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.

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.

Just as I decided it was time to quit doing research, lest I create more memories than I discovered, I had to dig in my own photo file and crank up Google again. But this time it was to verify.

I imagine everyone reading this blog has driven through a turnpike ticket/toll booth or military gate somewhere along the road. I remember the Front Gate as being like a combination of those, but the covered area I remember from the early days is not there now. I found a photo of that original gate in my personal collection that verifies my memory.

The Los Alamos Historical Society could surely tell me when they took it down, but since I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter. I was able to verify the year as being 1957, which is good, because I thought it was 1956. The difference means that the event occurred before April in 1957, the time when I would have needed a pass. I think. Or was 14 the age for passes? Another fact to be documented. I’ll save up these questions and query the Historical Society with all of them at once. As a matter of principle, I do want to be as accurate as possible on details like this, and that’s a challenge when things blur into distant and composite memories.

The writing is fun again, like working a puzzle

Further pursuing the online Los Alamos research I started the other day has been fascinating — not to mention time consuming. After the first couple of hundred photos on Flickr, I found little else of interest. Though more than 2300 Flickr photos have a “Los Alamos” tag, over one hundred are shots of the road up the hill, and many hundred are taken in the Norris Bradbury Science Museum. Most are of recent vintage and of little relevance for my purpose.

Moving on, I found a few more good memory jogging shots, but got discouraged with Webshots, Picassa, and the web in general.

Then I thought of YouTube, and eventually found a short National Park Service video travel guide of Bandelier National Monument’s Frijoles Canyon cliff dwellings (the five-minute video is beautifully done, and likely to make you want to go there if you watch). This canyon was my very favorite place to spend summer afternoons, though I didn’t often go there. It seemed much farther than eight miles away! The video ended with a goose-bumpy revelation: “Although the pueblo people have not lived here in Frijoles Canyon for more than 450 years, the site isn’t considered to be abandoned. The modern pueblo people believe that the spirits of their ancestors still reside here.”Furthermore the video mentions that nearly all canyons in the area bear evidence of early inhabitants.

No wonder I was so acutely aware of the Indians. Not everyone will understand, but I do believe that some form of spirit does persist in that area, and its stronger in some places than others. It’s especially strong in Frijoles, stronger than other ruins like Tsankawi or Puye. But perhaps if I went back to those places, alone with plenty of time to wander and wonder, it might be different.

Others have written about this also. I believe that Peggy Church Pond mentions it in her enduringly popular book, The House at Otowi Bridge, the story of Edith Warner, a key figure in the social life of early Los Alamos. Edith lived very near San Ildefonso pueblo and was often included in pueblo life.

Alas, the more research I do, the more danger this could become a history rather than a memoir. The challenge of maintaining the boundaries of my own memories and experience compounds with continued research. Guess I need to just write the damned book! While it’s still mine to write.

I’m not exaggerating in profiles and other material when I claim to have written over 500 life stories. There is no way of counting exactly, because they are scattered all over creation, and some of those may be two paragraphs, but I really do have that many. The past couple of days I’ve been rereading anything I have in print (far from the whole collection, I admit).

My intention as I pulled out the bulging portfolio was to read those folders with material that may be relevant to The Los Alamos Years. I quickly discovered that my filing system is a joke, and began reading through the whole collection — at least the equivalent of a book by now. Probably two volumes. This experience is fascinating! Yes, I’m noting edits on nearly every piece, but few or substantial. Earlier edits are holding up well.

What I’m finding is that this pile of isolated vignettes is powerful stuff, way more so than I remotely realized. Many of my own pieces move me to tears all over again as I reexperience the situations I wrote about. These are good tears. Tears of re-experienced resolution. If no other person ever reads them, the effort I put into bringing them to this state was worth it.

But the good news is that there is a ton of material to be incorporated into A Los Alamos Girlhood. Some of it is well-written as it stands. Other is resource material to be woven in.  I’m encouraged by this.

I also found a piece I wrote almost five years ago that could serve as a lead-in. Or maybe not. But I have set it aside.

Bottom line: if you are reading this and not yet ready to tackle an organized memoir, don’t hesistate for a moment to write a huge pile (500 or more) of vignette stories. If I were to die tomorrow, those vignettes would be there and bear powerful testimony to years I may never get round to dgesting further. Vignettes, life story writing, is a valuable resource and well worth your time to write. At this point I’m glad that I began that way, and encourage others to do likewise.

My challenge now is to weave together all the memories and resources I have discovered.