On the road again again

Last year about this time my husband and I drove from out home in
Vancouver WA to Colorado so I could attend Left Coast Crime and promote my current mystery, Beyond Confusion.  We brought a massive snowstorm in our wake and didn’t get a chance to see much other than the incidental scenery along the freeway, coming and going.  So we decided to drive to Texas this year for bluebonnet season and dawdle along the way.  We are not good at dawdling.  Both of us grew up with fathers who drove relentlessly.

Well, here we are on Lake Buchanan (near Burnet TX), a week and a day into a trip we think will take three weeks.  The idea that we can stop is starting to percolate through, though we haven’t thrown over the traces completely.  Our virtuous deviations from the freeway have been brief and infrequent, but we seem to be enjoying ourselves more because we can stop.

We drove due south on Interstate Five as far as Bakersfield, stopping at Ashland OR and Santa Nella CA before heading east via Tehachapi and Needles.  This was the reverse direction to last year’s drive.  Springtime is kind to California, and this year it’s spectacular.  All those golden hills are forty shades of green.  This is after a sadly prolonged drought that brought into focus the clash over water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.  The orchardists and wine growers who own the land along the freeway are expressing their feelings with large vituperative signs repeated mile after mile.  You are driving through a dust bowl, the signs claim.  It was caused by the three wicked witches of the West, Pelosi, Feinstein, and Boxer.  I’m sure that a couple of weeks of uninterrupted California sunshine will turn the hillsides brown and make those signs convincing.  When we drove through, that old dust bowl was as green as County Clare.  I wonder whether anyone else noticed.

We weren’t moved to take any side trips on I5.  Arizona and New Mexico were more seductive.  I won’t claim we made a lot of deviations from the freeway, but we did see things our fathers would not have stopped for.  For example, about ten miles beyond Flagstaff AZ we turned off for the Walnut Canyon National Monument, a site I hadn’t heard of.  Walnut Canyon is a steep ravine studded with natural caves that were enlarged and used as dwellings for centuries.  Age and acrophobia barred us from a brisk 200 step hike to the bottom of the canyon and back, but we came away with heightened respect for the ingenuity and courage of the cliff-dwellers of the southwest.

For long stretches of Arizona and New Mexico the view from I40 was its own enchantment, magic enhanced by those useful Roadside Geology books that read the landscape and make even road cuts interesting.  There probably ought to be a similar series on Roadside Gastronomy with critical reference to Gas Station Food.,

We came into Texas at El Paso after a pleasant evening in Las Cruces NM and spent the afternoon in San Antonio, taking a look at the River Walk before retiring from the fray to a motel north of that cheerful city.  Our biggest deviation of the trip was a detour to Fredericksburg with its handsome German churches–and the Nimitz museum–smack in the middle of town.  German settlers established friendly relations with the Comanches, and Fredericksburg has flourished ever since.

We made it to Burnet in time for tea.  Good dawdling.  Maybe we’ll try it again.







This Day is Called the Feast of Crispian

Actually, it’s not.  It’s called the day after St. Patrick’s Day.  I suppose that would be like the day after the night before.  A holiday cliche.  My father was Irish to the core but abstemious to a fault.  In his latter years (he lived to be ninety), he would fling caution to the winds and celebrate happy occasions with a tablespoon of apricot brandy in a cup of hot water.  But hey, he was Irish, my sweet Dad, and I guess that means he had to be a drunk.  I really hate what our society does with holidays, and the pile  of cliches associated with St. P’s is a prime example, though it’s nowhere near as debased as the collection of junk inflicted on St. Nicholas and St. Valentine, two prominent bishops who were probably quite stern.  As was St. Patrick.  So did we all dye our beer green yesterday and grease our lips with corned beef and cabbage?

I suggest a new way with holidays.  Every year, let us reach back in history and find a single fact related to the day, something heretofore uncelebrated, and raise our glasses in honor of that.  Patrick is on record as a strong opponent of slavery, a fact worth remembering.  We need not cancel out the cliches, just not focus on them.  Nor do we need to confine our fact-finding missions to the lives of medieval saints.  Labor Day has dwindled to an occasion for the purchase of school supplies.  How about a chorus of good cheer for the Luddites and Wobblies?

Patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July and Veterans’ Day are in real need of rescue from the forces of rampant commercialism, not to mention the usual cliches.  July Fourth–big bangs and picnics.  Veterans’ Day–the truce at the end of World War I.  Instead of the Armistice, we might cheer the strong investment the country made in the education of veterans at the end of World War II.  Hurrah for the G.I. Bill!  Instead of firecrackers on the Fourth, why not invoke silence in honor of K9 veterans and all those good American dogs who serve the handicapped?  I’m sure the dogs–and their owners–would appreciate a quiet night.  And then there’s Presidents’ Day.  Lincoln and Washington are naturals for February, of course, but if the holiday is really devoted to presidents, why not Lincoln, Washington, and the two least distinguished presidents, just for contrast?  I nominate Andrew Johnson and Dubya, but Millard Fillmore had a lot of class.

So there you have it–the Simonson Holiday Reform.  Happy eighteenth of March.

Dead in the Water

“Sunset” is a metaphor, except for the twenty-five percent of Americans who believe the sun rotates around the earth.  Even then….  The sun sets and the sun also rises.  Think about it.  Fortunately, the metaphors are dead.  That is to say, they no longer operate as analogies, and the writer who cleverly causes the sun to cluck as it sets will be regarded with well-deserved scorn.

When I switched from writing poetry to writing fiction, I pared most of the visual analogies out of my language.  I was following George Orwell’s idea that the language of narrative ought to be as clear as a pane of window glass.  I had got down to one metaphor per chapter before I noticed Orwell was using an analogy to make his point.  Nevertheless, it’s a good point.  Action scenes should not be cluttered with extraneous verbiage.  It calls attention to itself (and to the author) when the focus ought to be on what’s happening.  And it should also be noted that too many metaphors reduce the effectiveness of each.

English  has a very large lexicon.  I’d be willing to bet that at least a third of the nouns originated as metaphors.  For example, “book” is cognate with “beech” in Germanic languages.  Somewhere somebody was writing on beech bark, but we don’t make the connection today.  “Barn” and “barley” have a common origin too, but neither calls the other to mind.  A “dandelion” is a French version of “tooth of a lion.”  These dead metaphors don’t create style glitches, but  half-dead metaphors can.  Lately I’ve been reading a lot of fiction with language that’s feebly figurative, on the verge of becoming neutral but not quite there yet.  The effect is cluttered and sometimes downright confusing.

The problem is easiest to spot in slang and idiomatic phrases.  How many time have  you seen the phrase “toe the line” spelled “tow the line?”  The idiom referred to foot-racing originally, though it came to mean “follow the rules” or “behave yourself.”  It had nothing whatsoever to do with dragging a rope.  The forward march of technical change leaves fossils embedded in language, to sport a metaphor.  Have you “dialed” a phone lately?  Probably not.  Same with “taping” a message.  How about “wiping the slate clean?”  When I was in Wales a couple of years ago, I visited a big slate mine.  I would hate to have to wipe all of that slate clean, though the slate referred to in the phrase was the kind children used in school when they were learning to write in the olden days.

We’re probably fairly sensitive to vocabulary changes resulting from developments in communications, but other “revolutions” have had a more serious impact on language.  I write Regency romances as well as mysteries, and I like playing with Regency language, but I don’t have the energy to master the vocabulary needed to talk about sailing, so my characters are landlocked.  Until the development of air travel, though, most people would have had some familiarity with nautical terms.  The situation is even worse with agriculture.

