First Impressions

“You get only one chance to make a good first impression.” That statement is especially true when it comes to submitting your writing to a book or magazine editor.

You can do much, however, to shape that first impression, thereby increasing your chances of getting your work accepted and published. My experiences as both an author and an editor have taught me that making that good impression requires looking at your work on two different levels: a macro view and a micro view.

The Macro View

Looking at your work from the macro view means looking at it to get the “big picture.” Imagine it as using a telescope to view your writing. It involves asking yourself the following questions about your writing.

  • Does your manuscript deliver what your proposal or query promised?
  • Is it logically organized?
  • Does it adhere to the publication’s/publisher’s stated guidelines and style?
  • Does its message meet a clear need?
  • Does it have a clear focus?
  • Has it had the benefit of a second (or even a third or fourth) “set of eyes”? (Have you had others read and comment on it and suggest any changes?)

 

The Micro View

The micro view of your writing involves examining it for the details. Imagine it as using a microscope to view your writing to detect such characteristics as those listed here.

  • Spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc. (Don’t rely on the spell-check feature of your software. It can be a big help, but it is not infallible!)
  • Style (Does it reflect the industry standard and the publication’s/publisher’s guidelines?)
  • Usage and vocabulary (Is it age appropriate for the intended audience? Is it precise?)
  • Reference citations, if any are necessary (Are they accurate and formatted correctly?)
  • Active versus passive voice (Does the subject of each sentence do the acting, or is it acted upon? Eliminate as many passive constructions as possible.)
  • Strong verbs and nouns (Are they precise? Ensure that you aren’t overly reliant on adjectives and adverbs to “carry the weight” of your message.)
  • Concise and precise vocabulary rather than needlessly verbose (Make every word count. When in doubt, take it out!)

Looking at your writing from these two levels and asking the appropriate questions will help you identify any weaknesses that would tend to give an editor a bad impression of your work. Correcting those weaknesses before submitting your work will take you several steps closer to your goal of acceptance and publication. The less work the editor must do on your submission, the greater your chances of acceptance.

So do your homework, ensuring that you make that good first impression and making it easier for the editor to say “Yes!” You will reap the benefits of not only acceptance of your work but also possibly a long-term relationship with that editor and publication!

 

Advertisements

The Man I Knew

He was born on this date in 1928, about 11 months before the big crash. Most of his formative, pre-adolescent years were within that life-changing economic period, and much of his later life reflected it. His adolescent years were under the shadow of World War II. Until his last years of high school, the only president he and his classmates knew was Franklin Roosevelt.

Ralph was the fourth child of Blaine and Omega, the first to live beyond infancy. He later was joined in the family by a sister, but they were many years apart in age.

Ralph attended a nearby two-room school for eight years before attending his high school years at a larger school about 2 1/2 miles away. He struggled with reading and only did tolerably well in school. Even when he was in high school, he had to have his mother read his assignments to him. He was an auditory learner. And he could envision things that he wanted to build and then do it without written instructions or a diagram. He was a tactile learner.

No one ever accused him of being a scholar, but he was well liked and had character. He was the president of his graduating class. A girl who was a straight-A student was vice president, and she later became his wife. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Despite his academic struggles, Ralph aspired to go to college and did, attending Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. His declared major was pre-med. But he didn’t last long enough even to get his first grades. He seldom talked about his college days, except to say that the French and chemistry were hard. The possible reasons for his dropping out are numerous: academic difficulties, being needed to help run the farm, homesickness (he had never been away from home), and love (he was married shortly after he returned from LMU).

Ralph Henry learned to work, and work hard, at an early age. Being the only son on a farm during the Depression made sure of that. He hoed fields. He plowed fields with Morgan horses and occasionally mules. He learned to fix practically everything. He built things from wood, bricks, and stone. He did plumbing and wiring. He gardened. He designed and built numerous labor- and time-saving contraptions. He early learned to “make do” with what he had; what he didn’t have or couldn’t build he did without. He learned to improvise in numerous ways. He collected bent nails, rusty nuts and bolts, and bits and pieces of wood because he “might need them some day.”

