Column #274 Darts in the Secret City
October 2, 2006
Darts in the Secret City
Almost sixty-five years ago 75,000 Americans kept a secret.
It began to unfold in the isolated green hills and rolling valleys in the quiet Tennessee countryside where, just one year later in 1943, one of the legendary country and gospel music quartets of our time began harmonizing in church.
By then the infrastructure for one of the quickest and most monumental, and expensive, construction projects ever was well underway. Virtually overnight, shopping malls were etched into the hills along with schools, entertainment centers, a hospital and a newspaper.
Within thirty months the population of the remote area swelled twenty-five-fold from just a few thousand locals scattered about three sleepy rural communities.
The locals were forced to relocate and the little communities of Robertsville, Scarboro and Wheat were transformed into a town and then a bustling city, the third largest in the state.
But the city did not appear on a map.
The phone lines were tapped.
Mail was subject to inspection.
Armed guards were posted at all roads leading in and out of the area.
Still, the city was a burst of creative energy. Oddly enough, most of the residents went to work each day and returned home each night never sensing that anything was out of the ordinary.
They didn’t know that 14,700 tons of silver worth $300 million had been borrowed from the U.S. Treasury as a substitute for copper for the fabrication of equipment in the plants where they worked. They didn’t know that their ten-mile wide and two-mile long city consumed one-seventh of all the electricity produced in America.
They didn’t know any of this because what their city did – the very reason it was built – was one of the best kept military secrets ever. Albert Einstein’s brainchild, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s legacies and Senator K.D. McKellar’s $1.65 billion pork-barrel, the Manhattan Project was the major cog in America’s secret plan to bring an end to World War II.
Most of the Secret City’s residents didn’t know their city’s mission was to extract the minute traces of uranium 235 isotope buried in uranium ore to fuel the most powerful weapon in the history of mankind.
Indeed, it was not until August 6, 1945 when the Atom bomb, Little Boy, wreaked its evil destruction on Hiroshima that most Oak Ridgers learned what their role in the war had been.
Just twenty miles from Knoxville across the Clinch River, Oak Ridge (or the Secret City or Atomic City as it is invariably called today) is a typical southern community of about 30,000 people and probably more widely known for having been the original stomping grounds of the Oak Ridge Boys of Elvira, Bobby Sue and American Made fame. Oak Ridge High School was the first to desegregate after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
The nuclear facilities – X-10, Y-12 and K-25 – are still here but no one is allowed inside, although you can see them from the road and official overlooks. There’s an orchestra, community player’s theater and the schools are rated among the best in the nation. Of course there is also Big Ed’s Pizza, the Soup Kitchen and Buddy’s Bar-B-Q.
Today the Secret City, which was officially named Oak Ridge and opened to the public in 1949, seven years after it was built, is a thriving southern community that continues to impact national and international issues. Its Spallation Neutron Source is the largest single basic science project in the world. The world’s fastest computer was created here. It is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of medical isotopes. It even stores nuclear material and equipment relinquished by Libya. It’s a friendly place and a good place to raise a family.
But there is another secret in the Secret City.
In a run-down strip mall behind a dirty glass door on the outskirts of town a new surprise is waiting for anybody keen on a good game of darts and some down home southern hospitality. Aptly named the Atomic City Sports Bar (at 132 Fairbanks Road), it is the only place in area to get a game.
As night falls and with my darts in my shirt pocket, I wedge my rental car between a Ford pickup truck and a Harley Davidson and, sensing I am out of my element, somewhat warily cross the parking lot and wander through the open front door of the bar.
Peggy Sue is playing on the juke box.
Around a huge bar in the center of the room sit a handful of patrons, most of them wearing armless tee-shirts, a couple of them with American flag headbands.
Positioned to the far right, is a large pool table and a big screen television airing World Wide Wrestling.
To the left against the wall is a small stage, draped in American flag bunting. On the stage behind a microphone are two motorcycles.
I don’t see a dartboard.
Trying to appear nonchalant I approach the bar and order a beer from a busty woman with ratted hair and skinny legs. I pay for the beer and tell her I hear is the place to throw darts in Oak Ridge. “You found it, honey,” she says. “The board’s ‘round the corner.” She points a long red finger nail to the stage with the motorcycles.
I find a Unicorn Eclipse board, well used and positioned right. There is a rubber mat, decent lighting and an erasable grease pen scoreboard. Stuck into little holes on a wooden ledge under the scoreboard are a few sets of brass bar darts. And yes, the flights are all American flag designs. I swear it.
A disturbing scene from the movie Easy Rider crosses my mind. The better part of me tells me I should leave.
But I thunk away anyway and after a bit a couple of the boys stroll over for a game. One of them is named Billy. I forget the other’s name as soon as I shake his meaty hand. If you stop in the joint he’ll be easy to recognize. He’s the one – well, one of the half-dozen – with the tattoo on the back of his neck and his belt buckle obscured by his gut.
But he was a good old boy and so was Billy. And they were decent shots.
We didn’t close the bar. I’m getting too old for that and besides, I’m not sure this is the kind of place that ever closes as long as someone is willing to shove money in the juke box and put another beer on their tab. But we had a good time, really we did, and I won’t hesitate to stop in again the next time I’m in the area. My trepidation was unwarranted.
So if you’re ever in Oak Ridge, Tennessee take my advice and stop at the Atomic City Sports Bar. It’s the second best secret in town.
But to be on the safe side you might want to pack a hunting knife.
And maybe some anti-radiation pills.
From the Field,
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