My novel, HOW I GREW UP, takes place in the middle of the twentieth century, when I was a junior in high school. Revisiting the events in the story meant recalling how different my world was then. And it was a little disconcerting, switching back and forth between centuries ... while I was spending a lot of time in the twentieth century while at the computer, I did occasionally have to return to the twenty-first, to do things like feed the cat and pay bills.
My hometown, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was unique. I suppose there were periods in the history of this country where towns sprang up nearly overnight, such as during the California gold rush, but I’m not aware of any other period in the history of the U.S. when towns were developed in great secrecy by the federal government, under the purview of the U.S. Army.
Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, NM, and Hanford, Washington, were three towns that were created in the early 1940s with one sole purpose: develop an atomic bomb to defeat the enemy. As I understand it, there was a great fear that Nazi Germany was well into exploring the properties of the atom with the purpose of creating a bomb, and the feeling was the United States had to beat them to it. You can Google “Manhattan Project” and find a wealth of material about exactly how and what went on, which is something I did. I also read a couple of books about my hometown to immerse myself in the era, which was post-World War II.
I grew up basically in a town that was still under the control of the federal government in the best way possible. I went through a superior school system, because the staff and faculties of all schools were on the government payroll and much better paid than teachers in the rest of the state. There was no unemployment; for years no one was allowed to live in the town who wasn’t employed either by the government or had been allowed into the town to provide goods and services to those people working for the government. It was nearly a classless society, because all the houses had been constructed under the supervision of federal employees, and housing was assigned. At that time, all homes were rented from Uncle Sam. There were no “mansions” or “estates.” Notice I said “nearly”: there was segregation. It was the South, and it was before the civil rights movement.
People had moved to Oak Ridge from all over the country during the early years from 1943-45. Where there had been farmland and rolling hills, there was a nearly instant small city of over 75,000. The town diminished in size after the war; eventually, it establlished its own government, houses were put on the market and people were even allowed to buy land and build homes as time went on. There was a military presence for years. The work that was being done was top secret for a long time.
As a kid, I wasn’t aware of any of that. I just knew it was a great place to grow up. It was safe. We had wonderful “woods” to play in with lots of tall trees to climb. We could ride a bus anywhere for free. We had great teachers; my high school had two choirs, a band (concert and marching), an orchestra, even our own harp, which I learned to play a little (enough to do showy arpeggios in our production of CAROUSEL). We had an auditorium that seated fourteen hundred, and we had state-of-the-art everything. We had great football and basketball teams. We did a school musical. I took ballet class, piano lessons, and voice lessons, and lived in a very comfortable house. We had two movie theaters and a drive-in. We had a nice little public library and public tennis courts and a good hospital and medical care. What wasn’t to love? I had a safe, happy childhood, until the day my friend Anita’s estranged brother-in-law entered her home one January night and shot and killed both her parents and mortally wounded her other brother-in-law. The entire town was rocked. It’s in the book.
I haven’t been back to visit in decades, and I’m sure much has changed. But the Smoky Mountains, which are nearby, still stand, majestic, mysterious, and beautiful. I’m sure Knoxville is still THE place to go shopping. The green and swirling waters of the Clinch River still run past the smaller town of Oak Ridge (Wikipedia tells me the population as of 2010 was slightly under 30,000). Radioactive waste and pollution from the “plants” continues to be a problem (nobody seemed to think about that in the rush to refine uranium ore into weapons-grade U-235).
A high school friend with whom I reconnected while writing HOW I GREW UP still lives in Oak Ridge. She tells me for people of our generation it seems a ghost town: driving through town, remembering who lived where all those decades ago. Most of them have either moved away, or are no longer on this earth. I should probably go back; the high school is still there, only as a new, improved version. I would think the house I last lived in is still there. I’m sure if I made a visit, I would be greeted by many memories of times past, and not a few ghosts.