2nd Climb – each step is a gift (in dedication to my mother)
I don’t remember much about this climb. It was 1997. My mother had died the year before from Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. ALS is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles, ultimately resulting in total paralysis. The bitter irony is that the mind is perfectly fine, all the way until death. You are mindfully trapped over the course of several years as your body decays until your lungs can no longer sustain breathing. And then you die. A truly wicked fate.
I have often thought about my mother’s disease and wonder if there is any connection to Hanford, now the world’s most contaminated radioactive waste site in the world. She met dad in the late 1950’s after emigrating from Ireland, the oldest girl in a family of eight children from County Mayo, born on St. Patrick’s Day. Her mother was known as Mamie Joyce, her father Patrick Henaghan, a farmer and landowner. Their family survived the Famine; my rough understanding is that they were accomplished and relatively secure. My great grandfather built the church on the Reek, Croagh Patrick. When visiting Ireland my uncles would proudly point out land that had been in the family for generations, bridges and houses built, relatives who were doctors, lawyers, people of prominence.
Mom emigrated to New York in the early 1950s for surely what would a woman of strength and character achieve in what was then an extremely patriarchal culture? Her oldest brother was the favored one, and he became a renowned doctor in Newfoundland. The second oldest brother became a priest who came to America. And what would become of Mary? A nun? A caretaker for the younger siblings? She headed for the United States. There are so many questions I have for her about that courageous and fateful decision that remain unanswered to this day.
Her certificate of naturalization is dated April 6, 1954 (coincidentally the same day as my father’s birthday). My father was at the time a chemical engineer at the Hanford site producing weapons-grade plutonium; mom was employed for GE as a secretary in New York City. Her brother was then a priest assigned to the wilds of eastern Washington. He introduced my devout Catholic father to her while pastor at Christ the King Catholic Church in Richland, and the rest, they say, is history.
My mother Mary raised five children in the hot (sic) southeastern Washington desert town of Richland at a time when the Hanford site released radioactive contamination across the desert, agricultural fields and towns while producing weapons-grade plutonium. After mom died in 1996 my father suffered and recovered from stomach cancer. A brother survived another cancer. The cancers, my mother’s ALS, other chronic family ailments. Could there be a connection to Hanford?
The Mountain has been home to these thoughts over the years on many trails, switchbacks of thoughts leading upward in a search for answers where glaciers now recede under cobalt sky. Thinking of Richland, home is a curious notion.
I have been searching for a home since my earliest childhood. I am a child of the nuclear defense complex, born and raised in Richland, Washington, a city spawned by the federal government for the sole purpose of building nuclear weapons-grade plutonium to annihilate the Japanese in World War II, and then possibly (and God willing, the Richland community was willing) the Russians. The focal point of my existence was atomic energy and fission, the splitting of atoms and communities.
Until I was five we lived in an older part of Richland, “older” a relative term confined to the past twenty years of the town’s existence. My family lived in a ranch house on Cottonwood Drive, World War II tract housing built and paid for by the government to house Manhattan Project and Atomic Energy Commission employees. Like the name suggests, Cottonwood Drive had trees of the street’s namesake, an unusual landscape feature in eastern Washington since the natural landscape is mostly scrub desert and sagebrush. The cottonwoods were planted to shield the town from the dust that blew during construction of the Manhattan Project. Yet Richland is really scrubland desert. The most romantic appellation for the area is a winery in Benton City called Kiona, an Indian name meaning, “Brown Hills”.
I was very fond of that small rambler “ranch house” constructed by the federal government to house Hanford workers and their families. It is there where I made childhood friendships in the cool shade on 100 degree days. My parents, myself and three brothers lived there until my sister, the fifth child, arrived. My father then bought a 3,500 square foot split-level in north Richland that was selling for $30,000 in 1968. With an open floor plan and fighting siblings, I hated it and always missed the ranch house.
