My first memories are a kaleidoscope of happiness: A small red house surrounded by a wooden fence; my free-spirited mother, Judy; my big, outgoing father, Gerry; my older brother, Marcus; and me, Baby Hope.
On the outside of the fence, for everyone passing by to see, was a giant yellow smiley face. On the other side was a yard with a sandbox and a jungle gym. An English sheepdog named Charlotte. Rabbits and turtles and kittens. Out back we played Red Light! Green Light! and had Easter-egg hunts and birthday parties. Inside the house, my mother, a budding photographer, set up a darkroom to develop film, as well as a workout room where she practiced karate. I snuggled with my parents in their bed and watched TV. The cozy kitchen was where we had family spaghetti dinners.
Smiley face on the fence, happy people in the house.
But as with so much of my life, the truth is a little more complicated. Clutter—plastic toys, yard equipment, bikes, an old jalopy—filled up our side yard. The neighbors complained, so my parents were forced to put up a fence to hide all our crap. My mom didn’t like thinking the neighbors had won some kind of victory, so she painted that garish yellow happy face as tall and as wide as the fence would allow.
How did we all arrive there, in a tract house on Marshall Street in Richland, Washington?
My mother came for the same reason most people settled in Richland: because of the nuclear reactors. Richland, Washington, looks like a normal American town, with neat rows of streets along the banks of the Columbia River. But behind that unremarkable facade is a complex history, a town created in the dark shadows of the American dream. During World War II, the U.S. government searched for an isolated swath of land with an abundant water supply and plenty of electrical power where it could hide a highly classified extension of the Manhattan Project. They found what they were looking for in an arid stretch of emptiness two hundred miles southeast of Seattle. Hanford is in the high desert, on the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima Rivers, not far from the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams. It had water, electricity, and not much else. It was the perfect place to build the world’s first plutonium production reactors.
The U.S. government forced the relocation of about 1,500 residents from the small farming community of Hanford, which became the 586-square-mile site of the nuclear campus. Workers were imported and housed in tent barracks, and later, in small tract houses in nearby Richland. Within a few months, the workforce swelled to 51,000, and three nuclear reactors were producing the plutonium that, once shipped to Los Alamos, was used to build some of the first atomic bombs. Most workers had no idea what they were helping develop. No one was allowed to speak of it: husbands and wives weren’t even permitted to tell each other what their jobs were at Hanford. Residents had phony mailing addresses in Seattle, hung blackout curtains at night, and spoke in whispers inside their own homes. There were signs posted in public places: Careless Talk Costs Lives.
Old-timers tell stories that have been handed down over the years, of neighbors seen chatting in public before abruptly disappearing without so much as a good-bye. The secretive origins of Richland seem to have filtered down into the dusty riverbanks of the Columbia and infiltrated our ordinary lives.
Ours was a patriotic place. In 1944, every employee of the Hanford Works donated one day’s pay to buy a bomber—a B-17 that was christened Day’s Pay and flew more than sixty missions over Germany. There’s a huge mural of the aircraft on an exterior wall at my high school: we are the Richland High Bombers. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, was filled with Hanford plutonium. Six days later, the Japanese surrendered and World War II ended. Around most of the globe, that victory, manufactured on the banks of the Columbia River, is viewed as an apocalyptic moment for mankind. But in my hometown, that incineration is still celebrated. The logo of my high school is the nuclear mushroom cloud—it’s painted on the floor of our basketball court, emblazoned on T-shirts and the backs of varsity jackets and defended vigorously by Richland citizens against periodic attempts to change it to something more politically correct. The Richland motto is “Proud of the cloud.”
We don’t do politically correct in Richland. When I was in high school, one of our school cheers was “Nuke ’em, nuke ’em, nuke ’em till they glow!”
My family didn’t help manufacture the annihilation of Nagasaki. My grandfather, Pete Shaw, was in the navy during World War II and went on to become an electrical engineer in the nuclear industry in Southern California during the 1950s and ’60s. But Hanford stayed busy throughout the Cold War, so in 1969 Grandpa Pete and Grandma Alice moved to Washington with their four children. Their oldest daughter, my aunt Kathy, lasted only a few weeks. She left Richland as soon as she turned eighteen. My mother, the second oldest at sixteen and about to start her senior year of high school, was so distraught about the move that she had tried to run away beforehand, concocting an adolescent fantasy of escaping with a boyfriend. But the plan only lasted a few hours—the boyfriend was interested in someone else. When Judy Lynn Shaw looked out the plane window at the brown barren landscape below her, she groaned in despair, “What is this place?”
How did my father come to Richland? I wish I knew the entire answer to that question.
Here’s part of the answer: my mother, who had moved to Everett, Washington, as a young woman, married my father and became pregnant with me during a conjugal visit while my father was serving a prison sentence in Washington. My brother, Marcus, was a toddler at the time. Overwhelmed, my mother had no choice but to move in with her parents in Richland. My father followed after his release. He and my mother eventually set up house behind the smiley-face fence, a few blocks from my grandparents.
