Heavy Water & Heavy Times

Just down the road from my boyhood home, past a small church and its small graveyard with crooked tombstones, sat a country store with crates of empty Cokes and Royal Crown Colas stacked out back. Many days I walked the roadsides picking up bottles and cashing them in at Goolsby’s … enterprising work for a nine-year old with a ten-dollar dream.

Not much later I got a job pumping gas and bagging groceries there. Real work. During slow times I stocked shelves with Campbell’s Soup, stewed tomatoes, canned corn, and other foods that held no appeal for a boy. I swept the aisles with a straw broom, the kind your grandmom made from broomstraw and strips of inner tube. When things were dead I watched black men playing pool in the back for quarters, my first exposure to gambling, which dealt out punishment one day when an errant cue ball hit me right between the eyes.

Up front beside two dusty windows that overlooked two Shell gas pumps yellow as parched corn, men wearing overalls and frayed, felt hats gathered to talk over things. And yes, in a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell, some whittled. I swept up the wooden curls and I heard all manner of stories in that plank-floored store while doing so. Much of the talk was about crops, work, women, people done wrong and lives gone wrong.

Some of the talk seemed foreign, not foreign like German, but foreign in that it made no sense. I must have been ten when I heard someone down at Clifford Goolsby’s store say, “He got on at the bum plant. Yeah, he got a job at the bum plant.”

“He,” I figured, “must be a hobo,” and for a while I imagined a place with folks who looked like drifters working away, which meant they weren’t really bums after all. For some inexplicable reason, I could see bums sliding Hav-A-Tampa bands around cigars, puffing them, and sticking more than a few in their tattered pockets. And then, as the Cold War escalated, a teacher mentioned a place called Los Alamos and later the prettiest girl in school, Peggy, talked about her dad’s fallout shelter. Like a flash of light, it hit me. I made the connection. Bomb plant.

In what seemed an unimaginable distance from home, in a place known as Aiken County, South Carolina—it was just 60 miles or so away—an army of workers, scientists, military experts, and weaponry wizards were assembling the raw material that could annihilate Russia. Why a beautiful city like St. Petersburg and its bejeweled onion-topped buildings could be wiped out in minutes. What a shame it would have been to reduce it to ashes just to get some “dirty commies.”

But we were in their crosshairs too, and that knowledge affected us deeply. Many a dinner conversation centered on the fact that we were west of the site. Perhaps prevailing winds would protect us from the fallout. Innocents, we lacked the sophistication necessary to understand our lives would forever be changed by an attack. The winds, though, the winds … we were certain they would befriend us.

As it were, the Bomb Plant’s main effect was employment. People from my home county, my friend’s mom among them, routinely made the 120-plus-mile roundtrip five days a week, month after month, year after year. Peacekeepers of sorts, they’d gotten on at the bum plant and they did things light years away from my imagined bums and their Hav-A-Tampa cigars.

Life, as I often write, is chock full of surprises, but all too often they don’t quite balance the disappointments. Such is the case here. Little did I realize my path as a writer would lead me to the infamous, ravenous Bomb Plant, officially known then as Savannah River Site. Larger than New York City and its five boroughs, it sprawled more than 310 square miles and its right of eminent domain devoured communities, farmland, and towns, towns a lot like mine. I never left the site without sadness washing over me.

New Ellenton owes its existence to the fact that Ellenton, South Carolina, was moved lock, stock, and barrel. Of all the protest signs I’ve seen in photos, Ellenton’s were the most heart wrenching. “We Don’t Want To Lose Our Home.” “Don’t Make Us Move.”

I walked what was left of Ellenton one summer day. In the late 1980s, on a freelance assignment involving a 15-ton crane that lifted an immense concrete-steel lid off a fuel separation container, I was offered the chance to tour Ellenton’s remnants. Pines and broom straw grew where homes once sat. Streets and sidewalks could be seen, thinly layered with a veneer of grass. It radiated loneliness.

Summers later along the upper reaches of Clark Hill Lake in an eerie spell of déjà vu I’d remember Ellenton as I gazed across the watery remnants of Petersburg, Georgia. Both towns, vanquished by the hand of man in different ways, still clung to their streets, sidewalks, and foundations where homes once stood, where businesses once thrived. But now they were ghosts, relics of another time.

Heaven & Hell

I went to Savannah River Site also to write a magazine feature on nature and the work being done at the site’s ecology lab. After all, the region is secluded and cut off from man’s more ordinary meddling. It makes for a natural laboratory of sorts. Boars, bobcats, perhaps bears, deer for certain, and a host of wild things dwell in the shadows of reactors. It begged understanding.

