childhood, Columbia River, daughter, Enrico Fermi, family, father, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, history, John F. Kennedy, Kathleen Flenniken, memories, Plume, poetry, reading, Richland, stories, Washington
I received Plume, a book of poems by Kathleen Flenniken, from my daughter, who bought it for me because the author grew up in Richland, Washington, as I did.
The poems in Plume are about Ms. Flenniken’s childhood in Richland and her work experience at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where she spent a few years as a hydrologist and engineer. I deduce from Ms. Flenniken’s poetry that we are close in age, certainly part of the same generation. I had temporary jobs during college summers at Hanford, and my father worked there for most of his career. Her poems evoked many memories for me.
I most enjoyed the early poems in Plume, about Ms. Flenniken’s childhood years in Richland. I remember Cottonwood Drive, where she lived. As a toddler, I lived nearby – the first home I remember was a government-built duplex like the ones she describes. I remember the Columbia River, the Horse Heaven Hills, the sagebrush, and the sand. I remember the duck-and-cover drills.
The first poem in Plume is My Earliest Memory Preserved in Film, about President Kennedy’s visit to Hanford on September 26, 1963. The poem’s first lines:
Somewhere in that sea of crisp white shirts
I’m sitting on my father’s shoulders
as you dedicate our new reactor and praise us . . .
I, too, was at that dedication of the N Reactor and saw President Kennedy. I was seven years old.
In that era, fathers dressed in suits, even for outdoor ceremonies on hot desert afternoons, so my father wore a dark suit. I don’t recall if he took off his jacket, but I’ll bet he was one of the “crisp white shirts.” I wore a sleeveless dress with a scratchy petticoat, white ankle socks, and my dress shoes. I don’t recall what my mother or brother wore.
As my father drove our family car in the long procession of cars from town out to Hanford for the event, we came alongside another vehicle in which my classmate Barbara rode. In the stop-and-go traffic, Barbara and I waved to each other as one car passed the other. Back and forth we went, in a two-lane parade, all headed for a temporary parking lot marked out in the desert dirt.
When we got to the sea of people that the poet describes, our family was way back in the crowd, and I was too short to see the speaker’s podium without a boost. So, like Ms. Flenniken, I saw President Kennedy from a perch on my father’s shoulders. I don’t remember what the President said, but I remember seeing him and the crowd from the safety of my father’s grasp.
And, like Ms. Flenniken, I remember the President’s death just a few weeks later.
My memories, so similar to hers.
Ms. Flenniken’s next poem is Rattlesnake Mountain, about a landmark near Hanford, which locals claim is the tallest mountain in the world without a tree.
As the story goes, soldiers stationed on Rattlesnake Mountain as part of the World War II defense of Hanford planted a tree during the war years, but it died. The 3,500-foot-high mountain is windswept, sand blown, and stark, covered with grasses and sage, but nothing else.
I remember a field trip to the observatory on Rattlesnake during my high school Physics class. The sound of the battering wind whipping our jackets around our torsos was louder than the teacher’s lecture. I don’t think the wind ever ceased at the mountain’s top.
And whenever we drove to Seattle, we passed Rattlesnake and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to get to the Vernita Bridge to cross the Columbia River. The mountain rose, a solitary mound above the barren land, beyond the high fence that kept humans away from Hanford, though birds and jackrabbits got through with ease.
On one trip past Rattlesnake, my father told us about Enrico Fermi and others building the reactors at Hanford during World War II. “Why don’t they open a museum out here?” I asked, awed at the history he described.
“They can’t,” he said. “It’s hotter than a pancake.” That was when I first realized the extent of the nuclear contamination at Hanford.
My childhood revisited through a book of poems.
What prompts have recently brought your childhood to mind?