may strike a heroic pose, but when it comes to power, Ukraine is at the mercy of Russia. The country needs the energy produced from every atomic reactor in its territory and then some.


2. Water

Did you hear about the accident?

This morning, there had been no water from the taps. Not even a trickle, just a growl from the pipes when I turned the faucet. I growled back. Disappointed, yes—but not surprised. The fact that the Day of Health began with no water was not unusual. What was unusual, and possibly ominous, was that this was the second day in a row with no water. And not just in my apartment—a cramped prefab box built under Nikita Khrushchev—but in half the city of Lutsk.

Some background: I’d come to Ukraine with the Peace Corps almost two years before, then the sole volunteer in these parts and now the grizzled veteran. In eating and drinking and dancing and traveling the length and breadth of the land, in teaching hundreds of students and founding a newspaper and hosting a radio show and raising a glass, in navigating packed buses and greasy-windowed trains, in dodging track-suited mafia underlings and swimming in rivers, lakes and the Black Sea, I’d earned, in the estimation of my colleagues, honors as a hero of socialist labor. They even presented me with a medal. I also learned a few lessons.

For starters: Every silver lining must have its cloud.

A corollary to that, which Ukrainians have repeated to me countless times, with pathos and humor: You know we live in Wonderland.

One dark cloud to summer’s silver lining: With the arrival of warm weather, hot water disappears—and not just from student dormitories, but from pipes feeding apartment buildings throughout much of the country. Fortunate citizens with their own gas-fired water heaters inside their houses or flats escape this deprivation. But they, too, are at the mercy of the capricious supply of water. In these parts, in warm months, the only time one can count on any water at all is during a few precious hours in the morning and once again in the evening. “Preventive maintenance” is the accepted explanation for the dry pipes.

In 1996, more than three decades after Khrushchev sent the first man into space, the heirs of this chunk of the Soviet Empire can’t ensure a regular supply of water in a city of a quarter million people. Still, until rumors of the accident at Kuznetsovsk surfaced, the fact that there was no water for two days was simply something to complain about: inept officials, crumbling infrastructure, what else is new? Congratulate yourself on surviving this absurd hardship.

Another lesson, imparted by a fellow teacher: We create problems for ourselves; then we overcome them—and we feel a sense of accomplishment.Surely that’s worth raising a glass.

But the meltdown of a nuclear reactor is a little different. And to cool it takes water.


3. Love at First Glance

We spread our blankets in the shade of scraggly pines by the shore of a swampy lake. This swimming hole was once part of a camp for Young Pioneers. Poplar fuzz floats through the air and clings to our clothes, our hair, the grass—like downy summer snow. I settle with a group of teachers from the Faculty of Foreign Languages. We slice sausage, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers. Two hours of hiking, and we’ve worked up an appetite. Girls pour cups of homemade stewed fruit; boys pour shots of vodka and cheap wine. I bring out the paper-wrapped sandwiches I’ve brought as my cross-cultural culinary contribution, made possible thanks to a recent trip to Poland, where I found a delicacy rare in these parts: peanut butter.

My colleagues are eager to try. Once.

“Interesting,” says red-haired Oksana.

Broad-shouldered Tanya furrows her brow and chews slowly, seriously. She reaches for a cup of stewed fruit. She offers me some smoked pig fat.

“Good for cleaning out the system,” she says.

“And absorbing radiation,” says Oksana.

The women strip to swimsuits and sprawl in the sunshine. My offer of sunblock is greeted with even less enthusiasm than the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: a polite smile, a shake of the head.

“I’d like to get a tan,” says Natasha. She hooks her arms under her legs and rests her head on her knees, watching students try to keep a volleyball in the air.

I don’t argue the distinction between tan and burn. I’ve tried before.

Oksana has a question, clearly something that’s been eating at her for some time. “Steven,” she says, and she pauses, mustering courage. “This awful show ‘Santa Barbara’how will it end?”

It’s a question I’ve heard before and will hear again. And again and again. Ukrainians know that production and broadcast of the soap opera has ceased in the States; in Ukraine, it’s been on the air since before I arrived, with many episodes still to come. Toward what climax and resolution does it all spin? What becomes of Eden and Cruz and Lionel and Augusta?

Alas, I can offer no illumination.

I pluck poplar fuzz from my cup of stewed fruit. I imagine the molecules of the air coagulating around us in new configurations. If the reactor at Kuznetsovsk is spewing radiation into the sky, would that I could cull that poison from our drink just as easily as I remove these fleecy seeds.