Ralph took all the things he was learning and put them to practice building his own house. He felled timber from his property and cut boards to make the framing. He built cabinets. He installed floors and linoleum and tiles. He built a chimney of brick. He ran the plumbing and the wiring. He essentially did everything in constructing his house, except to dig the well. He hired his brother-in-law to do that and paid him $10 a month until the debt was paid in full. That was the only debt he incurred. In later years, he never borrowed money to buy any of the cars or trucks he owned. He never had a mortgage payment.

Yet, frugal as he was, he was consumer wise. He knew cars, and he was particular about what he bought. He began with Chevrolets. (The only trucks he owned were Chevys.) He aspired to someday own a Cadillac, still a GM car, but he only arrived at an Olds 88. He knew men’s fashions, often finding Hart, Schafner, & Marx suits for a song. (He undoubtedly was the best-dressed brick mason around on Sundays or at weddings or funerals!)

Work was his life. Only one photo (the one here) exists showing him at play as a child. When his father retired, the farming operation ceased, and Ralph took a job as a carpenter. At that time, he and his employers, the Cox brothers, did nearly everything involved in home construction, from laying out footers and building foundations to masonry and finished carpentry work. Ralph decided he liked the masonry aspects best, so he went out on his own as a masonry contractor. He quickly gained and maintained a reputation for not only hard work and honesty but also high-quality work. He retired when he reached 65 but was able to enjoy only a short period of retirement before passing at the age of 67 years, 3 months.

In the midst of all his learning and working, Ralph married and reared a family. He and his wife had two sons and a daughter. He was active in church and ensured that his family was there, too. He made his sons tow the line, and he taught them honesty. As soon as they were big enough to get into trouble, he required them to go to work with him, and he taught them to work. On the few occasions he left them home, it was to do work in the garden or to pick blackberries or do whatever else their mother needed them to do.

Ralph was a man of great principle. He might not have been able to read and explain the arguments of great theologians; discuss deep, theoretical concepts or ideas; or articulate his thoughts well in either speaking or writing, but he knew what he believed and why. He knew how to discern right from wrong. And he knew when to take a stand when it counted, even if that meant standing alone or being ostracized. He was a quiet, soft-spoken man who never tried to push his views on anyone, but people knew where he stood, and he held to his convictions firmly and consistently. And he loved his wife.

Most people called him Ralph. Some older family members referred to him as Ralph Henry. His wife called him Honey. But to me, Ralph Henry Peterson was simply Daddy. He would have been 90 years old today. He’s celebrating in Heaven.

Memorable Lines from Simms

Recently, I’ve been reading a little [DRUM ROLL, PLEASE!] fiction, and old fiction at that. Few people today recall the author or his book, but it’s proving to be quite a read for me.

The author is William Gilmore Simms, who (after Poe) was “the most important Southern literary figure of the 19th century.” In fact, Poe himself called Simms one of the best writers of the time whose name, had he had “the self-promotion machinery of the New England literati, . . . would be a household word.”

Simms was born and died in Charleston, S.C. (a monument to him is located there) and spent most of his life in that state. He did, however, travel to the North every year and developed close friendships with several prominent writers of the time–until the War Between the States.

Simms delved into various genres, from poetry to fiction to biography. Yet, in all of his writing, he was an instructor in history. He is perhaps most famous for his biography of the “Swamp Fox,” The Life of Francis Marion. That work is on my “to-read” list, but I’ve been indulging in one of his works of fiction, Charlemont, a novel set in the frontier of western Kentucky.

Here, without commentary, are a few brief selections from the book that attracted my attention. I thought you might enjoy them, too. If so, perhaps you would be interested in looking into this and other works by Simms.

