HEX, OCTOBER 1956
The industrial grandeur and glare of Fernald erased even the stars so that approaching the plant for third shift was like driving from a tunnel into the government’s continuous daytime. Jeter entered the perimeter, showed his badge at the checkpoint, and parked his beloved Olds 88. He locked it and ran his hands over the smooth ragtop. At home, stars and moon were blotted out by clouds, but here overhead looked the same from one night to the next, with Fernald’s glare reflected off God’s firmament and onto buildings, machines, barreled product, and white-clothed employees. Jeter’s hand at the cuff of his navy jacket looked ghostly as he pocketed the car keys and headed to the turnstiles.
Plant Four housed ten ammonia dissociators in their own area called the Ammonia Dissociator Room, all boosting heat, all cracking the anhydrous ammonia under mother-fucking heat and pressure to use in converting UO3 to UO4. This Fernald-developed process, devised under the umbrella of the U.S. government, was secret. Everyone referred to the UO4 by its code name, Green Salt.
Four years ago, Supervisor Harry Eschen had drummed his training like the good drill sergeant he’d been, and the lingo set to playing like a record through Jeter’s head each night he came on shift.
“We want to crack anhydrous ammonia into hydrogen and nitrogen, and the way we do it is by letting in ammonia vapor and heating the sucker,” Eshen had instructed. “You know the Tank Farm outside this building? All those babies store liquid ammonia. We’ve got to crank heat until the ammonia vaporizes, and the heat exchanger in the dissociator takes care of that. God-fearing heat, 1750 degrees, cooking it by the electric furnace that hugs around the catalyst chamber. Now if the temp dips below 1700, the ammonia flow is automatically cut off by the solenoid valve. So you’re saved there by the mechanics of it, what the manufacturer built into the design of the dissociator itself.”
Eschen looked his trainees up and down –Jeter and three other guys—and he’d lifted his eyebrows, daring them to Ask, just go on and ask me a question. In their silence he emphasized, as if they didn’t already get the gist of things: “Our number one aim in Plant Four’s the Green Salt.”
Jeter had said then, “What if something went wrong, or the temps or pressure got out of hand?”
“Well, that’s what you’re here for, isn’t it, Burns? To stay on top of the process, reading and re-checking the gauges, and to use your eyes and nose. We ain’t had nothing worse than a couple little fires, maybe when hydrogen escaped and ignited. Harmless burn-off. No loss in equipment or materials. Nobody hurt. Nothing to even call threatening.”
The tape in Jeter’s memory hit all the chem operator high points, beginning to end, in the time it took to don his process-side “whites.” He loped over to Four and started his rounds. First, he checked reads on all ten of the dissociators. They’d hit a snag two nights ago when Number 4’s heater wouldn’t kick in. Only six of the dissociators were operating. Units 2 and 7 were shut down, and the heaters for 4 and 8, while up to temp, weren’t being fed because liquid ammonia had been leaking from locations along the piping. He’d told Eschen of the leaks, and Eshen submitted a work request to Mechanical for repair. They must have come in the next day because last night when Jeter checked, Number 4’s temp recorder chart read the required 1750 degrees. He opened the ammonia supply valve and closed the manual vent.
He had an uncanny sense of when things weren’t right. He tried determining Lydia’s reasons over the last few months for shutting him out, but then he threw that over to focus on what required his eyes and ears. He had the next eight hours to worry over his wife.
Okay. Even though he’d followed the SOPs chapter and verse, he still tentatively reached and touched the outside of first the vaporizer and then the dissociator. They were both cold as a witch’s tit, so he quick switched off the ammonia and reopened the manual vent. Everything checked out fine when he examined the instrument panel. He hated calling up Eshen, but this stumped him.
Eschen’s voice crackled over the walkie-talkie. “Mechanical’s been working to replace the defective transformer. Meanwhile, didn’t they tag that electrical control panel up the east end of the room?”
Jeter thought he checked there, didn’t see any indication of work in progress or power shut off. He’d been so busy trouble-shooting his family, maybe he did slip up. “I’ll do another once-through.”
Sure enough. Jeter flipped the tag between his fingers and it swung back and forth on the pull loop to the transformer’s door panel. He’d spent the rest of last night’s shift treading over every gauge and temperature reading, checking the outside warmth of each of the running dissociators. They were all firing at capacity.
