Here’s a gorgeous yet chilling excerpt from Keith Maillard’s creative nonfiction book, Fatherless. Keith was five when his father went to work at the Hanford nuclear plant in Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River. Originally part of the Manhattan Project (nuclear material for the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy dropped on Japan came from its reactors), Hanford grew rapidly during the Cold War. Now it is mostly “decommissioned” although vast environmental damage remains. Keith’s memoir is chilling in part because of the very ordinariness of domestic life within the immense and hugely dangerous nuclear manufacturing community but also because, to a large extent, not much has changed—the illustration of the fast breeder reactor bearing Keith’s father’s signature below is eerily like the many plant drawings the press has been using to explain the current nuclear plant disaster in Japan. All of this is aside from the poignant recreation herein of Keith’s search, as a grown man many years later, for the estranged father he never knew. Keith Maillard was born and raised in West Virginia. Currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, he is the author of thirteen extraordinary novels and one poetry collection. Many thanks to our mutual friend, Lynne Quarmby, for bringing Keith to the NC fold.
My father began working at the Hanford nuclear plant in 1947, the year I turned five. He pasted into his scrapbook only one reference to his official work—a pen and ink drawing so anomalous that it jumped right off the page. He’d made a clear, simple, easy-to-understand drawing of a “LIQUID METAL FAST BREEDER REACTOR (LMFBR),” labeled all of its parts, and signed it “E. C. Maillard.”
Within his first year in Richland, Gene Maillard had clearly established himself as the number one song-and-dance man in town. In 1948, while living in a dormitory room and composing on a “collapsible” organ, he wrote “Our Richland,” a song that told the story of the building of the “atomic city,” a song approved by the General Electric Company suggestion department.
The Richland Junior Chamber of Commerce produced a brochure to accompany the “Atomic Frontier Days” that were held during the first week in September of 1948. Celebrity guests Roddy MacDowell, the Cisco Kid, and John Wayne entertained, with Rudy Vallee as the Master of Ceremonies. The cover of the brochure is illustrated with a crude silhouette-style drawing in red and black—the skyline of a booming town with smoke rising from smokestacks, a great flair of white-out at the center, the whole works crowned with an atom, its neutrons zipping in orbit around the dot of the nucleus. The white nothingness that represented nuclear power is firing straight lines of white in all directions and hangs over rolling hills where a chuck wagon and three men on horseback are making their way across an empty desert spotted with sagebrush.
Under the heading of “Let’s Look Back,” the Junior Chamber of Commerce presents its version of Richland’s history.
In the year 1943 a group of men sitting around a table in Washington, D. C. seriously watched as one of their number pointed to a tiny spot on a large-scale map of the Pacific Northwest. Richland! Here, they decided, was the place! Thus was sown the seed from which sprouted a great plant and a thriving community.
Within a few months the pastoral quiet of this agricultural region was no more. Giant bulldozers leveled great tracts of ground, massive trucks roared day and night along erstwhile country lanes, new roads appeared and factories exploded into being from the desert sands. The fantastic barracks town of Hanford materialized to house thousands of construction workers. The nucleus of a vast, secret plant, born of wartime necessity, had been created.
The old farming center of Richland was evacuated and transformed into a modern community designed to eventually house thousands of production workers and their families.
Erection of plant and village ended; production of plutonium began. Only a handful knew “What”, and they were not talking. The village kept its secret well, so well that the nation and the world first learned of its existence only after the announcement of the A-bomb.
The Second Annual Atomic Frontier Days was held in August of 1949. The accompanying brochure was no longer free but now cost twenty-five cents; the cover had changed from red to blue, from hand-drawn illustration to photography, and featured “hard hats and assault masks in the northwestern desert.” Gene has pasted a clipping to the front of the brochure—a picture of close harmony being sung by the “Atom City Four” and a shot of himself with the caption: “A soft shoe tap in black face was an Atomic Frontier Days variety show headliner as done by Jean Millard.”
The Richland Chamber of Commerce expressed its gratitude to the people who made the 1949 Frontier Days a success, and one of them was my father. Once again, we are given Richland’s proud account of itself.
Scattered deep within this natural isolation are this nation’s most modern industrial plants. The vaunted American mass production, the assembly line method by which we lead the world in motor cars, in refrigerators, in turbines and egg beaters and pots and pans, is merely a fumbling dress rehearsal compared to the engineering know-how, the construction skill, the unusual operational methods required in this plutonium manufacturing plant.
The product itself, plutonium, is a man-made element which will be usable a thousand years from now for either war or peace. It is a packed power which will not deteriorate with time, which is a million times more powerful than any known fuel. Its manufacturing raises problems of production, storage, worker protection, national security, and world-power-plays, as no other American made package has ever done. It is owned by a free people; it bears a union label.