  • “The height of self-control is the only habit which makes mental power truly effective. The man who cannot compel himself to do or to forbear, can never be much of a student.”
  • “[T]here is no heart so accessible to the tempter as the proud and willful heart.”
  • “Learning, like love, like money, derives its true value from its circulation.”
  • “Too much stable makes a saucy nag.”
  • “. . . head work–the noblest kind of work.”
  • “I would not have you presumptuous, but there is a courage, short of presumption, which is only a just confidence in one’s energies and moral determination.”
  • “A man knowing his own weakness, and working to be strong, can not fail. He must achieve something more than he strives for.”
  • “Ask not what your fame requires . . . ask only what is due to the task which you have assumed, and labor to do that.”
  • “Scandal travels down the highways, seen by all but the victim.”

Terminology, Time Change, and Common Sense

The first week of November is a busy time! It starts off with National Authors’ Day, which affects only a relative handful of people, but the highlight of the week, the end of Daylight Saving Time, affects everyone. It pays to use common sense amid all this mind-boggling activity!

November 1, National Authors’ Day, has stirred a semantic debate over the difference (if any exists) between the meanings of the words writer and author. In my own mind, this is not an issue. Authors are also writers. Period.

But some people insist on creating a difference. They are adamant in their insistence that an author is someone who is more special than and superior to any lowly writer because, they argue, an author is someone who has been published. On the other hand, anyone can write. A writer simply scribbles twaddle and cannot get it published because it’s just not “up to standard.” And by “published” such argumentative types mean traditionally published, not independently or self-published. And that creates two very different classes. It makes the author part of a small, elite group of superiors.

The people who make this argument are usually people who have, indeed, been traditionally published. They have “arrived,” so to speak, and are therefore somehow superior to those who have not. I once worked where this issue was pressed to the point that the group who had once been called “authors” were demoted to the lowly realm of being mere “writers” because a few of the more sensitive type were jealous that some of their coworkers who had been contributing to the books they turned out had not had their own books traditionally published.

Hogwash, I say. There are writers and there are published writers. There are good writers and there are lousy writers. There are also a whole lot of “authors,” traditionally published, who are lousy writers! If you doubt that fact, just peruse the books in your local library or bookstore. The shelves are filled with them. Admittedly, there also are a lot of lousy self-published, or independent, writers. But there are some great ones, too. Many of the literary greats of the past self-published. So don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

I consider myself a writer, but I’m also an author by the foregoing argument. I’ve had scores of articles published and several books. (My books, both traditionally and independently published examples, can be found on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Dennis-L-Peterson/e/B01FATP3ZC.) But that doesn’t make me somehow better at the craft than anyone else who is a writer but has not yet been traditionally, or even independently, published.

We need to use common sense and look at ourselves as we really are. We are all writers struggling to do our best to get our message out to our potential readers in a manner that helps them understand and respond appropriately to that message. We must quit measuring ourselves by ourselves or against others and just do the job we’ve been called to do. As Will Rogers said, “We’re all ignorant, just on different subjects.” Similarly, no one is a perfect writer; we can all learn and benefit from each other. So stop quibbling over semantics. Just do your duty to the best of your God-given ability, and let God determine where we rank according to His standard. After all, only His judgment really counts.

That said, don’t forget that November 4 is the end of Daylight Saving Time, so set your clocks back one hour Saturday night (or, if you’re a purist about it, at 2:00 a.m. Sunday). Remember the adage “Spring, up; fall, back.” You’ll be able to “fall back” into bed and get an extra hour of sleep. Or, if you’re too wired, you can stay up later than normal Saturday night to catch up on all the work you keep saying you never have time to complete.

And that same day, November 4, is “Use Your Common Sense Day.” That’s puzzling to me. Shouldn’t we be using our common sense every day? Obviously, many (most?) people don’t, so I guess that helps explain why we’re in the mess we’re in today. After all, as the saying goes, “Common sense isn’t very common today!” Maybe that also explains why some people (“authors”) make such a big deal of creating an artificial distinction between “authors” and “writers!”