Denny Campbell, coming off second tonight, said to Jeter, as he was punching in, “Looks like that Number 4’s finally heating.”
Jeter nodded. “Great.” If something had slipped past him, it looked like it was all going to work out okay.
When he completed the five-thirty check, he found—what the hell?– the recorder-controller turned to the off position. He switched it back on, felt his stomach plummet along with the temp recorder dropping from 1750 to 1000 degrees, the very minimum the chart could read. He paused, a sheen of sweat between him and his uniform, shuffling through his knowledge and experience. He resisted calling Eschen. He pushed the low temp reset button. On resetting ordinarily he’d hear a surge of ammonia, but not this time. There should have been a low temp indicator but that wasn’t lit either. He smelled ammonia. Not strong, but a definite tang.
Ammonia wasn’t the only Fernald danger. Other things could knock you on your ass, some with an identifying odor, others not. Uranium hexafluoride gas didn’t smell, but when it was present you knew something wasn’t right. They called it “hex.” Everything at Fernald acquired a nickname. Maybe you’d walk through some hex and you’d feel okay, but you’d send the counter shooting off the charts up at Medical. Hex: a spell, a curse, some pretty bad juju. Jeter and his buddies were the canaries in the coal mine. Management– hell, even the government– didn’t know what slept right now in the Miami River silt, in the guts of Knollman’s dairy cows, in the lungs of guys in the Rolling Mill.
“We’re all learning about this uranium together,” Cliff Emminger would say, “and ill-prepared for it.”
So, this dissociator problem turned Jeter a little jumpy. Third time he’d had to buzz Eschen in as many days.
Eschen said, “Call the fucking electrician,” and hung up.
The guy answering up at Electrical said, “I was there yesterday to check and it was working fine.”
“I’m just telling you what my super told me: the heater needs to be checked. Eshen said get the electrician.”
Chuck Moorman, the guy from Electrical Jeter was getting to know on a personal basis, arrived at Plant Four and followed the steps required.
Jeter was reading a different bank of gauges when Moorman, it seemed all too soon, was preparing to exit with his tools. Jeter raised his eyebrow as Moorman passed him, and the guy said, “What can I tell you? It says it’s operating.” He sounded annoyed to be re-navigating the Green Salt maze.
Jeter had his own maze he’d been stumbling through. They’d gotten Russ a dog. Russ, who more or less abandoned the pet as soon as he named it. The dog was the second child Lid couldn’t have. They both loved the dog, fought over the dog. The dog chased a stick she’d throw, dropped it at her feet, licked her hands and danced around her.
“See this dog?” she said, as if to indicate it showed more interest and glee than Jeter. She said, “A little appreciation would be nice.”
Jeter said, “You want me to be a goddamned mind reader?”
She began talking about returning to her father’s house.
Jeter’s eight-thirty check revealed Number 4’s vaporizer heater in the off position.
Because of recent layoffs the Green Salt third shift was skeletal. He worked practically alone in the joint. The only one in the dissociator room, he bellowed an agonizing yell. He would not call Eschen and get chewed out a second time. Instead, he patched in directly to Electrical.
“Get your ass down here and fix this for good.” Jeter hung up, just as Eschen had cut him off. The rudeness elevated his mood.
While he waited, Jeter checked the vent and found it open. Frost had formed on all the piping connected to Number 4, including the line from the dissociator to the vaporizer loop. He debated as to what this might indicate. Once Moorman came banging through the door, Jeter planned to dog him step for step until they figured it out. Moorman set his tool box on the floor so he could shed his jacket. He said, “You’re gonna watch over my shoulder?”
Jeter clenched his fists in his pants pockets. “We’re gonna solve this mystery together,” he said.
Moorman looked at him doubtfully, then crouched to examine the vaporizer heater’s circuit. Jeter didn’t know what symptoms the electrician was looking for, but he noted all the earlier frost had disappeared, and that allayed some of his fear.
“Here’s your problem,” Moorman said. “Faulty circuit breaker.”
Jeter harrumphed like he knew how this would influence the rest of the night’s production schedule. Moorman made a show of consulting his watch. They both knew it was almost eleven. “Store’s closed,” he said, “so I’ll just wire around this circuit breaker for now.” He marked the breaker he’d avoided with a Danger tag. When he restored power, the low temp indicator light flickered on, and Moorman said, “Voila.”
