Rambling #6

It’s been about two months since my last post.  Again, I’ve been away from my beloved desktop.  We just got back to town a little over a week ago, and I’ve been catching up on what’s happening in the rest of the world.

A lot has happened in the last two months.  I’ve been through two more rounds of chemo and my hematocrit is above 30 for the first time in a very long while (I have about 70% of my blood!) – no more transfusions, at least for a little while.  In the mean time my white cell count dropped again, and they put me on filgrastim until I was no longer in danger from neutropenia.  Anyway, things are going so well, that my hematologist (that’s a hæmatologist if you don’t speak American) wants to do another round of chemo.  Lucky me – two more weeks of being a pincushion.  One other positive thing; my platelet count is up and I don’t look like a mass of bruises looking for a fresh place to bruise.  I accused my wife of putting a pea under my mattress, and she told me not to worry and that I’m no princess.

My mother fell and broke her fibula, and we couldn’t get her to understand that she had to go to the emergency room.  “But it doesn’t hurt” she said while she was lying down.  Then she’d try to hop up and find that the pain was unbearable.  Short of tying her to the bed, it was hard to keep her from trying to get up.  She lost enough of her short-term memory that she couldn’t remember trying to get out of bed from one time to the next.  We finally got an x-ray from a mobile unit, and there was no question about having to go to the emergency room.

We went through the whole show with the boot to reduce the swelling until they could put on a cast.  Mom fought it the whole way, and when she finally got the cast off, my dad wound up in the hospital with aspiration pneumonia.  He hated being there but he was too weak to move, so we arranged for palliative care at the apartment.  The entire family came to visit, down to the grandchildren.  Some of the great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren didn’t make it, but that was expected.  He died with everyone there.

We were one of the very early families to move to Oak Ridge as part of the Manhattan Project.  Our first dwelling was a TDU (that’s a Temporary Dwelling Unit for those who didn’t grow up there).  I guess we were lucky that they didn’t move us to the “Happy Valley” trailer camp.  As the army built the town, we finally got a real house made of cemesto (that’s cement and asbestos, a lovely eye-catching combination).

Oak Ridge contained the town and four processing plant complexes:  S-50 (the Thermal Diffusion Plant, which was part of the steam plant on the Clinch River that powered Oak Ridge), Y-12 (the Electromagnetic Separation Plant that also machined, built, and disassembled bombs and components), K-25 (the Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which separated uranium isotopes and later tested centrifugal separation), and X-10 (the Oak Ridge National Labs).  The plant areas were built in separate valleys so a single nuclear strike could only wipe out one area.  Although the town was in the same valley as K-25, but there was some distance and a bend in the ridge, effectively isolating the two.  There were 7 gravel escape roads over the ridge into the next valley to evacuate the town in case of a bombing.  Only one remains today (G road) that hasn’t been overgrown by the forest.

My dad worked at all of the plants except S-50, which was a short experiment to see if diffusion was a viable separation process before it was torn down.  He was one of the very few people who had taken any courses on the impact of chemistry on nuclear physics before going to work there.  (He was a chemical engineer by trade.)  As part of the interview before being accepted, the interviewer was talking about a newly created gas, TF6, that had to be “purified”.  My dad immediately volunteered that the interviewer was probably talking about uranium hexafluoride and obtaining the U235 isotope.  The interviewer was surprised and immediately cautioned that there they called it “Tuballoy” in case there were any spies.  Then he wanted to know how my dad found out about it.  He was eventually assigned to the team that created “barrier” (a semi-porous substance in which the uranium could diffuse) for the gaseous diffusion process.  He also developed the ClF3 process for converting UF4 to Uf6, avoiding the risky procedure, then used, for direct conversion using fluorine gas.  When he tried to patent the process, the government “lost” the paperwork, but a couple years later issued the patent to a group of real PhDs who cited the same work he had in his filing.  Coincidence, I’m sure.

