Monday, September 26, 2011

First Chapter of My Memoir

A Memoir by Dee Newman

Chapter One


Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, according to a number of documented accounts of eyewitnesses, an eccentric spiritualist by the name of John Hendrix told a group of his neighbors at an old country crossroads store that he had experienced a prophetic vision of what the future held for Bear Creek Valley. He informed them that their remote rural area would one day be filled with a vast complex of buildings to help win the greatest war every to be waged and that a city would be built along Black Oak Ridge.

“The center of authority will be on a spot mid-way between Sevier Tadlock’s farm and Joe Pyatt’s place. I've seen it," he told them. "It's coming."

John Hendrix (“The Prophet of Oak Ridge”) died in 1915. He was only 49 years old. He is buried on a hilltop in a subdivision of Oak Ridge named “Hendrix Creek.”

I Owe My Existence

As far back as I can remember my sister Alice has insisted that I owe my existence to her: had she not persistently and persuasively begged my parents for a little baby brother, I would not have been conceived, much less born.

According to our mother my sister did in fact plead “relentlessly” for a little baby brother. Nevertheless, I maintain that I am more beholden to Adolph Hitler, Hirohito, Albert Einstein and Franklin Delano Roosevelt than I am to my sister.

In early August of 1939 after hearing from Danish physicist Neils Bohr that Nazi Germany was trying to develop a nuclear weapon, Albert Einstein, in collaboration with and encouragement from physicists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, sent a letter to President Roosevelt. Expressing his concerns, Einstein advised the president that the United States should begin its own nuclear weapons research program immediately. That same year a small, highly classified research program, later to be known as the Manhattan Project, was initiated by the president to determine the feasibility of producing a viable nuclear bomb.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the top-secret project became an urgent national priority. In September 1942, Colonel Leslie R. Groves was made a brigadier general and appointed military director of the fledgling Atomic Bomb Project for the US Army Corps of Engineers. He replaced the first director, Col. James Marshall, who it seemed lacked the necessary impetus to get the project moving beyond the research stage.

General Groves, while overseeing the construction of the Pentagon in 1940, had developed a reputation as a ruthless, yet highly skilled and intelligent engineer with tremendous drive, energy, and organizational skills. As director of the Manhattan Project, Groves soon acquired an enormous amount of power, involving himself in nearly every aspect of the bomb’s development. All three of the principle sites throughout the country that were to be used for theoretical research and materials production were chosen by Gen. Groves (site-Y in Los Alamos, New Mexico, site-W in Hanford, Washington and site-X in Oak Ridge, Tennessee).

Within days of taking charge of the project, Gen. Groves ordered agents from the Army Corps of Engineers to secure 56,200 acres of a remote sleepy little ridge and farming valley in East Tennessee. A thousand families from five small rural communities (Wheat, Scarboro, Elza, Robertsville and New Hope) who had lived on the land for generations were given little explanation for the government's sudden, intrusive and forced acquisition of their land.

Abruptly, without warning, thousands of highly educated people as well as highly skilled and experienced construction workers (carpenters, welders, and electricians) from all over the United States and other parts of the world ascended upon that remote rural area. It was an area where change had always been resisted, where most folks lived in houses with no electricity or indoor plumbing and whose children rarely received more than a seventh-grade education.

As they began to apply their skills to build a series of secret facilities, no one, except for a small group of nuclear scientists, knew the mission of the project – to separate, produce and purify large quantities of uranium-235 and plutonium from the natural uranium-238 for use in developing a nuclear bomb.

The site was chosen for several reasons: the small population of these rural farming communities made the acquisition of the land affordable; the long valley was naturally partitioned, allowing each facility to be separated by a series of ridges, providing security and protection from both external attacks and internal nuclear disasters; the area was accessible by both rail and highway; and it had an abundance of clean water from the Clinch River, including hydro-electricity from the nearby recently completed Norris Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

On December 2, 1942, two months after Gen. Groves took charge of the project, in a squash court beneath the old Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, a group of researchers led by Enrico Fermi achieved the world's first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

Two months later, on the second of February 1943, along Bear Creek Valley between Black Oak Ridge and the Clinch River, construction began on Y-12, the code name for the facility that would enrich uranium using electromagnetic isotopes. Nine months later, Y-12 began separating uranium-235 from uranium-238.