Jeter said, “This being your third time out here, forgive me if I don’t clap you on the back or promise you a beer at Flick’s.”
“Just don’t ring me up again tonight.” Moorman worked at packing his gear, and he whistled. “Man, it stinks in here.”
Jeter nodded. “It’s the ammonia.” He wondered briefly if he should strap on his respirator, and if he should update Eschen on Moorman’s findings.
Alone again with the dissociators Jeter ran a check-through of what the electrician just completed. The vaporizer was warm to his touch, as was the solenoid, which should have been bloody hot. A squirmy disturbance again rose to the top of his stomach. Liquid ammonia was beading up and dripping from the inlet connection to the solenoid. That sealed it; he would not switch on Number 4 tonight. So he left the ammonia feed valve closed and the catalyst chamber vent open.
He refrained from pushing the low temp reset button he’d hit earlier. When he caught sight of liquid ammonia dripping from the solenoid connection, he spun on his heels to go find Eschen.
Perhaps under heavy premonition he moved more swiftly than he’d supposed he could. Perhaps the explosion’s force sent him sailing into the drive alongside the Tank Farm. In any case, as Jeter later told the story: “I was blown free of the place.”
“Your guardian angel,” his brother in-law the Catholic said.
Maybe his guardian angel had been on duty when the ammonia whooshed through Green Salt and blew the Number 4 Dissociator’s vaporizer, furnace, and instrument panel to smithereens, demolished an interior and exterior wall. The Number 5 Dissociator furnace and instrument panel also sustained damage. All windows on the north and west walls of the plant shattered out, sills and glass, as did those on the adjacent nitrogen generator building.
But accident assessment came later.
Initially, Jeter inventoried the injuries to this body– gravel embedded in the heels of his palms, his knees stunned and stinging, his ankle twisted. His eyes and throat burned; his head ached. But he was able to re-enter the building with Eschen to make sure it had been emptied once they donned self-contained breathing apparatus. Jeter gulped at his oxygen. They checked especially where the employee distribution map named guys on shift. Two chemical operators had been working the second floor panel board at the south end of Green Salt, another had been on the fourth floor, also on the south end. The ammonia gas essentially blew out a side of the plant, and no evacuation alarm had sounded.
Without pointing blame, the investigation report said, “Unfortunately, no one recognized the frosting on the piping beyond the vaporizer as an abnormal condition requiring attention.”
But Jeter had seen it. He’d shelved it because he didn’t want to have to call Eshen a fourth time.
Around the bar at Flick’s Cliff had often noted, “Different supervisors and operators who work in the area are better informed than others on dissociator equipment and operation. It’s primarily a fact of longer experience. Some guys have only been in their buildings a short time.”
Another part of the accident report read: “The chem operator who shut the ammonia supply to the building didn’t don self-contained breathing apparatus until later.”
That would have been Evan Wunder, who’d only recently been assigned to Four. He was rewarded by a good whiff of the vaporized ammonia. Eshen and Jeter located Evan and dragged him out of there as fast as they could. In the open, Jeter tore off his apparatus and strapped it over Evan’s mouth and nose. Jeter felt about to rupture as surely as that dissociator, to blow a hole in the sides of all their sturdily built little lives. Not lives, but lies, one big, rambling house of cards. He was getting woozy, his ankle throbbed, finally calling attention. Fire & Safety arrived on the scene. People talked and yelled against the vaporous ammonia winding its way among all those busy at recovery. Others were entering Four to shut it down. As Evan came coughing back, Jeter passed out.
The electrical power transformer for Dissociator Number 4 was found to be defective and would be replaced. While investigation and cleanup occurred, the Green Salt guys were assigned temporary work elsewhere. Management paired Evan Wunder and Jeter Burns in the out of doors. No one missed a day of work.
Jeter limped through the next night’s shift. Evan kept hacking up shit and spitting into the browned-out October grass.
“Maybe they figure we need to draw in a good reserve of fresh air to level out all the bad crap we swallowed.” Evan joked, but his eyes watered.
“They’re probably spying on us right now, making sure we’re not sharing secrets about the blow-up we still ain’t told to the team,” Jeter said.
