If You Should Find Yourself in My Atomic Home Town

Book & food lovers, please overlook my recent pause. My life has been full of culinary/literary goodness to dish about lately (yup, went for it); it has also, however, been filled to the brim with change. My husband and I spent a lot of this summer waiting to hear back about an opportunity to move to Spain, refreshing e-mail apps again and again and again. Actually, today I heard some smarty pants on NPR talking about “fun failure,” a phenomenon she describes as that momentary high you get when you’ve scratched off two of three digits on a lottery ticket and allow yourself to entertain the possibility that you might have actually  won. She describes how just such a phenomenon keeps us coming back to our smart phones: The technology elicits a little joyous bubble from the folds of our brains, prompting us to believe momentarily that whatever ding we’ve just heard will be an important message we’ve been waiting for. Instead, of course, you usually find you’ve gotten two out of three digits right and Overstock.com has sent you yet another 12% off coupon (hence: fun failure). But with the next ticket or ding up comes another temporary joy bubble, and who are you to be the one who bursts it?


Well, in that happy “fun failure” space we lived on for quite some time. During that time, I spent a month living with my family in my hometown, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I ate loads of delicious southern food, often basted in butter and mayonaisse-y goodness. A friend gifted me Flora with perfect timing (see below). I ate and I read and I ate and I read, and then I returned to Phoenix to work. I taught a late summer course and sought a part-time job at my favorite pizza spot in the area. During my downtime, I’ve been suffering from an overwhelming combination of summer ennui (only Phoenicians will understand), excitement/anxiety about our future, and a pernicious writer’s block.  Most of the latter comes down to indecisiveness: How should I begin a post about the most curious of curiosities—my hometown—?

Eat: If in town on a Wednesday, Snowcrab Soup @ the Soup Kitchen; otherwise, Banh Mi at Oliver Royale in Knoxville’s Market Square

If you visit Oak Ridge, you’re probably there on business (and probably a scientist), or else you’ve been finagled into attending some sort of field trip to the A.M.S.E.* So you’ll be in the know about the “Secret City” and its Manhattan Project history. You’ll probably want to learn about the nuances of that history, but instead what you’ll get is a lot of atomic-related kitsch.

Sweet or unsweet? Sweet of course. Ah, and remember the glory days when the bomb we dropped made us also afraid of being bombed, and we had to have fall out shelters just in case?
“Atomic Super Bomb, Made at Oak Ridge, Strikes Japan. Bathrooms around this corner. All they ask of you is an honest day’s work.”

Okay, so maybe Oak Ridge is the only place where you can eat a surprisingly delicious snow crab soup while looking at shelves of Atomic bomb paraphernalia. Continue slurping while you peruse newspaper clippings— the “Story of the Secret City Officially Told.” Go for the southern hospitality, leave feeling weird in your gut about how we’ve historically talked about the “SUPER-BOMB!” as if we’d been trying to intimidate a schoolyard bully.

It goes without saying, I dragged my husband with me to the Soup Kitchen at least twice. But my favorite meal that month was a surprising item at Knoxville’s Oliver Royale: Bahn Mi. It’s no authentic Bahn Mi, though it’s pretty much described as such on the menu: “chicken, cabbage, cilantro, ginger, pickled cucumber” between slices of homemade bread. Instead, it’s like a Bahn Mi Salad Sandwich, wherein “salad” probably means “mayonnaise,” in true southern fashion. And it’s so. So. Good.

Not SUPER-MAYONNAISE, I should add, but just enough…

Perhaps you can see my writerly hesitation: I’ve just suggested that you eat a French Colonial Vietnamese Dish, further evolved into something a Tennessean will actually like (less spice, more fat); furthermore, I’ve suggested that you do so just a few miles away from the city built for the sole purposes of creating the atomic bomb, which of course destroyed other cities entirely. Think on this equation of appropriation in my quaint little slice of suburbia (littered with war-time memorabilia, of course).

It’s all a bit dizzying, really. But should you find yourself in “The Ridge,” you’re in for a weird ride anyway. You might as well eat well along the way.

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*that’s American Museum of Science and Energy, which I like to think of as The Museum of the Museum of Science and Energy. “It could use a few updates,”my friend Joel says.

read: Flora by Gail Godwin


If you sense some sarcasm in my above suggestions, it’s because I find it hard to face Oak Ridge’s history straight on. In fact, my first manuscript of poems explores my complex and conflicting emotions about being from the atom/secret city. While I’ve been writing the book, I’ve done a lot of history-heavy research and you can see some of those suggestions below. I highly recommend these reads to complement the bizarre lack of depth you’ll encounter on the subject when playing tourist in my town.

But if you have to read only one book, I’d recommend Godwin’s Flora. I really admire Gail Godwin’s novel for getting at what my heart gnaws on most when I think about Oak Ridge and its history. In this first-person narrative, everything happening at Oak Ridge takes place off-scene— the way it actually did for most people. But Godwin manages to tell a story that pokes at the veil and shadows act purposefully created by the Manhattan Engineering District; it also portrays how easy it was for the project’s deception to work. Why? Because people tend to privilege mystery’s drama over any of the less-comforting truths.

