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Authors: Tarashea Nesbit

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BOOK: The Wives of Los Alamos
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W
E WENT AROUND
the corner, followed the sidewalk, and passed adobe houses, houses built with the soil surrounding them. We passed the curved corners of walls smoothed by numerous hands and houses hanging with tricolored corn and chiles. Our children asked,
Where are we?

 

N
AILED TO A
white door was a metal sign,
109
. Our children ran toward it, opening the screen door, which banged loudly behind us. A woman in pearls, in a pink or blue tweed suit, with an upturned nose, held two black telephone receivers to both ears and said, inaudibly, just mouthed,
I’ll be right with you
. A small white dog rested at her feet and opened one eye to look at us. The woman had friendly, bulbous cheeks, and when she put the receivers back on the cradles she went over the specific rules of our new home. We thought she must have encountered several like us before—tired, weary, expectant, nervous—which was true, she had.

 

D
OROTHY TOOK OUR
pictures, our fingerprints, and informed us we would be getting a new name. Some of us had been told this would happen, others were shocked, and a few were simply resigned. Though many of our husbands were celebrities among academic and physics circles, the point here, in our new home, was not to draw attention. And so, despite our thick Italian or Danish accents that would give our heritage away as soon as we spoke, we became something more all-American:
Mrs. Fermi
became
Mrs. Farmer
and
Mrs. Mueller
was now
Mrs. Miller
. We knew that we were becoming part of an entity larger than our families, larger than ourselves, and we were not necessarily happy about it. Our husbands were not around to hear our complaints, or if they were around we felt we could not bother them with our petty grievances. Our son Bill, who was almost ten, who was looking forward to the desert, announced, when the tips of our fingers were dark with ink,
We are important!
This was the first (though not last) time our sons exclaimed this.

 

C
OME BY IF
you need anything
, Dorothy said. She gave us a yellow map that marked every mile from where we were to where we were going with red pencil, all the way to our final destination, called the Hill, which was thirty-five more miles, all up. We would not have a phone. We did not have a car. How could we possibly come by if we needed anything?

 

O
UR HUSBANDS’ FRIENDS
met us with a borrowed Army car and drove us the thirty-five miles uphill. Or we got on an Army bus parked outside 109 East Palace, a large machine that released thick gray clouds of exhaust. A man tipped his hat and loaded the bus with our mops, brooms, and potted plants. We looked around to see several other tense faces, but none that were familiar. We smiled and took off our gloves. We wondered which of them would become our friends, or we decided immediately whom we thought we would like to be friends with.

 

A
ND IF WE
were with our husbands, at Otowi we took a one-lane suspension bridge that was so rickety only small cars could use it. Our bodies swayed as we rounded sharp corners and our husbands sang
People Will Say We’re in Love
and for a moment this unknown future could be an adventure, could be almost romantic. We turned on the radio because we were too curious not to, and thankfully instead of bad news we heard that the U.S. and British forces had landed in Sicily. We felt light with hope. High up on a mountain we saw a spiral of spinning dust.

 

M
ILES LATER WE
were the ones driving. We took a bend too quickly. Our children yelled,
Stop!
As the car slowed they flung the doors open and vomited in the middle of the gravel road.

 

W
E ARRIVED NEWLYWEDS
, or with a seven-year itch, or still great friends, or no longer in love but trying to keep it together for our children, or for ourselves. Some of us always expected disaster and kept the shades drawn low, some of us were quietly skeptical, although no one could tell, and we were nicknamed Polly. Some of us always made do and we quickly established knitting circles and book clubs. Some of us thrived on gatherings, and we created dance nights and afternoon teas and bridge clubs. Though the dance parties of the night before still lingered, we were Catholic and had Sunday service in Fuller Lodge at eight
a.m.
, or we were Protestant and had service at ten
a.m.
As we walked into the lodge we smelled dank, cheap beer, and the spilled drinks made our shoes catch on the sticky wood floor.

 

L
IKE MANY MOVING
toward an unknown future, we clung to the beliefs that had carried us this far—about people, the world, our husbands, the war—until that strategy could no longer assuage our fears.

Until We Found Our Own

T
HE BUS STOPPED
at a barbed wire fence, and a man in a deep green uniform and a large gun at his hip stood tall at the gate. We had been told by our husbands to be careful what we said, but when the man boarded the bus and asked us for our identification, when the man in uniform said,
Mrs. Miller
,
and we forgot our fake name for a moment, or we were not sure if we were supposed to tell him the truth, our real name, we corrected him:
Mrs. Mueller, you mean
, and he lowered his eyebrows and moved in close to us, and we smelled coffee, or vodka, or onions, and he replied,
No. You are Mrs. Miller now
. It was not until then that we realized the gravity of what our husbands meant when they told us to
be careful
. We were no longer in charge of ourselves or even our own names.

 

A
T THE FENCE
was a sign:
U.S. Government property. Danger! Peligro! Keep out.
Down below we saw Dobermans patrolling the bases of the cliffs, and above, on the peaks, we saw men on horseback standing lookout. In front of us, a six-foot rattlesnake hung on the guard gate. If it was night the military police officers shined flashlights into our cars and into our children’s sleeping eyes; and if it was day they asked us to step out of the vehicle.

