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Atomic Farmgirl is a wise, irreverent, deeply personal story of growing up right in the wrong place. The granddaughter of German Lutheran homesteaders, Teri Hein was raised in the 1950s and 1960s in rural eastern Washington. This starkly elegant landscape serves as the poignant backdrop to her story, for one hundred miles to the south of this idyllic, all-American setting lay the toxins—both mental and physical—of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. From horseback riding to haying, Flag Day parades to Cold War ...
Atomic Farmgirl is a wise, irreverent, deeply personal story of growing up right in the wrong place. The granddaughter of German Lutheran homesteaders, Teri Hein was raised in the 1950s and 1960s in rural eastern Washington. This starkly elegant landscape serves as the poignant backdrop to her story, for one hundred miles to the south of this idyllic, all-American setting lay the toxins—both mental and physical—of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. From horseback riding to haying, Flag Day parades to Cold War duck-and-cover drills, Atomic Farmgirl chronicles a peculiar coming of age for a young girl and her community of hardworking, patriotic folk, whose way of life—and livelihood—are gradually threatened by the poisons of progress.
Combining a profoundly tender story of youth with politics and an unmistakable sense of place, Teri Hein has written a memoir that is part Terry Tempest Williams, part Erin Brockovich, part Garrison Keillor. In the end, she offers a rich and ribald journey into the universal mysteries of childhood, love, community, and home, a journey that confirms humankind’s infinite capacity for hope.
Gypsy, our Welsh mare, seemed as tall as a house and as wild as the stallion she wasn’t when she remembered the clover on the north side of the house and took off. She forgot about me on top, as we loped under a low branch of the hawthorn bush. I grabbed onto the overhang and stayed there, as Gypsy continued on. She left me to dangle for an instant before I crashed down amid cries and giant scratches and fleeting hard feelings about clover and horses in general. I wonder whatever happened to her.
Come to think of it, I don’t know what happened to any of them, except Rockette, who died in the back pasture one summer. Gypsy was just one of many horses in our lives, a list that started with Smoky and Patches. Smoky belonged to Cheryl, my older sister by a year. At that time, when I was seven, she was tall (to me), lithe, and almost able to handle Smoky, who was only slightly taller than Patches and only slightly friendlier. Patches, a pint-size Shetland as ornery as tradition dictates the breed should be, belonged to me. Perhaps they suffer from a Napoleonic complex, those Shetlands. After a few years Dad sent the two away. But I still have, Scotch- taped to a piece of steno paper, chunks of each of their manes—long, black hanks of bristly hair, clipped off on their last day with us before somebody’s trailer took them away. They came together and they left together. That much I do remember. I felt bad when Patches left, even though he had bitten me countless times and had bucked me off nearly as many, and one time had reared up so high when Dad was yelling at him that the horse lost his balance and fell over, landing on top of Dad. I raced into the house in hysterics to announce to Mom and my grandparents that Dad was now dead. How could anyone survive being landed on by a horse? At seven years old, a Napoleonic Shetland was every bit a horse to me.
Besides, Dad wasn’t a large man, something I knew, even at seven. He wasn’t as tall as Dick Dennie, our neighbor, who was over six feet. Nor was he football-big, like Carl Groth, Susie’s dad, who looked like a cheerful bulldog and still does. My dad was just medium in most ways, but not all. He already had his limp, although I don’t remember ever thinking that he walked funny. In fact, in spite of my fear that a falling horse could squash him like roadkill, I assumed he could survive almost anything. Maybe it was his skin. A lifetime of sun on our eastern Washington wheat farm had left him with a reptilian hide that seemed a protection of sorts. Dad’s hands were always covered with nicks and cuts from machinery repairs, but he never seemed to bleed much. Except, of course, the time he almost cut off his arm with the Skilsaw and left a blood trail from the shed to the garage to the living room. Dad kicked open the back door with his foot and announced in his customary understated way, “Dolores, I think I need a Band-Aid,” as his blood dripped onto the linoleum floor. She just chanted his name—“Ralph, Ralph, Ralph”—over and over as she wrapped a towel tighter and tighter around his arm before calling the doctor.
For most of his life, at least the farm part, Dad hasn’t had a visible ounce of fat on him, so hard is the work of managing a thousand-acre wheat farm, sixty-odd beef cattle, a miscellany of other animals, and four daughters who, at best, were sporadic help. We were given horses to improve our reliability. We had to keep the tack in order, keep the rocks out of their hooves, wipe them down with fly repellent, use the curry comb ruthlessly, especially in the spring when their winter hair was coming out in thick, airy chunks, and braid their manes and tails for special occasions like the county fair and the Flag Day parade.
