Homeplace (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: NONFICTION)
In nonfiction, our winner is Emily Strasser for her essay “Homeplace.”
The nonfiction judge, Jabari Asim, writes: “In ‘Homeplace,’ Emily Strasser investigates family history and the remnants of a community transformed by our government’s covert development of nuclear weaponry. With careful scrutiny she sifts through long-simmering secrets, exposing the large and small costs of a dubious progress achieved in the name of patriotism and conquest. Her blend of research, reportage, and personal reflection uncovers details that would hide in plain sight from a less observant gaze.”
Strasser will complete her MFA at the University of Minnesota in May of 2016. Her work has appeared in Guernica and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. She is working on a book about the intersection of family and national secrets in the nuclear city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
“My investigation into my family’s past began with a remembered photograph: my grandfather standing in front of a mushroom cloud,” Strasser writes about the inspiration for her winning essay: “It had hung in my grandmother’s house on a lake in East Tennessee, a place I’d always felt safe and rooted. I never knew my grandfather, and my family barely spoke of him or what he did. As I began to look into the strange history of that place, I thought I knew what I was looking for, but what I found were layers upon layers of buried stories. This essay is one piece of my attempt to understand what home means when it turns out to be less than innocent, when it is built on erased histories and small violences that enable larger ones.”
Oak Ridge. You hear Oaggridge. The heavy grunt of industry. But stop, roll the words over your tongue, feel them separately. See the oaks, proud and weathered, softening the narrow, rolling ridges that distinguish this part of East Tennessee. From above, it looks as if someone had absent-mindedly drawn her fingers through the earth, wrinkling the land between the Smoky Mountains to the southeast and the Cumberlands to the north. I see her stretched out long, the slope of her hip, the curve of her waist, sinking down into the grass as days roll into seasons roll into years, the moss appearing first between her toes, in the dark hollow at the back of her knees, and then all over until she is covered in a patchwork of forest and cleared fields stitched together by roads that wind without hurry with names like Sugar Grove Valley and Turpin Hollow and Clax Gap. This land has been lived in a long time, its hard edges worn smooth by slow cultivation. It is a land to dream yourself asleep in. And despite the dark weight of that name—Oaggridge—it is this Oak Ridge that you see first when you approach the city by road from the west.
I drive this road in early December, seventy years after my grandparents pulled through the gates of the secret city and began to unpack their lives into the spare prefabricated house assigned to them. George and Doris were young then, newlywed, patriotic, with a sense that the world was for them—for here it was, being built around them in crisp lines and utilitarian whites and grays.
Outside the fences, the hills and forest and farmland looked much as they do today, only softer, the roads brown and unpaved, the rough wooden farmhouses melting back into the green and brown. As I dip in and out of the valleys, wind around the hills, I think of their approach—how their eyes might have sought the shadowed spaces between the trees for clues to their new lives. War jobs, they knew. Decent pay. On-site housing. George, the farmer’s son, had finished his master’s in soil chemistry just the year before. He’d been declared 4-F by the draft because both legs had been broken in an automobile accident on a snowy night in Knoxville a year or so before. And though he still couldn’t stand for long periods of time, which raised concern for the recruiters, his scientific background “would be particularly valuable in a semitechnical position,” wrote the man who interviewed him. Now, at last, George—the farmer’s son, the soil scientist, the army reject already bald and wearing thick glasses at twenty-five—was wanted for his country. Wanted for what? They couldn’t say, exactly. But he went, of course he went.
Doris couldn’t have been so certain. Her children tell me that the young bride huddled in worried conference with her mother. And why shouldn’t she? She’d been married just five months before, no time at all to start a life and a home, and now her new husband wanted to take her to a town that was still being built for a job that he couldn’t explain, more than three hundred miles from her childhood home on the low, flat Mississippi floodplain of West Tennessee. And unlike George, who had been straining since childhood against the drudgery of farm work and the disapproval of a father who saw only his children’s mistakes, Doris adored her home and family—gentle but determined parents who’d sent three fiercely loyal daughters through college in the midst of the depression. A happy home is harder to leave behind, and with the mystery of it, the unspoken why and what, three hundred miles might have been three thousand—it stretched beyond imagination. Did it unnerve her the way these hills hunched in on themselves, folding secrets into the valleys, disclosing nothing but the next bend in the road?
