Lilli Hornig: I’m Lilli Hornig and that’s spelled L-I-L-L-I; H-O-R-N-I-G.
Cindy Kelly: Terrific. Now we have to start at the next question, is—can you give us your birth day?
Hornig: I can; it’s March 22, 1921. I was born in what is now the Czech Republic; a little town about—probably about fifty miles north and slightly east of Prague, and I lived there until I was eight. My father was a scientist. He was a chemist working in the big dyestuffs plant there, Dyestuffs was still big business in the ‘20s. And we left there in 1929. I was eight years old and moved to Berlin.
We lived there for four years and when Hitler—after Hitler came to power, my father was actually being threatened with being taken off to a concentration camp. And he spent several weeks sleeping at friends’ houses so he wouldn’t be found, and he left for America. And my mother and I had to wait for quite a long time, well, several months. So we came in on Election Day in 1933. And LaGuardia had just been elected Mayor that day and there was this huge celebration in Times Square, a million people all yelling and screaming, and so we went to see that. I remember that day well.
My mother was actually an MDO, she’s in practice, and so I was sort of introduced to science early on. My father took me occasionally, very occasionally, on a Sunday to his lab, and I just loved all the glassware, and he gave me some micro-sized glassware for my doll house. I always assumed I would—well, they assumed—to I think that I would be either a chemist or a physician. And I was kind of squeamish at the time, so I went for chemistry. I was pretty determined on that.
We ended up living in Montclair, New Jersey. I went to high school there, junior high and high school. And I was talking to a friend yesterday and remembering my first day of school when I spoke very little English and I had to take placement tests, and I’d never seen a test like that before, you know, where you check things or circle things or whatever. And the first class I actually went to was cooking, which I basically wasn’t even allowed in the kitchen. And I remember the first—that—what they were doing that day was making creamed carrots, and I’d never heard of a creamed vegetable, nobody in Europe ever creams carrots. And I remember coming home and telling my mother about it, she was equally astonished. I never cooked creamed—anything since then.
But I, you know, Montclair was not then what it is now. I’ve met someone recently who lives there, and I hear it’s very sort of loose and full of artists and writers and that sort of thing. That was not true at the time. It was a business place most—my father largely commuted to New York and I didn’t find it particularly a great place to be growing up, so I was delighted to go to college. I went to Bryn Mawr and I had a marvelous, marvelous time; marvelous education, I think. And when it came to graduate school there wasn’t much question I wanted to go to Harvard. Little did I know how women were treated at Harvard, I might say, but I found out very soon.
One of the first things I learned was there wasn’t a ladies’ room in the building. I had to go to another building to find the ladies’ room and I had to get a key for it, which was very unusual back then. And that sort of gave me a message. And then I had to meet with the department. It was called the “Division Room” for some reason. The usual thing was portraits on the wall, the wall of past chairmen and other notables, and long polished table. They were all sitting around one end and I was alone at the far end and very much under scrutiny. And the first thing they said was, “Well, the girls always have trouble with physical chemistry, so you’ll take Harvard undergraduate physical chemistry.”
And I said, “I’m a grad student, I didn’t come here to take undergraduate courses.” And they were quite upset by that idea and I proposed that if I could pass the qualifying exam, which I didn’t know ahead of time we had to take, they would let me take the graduate course. So I studied Don’s notes; I met him the first day I was there, and aced the exam. But unfortunately I really didn’t know enough math and so I had to take a graduate thermodynamics and statistical mechanics course and I absolutely blew the thermodynamics. I just didn’t—I didn’t know what the notation meant.
And I was trying to catch up but of course fell behind, so I flunked the first semester and then I got an A the second semester, but they made me retake the first semester. And that was all the time I actually spent at Harvard; that plus the war work because when we came back Don was—had disappointment here—and at Brown, Brown was—the department was very nice and offered me lab space so I could do my experimental work here, and then I commuted to Harvard once or twice a week for seminars and such. And that worked out very well. I also had our first daughter that year.
And just after she was born, a few months after—she was born the end of May. The chairman of the Chemistry Department dropped dead at his desk in his office. And it was very hard to hire faculty then because there were so many guys coming back and making huge classes, men graduating or getting their graduate degrees during the war; they’d all been doing other stuff. So they were desperate and they asked me if I would teach his courses, he was an organic chemist, I was an organic chemist. So here I was with a brand new building, with a Master’s Degree, teaching 250 guys, and I think there were six girls in the first class. Students used to come—they had separate classes and a lot of the humanities because that’s where most of them were majoring, and the others were sent to the Brown campus for their coursework. It was sort of an awkward arrangement.
