My Atomic Paradise

I was stocking shelves with canned soup at Mr. Clifford’s country store earning 25 cents an hour when a man said, “Yeah, he got a job at the bum plant.”

“He,” I figured, “must be a hobo,” and I imagined a place where drifters worked, which meant they weren’t bums after all. As the Cold War escalated, a teacher discussed Los Alamos and the prettiest girl in class, Peggy, described her dad’s fallout shelter. Like a flash, it hit me. “Bomb plant.”

In what seemed an unimaginable distance away to a ten-year-old, workers, scientists, military experts, and weaponry wizards were refining the material that could annihilate Russia. The bomb plant was near Aiken—a 61-mile drive from home. Then I discovered the woman next door, Miss Ann, made the 120-plus-mile roundtrip five days a week. A peacekeeper of sorts, she’d gotten on at the bum plant and made things hoboes could only dream about.

For a long time I knew little about this nuclear reservation.

Years passed.

One July day in 1986 a self-assigned writing project took me to Savannah River Site, the place of childhood hoboes. And what a site! Larger than my home county by 53 square miles, the site sprawled, then as now, over 310 square miles. Its ravenous radiation-fed appetite consumed communities, farmland, graveyards, and a town. The government moved Ellenton lock, stock, and barrel outside the site, a disruptive event like few others.

A hand-lettered sign at the city limits expressed the evicted peoples’ sentiment: “It is hard to understand why our town must be destroyed to make a bomb that will destroy someone else’s town that they love as much as we love ours. But we feel that they picked not just the best spot in the US, but in the world.”

That July afternoon I first saw Ellenton. Brushy undergrowth grew where homes had sat. Where people once slept vines hung from trees. Curbs still looked solid. Not so the cracking sidewalks, which lay beneath a veneer of grass.

Many of the younger residents who left never returned. Of those fifty or older who relocated to New Ellenton, over half died within a decade. Expatriates forbidden to visit their old homes, their will to live withered. Neither were the dead spared. One hundred and fifty graveyards were relocated to a real eternal rest. The people from Ellenton who capitulated? In surrendering their town they saved the homes of people across the world, but the radiation? It’s alive and well.

People just can’t be at this place anymore. This fact and the need for security keeps the everyday man persona non grata, making the site a natural laboratory, a coup the University of Georgia scored in 1951. Boars, bobcats, perhaps bears, deer, and other wild things dwell in this region of shutdown reactors. The ecology lab’s mission was to study radiation’s effect on plants, animals, and simple-celled organisms. It sounded like a good story to tell.

That July afternoon, on a nature quest in the belly of an atomic beast, I began to write. The Ecology Lab’s director, Whit Gibbons, guided me around. He took me to a large creek, a small river in fact that steamed from waters that had just cooled reactors’ cores. I walked onto a steep bank. At its base steam rose over boulders lacquered in orange algae. “Martian,” I thought, “looks just like Mars.” On both sides of this river-creek stood the ghostly tops of dead trees, a scene out of Terminator. I wanted to draw my fingers through that water to gauge its heat. As I squatted to do just that, the pine straw beneath me rolled and I slid feet first toward the water. Whit grabbed me just before my feet plunged into the water.

“Man I’m glad you caught me,” I said, much relieved.

“Me too,” he said, even more relieved. “If you had fallen in I would have been filling out paperwork for weeks.”

On one occasion, we drove by massive terraces guarded by razor wire, the burial site for “hot” material with a 100,000-year lifespan. Among the concerns for this radioactive graveyard is the fear language might change so much over 100,000 years people will forget what’s here.

And on another assignment I saw a building like few others. “You aren’t allowed to photograph that,” said my guide, a wetlands ecologist. We were driving by a baleful building, R Reactor, the site’s first production reactor. It once manufactured tritium and plutonium-239 isotopes. In 1963, after ten years of operation, a defective fuel rod released Cesium 137 into Par Pond, a man-made lake for cooling reactors. Months later, President Johnson called for a reduction in the arms race. R Reactor closed June 17, 1964. All these years later looking at R Reactor amounts to a Cold War history lesson. For all we know it staved off global calamity.

In 2011 the powers that be decommissioned the reactor and filled it with cement, turning it into an impenetrable block. They welded its doors shut. It will stay this way for the next 1,400 years, a nanosecond to the cosmos.

