Friday, April 27, 2012

Buried History

Living in Brooklyn, I taught myself to find history as I walked down the street, to judge the houses, large, set back from the street, dating from the 1910s, and the apartment buildings with masonry typical of the 1930s.  I won't deny Henderson history, but it's scattered and separate and doesn't have the layers of patchwork places, places that have long gone unnoticed.  Take the area where I work, for instance.  It's what they call "light industrial."  Nothing scary, nothing big -- in fact, it's rather pleasant to walk in, since there's not much foot traffic, the sidewalks are wide, everything is landscaped.  A block and a half away there are some train tracks, and going up there makes a nice walk, especially to survey the wild-grown shrubs along the line, and think about the backs of the buildings that the train goes by.

It so happens that there are traffic cones along the streets, and have been for several weeks, along with construction signs.  Some city officials came in and held a meeting to explain the purpose of the construction and how it would affect on-street parking.  I missed the meeting, as it happened, but a few weeks later someone filled me in.  "Oh, they're removing contaminated water -- from Pepcon.  It was just over there, you know." (Waves hand down the street)

Wait, what?  Over where?

I'd heard of the Pepcon Explosion.  Anyone living in the LV area at that time remembers it, as it shook windows all over the valley and caused a huge fireball, and since moving here I'd heard the occasional reminiscence.  Pepcon made rocket fuel for the space shuttle.  Following the Columbia accident, when the shuttle program was on hiatus, they stored a great deal of fuel on-site.  On May 4, 1988, a fire started and spread to the fuel, which blew up, completely leveling Pepcon, as well as another plant next door, which made marshmallows.  Because evacuation began when the fire first started, only two employees were killed -- one who stayed behind to call the fire department, and a disabled man who was unable to evacuate quickly enough  (both heartbreaking stories, for all the "only two people").  Some 300 people were injured, mostly by flying glass and debris.  For several hours the fire was so intense that the FD didn't even try to fight it and just concentrated on evacuating the area.

I went to the Henderson newspaper archive on line, back to May 1988, and looked up the exact location of the plant.  There were the train tracks, and there was Gibson, the street I take to work every morning, and just beyond it two Xs marked the locations of Pepcon and Kidd Marshmallows.  Today there's an electrical substation there (that's what it looks like, behind a grayed-out fence) and a modest business park, including a place that sells used hot tubs (apparently, there's money in that.)  Somewhere beyond that is the Kidd factory, which I'm told was rebuilt.  Of Pepcon, nothing left.

Except that water.  Three to four hundred feet down, according to my informant.  They're going to cut a trench in the street and pump it out.  Why now?  What else might be down there?  Where else might stuff have gone?  I really don't know.  I note from the Wikipedia article that everything in a 1.5 mile zone (which would definitely include where my office building is now) was subject to "severe" destruction.

It's a reminder that even the most innocuous-looking block has history, somewhere.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Diana Wynne Jones reissues

On my desk calendar at work I have the words "Fire and Hemlock" written across this Thursday, April 12.  That's the day three of Diana Wynne-Jones' earlier novels -- Dogsbody, A Tale of Time City, Fire and Hemlock -- are going to be reissued by Firebird, in paperback and Kindle editions, with new introductions by Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman, among others. 

Jones wrote a lot of books and they're all worth reading, but I like seeing these particular examples of her early work made available.  Dogsbody is the story of a celestial object -- a star -- who falls from heaven to earth and is reborn as a mongrel dog with a task he must perform (but, being a dog, he can't ever concentrate on this task for very long.)  There's a quest in there, and a phantom hunt, and strong emotions -- jealousy and unhappy families.  It came out in 1975, when YA novels weren't expected to be quite so magical, and like many of her novels never got much recognition in the US.  A Tale of Time City starts with a girl being evacuated to the British countryside during World War II, and then pitches forward, dazzlingly, through the eons, to an era when humanity is very different, and still somewhat the same (at any rate, people still eat toffee), in a place called Time City, where time seems to be coming to an end.

As for Fire and Hemlock, which was originally published in 1985, it happens to be one of the few Jones novels I've never read -- out of print and the library didn't have it. I pre-ordered it back in January and I'm trusting that when I fire up the Kindle on Thursday it will be there. All I really know about it is that it's Jones' take on the Tam Lin ballad...which is quite enough for me. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter goes Organic

When I used to go with my husband to visit his grandmother for Easter she always had the traditional Greek bright red Easter eggs.  I never thought to ask how she made them and unfortunately she's no longer here to tell us.  Not long ago, however, I read that Greeks get that color by dying the eggs with onionskins.  My husband disputed that Yia-Yia ever did this.  "She took the bus to the Greek store and she got some kind of dye there," he said.  But I decided to try it, figuring I had some freedom to branch out as my son is now too old for dyeing eggs.  My first test run two weeks ago, with two eggs and some yellow onionskins, produced eggs that were a deep...well, kind of mahogany.  This past Saturday I tried again, with both purple and yellow onionskins.  On the stove, the colors of the liquids were different, with the yellow onionskins producing pale orange and the purple producing a stronger red.  On the eggs themselves the color was basically the same, reddish-brown.  I tried a couple of variations seen on Youtube, including boiling the egg wrapped in pantyhose, with a cilantro leaf against it to make a pattern on the shell.  I also tried wax designs on the egg from a candle...didn't work, most of the wax came off in the water.

If you want to do it yourself, you'll need skins from onions (I had 5 or 6 reds, probably around 10 yellows, obviously the more the stronger the dye), vinegar and eggs.  Boil the onionskins in enough water to cover them plus two tablespoons of vinegar for about 20 minutes.  Strain the onionskins out and let the dye cool.  Then boil the eggs in the dye.  I boiled them as you normally would hard-boiled eggs (15 minutes).  You can do them longer but eventually the eggs will become inedible.  If you don't like the color after 15 minutes just let them cool in the water and the dyeing process will continue.  You can even soak them overnight. 
If you want designs, take a cilantro or other edible leaf and place it against the eggshell, then wrap in pantyhose and tie it with a twisty. 

As for the bright red eggs Yia-Yia used to produce?  Research suggests she may have used Rit fabric dye.  Sometimes traditions are better left unrevived.