July 2010


No, I have not abandoned this project.  Time away from my laptop allowed me to focus on some hands-on projects, a break that allowed some needed distance for refocusing. Then we headed east to visit with our Texas Tots. They are fortunate enough to have two living great-grandparents, and one is in New Jersey. This was an opportunity to build some deep level ancestral memory.

Now the challenge is to gear back up and revisit the story. Yesterday I pulled out my mindmap and timeline to show to students, but really, I needed to look for myself. I”m like a cat. I need to circle a spot many times before committing to settle in.

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Who knew that I was addicted to my laptop? In general, I’m not, but it is my machine of choice for working on my memoir project. When Hubby announced his intentions to take it along to Scout Camp for two weeks, I shrieked in alarm. “Can’t you take the netbook? … How about the old one (that runs Ubuntu)?”

No. Only the good one will do. The netbook is too slow for downloading photos, and … the Linux machine is even slower and doesn’t have PowerPoint.

Well, that’s only fair. I thought I could do without it for two weeks. I thought. And I can. The thing is, my brain freezes when sitting in my office chair. I can work on other things here. Just not that. Maybe I could … but … lots of other pressing matters have intervened.

So, perhaps the project will benefit from around three weeks off — by the time I factor in a quick visit with the youngest grandchildren right after camp is over.

Isn’t it funny how we become so used to a certain setting to do our writing? I have not decided if that is good or not. It is as it is.

A story hydrant? Of course you never heard of that. I just made it up. I’ve learned to put a title on posts before I begin writing because e-mail alerts go out instantly when I click “Publish” and a couple of times lately I’ve forgotten the title.

Over the weekend I spent lots of hours clicking away as story flowed forth. My manuscript grew from 11,000 words to 21,000 words — nearly double in size. (I’ve written way more than that since I began this project, but much of it was warm-up that may or may not be used later. I refer here to my current working draft.) So, as I thought of a way to describe this torrent of words that were ready to be written, I thought of the fire hose analogy. It is an apt one, but rather clichéd, and it would take lots more space: A fire hose of words … something like that. As I pondered the matter, Sarabelle whispered in my ear: “Word hydrant . . .  NO! STORY HYDRANT!”

For those who have not met Sarabelle, and that’s likely to be most of you, she is my muse. You can meet her on my Heart and Craft of Life Writing blog. I tell about the day she introduced herself to me here. Other posts featuring her are here. She has been conspicuously absent on this project, so I’m delighted she finally put in an appearance.

The only way I can explain this gush of story is that I’ve been feeling my way along with this place-based structure, and spending gobs of time looking up resource material. Also, writing about the town center seemed a bit daunting. And, I’ve been super busy with other things. On Friday evening as I sat with my laptop, I realized that I saw light at the other end of the tunnel. I could now envision the rest of that chapter. The story hydrant began to gush, so for the rest of the weekend, I set aside all optional activities and wrote. I’m a firm believer in catching story while it’s gushing.

When I got to the high school (new chapter), I’d intended to explore that memory lode, and work my way back through schools. The junior high is quite near the high school, and my grade school is between junior high and our houses. But just as I wrote some dialogue with my husband about stopping to look at the high school, Sarabelle blurted out a direct order: “Save this stop for later. Go home first. Go back to the beginning now. You’ve put that off long enough. Catch schools on the way back out.” I swear I saw sprinkles of little star thingies as she said that. I certainly felt sparks of inspiration. That’s how the story hydrant worked. Suddenly lots of things just fell into place.

Please don’t think I was churning out finished draft. Far from it. Even now I realize that I left out lots of description. For example, I mention my parents and sister a lot, but have never formally introduced or described them. I am working in lots of dialogue — more than I ever expected be able to use. But there are still quite a few places where I stuck with narrative to get the basic story down, saving dialogue for the revision stage. If the dialogue doesn’t come naturally, I’m skipping it for now.

Anyway, I’m stoked. I once again believe I can get this project polished off by the end of the year, as I intended on New Years.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been tapping away on the loop through town for several days now. For some reason, this part has seemed unduly complicated, and I keep stopping to do research and check Street View on GoogleMaps. I don’t suppose it matters if I spend that time now or later. One way or the other, it must be spent if I’m going to get the details right. Now I’m finally on the home stretch for this section. I’ve done everything around the center of town, and now I’ve gotten into the heart of the Community Center. Another day or two should do it before we roll on down the road to the high school.