Flora takes place during one long, sleepy summer in a small North Carolina town. Our narrator’s recollection focuses mostly on her perspective as a then eleven-year-old girl living with her emotional cousin, Flora, while her father works as a contractor for the “War effort” in Oak Ridge. No one really knows what’s going on in Oak Ridge, nor do they really talk about it. There’s no searing discussion of the morality of the bomb; once it’s dropped, Helen is still primarily concerned with whether or not her father will make it home for her birthday. When she talks about Hiroshima, she repeats some phrases heard on the radio:

We ate after the six o’clock news with Lowell Thomas. The big-name evening newscasters themselves had been upstaged because by now everyone had heard the shocking highlights earlier in the day. Blast equal to thousand tons of TNT. Most destructive force ever devised by man. Sixty thousand dead and still counting. The entire Japanese Second Army wiped out on their parade ground while doing morning calisthenics.

‘I know it’s unpatriotic,’ said Flora, ‘but I can’t stop feeling horrible about all those dead and burned people.’

‘It’s not unpatriotic,’ Finn corrected her, ‘it’s human.”

A few thoughts here: It seems apt that Flora must apologize for recognizing the horror in the so obviously horrible, for in doing so she admits the other’s perspective. Most of the newscasts Helen remembers— and even her priest’s careful remarks— focus on the potential negative repercussions that would effect us, the actual bomb-droppers; they revolve around what we should do to protect ourselves.

Also: Helen is prescient and analytical, something she learned from her whip-smart grandmother (Nonie, recently passed). But she’s still eleven. She knows only how to analyze what she has had readily available to her in her world: people’s conversation, the nightly radio programs and the host’s tactics (the big-name evening newscasters themselves had been upstaged). Shortly after this scene, she moves swiftly back to her own girlish desires and jealousies, the way any eleven-year old would. She senses the connection between Finn, the young man who delivers their groceries and is one of their only regular visitors, and Flora. She holds on to the sense of loneliness/exclusion from this memory of hers as she recalls it years later.

But even as an eleven-year old, Helen is not free of remorse. Godwin’s slow unfolding of Helen’s story reveals how the girl first learned the feeling of remorse and then the word for it. It’s a story of quiet reflection that, without fanfare, begins to unravel the Irreproachable Very Important Story of Oak Ridge, crafted by first the Government’s Manhattan Project itself and then by the carefully controlled media that reported on it.

One moment early on in this unfolding sticks out to me. Helen has just estranged herself from a classmate’s family, about which she is repentful. She’s also coping with Flora’s recent arrival, which has offered a constant variation on the perspectives and thoughts she’d had access to up until then. Depressed and lonely, she goes for a walk:

I had no plan for my walk. Walking was not something I normally did. None of us walked, really. The main reason I was doing it was to escape from Flora and get some of myself back. I headed downhill because that was the way we always headed into the car….

…But I was not getting myself back. To the contrary, I felt myself slipping away. A veil seemed to rip and through it I could see Sunset Drive going on exactly the same without my needing to exist. This thought made me queasy….

…Then I was so close to the rip in the veil that I was more on the other side of it than I was in myself. It was like being conscious of losing my mind at the exact moment I was losing it. I reeled and felt faint. I couldn’t even find words to think about what was happening to me.

I recognize this experience of learning to place oneself in a larger context and how absolutely terrifying that can be. Helen’s memory is physical, and it’s painful; she’s bodily recognizing the existential crisis that comes along with remorse. I admire Godwin’s description here so much; the novelist doesn’t look directly at the bomb, but instead looks directly at the human mind that will have itself to try and comprehend it.

While my hometown’s history does prompt many such uncomfortable reflections, it is also my home. And it’s chock-full of good people. Many thanks to my family and friends who made my brief sojourn home actually feel like home.

It feels fitting to be writing about Oak Ridge on the heels of receiving the news we’d been waiting for. So. As to not leave you all hanging, let me officially announce that the long-waited e-mail did recently arrive. And we’ll be moving from Phoenix to Logroño, La Rioja, Spain. I plan on picking up the pace at Pintxos y Libros, so you’ll be hearing all about La Rioja— and our future adventures from our new home base— here.

for more eating and reading in and around Oak Ridge, see:

Knox Mason: Delicious, dressed-up southern fair.

Big Ed’s Pizza: Big Ed was a local celebrity; the eponymous pizza parlor continues to serve up deliciously greasy and awesome pizza as well as cheap pitchers of beer.

McKay’s Used Books: Used books for miles.

Union Avenue Books: New & used books, w/very friendly owners. Near Market Square, Knoxville.

American Museum of Science and Energy, formerly known as the American Museum of Atomic energy.

Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project, Peter Bacon Hales: This book has been indispensable to me. Hales investigates how the Manhattan Project became the Manhattan Project in lucid detail, dissecting the power plays and the egos and the legal disputes involved as deftly as he analyzes the construction of physical spaces of Oak Ridge.

A Nuclear Family, April Naoko Heck: A talented poet dissects her family’s history after the grandmother survives the bombing on Hiroshima.

Nagasaki, Susan Southard: Important reporting on the aftermath of Nagasaki. The author of the linked book review (by NYTimes’s Ian Buruma) reminds us that “Gen. Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, which had developed the atom bomb, testified before the United States Senate that death from high-dose radiation was “without undue suffering,” and indeed “a very pleasant way to die.”



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