When I was in elementary school, half my classmates lived on farms.  Now life on a farm is a rare privilege for children.  That causes serious misunderstanding of texts that were accessbile fifty years ago.  Shakespeare, for instance, and the Bible.  If the preacher says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, children in the congregation will have visions of ballpark hotdogs and be mightily confused.  I would suggest a post-agricultural translation, but Scripture is so doggedly farming-minded that any such effort would lead to screams of outrage from literal believers.  To complicate matters even further, British and American agricultural terms are sometimes drastically different, so there might have to be two translations.  The lovely word “harvest,” the same in both dialects, is being destroyed by journalists and politicians.  Any day now, we may see some urban police force “harvesting” illegal immigrants.

Just thinking about this is traumatic, a term borrowed from German via Dr. Freud.  “Trauma” is cognate with “dream.”  Sounds like a nightmare to me.

Girl of the Golden West

The President was born in Hawaii, which makes him about as western a westerner as an American can get.  His opponents and their minions called him a lot of things in the course of electoral politics, but none of them called him a westerner.  I myself am modestly western.  I was born in Montana, spent the first year of my life in Lodgegrass on the Crow Reservation, moved to Salt Lake City (west), to eastern Oregon where I grew up (west), and to three Pacific Northwest universities where I was educated (west).  I have lived the last fifty years slightly north of the 45th parallel and definitely west of Buffalo, New York, which I take to be the last American city to be uniequivocally eastern.  All the same, when a person announces (with some slight alteration of vowels), “I’m a southerner,” I say, “How nice.  I’m a northerner,” not “I’m a westerner.”  Now why is that?

Part of the answer is probably a response to veiled belligerence.  It’s not a burning issue out here in the wilderness, but we did win the C***l W*r.  Hey, Jerusalem.  However, if someone from New York or Boston wants to know where I’m from, I don’t say “I’m a westerner,” to them either, because their response is likely to be, “Isnt’ that nice?  I have a cousin in Akron.”  Or Chicago or Minneapolis or St. Louis or Denver.  Fine cities but notably east.  Time zones east.

In 2009, my mystery novel, Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, won a WILLA award from an organization called Women Writing the West, aka WWW.  The award is named after Willa Cather, a writer I admire, so I was pleased and flattered.  I was also puzzled.  What I wrote had a setting that was west of the Mississippi–in the Columbia Gorge–but I was writing a mystery, not a western.  Insofar as the title and action take a poke at the Buffalo Bill mentality, the book is an anti-western.  Certainly no hard-bitten gunslinger gallops into town, shoots up the bad guys, scoops up the school marm, and gallops off into the sunset.  I got so I was embarrassed to refer to the award.  It was a real honor, and I felt as if I didn’t deserve it.

Still, Willa Cather didn’t write westerns either.

Figuring out what “west” really means is a worthy challenge.  I have to limit myself to understanding only part of the huge area–the Pacific Northwest, say, excluding Alaska, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and Idaho.  Oh, and Texas.  The PNW dialect, with English under only mild pressure from Spanish, doesn’t change from San Francisco to Sitka.  It’s slow speech but similar to NBC standard, so nobody is going to tell us local speakers what a charming accent we have.  We tend to say “pop” instead of “soda,” and we pronounce “shutter” as if it were spelled “shudder.”  We do not drop the “g” at the end of present participles.

As a culture, we are less religion-ridden than the South or the square states, and although cooking magazines tend to behave as if we have no cuisine, we eat rather well.  It’s possible in ordinary restaurants to order something that is not fried or smothered in orange cheese.  They even serve fish.  We have more Asian influence here than in most of the country (except Hawaii)–in food, religion, and architecture.  When we go to the beach, we wear sweatsuits, and we have a sad tendency to dress down even at work or in restaurants.

The northwest is divided vertically by the Cascade Mountains, and the cultural division echoes the geography.  The land east of the mountains is rural and conservative, closer to Idaho than to California, literally and figuratively.  It is dry, some of it high desert.  West of the mountains, the land is urban, progressive, and very much focused on high technology.  It includes the rain forest of the Olympic National Park, which gets more than 200 inches of rain a year.