Little but Important Things

It’s usually the little things in life that make the difference. Perhaps we can’t see the significance, potential, or danger of such things at the moment, but time tells, and they are proven to be very important.

Take, for instance, some of the following “little” things that occurred on this day in history and that proved, in the end, to be greatly significant.

In 1873, P.T. Barnum introduced to New York City what he promoted as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” That was the beginning of what became the great Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, which has provided entertainment for millions of “ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages” (as the ringmaster dutifully announced at every performance). Perhaps you have been one of those millions who enjoyed Barnum’s show. This reminds us that big things often start out small, so don’t despise the small beginnings.

In 1888, J.J. Laud patented the ballpoint pen. Think of how many fountain-pen ink blots and ruined shirt pockets his invention prevented. Think of how many ballpoint pens you’ve used over the years, how many checks you’ve written (and endorsed) with such pens, and, writers, how many words those pens have written. This reminds us that it often takes little tools to accomplish great results.

In 1938, a young Orson Welles wrote and aired a fictional radio play titled “The War of the Worlds,” and he scared nearly to death a large portion of the American population  with his real-sounding “news” reports that seemingly interrupted regular broadcasting. Think of the power of words over our imaginations, causing us to believe what only sounds real. This reminds us that even well-intentioned actions sometimes have unforeseen consequences.

In 1945, a prescient old businessman signed a contract with a young, talented black baseball player named Jackie Robinson to play with the Montreal Royals. Look where he went with that! He opened the door to hundreds of talented but theretofore marginalized players to compete and excel in the big leagues. This reminds us not to overlook the obvious right under our noses.

In 1952, Clarence Birdseye packaged and sold the first frozen peas, revolutionizing the way Americans processed, preserved, and served that (and later other) humble vegetable. Think of how much time and money he saved the average American consumer and how much food he enabled the public to use with his new way of preservation. This reminds us that a little idea can soon be used for a great number of applications.

And just this week another “little” thing happened that, although it has little significance to other people, was a big deal for me and my wife. My brother and his wife stopped by for a visit during their wedding anniversary trip. Now you must understand that in past years, my brother has seldom had the time to stop for a visit; he merely blew in, said hello, and blew out. He was just too busy. Too many places to go for speaking engagements, etc. But this trip was different. He brought his wife with him and actually spent two nights. Unheard of–until now. This reminds us to value people, especially those closest to us in relationship if not in geographic proximity, while we may.

So count the blessings of the small things in life. Look for them. Enjoy them. Thank the Lord for them. Learn from them. How different life might be without such “little” things.

Memory Triggers

It’s interesting how something small and seemingly insignificant to others can trigger in one a vivid memory. This phenomenon can be, for a writer, a valuable catalyst for writing ideas and descriptive phrases. A simple sound or smell, unnoticed by others, can open the floodgates of creativity for an observant writer. It can elicit nostalgic feelings in nonwriters.

Take smells, for instance.

The other day, I caught the faint, fleeting, but unmistakable smell of a ripe peach, and that distinctive aroma transported me immediately to a place in my childhood memories that I had not recalled for many years. Though in body I was in South Carolina, in memory I was suddenly in an old tobacco warehouse in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Frequently, late on a summer Saturday afternoon, as the sun began to trek toward the horizon, my parents would load us kids into Daddy’s coral-and-white 1957 Chevy and go into town in search of fresh peaches. As soon as we drove through the large door of the tobacco warehouse of the Western Avenue Market, my body was assaulted with a host of sensory stimulants.

There was a cacophony of sounds. Truck engines, honking horns, shouts from the vendors as they sought to attract customers to their wares.

There was also a potpourri of smells. Automotive fumes; tobacco smoke; sweaty bodies; fresh, overripe, and rotten produce. But it is the smell of the peaches that I remember most vividly.

Mother was always on the prowl for the best deal. Her reasoning was that the vendors would sell their near-overripe fruit more cheaply than the near-ripe or fresh; otherwise, it would be a total loss for them. She also calculated that, it being late on Saturday, that the vendors, especially those from South Carolina and Georgia, would be eager to sell out of their produce and make their long journey home for Sunday. As usual, she was right.

