Going Nuclear


Now that summer is fading (metaphorically—it’s always hot until like October and I’m currently running air conditioning) I’ve had time to settle down and finally think about things I was thinking about in late winter. At the end of February or maybe early March, I already forget, I plowed through Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography while in Hua Hin. I wouldn’t exactly call it a beach read; it was equally incongruous as reading The Adderall Diaries while in Oaxaca. Kind of funny, kind of a downer, smart, American male memoirs in hot foreign places.

Though the details have already faded, what struck me about A Common Pornography was that it took place in Kennewick, Washington (also that if The Mountain Goats wrote books, not music it would read like this). Sampsell so captured a time and a place that in reality could be any small town in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, but I know Kennewick. Or rather, I knew it very briefly. It made a huge impression on me even though I only spent a weekend there when I was maybe seven years old.

I have no mind for fiction or screenwriting or any pursuit that relies on making things up, creating scenes (I don’t feel bad about this in the same way I’m not bothered that I have little affinity for sports, music or math. In a similar vein, I can’t draw anything on demand but am quite good at rendering what is in front of me even though I haven’t drawn a thing in years) but I do collect mental snippets that I rarely write down. Things that I imagine would be fodder for enriching an invented storyline. I can only relay them literally.

As I’ve come to realize recently, memories are spotty. I thought that I had a good one when in reality I only remember select details, not just from childhood but from things that happened only a few years ago. I’d been to New Orleans twice (in 2002 and 2004) before my recent visit and I could barely remember what I’d done on either trip.

So, it’s remarkable that I have so many dulled and probably inaccurate memories about the time my family took a road trip to Kennewick.

For one, it seemed like we were in the car all day passing through mountains, following water. In reality, it’s 200 miles from Gresham, Oregon a straight journey along the Columbia Gorge, only 3 hours and 35 minutes according to Google Maps.

I didn’t know who we were visiting, beforehand or at the time. I recently found out from my mom that it was her childhood friend’s family, that her mom, my grandmother had been close with this woman’s mother, I’m guessing in the ‘50s. My mom and this woman whose family we were going to see were close in age and both had two daughters, similar in age to my sister and me.

The terrain was desolate, hot, a dessert, and I was nervous the entire time, a dark uncertain mood clouded every action. I often think that today’s parents overcoddle, overthink daily activities for children. ‘70s parents just didn’t care about boring vacations, let alone creepy ones.

The youngest daughter had cystic fibrosis. They visited us once and had to hide her pills in applesauce. Her lungs weren’t right and she’d probably die before becoming an adult. She didn’t seem unwell; it sounded like such an old-fashioned ailment from Little House on the Prairie days a la rickets, consumption or croup.  How could there be a disease with no cure?

Coconut purse On this one time they came to our house, we picked the family up from the airport; they’d just come back from Hawaii and I have no idea to this day how this makes any sense. As souvenirs for me and my sister, they’d brought purses crafted from coconut shells, painted with a coy female face, much eerier and sly than any of the goofier ones I can find online at the moment. Mine had red ribbons on the side, my sister’s were yellow. I was bummed they weren’t green, my favorite color. Then again, they’d never met us before and couldn’t possibly know my preferences. That they had gifts at all, was nice. The purse was evil, though, and tormented me for years. Every night when my mom tucked me into bed I had her make sure the purse, displayed on my shelf, was turned around, face to the wall. I didn’t trust it one bit.

So, their dad worked at Hanford, a nuclear plant, and we took a tour. I was scared shitless the entire time. This was pre-Chernobyl and The Day After (more out of curiosity than anything, I attended a BJ’s Warehouse blogger event back in the spring. Unsurprisingly, I was the only non-mommy/daddy blogger in attendance. What did throw me off was that one of the women made a Day After reference and no one knew what she was talking about. She looked around the table desperate for acknowledgment and I just couldn’t give in, couldn’t allow myself to indentify with a late 30s frumpkin. She shrugged and said, “I guess I’m old.” Later, I felt a little guilty about betraying her, but I couldn’t let my guard down in that setting) but still Cold War-era. I kept thinking about something called Love Canal in the news, which I literally just now discovered had nothing to do with nuclear waste. We could all be contaminated and slowly die or maybe there’d be an explosion. I would hate to be stuck in Kennewick, post-apocalypse. The youngest daughter was going to die anyway, but I didn’t want to yet. At the end of the tour we got little blue balls that looked like gumballs from a candy vending machine. They had an atomic symbol on them and contained nuclear something or another. I didn’t want to touch them. It seemed like a cruel joke to present them in a manner like they were meant to be eaten.

My sister and I had to go to church with the family, one of those Sunday rituals that was bad enough with people I knew. Our parents didn’t come, leaving us at the mercy of not-known-to-us Sunday school teachers (my parents were also Sunday school teachers, which really meant just reading bible stories and providing activities for kids who were too little to sit with their parents during the sermon, i.e. babysitting). We sang songs and formed a circle on a grassy ledge near a cliff’s edge. This seemed dangerous too. Maybe it was only a ten-foot drop-off. I thought I might’ve been mis-remembering but my sister recalls this happening, too, and she was only about four or five at the time. Just that it was precarious and we had to rely on strangers.

I guess I was old enough to sit through the church service afterward and was next to the older daughter and her dad on a bench. She was sucking on her fingers and he said, “You’d better stop or your fingers will melt.” Rationally, I knew this couldn’t be true but a tiny part of me believed it and got panicky. Maybe it was different in Kennewick with all the nuclear energy everywhere.

The older daughter had a coconut purse in her room, too, with green ribbons. I wanted hers instead of mine even though it was no less intimidating than the one in my room. I wonder if my purse ended up in a landfill or if it made its way into someone else’s bedroom.

You can still tour Hanford even though it’s mostly been decommissioned. One of the highlights being “the chance to walk through the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor. This facility produced the plutonium for the ‘Fat Man’ bomb which was dropped over Nagasaki, Japan in August of 1945, and helped to end World War II.” It’s also the most contaminated nuclear site in the US.

As a big aside, I noticed that a former coworker was thanked in the foreword of A Common Pornography. Then, not long after, a woman I went to college with who friended my on Facebook, even though we weren’t really friends then and definitely aren’t now, friended this former coworker, which I could see in a status update (I am not “friends” with him). I have no idea how they could possibly know each other. Sure, we were all present in Portland in the early-mid-‘90s, but the former coworker now lives in LA and the college acquaintance lives in NYC. Facebook scares the crap out of me—almost as much as Kennewick.

One thought on “Going Nuclear

Leave a Reply