I can’t say how many times I traveled this road as a child—the whole landscape is imprinted with a deep vagueness on my memory. The back-and-forths from my home in Atlanta, the hot August days spent at my grandmother’s lake house twenty miles west of the city. George died in that house three years before I was born and he occupied my imagination only peripherally. Oak Ridge was just the place where my dad had grown up, just the place with the strange science museum that displayed full-body protective suits, just the place we went in to pick up pizza after a full day in the sun and water. What I knew of the history was confined to scraps and family anecdotes—yellowed newsletters from Y-12, the nuclear plant I knew only by its stark anonymous name, my older cousins laughing about barrels of nuclear waste left to rust in a parking lot, photos of mushroom-shaped fireballs searing off the walls in the shadowed upstairs. Oak Ridge has never felt like mine the way the lake house has, and yet it is Oak Ridge, not Watts Bar Lake, not Peninsula Road, not Sugar Grove Valley, that has anchored my family here.
I lean forward a bit over the wheel, driving slow. I have been dreaming through this place for a long time, but now I am poised and wakeful. The trees are bare, branches lacing against the gray sky. The forest looks mostly like any other, but for the yellow gates that appear suddenly to block dirt roads—“Closed to Public. US Department of Energy. Call for Entry.” Closer to town, signs begin to indicate the direction to “Y-12 National Security Complex” and “Oak Ridge National Laboratory.” I feel charged, on the edge of something. Yet as the road continues to wind without hurry, I begin to wonder if this is some last diversion to put me off the trail.
I’m spilled without warning onto the Oak Ridge Turnpike, wide and flat. A billboard advertises free healthcare to former uranium workers. A few minutes later, I pass between the empty white guardhouses that still stand at the entrance of the city, drab and solid sentries of history. Oaggridge.
In the spring of 1942, Manhattan Project scouts bounced along dirt roads, past scattered farms, country churches, and into the forest again. They searched for a place to hide a secret whose ultimate size was unknown. “It may well be that construction will be started on the production plants even before the development work is concluded…” stated one memo. The site had to accommodate the three nuclear plants, as well as housing for all those required for the effort—scientists, construction workers, secretaries, electricians, military personnel.
Beneath felt-brimmed hats, their eyes searched for what they knew would be necessary, ticking through the requirements. Water: plenty, cool, and continuous. A railroad that could carry labor and supplies from across the country without drawing too much attention. Electricity: How much? More than most rural areas could supply. And—in case of the worst—the site should lie at least ten miles from the closest major population center. Finally, but perhaps most important of all, it must be hidden from view; no one could know or even guess at its purpose. The city would not be marked on any maps, and even the residents would be given only the minimum information necessary to perform their jobs.
Oak Ridge was to be the primary site of uranium enrichment, one of three such secret cities built for the sole purpose of developing an atomic bomb—the other two would be Hanford, Washington, dedicated to the production of plutonium, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, tasked with constructing the bomb itself. Oak Ridge would be known as Site X.
In the generous bursting green of a southern spring, the men’s eyes alighted on the parallel tracks of the Louisville-Nashville Railroad, on the snaking curve of the Clinch River, and on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s hydroelectric Norris Dam, sixteen miles upstream. Perhaps the landscape itself determined its fate—tucked each in its separate valley, the nuclear plants would be shielded from prying eyes, while the ridges provided natural protection for the townsite, in case of an accident.
For a time, the Tennessee site was weighed against a stretch of land in Illinois, forty miles from Chicago. A report stamped SECRET considered the relative merits of each: Chicago offered better access to medical facilities and proximity to laboratories researching radiation, desirable due to the presence of “unusual occupational hazards” including “the dangers of uranium poisoning” and “the hazard from the gamma rays and neutrons” inherent in the work; Tennessee offered more room for expansion if the needs of the project should grow. And it was feared that a large nuclear plant forty miles outside Chicago was likely to be spotted by picnickers disembarking from the New York Central Railroad, while there was “no reason why the [Tennessee] site should ever be noticed except by the local inhabitants.” In the end, secrecy was deemed to be the highest priority.
As for the local inhabitants, just “small settlements,” “scattered houses,” and a few churches and cemeteries, wrote the engineers and scientists sent down from New York and Chicago to assess the site. They didn’t see the peach trees heavy with fruit, the ponds thick with watercress. In their report on the area, Stone & Webster, the contractors engaged to design and build the nuclear plants, did not name the farm towns within the proposed site—Scarboro, Wheat, Elza, and Robertsville—but they did map the geologic makeup of every ridge and valley, drawing thick color-coded stripes in bright green, orange, blue, and pink across the tight black swirls of their topographical maps. The land, as they saw it, was nearly empty.