Vast tracts of Washington and Oregon comprise Indian reservations, national parks, and national forests.  True enough, eastern Oregon is home to the Pendleton Round-up, but the Hanford Nuclear Reservation lies right across the Columbia River from all that yee-haw bull-riding, calf-roping western-ness.  These days seeing a field full of wind turbines is as likely as coming across a cattle round-up, and vineyards dominate agriculture.  Oregon has no sales tax and Washington  no income tax.  Washington just legalized recreational use of marijuana.  Wahoo.

Now that I have all that straight in my head, I’m looking forward to my next encounter with folks from otherwhere:

     “Howdy.  I’m a westerner.  I’m from Vancouver.”


     “No.  Washington.”

     “Ah, D.C.”

     Can’t win.


“Jump,” he shouted precipitously

I like dialog.  I like to write it and even, in moderation, to read it.  Mind you, reading a script is by no means the same thing as wallowing in a good hunk of novel chat.  As a student, I did time with Renaissance drama (and medieval and Restoration and Georgian), but I didn’t learn the difference between theatrical and narrative speech until I got around to writing dialog for my novels.

In a play script, dialog bears most of the burden of story-telling, with radio scripts closer to theater than film scripts are.  The ideal film is silent with the camera doing the work of narrative; at least that’s the theory.  I’m not sure I buy it.  Plenty of visually satisfying movies are ruined by clunky dialog, but it’s true that films are less dependent on speech than plays are.

In narrative fiction, dialog is optional.  So why use it?  For me, the answer is voices.  When the novel was a new form, one of its peculiarities was that it could be read silently, though families continued to read fiction aloud as a form of entertainment well into the nineteenth century–as good parents still do to their young children.  I don’t think the person reading fiction aloud has to use a bunch of difference voices so long as it’s clear which character is supposed to be speaking.  The reader simply puts on the narrative persona and speaks in that voice.

When I’m working up to writing a novel, a sign that I’m ready to start is that my characters speak to each other.  I don’t always use that initial dialog as the beginning of the book, but it feels like the beginning to me.  That raises a question.  I “hear” what I write and what I read.  Does everyone?  Maybe I’m just schizophrenic.  A friend assured me that he never hears voices in his head, but I have my doubts.  He’s a musician.  He hears what his violin is supposed to be playing.  I think he hears voices too.  Script writers almost certainly do.

Two problems story-tellers stumble over when they incorporate dialog into their tales are redundancy and the soliloquy.  The author narrates an event–the discovery of a body, for example–and then follows with a scene that shows major characters receiving news of the discovery.  This can be wonderfully tedious to readers, but writers often don’t notice because they’re focused on dramatizing reception of the news and not on the news itself.  The messenger’s speech can all too easily turn into a page-long paragraph with other characters in the scene going “woo-woo” or “woe-woe” like a Greek chorus.

A soliloquy can slide from natural talk to oratory.  High-flown rhetoric fits into drama, especially tragedy, and into epic narrative easily enough, but the novel is domestic and comic, at least in its origins–people talking, not people speechifying, dialog not monolog.

And why not a triolog?  It’s interesting how seldom fiction writers create a scene with more than two major speakers.  There are plenty of occasions in daily life with multiple speakers–a staff meeting, a rally, a banquet, a funeral.  Even the classic restaurant dinner between two lovers comes across livelier if the waiter horns in.  “And that brings up the problem of speech tags,” she said breathlessly.

I was provoked into thinking about dialog as the topic for this blog by reading a mystery whose author mucked up the speech identifiers two ways.  He or she left unattributed pronouns scattered all over the page.  He said, he said, he said.  He he he.  And he (or she) committed Tom Swiftlies not once or twice in a chapter, which might be forgiven, but two or three times per page in scenes with dialog.  Though the book had a good plot and an unusual setting, and touched on ideas worth brooding about, in the end it was unreadable.  She said severely.

