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Voices from LANL

Horse Fly
Published Sunday, June 15, 2008

PHILIP SCHOFIELD, PYRO/CHEMICAL TECHNICIAN, TALKS ABOUT HIS FATHER: "He was what you call a jack of all trades, a welder, a painter, carpenter. He could do it all. . . He wound up becoming their handyman. . .He worked up (at the Lab) until about six months before he died. He finally got so sick, he had to give it up. He died of cancer. They said it was prostrate but there was never an autopsy done. We wonder if it wasn’t something else because on his right arm he has a scar that went from just below the shoulder to just above the elbow."

"Some of the early doctors at the town site thought, Lab doctors themselves, thought it was a radiation burn. There used to be a facility where they would store materials in the corner. I guess there was an open field around that area, so a lot of times when he was making his rounds, he’d stop there and lean against the building, kind of watch the area. That was the contact point on the shoulder. They think that’s how it happened. He went to pick up a rock and throw it and his arm broke. Then they went in to look, the bone was hollow. All the bone marrow had been destroyed."

This is an excerpt from just one of the 145 oral histories of people from sanitation workers to scientists who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) interviewed by Peter Malmgren, a woodworker by vocation, who has lived in Chimayo for thirty-eight years. The oral histories are now part of the State Archives stored in the New Mexico Library, Archives and Records Center Building in Santa Fe in the West Capitol Complex off Cerrillos Road. How did Malmgren come to take on this project, and what has he learned from his interviews?

Malmgren proves you can’t take the anthropologist out of the woodworker, for he was trained in anthropology at Brandeis University; but he became disenchanted by what he felt to be anthropology’s intrusiveness. "In the early 70s," Malmgren says, "I dropped out of graduate school and outfitted an old school bus to tour the country, visiting people I knew along the way." Stopping to see a friend in New Mexico, he fell in love with Chimayo and stayed.

With LANL’s reputation for secrecy, why did people who had worked at the Lab open up to Malmgren? As Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors only the prepared mind." Malmgren’s training in anthropology and what he calls "his long period of settling into a community" in Chimayo prepared him well for his opportunity. "Lucy (his wife) and I are into community work and recognizing people who have not been recognized before. That was my approach at LANL, too."

Malmgren wants to accomplish three things: "save stuff that was going to be lost, honor the people, and explore the eloquence of their lives."

"Being a member of the community, member of the acequia, woodworker," Malmgren says, "gave me a feeling of permission to start asking people questions, doing interviews and collecting photographs like those taken with her Brownie camera by Prudence Clark, who came from Minnesota to Chimayo as a Presbyterian missionary-teacher." Malmgren became one of the founders of The Chimayo Museum, housed in a classic adobe building in the restored, fortified Plaza de Cerro that dates back to the 1700s. His collection of photographs formed the core of the early Museum’s exhibits.

Malmgren began attending the Rio Arriba Environmental Health Association, a watchdog organization to encourage college students to get involved in environmental issues. UNM came to the meetings at the Community College in Espanola. Because they were working on a grant, the students couldn’t take on LANL.

"But I was a community volunteer," Malmgren said. "Once the idea of LANL was put forward, I could pursue it." UNM gave Malmgren a small grant and introduced him to epidemiologists from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta who were making an eight-year study going through archival documents at LANL and all the nation’s labs. Although the CDC doctors were more interested in statistical analysis, they, too, gave Malmgren a small grant to help him pursue his oral histories of the experience of workers at the Lab.

One of the first things Malmgren did was go to a big book store. "There was a long wall of books on Los Alamos," he says, "but nothing on the workers, a hole in the Lab’s history." He was excited to do something that hadn’t been done before.

LEO VIGIL, RADIOACTIVE TRANSPORT: "Talking about Bayo Canyon which is going up the hill. That’s a place where they used to do a lot of tests which were hot stuff. I worked there several times. They used to throw whatever was hot on the edge of the arroyo. Finally, I remember Santa Fe and Albuquerque was raising Cain about all the hot stuff. They said there was nothing wrong, but here I was hauling these three iron boxes full of trash from there and taking them to the Pajarito dump. They cleaned it up much later but look how many times that arroyo has run in the storms and gone into the river."