Invariably, we returned home in the dark, the spacious trunk of the Chevy loaded with several bushel baskets of peaches that demanded our immediate attention. Mother then set about separating her treasures into two groups: peaches that could wait until Monday morning and those that we would have to do right then and there, lest they rot before Monday. (A strict sabbatarian, she refused to do any such work on Sundays.)

Into the wee hours of the night, often past midnight, we all peeled and sliced the sweet, juicy, odoriferous near-overripe peaches and put them into freezer boxes and carried them out to the utility room, where we stashed them in the big chest-type Kelvinator freezer.

Early on Monday morning, we were up and attacking the rest of the mother lode. Mother blanched them in a large, deep pot on the stove to remove the peels. Then we sliced them in half and stuffed them into large quart Kerr or Mason jars, which Mother then put into a pressure cooker. (I can to this day in my mind’s memory bank hear the rattle and hiss of that pressure regulator!)

Mother also made from those peaches myriad pint jars of jelly, mam, and butter. All of these products, whether frozen or canned or jellied, provided numerous delicious repasts throughout the coming year. There was no better-tasting treat than those peaches (in whatever form of preservation) on a cold winter morning or night!

I’m sure that you, even if you aren’t a writer, have your own memory triggers. What are they? Consider sharing a few with our readers in the comments form below.

The Test of Commitment

It never fails. Soon after one makes a commitment to do something, that commitment will be tested. How long one is able to remain committed to the desired task depends on the power of the commitment.

One of my commitments has been to walk every day. My typical course begins hard, with a tough walk up a steep hill from my driveway to the top of my subdivision. The course becomes easy at that point, leveling off to a straight, flat stretch that allows me to catch my breath and restore confidence in my ability to finish the lap. It gets even easier later as I go down a hill into a cul-de-sac. But that dead end means that I then have to return up the hill, an even steeper climb. Sometimes, often on a Monday morning, I can muster strength to finish only one lap. Most days, however, I can achieve at least two and sometimes as many as four laps.

Yesterday morning my commitment was sorely tested. Not only was it a Monday morning but also it was barely above freezing outside. For a Southern boy who has grown used to regular temps in the upper-80s to mid-90s, that’s quite a shock to the old system! Before I reached the top of that first hill, my ears were hurting. By the time I started the descent into the cul-de-sac, my forehead was numb. I had forgotten that I even had ears. Thankfully, my hands were warm, inserted into the pockets of my fleece-lined jacket. But that made me walk like a drunken sailor as I was unable to swing my arms in keeping with my fast pace and long stride. (I hope the neighbors, who already wonder about my sanity, didn’t see! Well, there was the policeman who was leaving for his shift in short sleeves, but he’s a transplanted Michigander whose broad-grinned greeting revealed that he obviously didn’t understand my bundled-up appearance. Yet even he had conceded something to the wintry assault on our region; he had foregone his usual shorts for long pants.)

One day soon, I’ll look back on this just-above-freezing temperature as a heat wave. Yes, even here in the sunny South we sometimes get below-freezing temps for days on end. But that will only further test my commitment to walking.

No matter what your commitment, it will be tested at some point. And your response to that testing will determine the power of your commitment.

Have you committed yourself to writing? What will it take to stop you, to deter you from that commitment? A snide, doubt-producing comment by a critical, non-writer friend? A publisher’s rejection of your submission? Remember how Theodor Geisel’s manuscript was rejected by 27 different publishers before it was finally published as And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, vaulting him into fame as Dr. Seuss.

Have you committed yourself to living a holy, God-honoring life? What will it take to deter you from that noble goal? A temptation to indulge in forbidden things? A desire to spend your time reading spiritual junk food when you should be feeding on God’s Word? The myriad pleas or even taunts by unbelievers to join them in their worldly activities? The temptation to compromise biblical principles to avoid offending or so as not to bring attention to yourself? Remember, as Bob Jones Sr. said, “The test of your character [and your commitment] is what it takes to stop you.”