In what has to be one of the great coups by the University of Georgia, the Savannah River Ecology Lab opened under the auspices of Georgia, not Clemson, and not the University of South Carolina. Georgia professor Eugene Odom, a memorable man, founded the ecology lab in 1961. The lab’s purpose, though never highly publicized, was to study the effects of radiation on plants, animals, and simple-celled organisms.

So there I was, on a nature quest slap dab in the belly of the atomic beast. The lab’s director and I drove to the banks of a large creek, more like a small river really, that roared and foamed with steam. Those steaming waters had just cooled the reactors’ cores keeping you, others, and me safe from Chernobyl-like catastrophe.

I stood on a steep bank carpeted in pine needles. Boulders covered in orange algae captivated me as I watched all that steam rise into the air. On both sides of this river-creek stood the ghostly tops of dead trees killed by the steam. All that was needed were vultures. It looked like a scene out of Terminator. It was winter and billowing clouds rose from the river as if a corridor of cumulus clouds had fallen from the heavens, sucked into that riverbed only. That water was heavy water in more ways than one. I’ve never seen anything like it since.

The scene mesmerized me, and more than anything I wanted to draw my fingers through that river of steam and gauge its heat. As I squatted to do just that, the pine straw rolled beneath my feet and I fell toward the water sliding on my backside feet first. A hand, firm and strong, grabbed me by the collar just before my feet plunged into what I had come to call Steam River.

Whit Gibbons

The hand of salvation belonged to Whit Gibbons, the director of the Ecology Lab.

“Man am I glad you caught me,” I said, much relieved.

“Me too,” said Whit, even more relieved. “If you had fallen in I would have been filling out forms for three weeks.”

Whit Gibbons with his shock of white hair, a bit long, looked like a Marine drill instructor who’d decided to go civilian. Today, he’s a retired professor of Ecology at Georgia and the author of some fine books on Southern nature, snakes particularly. His book, Their Blood Runs Cold: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians is a classic.

Gibbons didn’t seem to be a man for small talk. And yet in a surreal moment, upon learning I hailed from Lincolnton, Georgia, he proclaimed, “Lincolnton, that’s where a member of Dire Straits is from.” Perhaps he meant Lincolnshire, England?

Though I nearly fell into Steam River on that assignment, the story never ran. My editor, forced to reveal his bias against anything nuclear, vowed he would never publish anything making nuclear power look good. The wild goose chase festered within me and it would be among the reasons I’d quit my job at a magazine. I would walk out just like that one afternoon in a brazen act necessitating no choice but to succeed as a freelance writer.

I had other adventures at the Bum Plant. One day I was taken inside a strange building that looked more like the soundstage for an episode of Twilight Zone. Walking past a glassed-in, deeply recessed area enriched with dials, gauges, meters, and strange blinking lights, I began to count my paces. I got to 260 I recall, longer than a football field. It looked like the control center for blowing up the universe.

Upon leaving that building, I was made to stand in a device where my arms were inserted into metal sleeves akin to the ductwork in your home’s AC system. I was, of course, being checked for exposure to radiation.

On another occasion, several of us drove by an immense series of massive terraces guarded by razor wire and plastered with warning signs. It was, I was told, the burial site for “hot” material with a lifespan of 100,000 years. Chief among the concerns for this radioactive graveyard was that man and his language might change so much over 100,000 years that people would forget just how dangerous it was.

I have other memories of the Bomb Plant. I recall the day I walked through a familiar area only to find it unrecognizable.

“What happened here,” I asked my escort.

“You’re not a reporter are you,” he asked.

“No, I said, a writer, nothing more.”

He explained that a neighboring building had to have negative air pressure. That means that any dust, i.e. radioactive dust, occurring in the building could not be allowed to escape. It must forever be sucked inside and held. They had wired up a new air system, only one of the fans had had its polarity reversed, or so I was told. When they fired it up, dust blew out onto the street, the sidewalk, and the grass, and all of it had to be dug up, placed in stainless steel barrels, and buried. All I could see were reams and reams of paperwork for the poor electrician and his supervisor.

The Bomb Plant. What a long reach it had. I had an older neighbor named Ann, the mother of a childhood friend, Ernie, who like her, is dead also. Ann made that long drive to the Bomb Plant for a long time. Unlike me, she was there on a daily basis and I recall that she died of an illness that, looking back, surely had its roots in radiation. I remember going to visit her when she was ill. I see her lying like a corpse, unable to acknowledge my presence. She lies there white as a sheet in a bed with eastern light pouring through a window.

Ann and many others worked at the Bomb Plant for years, making the weapons that in a perverse way upheld the peace in a game of drawn guns where he who shoots first is assured of annihilation. So why shoot? There’s no incentive in disarming either, thus assuring the bomb plants of the world a busy production schedule.