Would I go back? Yes. But not to see R Reactor. I’d go to see the nation’s first cloverleaf and Ellenton again. I’d stand inside a home’s foundation and imagine the people who loved this empty space. Perhaps I’d smell biscuits baking, chicken frying, see a TV with rabbit ears facing a plaid sofa, and just out the front window, a Plymouth with fins like a great white.

I will go back to this Atomic Diaspora where an unexpected exodus uprooted 6,000 people. I’ll go back because seeing how easily lives can be changed humbles you. I’ll go back because SRS is more natural than most places, save wildlife refuges and national parks, and in some ways it trumps those. Carolina bay wetlands and biological diversity ennoble this place. In a great paradox a place that refined materials for hydrogen bombs created a grand oasis where more than 240 bird species, over 100 species of reptiles and amphibians, and nearly 100 species of freshwater fish live. A creek coursing through here exhibits the greatest diversity of invertebrates of any creek in the Western Hemisphere. South Carolina’s largest alligator—over 13 feet long—lived here. As Gibbons pointed out in USA Today, “These are not nuclear mutants, simply specimens grown large because they are not hunted or fished. It’s a pretty simple formula,” he said. “The best protection for the environment is no people.”

No people. It’s a superb formula. Think how many buildings, parking lots, sewer systems, gas lines, power lines, convenience stores, golf courses, garbage, and dumpsters would afflict these 310 square miles had no SRS existed. But it did, and instead you find solitude. The wind whispers through pines. You hear not one cry from civilization. No contrails, no aircraft mar the blemish-free sky. No litter. No billboards. No mowers. It’s like going back 300 years … the way things used to be.

Miss Ann died of cancer. I remember seeing her lying in bed waiting for the end. Maybe radiation killed her. I doubt she realized the majesty surrounding her as she worked away, one of my childhood hoboes. She worked in a wildlife refuge but never spent one night there.

I dream of camping in my atomic paradise. I’ll set my camp in a grassy plain beneath stars undiluted by city lights and count shooting stars. I’ll never get to do that though and you’ll never go to SRS without solid justification. As close as you will get is driving through on SC Highway 125 or taking a guided tour. Man’s influence here just isn’t what it once was and that suits me fine.

Atomic Paradise Sequel: Home Was Where The Heart Was/How To Break A Town’s Heart

During my recent trip to Savannah River Site I toured the ghost town of Ellenton. Since I wrote “Atomic Paradise” last week Ellenton, an apparition, haunts me. An entire town … moved. In researching “Atomic Paradise” I examined the unexpected exodus of Ellenton’s residents and two things caught my attention. One involves nature; the other human nature.

Nature first. The afternoon I saw Ellenton brushy undergrowth grew where homes had sat. Where people once slept vines hung from trees. Curbs still looked solid. Not so the cracking sidewalks, which lay beneath grass. The school’s playground looks remarkably unchanged for it has long resisted nature’s efforts to reclaim what is hers. Years of small feet running and jumping, playing ball, Red Rover Red Rover sending folks over, and tag had packed the soil into an impermeable surface. Amazing to me.

Bonner Smith Created This Sign December 1950

Bonner Smith Created This Sign December 1950

Human nature next. As I probed Ellenton’s history I learned that Ellenton’s residents found out just a few days before Thanksgiving that their homes would be no more. Overnight farmers had no land. They had to find farmland right away or lose a year’s income. This shock, this sudden departure from life as usual, would extract a severe price in years to come as an excerpt reveals.

“Of those fifty or older who relocated to New Ellenton, over half died within a decade. Expatriates forbidden to visit their old homes, their will to live withered.”

Over half of those 50 and older who relocated died within ten years. That says a lot about human nature and the differences between the young and the old. The young just pick up and move. Not so the older set. When you’ve got a good many years under your belt, your heart is where home is, where you spent your life or a significant time, where you yearn to be. In Ellenton’s case residents’ heart remained back where they had lived.

And that brings me to small towns. To me at least it seems fewer people move in and out of towns compared to cities. Lots of hustle and bustle in cities. Lots of people whose career keeps them on the move. I know a lot of people here in Columbia but few grew up here. Some, like me, became transplants but most are transients. Such people make ours a nation on the move. But! They decide when and where to move. With Ellenton’s people being picked up and replanted like a gardenia bush, I thought of my moves over the years.