Dick Dennie taught us the parts of the horse. Thanks to him, we could easily identify our animals’ forelocks, muzzles, cannons, pasterns, fetlocks, barrels, gaskins, croups, and withers. He raised Appaloosas and was the leader of the Cayuse Kings and Queens, our 4-H club. He taught us the parts of the saddle, such as the fork, the cantle, the cinch, and the stirrup. He taught us our club song, “Don’t Fence Me In,” and how to give demonstrations with poster boards and pointers.
I chose to give my demonstration on the quarter horse. On a large piece of pink poster board I traced a side view of a particularly good quarter horse from a picture I found in our Encyclopaedia Britannica. As I talked about the animal, announcing to my fellow club members the horse’s most distinctive features, I tapped solemnly with Dick’s pointer on the convenient body parts, although not necessarily tapping on the ones I was mentioning, as my nervousness took its own course. “The quarter horse is one off America’s favorite saddle horses,” I said, pointing to the side of the tail. “It stands about fourteen to fifteen hands high,” I continued, nervously tapping. “A hand is a way to measure horses. One hand is about four inches. When a horse is measured, it is from the ground to the top of the withers, which is the highest point on the shoulder.” I tried to speak with great authority, pretending that I was the only one in the room who knew this information. “The quarter horse has very strong legs,” now tapping its head, “which is why it can run at high speeds for short distances.” By now I was knocking on its tail. “It was named the quarter horse because in the olden days,” tapping on belly, then head, “owners used it to run quarter-mile races.” My pointer was like the blind man’s cane, swinging widely to find a sidewalk curb. I still remember where the pastern is—it’s a part of the foot—and how many hands the average quarter horse stands (about fifteen and a half).
To foster a sense of community service, Dick directed the Cayuse Kings and Queens to meet on horseback one Saturday morning down at the Colonel Wright monument. Dick rode his Appaloosa stallion, Chief Qualchan, the most beautiful horse we’d ever seen. He was so spirited and temperamental that Dick was the only person who could ride him. Appaloosa mares from all over the Inland Empire were brought to mate with him, a rigorous calling that apparently Chief Qualchan was stud enough to accomplish. The owners of those mares paid a large fee for a chance at a foal with the striking blanket of spirals that the stallion wore. From the front he looked just like a black stallion, maybe just a little over fifteen hands tall, but with such a wild look in those eyes that glowed out from that ebony coat that he seemed much larger. And when he turned, no matter how many times you’d seen this horse, that explosion of spots on his back blanket was startling, a wild collection of gray and black circles set on a striking blanket of white horsehair, like an electric tablecloth folded over his body. I don’t know who Chief Qualchan’s mother was, but his sire was Hopi, a champion gray Appaloosa stallion, completely covered from head to hoof with spots, from his muzzle all the way down his legs. Unlike his son, Hopi had a gentle personality, or at least as gentle as a high-strung, well-bred Appaloosa stallion can have.
We had named our 4-H club after the Cayuse Indians. Dick told us that Qualchan was the last chief of the Cayuse, although later we found out he was really a Yakama. On that Saturday of civic duty, we children raked pine needles while our fathers installed a picnic table by the monument. There people could eat hot dogs and potato chips in exactly the same place where Colonel Wright had ordered Chief Qualchan and a few of his braves to be hung a century before. Years later I asked my mother if it struck her as ironic.
“What?” she wondered.
“Us,” I said, “putting a picnic table over the death site of the Indian our club was named for so people could eat in comfort by the monument that honored his murderer.” “Well, now that you mention it . . . ,” was all she said.
My mother was not a horsewoman. In fact, I don’t recall her ever sitting on a horse. She would lead the Shetlands around with a nervousness only slightly less than that of whichever youngster was precariously clinging to the saddle horn. Mom was what we called a city gal, even though her sum total of city life had been two years at Pacific Lutheran College in Tacoma. She had spent the rest of her life in middle-of-nowhere parishes with her preacher father and family. She was the only woman we knew who had been to college, which meant she knew loads of impractical things, such as the names of rivers in Africa and how to explain photosynthesis to us. When she referred to a book she was reading, she often said the author’s name as if it were part of the title. “I’m reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls,” or “I just finished To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf,” she would say to us, her daughters, who didn’t ever care about these things until much later. Mom was uncoordinated and had no interest in animals or gardening. It is to her credit that, as a loyal farm wife, she fanned the flame of her daughters’ tomboy tendencies, perhaps feeling some vague guilt about providing her farmer husband with nothing but a pack of girls.
We had many horses in those years. Marsha, my oldest sister, had Shauna, with that distinctly sculpted Arabian face and a lovely way of tossing her head. Shauna was skittish and dramatic, as Arabian horses often are, and beautiful when she pranced around the pasture. She was a deep rusty red with a wispy blond mane and tail, both of which Marsha brushed and braided religiously. During the Shauna era, Marsha was reaching adolescence with the accompanying lumpy body, the daily threat of pimple eruption, and the long, up-flipped hair that was fashionable at the time.
