Memories of an Atomic Childhood in Appalachia | Daily News

Memories of an Atomic Childhood in Appalachia

My grandfather was an atomic courier. He drove secret materials for the first uranium-powered atomic bomb from the Manhattan Project city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to various locations across the country. He liked it well enough to keep driving through the Cold War for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). My grandmother was a bowling enthusiast and donut-making Cemesto homemaker. My mother and uncle went to high school in a red brick building adorned with a giant atomic symbol containing an acorn as its nucleus.

The atom-acorn assemblage is the totem of the town. Not only is it the ubiquitous symbol of atomic Appalachia, but by linking the community together symbolically it also marks a shared culture and sweeps us up in its substance. For those of us in its orbit, its spinning is our spinning; its hard acorn body, always already full of future potential, is also our collective body, as we embody culture and place. The atom-acorn is a concentration of all the Oak Ridges that have happened, never happened, might happen, and are happening, combined with the ways in which we have made sense of these happenings.

I lived the first few months of my life directly under the atom-acorn totem in Oak Ridge, until my father got a job in a less interesting town in the northeast corner of the state, the finger-shaped part of Tennessee that pokes at Virginia and North Carolina. The place we went to had no secret atomic past and no national laboratory; no atoms with their jaunty capped acorns dotted the landscape. Instead, its claim to fame was a large chicken-processing factory in the center of town.

During the first week after the move, my mother was driving my five-year-old brother around our new town. Zooming down the road cater corner to the chicken factory on a sweltering July day, my mother pulled behind a truck filled with birds headed to their beheading. She had the windows rolled down because the car didn’t have air conditioning. Feathers were flying everywhere. My brother shouted, “It’s snowing!” My mother cried for her loss, for her disappearance from atomic cosmopolitanism, and for her relocation to Morristown, and the regular, less atomic American landscape.

When I was young, I too felt disappointed, robbed of growing up in the science city for smart people, where the nuclear bourgeoisie rubbed shoulders with the future physicists of America, and where the Manhattan Project and the nuclear industries that followed created a new sensorium of everyday and extraordinary experiences. The connection between Oak Ridge and Hiroshima was the first big shock of my life. The facts are stark. Oak Ridge was a secret city engineered by the United States government for the sole purpose of creating fissionable materials for an atomic bomb. The site was chosen for its proximity to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dam in Norris, Tennessee, and its steady supply of electricity, as well as for its seclusion.

During World War II, in this secret location tucked between two ridges, over 75,000 people lived and labored for the war effort. Only a small fraction of workers knew what they were producing; the rest knew simply that they were working to support the Allied cause in the war. On August 6th, 1945, most Oak Ridgers learned the true nature of their work from the radio, just like everyone else listening over the airwaves in other parts of the nation and across the world.

Oak Ridge has been a major nuclear science and security site since its beginning: first as an important node in the Manhattan Project, later as a key production location for the nation’s Cold War arsenal, and now as a place not only for the production and maintenance of parts of nuclear weapons but also as a center for medical research, nuclear storage, national security, and the emergent nuclear heritage tourism industry. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the Y-12 National Security Complex are still the major institutions of the city. These places are important, but the atomic sensorium is not contained in sites: it radiates throughout the city, goes underground, swims and dives through rivers and tributaries, and ignores boundaries and barriers of every stripe. I carry it in my own body. It is both outside and inside, material and immaterial, pulsing and still.

In The Nervous System, Mick Taussig likens the shape of the forebrain, which is thought to contain “civilized consciousness,” to a “mushroom-shaped cloud” that hangs over the midbrain, the site of memory. That thought hangs over the words to follow, and as Donna Haraway reminds us, “it matters what thoughts think thoughts.”

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