Surplus to Requirements

Now that my parents and my husband’s have passed on, our house has turned into a photo archive with me as KOI–keeper of images.  Last year I gave a nice dinner when my siblings were here by way of bribery.  Then I took out all of Mom’s albums and offered them to anyone who would take them.  No one did.  As for my husband’s family, I can’t identify half the people in the Simonson albums and neither can Mick.  I should add that he is a talented photographer who recorded all of our travels, so the archives of those images–in assorted obsolete formats–add to the clutter.  Sure and would ye ever like six hundred color slides of Ireland, each of them beautifully composed and in sharp focus?  And then there are the big group photographs–reunions, anniversaries, funerals, weddings, class pictures, workforce bean feasts, and Christmas parties.

What should be done with photo collections?  I can see that translating the prints and slides to digital format would be a good start.  But there you are–left with a disc or memory stick with six hundred images.  If the family for whom the photos were taken rejects them, what then?  The historian in me resists destroying them.  Can a writer make use of the photoheap?

Photographs of scenery come in two kinds–aritstry and historical records.  When we traveled I kept having to ask Mick to tear himself away from the photo of a telephone booth he was composing to take a quick snap of the Eifel Tower.  The telephone booth picture would take a blue ribbon at the county fair whereas the Tower would be dismissed as a cliche.  I liked the phone booth, honest.  But I also wanted a record of where we were.

When writers plan to set books in real places, “reminder” photos of the place can be useful.  My first published novel was set in England, in Hampshire.  I had done a huge amount of research for it, but I could not even start the writing until I knew the color of dirt in that part of Hampshire.  That required a sabbatical leave and a trip to the UK.  Mick took lots of photos.  The dirt is pale gray chalk.  Good thing I checked.

A collection of place photos can be invaluable.  Being able to visualize the predominant tree in a forest, for instance, or the birds that show up there in midwinter, can bring the description of a place to life.  The kind of cars on a city street and their condition convey a lot about the economy at a given place and time.  Field crops, wild flowers, road signs–all nice details for a convincing setting.

It’s hard to see how a writer of fiction (as opposed to history or memoirs) could use the family albums my mother put together except as reminders of how fashions change or family resemblances recur.  Some years ago Mick actually bought an album of photos from the 1890s.  None of the people are identified, but a novel set in that era might profit from a look at the outfits they were wearing back then.  The haircuts were wonderful.

I could use those sepia-tinted photographs to create a virtual family and tell their tale…  Maybe I should just make a trip to the dump.

Placement, Displacement, Replacement

The topic I thought I had in mind for this blog was displacement, as in “displacement activity.”  That turns out to be a jargon term from anthropology/archaeology.  It means something like scratching your head when you’re puzzled.  Scratching has no natural connection with being puzzled.  It’s a learned response–displacement from one itch to another.  I had in mind something more like replacement, the substitution of one activity for another, with both activities intense and almost compulsive.  Writing is compulsive and intense, though not necessarily all the time for all writers.  Since writing can also be exhausting and even painful, most writers turn to other intense activities when the going gets compulsive.

I find myself returning to the same replacement activities.  I have even developed a level of skill in some that gives me satisfaction, though never the level of satisfaction I enjoy from arranging 90,000 words in a bundle with a title and my name after the word “by.”  So, as a matter of interest, what replacement activities do other writers engage in?  I have no ulterior motive for asking.  I’m just curious.

My favorite quick-fix replacement activity is cooking.  Run of the mill cooking doesn’t count.  I don’t think my family has ever noticed, but my cookery  improves whenever my writing gets stuck.  I take pains.  I try out new recipes and unusual ingredients.  Take quiche, for instance.  Prosaic quiche is roughly as difficult to make as scrambled eggs and about as interesting.  Last week, when stuck, I made a quiche using leaf-lard pastry, free-range eggs, and chanterelle mushrooms straight from the slopes of Mount Adams. Time consuming but tasty.  I was very stuck.

Twice in my writing life I have been seriously stuck, the kind of stuckedness that demands long-term replacement.  This first replacement took three years.  I started out doing a bit of historical research for a crucial scene in a regency and wound up with an extra master’s degree in history.  I have heard of other writers diverting from writing to research.  Few divert that far or that long.

My second long-term replacement involved water-color painting.  Fortunately, I was only frozen into that one six months–or maybe I took that long to demonstrate to myself that my primary talents are not visual.