"The resistance to speak out was up to then overwhelming," Malmgren says. "I asked two people to give me advice. My aging neighbor did top secret work at LANL. He wouldn’t talk to me (about his work) and said no one would." A UNM historian told him "not to waste his time."

AN AMAZING THING HAPPENED. In April 2000, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Bill Richardson admitted for the first time that workers at nuclear weapons plants had been harmed by radiation and toxic poisoning. In October, President Clinton signed into law the Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000, providing eligible workers and their families a lump sum payment of $150,000 and medical benefits from the date their claim is filed.

When a meeting was organized at the Community College in Espanola in response to the Compensation Act, "six- to eight-hundred people showed up, people dragging their oxygen bottles. They were given four minutes each to tell their stories. Not everyone got to speak. People were coming out of the woodwork and felt that they could get help," Malmgren remembers. "I had a little table there, so that people could sign up with me, so that I could come hear their stories." He wasn’t the anthropologist talking about them, but the neighbor allowing them to speak for themselves.

"In the years that followed," he continues, "there was great disappointment and bitterness. People had trouble getting their medical records. Jay Hammel, for example, put up a short and dignified fight as he was dying of thyroid cancer. Despite a long and distinguished career in low temperature physics, he failed to convince the powers that be that his early exposures in the Pacific (islands where they tested many bombs) were the cause of his fatal illness."

Malmgren finds one pattern that emerged disturbing. "As long as you were healthy and productive and an asset to the Lab, you tended to thrive, but once an illness struck, you were quickly considered expendable." Other themes in his interviews became obvious to him, too: patriotism, pride in work, discrimination and concern for health and safety.

"Jobs were extremely scarce in 1945, and most men of the Espanola valley had traditionally been forced to leave their homes in a season pattern in order to survive," Malmgren says. "These migrant laborers went to the mines, the railroads, the sheepherder’s camps, leaving the farms at home the responsibility of the women and children for six months of the year. Los Alamos changed all that," Malmgren thinks. "They no longer had to disrupt their lives by leaving home to seek out hazardous jobs far away and subject their families to the strains of separation and increased labor. This was a profound change in the social patterns of many families. It was a change for the better."

One of the questions Malmgren asked everyone he interviewed was if you had it to do over again, would you still work at Los Alamos? Would they encourage their children to work at the Labs? About half said they would. The half that said they would not was mostly struggling with what they believed to be job-related illnesses.

GENE WESTERHOLD, PIPEFITTER: "Seemed like Building 2 was the worst. I remember one time when a line salted up, by that I mean that caustic solution solidified in the pipe. It was a 3/4" lead pipe, ten feet long which we beat on with hammers, heated with torches, but couldn’t free up. So we made up a new section of stainless with flanges on the end, set up scaffolding, and prepared to change it out. Eddie got his end disconnected, then plugged it with a stopper and taped it off. Just as I was to stopper my end, it broke loose and sprayed me with solution--acid laced with plutonium."

"They got me down fast as I started to feel the burning. Got all my clothes and badges off, and they went in the trash. They rolled out brown paper in front of me, and I walked through Building 2 just as naked as a jay bird. Then they threw me in the shower, and I started in scrubbing with verisane. I did that for a long time. Then they walked me over to the big Geiger counter, the one that could count up to 100,000 a minute and I couldn’t even get near the probe. I read infinity from the soles of my feet on up."

"Then they ordered Henry and Snowball to get into that shower with me, and they scrubbed until the blood came. The readings held at infinity. Finally they sent me over to Maddie Nunn, the old Army nurse, who said she would grease me down with Vaseline, give me bed sheets and government clothes, and send me home. Time was going to do the rest. Here I was, a twenty-six-year-old boy in a lab coat and wooden clogs. That nurse took a look at me hard and said, "You know, you’re what I always dreamed of--a nice, clean-cut young man that’s hotter than hell!"

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