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Growing Up Atomic

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As part of the postwar baby boom, I was born in Richland, Washington, the town with the highest birth rate in the nation. My parents took me home from the hospital to the two-bedroom prefab where I spent the first five years of life. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was small and there was an old mulberry tree in the back yard. I cried constantly as an infant, information my mother felt compelled to share many times over the years, perhaps as a reminder that I owed her more than I could ever repay. Despite the wailing, I was the apple of her eye. However, this did not prevent her from giving birth to my sister when I was three. For a consolation prize, I was awarded a jacked-up collie pup that I named Sparky. I adored his abundant fur; there was nothing else like it. We played in the yard, and when I stuffed myself with the over-ripe fruit of the mulberry tree, he licked my face, a habit that drove my mother crazy. Unfortunately, Sparky was a piece of work and he bit the mailman, an unacceptable deed, according to my mother. Delivery of the mail was a sacred trust in my parents’ eyes and they were unwilling to risk further incidents, so Sparky was “put to sleep.”

The prefab was tight for a family of four, and we relocated the year after I completed kindergarten, moving a short distance to a three bedroom “V” house near the elementary school. All the houses in town were coded by architectural type. There were three different types of prefabs, depending on the number of bedrooms, and the rest were called “alphabet houses,” utilizing the letters A through Y. None of these types looked very different from each other and they all resembled Monopoly pieces. The resulting town formed an environment of mind-numbing geometry.

The V house had three bedrooms, offering privacy that my parents never had when they were kids, and proof of their upward mobility. But there was no mulberry tree or, in fact, any trees at all. Aside from the house, which looked like every other house on the block, the lot offered only a bare swath of lawn. For variety, the builders had set our house “kitty corner,” that is, the orientation was rotated 45 degrees so that the house looked askance at the street. This left a lawn divided into trapezoidal sections, a situation that introduced me to practical math problems when I was old enough to take over the mowing chore. Our house was the only one in the neighborhood sitting kitty corner and it always looked weird to me, like somebody made a mistake. It didn’t help when my parents compounded the mistake by painting it salmon pink.

The architectural monotony of Richland can be blamed on the United States government in general and the Army Corps of Engineers in particular. By 1943 the secret Manhattan Project rushed toward the ultimate weapon, the trump card that would finish World War II. Before bombs could be dropped, however, the Project scientists needed a place to manufacture plutonium, the key ingredient, and the desert of southeastern Washington offered plenty of space for clandestine factories as well as a huge river to cool the over-heated elements.

When the Manhattan Project came to Washington, Richland was a marginal farming town of two hundred and fifty people. With level ground and abundant sunshine, the land had looked promising for agriculture, but the arid Great Basin terrain was better suited for growing sagebrush and jackrabbits. The tilled earth of fields provided the fodder for monstrous dust storms capable of forcing powdered soil through tightly shut windows and doors. When one of these storms rose from the horizon, obliterating the sun, people ran for shelter. Like all deserts, it could be a foreboding place to live.

These same qualities made it ideal for dangerous scientific endeavors. Applying the powers of eminent domain, 600 square miles of wilderness along the Columbia River became government property and gained a code name: the Hanford Works. The scattered residents were evicted, the entire area fenced, and access was denied without the correct identification badge. Hastily built barracks in the desert sheltered the fifty thousand workers brought in to build the world’s first plutonium production reactor. Scientists advised that although the barracks were good enough for the temporary workers, permanent Hanford staff would not want to live or raise families anywhere near atomic technology. Since radioactive materials remain toxic for thousands of years, it was understood that the Hanford project represented a long-term investment and would need staff forever. The government met the need by condemning and annexing the town nearest to the Hanford desert: Richland. Twenty plus miles from the hot spots, it was deemed the village that would house the horde of scientists, engineers, technicians, and support staff required to keep the atom working in perpetuity. The few inhabitants of Richland were shuffled along, and the existing structures replaced in a frenzy of construction. Between ‘43 and ’45 the Army Corps of Engineers built almost five thousand structures, many duplexes and apartments as well as stand-alone houses, all in an orderly and unimaginative fashion. By the end of the war, Richland’s replacement population reached twenty-five thousand, a hundred-fold increase in two years.

The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima inspired headlong investment in the atom, especially as the government looked past the Axis powers to the looming threat of the Soviet Union. Eight more reactors were built at Hanford, along with half a dozen plutonium processing factories. Over the following years, the desert enclave manufactured most of the fissile material that went into the sixty thousand nuclear weapons that would constitute the US military arsenal.

After the war, discharged and footloose soldiers migrated to the tantalizing opportunities at Hanford, lured by advertisements about the natural wonders of the “Evergreen State,” never mind that there wasn’t a single evergreen within a hundred miles. Not only technicians, but unskilled workers were needed for the new industry. My father, fresh from the Coast Guard, took a job as security guard, patrolling the enormous perimeter of the project. Discharged from her duties as a WAC, my mother became a “badge girl,” responsible for checking employee identification badges, not only for security reasons, but also for radiation exposure. They met at one of the many social events provided to distract young workers from the reality of living in the bleak tumbleweed country. All it took was a dance and some background radiation to bring my parents together.