The city center—if such a place truly existed, for it was really only a geographic point, not a cultural center—was the Federal Building, where government bureaucrats continue operating the Hanford nuclear energy complex, its new mission now to clean up the massive radioactive contamination. From an economic perspective, I would argue it’s the greatest Keynesian project ever created; irradiate a massive area with radioactive isotopes over a few decades with half-lives numbering in thousands and millions of years, then spend decades trying to clean the mess up. Brilliant economic development strategy.
When visitors came, my father invariably suggested a visit to the Hanford Science Center. There we operated a robotic arm used to simulate the handling of plutonium and were given irradiated marbles as souvenirs. It was a strangely insular town; we rarely visited the neighboring farming and ranching communities that comprise the eastern Washington landscape. Richland had nothing in common with these communities.
Growing up in a suburb without a city, Richland lacked the social fabric normally associated with an agricultural or industrial base, or indeed, any town with any sort of history. When your social history is based exclusively on creating weapon-grade plutonium whose sole use was mass destruction—or today, cleaning up the mess left behind—then simple things like 4H, annual parades, community history, and museums are totally lacking or weak in comparison to an older town that has at least been on the map for 50 years, let alone a century a two.
Our history was recent, but forever changed our future. The cold warriors were still alive when I came of age. The flash of white light in New Mexico and the annihilation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were pages in our grade school history books, recent memories confined to the chilling dust. Eighteen years had passed between the bombing of Hiroshima and the time I was born in 1963, a mere breath in the life of plutonium. But in human terms, the Cold War in Richland was a golden age, Arthurian in its quest for domination over our enemies, a holy war of technology steeped in goodness. We were the sons and daughters of the creators of the most powerful human creation, fission. It engulfed our hearts, our souls, our bodies, even the names of our storefronts.
Radiation was in our kitchen. As mom cooked dinner, dad regaled us with the promise and benefits of nuclear inventions, eyes bright with the telling of newly published research taking place at the Hanford laboratories. It was in our homes, literally. Workers carried radioactive material back in their clothes into their homes or radioactive materials mixed with the dust that blew constantly over Richland throughout each successive construction phase. It became literally a part of us. To this day I can only wonder if Hanford caused my mother’s death from Lou Gehrig’s disease, a brother’s cancer, my father’s cancer.
Radiation was in our churches. In our congregations on Sundays, we prayed for strength and redemption and power against the communists while protecting our way of life.
Radiation was in our stores and our streets. Atomic Lanes. Atomic Dry Cleaners. Proton Lane, Argon. Memorialized war generals on green street signs crossing Richland in a militaristic grid. Patton, McArthur, George Washington Way. Leslie Groves Park.
Radiation was in our schools. We were the Richland Bombers and the Hanford Falcons. “Nuke ‘em till they glow” was an idiom I remember from high school. When your mascot is a mushroom cloud, all others pale in comparison.
I went to Hanford High School. New children from other places arrived constantly during the boom period of commercial nuclear power plant construction in the 1970s amid renewed attempts to continue the military mission. A small contingent of kids were from outlying farming communities but mostly we were the children of scientists, doctors, and lawyers from the American national laboratory complex—Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Savannah River, Brookhaven.
We were privileged as teenagers, bereft of any history or sense of community. The desert offered us places where keggers and parties were held in primitive rituals of bonfires, teenage sex, alcohol and drugs. In the distance away from the glare of the bonfire and the four-wheel drive pickups you could see sodium lights illuminating some of the most sophisticated inventions created in history. Neanderthals with nuclear power.
Growing up in Richland during the 1970s, the glow of what we had burned in Japan was rubbed to a patina, a trophy hung in memory of a great battle won and cherished. Now we had turned the radioactive swords into a plowshare of progress, nuclear energy. In an age of energy crises, inflation, and Malthusian nightmares, we held the candle that would never stop burning, nuclear power, peaceful nuclear energy the Department of Energy public relations staff reminded us. This promise would redeem Richland, make it whole again for sins we would never make whole, let alone talk about or understand in their enormity against people and the planet itself.