If I had known I would use the drive through town as the basis for the story when we were there, we could hardly have planned the route more conveniently. The town itself is cooperative. There are a few more roads in and out now than there were back then, but the main road hasn’t changed. We went in one way, made a loop through town, and left out the other side. The trip out is perfect for wrapping up several left-over memories. I continue to be pleased with my choice of structure.

Someone asked me recently if I paste in stories I’ve already written. I did that with one, but nearly everything I’ve written has been new material. And the voice of something I wrote in 2002, for example, is generally rather different from the way I’d write it for this purpose. Writing the free-standing ones was good experience. Last night in a tele-chat with members of National Association of Memoir Writers, Nina Amir urged all of us to send stories out for publication, to build platform for our books even more than generating income. I got the message! Perhaps I can find homes for some of those freestanding stories.

An off-line question came in from a reader who asked,

… how much did your father know about the Manhattan Project?What has he told you about his involvement – and any conflicts he may have had on the issue —or did he not encounter whatever it was that we were hiding there?

That’s a great question, and one I think I already answered in the manuscript. For your information here, the Manhattan Project is the official name of the enormous undertaking involved in designing and producing the atomic bomb. The project began at the University of Chicago under the bleachers of the football field, where the first fission experiment was conducted. When that was successful, the project exploded almost as fast as the bomb.

Los Alamos was chosen as the location for the team of scientists and their support team that built the bomb. It was remote, isolated, and defensible, yet had a mild enough climate to allow work to proceed all year. The stunning scenery was a bonus for keeping people happy in a compound they were not allowed to leave except for brief shopping trips to Santa Fe.

In addition to Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project included a uranium separations facility  at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and plutonium production took place at the Hanford site near Richland, Washington. The entire project was overseen by General Leslie Groves, who selected Robert Oppenheimer to head the scientific aspects of the project, specifically the part at Los Alamos.

When the war ended, the Manhattan Project ended with it, and the fate of Los Alamos was unclear. Over the next couple of years its mission was expanded into peace-time applications of nuclear energy as well as further developing nuclear weapons technology and the community underwent a massive expansion and metamorphosis.

We did not move to Los Alamos until 1951, more than five years after the end of the war. My father began working at S-Site on lenses for explosives, though as far as I know, he didn’t have direct contact with the bomb designers. He’s told me a little about those days, but it only goes so far before he invokes the Classified Information curtain. That was a fact of life. We didn’t ask and sixty years later, they still don’t tell. After a couple of years of lens work, he moved to the nuclear reactor division where he remained until moving to Richland, Washington in 1967 (a year after my husband, our newborn son and I arrived there) to work for the AEC.

He did not know anything about the Manhattan Project that isn’t public knowledge. He probably didn’t know anything about weapons projects while he was at S-site because even within the lab all information was handled on a “need to know” basis. Talking about your work outside your lab just was not done.

This secrecy definitely had an effect on me, and on my peers. That was discussed in the books I just finished reading, and I’ll add my slant on it when I get to that part.

I just sped through a reread of The Children of Los Alamos, by Katrina Mason. I’m glad I did reread it, for reasons I covered in a review I just posted on Amazon. Aside from the reasons I cover in the review, I’m glad I reread the book because it affirms that my particular cohort — elementary-aged children who moved there five or six years after the war ended — moved to a rather different community, but to my understanding, we shared most of the perceptions as those who were there during the Manhattan Project.

It also strengthens my belief that a memoir from my cohort, my time, has a valuable contribution to make in illuminating the overall community atmosphere of the second round of Early Years. It helps me refine these views and find more purpose in writing. Perhaps it may even alter my decision to self-publish. But there’s no point making a decision like that until the book is written. One or two more volumes of background material and then back to work!

You may wonder, as I also do, how much reading the work of others may influence my memories. That is a distinct possibility, but … no memory is pure in the first place. Memory is influenced by the very act of remembering. And some fuzzy perceptions I’ve struggled to articulate are becoming more clear. This material feeds into composite memory more than specific ones. So on balance, I don’t think it will affect Truth at all, and I shall proceed.

My head has been in books the last few days. One, Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott, is a novel. The other, The Atomic City: A Firsthand Account by a Son of Los Alamos by Terry Rosen, is a memoir. Blue Shoe was fascinating because it was based on the search for the truth of family relationships and the result of shedding light on long-guarded Truth. Sometimes fiction can tell more truth than memoir does, at least in a general sense. But The Atomic City is the one that rang my bells the most loudly.

