Major Family Tragedy of Our Atomic Times
There's sadness in the face of Jackson McVey. Lined into his forehead and around his mouth, it never completely disappears, even when he smiles.
It's a sadness not without reason.
There's the fact that although he's still a young man, very soon he may die.
There's the fact that he can't work. He's physically incapable of supporting his family.
But most depressing to him is the knowledge that after the man-made plague which may claim his life attached to his body, he took it home and spread it to his wife and two of his three children.
The date it happened was March 13, 1957. That's when he became a casualty of the atomic age.
He was working as a laboratory technician in Houston, Tex. He left home that morning without a trouble in the world.
But during the course of his daily routine, a container of radioactive material exploded in the room where he was working. It was a tiny explosion -- little more than a "poof."
But it was enough to saturate him with atomic radiation.
Before leaving work, he took what he felt were the necessary precautions. He removed his protective uniform and mask, showered and changed into street clothes.
That night he felt a little nauseous, but he blamed it on the flu that was going around. His oldest daughter, Linda, then 13, had the same symptoms. And his wife, Madeline, and son, Eddie got them a few days later.
After a few weeks, McVey suspected that his malady was something more serious than flu. And a month passed before special agents from the Atomic Energy Commission were called in, and came by the McVey's house with Geiger counters.
Yesterday, in my office, McVey recalled their visit.
"The dials went crazy," he said. "And so did some of our neighbors. One woman became hysterical with fear for her little boy who'd been around our house."
The panic, like the radiation, was contagious. Friends immediately avoided them. Teachers from the schools where the McVey children attended began telephoning, frantically concerned about the welfare of other students.
The panic wasn't without some justification. McVey himself was practically a walking isotope. His new $20,000 home was contaminated. So were his car, his furniture, his clothing, just about everything he owned. Once he knew, he took all precautions to protect others.
Time and special instruments decontaminated the McVey family and many of their possessions. But the effects of the initial dose of radiation are something that neither time nor scientific machinery can cure.
"My weight is down to 137," McVey told me. "When it happened, I weighed 187."
On the brink of becoming a victim to fatal leukemia, he's constantly taking medicine to build up his blood. Cataracts are forming in his eyes, and those of his wife and Eddie. Linda still has nausea.
Only Becky, his youngest daughter, has been spared, and she's still going for check-ups twice a year, just in case.
His Burden Is Shared
Jackson McVey's face reflects the responsibility, the pressure. But it's a burden he doesn't carry alone.
His boy Eddie is 18 now, and aware that the responsibility of providing for the family may soon fall to him. In addition to his school curriculum, he's already holding down a couple of jobs.
In the current issue of Look magazine, the boy tells his story.
He was quoted by Look: "If my dad has to die, I'll do my best to keep the family going." He also told the magazine's reporters his fears about having children of his own -- babies who could be mutations, freaks.
McVey showed me the article.
"It's strange that Eddie should tell that to reporters," was his comment. "That's one part of it he's never talked over with me.
"I guess," Jackson McVey added, "my boy didn't want me to feel any more guilty than I already do for having brought this- this plague -- into my house."