Cheryl’s horse was Lady Anne, regal in her way of prancing and bobbing her head as she trotted. She was like Cheryl, who seemed sort of regal to me as we grew up—tall, poised, and always in control. Lady Anne was mostly quarter horse, which made her sturdy and trustworthy in personality. She was black with hints of dark brown around her muzzle and hooves.
Rockette was mine, a Welsh mare of mixed breed, and not regal or beautiful but kind and, because of her docility, a family favorite like Blitzen the dog and Snip the cat. She was the smallest of our horses because of the Welsh in her. She was a dirty red brown with a black mane and tail. I rarely braided her mane, but brushed it at least once a week.
Ross was Tracy’s leaning old gelding, with a reddish coat, odd roan spots around his eyes, and a bit of a swayed back. Like Lady Anne, he was mostly quarter horse and reliable. That was pretty much his most dynamic quality. Ross was no leader and harbored no aspirations. With our baby sister, Tracy, clinging to the saddle horn in all optimism, he would amble down the road as long as some other horse was in front of him. Without another horse, he wouldn’t budge but, rather, became an autistic stone statue who couldn’t be beaten into moving a hoof. Get Lady Anne to amble by, though, and he would about-face like the trouper he was.
Then there were the foals—Cheshla and Mejroc and Shamrock, as well as other ones whose names I don’t remember. They came and went so quickly, sold through ads in The Spokesman-Review to people who promised them good homes. We girls were always begging for Dad to breed the mares, even though we knew we wouldn’t keep the foals, and I’m sure we never made any money from them. We just loved foals, the newer and more wobbly-legged the better.
Our horses weren’t purebreds, but often times were some part Appaloosa, and we frequently chose to breed our mares to Appaloosa stallions. We had a thing for Appaloosas, even the watered-down version. This passion for the spotted horse must have been something in our blood—or, more probably, in our dirt.
The Europeans brought the horses, but the Nez Perce changed them. Thanks to the dirt, the grass, and the Grand Ronde Volcano hundreds of thousands of years ago, we have the Columbia Plateau. This is the way my mind, not that of a geologist, wraps around the story.
The Palouse hills in eastern Washington State—where our farm is, where we had our horses, where the Colonel Wright monument still sits, and where the clover for which Gypsy betrayed me grows—are covered with a kind of dirt called loess. Something like 7,500 pounds of this dirt settles in the form of dust on each Palouse acre each year. Our state history textbooks claim it to be the richest topsoil in the world. It seems a grand claim, but one I prefer to believe.
I also prefer to believe the story a Colville Indian told my friend, Tim, when, as a hitchhiker, he jumped into the man’s pickup. According to the Indian, thanks to the loess, there is a kind of grass that can grow in the Palouse that is so tough it can stand a winter, pushing its way through the snow for the horses to eat. The Indians in the area—the Cayuse, the Nez Perce, the Yakama, and the Palus—raised horses because, thanks to the grass, they could feed them all winter. They had huge herds that were not only utilitarian, but also as beautiful as the landscape. After years of careful breeding, round and oblong shapes covered the rumps of these animals. Against the snow, their winter coats were a dizzying display of dapples and circles inside circles of white, black, gray, and brown. The Palouse hills were so rich and the grass so abundant that giant herds of these startling animals spread out over the plateau. Eventually somebody gave these spotted horses the name of their Palouse landscape: Appaloosa.
My history textbook doesn’t mention the horses, although it does discuss the dirt. The Palouse hills are large dunes that roll out across the landscape. Because of the plateau’s high elevation, the hills receive more rainfall than the lower lands to the west. The top layer of the soil is the loess—a foot deep and dark yellow. Under this is a three-foot layer of lighter soil, and under this is seventy-five feet of red Palouse clay. All of it rests on hundreds of feet of undecayed lava rock. On top of it all are the stands of grass that grab at the dust as it flies by.
How did it look before the pioneers came and plowed everything up, organizing it into townships and sections and tracts called homesteads? From a copy of ancient papers I got from Washington, D.C., that include my great-grandfathers’ homestead claims and the township map, comes this 1873 description of our township by David Clark, the first federal surveyor of our area:
. . .consists almost totally of rolling hills, some of them high which are covered in excellent bunchgrass. In the South Eastern portion, the soil is generally first rate, along Hangman Creek it is rocky and unfit for cultivation. In the South East portion are numerous springs of excellent water, while Hangman Creek flows in a northerly direction through the Township. . . .The creek is on the bottom of a canyon, with banks 150 to 200 ft. in height, and quite precipitous along Hangman Creek . . .