One of them actually was a very good student; the others I don’t remember much about. But then I also had to teach a senior course and that was much more fun. They were—it was a small group. I actually saw a couple of them at one of the reunions some thirty years ago now, I think. But those were good years. And then I finished my – we came back from Los Alamos in ’46, and I finished my degree in 1950 and had my second daughter later that year, and then I had Chris after that, and then we moved to Princeton and I had Leslie there. And we did a lot of moving.
So yeah, Don—that story has been told many times and I wasn’t there but, I mean, I was home. But he—Bud Wilson, who had been his Ph.D supervisor, very good friend, was also his boss there [at Harvard] and the story is that he was a very sort of careful person. And very sensitive about classified matters; all what they were doing was all classified. They were developing ways to measure air, explosions in air. It was actually called “Underwater,” but that was a different group. They were working underwater and so Don—his thesis had ended up being on blast measurement, and he went down there. And they worked out on Nonamesset Island and went out there no matter what the weather, sometimes it was very rough, and set off blasts and tried to measure how well they were doing.
And I was just getting settled—we were able to rent, well, a house really. It was a carriage house on one of the big estates and it had, I don’t know, three or four garages that went in to lots of storage space upstairs, and I had this little caretaker’s apartment where we lived. It had been flooded in the ’38 hurricane and still had all the high water marks all over the walls. And an incredible furnace that produced masses of carbon monoxide. If you opened the door carelessly it would all burst out and flare up, but–and I knew next to nothing about housekeeping, but I learned slowly.
And anyway, Pride Wilson called—asked Don one day to—said he would like him to come up to the attic, I think, in the lab and he needed to talk to him. Don had no idea what that might be about. And when they got there Pride said, “How would you like another job?”
And Don’s response was, “What have I done wrong?”
He said, “Nothing, but how would you like another job?”
Don said, “Well I can’t—unless you tell me something about it I can’t make a decision.”
And Pride said, “Well I can’t tell you much about it.” He’s a very slow speaker and very low voice.
And Don said, “Well tell me where it is.”
And he said, “No I can’t tell you.”
“Well, can you at least tell me is it north, south, west?”
“No, couldn’t tell you.”
And so on, a certain amount of detail, and then it was all over. Pride said, “Well I want you to think it over very carefully and go talk to Lilli and let me know your decision in the morning.”
So Don came home with this story. We agreed that this was not sufficient information to make a decision on, and so Don went back and said, “No,” he didn’t think he would do it.
The next thing that happened was, the PA system comes on and says, “Dr. Hornig, Dr. Kistiakowsky is calling you from Sante Fe.”
And I guess in between, Conant had called him, James Bryant Conant, and Don was very angry about that because he actually sent him—have you seen those posters on the mailboxes that said, “Uncle Sam is pointing his finger at you?”
And Don said, “Well I don’t know anything about this,” and Conant didn’t tell him much either. But then when Kistiakowsky called, he—and with a few curses, which was very much his style—he said, “Dammit, you come out here.” And so Don brought that news home, and that sounded pretty interesting to me and did to him too, obviously.
But I had one reservation. I said, “What am I going to do there?”
And so Don talked to George some more, and after that George said, “Oh we’re scouring the country for people—anybody with a Master’s in chemistry, especially from Harvard, is going to be more than welcome.” So I was looking forward to that, but of course, no commitment of any kind. And so we bundled up our small household and drove. We had to turn in our house and a lovely sailboat in order to buy a car, which we had never owned before. And we had an old ’37 Ford coupe that proved to be very useful later, because somebody had knocked out the board between the trunk and the seat so there was a clear six foot space back there. And it became an ambulance for the ski slope. I took two people, including Klaus Fuchs to the hospital, when they had skiing accidents.
But anyway, back to getting out there. Don of course went straight to work, and I went to the personnel office. And the first question was, “How fast can you type?”
And I said, “I don’t type.” And I actually didn’t—not in the usual sense; I’ve learned a lot since. So anyway that presented a problem to them, but they scouted around, and then I had to fill out a security questionnaire in quint-duplicate and they looked at it. I had at the time had relatives in Ireland, Argentina, Spain, and maybe Switzerland, I don’t know, they all moved around so much I had no idea anymore.
And so they looked at this and said, “Oh, this can take weeks to come back.” But it turned out they had already investigated my father quite thoroughly. And so BSQ came back in three days, and I had a job in the chemistry department doing what was called “fundamental wet research,” which was involved—working with plutonium, determining the solubility of various plutonium salts. It was essentially nothing known about plutonium chemistry at the time. And there was one other woman in the division, she and I worked together and we had our little cubby hole and did our little procedures and put them under the Geiger counter. It wasn’t terribly inspiring and nobody actually really spoke to us.
