Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos

If you have enjoyed past posts about the Manhattan Project and Oak Ridge, or if you have enjoyed either of the Oak Ridge/Manhattan Project books I've reviewed, you will probably enjoy The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit.




Los Alamos was one of the three principal sites of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to design and build the world's first atomic weapons. To review, Los Alamos was the site responsible for designing and building the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, using fuels supplied by Oak Ridge and Hanford.

Although Ms Nesbit calls her book a novel, it's unlike any novel I have ever read. To me, it fell into a grey area between fiction and non-fiction. It reads more like an aggregated, collective memoir. She tells the stories of the wives who accompanied their scientist husbands to a remote mesa in New Mexico, the minutiae of living in a town under construction, war-time shortages, raising children, building community, being cut off from families and the rest of the world, and not knowing why they were there, except for "the war effort." Her voice is that of all the wives; "we wondered about..., we wore ...," etc. She tells of the aliases the families were given and the distracting answers they were given to answer questions that never should have been asked. She speaks of "the Director" and of "the General" without ever saying "Oppenheimer" or "Groves," but we know who she means and we share her secret. And at the end, as the scientists and their families deal with what they have created, say goodbye to colleagues and neighbors, and prepare to return to their universities or seek new jobs, we share some of their conflicted emotions about the experience.

When my wife and I first visited Los Alamos in the early 1970s, we had already lived in Oak Ridge for nearly four years and had heard many stories about life during the war years. Entering Los Alamos was almost like entering a slightly different Oak Ridge. The houses were of the same age, many of the same design. The greatest difference seemed to be that the deciduous trees of Oak Ridge had been replaced with pines. And the stories Nesbit tells are both the same and different from the Oak Ridge stories; it's like entering a slightly different Oak Ridge.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City

I've written before about Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project, the race with the Germans to build an atomic bomb during World War II. Much has been written about the Manhattan Project and the three sites (Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Hanford, Washington) that were created to carry out this important work. The latest focuses on the young women, many fresh out of high school, who were enlisted to fill critical jobs in Oak Ridge, jobs that could not be filled by men because they were off fighting a war.
The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan tells the oral histories of women who came to Oak Ridge in their teens to perform jobs that were held in tight secrecy. Interviewed when they were in their 80s and 90s, these women had had no inkling of what their jobs entailed until the news of the Hiroshima bomb dropping appeared in local newspapers. They knew only that the jobs were contributing to the war effort. Many came from distant places, not knowing what their destination was until their trains pulled into the station in Knoxville, Tennessee. And then they could not tell anxious parents back home anything about their new lives, only that they were well and contributing to winning the war. They came from farms and coal mining camps, small towns and big cities. They endured mud, shortages, and primitive living conditions. And they were surrounded by people their own age, with whom they socialized, eventually married, and created a town that exists today.
Because of the need for secrecy, cameras were contraband during the war, and workers were rigidly compartmentalized. Everyone twelve years old and older was required to wear a picture badge when on the reservation, including in the residential and business districts. Codes on badges told which buses people could board, which plant area they could enter, and to which floor or wing within a building they had access. Recognizing the need to document the whole project for history, the Manhattan Project employed a young photographer by the name of Ed Westcott, and gave him access to all areas. His photographs (some reproduced here) are the images we all now know of that time.
Most people working in Oak Ridge learned the nature of their jobs from news reports following the bombing of Hiroshima. Ms. Kiernan tells of excited housewives calling their husbands at work to tell them the news, only to be hung up on by husbands who feared their wives had just broken the ultimate rules of secrecy and had jeopardized their livelyhoods.
Terrible as these weapons were, most agree that their use hastened the end of the war and saved many lives. With the end of the war, the work in Oak Ridge was scaled back and the workforce shrank accordingly. As the GIs returned from the war, they were given jobs and replaced many of the women. Some moved away, but some stayed to eventually buy their homes from the government and create a stable community. Oak Ridge shrank from a wartime population of around 75,000 to fewer than 30, 000 people, a number that has remained fairly constant over the years.

Having lived in Oak Ridge for more than 30 years, I was well familiar with the overall outline of the story. It was easy to tell if Ms. Kiernan had done her homework. The answer is a resounding yes. Not only are the stories well researched, the writing is excellent, and these familiar stories have held my attention as if encountering the information for the first time. I recommend it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Black Powder, White Smoke

This past weekend the Sgt. Alvin C. York Historic Park held its 21st. annual black powder shoot. Fans of the 1941 film starring Gary Cooper will remember Sgt. York entering a shooting match to win "a beef critter," which he could then parlay into the money he needs to buy a piece of land. This annual shoot memorializes that contest.