The thousand families that would be moved may not have known the names limestone, dolomite, shale, and sandstone, yet they knew which fields were good for planting, and which abandoned homesteads were haunted. The children knew the shock of cold creek water over bare toes, the trees that were best for climbing, and the taste of the season’s first peaches, like sunshine juiced. They all knew the thousand shades of green gathering to gray in the distance, and the exact shape of the ridges against the sky. They knew the summer thunderstorms that came with sudden violence, bruising the sky purple for minutes or hours as rain hammered tin roofs, and disappeared as quickly, leaving land and sky washed clean and fluttering. To those families, this land was home beyond any moral or monetary accounting. And when they trudged back from their fields one violet dusk in the fall of 1942 to find notices tacked to front doors or to the old oak trees that shaded their porches—“The War Department intends to take possession of your farm”—the words must have knocked the wind from their lungs. No further explanation would be given.
Thirty years after what was done could not be undone, one local explained in an oral history interview: “It was always the ‘homeplace’ that they spoke of, you see. Among people in East Tennessee the connotations of the term homeplace are rather profound. I know that personally, you see…because I have that in my makeup and my character. I love the mountains and the hills and the earth and the rivers and so forth. No place else is home and I can’t make it that way and don’t really want to.” Outside, it’s raining. When I check the time, I realize I have spent hours in the yellowed light of the archive room in the Oak Ridge library. I have come to learn about Oak Ridge, but I keep on circling back to those who were here before.
Flora Miller Davis, in her privately published memoir Lost Valley: A Childhood in Wheat, recalls the way her mother saved apples from the family orchard for Christmas by wrapping them in the torn-out pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog. She remembers eating watercress, which they called “creeses,” drenched in grease and vinegar. And at age sixty-three, she remembers being six years old, standing on a hill behind the house with a cool wind blowing, “looking out over the Tennessee woods and meadows and our apple orchard,” and thinking, “this was the most important moment of my life.”
I am six, pretzeled in the backseat beside my little brother. Half-zipped bags, pairs of shoes, and stale goldfish are tossed on the car floor. We have played every game. We have been driving forever. Our little white dog has long since resigned himself, curled into a lump on the middle seat. But when we exit the highway, he knows—he leaps up and begins a frenzied dash from window to window, scratching our legs with his too-long nails, piercing our ears with his high-pitched bark. I roll down the window a crack and press my nose against the glass. This is the moment—not later, when the tires crunch onto the long gravel driveway and I scan the kitchen window to catch Meemaw’s face before she rushes outside to welcome us with a bony hug, but just now—as we cross the white bridge over the Clinch River. I feel a loosening in my chest, a lifting, an opening from the inside. We make the hairpin turn onto Peninsula Road and pass the farm that was George’s weekend hobby, now rented to a neighbor who grazes his cows there. The grass seems to glow from the inside in the slanted light of late afternoon.
Other places have shattered me with their piercing beauty. This is not one of them. The house is a rather strange mismatch—brown stones set wide apart in stucco, rough wood painted red, awkward additions. The carport looks down on a hill of yellow, prickly grass that slopes to the water, and the sun-parched splintered dock. There is nothing grand about the view, calm water stretching toward the green shore opposite, disturbed periodically by the buzzing of motor boats. But this place, more than any house I have ever lived in, fills me with the ache of home.
And yet, this is a false heritage. The kinship I feel with those who were here before is unearned. Homeplace is not my word. I have no blood memory of this land, and my very presence here can be traced to the erasure of what came before. I am an interloper. As I drive into Oak Ridge on paved roads now lined with strip malls and car dealerships, I am nagged by what I cannot name. Past the guardhouses, the clues inside the city are too conspicuous. Cute and crass. The Y-12 Federal Credit Union. Atomic City Computers. Secret City Auto Sales. Many of the signs carry the same symbol—three or four overlapping ellipses represent the stylized paths of zooming electrons. The official Seal of the City is a variation of this ideal atom, a symbol, which like much of what we think we know of this history, denies past and future, sitting instead in a stubborn present outside of time.
The nucleus, dull and flat in the center of the elegant ovals, is easily overlooked. Yet it is the nucleus that splits, the fracturing of that heavy center that blazes into the capital E, God-defying energy of Einstein’s equation which melts deserts and flattens cities. And it seems that nothing could be based on such instability and destruction. Yet here it is, and here I am, searching for the essence of “homeplace,” for the how and the why I am tugged back here nearly three-quarters of a century after the land was wiped clean of those other homeplaces for a city that was never supposed to have a future.
The architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill was handed unlabeled topographical maps and asked to design a town for an unspecified population in an unnamed location for an undisclosed purpose. Make it pleasant, said the Army Corps of Engineers. Keep them happy. And so remembering their hometowns and dreaming of American possibility, the architects drew roads that wound along the natural contours of the land and neighborhoods with centrally located grammar schools and shopping centers. With careful planning, they could avoid the problems of city living, adding turn lanes to avoid traffic congestion and orienting houses to take advantage of natural light. “All we wanted was a series of homely little American villages,” Owings admitted. The Army Corps was pleased. Every house was to have a porch and a fireplace.
As government appraisers prepared to take possession of the houses inside the new government reservation, they photographed each existing structure. Appraisal reports described the homes as “poor,” “unattractive,” “inconvenient,” and “very ordinary.” Sometimes families posed solemnly in front of their homes, arrayed barefoot on dirt driveways. That was before they received notice of how little they would be paid for their land, and how quickly they would have to leave, sometimes abandoning cellars full of canned vegetables, apple orchards heavy with harvest, and disoriented livestock, all soon to be covered over with the stony dust of new construction.
As families left their houses in trucks and wagons piled high with their belongings, some just two weeks after receiving notice of their eviction, they passed trucks loaded full of supplies going the other way. Farmers spilled into Clinton and Knoxville, competing with thousands of incoming construction workers for the last free rooms, beds, and chicken coops, sharing their bitterness and suspicions with harried locals. In a time of wartime scarcity, they watched a hundred train cars a day enter the fenced city and depart empty.
I don’t know whether they thought of John Hendrix then, or whether it was only later that they recalled the prophecy and were comforted, perhaps, by the way it aligned their history with divine purpose, put the origin of their loss back in the land itself. In any case, the story has now become central to the Oak Ridge legend. Crazy John Hendrix wasn’t much regarded in his lifetime, at the turn of the century. He was known for taking to the woods for weeks at a time, emerging thin and disheveled, frenzied with visions. He roamed the farm towns, crazed eyes blazing, spit flying from quivering lips, sharing his visions with all who would listen. Some had kept their distance then, and others took pity on the man, who had slipped steadily further from sanity after the death of his young daughter and abandonment by his wife. But after the railroad he had foretold was built from Knoxville through Anderson County, people began to listen to his visions with renewed attention, gathering for wisdom or amusement at the little crossroads store. For Bear Creek Valley, people now remember, he foretold a special fate: “They will be building things and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake…I’ve seen it, it’s coming.” The city, he’d said, would be named for the Black Oak Ridge that rose at their backs. Twenty-eight years after John Hendrix died destitute in a thin-walled cabin, coughing up blood as the winter air seeped through the gaps in the wood, what he’d told appeared to be taking shape.
When George and Doris arrived on the townsite, the prophet’s vision was a good description of what they saw. “Big engines will dig big ditches and thousands of people will be running to and fro,” he’d said. In Bear Creek Valley, nestled long and low between Chestnut Ridge and Pine Ridge, Y-12 was far from finished, but George went to work anyway, to an empty chemistry lab smelling of fresh paint. Doris, whatever knots may have twisted in her chest when she saw the bare and muddy half-built town—set her mouth in a smile and got to work, obtaining a job with a townsite dairy dispensary. She would have to wait on the home-making. The day before George was set to arrive in Knoxville—November 21, 1943—he was informed by telegram that no housing was yet available for him and his wife. They would live in several places, first in Knoxville and then inside Oak Ridge, before finally being transferred to a little flattop house on a steep lot in June 1944, a place they could call their own.
In the town, everything was in disarray. At the height of construction, a house was completed every thirty minutes. Schoolchildren would lose their way walking home in the afternoons because new neighborhoods had popped up in empty fields in the hours they’d spent practicing their multiplication tables. Under the strain of constant construction, the land melted into mud that ran in ruddy rivulets down the streets, sucking shoes off feet, staining the hems of skirts and cuffs of pants, and creeping up the sterile stoops to paint the town brown. Women tramped to dances in evening gowns and knee-length rubber boots and carried clean shoes into Knoxville so they wouldn’t be identified as residents of that government town.
Whatever was left from the people who came before—tomato vines and corn stalks, flecks of rust from old farm tools, the soft frayed end of a rope swing—was mashed down into the earth, smoothed indistinguishable beneath the mud. The fences, though, were reused-curls of barbed wire salvaged from cattle fences stretched across the edges of the site. Behind the fences, the city appeared to be a world reborn in all of its primordial muck.