Our boss was Don Wall, who came from Berkeley, and they were pretty much a closed society anyway. So we clunked along there for a couple months. And then they got the first results from Hanford with the bad news about 240, plutonium-240, which was much more active than 239. And the first response was to fire both of us instantly. And I complained a bit about that, and they were worried obviously about reproductive damage. I tried delicately to point out that they might be more susceptible than I was; that didn’t go over well. But I guess I wasn’t very good at handling things like that.
So I went back to the personnel office and they said, “Well they need people in X division,” which was Kisty’s division. So I went to see him and he was by then a good friend, but this was strictly business and he gave me several choices, which I explored. And then I ended up with Henry Linschitz, Walter Koski, measuring shock fronts from potential implosions trying to get a perfect segment of the sphere on the shock front, which we never quite managed. And they were very interesting actually, because in the end all they had was empirical stuff. There was no theory that explained what was happening in the shock front, and basically Kisty took a huge gamble at the same time as he was taking a gamble on Don’s firing unit. So that’s what I did then for most of the rest.
I quit after the [Trinity] test and was planning to go back to graduate school early and get my hands into it really, well, but I would still finish out there. But as it turned out I came down with hepatitis—during the war a lot of people had hepatitis from food. I ate one raw oyster in my entire life and that was it. I was very, very sick for weeks and weeks, so I didn’t go back to school but I did go back to work eventually. At the time in the summer of—early summer or late spring of ’46 they were starting to move stuff to Sandia and everything that our group had done was going down there, that Don’s group had done.
I suppose my previous one had already been dissolved. I was going to mention what Don was doing which was probably more—is better known, surely. He was very discouraged the first few months we were there because there really wasn’t anything for him to do. There were no blasts to measure except stuff that he already knew how to do. And so he was pretty discouraged about that and bored, but we all went to—all the people with white badges could go to any meeting they wanted to. And he went to one on initiating a blast, I think there were only a few people there. And they were working on synchronizing a bunch of thirty-two detonators with primacord, which you know well I assume. Primacord is—looks like a piece of rope, and it’s an explosive and you can time the moment of the explosion by how much primacord you use, how far the distance is, and connect it to a detonator and set it off with a little charge.
So that was what they were working on, hoping to synchronize all this. I do not remember all the technical details but I think the thirty-two points had to detonate within something like a millionth of a second. And I think it was no hope at that point that you could do that with primacord and detonators. And so Don would think about this, and he thought the trigger spark gap, and don’t ask me to explain it, was the way to go. And he took that idea to Oppenheimer and Oppenheimer said, “Let’s see you work on it.” So that’s what he worked on, he designed these spark gaps that were—I’ve forgotten how they were charged up, with condensers, I guess. I’m sure you probably know more details about it than I do. So that’s what Don ended up doing, and that’s how he came to be on the tower of babysitting the bomb of Trinity.
And Ben Bederson was one of the SED’s in the group. Whereas I dealt with David Greenglass. He was a tech sergeant in the shop—machine shop, and I used to take our designs to him to be made up—plates we used for the explosions. And Klaus Fuchs used to come to our section—we had a weekly section meeting where we reported little bits of information—and Klaus Fuchs came to every one of those. I always wondered why, he was very silent man and he—I don’t recall him ever asking a question, but he took notes all along, and so between him and Greenglass I probably contributed some information unwittingly.
Kelly: Would you have thought either one was a spy?
Hornig: Not Greenglass; no, he was just a Brooklyn kid. He was a lot like Ben Bederson, you know, irreverent and fresh. But Klaus Fuchs I was very suspicious of. I didn’t think of it as spying, I mean, I was uneasy; he made a lot of people uneasy, I think. He was so sort of closed in himself. And I remember he asked me to dance, as the British Mission gave a huge party after the end of the war, and—well maybe it was before then—but anyway we danced. And I knew he was coming from Germany and having come from there myself, so I thought we might have something in common. But he was very silent about his own background. He very, very—well his—some of his family were there and some weren’t. The whole thing sounded odd to me and I think I remember talking to Don about it afterward and saying, “I think—really sort of creepy, I think.” But I certainly didn’t follow up in any way.
Kelly: I understand a lot of people used him as a baby sitter, including the Teller’s?
