The woman standing in front of the doughnut case in Tona Henderson’s bakery, the Rumor Mill, had a scar at the base of her throat. Such bright slashes on the necks of townspeople in Emmett were nothing new. They were as familiar as work shirts and feed caps — just part of the local landscape like the brown sagebrush hills or the shadow of Squaw Butte. But today, staring at the woman’s throat, Henderson had a sudden revelation: She’s had her thyroid removed — and now I know why.
Just days earlier, Henderson had read a story in the local newspaper about radioactive fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada in the 1950s and 1960s. The fallout, linked to thyroid and other cancers, had drifted over Emmett and Gem County, and a former resident named Sheri Garmon had kicked off a drive to obtain federal compensation for cancer victims. After reading the article, Henderson for the first time tallied up the members in her extended family with thyroid problems or cancer. She got to 38 before she stopped. Now it all made sense.
It would be hard to imagine a more congenial place to raise kids in the 1950s than Emmett, Idaho. Nestled in foothills 30 miles north-west of Boise, the little town of 9,000, with its wide main street and traditional storefronts, drew its livelihood from a lumber mill and fruit orchards and dairy farms that dotted the valley. Kids grew up playing outdoors, swimming in the Payette River, and eating peaches, apples and cherries right off the trees. Vegetables came from the family garden, raw milk from the backyard cow or the farmer down the road. From Sunday church to Friday night basketball at the high school, life in the little valley seemed ordered and secure.
But one day in the early 1950s, dairy farmers rising at dawn found a powdery white dust covering their pastures and pickup trucks. Frost, thought Don Garmon, one of the farmers, as he surveyed his fields. But it can’t be frost. It’s summer!