Making a noble commitment is great. Keeping that commitment is greater. Keep your commitments!

I’d be interested in hearing of the commitments you have made and how you’ve persevered in keeping them. Share them by commenting in the form below.

Word Man

One hundred ninety years ago today, a man was born who later published a book the influence of which stretched far beyond his own lifetime and has affected every generation since.

Born on October 16, 1758, in West Hartford, Connecticut, he was a descendant of two governors. A quick learner, he entered Yale College at age sixteen and graduated four years later. He became a school teacher because he didn’t have the money to become a lawyer.

While teaching, he developed a burden for both his students and fellow teachers, who had few good teaching materials. He also dreamed of Americans’ speaking one common language and pronouncing and spelling words consistently. He was convinced that those qualities were critical to their survival as a people and a nation. More importantly, he was burdened that American students learn ethics, morality, manners, and Christianity without which even otherwise well-educated people could not truly be successful.

To develop his students’ minds and enrich their souls, this man began writing books. He published his first work, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, in 1783, and George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other prominent leaders endorsed it. He gave copies to schools, and educators, realizing its value, ordered more copies of their students. More than 100 million copies of his book have been sold. It has never gone out of print. (How would you like such results for your books?!)

The man was Noah Webster. And the book that was so successful is better known as “The Blue-Backed Speller” because he printed it on poor-quality paper “held together by two broad strips of cloth, between thin wooden boards covered in plain blue paper.”

In 1806, Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language and in 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language. The latter work, which took 27 years to complete, was his greatest effort toward developing a truly American language.

It included 70,000 entries, traced the etymology of each entry, and gave its precise definition. He added new words, especially words unique to American usage.

So strongly did Webster believe in what he was doing that he paid from his own pocket to print the first edition of his dictionary and mortgaged his own home to print the second edition. He later published abridged editions in 1841 and 1847 (posthumously), making his dictionary and the Bible accessible for practically every American home and school in the nation.

Following Webster’s death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam purchased rights to Webster’s dictionary and published in 1847 the first Merriam-Webster dictionary. That book became the nation’s standard authority on American English. (Although many dictionaries call themselves “Webster’s,” only a Merriam-Webster is truly a Webster’s dictionary.)

Today, even dictionaries that carry Webster’s name are far removed from his original. Political correctness, multiculturalism, and moral relativism dominate those volumes. Christianity and morality are no longer central to their purpose.

Yet, Noah Webster’s influence is still felt throughout the English-speaking world. We see it in our rules of spelling, pronunciation, and usage. And his original dictionary and the Blue-Backed Speller are worthy of our attention.

 

Two Life-Changing Events

On this date in history, several important events occurred. Columbus landed on San Salvador, discovering the New World in his quest to reach the East by sailing west. That event, of course, was first celebrated in the United States on this date in 1792.

More than a hundred years later, the song “Three Blind Mice” was published in London. But that was by no means an earth-shattering, life-changing event, unless you were one of the three sightless rodents.

And in 1859, Emperor Norton I issued an edict abolishing the U.S. Congress. Maybe he was onto something there! (You can read more about Norton I in my articles “The Emperor of the United States, Norton I,” The Elks Magazine, February 2000, and “Emperor of the United States,” True West, November 2016, or at https://truewestmagazine.com/emperor-of-the-united-states/.)

But historical events are like surgeries; they are not major unless you are the one directly affected by them. None of these events affected my life directly.

But two events occurred between October 12 and 14 that did dramatically affect my life. In fact, they were life-changing events for me.

On October 12, 1979, our first child was born. We named her Rachelle Joy. And boy, did our lives change after that! Our theories about parenting suddenly were put to the test of practical daily living. And we had to admit that many of them had been wrong, so we had to make countless adjustments to adapt to reality.