Hornig: I’ve heard that. Well the Teller’s, they were nuts anyway. I shouldn’t say that. He was—they were both very vigorous people. He was kind of a loud mouth. I think he had few friends here, but there was this whole “Hungarian mafia,” Wigner at Princeton, who also came to Los Alamos, and Teller, and who was the other one? Yes, John von Neumann was one of that group, and Leo Szilard. But the only—well, I remember John very well. He spent quite a bit of time at Los Alamos and then we used to see him in Princeton as well. I never met Szilard, but Teller was the sort of loud mouth in the group – Wigner was a very quiet guy.
As I remember very well arriving in Sante Fe because we had a miserable trip. We drove through a thunderstorm coming up 285, I think it was, from Tucumcari to Sante Fe, and the road just went over the hills, there were no road cuts. It went up and down and there was a huge thunderstorm that we could watch it sort of stitching across hill tops, and then it hit our car. It was a terrific jolt and a blue white flash, but it was raining so hard that being on rubber tires, we would otherwise possibly not have survived that. But it just—that grounded through the rain.
So that was all right but we were a little bit shaken, and we arrived late in the afternoon in Sante Fe. We went to 109 East Palace where the office was and they were already closed, so we went to La Fonda and settled in there for the night. And it was just an enchanting place, I mean, it was nothing like it is now. It was, you know, lots of interesting stuff everywhere. I’d never been in the southwest; I’ve been in Colorado, but not this kind of thing at all, and we were both just enchanted.
And the next morning, we checked out of the hotel and went to have breakfast in the coffee shop down on the plaza. And there were a couple and I looked at them and said, “You know, he looks like a physicist to me.” And it turned out to have been Bob and Ruth Marshall—Marshak, excuse me. But we didn’t find that out until later, and the reason they come into the store was—we left breakfast and went on up to—went to 109 East Palace and met Dorothy McKibbin, and I think she was the only person there. And she was just a wonderful person, everybody adored her. She was sort of Mommy to everybody and invited people to her house for dinners and various things. So she told us where we were going and that sounded like great fun.
So off we went. I think we stuck to the main road and went up through Espagnola. But the road up the hill was under construction at the time but people were still using the old dirt road, one car wide. And in fact we found out later the week before we got there a truck had gone over the side and the driver was killed, of course. And it was a hazardous drive, but so exciting.
And Dorothy had said, “When you get there”—she’d given us passes of course—“Go through the gate and go into the center of town and head for the water tower because that’s where the housing office is.” So we did that. Didn’t know it was going to be as easy as it turned out to be, to find the water tower, and I hadn’t been to town, which it certainly wasn’t at the time. And what was her name? Vera Somebody who ran it—I might think of her last name but I can’t right now, assigned us to T54, which was a little house right next to the PX. And two apartments, one on each end, single story, that awful green color, but in front was a lovely pond, the fire pond and grassy meadow going down to it, and I thought that was a nice place to live. Well it turned out later that that place had actually been assigned to the Marshak’s, but they hadn’t shown up yet because they were sightseeing, Ruth insisted she had to see Sante Fe. So we lucked out and they didn’t because they ended up in one of the—I think it was McKay Housing, little pre-fab sorts of places, and it was terrible. She was—I don’t think she ever forgave us because they had been sent the floor plan and so they were established and so they had chosen furniture to bring and had it shipped and it, of course, didn’t fit where they were. I don’t know what they did about it, but that was sort of a funny sideline on the whole thing.
And although—the place we were assigned was filthy, and so the first thing it needed was a good scrub. And we had—they gave us two GI bunks and a table and two chairs and that was it. Our furniture supposedly was coming by freight and should have been there a week or two later. We didn’t yet have it two months later so we called up the mover and he said, “Oh, I’m so glad you called. I jotted down your address on an envelope somewhere and I can’t find it.” So he hadn’t shipped anything yet. He finally did and it arrived in August; we got there the middle of May.
But the next morning there was all kinds of machinery out front. They were putting up a ten-foot chain link fence and painting over the meadow for a parking lot for the GI vehicles. So that was our view for the rest of our time at Los Alamos. But other than that it was lovely; we looked right across the valley at the mountains, and it was a beautiful place.
We did a lot of camping and hiking. We were both hikers and I don’t know—on a good day it was thirty-five miles a day with a full pack, how’s that? Oh, Sawyer’s Hill was the ski hill, and we did ski there. I sort of learned to ski; I never really liked it. When I turned fifty I said, “That’s it, no more skiing.” And then we rode often with Kisty and his soon-to-be wife, Irma Shuler.
