Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia

Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia

Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia

Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia

Synopsis

Longing for the Bomb traces the unusual story of the first atomic city and the emergence of American nuclear culture. Tucked into the folds of Appalachia and kept off all commercial maps, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was created for the Manhattan Project by the U.S. government in the 1940s. Its workers labored at a breakneck pace, most aware only that their jobs were helping "the war effort." The city has experienced the entire lifespan of the Atomic Age, from the fevered wartime enrichment of the uranium that fueled Little Boy, through a brief period of atomic utopianism after World War II when it began to brand itself as "The Atomic City," to the anxieties of the Cold War, to the contradictory contemporary period of nuclear unease and atomic nostalgia. Oak Ridge's story deepens our understanding of the complex relationship between America and its bombs.

Blending historiography and ethnography, Lindsey Freeman shows how a once-secret city is visibly caught in an uncertain present, no longer what it was historically yet still clinging to the hope of a nuclear future. It is a place where history, memory, and myth compete and conspire to tell the story of America's atomic past and to explain the nuclear present.

Excerpt

“I’m from Oak Ridge. I glow in the dark.” This was the luminescent phrase that graced my favorite T-shirt when I was seven. It was the mid-1980s and all kinds of neon and day-glow attire were popular, but this was different. The shirt meant “I’m radioactive and I have a sense of humor about it.” During World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was one of the three top-secret locations created for the sole purpose of producing an atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. I didn’t quite understand the glowing then. It felt magic, like something a superhero could do. When you turned the lights out the letters actually glowed—illuminating the message—making me feel even more powerful than my Wonder Woman underoos did. Smart as I thought my T-shirt looked in all its 50 poly/50 cotton glory, it was not a good sartorial choice for hide-and-go-seek, as I learned the hard way.

My connection to the city of Oak Ridge—a place involved in an advanced geopolitical game of hide-and-go-seek of its own—began in the early 1940s, when my grandparents, Nan and Frank McLemore, moved to the secret Manhattan Project city after my grandfather was injured in the war. He had been stationed in France. Where? Nobody seems to know exactly. He didn’t like to talk about it. He had “grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience,” as Walter Benjamin writes of the soldiers returning from the First World War. What we do know is that “over there” my grandfather was hit by an artillery shell fragment in the ankle and sent home purple-hearted, limping a bit. Quickly, he took a job he heard about near Clinton, Tennessee, not far from where his wife and two small children, my mother Bobbie and my uncle, also Frank, were living while he was away. My grandmother was from Cocke County, a wild knot of land in East Tennessee known for rooster fighting and moonshine; my grandfather hailed from just across the state border in North Carolina. The geographical distance from their birthplaces to this new place was not far, but socially and culturally it was a vast distance away.

The jobsite was called the Clinton Engineer Works, a code name for the place that would become Oak Ridge. At first they called it the Kingston Demolition Range, after a nearby town, but the alias proved too frightening to neighboring communities. Even though the name seemed nondescript, my grandfather was told that the work was of the highest importance and . . .

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