More than 22 years have gone by but “I was there” as the old journalist used to say. I am glad and sad that I spent time at the Bomb Plant. That time proved memorable, meaningful, mournful. It was a source of ceaseless wonder and fear.

Through the years I heard of super-large deer, mercury-infested fish, monster alligators, and myths of strange beasts with glowing eyes. I heard also that if you drove through the site on the way to Edisto Island or some mundane destination you had better not stop too long. Wackenhut Security, those “Wacky Nuts,” would soon pay you a visit.

I heard, too, that 18-wheelers disguised as transfer trucks transported mysterious materials to and from the plant right down I-20. That, to me, seemed to belong in the realm of an overworked imagination, but as my Dad would often remark something was surely true if “they” say it is.

The Bomb Plant. What a scary place it was. Our own version of Los Alamos, right here in grits and gravy and thoroughbred country. Every time I was there, I had this unshakable feeling that if something went wrong with all those dials and gauges, well, it was curtains.

I had reason to be afraid. My father served in U.S. Army Ordnance and he spent time in Yokohama but he also went to Hiroshima just after the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy.” And he went to Nagasaki. As a boy, I rambled through a desk one day and came across my father’s photographs of Hiroshima. Even as a kid, those photos told me Hell itself had been unleashed on Hiroshima and that Hell emanated from a place much like the Bomb Plant.

The photos reveal block after block of charred rubble with I-beams drooping like melted candles. Total destruction … The next time you drive past a field of corn chopped close to the ground, imagine it burnt to a cinder. That’s what Hiroshima looked like, a charred, leveled cornfield.

And so my thoughts drifted to Hiroshima every time I went to the Bomb Plant. There in the land of geishas and samurai, my father might as well have been walking on the surface of the sun. He was at most, 19 or 20. The things he must have seen as he tread Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s toxic soil. Skinless people. Men with stripes burnt onto their skin. They were wearing striped shirts when the brilliant flash hit them. War doesn’t discriminate. The nuclear burst stenciled dress patterns onto women’s bodies. Dad never talked about things like that, but he saw the bombs’ effects. That and worse.

That destruction didn’t come as a surprise to those who conceived it. Awaiting the bomb’s first test, Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, held onto a post to steady himself. The seconds ticked down … “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Now!” A brilliant burst of light and a deep growling roar shook the earth, staggering Oppenheimer. An apocalyptic thought burst from his throat: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” … ironic words from the “Song of God,” a treasured Sanskrit Hindu scripture.

The Bomb Plant … Los Alamos of the South.

Would I go back to the Bomb Plant? Yes. But not to see the site’s science fiction-like facilities. Nor would I want to see Steam River again. No, I’d like to walk through Ellenton one final time. I’d like to stand inside a home’s crumbling foundation and imagine the lives that once called this empty space home.

If I could travel back in time, perhaps I’d smell biscuits baking, hear the sounds of lovemaking, see a TV with rabbit ears and witness the simple prosperity that brought unbridled happiness—a plaid sofa, and just out the window, a huge car with fins like a great white.

I’d like to go back to the site of our Atomic Diaspora where in one of our country’s great exoduses some 6,000 people and 6,000 graves were uprooted and moved. To go there and stand alone, to go there and hear the wind and nothing more, is really to be alone and there are few places left where you can do that. But what an intense loneliness it is.

Yes, I’d go back and listen to the music from “I Don’t Live There Anymore,” Ellenton’s play that premiered in, of all places, Dorset, England in 1992 … some 42 years after the evacuation that left nothing but streets, curbs, driveways, and sidewalks.

What a scary place it was, that bum plant. The Cold War gave it to me and it gave it to you, a topic of great interest once upon a time at Mr. Clifford’s country store back when I was a boy dreaming of the baseball glove I was soon to buy with Coke deposits and my salary as a grocery boy.


Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at www.tompoland.net. Email him at [email protected].

  1. Frank Povah

    Thanks, Tom – evocative and eerie.

    And what have we learned from all this? Bugger all, Harry! Except, perhaps, that scaremongering makes for longer terms in politics.

    We’ve also learned that nuclear energy is awesome stuff (in the proper sense of awesome) and very, very dangerous – unless you want to use it is as energy, in which case the mining and energy companies’ tame scientists will tell us that it’s perfectly safe, and clean.

  2. Mike Cox

    Cue ball between the eyes? That explains much about you, Dear Friend.

  3. Evocative story, Tom. I worked at the Bum Plant as a teenage mail clerk.
    Asked what his job was, a friend of mine who worked there until retirement said, “I design barrels with a 50-year life span for the burial of radioactive waste with a half-life of thousands of years.”

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