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

During the Cold War era following World War II, I was busy growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee—a “secret city” constructed by the federal government wholly and specifically to help develop and produce the world’s first atomic weapon. But as a five-year-old boy in 1957, my duties consisted only of attending school during the week and otherwise staying out of the house whenever my father was off shift from the Y-12 Plant (the nearby facility that made components for modern nuclear weapons). OIPR7QVJCUG

My father’s three rotating shifts meant he slept odd hours, and the thing he needed most in this world was sleep. Staying out of the house so my father could rest undisturbed also meant that my mother and her friends rotated us kids throughout homes in the neighborhood based on the same shifts. I’m sure they were concerned with our after-school enrichment, but perhaps they were as much concerned about keeping the peace at home.

Life As I Knew It

My mornings were taken up with school and my afternoons with play. On weekends, I was encouraged to play outside in the neighborhood from dawn to dark unless I was dragged to an extracurricular activity at church or at the homes of my mother’s friends. Some of these activities, like the Cub Scouts, turned out to be fun, but others got completely out of hand. On occasion, my mother pressed me into service at painfully boring ‘pasting’ parties during which we kids were arrayed around a kitchen table with sheets of gummed S&H Green Stamps stacked in front of us and several water-soaked sponges in Tupperware bowls at our elbows. Next to each kid was a stack of empty S&H booklets awaiting our forced labor. Imagine a troupe of hostile kids bent over the table, sponging sheets of gummed stamps to fill the pages of those onerous, wrinkled trading books. To be fair, though, we usually got our fill of chocolate chip cookies and milk in the bargain, and my mom once traded several of her books for an aluminum TV tray she let me use to sit quietly and watch Saturday morning cartoons while I wolfed down a bowl of sugary cereal.

Cabbages_Russell Love & Kyle_ca1959
Cabbage patch kids?

At some point later on, I was taking “voice” lessons after school, along with five or six other second 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 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 performing for an audience comprised mostly of our mothers. For our recitals, we constructed bizarre costumes from cardboard and other household materials and wore them over our school clothes. I recall one photo taken with a Brownie camera of me and another kid dressed as a garden vegetable (cabbages, I think). Others were dressed as carrots and one poor child was suited up with cardboard rabbit ears and pipe-cleaner whiskers (glued on?).

Also that year, my mother’s friend—the mother of poor “flopsy” the rabbit—thought it would be cute to marry off her five-year-old daughter in a junior wedding gown she’d hand-sewn for dress-up play. My mother volunteered my services as the groom in a makeshift suit and tie (since all us boys had at least one sport coat to wear to church in those days), and, remarkably, I don’t look the least bit embarrassed or confused in the black and white photo commemorating that day (now sadly lost to posterity). I was a staid, dutiful groom waiting with my child bride on my arm in the hallway of their home as if listening for the start of Mendelssohn’s wedding march. How did I become so easily brainwashed into this? I ask myself now as I recall the scene. Though it was a lovely wedding, I must admit.

In another life-altering event, my mother shockingly (to me) brought home a baby sister at the end of June 1959. Apparently, shift work was no impediment to procreation at our house. My mother moved the crib into my tiny room—one of the two bedrooms in our apartment—so that my father could sleep undisturbed (but giving no thought to how much it might disturb me!). I mean, how can such a small person take up so much space and require so much attention? And the smells! My room was barely big enough for me and my train set, and now this. No man was meant to live this way.

An ‘E’ apartment fourplex residence in Oak Ridge.