At the August, 1950, Atomic Frontier Days, thirty-five booths were set up in Riverside Park, offering “fun and refreshment.” Professional wrestlers went at each other in two exciting matches, and there was a fireworks display with “more than a dozen set ground pieces and bursts of two and three aerial displays at the same time.” The Queen of Atomic Frontier Days was crowned, along with her four princesses. And, of course, there was a free variety show—with twenty-three acts that included a comedy routine starring “Tony the Atomic Clown, Little Atom, and Koko, Hydrogen (H20) Bomb.” The night ended with the entire cast doing “Baked a Cake.”
Gene is listed as one of the directors and appears a number of times in the program, dancing twice with his fifteen-year-old student, Gail Muller. He’s a year away from turning fifty but in the pictures looks younger than that—a lean, fit, grinning showman in two-tone oxfords and a theatrical suit. Two shots catch each of them at the height of a “wing”—balanced in the air with arms flung outward, one foot kicking and the other striking the floor with a toe tap. We can almost hear the laughter and shouting voices egging them on, feel the electrifying exuberance of their performance.
The last photograph in the sequence shows Gene and Gail acting out the story of “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” The image is so crisp that we can see every detail of Gene’s hairline moustache. Gail has one foot resting on the top of a folding chair. Gene is polishing her classic black patent tap shoe with a rectangle of cloth. On the bottom of this photo, Gail has written in a schoolgirl’s careful hand—“To the nicest and best dancing teacher anyone ever had.”
When my father was working there, Hanford’s only business was the manufacturing of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Not until 1963—when the N-Reactor added its bit to the Washington Public Power Supply System—would Hanford’s nuclear energy ever be used for any peaceful purpose whatsoever. Hanford officials constantly reassured those employed at the plant, or living near it, that they were perfectly safe, that “not an atom” escaped, but Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in North America. It had always discharged radioactive material into the Columbia River and continued to do so until its reactors were decommissioned. It fouled not only the river but the groundwater beneath it and left behind fifty-three-million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks that are leaking. Radioactivity from Hanford has been detected as far away as Oregon, northern California, and southern British Columbia. By 1951, the plant had sent more than 700,000 curies up its smokestacks, most of it in the form of iodine-131. For the sake of comparison, the 1979 Three Mile Island accident released less than 25 curies.
On December 2, 1949—in an exercise called “the Green Run”—the Hanford Works intentionally released radiation into the atmosphere so that scientists could monitor the resulting radioactive plume and apply that knowledge to the monitoring of Soviet nuclear production. My father—and anyone else living near the Hanford site—was exposed to twenty times more radiation than the limit allowed by the lax standards of the day. Readings on vegetation afterward were nearly a thousand times over that limit. The Green Run was conducted in absolute secrecy. No one was warned. The public would not know a thing about it for years. By the time that Gene could have first read a newspaper account of the incident, he would have been eighty-five years old.
On July 31, 1997, I interviewed my father’s old friend, “Brink,” and a younger man, Carl, in the Travel Lodge in Delta, British Columbia. The notes I took are sketchy, cursive. Most of what I heard about my father, I wrote down, but large chunks of the interview didn’t make it onto the page.
We sat in the room as the daylight faded away and no one bothered to light a light. The TV was on, a bunch of pros playing a game of something, somewhere—baseball? The volume was low. Carl—along with a possible shadowy fourth presence—was watching the game, but Brink wasn’t. He was talking to me. In the distorting glass of my memory, the scene is set in twilight, lit with the flickering pixels of the TV screen. Brink was friendly enough, helpful enough, but as blunt and straight as a hammer handle. Initially, I read him as a man who had reached an age from which he figured that there was no reason to speak anything other than the plain truth, and I liked him for that.
I see from my notes that Brink had been an engineer. He and his family moved to Richland in February, 1948. Brink originally worked for DuPont, but his employer kept changing names. DuPont morphed into General Electric, and there were several others—United Nuclear, Martin Marietta, Isocan Rockwell. The word “Hanford” must never have been spoken because it doesn’t appear in my notes at all.
When Brink first arrived in Richland, Gene was already there working as a draftsman. He lived alone and avoided crowds because he didn’t want to “get a bug.” Later he bought a little two-story apartment building in Kennewick, lived upstairs, called it “the Maillard building.” Brink laughed at that—at Gene’s seemingly boundless ego—and so did I.