And so we feverishly turned our energy to that promise, tried to build five nuclear power plants in Washington State that would show the world what it meant to live clean, free, and beautiful with peaceful nuclear energy. But the dream was corrupted by cost overruns, drugs, Wall Street investors, and a multi-billion municipal bond default, the largest of its kind in U.S history by Whoops, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS). And then came Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and radiation leaking into the Columbia River.
As teenagers, we were more interested in learning the intricacies of adolescent sex and drugs than the chain reaction of fissile materials in a power plant. We weren’t the workers who died of strange cancers from building graphite blocks and operating the plutonium production reactors. We weren’t the scientists who marveled for the first time at the beautiful horror they had created. We weren’t the generals who righteously unleashed the terror, then replicated it. We were only children living in a desert landscape where Indians once gathered at the confluence of three rivers later discovered by Lewis and Clark, the Snake, Yakima, and Columbia. No longer imbued with the war mission or need to keep all things secret against a by then crumbling Soviet Red Scare, our community, or at least this collection of suburbs without a city, was as ephemeral as the energy it tried to capture.
Richland’s city center, despite highway signs to the contrary, was the Area, the Hanford Site, the focal point for community, life, religion, and community wholeness, and that center was classified as secret, the key to its center held by bureaucrats working at the Federal Building, in turn controlled by their superiors in the nation’s capitol three thousand miles away. Thus the community’s sense of purpose, its reason for being, rose and fell on national security decisions rather than crop yields or factory orders. In a quest to overcome undemocratic control through oppressive centralized government bureaucracies, the United States created Richland and other communities like it throughout the national “defense complex” that were largely undemocratic, centralized government bureaucracies. My father, a supporter of nuclear energy, with his keen sense of humor, also loved Pogo, the cartoon character who once declared, “We have seen the enemy, and they is us.”
In the fight against Reagan’s Evil Empire, we created our own communities where status was defined not by your civic contributions but by the level of your security clearance, where the success of your work was based on your academic success in nuclear physics and political access, not your ability to harvest a crop or build a house. A place where your father could not tell you what he did for a living in fear of violating a security requirement and risking government reprisal, let alone speaking out against the moral outrage of nuclear weapons or waste now threatening Richland itself and the entire Columbia River watershed.
I slowly began to learn what home is. Home is a sense of the land, a place to settle and cherish for what it provides as well as for what is to remain sacred and untrammeled. Home is a sense of community, of people’s lives and contributions to one’s community, stories passed and threaded into a woven history through the generations in oral and written retelling. Home is a sense of a well-built house that acknowledges, accedes to, and aspires to its natural surroundings. Home is a place where you would want your daughters, your sons, and your grandchildren to thrive.
Richland has the vestiges of community, of home. It has service clubs, churches, shops and restaurants, mostly franchises and hotel chains and “big box” retail stores owned by corporations located elsewhere. Today the Richland economy is more diversified; the wine industry is growing, it is a regional center for healthcare, and new startup companies offset the work out at Hanford. That is all for the good.
Yet when I came of age in Richland, the roots were as shallow as the sagebrush and tumbleweeds blowing in the chocolate brown clouds of sand that obscured the desert sky every spring when the doomed commercial nuclear plants were being constructed. Without a true center, there was no community, no natural cultural space to call one’s own, no sense of home in Richland.
Perhaps Richland is the ultimate social equivalent of Carl Sagan’s nuclear winter, not a physical wasteland (as horrific and probable as that may seem today), but instead the place that I grew up in: a place without a true community center, a culture with no culture, a desert in which the brightest flame may burn but which we cannot control or ever safely tend.