Combining a respect for the landscape with the need for efficiency, the Army and the architects designed a system of roads that would curve with the land but still adhere to an ordered rationality: beginning from the eastern end of the site, the avenues would be named after states, progressing alphabetically to the west: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, with Illinois toward the middle of the city and Wisconsin to the western edge. Roads, lanes, and circles would branch from the avenues, bearing names that began with the same first letter as the avenue. From Arkansas would come Albany Road, Atlanta Road, and Aspen Lane. The scheme was perfect for a city that would welcome scientists from across the country, whose purpose was national despite its backwoods location. On white paper, the architects could draw anything into being.
Yet as they carried their papers into the field, climbing the hills to mark the paths of roads and locations of buildings, they kept running into little country cemeteries left by those who came before, humble gravestones peeking through fallen leaves, unmarked fieldstones above soft depressions in the earth. The living had been dispensed with neatly, but the dead were more awkward. Everywhere, the architects had to adjust their plans around these little plots scattered across the land. There never was any new world.
Although few signs are left of the people who called this land “homeplace” before, the cemeteries lie there still, more than seventy of them scattered throughout the city. Some have only a couple of family graves, others more than a hundred; some have no gravestones at all and are the resting place of an unknown number. They are tucked behind housing complexes, in patches of woods, off busy central roads, and on restricted DOE land. Each still carries an Atomic Energy Commission number.
There used to be an old farmhouse graying away amid the cow pies on George’s farm, left to fall back board by board into the ground, unlike those that met their ends more suddenly inside the Oak Ridge townsite. When my father was a boy, he liked to sit inside that old house while George, who in the end could never quite shake the farm boy within him, worked outside. Points of light pricked through the holes in the rusted tin roof like stars. Staring up at that roof, my father imagined that God laid a tattered old blanket over the world each night, and the stars were the light of the sun shining through the holes.
When I try to make sense of this history, I think of my father’s childish wisdom. Telling stories, we are accustomed to trace patterns in the points of a constellation. We see what our eyes know how to recognize. The Manhattan Project appraisers saw poor cabins, rocky hills, parcels to be valued. The architects saw an empty canvass. And as the residents of Oak Ridge went slip sliding down the muddy streets, they looked forward into a future that flashed blank in its possibilities. But what if the story lies instead in the darkness between the stars?
I am learning a new way of talking, a way that moves slowly, circles, and returns. Sitting for minutes and hours with my grandparents’ old friends, I find myself choking on my questions, fiddling with my voice recorder. The light dims and our coffees grow cold as the stories stretch past all apparent relevance. I know that the texture lies here, in the spaces between, but the practice is hard. I feel a restless energy growing in my stomach and I want to leap up, spilling coffee on the carpet, and demand, “but what does it mean that your house was built for a bomb?”
I cannot possibly. These people are kind and soft-spoken. They think it is sweet that I am interested in my grandfather and the history of this place. They serve me jello salad, mandarin oranges and raspberries suspended in jiggling ruby, a recipe from my grandmother. She was such a wonderful cook, they say. I am out of my depth.
Colleen Black wears a red beret and a purple sequined scarf. She used to play bridge with my grandmother. I meet her at the Oak Ridge assisted living home and we talk in her apartment, which is decorated in zebra and leopard-skin prints, with one whole wall covered in Oak Ridge photos, newspaper articles, and memorabilia. In the early days of Oak Ridge, Colleen, a Tennessee girl just out of high school, was hired to climb around the immense pipes of the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant and test for leaks. She was warned to evacuate the building immediately if she ever smelled anything foul.
Her memories are pure gold, and I catch myself resenting digressions. But I ask about the people in the pictures on her coffee table, and listen as she tells me about her children and grandchildren. Our talk is natural and ambling. Between grandchildren, she tells me about drawing a seam up the back of her leg in place of pantyhose during the wartime rationing of nylon, about square dances in the Oak Ridge recreation center, and about life in the cramped trailer with her mother, father, and seven siblings. Yet I sense I am missing something. She turns to me abruptly to say, “Well, what do you want to know?”
I have a list of questions in front of me, but when I glance down, they sit blunt and narrow on the page. Colleen has given oral histories, starred in documentaries on Oak Ridge, and been profiled in history books. She is the prom queen of Oak Ridge history; I will uncover no new insight, dislodge no unspoken memory. What I want is to inhabit her memory. What I want to know is everything she has never told, and everything I cannot ask. The clock ticks through the silence.