Evan advanced the sarcasm. “We better get our stories straight. Our accounts better match.”
“Oh, we’ll match all right, like a set of salt and pepper shakers.”
Evan faked an exaggerated sneeze. “Aaa-choo!”
They pried lids off the drums that arrived by box car, took samples to send up to the Pilot Plant, marked the sides of the containers and closed them back for trucking to various Fernald locations. Hammering eliminated the need for continuous talk, but now and then the night that ruled the surrounding fields and woods came alongside them like a quiet, obedient dog. Evan spoke.
“When a guy saves your life, you owe him one.”
Jeter said, “One what? A life? No thanks, I’m having tough enough time managing the one I’ve got.”
“I can at least buy breakfast when we get off shift.”
“Okay. I’ll let you. Nothing like goetta and eggs and good strong coffee, though after last night I’d say we hardly need the kick of the joe.”
Evan nodded. “Flick’s, then.”
The son of a gun looked so damned grateful.
Jeter had saved Lydia, too. He removed her from her daddy’s house where she told him she’d been suffocating, married her and carted her off, erected for her a new, cozy life. So what did she owe him for that? And why was it all about owing and pay-back anyway? When did love stop being marked on a tally board of kindness given, kindness received? When did it leap, and how did it leap, on the other side of the divide, where there was no divide, where love just flowed because it was love, unashamed and unlimited?
Working with Evan Wunder turned Jeter sad for all kinds of reasons.
Their table at Flick’s faced the Miami River. Jeter managed to catch Evan’s attention while he sliced up his eggs.
“That there’s Cliff.” Jeter nodded at the men coming in the door, chewing a mouthful and talking. He felt ravenously hungry. “And following behind him’s Ray. Cliff and Ray are both millwrights, general repairmen. I call them the Fix-It Team.” Jeter raised his voice so these guys could hear. “Here comes Mr. Fix and It.”
He noted under his breath: “Both of them are good eggs.”
Ray waved them off and went to sit at the bar. Cliff Emminger approached, drew out the chair next to Evan, lowered into it, and dusted things up right quick. “Figures, doesn’t it? They put us through paces for tornado drills, air raid drills, and other crap, but face a real emergency and no warning.”
“Here we go,” Jeter said.
“Wunder knows I got opinions I ain’t afraid to share.”
“You two acquainted?”
“Hell, yeah. How’s your woman?”
Evan nodded. His face took on a dopey grin. “Good, great. She’s–we’re—expecting, any day now.”
“Well, congratulations there, Wunder.” Cliff wrapped his two meaty hands around Evan’s, fork handle and all.
“Your first?” Jeter said. He gave a handshake, too.
Another dip of the guy’s head so his black hair fell in his eyes. “Yeah. I mean, ours together.” He blinked and looked at Cliff. “I’ve got Mazie, of course.”
Cliff nodded. “Sure.”
“I mean, Mazie’s Patrice’s girl now, too. But you know. This baby will be the first with both our…bloods, I guess.”
Cliff chuckled. “Fruit of your labors, so to speak.”
Jeter said, “Enough, man. Let him be.” The guy inspired a protectiveness in Jeter. He was afraid the world hadn’t finished yet with Evan Wunder, and he hoped all good for their new baby. He was in fact damned pleased that Evan Wunder, soon-to-be-father, sat across from him healthy and whole and appreciating the taste of eggs he was shoveling down his throat.
Even though the investigative team exonerated everybody, Jeter would always feel half inside that strung out, exploding moment. He scrabbled back in his head to try and recall the feeling of total suspension, when the ammonia blast had tossed him but he hadn’t yet fallen back to earth, when all consequences of his actions still hung, a time in which lack of gravity freed him.
Yesterday, after a good nine hours of sleep, he’d said to Lydia, “No one wants to admit, It’s my fault.” He’d finished summarizing, in sketchy terms, the blast.
Lydia said, “So you’re blaming me for our trouble?”
“Jeez, I’m not even talking about us.”
“Oh, yes, you are.”
She’d packed some bags. He recognized the blue Samsonite train case she’d lugged the night they’d eloped. The sight pierced him.
“Bound back to your daddy then?”
“Getting out of here,” she said.