It rang my bells for several reasons. Terry Rosen graduated a year before I did, and our paths did cross now and then, though I don’t recall direct interaction. Although he was one of the guys I would love to have gone out with (that prospect seemed too futile to pursue or even dream about), I primarily thought of him as “Louie Rosen’s Son.” Louie was already legendary at that time as one of the super-brains at the lab, so brilliant that, as I heard it, he sat in an ivory tower and dreamed up whatever he wanted and they paid him a lot of money to do it.

Terry’s book spotlights his father’s achievements, and my impression wasn’t too far off the mark, though his research was not that esoteric. My assumption that Terry was a cut above the (Los Alamos level) average brilliance was also true, though I derive that fact from reading between the lines, not his declaration.

Primarily the book validated my sense that there was indeed a sort of caste system in place, one that co-existed with across-the-board egalitarianism. How did that work? The population was divided into a grid with ethnicity and national origin in “columns” and the job classification (scientist, engineer, plumber, electician …) of the family breadwinner in “rows.” It didn’t matter if your forebears came from Great Britain or Hungary, (non-Europeans were all but non-existent in Los Alamos back then) but job classification determined where you lived, and indirectly who you associated with.That effect was far less strong on kids than parents, but we all knew who lived in Western Area.

The book validated my sense of reverence for place. I think we all felt that. And he went on to elaborate on his perception of the effects of growing up in a high-pressure environment, causing so many of us to have an unusually high sense of urgency about achievement.

Reading that volume was fascinating because I spent time talking with Terry about writing during an all-school reunion in 2000. He sent me the pre-publication manuscript for review and critique, and I still have those files. I was able to flip back and see that all my suggestions were implemented in the final draft, published by Sunbelt Eakin. But to my dismay, the final version omitted several pages of material that I would have kept in. One of my suggestions was to break the manuscript into two parts, one about “The Los Alamos Years” and a sequel about the rest of his life. He resisted the latter, but Sunbelt Eakin convinced him. He closes the first volume with the promise to go more deeply into the effects on his later life of having grown up in Los Alamos.

The general public will never read those conclusion … he died a year after the first volume was published.

Lucky me! My copy of the manuscript includes the second section. I reread it yesterday. I found it far less compelling than the Los Alamos section, perhaps because I knew nearly all the people he mentions in that part. The second needs a lot more work to prepare it for publication and he’s not around to fill in the blanks. Reading the account of his reunion with his childhood sweetheart (after three failed marriages for each of them) and her tragic demise had me in tears once again. She and Terry witnessed a car hydroplane on a wet highway south of Pueblo, Colorado and stopped to render assistance and call for help. A second out-of-control car ran directly into Jennifer, missing Terry by a few inches. He witnessed her instant death.

What did I learn from rereading the two volumes of this story?

  1. Readers who “were there” are likely to be the most enthusiastic.
  2. Publishers exert a lot of control over contents — if anything is sacred to you, publish it yourself. Of course we have lots more flexibility to do that today than Terry had ten years ago.
  3. His first volume has significant relevance as a historical record of the Los Alamos community. It includes personal glimpses and inside stories about the key players in the Manhattan Project. This sort of anecdotal material is not available anywhere else.
  4. His analysis of the social system in early Los Alamos is a resource for others of us puzzling out the same era, and holds special interest for that reason.
  5. The story of these super-achievers posed a special challenge, to document their achievements without sounding pompous. In my opinion, he kept his balance on that tight-rope, primarily by reporting most events without pointing out their sheer brilliance.

Overall, the material will have little influence on my own story and how I tell it, but it’s still fascinating, and I deeply appreciate that Terry took the time to write these 231 manuscript pages. Reading this reminds me that I have three more volumes on my bookshelf that I want to skim through again: The Atom and Eve by Elsie Blumer McMillan (wife of a Manhattan Project scientist), Children of Los Alamos by Katrina R. Mason (an anthology of interviews she conducted with assorted offspring of LASL employees), and The House at Otowi Bridge by Peggy Pond Church (The story of Edith Warner, who entertained The Scientists at dinner parties in her small tea room by the Rio Grande, at the bottom of The Hill).

Where will all this reading take me? I don’t know, but like Mattie in Blue Shoe, I feel driven to keep digging. There is some Truth not yet uncovered, for me, or perhaps all of us. There has never been a time when more resources were available for low or no-cost research from the comfort of home.