Nine miles to the east, on Nov. 4, 1943, 14 months after the first parcel of land had been purchased in Tennessee, the world's first full-scale graphite nuclear reactor went critical at X-10. A year and half later the gaseous diffusion separation plant (K-25) also began turning out weapons-grade uranium, U-235.

In just 30 months, three plant sites were constructed within what was known as the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW) and the secret city of Oak Ridge, unable to be found on any map until (1949) after the war had ended, emerged as the fifth largest city in Tennessee, with a population approaching 75,000. By November 1944, Oak Ridge was using 20 percent more electricity than New York City and had the sixth-largest bus system in the nation.

Security was tight. The huge CEW complex (including production sites and residential areas) was completely surrounded by a barbwire fence with guard towers and seven gates. Everyone 12 years and older were required to wear a government identification badge. Access to the city was restricted to workers and residents with authorized government IDs. Five thousand security personnel manned the gates and patrolled hundreds of miles of fencing. It was imperative that the complex not be infiltrated.

The Clinton Engineer Works: The Y-12 electromagnetic separation plant (upper right), the X-10 plutonium production reactor (center), and the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant (lower left) with the "Happy Valley" housing area.


Twelve years earlier in Atlanta, Georgia, my parents met, fell in love and were married on January 2, 1934 (1-2-34). At the time my mother was a photographic retoucher and colorist.

My father was the chief floor judge and trainer for a series of Dance Marathons (promoted primarily as Walkathons) which had begun during the later part of the roaring 1920s.

Throughout the 1930s and the Great Depression, these dance endurance contests persisted to some degree as partially staged performances and genuine endurance events, often pitting a mix of local hopefuls and seasoned professional marathoners against one another. A 25-cent admission fee entitled an audience member to watch the show as long as he or she wished.

During their glory days, though they were very controversial, Walkathons were among America’s most widely attended forms of live entertainment. By the time they began to fade in popularity in the late 1930s nearly every American city of 50,000 people or more had hosted at least one dance marathon.

The endurance contest business directly employed tens of thousands of people during the Great Depression – as promoters, masters of ceremonies, floor judges, trainers, nurses as well as contestants. Indirectly, Walkathons also helped to create thousands of jobs for local economies, keeping small businesses, newspapers and radio stations viable with their promotional and advertising dollars, paying for license fees, renting countless venues, providing local sponsors publicity for their businesses, and utilizing local food concessions for spectators, employees and contestants.

With Atlanta as home base, my parents began traveling throughout the United States, primarily in the South, Northeast and Midwest working for the contest endurance entertainment business. My father was the chief floor judge and my mother a “sitter” or nurse’s aide.

It was during this time they met and became friends with a 19-year-old comedian, Red Skelton and his first wife, Edna. Red was the emcee of the show/contest and used my father and other floor judges as “goats” for his antics. Red would do most anything for a laugh – from drenching my dad with ice water to shooting him with a blank pistol. The last time my parents saw Red and Edna was in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1935. As they hugged goodbye, Red told Dad, “Chink, the next time you’ll see me I’ll be in the movies.” His statement was prophetic.

Between his Walkathon engagements, my father was also a professional pugilist, an established and reputable heavyweight prizefighter. He was managed by Maw and Paw Stribling, who were the parents of Young Stribling.

“Scrib” as he was known to his family and friends was one of the great heavyweights of the 1920’s and early 1930s. He died on October 3, 1933, when his motorcycle was hit by an automobile. Though he was only 28 he had knocked out more opponents and fought more professional rounds than any other fighter in history – a total of 286 recorded bouts, losing only 12. He was never knocked out except when he lost to Max Schmeling, the heavyweight champion of the world, on July 3, 1931, by a technical knockout in the last 14 seconds of the 15th round. The bout was the first major fight to be broadcast live over national radio.

During his short career, he set numerous records, including most fights by a heavyweight (286), most fights by a heavyweight in a single year (55), most knockouts by a heavyweight (127), as well as the fewest number of times ever to be knocked out (1) and that was a TKO. Gentlemen Jim Corbett called Young Stribling "the best heavyweight fighter for his pounds that ever lived."