He switched the stove burner on and off, just to have something to do. He felt like they were setting a fire under the house.
“I’m responsible for you leaving?” he said.
As with the frost on the pipes, had little signs erupted along the way, especially since Russ had been born, and he preferred not to investigate? Any talk beneath normal day to day was like turning over a rock, because then you couldn’t ignore the mealy things squirming in front of you: pill bugs, salamanders, millipedes.
“Let’s not even begin talking fault,” she said.
All Jeter had been contemplating, especially since the accident, was this: For what can I, or any of us, be held responsible? Momentary distraction could sabotage the world. This habit of undercutting happiness existed in Lydia and Jeter and his pop and Fernald and the fucking Atomic Energy Commission.
It was so goddamned hard to own up: “I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t hear you when you called my name. I missed the signs of your distress. I didn’t see the frost. Or, I saw the frost and I hoped it would melt. And then it did, so I didn’t say anything.”
There’s not a mistake that can’t be traced back to the longing and humor in my heart. Lydia’d bust out laughing if he said that. Beyond the ability to accept blame, add to that timing. There was a window, and if you missed it then admittance didn’t do a bit of good because it was too late, the direction of the tracks had already been cast. Wood had been cut and iron had been forged and the wheels of your rail car spun. Often your loved ones had been the very fiends putting the metal to the center of the white hot flame.
Odds were when Jeter pulled the Olds into his driveway that Lydia’d be gone. He peered through Flick’s café style curtains at the Great Miami, the river which helped build the villages of Fernald, New Baltimore, Ross, New Haven, and Shandon, which supported the Feed Materials Production Center, as well as the early families of Butterfield, Brown, Cove, Hungerford, and Frances from as far back as the Revolutionary War, and the Redhawk Indians and, hell, probably even the mastodons– he didn’t know. He didn’t know much of anything except that he’d better get home and feed the dog, locate where Lydia’d parked Russ, and figure how they’d step up to caring for the boy.
And as ever, the next night’s Fernald shift counted on his arrival and clocking in. He was a precious cog in the Byzantine process that had been set into motion on these thousand acres, and once started, the monstrous thing couldn’t be neglected. The ammonia blast proved he’d gained a kernel of something worth knowing. At first opportunity he planned to tell Eschen or Evan or even Cliff, who would no doubt tell the world, what the amonia blast had taught him. If he could reduce even one on-the-job mistake, Jeter might manage to shoulder the other secondary sadness he lugged around.
The Fernald Materials Processing Center located near the town of Fernald in Southwest Ohio was a large scale integrated facility for the production of uranium metal used to fabricate fuel cores and target element cores for reactors operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). National Lead of Ohio (NLO) refined uranium and produced uranium ingots and billets as well as uranium oxide for gaseous diffusion plants from 1951 to 1986. Highpoint of employment occurred in 1956 with over 2,900 individuals at work on the site. Peak production occurred in 1960 with over 10,000 MTU of cores delivered to government operated reactors in Richland, Washington and Savannah River, South Carolina. NLO operated the plant under prime contract with the DOE, answering to the Office of the Assistant Manager for Defense Programs at the DOE’s office in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
In 1984 a series of malfunctions with the dust collectors in Plant 9 resulted in uranium dust released into the atmosphere. These incidents raised the alarm and the consciousness of many who lived and worked in the area.. Continued resident uproar, media scrutiny, Congressional hearings and a $300 million class action lawsuit against NLO marked the beginning of the end for the FMPC. Operations ceased at the plant in 1989; two decades of cleanup and restoration to the environment followed. Today the site is a nature preserve with hiking trails and other scenic elements open to the public. The Fernald Preserve Visitors Center, also at that same location, serves as a repository of historical, geological, environmental and scientific data about the site and the industry that once flourished there.
Donna D. Vitucci lives in an historic home (AKA money pit) in Northern Kentucky but crosses the river each day to help raise funds for Cincinnati-area non-profits. Her fiction and poems have appeared in dozens of literary magazines and journals in print and online, including Meridian, Hawaii Review, Front Porch Journal, Sojourn, Oklahoma Review, and others. Her novel manuscript, FEED MATERIALS, was judged a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, 2010. “Hex, October 1956,” is an excerpt from that unpublished book. She has four finished novels in a trunk.