Saturday, February 12, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Reunion -- Jay Searcy

The Last Reunion by Jay Searcy

# Hardcover: 284 pages
# Publisher: Graphix Network
# Language: English
# ISBN: 978-0-692-01233-8

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the USA’s goal to beat Russia to the moon in a very public speech at Rice University in Houston, TX. A portion of the commitment speech follows (with a slight break to omit references to football):

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours…. We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Less than twenty years before in 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a very private decision to make. We were at war with Germany. He knew Germany was working on an atomic bomb. Should we sit idle or should we race to beat the Nazis to a potentially world-destroying device?

There were no public speeches when government officials came to the East Tennessee hills and started buying off land. 3,000 people were evicted from their homes, farmers with only fourteen days notice to clear their barns and fields.

Thus, the Secret City, Oak Ridge, TN was born. All but a very select few of the 75,000 new residents who sprang up in that former farmland had any clue that they were working to beat Germany to the atomic bomb. Parents often didn’t tell their children what work they were doing.

The Last Reunion is part history of the building of the Secret City, Oak Ridge, TN and part memoirs of the people who lived there, including the top scientists and military officials. For the most part, the people portion focuses on the Oak Ridge High School class of 1952. Brief oral histories determine how the class came to Oak Ridge and what their lives have been in the years since.

From the beginning, conditions in the Secret City were rough. Many workers had to leave their families behind initially. Males and females were separated in dormitories. With a much higher male population which was often made up of construction workers and soldiers, any available female was a target.

Yet, there was a spirit of patriotism then. Tax dollars didn’t pay for the war. Instead, citizens bought bonds in record amounts, they endured rationing of almost everything, factories were quickly converted from peacetime to wartime efforts. In the homes, Victory Gardens were planted. People spent evenings knitting caps and scarves for the soldiers. Very few people were pacifists.

No, it wasn’t all copacetic. Searcy details segregated quarters for Black workers that I wouldn’t call fit for dogs. Still, Oak Ridge was one of the first high schools in the South to desegregate after the war.

Workers also knew the uranium they were working with was dangerous. People injured in the labs had to go to the clinic rather than the hospital because their work was so secret the government officials were afraid they'd talk. Searcy's own mother received a dangerous dose of radiation that scientists puzzled over her ability to survive. Yet, the amazing woman lived into her 90's.

As for the children who came to Oak Ridge with their parents whose reunion is spoken. They were the first class to graduate from one of the best high schools in the nation. Many are still alive today. One gorgeous lady was still dancing at reunions. They have a 10% divorce rate as opposed to the national rate of 50%. There’s a lot to learn from these stories about perseverance, positive attitudes, and good values. And the much-disputed section about sex among seventy-year-olds is written with a lively sense of humor.

Their individual stories are touching. My particular favorite was about Sophie, a Hungarian immigrant, who came to Oak Ridge after the war. The book not only details her experience during Nazi occupation, but how she coped afterwards.

If I could have one complaint about the book, I wish Mr. Searcy had cited some of his sources in the historical references. Not that I doubt his research, but readers like me who are interested in leaning more about Oak Ridge could use a bibliography. Then again, that task may be mine to complete.

To purchase a copy of The Last Reunion, go to Jay Searcy’s homepage and follow the instructions:

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