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My interview with Michele Gerber, author of On The Home Front

As any historical fiction author knows, research is good but talking to folks who have history in the place your are writing about is invaluable. As I began my work on Tangles, I created a list of experts and authors who already "dwelled" in the history of Hanford. On a trip to the Tri-Cities, I arranged to meet Michele Gerber, author of On The Home Front. (https://shorturl.at/lsHL1)


In 1993, Michele Gerber, an unemployed scientist and historian single-handedly unleashed a landslide of life-altering information by filling in a simple form. Her first FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request was stunningly straightforward: a request for a series of manuals called the “Manhattan Project Buildings and Facilities at the Hanford site: A Construction History.”



In 1994, almost a year after she had put in her written request and received approval, a USPS truck pulled up to her front door and delivered over a dozen thick tomes. The term ‘tome’ is not just for large books, it also is used to designate an unusually important book. Gerber stayed up night after night like Alice being pulled down a rabbit hole of seemingly innocuous reports on the erection and organization of one of the largest building projects ever initiated by the U.S. government.


Gerber realized that in this set of manuals, the U.S. Government had codified their every step in building both Hanford and Richland. As she devoured the dry accounts of construction and daily functions of all the areas of Hanford, she became adept at synthesizing the language that held the horrifying secrets of Hanford. Simultaneously, she trained herself in the nuances of the nuclear weapons industry.


Many may have doubted a historian’s ability to be able to accurately portray the production process at Hanford, but Gerber persisted. Though often feeling isolated, she worked with a sense of urgency, fearful others might beat her to the story and concerned as to what her neighbors might say once she told it.



In the spring of 1945, before both VE and VJ days, over fifteen thousand people lived in “the village,” the nickname for Richland, Washington, and the towns of Pasco and Kennewick grew exponentially as well. For decades, Hanford drove the rise in population in the entire Tri-Cities region. As Gerber combed through documents in the reading room at the Richland public library, she came to understand the reverence many of her fellow Richland residents bestowed first on Dupont, the original Hanford contractor, or “The Company” as it was often called in the early days (subsequently General Electric followed by Westinghouse).


She completed her thoughtfully crafted manuscript, On the Home Front, in 1990 and shipped it to the publisher before her employment at The Area. In it, Gerber reports “just the facts ma’am” and steers clear of making judgments, leaving that to each reader.


After consuming key chapters of On the Home Front, I found myself sitting back, pushing the book away, and trying to understand, much less reconcile, the wanton destruction of the environment during, but also after WWII. Gerber, attributing much of the problem to the expediency of war, cites the thousands of curies released into the air, the millions of gallons of irradiated effluent piped directly into the Columbia River, and the sloppy disposal of tons of radioactive sludge and other chemical waste into the ground. The safety of regional populations fell second to the nuclear arms race which continued for decades during the Cold War and beyond.


No place better exemplifies the inherent dangers of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against than Hanford. (see https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/eisenhower-warns-of-military-industrial-complex)


And perhaps, no other woman illustrates the inner workings of the female protagonist, Mary, in my debut novel than Michele Gerber. Like my character, Michele came to Richland because her husband had been hired by the Hanford contractor. Both she and my character, Mary, came to understand the dangers being created by nuclear production in a slow burn of realization. All life, human and otherwise was being harmed.


In writing Mary, I found myself returning to my interview notes with Michele, her soft yet steady voice infusing Mary’s as I wrote the second and then a third draft of Tangles. Michele kept her patience and stick-to-it attitude, despite, like Mary, having to combat a world of male-dominated hierarchy. Michele's journey, evident in the narrative of her best-selling non-fiction book inspired much of Mary’s character arc.



When I first met Michele Gerber at Kagen Coffee and Crepes in June of 2023, I was struck by both her taut but diminutive stature, easy smile, and most of all, her determination. Late morning Richland residents swirled around us, eager for the sumptuous cups of Joe served by Kagen’s friendly team of young people and focused on the day like any other full of possibilities, but Gerber focused on our conversation. I sensed that this meeting held the key to completing my tale about Hanford as well.


We spoke of many things: Gerber’s current work around addiction, a pivotal part of her grief process after losing her only son to the opioid epidemic. She’s worked tirelessly, just like she did on the Hanford story, to create community resources for the addicted and their families. Her second book (Witness to Addiction, released in November of 2023) is only the beginning. Soon, Benton County will be home to the largest recovery center in the state of Washington. (see notes at the end of this post)


Our conversation took a turn back in time as Gerber led me through her numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, describing the sometimes-interminable wait times between request and receipt. The hours in the Public Reading room at the library, the exhaustive conversations with scientists and other Hanford professionals hesitant to tell her much, and the feelings of isolation during her research that might have broken a less dedicated individual. But Gerber was determined to find the truth, long buried like family secrets and daylight whatever they might be.


Gerber calculated how much money the Manhattan Project had cost Americans. Trillions of tax dollars had been spent in pursuit of weapons of war that should they be used, would result in global destruction. She also realized that if the clean-up necessary for the immense amounts of nuclear waste was not done well, the entire region would suffer irreparable harm. She was and is spot on in terms of today's challenges at Hanford.


But most importantly, Gerber iterated the lessons in democracy that the Manhattan Project has given us. Hard lessons, mostly illustrated by Hanford, centered on information accessibility, and the danger of the lack thereof. Americans must be able to access information needed to assure the health and safety of their communities.


In an interview for the Hanford History Project, Gerber stated: “If you don’t understand the Cold War, you cannot understand the 20th century and you can’t understand the Cold War unless you understand the Hanford site.” (see http://www.hanfordhistory.com/ but note that today, when I tried accessing the site, once again, the oral testimonies were not accessible.


Perhaps that one statement, more than any other by any "expert" in all the interviews I've conducted in 2023 or 2024, drove me to develop two narratives in my novel, both within the timeline for the Cold War. The list of “Monthlies” she shared with me, a list of government monthly reports from April 1944 through August of 1956, drove the guts of my plot. Seemingly innocuous reports lay out the production and much of the waste disposal during that decade-plus, mostly after WWII.



The tension that existed across Hanford and effused the Tri-Cities might not have been on the scale of Los Alamos where scientists kept themselves fairly separate from the rest of the operational workforce. Hanford was much more ecumenical, but as waste production mounted, the higher-ups decided over and over again to keep the dangers secret from the public (including Hanford employees) for decades. Classified documents revealing the practices were finally released in the late 1980s begetting a decades-long legal battle that resulted in little remuneration for those harmed.


“Hanford has a huge legacy – waste – the Cold War waste dwarfs the MP (Manhattan Project at Las Alamos) waste.” Gerber shook her head before adding a last word. “The task of this generation…is not to hide the problem…but to deal with it…(allow Richland to) become something other than the town next door to Hanford.”

 

 

Note: For a deeper dive into Michele Gerber’s journey and expertise please use this link to view her interview at the American Heritage Foundation https://ahf.nuclearmuseum.org/voices/oral-histories/michele-gerbers-interview/

Gerber’s new book, Witness to Addiction, is a poignant read about a mother’s journey to help her addicted son. More info at https://www.michelegerberauthor.com

 


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