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Atomic Memories

An author whose parents helped build first A-bomb writes an oral history.

November 04, 2000|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mary Palevsky lived her childhood in the shadow of the atom bomb.

During the early 1940s, her father, Harry, was an electronics engineer at the Manhattan Project's Metallurgical Lab in Chicago, working on the trigger mechanism of the atom bomb; her mother, Elaine, worked in the optics group. Later, her parents were transferred to Los Alamos, N.M., site of the first test of the atomic bomb--code-named "Trinity."

The moral complexities of their work motivated Palevsky, now an Ojai Valley author, to revisit that era. In the book "Atomic Fragments--A Daughter's Questions" (University of California Press; $24.95), part memoir and part oral history, she interviewed seven scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project: Hans A. Bethe, Edward Teller, Philip Morrison, David Hawkins, Robert R. Wilson, Joseph Rotblat and Herbert F. York.

Palevsky will be at Ojai's Local Hero Book Shop at 2:30 p.m. Sunday to discuss and sign her book.

"A lot of my generation felt that this was so outside of what should have happened," Palevsky said. "Some of the personal stories actually helped me more than some of the histories I have read to understand how this could have come about."

Philosopher David Hawkins, one of the interviewees, called Palevsky an ethnographer "visiting this strange tribe, befriending them, learning much from them, helping them."

Palevsky said she liked the description. "Ethnography is what an anthropologist writes, and he saw me in that way--that whole concept of participant-observer," she said. "I was very complimented by that remark."

As far as understanding her own parents--her father in particular--writing the book brought a resolution of sorts, she said.

"If you think of things spiraling, it has taken me once around the spiral so that I can have a clearer understanding of what was motivating my father's life and concerns after the bomb," she said.

Her parents never wanted the bomb to be used on people, she said. They wanted it to be detonated in the middle of the ocean, where the Japanese people could see how big it was and surrender. Her father's subsequent illness and emotional withdrawal were among the changes she referred to in her metaphor.

York, another of those interviewed, has written his own memoir, "Making Weapons, Talking Peace." His daughter and granddaughter were in the audience when Palevsky gave a reading in San Diego over the summer. York's daughter told Palevsky that her book was meaningful to her because York had expressed concern about how his own progeny might view him in later times.

Palevsky plans to offer her massive collection of interview tapes as a gift to some libraries, she said. Future book ideas concern her mother, Jewish relatives who stayed in Germany during the war and relatives who moved to Argentina.

HAPPENINGS

* TODAY, 12:30 to 4 p.m. Literary Walkette at various Ventura downtown locations. A partial list of the authors includes Robin Westmiller ("Red Wine for Breakfast") at Franky's Restaurant; Robert Meadows ("What Price for Blood") at E.P. Foster Library; Willy Levanthal ("The Children Are Coming") at Shakey's Restaurant; Morris Heldt ("Deadly Ambition") at Kelly's Coffee & Fudge Factory; Frank Stewart ("River Rising") at the Book Mall of Ventura; E.M. Nolby ("America Gonnif") at My Last Hurrah; Tarra Lynn ("Mother Earth's Nursery Rhymes") at Heather's Hutch; and William A. Gordon ("The Ultimate Hollywood Tour Book") at Trufflehound's Fine Fudge. More information, 643-1526 or 643-5633.

* TODAY, 10:30 a.m. Cara Black will discuss and sign "Murder in Belleville." At 1 p.m., Joyce Spizer will discuss and sign "I'm Okay, You're Dead." Mysteries to Die For, 2940 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 374-0084.

* SUNDAY, noon. Author Ray Bradbury will join Frances Halpern for an in-store interview. The interview, which will be taped to air on KCLU 88.3 FM the following Sunday at 10 a.m., will run from noon until 1 p.m., with a book signing at 2 p.m. Borders, 497-8159.

* TUESDAY, 9:30 a.m. Nursery rhyme story time from "Mother Goose." Ventura Barnes & Noble, 4360 E. Main St., 339-9170.

* TUESDAY, 7 p.m. The First Tuesday Contemporary Book Group will discuss "Henderson, the Rain King" by Saul Bellow. Borders, 497-8159.

* WEDNESDAY, 7 p.m. The Shakespeare Group will discuss "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare. Borders, 497-8159.

* WEDNESDAY, 7 p.m. The Wednesday Night Readers will discuss Gore Vidal's "Golden Age." Ventura Barnes & Noble, 339-9170.

* WEDNESDAY, 8 p.m. Poetry workshop. Ventura Barnes & Noble, 339-9170.

* THURSDAY, 7 p.m. Discussion about "Rivers of Darkness" by Rennie Airth. Mysteries to Die For, 374-0084.

Information about book signings, writers groups and publishing events can be e-mailed to anns40@aol.com or faxed to 647-5649.

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