 

S
OME OF US
were not yet U.S. citizens; we were from the enemy’s country, Germany, but we were not the enemy, and the Director vouched for us. Or we arrived and our passes were not ready and it was night and the Director was not available, and we could hear the coyotes echoing down the canyon. We were told to stay in the car until morning, and although it was summer the night was cold. We were pregnant. We do not remember how much we slept, but it felt like little, until finally, finally, the sun rose over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Someone official woke up and walked toward us and apologized and confirmed that we were who they said we were. We handed over our cameras. We denied we kept a diary. We received our clearances and continued through the gate, up the muddy unpaved road, past plots of land piled with felled trees and drywall and tubs of paint, past cranes and bulldozers, past a fast-moving truck, until we arrived at rows and rows of identical houses, until we found our own.

 

O
R WE ARRIVED
without our husbands and we were greeted by Donald
Moll
Flanders in the Housing Office who ordered someone named Bob to show us to our home and take us to the square dance that evening. And when our husbands did arrive they came with a bodyguard. We were amazed:
Our husbands needed a bodyguard?

 

S
INCE WE HAD
no children, or because we arrived later than the others, we were assigned not to a house but to an apartment on the second floor. It was stuffy inside but we could not open the windows because they were painted shut. We were disappointed or angry but when we entered our apartment we found a vase of wildflowers on the kitchen counter, a pitcher of milk in the icebox, and a note:
Welcome to the neighborhood! —Katherine & Louise
.

 

O
R WE ARRIVED
and stepped out of the car and Ingrid was already walking out of her door toward us, and she said her name and tried to give us half her teaching shift. We arrived and Erica was in the next yard over saying soothing words in Swiss German to her daughter who was on the ground with muddy knees, crying, and Starla called out to those of us within shouting distance:
I just saved these trees from the military!
and pointed to the three pines in her front yard. Louise opened her front door and exclaimed,
The Allies reclaimed Sicily!
The two agreed it was high time to celebrate, and called a tea party—or was it a cocktail hour?—for three o’clock.

 

O
R WE ARRIVED
as the first wall of our house was being nailed, and we wept. The week before we left we ordered from Marshall Field everything a new wife might need, but we arrived and were told,
Your boxes won’t be here until next month
, and we did not even have a pot, a spoon, or a dish. So we made fast friends with the Mormon family next door and for two months we ate off their floral-patterned plates instead of our own.

 

I
F IT WAS
night when we first arrived, we got out of the car and walked forward, our feet, still in high heels, were pricked by the gravel. Our husbands led the way with a light. We walked toward our number written on a yellow piece of paper given to us in Santa Fe—our four, our number ten. It was a slanted piece of land and a piñon pine without a structure to sleep in.

 

O
UR HUSBANDS LED
the way with a light, except they did not know exactly where our new home was situated, and so we moved forward and then retraced our steps. Someone called to us in the distance. The voice got closer and a man appeared, he was tall, and he said,
Very sorry, we were expecting you later, it’s not ready yet, come to the lodge
. We were cold, but we smiled even though it hurt our cheeks to smile, and we went into the lodge and made our way to our sleeping bags on the floor.

 

T
HOUGH WE DID
not know it then, this was something men, women, and children across the West were also doing, in former horse stables swept out but still smelling, on gymnasium floors with a hundred others, with their one allowable suitcase, with a four-digit number pinned to the collar of their coats. We were white, or we passed for white, or we were not white, but we did not look Japanese, and we thought they went to a place where they could be protected from other Americans who might hate them because they were from enemy country. Because we did not know they would be net makers and would be
protected
by men who had lost their legs in the Pacific theater, what we felt was for ourselves, a bit of pity, and for our children, a bit of fear, and for our husbands, a bit of anger, and we undressed, and we tried to sleep.

 

W
E TOLD OUR
children,
This is an adventure!
though we preferred the adventure of something new and exciting with the potential for a high return—a love affair, say—rather than a risky undertaking with a probably unfavorable outcome, like the Klondike gold rush. Our husbands saw our faces and said,
You’ll love the country once you get used to it
.

 

W
E TRIED TO
sleep but we could not. We thought about our mothers who, when we got married, said,
Marriage is not easy
. We thought about our mothers who said,
He is a good man
, and our mothers who said,
Be kind to him
. Our mothers who said the secret to a good marriage was a clean house and a warm meal, our mothers who said the secret was keeping quiet, or our mothers who said the secret to a good marriage was picking your battles. Or, for one of our mothers, the secret to a good marriage, she said, was sex.

 

W
E THOUGHT OF
our mothers who were right now on the back porch enjoying a cigarette, our mothers who were standing in the kitchen wrapping up a plate in tinfoil and putting it in the oven to keep warm, we thought of our mothers writing letters to our brothers who were crossing oceans we would never see. We thought of our mothers who were drinking gin gimlets with our fathers, who were dancing with our fathers at a party, who were drawing a bath, who were asleep. Our mothers who told us they were so proud of us. We thought of our mothers and we knew this was not our home, this New Mexico. Nevertheless, we would make the best of it.

Land

I
N THE MORNING
we saw the view we had of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, the range jagged like shark’s teeth. And close behind us, we saw the green tops of the Jemez Mountains. The land was built up from eruptions and worn down by erosions. The Jemez volcano made a vast, flat meadow surrounded by rocky cliffs and in most seasons, when the wind brushed over the meadow, it became a rolling wave of grasses.

BOOK: The Wives of Los Alamos
10.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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