Oak Ridge by Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk

Oak Ridge. These words always had an enigmatic, almost magical sound to my ears. I couldn’t imagine what my father found so fascinating about this place. More fascinating than nature walks in the woods. More fascinating than teaching biology at the university. So fascinating that he would give up the chance to spend the summer months with his family in Tuscaloosa in order to do research at this mysterious place in Tennessee.

Ever since his boyhood on a small farm in Indiana, my father had loved growing things—trees, flowers, everything he saw while walking through the woods. Now he was a professor of botany in the Biology Department at the University of Alabama. But for the past few summers, he had left us behind to spend weeks working at Oak Ridge. Finally, in August 1953, my mother, my little sister, and I were going to visit him there.

On the morning of Friday, August 21, the three of us boarded a Greyhound bus in Tuscaloosa, and more than twelve hours later Daddy picked us up at the bus station in Knoxville. We were all exhausted, so he took us directly to our motel. He had reserved a “twin bedroom with bath and cots” for $7.50 a night, as noted in his small memo book for 1953.

The next morning after breakfast, Daddy turned to me and said, “Hey, Kiddo, would you like to see my lab at Oak Ridge?” Of course, I wanted to see his lab! All summer I had been trying to picture the place he found so compelling that he wanted to spend the whole summer there—away from us.

Security procedures at the lab were tight, he explained, because some of the materials they used in their research could be dangerous. Children under six were not allowed to enter the facility. I had turned eight in May, so I could visit, but Carol was only four, so she would have to stay in Knoxville with Mother while my father drove the twenty-five miles to Oak Ridge.

At the gate we saw a sign announcing Welcome to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Daddy showed his identification papers to the guard, and we drove through. Once inside, I was shocked to see a landscape that looked like the surface of the moon. This vast place, so different from the lush hills surrounding it, was a flat, lifeless wasteland.

1945 Oak Ridge X-10 facility – Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy – courtesy of the author

Nothing remained of what had flourished here before, when the spot was called Bear Creek Valley. Now it was just bare dirt, paved parking lots, and faceless rectangular buildings, punctuated by towering smokestacks. Instead of names, these buildings had letters and numbers: K-25, X-10, Y-12.

Isotope processing buildings – Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy – courtesy of the author

Daddy worked in Y-12. He parked the car in a huge parking lot, and we walked over to the entrance. He had to show his papers again, and then we entered a sterile-looking space with high ceilings and cinderblock walls painted white. There were men in the room dressed in white coveralls and wearing funny white caps to cover their hair. This cavernous space contained strange-looking machines reminding me of a scene from Frankenstein, a movie I had watched on TV. What kind of monster, I wondered, had they created here in Oak Ridge?

One of the men in white was holding a thing that looked like a gun. Attached to it was a long, black cord plugged into a small box-like machine with lots of dials. Daddy said the machine was a Geiger counter. Once we went through the metal door, we would be exposed to something called radiation. He explained that we all have a small amount of radiation in our bodies, but if too much gets in, it might make us sick. The man in charge of the Geiger counter had to check us before and after we visited the lab to make sure we hadn’t absorbed too much while we were inside. He checked Daddy first, waving the gun-like thing all over his body. This caused a clicking sound to come from the machine. Then he checked me, and I heard the same kind of clicking—sort of like static on a radio when the signal wasn’t coming through clearly. It scared me to think that I already had some of this dangerous stuff inside me. I wondered if my body was always sending out this staticky sound, and my ears just weren’t sharp enough to hear it. What other sounds might be coming from my body without me knowing?

1947 aerial of Y-12, Oak Ridge, TN – Ed Westcott photo, U.S. Department of Energy (25725839298) – Wikimedia

It wasn’t just our bodies that might pick up radiation in the lab, Daddy said, but also our clothing. Another man gave Daddy a clean white coat to protect him from the radiation. For me, he chose the smallest coat he could find, hoping to find one that would fit my eight-year-old body. It was much too big and almost touched the floor, but he wrapped me up the best he could and tied a cotton strap around my waist to hold the coat in place. Then he gave me a white cap to cover my hair. I had to take off my shoes and put on some floppy slippers made of white cloth. They were way too big for me and skidded around on the shiny linoleum floor.

