Charles E. Rice
Oak Ridge, 1944
The sophomore year in high school was just underway when Dad announced we were moving to Oak Ridge. We wondered if this unknown town was like Pine Ridge—the mythical home of our radio favorites, "Lum ‘n Abner." We left our home at the foot of the ridge and moved to this strange new place. Dad would work in a plant there known as Y-12. We would not see Y-12 itself or know what they made there until the war was over. When radioactive dust and debris settled on Hiroshima the story of Oak Ridge would be told.
The family went by bus and arrived at Oliver Springs Gate where we disembarked while bus and luggage were searched. We bore identification papers that admitted us to the residential sector of this fenced-in valley. Later each of us would be issued a plastic badge complete with photo.
The roads were gravel, the sidewalks were wooden, and the yards were pure mud. New houses were springing up everywhere. We occupied one of the first of these. The houses all looked alike except for size. They came in sizes A through D. The house you lived in was allotted by the size of your family. We first had to make do with a "B" house but were later relocated to a larger "C" house.
The first and only stores were clustered around a small square called "townsite." Mobile canteens were scattered within walking distance of the residential areas. The high school was partially finished on a hill overlooking "townsite." I resumed my sophomore year there when an average of six students occupied each class. More would come daily and from everywhere. Never had I seen so many Yankees.
We were plunged into a course I had never heard of—physical education. It was rigorous, even more rigorous than the ridge-running I knew so well. We were to learn gymnastics, tumbling, boxing, track, and the elements of military drill as well as the more familiar team sports. It was not a convenient time to be one of the smallest kids in the outfit.
Pine Valley Pharmacy
Even brand new towns need newspapers. Shortly after moving to Oak Ridge I found myself with a paper route for the Knoxville Sentinel. As each new house went up I added another customer. One day a new shopping center went up near our house. I wheeled my bike up to the front of what promised to become a drugstore. A man and his wife were inside busily opening cartons and placing merchandise on shelves. They bought one of my extras and I asked them if they needed any help. They hired me and my newspaper career was over.
Each day after school it seemed some new feature was added to our store (I was the first employee and felt a kind of personal possession towards the pharmacy). I was thrilled when Mr. Overstreet installed an old second-hand soda fountain. I quickly learned the art of soda-jerking and the sampling of the goodies. I took turns also as cashier, salesman, stock boy, and apprentice pharmacist. The store grew and so did I.
Oak Ridge became a boomtown. Everybody had money but other shortages became apparent. Drugstore items like cigarettes, film, chocolate bars, genuine Coke syrup, vanilla ice cream, Kleenex, and chewing gum were hard to come by. Someone said there was a war on. Long lines of eager people queued up when any of the hard-to-get items came in. We sometimes made chocolate milk shakes using orange sherbet.
My access to scarce luxury items gave me a kind of popularity with some adults as well as peers. I furnished film for my buddies in the school camera club and kept my Dad in cigarettes and my mother and sisters in Kleenex and chewing gum. I drank my own share of real Coke. The war, so remote, had brought us already into a strange new world.
From the windows of our school we could see the administration buildings which reminded me of the Post. Beyond them stretched a ridge with a guard station on top. Behind that ridge lay Y-12. General Leslie Groves spoke one day in the high school auditorium. He assured us that the secret of Oak Ridge would hasten the end of the war. He did not add that it would change our world forever.
Friends and Enemies
Everyone knew that the Japs and the Germans were our enemies. Somehow we never worked up much venom toward the Italians and none at all toward the Russians. If someone had announced to me in those years that he was a Communist I would have replied, "Well, I'm a Methodist."
Oak Ridge was a melting pot and we became accustomed to kids from all over the world—even to Yankees. A New York friend of mine and I playfully wrestled and scuffled over the Civil War. And I became friends with a Roman Catholic from Massachusetts. I could tell their names—John Smith and Raymond Morin—but I am not sure these were their real names. Children of some of the scientists at Oak Ridge had to assume false names lest the enemy learn the whereabouts of their parents. We, of course, did not realize this at the time.
A man across the street from our house was an amateur photographer. He let me watch one night while he developed some film. I was fascinated as the images appeared on the sensitized paper. I wanted more of this. I acquired a second hand Sears darkroom set and turned our bathroom into a laboratory. With my Pine Valley paycheck I bought other pieces of equipment and gradually expanded my know-how. Mr. Overstreet let me take in film at the drugstore and develop it for the customers. My work was hardly professional quality, but for a time the nearest professional was forty miles away outside the fence.
A man down the street worked at Y-12. He was a professional in photography. He had been a chemist with Eastman Kodak before the war and had helped develop the Kodachrome process. He heard of my interest and invited me over to see his pictures. He gave me a sample of one of the earliest color prints (which I have foolishly lost). He let me keep and use some expensive equipment, a 9x92cm. Voightlander camera and a huge enlarger. He was Alfred Dean Slask.
In 1948 I would see his picture on the front page of a Chattanooga newspaper. He would be convicted as a Communist spy and would die in prison in Atlanta.
Transplant 75,000 people to a rural Tennessee valley and fence them in and you have created problems of security, safety, sanitation, and sanity. Nothing short of the U.S. government and a virtually blank check could have coped with such an incredible thing as the Manhattan Project.
Funds were lavished on first-rate equipment for schools, cultural, community, and recreational facilities and programs. G.I. buses were provided for mass transit. Garbage pick-up and home maintenance service were prompt and efficient. Medical and dental care were at hand and free. Our one theater always had first-run movies and good popcorn. The "rec hall" was open long hours for jukebox and jitterbug devotees. A chapel on the hill held inter-denominational services and the theater and schools were booked regularly for various churches.
Those of us boys who moved there early first noticed the absence of a "swimming hole." Someone soon found one. Just across Black Oak Ridge was the perimeter of residential Oak Ridge. Circling the boundary was a patrol road, then the big fence. Between the road and the fence was a small creek, partially hidden by brush and trees. We hiked over the ridge, waited until no patrolling jeeps were in sight and sprang for the creek. Several times later, after we must have been under surveillance, we encountered a new sign on the creek bank: "No Swimming - Water Polluted."
In April of 1945 President F.D.R. died in Georgia. A young man I did not yet know, named Gordon Scott, was hit twice by sniper bullets near Munich, Germany. My Dad was overcome by a radioactive phosgene gas leak at Y-12. And I became 16.
A friend and I were playing tennis when we were told that F.D.R. died. And we simply were not told the details of why Dad was in the hospital. Upon his release he came home and announced that the doctors would not permit him to work again in Y-12. The next day I went to school just long enough to clean out my locker and withdraw.
We immediately moved back to the foot of Missionary Ridge, and I finished the last few weeks of my junior year of High School. Germany soon collapsed and in August the church bells and mill whistle told us it was all over.