“You know,” she tells me after a moment, raising her eyebrows, “me and George, we kinda kin.” In response to my puzzled expression, she adds, “Well, sometimes we say, we kin to the same thing, or we kin to each other. George and I, our families in Nashville, we kin to the same thing.” She nods, as if that settles the matter.
The city was not meant to last. Businesses in the town could secure leases only for the duration of the war, and even the sturdiest houses—called cemestos for their lightweight frames of cement mixed with asbestos—were given a life expectancy of just twenty-five years. The roads remained gravel and mud, the sidewalks rough wooden boardwalks. Careful plans were forgotten as the architects and the Army scrambled to house the rapidly growing population. By the summer of 1943, the estimated population of Oak Ridge had increased from thirteen thousand to forty-two thousand; the city’s population peaked at seventy-five thousand by the spring of 1945.
In the end, only the most important scientists and highly ranked military personnel were given homes with porches and fireplaces, while trailers, dormitories, and flimsy flattops were added to accommodate common soldiers, construction workers, and plant employees. As a married couple, George and Doris escaped the dormitories many of their single peers were assigned to. But their tiny flattop, set on stilts, with plywood walls and a tar-covered canvass roof, left something to be desired. The government asked the people to set aside their grievances in the name of patriotism and security. During the war, Oak Ridge had no free press, held no local elections, and banned free assembly. Production workers within the plants worked long hours under hazardous conditions, but could not unionize. Optimistically named “Victory Cottages” held two families, and were built to last no more than three years.
In September of 1944, the Chief of Clinical Services in Oak Ridge, Dr. Charles E Rea, wrote in a memo titled, “Number of Deaths at the Oak Ridge Hospital,” that the hospital had recorded an average of 8.8 deaths per month during the ten months it had been open. He went on, “The question has arisen as to whether it is desirous to have a funeral home in the Area. If there is a funeral home, there probably will have to be a cemetery.” Unspoken was fear that a cemetery would prove inconvenient, come time to pack up the show after the war. It was decided that “with the adequate facilities for embalming in the surrounding towns, a funeral home on the Area is not necessary at this time.” Instead of bodies, they buried radioactive waste in shallow, unlined trenches, and drained contaminated condensate and cooling water into White Oak Creek.
When the news broke in Oak Ridge that the bomb had been dropped, the city burst into spontaneous celebration. The task, after twenty-two months of trudging through the mud, of avoiding questions and evading answers, had been completed. The people poured from the plants and from the houses, honked horns and danced on the boardwalks, shouting “atom,” “fission,” and “uranium,” words that had been forbidden those long months.
Doris, whose tiny frame now swelled in pregnancy, could not dance, but she could raise her arms above her head and clap, elbows flying, shouting, “hallelujah.” Her boss at the dairy dispensary told her, “Ma’am, your baby will be born in peacetime.” My aunt Karin was born in November.
Seventy years later, many of the cemesto homes that were meant to last twenty-five years still stand, though their sameness is hidden now beneath fresh paint, brick walls, and new additions. Y-12 no longer develops new weapons, but today it holds the world’s largest repository of highly enriched uranium, enough to fuel fourteen thousand warheads. Today, the plant’s main purpose is testing and refurbishing the nation’s aging nuclear stockpile.
A funeral home opened its doors in 1949. By the time a cemetery was established in 1955, George was working as the Assistant Plant Manager of Y-12, overseeing projects essential to the development of thermonuclear bombs. Doris was raising three kids, soon to be four, in a still-sturdy cemesto house. My father grew up in a city no longer gated but flanked, still, by empty guard towers, where everyone’s dad was a scientist and no one knew exactly what that meant.
Today Oak Ridge Memorial Park promises “perpetual care” to the eight thousand graves placed there within the last sixty years. The Department of Energy has also ensured “perpetual care” to the hazardous waste landfill covering 120 acres in East Bear Creek Valley west of Y-12, elegantly known as the Environmental Management Waste Management Facility. Built in 2002, the EMWMF is the disposal site of contaminated soils, dismantled buildings, and radioactive scrap materials, as the DOE undertakes the Superfund cleanup of the Oak Ridge Site. The EMWMF will fill its capacity of 2.18 million cubic yards by about 2020, and a new facility is being planned at a cost of $817 million. At a much smaller cost, the DOE still maintains many historic cemeteries on restricted land. “Perpetual Care” means that when the radioactive landfill is capped, the DOE will monitor and maintain the lined cells against leakage and decay, forever.