In the 1950s, my granny’s dad built a house by the Susquehanna River, south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We called it the river house. It had three bedrooms and a large enclosed porch. Under the porch, there was a work shop with a second toilet and a primitive sink. After the remnants of a hurricane, the river once rose and flooded the house.
The river house was near a small town where a famous baseball player was born. The house sat back from an isolated little road, which lay like a pale grey ribbon next to a railway line. Twice a day freight trains rattled past the house.
You couldn’t see the river house from the road. A narrow driveway had been cut through a tall hedge, which threatened to swallow your car before you were released into an open pocket beside the house. In the adjacent garden marigolds grew as big as saucers. A long path led to a picnic shelter surrounded by mature oak trees, and eventually to the Susquehanna River.
The river was two miles wide, and there was an island in the middle of the river. But the cooling towers from the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island still towered over you like sentinels.
Three Mile Island was a name whose syllables ran together like the branches of the river. It often seemed like just one word, like Susquehanna. “Three-Mile-Island.”
Of course, everyone knows about the accident at Three Mile Island. There was a partial meltdown of the reactor core in one of the plant's two units. It happened three years before my first visit to the river house.
When I was at the river house, nobody seemed concerned about another accident, or whether it was safe to be there. Maybe they were worried, and I just didn't know. I was only twelve years old.
I liked to daydream on a bench by the river. Sometimes I could hear whistles from the plant at Three Mile Island. People made eerie announcements over a public address system. There were clouds of white steam that rose from the active towers. I wondered if the steam was filled with radioactive particles.
The towers followed me everywhere. I could see them from the hills above the river valley. At night, the lights on the towers made them seem other-worldly, like spaceships in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".
It didn’t occur to me that someone might try—try!—to crash into the towers with a airplane, or to block the cooling-water intake pipes in the river. Those thoughts came much later, after the river house was sold, and my granny’s dad passed away.