My mother began showing symptoms of ALS, this crippling disease, shortly after my wife Susan and I married in 1991. At first we thought is was multiple sclerosis (MS), but it progressively worsened. Stairs became a challenge, then an impossibility. A cane, then a walker, then forever bound to an easy chair while my father wore out his back lifting her into and out of a wheelchair. Dad insisted on caring for her without aid until the family finally convinced him to retire and move to an assisted living facility in Issaquah, where mom spent her final days.
I was with mom and dad at Virginia Mason medical center in Seattle the day of the final diagnosis. A process of elimination – we had hoped (!) it was progressive MS, which was at least manageable. It was not to be. The doctor gave us the final diagnosis in a small hospital examination room. She cried silently as he pronounced her death sentence. Mom passed away October, 1996 while I was preparing for my first legislative session.
Our daughter Claire arrived in February 1997. I had taken a job as a policy analyst for the Washington state legislature the prior summer as a non-partisan committee staffer and had spent a long legislative session trying to learn the ropes in the midst of family trials and grief and illnesses and death. We had moved to Olympia and it was a strange experience after leaving Seattle with a strong support network – don’t ask about the wisdom of this – to find ourselves alone raising our infant daughter. (Advice to future legislative staffers: think seriously about working a legislative session if you have a newborn on the way.)
In spring of 1997 my friend Knox, who I met in Australia, approached me about climbing the mountain through the Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI) guide service. Against my better judgment I agreed and my wife acceded to the request. Again, Rainier as touchstone, a place to reconnect the pieces. It was especially powerful for me to dedicate the climb to my mother, who had lost all mobility due to her tragic disease. I felt blessed to work out, running and trying to gain strength for the climb, in memory of her.
I could hardly say no. I met Knox as companion Rotary Foundation Scholars in 1986 at the University of Sydney. We took some amazing road trips throughout Australia together along with another Rotary Scholar from South Carolina and a host of other students we had gotten to know at International House, the dormitory where we lived. I admired Knox for his tenacity and desire always to seek out new adventures in Australia. I credit him for some amazing experiences traveling in Australia together and with others. How could I say no?
Knox arrived from Florida. I picked him up at Sea-Tac airport and we went to Rainier and had a short camping trip. We took the RMI classes in self-arrest and prepared for the climb with about 20 others. By now I knew this would be a cattle climb up the Disappointment Cleaver route, referred by experienced climbers as the dog run. It would not be like the first climb, the five of us novices led by an experienced climber. I missed Mick and that team. The DC route as it’s called is not technically difficult though physically demanding as I knew so well from my first summit attempt eight years prior.
On the day of the climb I was assigned to a rope team with a young guide. Looking at my long ice axe, the guide told me it was not suitable and I would need to rent a shorter axe. Now, this axe had been my hiking companion for years on glacier hikes on the Mountain. Yes, it was more of a walking stick due to its length but I knew its feel by heart – the sweat-stained wrist band and worn patina on the axe and pick gave testimony to that – and I knew I could arrest myself and a rope team with it should we have a fall. The guide was younger than me and my obstinate nature got the better of me. I refused. He grew angry. The lead guide came over, looked at the axe, asked me a few questions about prior experience, and agreed that it would be ok to use on the climb. The rope team leader was not happy and rewarded me with the task of being last on the rope team.
I don’t remember much of the climb – was that glorious sunrise over Little Tahoma on the first trip? or this one? Members on the rope team – one of several rope teams led up the Mountain by RMI – were strangers from around the country. Knox had been assigned to another team. I was alone in my thoughts.
My most vivid memory is, having attained the summit, Knox rested with others while I and a few others unroped and walked across the summit crater to sign the guidebook. At that point my emotions came flooding in recalling the battle that my mother had waged, and ultimately lost. With tears streaking across my face and freezing on my cheeks, I walked across the summit crater dome and found my way to the steel post where climbers sign their name in memory of the climb. That was for mom. The Mountain gave me the best opportunity to pay my last respects, and for that I am ever grateful. Home.
Donate to the ALS Association: http://www.alsa.org
Some selected readings on Hanford: