Living in the Shadow of the Nuclear Warhead – A ‘Glow in the Dark’ Memoir

During the nation’s historic period of the Cold War, I was busy growing up in a small town—a Secret City—wholly and specifically constructed by the federal government during World War II to develop and produce the world’s first atomic warhead. The Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, made components for nuclear weapons, and the K-25 plant made highly enriched uranium for the same purpose. As a direct result, my civic duty as a five-year-old boy moving to the town with his parents in 1957 was to attend school during weekdays and otherwise stay out of the house, because when my father was off shift from the Y-12 plant, he needed sleep. The facility operated around the clock, and my father’s rotating ‘shift work’ schedule meant that he must sleep during the daylight hours some weeks, midday hours some weeks, and at night other weeks. Life for me became complicated.

My days were taken up with school and my afternoons with play. I spent the remainder of my time reading or sleeping. On weekends, I stayed at friends’ homes or Mother took me out for almost any activity at all, including something as mundane as seeing some kid’s new puppy in a box or as crushingly boring as a ‘pasting party’ for S&H Green Stamps. Imagine two or three mothers and their hostile kids—having been pressed into service—arrayed around a kitchen table sponging stamps and filling the pages of those onerous, wrinkled trading books (although my mom did trade them in for a nice set of TV dinner trays once). To be fair, we kids usually got our fill of sugar cookies and milk in the bargain.

I know now that staying out of the house so that my father could sleep undisturbed meant that my mother and her friends—also with spouses on shift work—rotated their kids through the neighborhood based on the same system of shifts. We thought they were concerned about after-school enrichment; turns out they were primarily concerned with keeping the peace at home. Some of these extracurricular activities got completely out of hand. At some point, I was taking erstwhile ‘voice’ lessons after school along with five or six other first graders from a very nice, cultured lady who lived on the same street as one of my mother’s friends. To this day I have no idea what the thinking was on this: Were we in training for church choral groups? School plays? Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour? All I do know is that not one of us ended up singing anywhere except in the nice lady’s living room.

For voice recitals, we constructed bizarre costumes from cardboard and other household materials and wore them over our school clothes. We performed for an audience comprised almost exclusively of our mothers. The costumes, songs and piano music were basic and juvenile. I still have a Brownie camera photo of us kids dressed as garden vegetables (carrots, lettuce, and the like) and one poor soul as a floppy-eared rabbit. I can’t recall the exact names of the songs we performed, but “Little Bunny, Furry Bunny” seems appropriate now in my long-term memory. In short, the goofiness ratio was pretty high in that living room.

Nineteen fifty-eight was the year of my first marriage and wedding ceremony. My mother’s friend—apparently a fountain of exotic ideas for children’s activities—thought it would be cute to dress her first-grade daughter in a wedding gown that had been hand sewn for ‘dress up’ play. My mother volunteered my services as the groom in a makeshift suit and tie. Remarkably, in the black and white photo commemorating the day, I don’t look the least bit embarrassed or confused standing in the hallway with my child bride. How did I become so easily brainwashed, and what kind of weird fantasy was this—and whose? Though it was a lovely wedding, I must admit.

In another life-changing event, my mother brought home a new baby sister at the end of June 1959. Apparently, I had been away from home more than I realized. They moved the crib into my room soon after her arrival so that my father could sleep without interruption. How can such a small person take up so much space? And the smells! My tiny room was barely big enough for me and my toys, and now this! No man was meant to live this way.

To escape such tortures, I made the Jackson Square shopping center the center of my universe in the early days of my independence between the ages of seven and nine. I was permitted a remarkable freedom of movement within the shopping area located just across the street from our apartment house. This one block of sensational distractions included a movie theater, a drug store, a bowling alley, a grocery store, a sit-down restaurant, a barber shop, a five & dime, and a furniture store, among others—some of which, like the bank, were of no use to me at the time. As the result of my father’s inconvenient sleep schedule, I was often forced to make a life for myself outside the home through imagination and enterprise.

Merely by crossing at the traffic light on the corner of the sidewalk outside my front door at 92 East Tennessee Avenue, I could immerse myself in this whole other world of intrigue and opportunity. But how to finance my forays into this fantastic world?  Like all successful business plans, mine was simple in concept and implementation. I collected Coca-Cola, Pepsi, 7-Up and RC Cola returnable ‘empties’ (worth two cents each) from behind apartment houses, dormitories, and businesses. Easily found under back porches, just inside entryways, and abandoned on the long concrete walkway and support pillars along the Square, empty bottles seemed to be replenished in an inexhaustible supply from week to week. My little red wagon was all I needed to transport the treasure trove to the grocery store for exchange. Just two or three such roundups in a week netted up to seventy-five cents to help fund my vagabond lifestyle.

I volunteered on a regular basis to “run to the store” for my mother to fetch any staples that might be in short supply. (I had learned from first-hand research that the smallish fridge in our apartment held only a three- or four-day supply of milk, eggs, and the like.) The ploy was particularly successful on Saturday mornings, as she wanted me out of the house as early as possible. With my wagon in tow and a dollar in my pocket from mom, I could easily cover a large portion of my bottle-collecting territory in thirty minutes, leaving another fifteen minutes to trade them in for cash, pay for the groceries, and return home in a reasonable time with a net profit that now included additional change from the dollar my mother had given me. Lucky for me, she did not always keep a close account of the exact change I returned to her from these transactions. (Don’t judge. I got no allowance and was forced to fend for entertainment funds as best I could.)

Whiteway

By ten or eleven o’clock most Saturday mornings, I was back on the streets in a clean polo shirt and rolled up jeans with money to burn. My options between twenty-five and fifty cents were legion: the bowling alley, where the jackass working behind the counter regularly delighted in loudly flopping a pair of men’s size fourteen bowling shoes on top of the bar in place of the ones I had requested for my child-size feet; the barber shop, where they knew me and threw in a hot towel wrap for free; or, on my best days, an Elvis Presley movie at the Ridge Theatre (“Follow That Dream” was an all-time favorite of mine) and a bonus hamburger and fountain coke afterward at the Rexall drugstore food counter next door. Here, I put nickels in the juke box and never tired of listening to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” or Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska,” from the movie of the same name.

The welcome supply of empty coke bottles that funded my weekly benders was not the only perk of living near the Square. I and several friends of roughly the same age regularly cruised the dempster dumpsters behind the furniture, appliance, and variety stores for cast-off materials to be used in building child-size forts and army barracks. We dragged empty appliance boxes—some with wooden frames for support—from the back of the stores, across the thoroughfare, and onto the gravel cross-drive between my small apartment building and the two-story women’s dormitory nearby. And what a treasure trove of damaged toys we found behind the five & dime! We retrieved an unknown number of plastic molded army men, tanks, and jeeps—not to even mention the toy cars and trucks. I once salvaged a fire truck as long as my arm. (I didn’t need the missing ladder anyway.) From our enthusiastic salvaging, we managed over time to build a veritable citadel in the dirt just under the weeping willow tree beside the dormitory parking lot, where we spent an untold number of hours inventing and reinventing our small world.

The dorm across the lot housed a large number of unmarried women and provided me with a unique opportunity for cultural exchange during this period of my precocious and impressionable life. In my explorations of the several dormitories within my immediate play area, I discovered that by crawling up on the insulated steam pipe that ran the length of the foundation of each two-story building, I could just get my chin over the window sills of the rooms on the first floor. From this vantage point, I was able to ‘slide’ sideways across the pipe, knocking on windows as I went until I found some nice lady at home who was willing to open her window and converse with me through the screen.

I developed a workable script of sorts by trial and error: “Where are you from? How old are you? (They loved that one—got a laugh every time.) How did you get here? Where are you going next?  I met many sweet and lovely ladies on that pipeline, but I particularly recall an exotic young beauty from Rome. Yes, that Rome—in Italy! I had no real notion of the geography, but she had long dark hair, red lipstick, and spoke a musical, lilting English mixed with the occasional Italian phrase. She so mesmerized me that my regular rounds of visitations most often started at her window sill and often got no further if she were home. One late Saturday afternoon in summer, I discovered with a deep preadolescent sadness that she had moved out of the dorm, as they all did eventually. But stuck between her window and the screen, she had left a travel postcard for me with a photo of the Trevi Fountain on the front. Addressed to “My friend,” it read Come see me in Rome someday when you are grown up. Rosa. She overlaid it with a kiss of red lipstick and included a street address for me to find her. I kept that card well into my teenage years with the fullest of intentions.

Surviving the Cold War

As a ten year old—about the same age as my granddaughter now—I paid little attention to the crisis of 1962 that almost led to a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. I was far too busy that fall writing a string of book reports for our hard-driving teacher, Miss Breece, on such classic tales as The Story of Ferdinand, the peace-loving bull. I’m sure one of the more worldly students in our split fourth-and-fifth grade class at Elm Grove Elementary brought in a clipping about it from the previous day’s newspaper to fulfill a ‘current events’ requirement. I can imagine some kid’s dad or mom at home helping cut the story from the evening edition of the Oak Ridger, while explaining that Cuba is located only ninety miles south of Florida and that the communists in Russia were threatening us with missiles they put there. Kids at the half-dozen other elementary schools in town likely had the same introduction to ‘cold war politics’.

During the crisis and the following year, my classmates and I were shown photos and movie clips of other kids our age in elementary schools in other cities across the country hiding under their desks or crouched in the hallways outside their rooms, hands clasped above their heads in preparation for an atomic blast that trusted grown-ups told them might be coming to their town any day. But we did not hide under our desks at my school, probably because the adults in charge knew it would do no good to ‘duck and cover’ in the event of a missile attack. They also knew that the Y-12 weapons plant might well be a primary target of at least one Russian missile from Cuba. If so, we would be sitting at ‘ground zero’—without a paddle. In any case, I presume adults thought the threat too real or too scary for ten year olds, even though I recall clearly the breakdown of the thin veneer of civilization presented in the “fallout shelter” episode of the Twilight Zone—a TV program that I watched religiously at that age. As a Cub Scout, I once spent two days in a Civil Defense fallout shelter located below the distinctive yellow and black trefoil sign in the basement of the municipal building downtown. Government officials stocked such sites throughout Oak Ridge with water and rations of biscuits, which were supposed to keep the population alive until safe to resurface. I do still recall the eeriness of it, but the overall experience seemed more like a fun sleep-over in an oversized concrete bedroom with bunk beds, GI rations, and eight or nine friends all the same age. Plus, it kept me out of my parent’s way for an entire weekend.

Life As We Knew It

Many holidays and weekends in Oak Ridge were punctuated by activities sponsored by Union Carbide Corporation (our parents’ employer and benefactor) and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Every December, well over five thousand kids ages two to ten packed into a series of identical Christmas parties held several times daily for two days at the high school auditorium. Each and every child received a stocking stuffed with candy, fruit and toys handed out by Santa and his Elves. Festivities and entertainment included such highlights as magicians or the ‘Comedy Chimps’ all the way from Florida, movie cartoons, and caroling of course. Another big event was the annual Easter egg hunt held in the spring. Hundreds of colored eggs—some wrapped in gold foil for special high-dollar prizes—were hidden on the grounds of the ‘Castle on the Hill’ federal building in the center of town. Waves of children in several age groups scoured acres of open field between the town’s turnpike and AEC headquarters perched on the hillside above. Like a swarm of locusts, we carefully turned over every twig and clump of grass until the last egg had been unearthed by our grubby little hands. Parents rarely attended these carnival-like gatherings of children throughout the city, feeling no special need to look after our safety. High schoolers were often recruited to assist with the municipal Christmas parties and with the Easter egg hunt, and they did a good job of watching out for us.

On weekends and ‘snow days’ in winter, if it snowed sufficiently to get us out of school, we spent ourselves sledding all of the daylight hours on the steep embankment that lay just below the ‘Castle on the Hill’. Kids from all over town would show up with all manner of sleds, tire tubes, and even the odd car hood to skid effortlessly down slopes growing icier by the hour until the entire hillside became striped by alternating ice sheets and walk-up paths. Icicles formed on our corduroys, mittens and wool boggans, but our faces were bright red and we were giddy with fun and exhausted by the time we dragged ourselves back to our homes for hot chocolate and warm blankets. A few adults and older kids from the neighborhoods were always on hand and never hesitated to step in to handle the odd emergency, such as a broken arm or a dunking in the shallow creek that ran across the end of the sled run. I confess here that I failed to note when or how kids got taken to the hospital or doctor’s office from time to time. I simply had no doubt they would be well taken care of by those around us.

We were also well taken care of by the City of Oak Ridge. We had fluoridated drinking water, thanks to the town council; we lined up at school for polio vaccines (later administered in sugar cubes); and, smallpox vaccinations were mandatory. We had lighted sidewalks on all our streets and could ride our bicycles without fear any time of day from one end of town to the other. Through the long summers, nearly all of us took Red Cross swimming lessons at the acre-and-a-half municipal swimming pool constructed in the middle of the city across the street from Oak Ridge High School by the Corps of Engineers in 1944 and fed by a natural spring.

pool

The city sponsored summer playgrounds at our community schools every summer, and buses routinely took us to the pool for the day. College kids returning home for the summer were hired to watch out for us and to set up recreational activities and competitions across the city.

Thanks to the social and cultural influence of the many scientists and engineers and their spouses from such places as New York and Chicago, adults were regularly entertained by theater productions such as “Auntie Mame” and “A Thurber Carnival” put on at the Oak Ridge Community Playhouse (now the longest continuously running theater in the Southeast). In addition, the Junior Playhouse produced shows like ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘The Frog Prince’ just for us kids. Outings to the Playhouse were a special weekend treat, and occasionally we recognized kids from our school in the plays.

AMAEAs school children, we regularly took field trips to the American Museum of Atomic Energy (now the American Museum of Science and Energy) housed in a former war-era cafeteria, where we saw exhibits about the Oak Ridge role in winning World War II. Before our visits, we were told to bring a dime from home to be irradiated and sealed in a commemorative case to take with us as a souvenir. A museum press release in 1954 documented that more than a quarter of a million silver dimes had been irradiated for visitors and dignitaries who watched their coin drop through a slot to a lead container where it was exposed to radioactive source material, then drop again into a tube with a Geiger counter that clicked to demonstrate the now-radioactive dime, then drop once more to be sealed within a plastic and metal case.

ASMEAlso at the museum, we kids loved the Van De Graaff generator and never tired of the hilarity of it making some little girl’s long hair stand on end as she stepped up and placed her hand on the whirring machine. In summer, school kids across the city collected fireflies in glass jars by the thousands and then froze them in our mother’s refrigerators for scientific experiments we did not understand. Johns Hopkins University students working with the Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies (now Oak Ridge Associated Universities) advertised for the bugs and paid us thirty-five cents per hundred. Chasing fireflies at dusk for fun and profit—what could be better! But, then, we ourselves began to glow in the dark. (OK, that last part is just an urban legend.)

The Cold War Reaches Critical Mass

An exhibit at the American Museum of Science and Energy today informs us that…

For 14 days in October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world came to a thermonuclear war—the apex of Cold War tensions during which nuclear threat was real and catastrophic consequences were only narrowly avoided.

Even with the nation “on the brink of nuclear war,” we kids were unaware that the air-raid sirens being tested at four o’clock each day throughout the city were anything more than a signal for us to go in for dinner. No matter where we were, we knew what time of day it was. And for the mothers of my playmates, the daily siren was a different type of early warning system: “Time for you to go home.”

sirenIn retrospect, the public reaction to the Cold War seems eerie and irrational, but the fears were real and the threat was clearly defined by the nuclear threat of the time. In Oak Ridge on November 4, 1963, Eugene Wigner—Manhattan Project physicist and first director of research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory—attended a ceremony for deactivating the Graphite Reactor after twenty years of producing nuclear materials. The very next morning, Wigner learned that he would receive the Nobel Prize for physics. At the time, he was campaigning for improved national civil defense and in his speech made the following point about the role of government in our lives: “According to the preamble to the Constitution, one of the purposes of the Union was to provide for the common defense. It seems difficult to think of defense without making every effort toward protecting what is most important—the lives of the people.”

At a 2012 high school reunion in Oak Ridge (ORHS Class of ’70 turns 60 was the theme), more than a few of our classmates from that year—a graduating class of more than six hundred—made the comment that we “grew up in a paradise” of security, opportunity and well-being. They pointed to the almost nonexistent crime rate in our day, the top-rated schools with a high ratio of national merit scholars and college-bound grads, and the over-abundance of municipal resources like the city pool and summer playground program. But I have come to believe they may be nostalgic for a more elusive quality of life not so easily measured or expressed, and that is the sense of community that most of us were privileged to experience in the early years of the city. Odd how we now look back fondly on a time when we were living in the shadow of the most potentially destructive weapon mankind has ever known.

4 Comments

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  2. This is a great article of a little known part of history. Going to that part of the country next month and knew of its history–but most people don’t know. …Thanks for this look into a scary time. I remember the CD drills “under the desk/in the hall”

  3. Kyle, this story was remarkable and so meaningful to me for the following reasons: my mother worked for Carbide during this period, and I lived in Oak Ridge in the early 60’s , so I recognized so many of the places you described. Your skill in ” taking the reader into the story” allows one to experience each event with such realism that it seems I too lived it. What an unforgettable trip through your young years of innocence.

  4. Kyle, you have the ability to take the reader emotionally and geographically to the decades of the 50s and 60s in a government-formed community and to experience it all through the adventures of a young, impressionable, wiser-than-his-years boy. I loved reading “Living in the Shadow”; your memoir reminds me of the writing of Rick Bragg – both humorous and poignant.

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