Home > Journaling the Apocalypse > Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Oak Ridge, Tennessee

October 14, 2008

We lived five miles downwind of Oak Ridge.
Its towers contained multitudes, shaded by the stubby
knuckles of oak leaves. My father’s Geiger counter
click-clicked its swaying tongue at me. Thirty years later,
thyroids of local children start acting up — cancers, syndromes, tumors.

(Dairy cows, asparagus and strawberry plants,
fruit in my mouth, snow in my hands.)

My mother as a child sprayed with pesticides
when she played in the fields. My father grew up
while men wrestled atoms. He learned to cap
contaminated soil, clay and concrete with their brittle grasp.
The reactor clasped in graphite inside a black building.

It was here they built bombs, or the beginnings of bombs,
electricity crackling through the oak woods.
Once, in the twenties, a madman jailed for prophesying the site,
saying “here would be built…” I don’t know if he died in jail.
In my backyard the skeletons of snails trapped in lime.

(Red clay, lilacs, daffodils, black bears and mockingbirds.
Vines of honeysuckle and morning glory, children chewing red clover.)

Always things hovering over us: mountains, thunderstorms, dark arms
of oak, a poisoned valley. Lightning bouncing across our yard,
bees swarming a horse. My father strode off to work
with government-issue TLD cards and a black suit. How much
radiation today, the card would tell him, but he knew it lied.

by Jeannine Hall Gailey

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  1. R
    October 14, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Wonderfully evocative details – thank you!

  2. October 14, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    This is excellent.

  3. Tom Sheehan
    October 15, 2008 at 10:13 am

    What a shocking wake-up in the morning when you’re already awake and the coffee on and gone. Marvelous stuff. Thanks for the alert, the two-way street of your poetry.

  4. Christina Pacosz
    October 27, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Sorry to be so slow in responding. I have been to Oak Ridge a time or two while I lived in Tennessee. I remember all the signs telling people to stay out of the creeks/etc. and not eat the fish because the water was poisoned. Your poem captures some of what it means to grow up in the fields of the bomb and is a powerful testament. I have a chapbook – out-of-print – Notes from the Red Zone, Seal Press, 1983 about my poet-in-the-schools residency in and around the Hanford Nuclear Plant. Seal published it as a part of their then-anti-nuclear series.

  5. November 3, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Good to see you here, Jeanine. It’s the normality of this poem that strikes me, almost a Disney backdrop to the unseen terror.

    CE

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