Everyone in Richland worked at Hanford, had a spouse who worked at Hanford, or provided town services for Hanford employees. As a result, nuclear physics defined the culture of the newly christened “A-city.” Atomic specialists were treated like the priests of a holy order and science was openly worshipped. The iconography of nuclear physics was inescapable. You could live on Proton Lane or Neutron Lane, shop at stores with nuclear logos on their signs, and for amusement there was an evening of bowling at the “Atomic Lanes.” The latter had a gigantic neon sign depicting an atom with orbiting electrons, visible a mile away in the night sky.

To identify the culture as atomic hardly does justice to the local mythology. Richland High School teams were known as the “Bombers.” The official emblem of the school was a mushroom cloud. It was a badge of pride. You could get a mushroom cloud patch for the back of your letter jacket. At every game the yell squad trotted out the mascot: an empty bomb case painted in the lurid green and yellow school colors. Bouncy cheerleaders cavorted around the bomb in pom-pom synchronization, leading the crowd in chant: “B-O-M-B-E-R-S. BOMBERS! BOMBERS! GO… BOMBERS!”

When I lived there, the town reveled in its heritage and most folks were oblivious to the valorization of atomic cataclysm. In recent years, do-gooders have tried to get rid of the mushroom cloud logo and the mascot, but all such attempts have been rebuffed. It’s important to honor the town’s history, we are told, and Richland is “proud of the cloud.”

Once we moved to the V house, I started walking to school on my own. From age six I walked back and forth each day, first to the elementary school (ten minutes), then the junior high (fifteen), and finally the high school (thirty). The elementary school and our neighborhood were built on the edge of town, and as I dawdled along the way, I could inspect the desert on one side of the street or the alphabet houses on the other. Since I roamed the neighborhood at will, I often made forays into the sagebrush, crawling in the dirt, constructing forts, staging inconclusive battles with miniature soldiers, and chasing the swift little lizards that zoomed around underfoot. I never thought about rattlesnakes, even though my father killed them at work by the hundreds. My parents offered no warnings about the world and I assumed a naïve trust until later, when I eventually derived some critical thinking skills.

For entertainment, along with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood, I chased the mosquito sprayer. Because the town bordered on the Columbia River and its adjacent marshes, mosquitoes could be a problem. Once a month, a decommissioned military jeep drove around the streets pulling a trailer fan that dispensed clouds of toxic spray. As the jeep rolled by, all the kids ran behind, squealing with delight at the veils of dry fog pouring out of the back of the machine. I never saw a single parent tell a kid that it wasn’t a good idea.

At the elementary school we performed frequent air raid drills. I kept a special blanket in the classroom for this purpose. It was fuzzy like Sparky and I loved snuggling it. No one disputed that Hanford would be a target for Soviet attack, should that day come, and it was assumed that we might have our very own mushroom cloud rising off the desert. In that event, we were instructed to stay away from the windows. They were fixed with heavy drapes and it was the teacher’s job to pull them shut to reduce the flying glass. Meanwhile, we crawled under our desks, laying out the blanket first as a cushion, and curled into fetal positions, careful to use one hand to cover the back of the neck and our precious spinal cords. The teacher walked around the class and checked our postures, offering suggestions for improved techniques. We lay in silence for fifteen minutes, until the all clear signal was given, then we returned to our school day just as if we were still alive.

When I wasn’t in school, our family did things together, but they weren’t always the things my friends did with their families. They went on picnics, dinner parties, movies, swimming, boating, that sort of thing. My father dreaded exposure to water ever since his destroyer was torpedoed and sunk in the North Atlantic. He barely escaped with his life, so water recreation was out. We did go to the movies, though. Both of my parents were fond of Westerns, and we saw everything with Randolph Scott. Anything to do with cowboys was welcome in the house and my mother, a spontaneous vocalist, sang the popular cowboy songs with embarrassing gusto. Regularly, we piled in the car and drove to nearby rodeos: sad, dusty affairs in places like Umatilla, Oregon, that had no other draw.

Though my father loved cowboys, he loved Indians more. He grew up retrieving arrowheads and other artifacts from the plowed fields of Kansas where he also acquired the collecting bug. In Richland, the whole family helped him look for this kind of stuff. There was plenty of it, because the shores of the Columbia River had been inhabited for thousands of years. Shovels full of river sand were gently placed into his sifting apparatus, a wood-framed screen that shook out the particles of silicon and revealed the stone tools of the pre-atomic inhabitants. My mother made sure that we had plenty of snacks and refreshments because we would do this for hours. As a result, my father’s collection of artifacts was extensive and gained him repute amongst other collectors.

 The town dump provided another favorite outing. We parked at the periphery and fanned out on foot, picking through the debris, looking for useful items, which we hauled home in triumph. We lived off the land in every way possible. During the season we went to the river and walked along the banks where the wild asparagus grew, cutting the tender tops, filling brown paper grocery bags with pounds and pounds of stalks. Hardly a delicacy on our table, we ate asparagus in massive quantities, until it went out of season, then we didn’t eat it at all.

