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  • No one in Idaho would tell me anything about the 1961 nuclear disaster, until I entered a nameless bar in Atomic City. The town was a long-forgotten spew of sunken trailer homes at the end of a dirt road in the middle of Idaho’s Lost River Desert, but inside the bar was life.

    A fat woozy man in a hunting cap sat beside shifty-eyed drifters from Colorado, an 140-pound Alaskan malamute at their side. The bartender resembled a malnourished Paul Newman, and was stone drunk. It was the type of place you got shot in, or at least beat up with pipes. But I knew if there was anyone with the brass to spill the beans on the nuclear disaster I’d find them in a place like this.

    Alcohol is the great unifier, and after a few rounds the man in the hunting cap warmed up to me. Turns out he worked as a spent fuel handler at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory and knew a thing or two about the ‘61 disaster. “Have you heard of the love triangle?” he asked. I hadn’t. “One guy’s wife was messing around with another guy, he got pissed off and messed up...”

    After leafing through a thick government history manual handed me by the bartender I learned just what he meant by “messed up”. Unlike what was reported by CNN and others after the Japanese tsunami, the US had had a deadly nuclear accident; it involved a pair of Army men, a neglected housewife and a prostitute named Mitzy. And it left three men dead, killed in ways so horrific as to seem fictional—one man was struck in the head by a piece of radioactive shrapnel that tore off half his face; another was thrown into concrete blocks, breaking ribs that pierced his heart; the third was skewered in the gut by a flying control rod that launched him 13 feet into the air and pinned him to the ceiling.

    I recently published a story about the ’61 nuclear disaster in the Spring issue of a literary journal called Tin House. But don’t take my word for it, the whole event is recounted in the online version of the thick government history manual handed me by the stone drunk bartender:
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