We tend to think of American presidents as leading straight-laced, boring lives before their time as commander-in-chief, because with a handful of notable exceptions, the office of the president has been reserved for people whose lives consisted of law school and then several decades in politics.
But as it turns out, many presidents spent their younger years going on Hollywood-worthy adventures through history, doling out Old West-style justice and opening casino bars in the South Pacific.
5 Young Jimmy Carter Was Lowered into a Malfunctioning Nuclear Reactor
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You may only know Jimmy Carter as the goofy-looking president who presided over a particularly depressing era in America when everyone was just waiting for the shitty 1970s to end. But back in 1952, Carter was a 28-year-old Navy lieutenant doing something that could absolutely be the premise of a taut action movie that today would almost certainly star Mark Wahlberg: A nuclear reactor was on the verge of meltdown, and one man would have to lead a team into the heart of the disaster before time ran out.
via Academy of Achievement
His name was James Earl Carter. Of course he was an action hero.
And so young Jimmy Carter led a containment team of 24 men into the Chalk River Laboratories nuclear research facility near Ottawa, Canada, after a reactor accident released 4,500 tons of radioactive water into the building's basement (nuclear safety manuals in the 1950s were apparently just single issues of The Uncanny X-Men).
Carter divided his team (himself included) into rotating 90-second shifts spent conducting cleanup and repairs directly next to the overheating reactor while wearing protective gear with the same anti-radioactivity rating as a Huckleberry Hound Halloween costume. It was essentially like that sequence in K-19: The Widowmaker wherein Peter Sarsgaard and his team take turns putting on flimsy plastic coveralls to get boiled alive by waves of white-hot atomic fire pouring out of a malfunctioning submarine core. And yes, we said the shifts were 90 seconds long -- that was the longest a human body could tolerate the conditions (and that turned out to be grossly unsafe, based on what we know now).
The plant bosses knew it then too, but they didn't tell Jimmy.
To track their progress, Carter's team built a life-size replica of the damaged reactor on a nearby tennis court where each team member could practice the next step of repairs, because it wouldn't do for someone to go all the way down into the radioactive death basement and then forget what the hell it was they came there to hammer for 90 seconds. Carter and his team might spend an entire trip tightening a single bolt before scurrying back upstairs to rinse off all the science poison.
Carter would later write that he "absorbed a year's maximum allowance of radiation in one minute and 29 seconds," and that his team's exposure was about a thousand times greater than any human being would be allowed today. Carter soaked up so much atom juice that for the six months following the cleanup he had radioactive urine. That's right -- the man peed radiation, which you may recognize as an episode of The Incredible Hulk that we've always wanted to see.