Eventually, he went on to evaluate several methods for laser and centrifuge separation processes at Y-12 and X-10.  He was also a project engineer for several reactors.  One of my favorite reactors as a kid was the heavy water “swimming pool” reactor with its eerie blue glow from the Cerenkov radiation.  His last reactor before he retired was the Experimental Gas Cooled Reactor (EGCR) which was cancelled by Lyndon Johnson very shortly before it was ready to power up.  It used helium as the coolant and a fuel geometry that made melt-down impossible even if everything else went wrong – earthquake, tsunami, catastrophic loss of coolant.  No backup systems were necessary.  I don’t think congress or the president wanted safe reactors, since that and several variants of the molten salts reactors are inherently safe and need no auxiliary backups.  (The Molten Salts Reactors were killed by Nixon in favor of the incredibly dangerous Fast Breeder Reactor.)  Congress got what they bargained for – Three-Mile Island and several near-catastrophes, and they still refuse to budge.  My dad retired shortly after the EGCR was shut down.

He had several hobbies as well.  As a kid, I would watch him build electronic test equipment, hi-fi and amplifiers, as well as radios.  He also built furniture, and wood cabinets to house the electronics.  He gave his sister a hi-fi/radio combination in a beautiful solid walnut cabinet for her birthday.

After he retired, he went into competitive down-hill skiing, he became active in genealogy, and he learned how to fly.  He joined the CAP, helping to locate plane wrecks.  He eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and several times took cadets overseas to meet their counter-parts in other countries.

I could continue to reminisce, but I think you’ve got some idea of how I remember things.  Once he and mom moved to the assisted living apartment a few miles from us, we used to talk about everything he used to do.

After a grueling couple of months, my wife and I took a short vacation.  With the temperature up in the wilting range, where else would my wife want to go but central and south Florida?  We went to Orange Lake and vegetated.  It felt so good being away from reality for a short while.  Since we were that far south we visited the parks around Cape Canaveral and got our daily dose of manatees, then we went down to the Everglades so the flies in the area around Flamingo could ignore the bug repellant and chew on us anyway.  The water is low from the drought, but we still saw our alligators, American crocodiles, and my wife spotted 4 more manatees without even going out to the coastal mangrove islands.

We also discovered that the white folks still haven’t left Florida, so the spatterdocks still aren’t blooming.  (I know I’ve talked about this before, so I won’t bore you by repeating.)  Anyway, it’s good to know that with the whites still in Florida, Hell hasn’t frozen over yet.  I suspect that the Seminole and Creeks aren’t likely to get their land back anytime soon.  At least not until global warming has buried Florida in water.

On our way back home, we detoured through Georgia to visit Tybee, Jekyll, and St. Simon’s Islands.  (We missed Edisto.)  Now we’re back in the rat race – just not as hectic as before we left.


After I wrote this, I realized how much I left out.  While we were in Florida, we visited my ex-mother-in-law, who will turn 100 in December.  She still gets around well, but her doctor won’t let her walk outside.  I’m not sure if it’s because of the heat or the traffic.  She doesn’t do her own shopping any more, but she does nearly everything else by herself, including reading the newspaper every day.

I also left out the things my dad did with the family.  He bought some land from TVA on Watts Bar Lake and cleared the parts we would be using and left the rest in its original wooded state.  We built a two-bedroom cabin with a basement, well, electricity, and indoor plumbing.  While we waited a few years for the electricity, well, and plumbing, we had a cute little outhouse that remains to this day.  We kids built tree houses from the scrap lumber.  We also built a boat dock complete with a laminated wood diving board.

At home, we dug a basement in the hard east Tennessee clay.  It took much longer than we expected even with hired help.  There were things that I didn’t think about until dad did them, like putting drains in the basement to run the water into a sump pit where it was automatically pumped into a sewer.  Internal walls had to be built to keep the clay from crumbling so the house would still be supported.  He had a system of construction jacks to support the flooring beams until he could install the welded permanent supports.  The plumbing had to be redone to get the pipes out of the walkways.  Then it had to be wired for electricity.  While he was at it, he also installed a catalytic natural gas furnace to heat the entire house.  He tore out the old coal furnace and coal bin and turned the space into a dining room.  Finally, he tore out the hall closet, which also housed the ductwork for the old furnace and built an interior staircase to the basement.

When I was still a young kid, I got a toy chemistry set, and I tried nearly every experiment in the book.  As we were finishing the basement and dad had rerouted the natural gas line, he inserted a T-line for the Bunsen and Meker-Fisher burners.  We built my own private chemistry lab in that part of the basement.

This barely scratches the surface of all the things we did.  All I can say is that I was extremely fortunate.


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