Nuclear Connection Project
NCP Papers

NCP-09: Oak Ridge Native Speak - An Introduction

Jerry Washington:
Regretfully, any contribution I make to the Nuclear Connection Project is going to be purely anecdotal. My only qualification is scarcely more than an accident of birth – having been hatched and reared in the original “Atomic City”: Oak Ridge, Tennessee. 

A sleepy little burgh tucked discreetly away in the rolling hills between the Cumberland and Great Smoky Mountain ranges, Oak Ridge has always appeared deceptively normal on the surface.  Only when you peeked behind the façade of plutonium and privilege – and you had to know where to look – did you glimpse the town’s true nature. 

Beyond the designer dachas of the nuclear bourgeoisie, out past the abandoned guard tower relics of an earlier era, lay the vast no-man’s land we called the “Restricted Zone”  (“we” meaning the Mensa set’s prodigal offspring). 

The Oak Ridge “Reservation” encompasses many hundreds of square miles.  However, the town itself – the residential area – occupies only a small percentage of that acreage.  The rest has always been under the purview of the Federal Government; Atomic Energy Commission (AEC); Union Carbide; Martin Marietta, or whoever holds the reigns of power these days. 

The Oak Ridge City cops lacked the authority to cross over into “the zone,” a fact taken full advantage of by me and my fellow delinquents. With too much time and money on our hands, we sought to relieve our boredom through frequent incursions into “the zone,” where we’d party hearty in the shadow of K-25, Y-12, or X-10, the three resident nuke facilities. 

We sure-as-hell weren’t worried about AEC Security showing up. Those guys were an absolute joke! Even at the height of the Cold War, we were able to carouse “the zone” with impunity. We could’ve been Russian spies or worse, and nobody would’ve known. 

Ringed with “DANGER: RADIOACTIVE” signs, we went about our business with the fatalism borne by Oak Ridgers, and nurtured throughout our formative years. Field trips to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (X-10) only served to reinforce that posture, as we gazed down into the luminous depths of the Heavy Water tank used to cool spent reactor rods. Years later I would learn that that otherworldly glow had a name: Cerenkov Radiation. As with the radioactive dimes that we took home as souvenirs and promptly liberated from their plastic casings, it was probably best that we didn’t know too much back then. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, or so the theory goes… 

That was certainly the disposition with which I approached any mention of UFOs at the time, whether in a periodical, TV show, or even Baby Huey cartoons! The subject made me extremely uncomfortable. When Time or Life Magazine (I don’t remember which) came out with a special UFO issue featuring a full-color glossy of an alleged UFO on the front cover, my adolescent self went utterly apoplectic. I repeatedly flipped over the issue displayed on our coffee table, so as not to have to look at the thing. 

Of course, I was weaned – like most of my generation – on a steady diet of B-Movies bearing titles like “It Came From Outer Space” and “Invaders from Mars.” And while they also made me uncomfortable, it was the notion of TV’s “The Invaders,” that really made me squirm; those glowing hands…the dissonant music…the opening sequence with the saucer landing. The notion of something so totally outside of my “zone” of reference ran contrary to the ideals that I held dear: My yearning for a reasonable life, where cause begets effect, and stuff makes sense. 

I have set the stage for the following account. It is through the contextual prism of life in the Atomic City, as I’ve described it, that these “anecdotes” should be viewed… 

too-close encounter 

When I invited my buddy, Robert, over to cruise for chicks and beer on his first weekend home from college, UFOs were the very last thing on my mind – they weren’t even on the radar screen. Bob was a fellow hedonist, and, while I was still adrift in a sea of uncertainty about my future after high school, he had seized the bull by the horns and enrolled in the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. 

He picked me up in the beat up, old Corvair that he’d inherited from his older brother.  I was a little heftier than Bob and, although it took some doing, I squeezed my bulk into the passenger seat. Off we went – Laurel and Hardy – into the balmy, autumn evening, headed due west towards the Restricted Zone. 

Truthfully, Bob and I weren’t all that close. We'd never really hung out together, however, rumor had it that he had spent his entire first semester at UT racking up one sexual conquest after another, and I was anxious to hear him dish the dirt. My ears were purt near burnin’ as he regaled me with a play-by-play account of his sexploits, a goodly percentage of which could have been hyperbole; Bob wouldn’t be the first young man who’s inflated his statistics. 

Still, Bob was a pretty rational guy, not given to too many flights of fancy. An honor student at Oak Ridge High, a school that churned out National Merit Finalists like Y-12 turned out nuclear triggers, he'd had the prettiest girlfriend in school. In other words, he really didn’t need to exaggerate very much. 

“Let’s cruise the plants,” I suggested, and Bob agreed. 

“I haven’t had my fix of radiation in a while,” he quipped, only half in jest. “We’ll take the grand tour, then come back by the liquor store and buy some beer.” 

Onward, toward K-25 we trekked, penetrating deep into the Restricted Zone, Bob, all the while, keeping a running commentary going about his collegiate conquests. Basically, it was just your typical dude’s night out – two local boys cruisin’ the nuke plants, hoping to stumble upon some action. 