I’ve lived in three places: Lincolnton, Georgia; Athens, Georgia, and Columbia. My moves went like this: from high school to Athens. From Athens to Lincolnton to teach for a year. Back to Athens for a Master’s and then on to Columbia for a six-month teaching assignment. So far that six-month assignment has lasted forty years. Why? Well I don’t like moving. It’s disruptive. It’s unsettling. I don’t like starting over and over though God knows I have done that too.

Let’s talk about dwellings now. In my first four years in Athens I moved four times from a dorm to apartments, and a mobile home, aka, a wobbly box. What was behind all these moves? An itch to live in a newer place and economics. Then I moved back to Lincolnton where I first rented a house and then a mobile home. And then I went back to Athens where a tornado forced a move and I lived in a series of places post-tornado. And then that temporary teaching assignment brought me to Columbia where I’ve moved eight times … rental houses, a house, a garage apartment, a big adult only apartment complex, a condominium, and finally the house I’ve owned for twenty-three years. In all, my migrations have included three places and sixteen residences.

If you’ve never moved or not moved much it may leave you breathless, all my moves. Well I assure you it is nothing like people in the military endure. I’ve written before about a friend here. Her dad, a Marine fighter pilot (an ace), fought at Guadalcanal. She moved so much as a child she didn’t try to make friends. “There was no point. We moved all the time, and if we didn’t move, my friends did. Growing up, I always envied people who lived in one place.” I could hear loneliness in her voice, a lingering presence from childhood.

God knows there are other things that force moves or the loss of a home: a big lake backs up and covers your home, divorce (war of another type) forces one to flee, and fires, floods, and hurricanes do their part to uproot people, and so does the loss of a loved one where memories bleed the joy out of life. I know a woman here who is selling her home because she just can’t cope with her husband’s death. “It’s been over a year and things are still depressing. I see too many reminders of happier times,” she laments. Up went the For Sale sign.

Divorce evicts many from their home. Some 34 years ago I started over with nothing but a broken car, a broken heart, a dog, a sleeper sofa, and a television Dad won in a sales contest. And a few home goods of course. Led Zeppelin was right about women with no soul.

Divorce is a personal way to lose a home. But the people of Ellenton endured heartache en masse. Imagine if all of you were gathered into a community center and told you have one month to find a new place to live. Perhaps you were born in the house you must now abandon. Out back are all your pets, buried with loving care. The pear tree grandpa planted out back. You’ll never taste a pear from it again. Everything must be left behind. Oh you can take your memories and that may well be the worst thing of all. You’ll keep longing for your irreplaceable home. That adage, “home is where the heart is,” rings true. Emotions don’t move.

I see a lot of lessons in Ellenton. I am no fan of taking old people out of their home and putting them in an assisted living center. Used to be that just didn’t happen. What’s happened to this world? I swear the more sophisticated and “caring” we become the sorrier we get. The last place an older, frail person wants to be is some place that isn’t home. I realize that older people fall, forget to turn the oven off, don’t remember to take their medicines, and create all manner of worries but isn’t it therapeutic to keep them in the home they love?

In one of the worst years of my life I almost moved to Atlanta. Had my house on the market and was looking for jobs in Atlanta. After a few months passed with no progress I came home dejected and unsure what my future would be. That’s when I found a voice message on my phone. Dad had called. “Son, take your home off the market. Columbia is your home.” He was right God bless him. No telling how much misery he saved me. It would have been a miserable, lonely transition, picking up and moving solo, starting over yet again with hair whiter than ever.

They say misery loves company. The day the people packed up and left Ellenton there was misery aplenty, but nobody loved it. Within ten years families buried a good portion of the heartache created by an unexpected exodus. And the younger set? Well they scattered like a covey of quail.


4 thoughts on “My Atomic Paradise

  1. Love your articles Tom! The older I get, the more precious memories of yesterday flood my mind and soul! I only wish I could express them on paper, as you do so eloquently…….

  2. Finally got to read this. Heart breaking about Ellenton, and so well written. I have since reread “A Sense of the Midlands” and believe your lead story is easily the best piece of all. Don’t stop writing, Tom! I’m a big fan.

  3. Ruth, as always thanks so much. I find Ellenton to be an obsession almost. I intend to do more with it. I thank you very much for your wonderfully kind words on “Sense.”

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