By this time, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to see the lab. But Daddy said it was safe to go in now so I did. The man in charge had to press some special buttons so that the heavy metal door would open, and we walked through. When the door clanged shut, I had a creepy feeling. What if we needed to leave in a hurry, and there was no one on the other side to let us out? What if there was a fire or an explosion, and we couldn’t get out?

By now I was really frightened. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember much about what the lab was like. Men in white coats were fiddling with the dials and controls of machines mounted on the walls. Daddy held my hand as we walked over to his workstation. It was at a bench, sort of like the bench in his lab at the university, only this one was not made of wood; it was covered with a hard, black slate-like material. Daddy sat down and reached out to adjust the microscope he used. “This is a very powerful machine,” he said. “Much stronger than the one I use in Tuscaloosa.”

“Why do you need such a powerful microscope?”

“The people who run this lab hired me to examine root samples. I have to compare the roots of plants that have been exposed to radiation to others that have not. I need a very strong microscope to do that.” He pointed to a tray holding about ten glass test tubes and explained that the liquid in these tubes contained microscopic root samples. With a syringe he squirted a few drops from one of the tubes onto a glass slide. Then he added what he called a cover slip and placed it under the lens of the microscope. After he looked through, he gave me a turn. I thought I could see some squiggly looking things that might have been root cells, but I wasn’t sure.

After Daddy checked all the samples, he wrote some notes in his lab notebook, which he kept in a drawer under the bench. Finally, we walked back to the metal door. He pushed some numbers into a keyboard attached to the wall, and soon a buzzer sounded and the door opened.

I was so relieved to be back in the big room even though it was cold and had a strange smell like burning electric wires. Daddy and I took off our protective clothing—the white coats, hats, and slippers—and put our own shoes back on. Then we were checked by the man with the Geiger counter. When he waved the wand over our bodies, we heard the same clicking sounds as before. I thought the clicking was a little faster than it had been the first time. Everything must have been okay though because the man said we were free to go.

As we drove through the gate and into the mountains surrounding Oak Ridge, I took a deep breath. It was good to be back in our car with the windows down. I hoped the air blowing through my hair might also be blowing away any extra radiation I had picked up in the lab. I could almost imagine the clicks on the Geiger counter getting slower and softer as we drove along the winding mountain road.

Looking out the window at the green hills and valleys, I asked my father why Oak Ridge looked so different from everything around it. I don’t remember the words he used, but he explained that during World War II, our country’s government needed to find a place to do some important research so that we could help to defeat the Germans. It was important to pick a place that was completely isolated from the outside world because this research was top secret.

1945 Panorama View of Oak Ridge (17899776792) – Picryl

Daddy hardly ever mentioned the word war. He always said he was glad he didn’t have to go and fight because he didn’t think he could kill another human being. When he showed up to take the army physical in 1942, the doctors discovered that he had a heart murmur, which kept him from being drafted.

“Why did everything have to be top secret?” I thought only kids had secrets, not our country’s government.

“It’s very complicated,” he said, looking over at me. “Hitler, the leader of Germany during the war, was a very bad man. He wanted to conquer the whole world and destroy our democracy.” Daddy explained that in the early years of the war, some brilliant scientists were working on a very powerful bomb. They called it the atomic bomb. And if we developed it before the Germans did, it would help us and our allies win the war and defeat Hitler once and for all. But the Germans were trying to develop this same kind of bomb, and they would love to steal the work of our scientists. So everything had to be done in total secrecy, and for that reason, they had to build a big, new lab in the middle of nowhere. “Oak Ridge just fit the bill.”

“What happened to the people who already lived there?”

“That’s a very sad part of this story,” he said. He explained that more than a thousand families, people who had lived here for generations, were paid a little money by the government and told they had to leave their homes. Many of them couldn’t even read the signs that were posted on their cabins telling them they had to leave. Most of them had about sixty days to get out, but some only had two weeks. Many didn’t receive any payment until they had moved out completely.