In the fall of 1935, after suffering several months with malaria and unable to find work, my father jump a series of fright trains west to Boulder City, Nevada, to work on the massive construction project of what was then called Boulder Dam. It was there that my father fought his last professional fight.

One Saturday night after hearing about a nearby boxing event outside of Las Vegas, my father drove over with several coworkers. While hanging out backstage visiting with some old boxing buddies, news arrived that the principal contestant for the main event had been injured in an automobile accident and would be unable to fight. Someone told the promoter that my father was there and suggested that he might be willing to fill in for the disabled fighter.

Out of shape, still suffering from the aftereffects of malaria, my father consented to fight for four rounds of the eight-round bout and give the audience a good show, but would take a dive in the fifth round if he lasted that long by leaving himself open for a knock out. His opponent agreed to the fix.

When the bell to end the fifth round rang my father was still standing. His opponent had not delivered a convincing punch. My father was exhausted and angry. Fighting now only on adrenalin, he continued to leave himself open to take the dive. By the middle of the sixth round, in order to make his opponent angry, my father spit in his face. Still no convincing blow was delivered. When the fight ended in the eighth round my father won a unanimous decision.

Missing my mother, my father, after working six months on the dam, drove back to Atlanta with a coworker. He soon found work as an apprentice with the Georgia Power Company in Atlanta and became a highly skilled electrician, specializing in the laying of underground cable.

The experience and competence he acquired served him well. When many other men and women were standing in soup and bread lines unable to find work, my father with help from his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), was able to secure temporary positions primarily in the South, in Tennessee cities like Chattanooga, Memphis, Kingsport and Spring City. Traveling with his young wife and infant daughter, towing their small trailer home behind them, he earned a living wage for his family when millions of Americans remain destitute.

In the fall of 1943, after returning to Atlanta from a job in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, my father through the IBEW heard about a project near Harriman, Tennessee, that needed experienced electrical workers and specifically underground cablemen. Leaving my mother and sister in Atlanta with relatives, he drove 200 miles north to inquire about employment. He was hired on the spot.

For several weeks my father lived with his brother-in-law, Loran Jennings and his sister, Mary, in Knoxville, Tennessee. During that time my father commuted to work and back nearly 90 miles a day. On September 21, 1943 my father wrote to my mother:
Hello Honey,

I received your letter today . . . sure was glad to here from you. I’ve been waiting to see what this job turns out to be. Because of the weather I have only worked 4 days since I got here. It has been raining a lot. I’m working for $1.50 an hr. This will be the biggest cable job I have ever seen. It will be about 2 months before the cable splicing starts.

Go ahead and paint the trailer. I will come and get you in about 2 weeks and you and Mary can go over to Harriman and see about a school and a place to put the trailer. It is 43 miles one way from here to work. Harriman is only 17 miles from the job.

I will try to send you some money Friday night. I hope I will be able to work tomorrow.

Give the booger a big hug from me.

Lots of love to you both,

Within weeks, my father drove to Atlanta to move my mother and my five-year-old sister, Alice, to Harriman, Tennessee. For six months they lived in a trailer park in Harriman. It was there I was conceived, thanks in no small way to the fact that my father, at last, had steady work and a good paying job. In short, I was conceived not because of my sister’s constant nagging for a baby brother, but because my parents could finally afford another child, thanks to the government’s secret efforts to develop a nuclear weapon – an atomic bomb.

Eventually, in the Spring of 1944, they move to a temporary community that came to be known as “Happy Valley”, an on-site construction camp near K-25, consisting of trailer homes and hutments built by the Army Corp of Engineers that in time would housed over 15,000 people.

On November 24, 1944 I was born in the newly built Oak Ridge Hospital.


mythopolis said...

Oh Dee, this is sooo fabulous that you are writing this! Please stick with it. All those circumstances in the larger world while you are in the womb. Wonderful! Of course, I was born July'44 so, it describes so well the context that led to our coming to being. Of course, my parent's had different lives than yours, but everything gets strung together by this larger tick of time you describe. I loved the little details about your mom and dad and things they did. That was really sweet, and I couldn't get enough. And the larger backdrop as well. So keep this going.... fer cryin' out loud !!!

Stickup Artist said...

Great start Dee! Your parents sound like such sweet and interesting people and I love that you started out in "Happy Valley." Can't wait for the next installment...