What about games as replacement activities?  I confess I’m afraid of games, but not because I don’t like them.  I like them too much.  They are as close to the virtual reality of fiction as anything out there except narrative history and tabloid journalism.  I confine myself to three games–Sudoku, Scrabble, and bridge.  I am allowed to play only one round of each before I begin writing and then only because they are mental warm-ups–Sudoku for numbers, Scrabble for words, and bridge because my parents taught me to play it when I was ten and one rubber makes me nicely nostalgic.

Other writers use games, often elaborate role-playing games, as exercises in plot manipulation and character interaction.  I respect that, and I think gaming has a great future, but if I indulged myself in games I would risk losing my gift for creating “real” fiction.  It’s as simple as that, so I don’t do it.  I don’t watch TV for the same reason.  Now, if I could just persuade myself not to read  fiction, perhaps I’d get my “placement” cursor back on writing, back where it should be.  If only I could stop blogging. . .

Autumn Leaves

Owing to the fact that I was a swot from the first grade on, I’ve always liked September.  When school started the day after Labor Day, I was ready for it, pencils sharpened.  Since 2001, however, the month has had a sour edge, which is hardly fair.  After all, ghastly things have happened year-round.  Pearl Harbor didn’t ruin December, though it sure ruined my mother’s December 7 birthday.  So what’s so great about September?

It’s the beginning of the new year in the Jewish calendar, whereas the Christian calendar (the Gregorian one anyway) is supposed to start the first day of Advent, the Sunday after November 30, the feast of St. Andrew.  The Roman calendar began with the two-faced god Janus, but the Celts started their year on what became All Saints’ Day, after a chilling encounter with the ghosts of the dead on Samhain or Hallowe’en.  There are also folks who start the year in February and March.  I think September feels like a beginning, but it could be the beginning of the end.

If you think about it, school schedules don’t make sense, with the big holiday in summer when most parents would prefer not to see their offspring 24/7, but the schedule is a leftover from agriculture.  September comes just after the main grain harvest, and before those autumnal bloodbaths, hunting season and the slaughter of animals that can’t be fed through the winter.  A less gruesome way of looking at the season is to see September as the vendange, the grape harvest, squish, squish.  The beginning of Wine.

The days are getting perceptibly shorter by September, coming down to equinox toward the end of the month.  You would think we’d have major holidays marking the earth’s passage around the sun, but no.  My brother Brian was born on the autumnal equinox–a fine equable fellow and worthy of a holiday.  The Romans numbered some months and named others after gods or deified emperors.  Julius and Augustus caught on, but September remains stubbornly seven.  Better seven than Nero.  Please to remember the fifth of Vespasian?  Beware the Ides of Brian.

In September, the days and nights may be roughly equal, but the weather is not equable.  Some of our finer hurricanes, not to mention monsoons, have occurred in September, thus providing us with a fire-proof topic of conversation just when we start school and meet a bunch of new people.  Right now folks are cluck-clucking about the floods in Colorado.  At the risk of turning this into a family blog, I will just mention that my sister, who lives in Lyons CO, did not drown, and even called to tell me she was still alive.  There.  Happy September.


Getting a Head

I once had a student in my fiction writing class who could not grasp the concept of viewpoint.  He (generic pronoun) shifted the viewpoint back and forth, battledore and shuttlecock, until the reader dropped out, exhausted.  When I say viewpoint, I don’t mean his choice of first or third person.  He could manage that.  I mean choosing whose perceptions the author borrows to tell the story in a given scene.  Through whose eyes–nose, brain, tongue, ears, skin, nerves, and so on–does the author bring the story to life?  Whose head?

At some points in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was acceptable for writers to shift the viewpoint at will, as my student did, but shifting with every new paragraph was never common.  By the beginning of the last century, limiting the number of viewpoints became the norm.  With first-person narrative at least, the limit was strict.  By the time I got around to teaching my class, most editors expected writers to control the viewpoint AND limit it.  Now, some twenty years later, things seem to be swinging the other direction.  So should we relax and let it happen?  Why bother to keep the point of view under control?  It’s a problem only in narrative, after all.  The novel comes from drama as much as it comes from narrative poetry.  With film scripts, the camera is the viewpoint.  With play scripts, the audience supplies the point of view with a nudge or two from the lights.

