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.

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‘Reservations Knot Required’: Locking through with the Tennessee River Boys

Squatter, M&M, Montana, Skipper

 “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”—Benjamin Franklin (attrib.)

If ever you’ve been on a quiet lake in summer, late in the day when the sun is low on the horizon and your body and mind are at peace with the world, you might be privileged to witness the spectacle of thousands of shimmering diamonds of reflected sunlight dancing across ripples of waves on the surface. It’s a soul-mending suspension in time like a liquid dream. But let me stop you right there, because my dream of a trip down the Tennessee River began with a discussion about bologna and beer, not a crock of wimpy poetic stuff.

I had only contemplated the idea—just the possibility, really—of taking a long-range river trip before I got too old or too lazy. I started thinking about it after I discovered through my lovely, dear wife (she may be reading this over my shoulder right now) introduced me to Jack, the spouse of a former teacher colleague of hers. The introduction was well-intended as our wives knew we had a love of boating in common, but they later regretted it, because at every opportunity from that point on, we discussed boats and taking a boating trip ad nauseam. Jack and I had our first serious phone conversation about a trip down river several months after our first meeting. It occurred at the very end of winter at the height of our cabin fever and went something like this:

“How many days would it take to go from here all the way down the Tennessee and back, do you think?” Continue reading

BINGO! The Education of ‘Schoolboy’

Winona Motel

In 1970, Cookeville, Tennessee, was just another gas stop off the interstate between Knoxville and Nashville, but it did have a reputable state-supported college that I could afford to attend if I got a night job and watched my savings account closely. At first, I was staying in an inexpensive ‘business class’ motel just outside of town while I looked for a place to live. I had arrived a week earlier from a small town in the Cumberland Mountains—where I grew up—and registered for classes using money saved from my job at the Valu-Mart working nights and weekends during high school.

The college had dorms, but I needed to find a place I could afford on my own. Checking the bulletin board in the university center for ‘spaces to rent’ from local residents, I spotted a couple of likely ads. But the first one turned out to be a made-over garage behind a widow’s house, and the ‘apartment’ was more like a tiny warehouse with a cement floor, a half frig, a laundry sink, and a single bed tucked in a back corner. It may not have had a tub or shower—I can’t recall now—but I know it didn’t have a real door. To get in or out, you had to open and close the garage bay door. I confess I was attracted to the idea that I could sleep with my car—you know, like a cowboy might sleep in the livery stable with his horse. But I never went back to the place for a “second viewing,” as the real estate agents say.

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