The Government Tank in "The Orchard Keeper"

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  • 25 Nov 2012 at 5:50 am #2486

    Markus W.
    Member


    Hey everyone,

    I’m currently working on a chapter on The Orchard Keeper, and I’ve got a question concerning the ominous government tank Arthur Ownby shoots in the novelBeyond the tank’s symbolic implications (machine in the garden, intrusion of government etc.) the novel leaves its actual function ambiguous, and like some others I was inclined to see it as probably simply containing water, though the text does not mention any of that sort.

    Natalie Grant writes that “In its unnaturalness this storage facility for the Oak Ridge nuclear laboratory nearby scars the landscape of Red Moundain and deeply offends Ownby” (“The Landscape of the Soul” Sacred Violence Vol. 1, 78), and Wade Hall in his essay on “The Human Comedy of Cormac McCarthy” (in: Sacred Violence Vol.1) suggests the tank holds “atomic waste atop a nearby mountain – like an ironic cathedal tower announcing itself to a fallen world” (72). John Cant takes this up (though wrongfully crediting Robert Jarrett) and – after figuring out the novel’s time structure and, I think correctly, placing the shooting in the year 1940, goes on to say that “the Manhattan Project, and its Oak Ridge installation were in place by 1940, the year in which the tank is attacked. Oak Ridge was associated with the TVA, whose operation made available the electrical power needed for the Oak Ridge process” (Cormac McCarthy and the Myth of American Exceptionalism,  67).

    He says that only after calculating the time scale was he “able to disabuse myself of the notion that Jarrett’s (sic!) idea was a chronological impossibility” (67), which is exactly what I would have thought it was, and – after checking both on Wikipedia and the more scholarly source of Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb, now again think it is! From what I can gather, the Oak Ridge town and area where only acquired/established in September of 1942, two years after Ownby shoots the tank.

    So, the set of questions I’m wrestling with is:

    1) Am I missing something? Is my information flawed? Could it be possible, even probable, that the tank contains atomic waste as early as 1940? I’d kind of like if that were true … ;-)  However, what further discourages me from assuming it is in fact so, is that to my best knowledge, atomic waste, while possibly stored in tanks, is usually put underground, not in plain sight to shoot up. Maybe someone here knows more about how atomic waste was stored back then…

    2) Are Natalie Grant, Wade Hall and John Cant mistaken?

    3) Could this be either an error or a consciously employed anachronism on McCarthy’s side?

    Any ideas?

     


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    • This topic was modified 1 year, 7 months ago by  Markus W..
    25 Nov 2012 at 8:08 am #2489

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    The “tank” has nothing to do with nuclear storage or anything like that. Nothing that security-sensitive would have been plopped on top of a mountain and left unguarded and unfenced where someone like Uncle Ather could access it so easily.  The “tank” perfectly describes the outer enclosure of an NDB, essentially an aviation beacon broadcasting on an AM radio band – the first national system of aviation radio beacons used for navigation, location and course plotting, used by both civil and military aircraft. It was later replaced with a combined NDB-VOR, a more advanced aviation navigating system that broadcasts an independent tracking signal on each of the 360 degrees of the compass radial.  The particular system in question operates from a hilltop just down Martin Mill Pike on the south side of Knoxville from McCarthy’s childhood home, and it is also very close by the original spray pit used in the novel as the site of the elder Rattner’s open grave.


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    25 Nov 2012 at 9:33 am #2492

    Markus W.
    Member

    Ah, excellent. Thank you Rick, that clears that up conclusively.


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    25 Nov 2012 at 4:20 pm #2495

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    Oddly enough, Markus, there’s going to be an article about the “tank” by Wes Morgan in the forthcoming issue of The Cormac McCarthy Journal early this spring.


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    25 Nov 2012 at 5:24 pm #2500

    Markus W.
    Member

    Nice – I’m looking forward to it. I’ve just read Peter Josyph’s Knoxville excursion interview with Wes Morgan in Appalachian Heritage, the one you sent me . I found it very informative and actually quite moving, too. Concerning the ‘tank,’ Josyph wrote a few lines to the same effect of what you stated above in the beginning.


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    02 Dec 2012 at 9:36 pm #2591

    It’s not hard to mess up interpreting the tank. I first thought it was some kind of newfangled  still, a sign of new moonshine competition intruding on the mountain  that pissed off Uncle Ather.  But after walking with Wes Morgan around the foot of Brown Mtn last yr,  I learned what the tank could only be in the TOK, an air-traffic beacon. Wes and Rick have the tank down pat.

    I lived about 13 miles from Oak Ridge in Knoxville and recall about the year ’42 or ’43 hearing my  parents talking about “the strange goings-on at that Oak Ridge place.” Seems my Dad had motored by  there one time before or after visiting a relative in Clinton, TN  and discovered a town (O.R.)  that had almost gone up over night. That would have been about 1941-42.

    Of course,, we didn’t know what the hell was going on at O.R. till after the war, and even then it was not all that clear to us what the town had to do with the atom bomb.

    Things got a little clearer for me when a brilliant kid named Frank Dowling started commuting  from O.R. to Knoxville Catholic High School in fall 1950, the start of Chazz McCarthy’s senior yr and our freshman yr at the school. Frank told a few of us guys that his dad had been doing  “scientific work” at Oak Ridge. Though he didn’t disclose what the work exactly was (his dad probably told him little to nothing about his highly classified job), we figured it had something to do with the bomb.

    Even 5 yrs after the war, a lot of Oak Ridge was still shrouded in secrecy.

     


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    11 Dec 2012 at 7:17 pm #2663

    An old fart sometimes fergits why he does things. So it was with my last post, the part having to do with my living near Oak Ridge during WW 2. I suppose I included that anecdote to make a point: certain powerful elements in the U.S. were preparing for war at least 2 yrs before we got involved. Hence the start of the draft in 1940. Hence Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program. Hence the air traffic control beacon atop Brown Mtn. before the war.

    And lest we fergit, Einstein’s letter to FDR of August 2, 1939 (actually written by Leo Szilard)  warned that uranium in the wrong hands could be used to set off a chain reaction and a powerful bomb. Not long after that when Germany was overrunning eastern Europe some smart folks were probably already considering places, including Oak Ridge, where we could do our own uranium thing. The fear of long-range Luftwaffe bombing our strategic sites no doubt haunted the minds of our war planners, and of course you need airplane spotting places and air raid wardens. My Dad was walking his warden beat soon after Pearl Harbor. But as I said earlier, we knew little to nothing about  Oak Ridge then.


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    12 Dec 2012 at 6:15 am #2666

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    We have szilards living in our bushes, trees and under the eaves of the house – but as far as I know none of them is named Leo.


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    12 Dec 2012 at 9:57 am #2667

    My Liege, how’s Friendo? Them szilards orta be some good eatin for him.


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    12 Dec 2012 at 1:36 pm #2669

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    Friendo is excellent and thanks you for your solicitude.  He crested out at just under a foot long, sporting three rattles and a button at this  point. He’d outgrown szilards over a year ago and has been eating “hoppers” (very young mice) since the early summer. He issues forth from his little cave the moment I walk into the shed and coils expectantly, looking up at the screen top, knowing he’s probably about to be fed. It is clear that his venom has ripened in lethality judging by how quickly the mice go into shock once he’s struck them. I am not oblivious to this and have become steadily more cautious with him. I discern no anaphylactic shock  in the crystal ball for this graying eminence, thank you.


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