Sabotage in the Secret City: Chapter 1
I dreaded going to work in the rain. The facility was no longer the shoe-sucking morass it had been when I first arrived at Oak Ridge, but still wet weather posed hazards. I travelled the sidewalk alternating between surging forward when the road was clear and pausing my progress when a vehicle was about to hit a mud puddle up ahead.
I made it to Y-12 with a sigh of relief, suffering no more than a few small brown spatters on my skirt. Shaking off my umbrella, I stepped past security. A sense of dread still clung to me like mud but I couldn’t put my finger on any reason for it. All in all, it seemed to be a normal Thursday at work.
I got to the lab early, hoping to have the preliminaries ready before anyone else walked through the door. I moved quickly from one work bench to another, handing out samples for testing at multiple stations. I hoped to have another full canister of green salt to ship out early next week. The protocol I had established had built-in redundancy to ensure accuracy of results. My final number would be an average of all the others.
I sat down at my assigned space and soon was engrossed in the tasks of the day with only a vague awareness of the shuffles and scrapes heralding the presence of the other scientists in the lab. I passed a couple of hours in deep concentration before looking across the room and seeing, with one exception, that everyone was engrossed in his assigned tasks.
The one anomaly was Tom. He sat as still as his stool – his face blank, his eyes fixed on the wall ahead of him. I smiled at the stray red curl on his forehead that had escaped from his shock of slicked-back hair, giving him the look of a naughty little boy. Assuming he was just taking a break, I bent back down to my work. About an hour later, I looked up again and Tom didn’t appear to have moved a muscle. I focused on him for a few minutes and the only sign of life was the lifting and dropping of his shoulders as he emitted one soft sigh after another.
I walked across the room and lay a hand on his forearm. ‘Tom,’ I whispered, ‘are you feeling all right?’
‘No,’ he said without looking at me.
‘Do you need to go back to your room and lie down?’
‘Tom, what’s wrong?’ I said and waited for a response. Not getting one, I asked him to look at me. As an afterthought, I added ‘please’.
He slowly swiveled his face toward me. His expression was so forlorn, it broke my heart. I waited, but still he said nothing.
‘Oh, good heavens, Tom. Please tell me what is wrong.’
‘My father . . .’ he said and stopped.
‘Is something wrong with him?’
Tom scowled and said, ‘Pops is dead.’
‘Let’s go get a cup of coffee.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘You need to talk about it. And it wouldn’t hurt if you cried about it.’
‘I’m not a woman,’ Tom shouted, bringing every eye in the lab over in our direction.
‘Everyone is staring at us,’ I whispered. ‘And you leave me no choice. Either we go and talk or I’ll be forced to tell Charlie you are not completing your assignments.’
‘Dirty woman tricks,’ he hissed as he rose to his feet. ‘Lead the way.’ I bit off the sharp retort that leaped to my tongue and begged for release.
He followed me to the nearest coffee urn without saying a word. As we sat down with our full mugs, he snarled, ‘Do you have to win every argument with a man?’
I ignored his question and asked one of my own. ‘What happened to your father?’
Tom stared at me for a long time before sighing, shaking his head and opening his mouth. ‘The Knox Coal Company killed him.’
‘Did you hear about that gas explosion at a Pennsylvania coal mine two days ago?’
Yes, it was tragic. Nine, ten people died, I believe? I didn’t know your father was a miner.’
‘He’s not – he wasn’t. He’s a mining engineer. Was.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry, Tom.’
‘Nine miners died, too. They pulled Pops’ body out of the shaft last night. They said he was just checking out a structural problem at the wrong time. Ironic. I used to pester him all the time and tell him I didn’t want him to go to work. He always used to tell me not to worry. He’d say, “I’m not a miner, Tommy. I hardly ever go down into the pit. I’m always coming home. I’m not going to get killed down there and leave you behind”.’
‘How’s your mother doing? Maybe you should be with her now,’ I said.
Tom’s face contorted in pain. ‘I don’t even remember my mama. Pops told me she never got out of bed after I was born. She just got sicker and sicker and none of the doctors could help her. Grandma moved in after that. She helped raise me till I was seven years old and then she died, too.’
