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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318


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"A Very Catholic Cold War," by Ashley Pryor




In one pile in my attic are the few things that I have held onto from my childhood, including the jeweled cross I got for my first communion, the bright yellow Geiger counter I got as a party favor, and my dad’s slide rule. Other people would have archived other things, but these are the powerful emblems of my childhood.

I was raised in Richland, Washington, a town that mushroomed after the US Army Corps of Engineers bought out the towns of Fruitvale, White Bluffs, and Hanford, and strung barbed wire around more than 580 acres of high desert as part of the Manhattan project. There, isolated by both desert and barbed wire, workers hired under strict orders to keep their mouths closed about what they were doing built nuclear reactors to produce the plutonium that fueled the Nagasaki bomb. The Corps also built dorms and houses in Richland to accommodate those workers, many of those homes pre     fabricated. Since it was built as part of the war effort, most people expected the town to fold once the war was over. There was a brief lull in beginning in late 1945,and the future seemed uncertain, but construction and production ramped up as the US pursued a policy of containment of Soviet influence under the Truman Doctrine. That doctrine was announced in 1947, developed throughout the next year, and served as the basis of the NATO alliance formed in 1949. The Cold War was hot and getting hotter. 

My dad, whose college career was postponed while he served as a Marine pilot during WWII, moved there in 1950 with a brand-new chemistry degree, leaving my pregnant mother and the first two children, Mary Kay and Joe, with her parents on Puget Sound. He lived in one of the dorms used to house workers during the war while he waited for his name to come up in the house lottery. In the meantime, child number three, my sister Patty, was born. Finally, in March of 1951, my parents were allowed to buy a Y house where they would live for the next ten years and through the addition of five more children.

The Y house, or ranch house, was just over 1,200 square feet built on a concrete slab. Almost 300 of those square feet were allocated to the coal bin and the utility room, which housed the coal furnace and the washing machine. That left 900 square feet for the ten of us that eventually lived in it. The house was designed, as were almost all of the houses in Richland during the early years, by Spokane architect Gustav Albin Pehrson, who was given 90 days, according to site historian David Harvey, to design the entire town: streets, utilities, commercial district, churches, schools, and homes. The house designs were assigned letters of the alphabet, organized into blocks and neighborhoods, and often allocated according to income or job priority. As a young lab chemist, my dad did not qualify for the biggest houses, but he did get a shot at a slightly bigger house than others as he already had three children. While some people complained about the uniformity of the housing stock, I found it quite convenient. When I visited friends, I always knew where the bathroom was. The uniformity of the houses also flattened the gradations of wealth and prestige. A few of the house styles were built only along the Columbia River, and they were reserved for ranking officers and high-level managers. But since the difference between a Y house and an S house, a Q house, or a G house was just 300 or 400 square feet, the differences were not that obvious to children. 

My sister Susie was born in 1952, and there was a pause before I was born in 1954. My brother Jack showed up in 1956, and then there was another pause before Betty was born in 1959, and Carole followed in early 1961. The size of our family, in an era when there were lots of big families, still was enough to set us apart from our immediate neighbors. Most of the families on our block had just two or three children. We understood that this was because they were Protestant. We were resolutely and devoutly Catholic. We donated money at church for the “propagation of the faith.” The term was a bit opaque for me, but I had learned about propagating seeds from my kindergarten teacher, so I figured it out. I honestly believed my parents were bound for heaven when numbers nine and ten, Theresa and Julie, came along.

By 1960, the Cold War was escalating, nuclear weapons production was in full swing, and Richland was a critical source of weapons-grade plutonium. It was not about to fold, so the government released land for building, and my parents were among the first to buy a lot and hire contractors. They built a ranch house behind the public school we attended for just kindergarten. I started grade school by walking across that schoolyard and then on for another mile to Christ the King, the Catholic school I attended from first through eighth grade, singing this song:

We march along together, with our banners held on high, 

The regiments of Christ the King, true loyalty our cry.

Our steps will never waver, as along life’s path we trod! 

In honor of our own dear school, our country, and our God.


Christ the King! Our voices ringing, pledging loyalty anew.

Happy hearts will ever praise thee, and our colors gold and blue.


The years 1960 to 1963 represent for me the crystallization of what it meant to be Catholic, American, and on the front line of the Cold War. John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon to become the first Catholic president of the United States, and,from a public relations point of view, a perfect antidote to a long-held suspicion of Catholics in America: a decorated war hero, married to a fashion icon, Harvard educated, and deadly charming. Being Catholic was suddenly a little edgy, a bit cool. 

Being Catholic also meant that we had a double stake in the Cold War. The spread of communism meant not only the growing threat of nuclear war, but also the ongoing persecution of Orthodox Catholics in the Eastern Block. The Soviet Union was as much a moral enemy as a political enemy. John Kennedy became not just the leader of the free world, but also a defender of the faith. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, school hours were devoted to praying for our president, our country, and for peace. For us, dedicated children of Cold War warriors, there was no irony in praying for peace in the town that made its living making weapons.

Being the daughter of a scientist was also cool. Scientists, after all, were to the Cold War what fighter pilots were to the air war, and artillery divisions were to the ground war. But scientists were also going to save the future of the country by converting nuclear energy to electrical power, giving us a peacetime mission as well as a wartime mission. The status of scientists as the founders of a new era free from reliance on foreign oil was confirmed when John Kennedy himself came to Richland for the opening of the N-Reactor in September of 1963, just eight weeks before was he was killed in the Dallas motorcade. The N-Reactor was a dual-purpose reactor built to produce plutonium as well as generate electricity. Squinting into the desert sun from a platform set above the tumbleweeds on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Kennedy congratulated the Hanford workers for their contributions to maintaining the peace.           

By the time I reached high school, cracks began to appear in a system forced open by all of those oppressed by that system. The civil rights movement; the protests against the Vietnam War; growing concern over what we were doing to the environment; and reinvigorated calls for the rights of women, gays, and lesbians called each of those entities and the relationships among them into question. Even those of us raised in the system began to question the values that informed the choice of a bomb as the mascot for our Richland Bombers teams, and the wisdom of a mosaic of a mushroom cloud in the middle of the high school mixing area. 

By 1971, the only reactor still operating at the site that once hosted nine reactors was the N-reactor dedicated by Kennedy and which produced electricity. One, added later as part of the disastrous WWPPS project, still operates and generates about 10% of the electricity produced in the state of Washington. Still, the town of Richland began shrinking, but it has managed some economic diversification, and the work of clearing the site continues to provide jobs. 

That ideological constellation of the bonds among science, the military, and religion is still visible in the pile of goods in my attic, in the architecture of my hometown, and in many of our national debates. It is a constellation hard to escape from where I stand. Is that constellation visible from your location in time and space? Does it still hold, is it transformed, driven underground, or unraveling? What do the material artifacts of your own childhood tell you of the overarching discourses that shaped your interactions with the world as you grew in it? Did you grow up as I did with an expectation that the next civil service drill would be the real thing, the last thing? Or did you grow up with the uneasy sense that we were slowly killing our planet in a childhood peppered with mutants and space travel toys? What does your attic tell you about your own life and time and place? Do you have anything left?

Part I

Part III

Part IV