“Can you imagine,” he said, “if someone knocked on our door in Tuscaloosa and told us we had two months to pack up everything and move somewhere else?” What made things even worse was that the people in Tennessee didn’t have cars or money to help with the move and find a new place to live. “I really don’t know how they did it,” he said, “but by the time the big machines arrived to bulldoze the land for the new buildings, everyone who lived there before was gone. They had no choice.”

He sounded upset when he talked about these people being forced off their land, and I started to think about how the same thing had happened to the Indians on the other side of these mountains when the white settlers decided to take over the land where their tribes had always lived. I had read about this on a sign at the Indian Village our family visited on our way to the Smoky Mountains in June. About a hundred years ago, our government passed a law forcing the Indians who lived there to move out West to a place called Indian Territory. It wasn’t even a state yet, just a dry prairie that later became Oklahoma. Thousands of Native people died on the long trip. The route they took became known as the Trail of Tears.

Last year, when I was in second grade, we had a class called Social Studies, where we studied the history of our country. We learned about the Pilgrims, who came to America on the Mayflower so they could practice their own religion, and about George Washington, the father of our country, who fought a lot of battles so we wouldn’t have to be ruled by the English king. But they never taught us about the Indians. It didn’t make sense. Why didn’t they teach us about the people who used to live in the very place where we live today, people who were forced by the government to move far away?

For a while, neither of us spoke. Then Daddy broke the silence. “Pretty pensive over there. What are you thinking?”

It took me a while to answer. “I was wondering. If we live in such a great country, why does the government keep forcing people to leave their homes so other people can take over their land?”

“That’s a good question.” He thought for a minute. “It’s important to remember that there are two sides to every issue. Take Oak Ridge. I feel for those people who had to leave their homes, but a lot of good has come from the work done at Oak Ridge.”

“V.J.”Day at Jackson Square in Oak Ridge (6986740160-072af8) – U.S. Department of Energy – Wikimedia, Picryl

He explained that by 1945, the year I was born, the scientists at Oak Ridge and out west in New Mexico had succeeded in developing an atomic bomb. President Truman decided that if we used this bomb, we could end the war sooner and save thousands of lives and protect our democracy. In August, he gave the order to drop atomic bombs on two cities in Japan, and by the middle of that month the war finally ended when the Japanese surrendered.

“I’ve never been sure if that was the right decision,” he admitted, “but now that the war is over, the scientists at Oak Ridge are working hard to make the world a safer place and to develop good ways to use atomic energy. I have met so many outstanding scientists during these past few summers at Oak Ridge, and I think you will live to see the benefits of the work we’re doing there.”

As I sat in the car watching the graceful hills in the distance, I realized something important, though I couldn’t yet put it into words. I sensed that my father lived in two different worlds. One was the world of nature, a world of sights and sounds and scents, a world that had existed even before there were people to observe it, a world he had loved since his boyhood on the family farm in Indiana. The other world was man-made, a world of machines and the men who designed and operated them, men whose goal was not just to understand nature but to control it, to shape it to their own desires.

My father was a man of few words, but you could tell he was always thinking. I wonder how he felt, deep down. It must have been hard, kind of like walking a tightrope, trying to keep his balance while living and working in two such different worlds.


Image of the author and her father from her author page on Purple Breeze Press
Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk is Professor Emerita of English at the City University of New York. She has published books and articles related to student journal writing, connections between personal and academic writing, and researching lived experience.
Her first memoir, From Seed to Tree to Fruit: A Daughter’s Memoir of Grief and Healing will be published in 2024 by Purple Breeze Press. “Oak Ridge” is an excerpt from that memoir.





**Featured image: Bottled Radioactive Isotopes – Ed Westcott photo, ORNL, U.S. Department of Energy(8601194860) – Wikimedia, cropped


  1. A very thought provoking story, especially as told from a child’s perspective. It must have given the author much to think about after her visit to her father’s laboratory…

  2. Beautifully rendered, Rebecca. Lovely to get this child’s eye view of such adult goings on. Looking forward to reading the whole memoir!

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