When I got older, my father took me on long drives into the unrestricted countryside, usually on back roads. Every so often, he parked the truck on the shoulder and announced: “Looks like a good spot.” We then walked the ditches and picked up bottles and cans, placing them in gunny sacks so we could take them to the grocery to redeem for cash. Usually he gave me all our take. I’m not sure what he got out of it. Perhaps it was our bonding time, though few words were said. He also liked to hunt and fish, though his attempts to interest me in these activities were less successful. I was a poor shot and a hopeless fisherman. Nevertheless, I benefited from his enthusiasm and grew up on a regular diet of duck, grouse, pheasant, bass, and crappie.  Occasionally there were fishing and hunting bans along the river due to accidental releases of radioactive materials. Announcements were printed in the local paper, usually in fine print in the back pages, but I doubt that my parents or anyone else ever paid attention to such things. If the land provided bounty, we took it.

I was a science kid, one of those idealistic youth who wanted to be an astronaut and just couldn’t get enough space, space, space. My parents were bewildered by this passion but pleased that I had any ambitions. Science was the central pivot for the Richland community, though, and a child with such interests was urged on with enthusiasm. Teachers, especially, were shameless in their encouragement. As a result, I developed wild and unrealistic notions. Naturally, I devoured science fiction stories. Although this seemed logical enough for a boy interested in science, in time I escaped the orbit of Tom Swift and other gosh-wow narratives of technological destiny to understand that the genre can be quite subversive. The extrapolations of science fiction reflected the obsessions of American society, foremost of which was fear of atomic Armageddon. Cautionary tales were commonplace. I was a voracious reader, and the scope of these ruminations influenced me to question every premise of the world around me. Life in a bland All-American City (an honor bestowed in 1963) did not resonate with the cosmic panorama of my reading, and I bounced between extremes, one day devouring tales of technological catastrophe and the next cheering on the Bombers.

By the time I entered high school, I was ready for the revolution. Crazed with fresh powers of critical thinking, I soon found myself in trouble for unsolicited opinions. My indiscretions sufficed to bring the FBI to high school and home to check me out. Yet I was still a space kid, fascinated with the outer reaches of science and technology. I just didn’t see any real difference between relativity and The Dharma Bums.

One of the honors bestowed on top students during the senior year was a specialty tour of the Hanford project. In retrospect, I understood that this was a kind of recruiting pitch like those offered by universities for athletes and scholars. The glamor of a scientific career was put on display within the context of a historical facility, a place that changed the world. However, other than chemistry, I was not a very good student in science. By this point, I was more interested in literature and barely applied myself to the ridiculous array of courses I had picked earlier in my enthusiasms, including calculus and advanced physics. Yet I remained a good enough student to be selected for the Hanford excursion. When asked to pick a specialty, I selected mathematics, my worst subject. I received a lot of praise for this choice because, after all, math is the basis for science, but while the other kids were touring state of the art laboratories and inspecting the mechanical guts of the reactors themselves, I spent the day stuck in a basement room watching an egghead scrawl incomprehensible formulae on a chalkboard. I already knew there was zero chance I would pursue a scientific career; I wanted to be a writer or a philosopher or something like that; it was hard to decide. The Hanford tour day allowed plenty of time for daydreaming and that’s what I did.

Now the whole thing is a Superfund cleanup site, one of the world’s largest repositories of radioactive waste. A single public utility reactor generates power, but all nine military reactors have been shut down and decommissioned. Unfortunately, the eternal needs of radioactive containment require close attention. Fifty-three million gallons of high-level radioactive waste in liquid form along with an additional 25 million cubic feet of solid waste present daunting challenges for management. Containers tend to fail over time, requiring transfers of the contents to new, improved containers, followed by research into the next generation of containers before they are needed. Richland has grown to provide dwelling for the workers dealing with this perilous waste and the current population is around sixty thousand. These days the Hanford mission is no longer to manufacture material for warheads but is solely concerned with stuffing the genie back in the bottle.

My favorite bit of Hanford apocrypha sums up this troubled history, honing it to myth. Sometime during the 50s, the story goes, a train arrived at Hanford, bringing radioactive materials. However, there had been a leak during transit and the entire train was contaminated. It was so hot they didn’t know what to do with it. Finally, a disposal technician came up with a solution. An enormous trench was excavated in the desert and tracks were laid from the mainline right into the hole. The train was driven into the earth and buried first in cement, then in dirt. The story might not be true, but the metaphor is.

In high school one of my best friends was a cinema buff. Our favorite film was an obscure Hollywood musical made in 1950 called “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.” We loved this movie for its surrealism and giddy narrative, shaped under the influence of Dr. Suess. At the climax of the film, the young protagonist and his mentor improvise a weapon to be used against the sinister Dr. Terwilliger. As this weapon is mixed together from odds and ends, the boy asks the mentor the most important question on his mind: “Is it… atomic?” As it turned out, it was atomic, and this became our catchphrase, a private inquiry regarding the fundamental absurdities that surrounded our lives. We would look at each other with raised eyebrows, an adolescent sneer of knowing, and ask, barely above a whisper, “Is it… atomic?” It always was.