Gene “performed tap dancing”—yes, that’s exactly what I wrote down, so that’s how Brink must have put it. He’d told Brink a story from his early days on stage. Gene was in a comic role, so he used pecan shells to make himself look cross-eyed, but the effect was too realistic. Instead of finding him funny, the audience felt sorry for him. There was nothing worse, he said, than trying to be funny and not getting any laughs, so he worked out another gag. When he made his exit, he was supposed to tip his derby. He lifted it up, and there was another derby under it. He lifted that derby, and there was another one yet—and then another one. He got a big laugh for that one.
Brink told me that he’d built a little studio in his basement for his daughter, Kippy. He had to dig out the basement first because it was only half dug when they’d moved in. He finished it and tiled it, and that’s where Gene gave Kippy her tap lessons. Gene came every Tuesday night. He charged $2.50 for an hour. Then he’d stay and eat supper with them. As Kippy got older, she gave lessons to other kids in that basement studio.
Carl joined the conversation, and for awhile the two men reminisced about Kippy. Carl was a talkative guy. He’d known my father too, had seen him dance lots of times. Richland had been packed with remarkable people like my father—interesting, talented people. It was a nice little town, a great place to grow up. I’d read a lot about Richland by then, and I agreed with him—it must have been a nice little town. Carl said that he couldn’t imagine any other high school anywhere in America that would have had as many PhDs teaching in it. Yeah, he said, it was a nice little conservative town—making sure I got the point. He didn’t need to do that; I’d got the point awhile back.
“When I was growing up,” I told him, “I imagined my father dancing like Fred Astaire.”
Carl laughed at that. “Oh, no. He wasn’t like Fred Astaire at all. He did fast tap dancing, really athletic stuff… definitely athletic. If you had to compare him to somebody, he was more the Gene Kelly type.”
I wanted to bring Brink back in. “Did Gene talk about his wives?” I asked him.
“Well, he had three wives. He didn’t talk about them too much. One couldn’t be without her mother. She wrote to her mother every day. If she didn’t get a letter from her mother every day, she’d get upset. She’d say, ‘I didn’t get a letter. I have to call her.’ Gene asked her, ‘Do you want to live with me, or do you want to live with your mother?’ She said, ‘I want to live with my mother.’ ”
That was my mother—I’d recognized her instantly. I waited to hear the rest of the story, but there was no rest of the story. Could my mother have actually said something like that—made that admission? If she did say it, maybe it had been on the day she’d left him.
“Gene knew you were a writer,” Brink said.
“Oh?… Did he ever talk about reading anything I’d written?”
“No, he didn’t.”
Before I could find another question, Brink said, “Gene had the impression you didn’t want to see him.”
“That’s not true. I did want to see him.”
“Well, that’s not the impression he had.”
I’d known right from the beginning that there was something going on below the surface, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I kept coming up against a hard edge in this man. Gene and Brink had worked together, had known each other for years. They’d been friends. I now read Brink as very much on Gene’s team, so what did that make me? Some unknown guy who’d arrived too late, appearing out of nowhere to ask a lot of dumb questions? It was as though Brink felt it was his duty to present Gene’s point of view as clearly and firmly as possible. “He thought your mother had poisoned you against him,” Brink said.
“Maybe she did,” I said. “I know she tried to do that, but…” I made an expansive gesture. “Here I am.”
“He had cancer, you know… testicular cancer. He had a testicle removed. The day he got out of the hospital, he got into his car and drove into the desert. His car broke down. He got stuck in the desert. He had to walk back. It was right after the operation.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“We could never figure out why he’d done it,” Brink said. “It seems like an odd thing to do… to drive off into the desert the day you get out of the hospital.”
We must have talked about other things after that, but I can’t remember them. The last entry in my notebook might have been the last thing Brink said—“Gene always talked low. I never heard him raise his voice.”
Talking to Brink was as close I was going to get to talking to Gene, and it badly shook me. For days afterward, I woke up feeling not right—a particularly nasty variety of not-right that was like waking up sickened by the stench of bad breath and realizing that it’s your own. I felt as though I had received a message directly from my father—one that predated the “fuck you” he’d sent me in his will when he’d disinherited me. If I was going to continue the conversation, what was I going to say back to him? I’m sorry about the surly letter I wrote to you when I was twenty? Gene would have been sixty-one when he got it—if he got it. He was still working at Hanford then. He might have talked to Brink about it. I hated the thought, but maybe that had been my only chance to connect with my father.
I knew why Gene had driven into the desert the day he’d got out of the hospital. I couldn’t have explained it to anyone, but I understood it because I could have done the same thing. Walking in the desert with one ball, Gene had been thinking about me, I was certain of that. How the hell do you get testicular cancer? I didn’t have a clue, but I suspected that being dosed with several hundred thousand curies of radioactive iodine probably didn’t help.