Another lesson: The first toast is to meeting, the second to friendship, the third to women or to love. Men, for that third toast, you should stand. And, as always, drink to the bottom.

In the grass by the lake, the student games begin. Three-legged teams scramble up a hill. Boys assemble teams for tug-of-war. They take turns hoisting a dumbbell over and over again to see who is the strongest. For the girls, a hula hoop spin-a-thon. Then males and females assemble into teams of three for “Love at First Sight,” a post-Soviet game show inspired by British television. There are titillating questions and risqué answers, giggles and hoots. It’s not the nice girls who win.

I wade into the water. I swim. I float on my back and stare at the clouds and the poplar fuzz drifting across the blue and wait for the sky to fall.

Nearby, a splash. A shout of dismay. Olya has thrown some boy’s tennis shoe into the lake.

Did you hear about the accident?


4. Question and answer

Late in the afternoon, when we have returned from our picnic and games to our apartments in the city, the mayor of Lutsk holds a press conference.

“Nothing has happened,” he says before the television cameras.

He has laid out all the facts for any fool to see. He has said again and again, with increasing exasperation and fury, that everything is fine. And yet the city is still in a panic. Who started these appalling rumors? Why have people believed them? He knows damn well why, but righteous indignation is a suit he wears well.

As for the water, the mayor has an answer: During maintenance near one of the pumping stations, some electrical cables were severed. Repairmen have been working on the problem nonstop for two days. Everything is under control. The mayor promises not one but two hours of water at 8 p.m. So can everybody just settle down?

I turn to the telephone for answers, calling journalists, engineers, teachers with friends in high places (everyone’s child needs help with grades at some time), even the missionaries from Iowa who give Bible talks and profess to belong to the One True Church. One of them is a physicist. And they came to Ukraine armed not just with Bibles but also with Geiger counters. Does the needle stutter to the hoofbeats of the Apocalypse?

The journalist isn’t home. Neither are the missionaries. Just after 6 p.m., I manage to get through to Peace Corps headquarters in Kiev. All but one of the American staff has gone home for the day. The staffer I speak with hasn’t heard anything at all about an accident. She’s just on her way out the door, though she offers to leave a note for the librarian—a biologist with contacts throughout the environmental community. The librarian will be in tomorrow.

I hang up the telephone and sit at my desk and chew on what I’ve just been told. A note? Tomorrow?


5. Evacuation

A fourth lesson: In case of nuclear disaster, drink red wine—Kagor, strong and sweet, the better to absolve the bitterness of life—the kind they serve in church. Drink not to forget, but to be washed in the blood of Christ. And stay inside.

Alas, my supply of red wine is exhausted. Besides, I never keep the sweet stuff on hand. Shame on me. So, do I go out and buy some—or stay inside?

Before I traveled to Ukraine, I read up on what to do in case of a nuclear accident. One suggestion: Fill the thyroid with good iodine to keep out the bad. I eat a few tabs of kelp.

After the reactor at Chernobyl spat its poison into the sky, thyroid cancer incidence among children in Belarus and Ukraine skyrocketed. One of my colleagues at the university, dark-eyed Nadja, says her thyroid is larger than it should be. She is a 30-year-old English teacher who lives in a three-room apartment with her parents and sister and brother-in-law and their baby. They found out about the accident long before the government admitted anything was wrong. A friend who worked at a nuclear plant in Minsk telephoned her family and said the instruments were picking up abnormal readings. Somewhere, something bad has happened. Stay indoors.

That summer, Nadja worked as a camp counselor in Belarus, serving children who had been evacuated from near Chernobyl. She and the other college students tried to put smiles back on the children’s faces. Families fled carrying only what they could grab in a few minutes. Then, at the camp, everything the children had brought—every article of clothing they wore, every comforting toy—was confiscated and burned. Saddest of all was the funeral pyre of the dolls.

For my pending evacuation, I gather passport, credit card, the couple hundred U.S. dollars I keep stashed. With my tent, sleeping bag, backpacking stove, fuel and canned food, I can be a self-sufficient refugee, at least for a week. My trusty gray PowerBook? I don’t cram that into the backpack just yet. But in go several notebooks, a stack of letters, diskettes. Also a small souvenir: a metal shard of an SS-20 missile, given to me by a filmmaker. His name is Valentin, and he is making a documentary about a helicopter pilot who flew missions over Chernobyl after the fire, dropping loads of sand. The pilot has been dead for years. Leukemia.