Eventually, we found ourselves on Bearcreek Road, the curvy, two-lane road that leads to Y-12. A shift change was due at the facility in half an hour, but for the time being, we had the thoroughfare to ourselves. It was a moonless night, so Robert had to drive with extra care. Although quite familiar with the route, the lack of streetlights or other vehicles only added to the challenges of negotiating its numerous twists and turns on such a caliginous night. 

And then it happened. We were driving along, shootin’ the breeze, listening to the A.M. radio, when off to our right, a bright, fully illuminated object appeared out of nowhere. It was descending at a 30-degree angle, following the topography of the hillside next to the road, when it abruptly leveled out, stopped, and hovered no more than twenty feet above the road. Exhibiting every sign of being intelligently controlled, simply by the ultra-precise manner in which it maneuvered, the UFO seemed to be daring us to approach it and drive underneath it. 

The object was disk-shaped, radiant, metallic, the size of an eighteen-wheeler, and utterly silent. I know, because at the moment it first appeared in my field of vision, I reached over to turn off the radio. I don’t know why, exactly, but that enabled me to hear whatever ambient noises were present, and other than the air passing by the open car window, there were none – other than the pounding of our hearts, of course. 

“Oh, God,” I cried, “ what do we do?” 

“I don’t know,” Robert replied meekly. 

The fear, the greatest we had ever known, was robbing us of the ability to speak. Reacting on instinct, Bob put the pedal-to-the-metal, but this was a Corsair remember, a rickety ol’ relic that had long seen its day. 

The object awaited us, only a hundred feet or so up ahead. Even at the modest speed we were travelling, there was no way we could stop – not in so short a distance. The laws of physics were indeed committing us to pass right underneath the intruder. 

I glanced away, but its otherworldly luminescence still managed to burn its image into my psyche. Robert wasn’t so lucky. He was forced to keep his eyes trained on the road, and it was he who noticed the prismatic effect that the object exhibited. As though a rainbow were contained within, the UFO pulsed with an unnatural light. 

Passing beyond the "contact point," all I could think of in my panicked state was the possibility that the UFO was toying with us, and I suffered another panic attack.  Suddenly, a diffuse light appeared on the distant horizon. 

“Could that be?” I wondered. 

“I hope so,” Bob replied. 

What we were seeing were the first familiar signs of humankind: the lights from the western boundary of the miles long Y-12 plant. It was only a couple of kilometers away. 
For the next few minutes we hoped and prayed with every bit of fervor a couple of irreverent teens could muster that we’d make it back to civilization without another run-in with the mystery craft. “Just a little further…just a little further,” I chanted – a rather different mantra from my usual call-of-the-wild. 

“Thank God…thank God,” I intoned in unparalleled relief, once we reached the outer limits of the “bomb factory.” It’s ironic how something so alien as Y-12, with its enormous electromagnets (largest on the planet) and cutting edge technologies, could produce such a warm-fuzzy deep within me. A true baby boomer, I was home… 

(postscripts) 

Oddly enough, Robert and I never discussed our encounter again. I tried to get him to talk about it once, several months after the fact when I happened upon him in a pizza joint, but he refused. The very mention of it made the blood drain from his face and his knees go wobbly. Quasi-hostile, he strong-armed me to the side and warned me to never bring the subject up again. And so it remained – that silence between us – up until his death of AIDS complications in 1990. In a subsequent conversation with our mutual best friend, I learned that Bob had given him a detailed description of the events of that night, and that all of the pertinent details matched up with my recollections. It was a relief to know that I wasn’t just passing swamp gas… 

I once queried Stanton Friedman and John Carpenter, two men who’ve made it their life’s work to study the UFO phenomenon, what their take on such a close encounter was, and both replied that it fit the alien abduction profile. “Any encounter that close, usually involves a missing time and/or an abduction component,” was their consensus. Both found Robert’s apoplexy when cornered in the pizza joint a particularly telling constituent. I was completely unaware of both phenomena – alien abduction and missing time – at the time the event occurred. Not until I assumed the State Directorship of both Kentucky/MUFON and Skywatch did I become aware of just how much Bob and I fit the profile of likely abductees. 

Growing up in the Atomic City you learn a lot about its history, about its birth during World War II, its top-secret mission, its chief export  – weapons grade uranium – and about the role it played in bringing the war to a rapid conclusion. You never hear about its lengthy and well-documented history of UFO surveillance or about the folks, like Bob and me, who put a human face on the startling statistics. That discovery would also come later. 

In October of 1973, a “flap” occurred during which UFOs were seen all over the East Coast, from Louisiana in the south, to Michigan in the north. Oak Ridge, too, had its share of sightings, as her skies were suddenly adorned with amber ovals, red BOLs (balls of light), and multi-colored whatnots. (See “Red Balls of…Light,” and “To Have or Have-Not,” for a personal account.) 

I feel I’m keeping lofty company to have my tales of the strange-but-true included among the likes of researchers of such impressive caliber and credentials.  Admittedly, my evidence for the status of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as a UFO hotspot is anecdotal, but hey – in the beginning was the word… 

NCP Home Page