Here at TNBBC, we love to tug at the sleeves of the authors who pitch us, suggesting they tell us the story behind the books they wrote, the inspiration for it...
The essay I'm about to share with you, by Jeannine Hall Gailey, author of the upcoming collection of poems titled The Robot Scientist's Daughter, is probably by far the most sad and lovely, and also probably my most favorite. Read it to find out why.
Growing Up in the Atomic City
This is the story of how The Robot Scientist’s Daughter was born. (The Robot Scientist's Daughter will be published by Mayapple Press in March 2015.)
Growing up five miles downwind of Oak Ridge National Labs outside of Knoxville, Tennessee could seem to some like an “exotic, picturesque” childhood. I spent hours roaming the several acres of mossy woods on our property, digging up peanuts and picking strawberries we grew in a large dirt patch in the back of the house, riding rescued ponies, canning pickles and apples with my mother. The spring was full of mockingbirds, lilacs, crepe myrtle. I went to a summer camp at the local private school where we had a talent show, crafts, and art classes, along with learning to shoot a rifle and a bow and arrow – I was seven years old for my first shooting lesson, and I was so proud to bring home the bulls-eyed paper target to my parents!
It was a beautiful place, full of fossil rocks and old oak trees and steep banks of daffodils along the rural road. But it was also ominous – the little pond across from our house had a sign that said “Don’t eat the fish” with a slash across a picture of a fish – even while I watched my older brothers and their friends splash around in it. A lot of the neighbor boys got in trouble and went to prison, and there were incidents down the street – a wife stabbing a husband, a husband shooting at a wife – and whole families living in ramshackle houses that seemed on the verge of falling over. We lived out in the country, even for Tennessee, in an area that was mostly trailers, family farms, and forest.
My father, trying to make enough income for four children while my mother went back to college to get her degree, decided to augment his engineering professor’s salary by consulting for nearby Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL) in nuclear cleanup. It was here that he made a switch from a deep interest in radiation-based medical technology – he had worked with early versions of CTscan machines at Yale before moving to work at the University of Tennessee – to robotics, at the encouragement of ORNL, who needed a solution for workers (especially janitors, who came into a lot of contact with contaminated objects) who continued to get sick from nuclear waste at their location.
So our basement became a repository for all kinds of wonderful machinery – a robot arm that played chess, a Geiger counter, and some large box with large knobs that never was specifically identified. I do remember my father showing me how to use a Geiger counter by measuring the clicks on a snowman I built, and he warned me not to eat the snow – that it wasn’t safe. That was my first lesson in the dangers of radiation. I thought this was fairly normal – after all, the kids at my school were the children of physicists and specialist physicians, engineers, and I read books like The Wrinkle in Time trilogy where the parents were scientists. My father bought me radio kits that required fine motors skills and circuitry skills and brought home trinkets and books for me from Japan, where he went for robotics conferences. I watched Hayao Miyazaki's movie Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, about a young girl who lives in a poisoned forest and fights to protect the environment from human war machines and the animals that had mutated to survive what was (even to me at ten, an obvious metaphor) for nuclear radiation poisoning.
The years I spent in Tennessee were some of the happiest I ever had – though no one would call those years perfect – and I always looked forward to visiting Tennessee after we moved away. I spent fifteen years in Ohio and can barely remember any scenery, but I can still remember the exact shape and smell of certain flowers in our yard, the way I built nests for birds out of sticks and violets and mud. When I went to college at the University of Cincinnati, I majored in Biology, and took a class called “Ecological Toxicology” – rumored to be a difficult class with a demanding teacher – and a class for engineers (that I got a special exception to attend) called “Environmental Law.” I was fascinated by these two classes, which, along with learning about mutation, DNA, and environmental impact in my regular biology classes, made me think differently about my childhood in Oak Ridge. Had I been impacted? What might still exist in my body, artifact of the produce and milk I ingested (from local farms,) the mud I played with and the grass I rolled around in? Radioactive cesium, in particular, was said to linger in the bones, hair, and fingernails of children who were exposed long into their adulthood, causing mysterious illnesses, neurological symptoms.
I didn’t know then that twenty years into the future, I’d be investigating those same questions, after years of enduring medical test after test for mysterious autoimmune problems, neurological symptoms, thyroid problems. I’d be looking into EPA reports about childhood leukemia rates in the Tennessee Valley, reports on radioactive trout in my local rivers, reading books by safety physicists about the early years of Oak Ridge National Labs and their experiments with radioactive material near my house. Or that I’d write a book of poetry about the whole thing – my dad’s mission to bring robots to save humans from radioactive poisoning, the beautiful woods and gardens I grew up on (later paved over with concrete and left alone, under questionable circumstances, like a dark joke about how you can't go home again), my own early struggle to live up to my father’s expectations and my struggle with my sometimes uncooperative, unhealthy body, my love of science and nature mixed with an understanding of the dark side of science, the dark side of nature.This is how my fourth book, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, was born. She is still a sort of cyborg, half-robot, half-human, waiting for someone to unlock her secrets.
Jeannine Hall Gailey recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of four books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, and The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, out in March 2015 from Mayapple Press. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. Her web site is www.webbish6.com.