The piece of the missile is a remnant of the Soviet arsenal pulled out of the ground, dismantled and shipped to Russia. The silos where the missiles stood are being blown apart, then filled and sealed. Ukraine has nuclear reactors, but its atomic warheads are gone.


I’m in the kitchen when the phone rings—loud and terse, as always, with hardly a breath between the bells. By the third ring, I’ve answered. It’s Roman, my radio-show co-host and an editor of the student newspaper I helped him and two other students found. He shares what he knows: His family’s radiation detector checked out high but not abnormal. The digital display of radiation levels in the town square says 17—though whether you can trust it is another matter. Normally, it’s no higher than 10 or 12.

Roman, too, has taken some iodine. I tell him I am thinking of heading west. As if crossing the Bug River into Poland would offer some kind of sanctuary.

“Good luck getting a ticket,” he says.

His mother works at the pharmacy next to the train station. “The big shots always have tickets on reserve,” he says. “And now everyone is calling. Though you can try to bribe your way on.”

As always.

He has to go. All the water his family had in the tub is gone, so he needs to head to the nearest hand-pump in the neighborhood and stand in line with a couple of buckets.

I write e-mails to friends and family—“Been good to know you, and if you hear anything about a nuclear accident, please pass it along.” After a few tries, the dial-up modem connects—click, scratch and the modulating screech of consummation. Send.

I stand at the window and look out at the laundry lines in the deserted yard behind the apartment building. Today, no one has hung out sheets to dry.


6. Rain

A lesson I learned from reading Kierkegaard in college: We can always have absurd hopes.

I try the faucets. They gasp empty, like the moaning of a sick body.

It is stuffy and warm in the apartment. I watch the sky as if it might give something away—a noxious plume; an airborne toxic event; dark, roiling clouds of poison; or raindrops the size of robin’s eggs like those that fell on Hiroshima after the atomic bomb detonated above the city.

In fact, clouds do roll in. The early evening light limns the churning sides and underbellies of the towering cumulonimbus, and sunbeams stream around the edges. The beauty is made more fearful by the sweet terror of knowing I might be leaving this place for good. Golden light darkens to an unearthly green; the clouds turn black and boiling. One, two, three drops of rain explode against the window, then whole sheets of rain thrown sideways—hard and penitential, hitting the panes with such force that the water creeps through frame, trickles down the wall and to the floor. Lightning arcs between the clouds. Thunder rattles the teacups in the cupboards.

I close my eyes and concentrate on the sound of thunder and the downpour. Midwest born and bred, I know harsh weather from every season. I have seen tornadoes dip and weave across the land.

Is this how the world ends? Not yet. In half an hour, the color of the sky modulates from black to gray. The rain falls heavy and hard, but it is a rain like the rains we have known before. In another time, another place, I would descend from my prefab concrete box and let the rain pour over me.

Instead, I make tea. I watch from the window. I wait. For what? A definite yes or no. But from where? From Kiev, tomorrow? Only a fool would rely on the capricious telephone lines.


7. Normal

The sound wakes me some time after 2 in the morning: water splashing in the tub. I let the basin fill. I bathe. Let it drain. Fill again. Another way to keep the end of the world at bay: Perform the basic functions of our daily life. And hope Wednesday morning brings more answers.

It doesn’t, though it does bring another press conference on the television. A uniformed official offers more evidence we can see for ourselves if we don’t trust him and the authority his clothing represents. He waves a piece of paper at the cameras. It is a fax from the atomic plant. “All operations are normal,” it says. The accident was only the product of someone’s sick imagination. How can a fax tell a lie? What’s more: Here is another fax, from another plant, the next closest atomic station, in Khmelnitsky, and everything is fine there, too.

I turn the taps: Water gurgles forth.

Outside: flawless blue sky. Puddles from the evening rainstorm dry, leaving rings of yellow pollen around shrinking pools of water. At the university, I talk with another colleague—Oksana, brown-haired and slim, conscious of those who are envious of her connections and possessions. Our conversations always have a conspiratorial quality to them, and this one in the stairwell is no exception. She has checked the radiation with her own detector: normal. Nothing has happened after all. Perhaps the unusual readings yesterday were because of the sunshine and the heat? Perhaps because the ozone layer is thinning.

Her eyes narrow; her voice lowers. “But do you see that yellow on the ground? Around the puddles?” She points out the window at the street below.

I nod.

“Do you know what that is?”

Another nod.

“Acid rain,” she says, knowingly. “Acid rain.”