‘No wonder you were so worried about losing your father when you were a kid.’
‘I’m not a kid anymore. And I’m not a weeping woman. Can we get back to work now?’
‘When are you leaving for the funeral?’ I asked.
‘Leaving for the funeral? Are you crazy? I can’t get leave.’
‘Sure, you can. We can go ask Charlie right now.’
‘Charlie won’t give me leave. There’s a war going on, remember?’
‘I’ll make you a wager. If he doesn’t let you go, I’ll make you a home-cooked dinner.’
‘And if he does, what will I have to do?’
I thought for a moment and smiled. ‘You’ll have to sit through a whole meeting of the Walking Molecules without making one negative comment about women. That is, if you think you’re capable of that feat.’
He threw his hands up as if to ward me off. ‘I don’t always make derogatory remarks about women.’
‘You make them so often, Tom, you aren’t even aware you’re doing it.’
‘Ah, you women are all alike.’
‘Okay. You’re on. Do I get to pick the menu?’
‘Within reason – as long it’s something available at the market.’
‘You’ve got a deal.’
Returning to the lab, I saw Greg glance in my direction with a raised eyebrow. I shrugged and grinned in response. Leave it to him to know something was up.
Tom and I were just feet away from Charlie’s office when he blasted out of the room and shouted, ‘Attention. May I have your attention, please?’
Half the room turned towards him – the others were oblivious. Greg stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. All eyes turned toward the sound.
Charlie cleared his throat and swallowed hard. His smooth, bookish face rippled with wrinkles between his eyebrows and around his mouth. ‘Gentlemen. Libby. I regret to inform you that the president – our president – President Franklin Roosevelt has died.’
A tumult of voices raised in denial surged through the room. One loud voice declared, ‘This is not funny, Charlie.’
‘No. It is not. But, unfortunately it’s true.’
‘An assassin?’ I asked.
‘An internal one, Libby. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage.’
‘Are you sure? Maybe it’s just Nazi propaganda,’ a hopeful voice suggested.
‘I wish it were,’ Charlie said with a sigh. ‘But he died today in the presence of his doctors in Warm Springs, Georgia.’
A sensation akin to panic pounded in my chest and my mouth felt crammed full of sawdust. How can this be true? We need him. The outcome of the war depends on him. Our work depends on him. I didn’t want to think of the consequences so I switched to emotional concerns. ‘Was the first lady with him? Any of his children?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Are you sure he wasn’t poisoned?’ Tom asked.
‘I only know what I heard on the news, Tom. I seriously doubt they would announce any cause of death if they were not certain they were right.’
‘Right,’ Tom said with scorn scratching through his voice. ‘Like they always speak the truth. That’s why all the Calutron girls know exactly what they’re doing here. Right? We’re family – isn’t that what they always tell us. Well, families don’t have secrets, at least, happy ones don’t. Why don’t we let everyone know that we’re processing––’
‘Tom, stop right there,’ Charlie commanded. ‘You are skirting very close to the edge. Just the words you uttered could get you removed from this project if I reported them.’
‘And what, Charlie? Would it be a firing squad? Or would I be locked up for the duration of the war?’
‘Tom . . .’ Charlie began.
Laying a hand on Tom’s balled fist, I squeezed it and said, ‘Charlie, please overlook Tom’s heightened emotions. He just learned that his own father has died and he needs leave to go to the funeral.’
Charlie’s eyes narrowed as if he suspected me of improvising on the spot. ‘Is this true, Tom?’
For a moment, Tom looked as if he were going to snap his cap, then he shook his head and looked at the floor. ‘That emotional stuff is all wet. But it’s true that Pops is dead, yes.’
Charlie stared at the two of us for a moment longer. ‘Just write the dates down for me, Tom, it won’t be a problem.’ He spun on his heel, returned to his office and slammed the door.
I sighed knowing with certainty that later today or tomorrow, Charlie would excoriate me for not delivering that news in private. I wasn’t looking forward to that discussion.