The weather was what we've been having of late; damp, overcast, and threatening rain. The thermometer told us it was 50 degrees F, but it obviously was lying. The contestants were shooting "over the log," in a prone position on the ground and using wooden blocks to raise and steady their rifles. Although they each had a ground cloth, enough cold had to seep through to be a distraction.

One interesting aspect of the shoot was the apparent absence of spectators. Everyone seemed to be either a participant or a worker. There were no signs to lead us there, we had to stop at the park's museum store to ask directions. Once there we found a crowd milling around, again with no signage and no loud speakers to announce rounds or give results. The participants and workers seemed to all be going about their own business.

The black-powder rifles are muzzle loaders, so participants were busy adding powder and balls into the muzzles of their rifles and tamping them down.

This fellow may have been a novice, since he seemed to be getting lots of attention from the workers. His first shot misfired, and one of the range officers handed him another cap for his rifle. This time it fired.

Then without apparent announcement or directions, shooters came forward and filled all of the positions. No one seemed to be in a hurry, each shooter taking all the time needed to feel comfortable with their shot. When each had finished, a range officer declared the range closed and safe, and the participants all walked across the range to claim their targets.

After watching for half an hour and getting a few photos it was apparent why there were few spectators. The excitement certainly belongs to the participants. Unlike some other esoteric competitive events, there was no way of knowing how contestants were doing or who was ahead in points. Golf has its leader board and sheepdog trials usually have a similar board. One of the participants I spoke with had two of his grandchildren with him, and they ran out to check targets each time the range opened. Otherwise, spectators are pretty much limited to enjoying the noise and puffs of white smoke.



Friday, March 22, 2013

Ohio prosecutor indicts groundhog

Butler County, Ohio, prosecutor Mike Gmoser has indicted Punxsutawney Phil, the "official" weather predictor of Gobbler's Knob, Pennsylvania. Legend has it that on February 2 each year, groundhogs emerge from their hibernation and look around. If they see their shadow, they return to their burrows and there will be six more weeks of winter. If they don't, there will be an early spring.

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, has built events around Groundhog Day since at least 1887and has become the official prediction site in the public mind. Their anointed groundhog is Phil, who predicted an early spring this year. The first day of spring has come and gone, and winter keeps its hold on the whole eastern United States. The folks in southwest Ohio have simply had enough winter and have laid the blame squarely at Phil's feet. Officials of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club have vowed to fight extradition.

Groundhog Day has its roots in Candlemas Day, on which day the weather was thought to predict weather yet to come. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's web site contains several songs and sayings from Europe that link Candlemas to weather, such as this song from England:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.


 German immigrants are credited with bringing the tradition to North America and with selecting the groundhog as the prognosticator.

The folks in Ohio and Pennsylvania both seem to be enjoying this diversion from winter weather that has stayed beyond its shelf life. And isn't it wonderful that a prosecutor has nothing better to do than indict a groundhog for blowing a forecast? Watch your backs, all you meteorologists on television!

UPDATE: Prosecutor Mike Gmoser is now calling for the death penalty for Punxsutawney Phil. And he almost kept a straight face when he made the announcement on television.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

You talkin' to me?

This beggar hangs out at the Newfound Gap parking area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He's much bolder than the other crows there, so he gets more handouts. He's savoring an almond that I had just given him.



Monday, March 4, 2013

Digital passport - EXPIRED


A big part of what I enjoy about blogging is making friends and sharing the lives and life stories of those new friends around the world. I enjoy the sharing of interests through postings and commenting.  It's like getting to travel and visit without leaving home. Blogger has been like a sovereign tour company, providing both access and passport. But no more. I first noticed it while trying to comment on blogs from the UK. I could still read postings from the UK, but I no longer could comment on them. My comments disappeared as soon as I clicked on the send button. Now it seems to have spread to most, but not all, within the U.S., as well. It appears to be related to how Blogger handles comments on each of the sites. It fails when the comment box is at the bottom of the text and works when the comment box appears on a separate page. I can't even reply to comments on my own blog. Has anyone else had this problem? Are we talking "operator error" here?