Across the street is my journalist friend, Volodya, whom I’d been unable to reach on the telephone. I left several messages with his wife and his sister. Volodya sits at his desk, papers scattered around him. He pounds away at his typewriter. Says he got my messages but not until late last night—so what’s so urgent?

“Kuznetsovsk,” I say. “What happened?”

He waves his hand, grabs a pack of cigarettes, and we step outside. He offers me one.

Not today, thanks.

“Nothing happened,” he says. The paper will be out tomorrow with his front-page story. Rumors that started with a phone call from who knows where. A broken water pump that was fixed Tuesday evening. Typical story, that: Electric cables were severed one after another over time, and they were never repaired. Finally, the last one broke, and they didn’t even have backup power. He laughs, goes back to work. Life in Wonderland.

In the evening, there is still water for bathing. The world spins on.

I wonder: If we act as if everything is normal, does that make it so? If something really did happen, would we ever find out what? Or can we undo its happening by acting as if it never did?


Friday delivers an e-mail answer to my pleas for news from the outside world: A Czech journalist from the European Journalism Network sends me a UPI wire story he’d seen in the International Herald Tribune. A couple of paragraphs on a scare in western Ukraine. The quotes in the article suggest that the reporting on the story consisted of one phone call to an official in Kiev. The official’s answer: “Everything is under control, and nobody was hurt.”

No question, it’s quick-and-dirty journalism; there is no source anywhere in the province, no mention of the scope of fear, the fact that schools kept all the children indoors or how the transit system was overwhelmed by the panic. What felt, from the inside, like the beginnings of Chernobyl II: The Sequelhas become, in someone else’s telling, a Chicken Little story.

Between the lines of the brief story, I can hear the mockery, the laughter from the corpulent bureaucrat, helping steer the story the way he would like it to end: We’re getting all these silly calls from the peasants in the northwest asking if it is safe to open the window. But you know how people are in the villages.


Yes, we know how those people in the villages are. And the towns and the cities. There’s an obvious lesson to be drawn from a land with a crippled economy, where 80 percent of the transactions are in the black market or gray, where corruption is what turns every wheel and where people lost their life savings during hyperinflation a couple of years before: Trust is in short supply.

Accordingly, here’s another lesson, learned from another newspaper story some weeks later: When radiation levels are too high in shipments of tomatoes sent from Ukraine to Russia, the troublesome tomatoes are mixed in with others until the overall radiation count falls within normal parameters. Problem solved.

Ten days after the panic, I receive an official explanation from the Peace Corps. My call to the office had set them hunting for an answer. In response, the Ukrainian atomic energy people sent a fax to the Peace Corps medical office, which had sent a fax to the University. The rector’s office hung onto the fax for a week. Again, life in Wonderland. 

Nothing unusual happened, the fax says over three pages. Percentages and minuscule variations in the standard releases of slightly radioactive steam are cited. Everything was and always had been normal.


8. Honey

On an evening in Kiev, months later, I am visiting the playwright Yaroslav Stelmakh and his wife, Luda. We eat soup, bread, kidneys. Yaroslav was the first Ukrainian writer to travel to the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa; he’s also the author of the first Ukrainian rock opera. Tonight, we’ll go over some passages of an adaptation he’s writing of Neil Simon’s “Come Blow Your Horn.” But first, we drink homemade cognac and then have a cup of tea. Luda fills a dish with honey, sets it in front of me on the table. Alongside the dish, she places a tiny spoon.

“Made from linden,” she says. “All-natural.”

The honey is harvested from hives at Yaroslav’s rustic dacha near Poltava—a region that escaped heavy contamination when Chernobyl blew. The honey is floral and sweet. For the moment, it seems to me all the world is a lustrous and golden place. I tell Luda how one of my favorite lessons from living in Ukraine has been a schooling in the sensuous art of tasting honey at the open-air market: Before the row of babushkas with their sweet commodities, I hold forth my hand, fingers clenched, palm facing downward, while the wizened, scarf-headed purveyor of honey drips a spoonful behind my knuckles. And, of course, once you try one babushka’s honey, every other woman wants you to sample hers.

Luda wags a finger at me. “You shouldn’t try to buy honey yourself,” she warns. “Not from a stranger. They might fool you. Some kind old woman who’s all smiles to your face might be selling you sugar and water. How could you, poor innocent American, know what is real and what is not? And what about the radiation?”

About the Author

Steven Boyd Saum

Steven Boyd Saum directed the Fulbright program in Ukraine, where he also hosted a radio show and was arrested only once. His essays, fiction and reviews have appeared in Salon, The Kenyon Review, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere.

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