Where Did the Idea Come From?
In the fall of 2010, Julie and her husband David were making a cross country drive, from their home in the San Francisco Bay Area, to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, in where Julie was completing a doctorate in Library Science. Their Interstate 80 route brought them right through Nebraska , and was perfectly timed for a one night stopover in Omaha, where I have lived for more than 40 years.
Julie and I know one another because we both grew up in the small California town of Livermore. We met during our high school years of 1964 through 1968, We were roommates during our freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley. These are the roots of a lifelong friendship, a red thread that holds to this day.
During our senior year, Julie was abroad in England, and we exchanged letters throughout those months. Written on that blue airmail onionskin paper, these were intense and philosophical, fitting for the transition from the shelter of childhood to the wider world. So by the time we parted ways after college, we had not only the bond of coming of age together, but the deep shared connection of writers.
How often we would see one another has varied. While each of us was immersed in the raising of young children and becoming established in our work, years might go by. Tim and I brought our children back to the Bay Area for visits with grandparents and great grandparents, and showed them the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco. Sometimes, but not always, there was time for a quick visit. Julie – do you remember an apartment you had around Shattuck and University, where Tim and I phoned you from the street to ask if we could introduce you to this new baby we had with us? You had two young daughters of your own. There were high school reunions, and a shared celebration of the year of our fiftieth birthdays.
But seldom do we have the luxury of an evening like this – the kind of dinner that we love to have with our Omaha friends. Whatever is served, it is our best efforts in the kitchen, using what is fresh in the garden to plan the menu; the table like a stage set for the conversation to unfold, candlelight, more than one bottle of wine, sometimes an Irish Whiskey to sweeten up the after dinner coffee.
It was in that after dinner conversation which lasted well into the evening, that Julie remarked on the coincidences that brought our lives together, and the lives of many of the friends we have in common, in the mid-sixties, in the small town of Livermore, California. Julie’s father, like mine, brought his family to Livermore because he’d been hired at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
On the site of an old military base, the University of California was expanding its nuclear research capacity Along with the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico – home of the Manhattan Project — Lawrence Livermore, in 1952, became part of an alliance of the University of California and the federal government. In the post-world war II years, the government wanted to consolidate its nuclear research facilities under academic cover, and did so with UC Berkeley under the leadership of Edward Teller, called the father of the nuclear weapon. The Livermore campus created thousands of technical jobs and a wave of suburban migration, us included.
Wouldn’t it be interesting, Julie said that night in Omaha, to write about how this came about? How and why the Lab brought so many of our families to Livermore, and out of which these friendships have been forged? To examine the impact of the Lab on this small community, and to understand its imprint in our lives? We would never have known each other if not for the lab. What might the stories be? Similar to or different from our own?
That idea sat with each of us, and after a visit in Berkeley and Livermore in the summer of 2013, we decided it was time to expand on it. I wrote my own account when I came back to Nebraska. My first thought in reflection, though, is obviously that what I recall is my own unique experience. Others’ stories may have some of these elements in common, but none will be the same. What about those who stayed in Livermore, or moved back, and those who went to work for LLNL? Obviously, not everyone perceived the political, environmental, or moral issues in the same way. Not everyone grew up in a family that was divided by some or all of the issues of the time. Not everyone had a direct connection to the Lab. So our project is full or questions, and we start with deep curiosity about what we will learn.
As I get older, I’ve noticed my memories of growing up in Livermore have become more important to me. I find myself wondering how much of who I am was shaped by the experience of growing up in this particular small town, as the daughter of a physicist and a director/actress. I wonder if the juxtaposition of a farming community and a group of scientists heavily influenced by a nuclear arms race has left its mark on me. Looking back, I realize I was a part of both worlds and yet I’m not sure I ever felt comfortable in either one.
I’ve thought about this over the years and I have come to realize I want to know more about how it was for those of us who grew up in a town that really had two personalities. I want to know the stories of those whose parents had lived there for generations and the stories of those who, like me, were new to Livermore. I want to know who stayed, who left and who returned – and why. I want to know if green rolling hills feel like home to others or if it’s just me. I want to know if my loves of cowboy boots and pearl snap button shirts were always going to be a part of me – or was it the influence of the wonderful annual rodeo parade, for which I always got a new part of boots? When junior high and high school proved to be socially challenging, was this because of who I was or my family or my father’s job?
It’s probably not possible to truly understand what makes our childhood and adolescence the way they were, but I’d like to have this conversation. I’d like to know what it was like for others to grow up in Livermore in the fifties and sixties. I want to exchange our stories and maybe come to understand myself – and others – a little better.