To escape such torturous conditions, I made the nearby Jackson Square shopping center the social and cultural center of my universe between the ages of seven and ten. This one city block of sensational distractions included the Oak Ridge Playhouse community theater, the Ridge movie theater, a Rexall drugstore with soda fountain, a bowling alley, a grocery store, a sit-down full-service restaurant, a barber shop (where ‘flattops’ were a specialty), a five & dime, and the local bank (in which I maintained a solid $10 dollar account). This is where I made a separate and independent life for myself. My parents’ distraction and preoccupation with the pressing workaday world of the plant and the new baby permitted me a remarkable range of freedom to explore the shops located just across the street from our fourplex apartment building (commonly known as the ‘E’ plan in wartime parlance). Merely by crossing at the traffic light outside my front door at the corner of 92 East Tennessee Avenue, I could immerse myself in this whole other world of exciting possibilities for a kid on the loose.

My ‘free-range’ Jackson Square neighborhood.

But how to finance my forays into this grown-up playground? I soon learned that my mother needed a ‘runner’ to bring staples like milk and bread from the White Stores grocery on a regular basis, and after a few successful trips, she offered to let me keep a nickel for myself as a reward for not forgetting the milk, dropping the eggs, or smashing the bread. At first, I naturally indulged in candy bars, licorice sticks, Cracker Jacks and the like for the immediate gratification, but I soon set my sights on bigger prizes: movies at the Ridge and cherry cokes or sarsaparillas at the Rexall next door. And so, I began hoarding nickels to pay for these extravagances. I came up with a plan, and, like all successful business plans, mine was simple in concept and implementation: I collected Coca-Cola, Pepsi, 7-Up, NEHI, and RC Cola returnable ‘empties’ (worth two cents each at the grocery) from apartment houses, dormitories, and businesses up and down the streets and alleys within my range. I found them under back porches, just inside shop entries, and cast off near walkways all around the Square. Best of all, empty bottles kept appearing week after week in a seemingly inexhaustible supply. My little red wagon was all I needed to transport my treasure trove to the grocery store for exchange, and just two or three such roundups in a week netted up to seventy-five cents to help fund my gratifyingly vagabond lifestyle.


After that, 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 and eggs and the like.) The ploy was particularly successful on Saturday mornings, as she wanted me out of the house as soon as possible after my TV shows. With my wagon in tow and a dollar or two in my pocket from mom, I could easily cover a large portion of my bottle-collecting territory in thirty minutes, leaving another thirty minutes to trade them in for cash, shop for groceries, and return home in a reasonable time with a net profit over and above the nickel my mother allotted me. (Lucky for me, she did not always keep a close account of the exact change from these transactions, so I managed to net a larger profit on occasion. Don’t judge, I got no allowance and was forced to fend for my entertainment funds as best I could.)

By ten or eleven o’clock most Saturday mornings, I was back out 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 smirking attendant working the counter never tired of loudly flopping a pair of men’s size 12 bowling shoes on the bar in place of the ones I requested for my child-size feet and then laughing uproariously); 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 theater (“Follow That Dream” was an all-time favorite) followed by a bonus hamburger and fountain coke at the Rexall counter next door. Here is where I fed nickels into 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 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 and appliance store for cast-off materials we could use to build “forts” and “army barracks” for our play. We dragged empty appliance boxes—some with wood-framed support—from the back of the store, across the thoroughfare, and onto the gravel cross-drive between my small apartment building and the two-story women’s dormitory nearby. We also cruised the bin behind the five & dime. And what a treasure trove of damaged toys we found there from time to time! We retrieved an unknown number of cast-off green plastic army men, tanks, and jeeps over time—not even to mention the toy cars and trucks. I once salvaged a slightly damaged 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 gravel lot under the weeping willow tree between my apartment and the dormitory parking lot. Here we spent countless hours engaged in inventing and reinventing our small world.

The two-story dorm next door 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. I discovered that by crawling up on the insulated steam pipe that ran along the foundation of the building, I could raise my chin just above the windowsills of the rooms on the first floor. I was able to ‘crab-walk’ back and forth along the pipe, knocking on windows 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. It got a laugh every time.) How did you get here? Where are you going next? I met many a sweet and lovely lady along that pipeline, but I particularly recall an exotic beauty from Rome. Yes, that Rome—the one in Italy, although I had no real notion of the geography at the time. She had long black hair, glistening dark eyes, and a welcoming smile. She spoke a musical, lilting English mixed with phrases entirely foreign to my unworldly ears and so mesmerized me that my rounds of visitation very often started at her windowsill and got no farther until it was time for me to leave.

Making my rounds one late Sunday afternoon in summer, I discovered with a deep preadolescent sadness that she had moved out of the dorm, as all my lady friends did eventually. I was crushed until I discovered a travel postcard of the Trevi Fountain between her window and the outside screen. Addressed to “My young friend,” it read “Come see me in Rome someday when you are grown up,” and included a street address where I might find her. She signed it Rosa and overlaid her name with a kiss of red lipstick. I can tell you I saved that postcard in a dresser drawer well into my teenage years with the fullest of intentions of making that trip someday—but, of course, I never did.

Surviving the Cold War

Many holidays and weekends in Oak Ridge were punctuated by activities sponsored by the Union Carbide Corporation (my father’s employer and benefactor) and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Every December, we school kids packed the high school auditorium five hundred at a time in a series of identical Christmas parties held several times daily for two full days. 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 Christmas 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,” as the federal building in town was known. Waves of children in several age groups scoured acres of open field between the town’s turnpike and the Atomic Energy Commission 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 sometimes attended these carnival-like gatherings but felt no special need to look after our safety, as high schoolers were often recruited to assist with the municipal Christmas parties and with the Easter egg hunt.

On weekends and “snow days” in winter, if it snowed sufficiently to get us out of school, we exhausted ourselves sledding all day 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 down slopes that grew icier by the hour until the entire hillside became a mass of alternating ice sheets and walk-up paths. Icicles formed on our corduroys, mittens and wool ‘boggans throughout the day, and we were giddy 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 injury or emergency, but I confess I failed to note when or how kids got first aid or even taken away to the hospital. 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, and lined up at school for polio vaccines (later administered in sugar cubes). 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 by the Corps of Engineers in 1944 and fed by a natural spring.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee of the 1960's (8)[1]
The spring-fed municipal 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 such 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 acting in the plays.

As 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 Oak Ridge and its role in winning World War II.

The old American Museum of Atomic Energy and its “A-bomb” replica.

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. AMAEA 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.

Also 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. ASMEIn 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. Kids chasing fireflies at dusk for fun and profit! What could be better?—That is, until we ourselves began to glow in the dark. (OK, that last part was just an urban legend.)

The Cold War Reaches Critical Mass

An exhibit at the American Museum of Science and Energy later informed 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 the 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 home to dinner. sirenNo 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: “Isn’t it time for you to go home?”

I paid little attention to the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a ten year old, 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, but 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 easily 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 off the coast of Florida and that the communists in Russia were threatening us with missiles they put there. And I’m sure most of the 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 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 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 all 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 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. 300px-Dorm_Fallout_Shelter_Sign[1]Government officials stocked such sites throughout Oak Ridge with water and rations of biscuits, which were supposed to keep the population alive until it was safe to resurface. I do still recall the eeriness of it, but the overall experience seemed more like a fun sleep-over in a large concrete bedroom with bunk beds, GI rations, and eight or nine friends.

In retrospect, the public reaction to the Cold War seems oddly irrational, but the fear was real and 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 the 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 that day 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 of our day, the top-rated schools with a high ratio of national merit scholars and college-bound grads, and the over-abundance of city resources provided for kids, like the municipal pool and city-wide summer playground program. However, I have come to believe we may actually be nostalgic for something more intangible, and that is the sense of community most of us were privileged to experience during those years, but it seems paradoxical to me now to look back so fondly on a time during which we lived in the shadow of the most potentially destructive weapon mankind has ever known.

Published by posted by J. Kyle johnson

"Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." -- Twain "Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." -- Churchill "Give a man health and a course to steer and he'll never stop to trouble about whether he's happy or not." -- George Bernard Shaw

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