Three years and two days later, October 14, 1982, our second child was born. We named her Elissa Cheri. And that further changed our lives. By that time, practically all of our theories about child-rearing, especially of multiple children, were out the window. We were parenting by the seat of our pants. Or maybe like two blind mice. Our grand idea of dealing with both children identically was one of the first well-intentioned theories to be tossed. We hadn’t taken into consideration that no two children are exactly alike, therefore requiring us to deal with each individually. Looking back now, I wonder how we could have been so naive.

Each of our daughters in her own way added something new to our family. And each of them brought about truly life-changing adaptations and challenges and joys to our lives. And there were still two more daughters to come over the next three years. Like Columbus, we truly were discovering a new world!

But now our nest is empty. Our daughters have flown the coop and have begun families of their own. Lately, however, my wife and I have ventured into more uncharted waters. We suddenly have found ourselves grandparents. Seven times over. And, believe me, we’re still learning!

The Project that Birthed Death and Life

On this date in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a secret project that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and ended World War II. But it also led, in the long term, to the birth of a city and numerous other projects that resulted in countless prolonged and enhanced lives.

On October 9, 1941, President Roosevelt signed off on what became known as the Manhattan Project. It was a military operation the likes of which the United States and the world had never witnessed. It was cloaked in secrecy. It was empowered by the national government to take the farm lands, homes, churches, and grave sites of countless individuals, families, and church congregations in numerous small, tight-knit communities in the hills of East Tennessee for the purpose of building enormous facilities for the manufacture of the world’s first atomic bomb.

Not unlike the situation that occurred to the Cherokee Indians more than 100 years earlier and to the residents of hill communities in the nearby Norris community a decade earlier, the residents of Bear Creek, Scarborough, and numerous other small communities were given mere weeks to vacate their ancestral homes so that the government could erect the facilities of three super-secret “reservations” where the components of the bomb would be built. Those locations were code named X-10, Y-12, and K-25.

Thousands of workers were imported into a thrown-together, prefabricated city that became known as Oak Ridge. And they lived and worked within the confines of guard towers and barbed wire fences as long as the work continued. They could not talk about the work they did, and informants ratted them out if they did. In fact, most of them had no idea of the larger product of which their work was a part. Only after the bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki did they learn what they were producing. And even then, few really understood it all. (Although I seldom read fiction, I recently read a novel titled The Atomic City Girls by Denise Kiernan, and its descriptions of life within the Secret City and its plants is spot on.)

The products of all those thousands of employees’ labors resulted in the deaths of a conservative estimate of 225,000 people (150,000 at Hiroshima and 75,000 at Nagasaki). But it also saved the lives of inestimable thousands of American servicemen who would have been killed if the United States had been forced to invade the home islands of Japan to end the war. Moreover, perhaps millions of lives have been saved, prolonged, or enhanced since that time through the civilian uses of nuclear energy that resulted from the ongoing studies of nuclear power.

I grew up only a few miles from Oak Ridge. During the Cold War (especially during the Cuban missile crisis), my life and the lives of my school classmates were directly affected by the potential threat to the facilities at Oak Ridge, which were deemed close enough to our community to affect us. Civil defense drills became a part of “normal” life in our school. We were even issued “dog tags” for identification following any enemy attack. I still have my dog tag as a reminder of those perilous times. (I wrote about growing up during this time and working there in “Living in the Shadow of the Atomic City,” Blue Ridge Country, May-June 1998.)

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I, too, would be one of those workers at the Oak Ridge plants, but I was. For seven years, until the end of the Cold War and the defense cut-backs of the Clinton years, I was a senior technical editor there. Many of the restrictions described in Kiernan’s novel were still in place even at that late date.

But my work was not focused on bombs and destruction. Rather, much of my work there dealt with the peace-time uses of nuclear energy and the transfer of the technology developed during the Cold War to civilian industrial uses. Just as many of the gadgets we use today are the result of the space program, many of them are also the result of the nuclear defense program at Oak Ridge.

Although we still have swords, we also have plowshares. As President Reagan termed it, “peace through strength.”