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Students, we’re going to the playground

Ken Beaton
Jo Caprio Saulisberry holds a map of her father’s home town, Tehora, Italy. Tony Caprio arrived in Ellis Island and settled in Reno.
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Similar to Neil Diamond’s song, “Coming to America,” 19-year-old Anthony “Tony” Caprio left Tehora, Italy. He traveled in steerage to enter Ellis Island in 1905. Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million immigrants were inspected and passed through Ellis Island.

Many Italian tailors came to America. Tony became an excellent tailor in America and settled in Reno. He married Theresa, a second generation Italian/American. To Italians, having a son is important for many reasons. Their second child was to be named Joseph. The Caprios welcomed their second daughter, Josephine, “Jo,” in 1928 at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Jo was a Reno High graduate, class of 1946. She entered the University of Nevada in September 1946. The university was bulging with World War II vets using their GI Bill. As an 18-year-old freshman, Jo was competing with vets five or six years older than she. They were worldly having served their country in Europe or Asia.

Chuck Saulisberry had an aunt in Reno who was good friends with the president of the University of Nevada. Chuck moved from Ohio to enter the University of Nevada. He pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Jo pledged Pi Beta Phi. The SAEs and the Pi Phis supported a number of community and social events together. One thing led to another as they began dating. They were married on Jan. 28, 1951.

While attending Nevada, Chuck joined the Nevada Air Guard which helped with his college expenses. Shortly after graduation, on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. In March 1951, Chuck’s weather station unit was activated and assigned to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.

The United States Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site in southern Nye County is 65 northwest of Las Vegas. Jan. 28, 1951 was the first nuclear test of 100 above the ground tests and 828 tests underground.

Las Vegans experienced the flash of light, noticeable seismic effects and saw the distant growing mushroom cloud. Nuclear tests date and time were advertised and became tourist attractions for the downtown hotels. A side benefit was to see one or more of the shows and, of course, gamble.

Chuck released and tracked weather balloons from Mercury, Nev. The balloons recorded the prevailing winds’ direction and speed. If the winds were blowing from the test site to Las Vegas, the test was canceled until the winds were blowing northeasterly toward St. George and Southern Utah.

On May 19, 1953 the test site detonated a 32-kiloton atomic bomb named “Harry.” The bomb generated immense amounts of fallout, “Dirty Harry,” downwind to St. George. Those residents reported an “oddly metallic sort of taste in the air.”

As you read the following sentences from 1951, ask yourself, “Would this happen today?” While Chuck was monitoring the upper atmospheric winds, Jo Saulisberry was a kindergarten teacher at John S. Park Elementary School. About five minutes before a scheduled nuclear test, the school principal would announce: “Teachers, accompany your students to the playground to watch the atomic test.” Their learning was interrupted to witness the flash of light from the atomic test, feel the seismic rumble and observe a growing mushroom cloud! This happened many days during the above-ground testing.

The New England Journal of Medicine concluded: “A significant excess of leukemia deaths occurred in children up to 14 years of age living in Utah between 1959 and 1967. This excess was concentrated in the cohort of children born between 1951 and 1958, and was most pronounced in those residing in counties receiving high fallout.” The last above-ground atom test was July 6, 1962.

Psst, wipe the saliva from the right side of your mouth. Your face has an astonished expression. You better sit until your knees stop wobbling.

Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.