I was born on a hot, dry day in the middle of summer: July 30, 1981. My father chose that day to bring his other two children from his first marriage to Richland from the Seattle area for a visit. My half brother, David, was twelve, and my half sister, Terry, was nine. My mother brought me, her new baby—Hope Amelia Solo—home from the hospital to a chaotic house with three young children. Things never really got any calmer.
David and Terry lived in Kirkland, Washington—just outside of Seattle, on the other side of the mountains—with their mother, whose name was also, oddly, Judy Lynn Solo. My father had the name tattooed on his forearm. Once, when my mother went to visit my father in prison, she was denied entrance because a Judy Lynn Solo—David and Terry’s mother—had already been there to visit him. Though we had different mothers, the four of us shared my father’s DNA: piercing eyes, Italian coloring, intense emotions. David and Terry came to visit every summer, and sometimes went camping with us. They learned to call my grandparents Grandma and Grandpa. I didn’t realize until I was much older how unusual it was that both Judy Solos managed to work out travel plans and schedules and invitations so that the four or us could, at brief moments, resemble a nuclear family.
David and Terry and the other Judy Solo were my first indications that my father had a past that didn’t include my mother or me and Marcus, that our life wasn’t as simple as four people and a sheepdog inside a tract house. Terry adored me. She liked to dress me up and curl my hair, but as I got older, I resisted. I was an active, grubby little kid. I didn’t want to wear dresses. I didn’t like dolls. I liked to play outside, wear an oversize Orange Crush hat and do whatever Marcus was doing, which was usually something athletic.
If he ran, I ran. If he played baseball, I played baseball. If he rode his skateboard, I wanted to ride his skateboard—not mine, his, because mine was hot pink and girly and his wasn’t compromised by frills. Even as a little girl, I was tough and strong. One day I took Marcus’s skateboard to the top of the little hill across from our house and rode down. I smashed into our bikes, which were lying in the driveway. A pedal gashed my chin and blood splashed everywhere. I was running in circles to distract myself from the pain as the blood gushed through my fingers. I had to go to the emergency room and get stitched up.
Marcus and his friends would challenge me to pull them in a wagon. And I could do it, all three of them. When my mom went on a bike ride, I would run alongside her chatting, never getting winded. I wanted so badly to play basketball with Marcus and David— my father and I would play against them, and he would have to lift me up toward the hoop so I could shoot. I loved to play whiffle ball and hated losing, determined to play until I won.
Luckily for me, I was growing up in a time when active little girls could finally turn to organized sports. That wasn’t the case for my grandma, who had loved speed skating while she was a girl in Duluth, Minnesota. Or for my mother—a wiry, athletic woman—who turned to karate, and later waterskiing, for her sports fix. In the early 1980s, youth soccer was growing fast everywhere. It was my first organized sport, starting in kindergarten. I had no problem scoring goals, even as a five-year-old. We were the Pink Panthers, my dad was the coach, and I always played forward. I would dribble through all the other kids, who seemed to lack my skill or coordination, and I’d score. It was easy for me, and fun.
We played on soccer fields along the banks of the Columbia. The river dominated our lives. My mother’s teenage depression over moving to eastern Washington disappeared once she discovered the river and the fun-loving community that it sustained.
The river snaked through every aspect of Richland experience: we jumped in to cool off after soccer practice; we spent weekends on one another’s family boats; we hung out with friends on the river docks, gossiping and tanning; we tied rafts together to create giant flotation parties; we jumped off bridges into deep, cool pools. My grandparents had a yacht and hosted large parties on the river. My mom had a small boat, and we would head upriver to the sand dunes every weekend, staying there all day, hanging out in the heat. The adults barbecued and drank, and the kids shot skeet guns, rode kneeboards down the dunes, and went inner-tubing.
My mother was working at Hanford by then, testing plutonium samples on rotating shifts, which meant a week of day shifts, a week of swing shifts, and a week of graveyards. She was exhausted a lot of the time. My father stayed home, taking care of Marcus and me. He worked sporadically, sometimes doing counseling for troubled youth. My early memories of my father are of a loving, loud, larger-than-life man—six-foot-three with a huge belly and a big laugh. He had jet-black hair and tattooed arms—a skull and crossbones on one biceps, a mermaid on one forearm, and Judy Lynn Solo on the other.
To him, I was always Baby Hope. We had a special bond. I remember riding on his shoulders and stroking his thick black hair. I remember wrestling on the floor with him—his big round belly shaking with laughter. He helped teach me to read. On Christmas he dressed up as Santa. He was a popular youth coach—my soccer teammates loved him. He also coached all my brother’s sports teams—baseball, basketball, soccer—and all the kids adored Coach
Gerry. Sports were his passion: in our house we loved the Oakland Raiders, the Red Sox, and the University of Washington football teams, which made us outliers in an area loyal to the Seahawks, Mariners, and Washington State.
When my dad was around, we would share tubs of Neapolitan ice cream—although he ate all the strawberry—while we watched TV. We’d go to 7-Eleven and get white powdered donuts and Slurpees, mixing up all the different flavors into a sweet, soothing concoction. But as I got older, I started to see the cracks in my idyllic life.