I had already committed to this topic, viewpoint, before Laura Crum posted her wrenching story about the euthanized dog.  (See yesterday’s blog.)  Laura supplied me with a superb example of why viewpoint is vital.  If we had a plain script of her blog, just action and dialogue, it would take up less than a page, but the number of possible viewpoints is amazing:  Laura herself and her terrier, her acquaintance, the doomed dog Maxi, the new puppy, and an unspecified number of children, all of them with experience of Maxi.  In addition, the reader can suppose a vet, the vet’s assistant, other pet owners at the clinic where the dog was put down, the pet shop proprietor who sold the new puppy, and passing customers.  Then there’s Laura’s family…  All of these people and pets have the potential to be viewpoint characters, carrying the story off in a different direction.

Laura’s narrative is passionate and clearly sincere.  She warns her readers that they may find her opinion unpalatable, and she admits that her acquaintance may have motives she, Laura, is unaware of.  Without softening her own feelings, she is fair to the woman who had the elderly dog put down.

If I had my unfortunate student here, I would make him rewrite Laura’s story from one of those other “heads,” one of the potential POVs.  If I were rewriting it myself, I’d do it from the viewpoint of one of the woman’s children.  They had to be torn between grief and interest in the new puppy, an odd, edgy, almost explosive state of mind.

Hmmm.  How old were the kids?  Gender?  Attitude toward Mom?  Were there other pets–parrots, horses, pit bulls, cats, pythons?  How articulate were the kids?  Where’s Dad?

It’s probably a novella.

Reaching Hanford Reach

My brother Alan, who works at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington, arranged for me, my husband, and our friend Sarah Webb, to tour the Manhattan Project B Reactor, which is now a national historic site.  I grew up in eastern Oregon, south of Hanford, during the time the B Reactor was still producing plutonium.  This was also the era when above-ground nuclear tests were going on south of us in Nevada.  Every once in a while, the entire sky would light up, whoooom, when another bomb went off.  At night, the sky sometimes showed auroras that were scarlet from the strontium 90 in the atmosphere.  None of this was soothing to a child.

I can remember walking home from a movie with my brother John when I was ten or eleven.  It was summer, around nine thirty at night, and no, two unescorted kids, ten and eight, would not be walking home in the dark today.  As we walked, we saw the sky light up repeatedly.  I screeched and ran home with John panting after me, imagining that World War III was at hand, only to find out that we were seeing heat lightning.  I remember feeling both embarrassed by my terror and angry.

Touring the reactor that produced the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was not at the top of my adult list of places to visit, but curiosity overcame queasiness, and the three of us joined Al for the B Reactor tour a week ago.  I must confess I’m a pushover for large engineering feats–bridges, dams, castles, cathedrals, the Space Needle, the Eiffel Tower.  I love them, even though castles are basically prisons, dams do rotten things to salmon, and folks jump off bridges and towers.  So I was prepared to be awed by the reactor.  Whatever else it might be, it was a major engineering achievement, translating the consequences of still theoretical physics into something concrete and menacing.

The first nuclear reactor–at the University of Chicago–”bred” two reactors, each aiming for a different process of nuclear fission.  Together with the Los Alamos test site in New Mexico, they formed the Manhattan Project.  Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was to generate the components of the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  The Hanford site produced plutonium for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.

The resident genius, Enrico Fermi, had won the Nobel Prize in time to finance his flight from fascism.  His wife was of Jewish descent.  With his prize money, he took her and their two children across the Atlantic to “found the American branch of the Fermi family.”  By all accounts he was an amiable man, well-regarded by the people who worked with him, thumbing his slide rule and coming up with the figures that told them what to put where and what the margin of error should be if the result of error might be a very big bang.  I have to wonder what that agreeable Italian family made of the flat, sage-brush studded scab-land where the grand experiment was carried out.  That’s what it was, an experiment.