I like to believe that Mr. Clark, along with his chain men, Andrew Maxwell and Wayman Crow, mound man William Mulligan, and flagman Felix White, after months in this territory, baking in the heat, scrapping with the Indians, and clinging to a certain feverish determination to plot this land, describing each cliff and gully according to its vegetation and dimensions, must have sometimes just looked out over the hills and thought: How beautiful.
A pamphlet called simply “The Washington Territory,” written in 1879, describes the countryside like this:
Man has scarcely dreamed, in his most extravagant fancies, of an ideal country which has not a counterpart in the vicinity of the Spokan. . . . The natural drives of the Spokan plains are probably unequaled in the world. . . .One may be an ardent admirer of a variety of scenery. We would gratify his curiosity. Here he may ascend to a dizzy mountain height, and, from one position, look admiringly down upon hills, valleys and plains, forests, groves and sparsely timbered sections, rich soil and gravelly prairies, pleasant homes and forest fastnesses, the mirror-like lake and the roaring torrent of the wonderful Spokan, trackless glades and level roads, barren, rocky cliffs, and green verdure and blossoming vegetation, unadorned nature, and promising harvests, the beautiful and the grand.
Today a grid covers these poetic hills. Giant squares of wheat, barley, or lentils butt up against each other like quilts, knotted together by farms. The pattern seems planned by some higher power, or maybe the beauty is only a gorgeous example of great luck—luck that the making of food can also be so lovely to look at. Certainly no group of human beings could have organized to create this giant artwork stretching more than 275 square miles called our Palouse—soft in the spring, intense in the summer, stark in the fall, eerie and lonely in the winter.
I try to imagine how the human Chief Qualchan thought of the Palouse hills as he rode to what he thought was the signing of a peace treaty in 1858. Or how Colonel Wright wrote about them to his wife, Amanda, back in Florida, as he moved through the Washington Territory in the 1850s determining how to possess this landscape. Or how my great-grandfather Hans, on my father’s side, described them to his wife, Catherina, when he wrote to her in Iowa in 1885 and said, “Take the train.” Or how my grandfather Martin, on my mother’s side, heard about them. He was in North Dakota when he decided in 1943 to answer the call to Colfax, in the heart of the Palouse, where he would be the Lutheran minister in a time of world war worry. Or how Dick Dennie saw it as he rode home on his Appaloosa stallion, Chief Qualchan, from the monument that day in 1962 when we put up the picnic table. One hundred years before that day, more or less, Colonel Wright had ordered the horse’s namesake to be hung by the neck on the very piece of land my great-grandfather Hans later homesteaded. The Indians called the water running through it then the Lahtoo River. Later the name was changed to what we all call it now, Hangman Creek, a name that over the ensuing decades has seemed to become increasingly more appropriate.
First Mariner Books edition 2003. Copyright © 2000, 2003 by Teri Hein. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Posted October 13, 2013
Atomic Farmgirl is a well-written account of the life of a downwinder’s family and neighbors in the Palouse Hills. The story is open, honest, and filled with excellent examples of character development. Although my recent book, Buckshot Pie, has a different topic – the childhoods of 5 Palouse Hills brothers and their contributions during WW II, the similarities are striking. We both paint a picture of life in smalltown farm communities in eastern Washington. We both covered the rolling hills, harvest time, wheat, Steptoe Butte, loess, bird-hunting, small schools, churches, football, basketball, baseball, parades, horses and the list of is endless.
Like Teri, I grew up in one of these small towns – Oakesdale, just 25 miles southwest of Teri’s beloved Fairfield. If you draw a 100-mile line between Hanford and Fairfield, Oakesdale will be bisected by that line, a line which also represents the prevailing southwesterlies. The experience of my neighborhood is congruent to that of Teri’s neighborhood. One cold winter morning in the mid-fifties we awoke to a freshly fallen cover of snow. It was dotted with beautiful pink spots like some miracle, but it was not from nature, nor from heaven. I believe it was one of the many releases of radioactive toxins from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. We frolicked in that snow, made snow angels and snow men. Within the year, my closest neighbors Tom Crossett and Ray Ebert developed thyroid disease. Subsequently, Tom’s sister Suzy, my cousin Suzy Gregory, Tom’s closest friends Danny Horn and Mike Lamb, my closest friend John Rogers, and three of the Byrum brothers have all died of cancer, long before their time. Consequently, Teri’s account is deeply poignant to me. I feel as if I’ve known her all my life. Teri filets her soul open to the world and exposes every nerve. Highly recommended!
Chris Gregory, author, Buckshot Pie, Semper Pi Publishing, Tekoa, WA
Posted May 28, 2011
No text was provided for this review.