Our tour bus drove north from Richland, Washington, along what is called the Hanford Reach.  At the time the reactor was built, Hanford Reach was the last undammed, free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River between Bonneville Dam east of Portland, Oregon, and Grand Coulee Dam near Spokane in northeastern Washington.  (There are now half a dozen dams between the two.)  Grand Coulee was not yet completed, but the two generators then operating produced the power necessary for the project as the river supplied the coolant.  Oddly enough, the river flows north above this stretch–as far as the grand coulee–then bends east and south in a loop that takes it to its confluence with the Snake River, the border between Oregon and southern Idaho.

About ten thousand people were brought in to build the B Reactor.  They were skilled workers–machinists, electricians, masons, pipe-fitters, and support personnel like cooks, as well as technicians and scientists.  Most were single men but there were some families.  They lived in barracks or hastily built houses, and they were not told what they were working on, just that it was ultra-secret and urgent.  Apart from domestic structures, the Hanford site contains several other reactors and assorted pumphouses and cooling ponds.  The reactors were placed far enough apart that an explosion at one would (they hoped) not damage another.  The site is large and the buildings scattered.  When we arrived at the B Reactor, the temperature outside was already approaching ninety, and during WWII there was no air-conditioning, just big fans.  We scuttled inside and began our guided walk-through.

All forty of us sat directly in front of the reactor as we listened to the docent make his introduction.  The acoustics were terrible and would have been worse sixty years ago with the big fans running.  I spaced out and gawked at the huge graphite box towering at least three stories above us.  It was as wide as it was high.  What we saw resembled a giant window screen, each slug of uranium sealed in an aluminum tube through which water was pumped.  Vertical rods slid in and out to control the reaction.  When the slugs were spent, they dropped out the far end into a cooling pool, and each of them was monitored as it was used.

When the inaudible introduction concluded, we were divided into two groups, each led by a docent who had at some point worked on the site.  In the first room we came to, our guide showed us where Russian scientists are brought to inspect the reactor to be sure it’s not in use.  The guide was frank and informative, fielding and answering questions as we walked through the valve pit room where water was pumped in to a room with a back-up system for inserting rods hydraulically if the power failed.  It did–once.  A lightning strike took out the transmitter at Grand Coulee Dam.  Power was restored almost at once, but the back-up system passed its test.

The control room, with the supervisor’s office and a small room Fermi used when he was on site, displayed an array of antique monitoring devices complete with vacuum tubes, dials, and cranks.  Again we saw the reactor, side view, with its rods and pipes.  The docent said that anyone bumping it would cause a “scram,” meaning that the reactor would have to be shut down and restarted.  The next room showed videos of the fuel retrieval process that recovered the plutonium from the spent slugs.  Again, the tapes were nearly inaudible because of an echo in the sound system.  Afterwards, we returned to the reactor room for a final lecture and were then free to roam around looking at artifacts and talking to the half dozen docents who were there to explain things.

Riding back in our air-conditioned bus, I thought about what I’d seen.  Two points struck me with particular force.

First, I was awed by the stunning insouciance of the personnel at the site during the war.  They worked in what they had to know was a dangerous situation with almost no safety controls.  They were all very much braver than I could ever be.  Yet they lived there at Hanford nearly four years, freezing in winter as the winds blew down from Alberta and sweltering in summer, taking hikes along the river with their kids, and living it up at dances and bond rallies.

The second point hit me even harder.  Disposal of nuclear waste is the main concern at Hanford these days.  Later reactors deposited liquid waste in huge underground tanks designed to be safe for ten years.  Now, sixty years on, much of that waste is still stored in those tanks.  That is an appalling fact.  But the B Reactor did not recycle irradiated coolant.  The water used to cool it ran through the pipes into a pond–and out, directly into the Columbia River.  For more than twenty years.

I grew up downwind of Hanford.  I’m glad I didn’t grow up downstream.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,827 other followers