And then we had one interesting ride with the two of them. We had several, but this particular one we were going to a ranch on the other side of the Rio Grande, so we went down. We used horses from the cavalry stables, they rented them out, they liked to have them exercise. And the reason they had cavalry was to ride, to guard the fences. And so we went over to this ranch—that was kind of a long ride too, it was thirty or forty miles. And we got there, and it turned out the woman who owned it and ran it—it was a guest ranch—was Russian. Apparently had been a Duchess but I wouldn’t swear to that. And the other—there was one woman staying there who said she was Swiss, she had a very strong German accent, and she was traveling with a male guide. She was planning to film bears in the mountains, she said; that seemed a funny thing to be doing in the middle of the war actually. And for dinner this Russian Duchess had a friend there staying with her, a woman friend, and for dinner they’d invited a guy who was a rancher in the valley somewhere. And I will never forget him because he came on a white horse with a black cloak floating behind him and he had bright white hair and a very handsome guy, I might say, and a huge silver belt; just a character.
As the evening went on we realized that Don and Irma were the only two native-born Americans in this whole crowd. And I was quite sure the so-called Swiss lady was a spy; she may well have been, I don’t know. I don’t remember now who this spectacular male was. But he made quite a picture galloping across the dessert.
Well, George Kistiakowsky was a character, and we thought a great person. There were people who hated his guts, I think, and Teller may have been one of them; I’m not sure about that. But he was a fine scientist and had a great deal of experience that was suitable for the project. He had been an officer in the White Russian Army in the first war as a kid of eighteen, I think, and fought his way out to Odessa, I believe, and they—I think they commandeered a ship somehow. In between he was—he’s written this up, there’s an article – I think it was in the New York Times Magazine, where he recalled some of that era. But the story was that he was interned by the French in Odessa—I can’t vouch for this—and that they were so dirty that he escaped and went to an English camp.
But anyway, eventually he and his crew apparently commandeered this ship and none of them had ever been to sea before but they figured out how to run it. Then they discovered that they were actually in the middle of a mine field in the harbor, or as they came out of the harbor, but they made their way. And he ended up at that point in Berlin and made a living as a glass blower. He was this fabulous glass blower, which is not an easy skill to learn, and he could blow quartz spirals, and that was fairly esoteric kind of thing. Almost nobody ever used—was able to do that. So he made a living that way, and at the same time or shortly after began his graduate work with [inaudible] at the university in Berlin, and I assume that’s when he married his first wife; I’ve never met her. And they eventually came here—I’m not—I don’t know about the timing. In fact, I think it was in the late ‘20s, and he went to Princeton for a bit, I believe, before coming to Harvard, where he spent the—well except for Los Alamos and being science advisor to Eisenhower, he spent the rest of his career at Harvard. I see his wife every Tuesday, we go to lunch together in Cambridge.
During the war he went to a place called “Boosten,” which was an explosive research place in or near Pittsburgh, I don’t know exactly. And so he was leading expert on explosions, and that’s why he was at Los Alamos. And he was, I think, probably as frustrated as Don a good part of the time with, you know, having to wait so long before they could actually do what they were asked to do, which is measure explosion. But he was a very gregarious sort; he was either friends or enemies with lots of people and a great charmer, as you have undoubtedly have heard. Very good friend.
Oppenheimer was universally admired. I think his wife Kitty probably wasn’t; she was a difficult person, is my impression. I barely knew her and really didn’t know him well at all; I had no occasion to be close with them. We were half their age. I mean, we were twenty-three and twenty-four when we got there, and he was in his forties. There were more people our age than his; very youthful crowd. I remember General Groves getting very annoyed at the fact that there were so many women having babies in the hospital there. Apparently most of the cases were maternity cases and he didn’t think the U.S. Army should be paying for all that, but they did.
During the Trinity test—I knew it was coming up and in fact, two days before they’d had a malfunction down there, an early misfire on the X unit. And at two o’clock in the morning our group leader, Lewis Fussell, was knocking on my bedroom window saying, “You have to get up, we have some work to do.” And he and I went off to the Tech Area at two o’clock in the morning with a list of equipment that we had to replace down there. And neither of us had ever been in the stock room before, mind you, so we had quite a time finding it, but by about five o’clock I think we had everything together and it got shipped off on a truck and they had it in the morning down there.
But anyway, I had planned to drive up to Sandia Mountain, which had a nice road to the top and a clear view 110 miles down to the Trinity site. Some friends came with me, Earl and Betty Thomas—no I guess Earl was—it was just Betty Thomas, I think Earl may have been at Trinity, and David Anderson who was also part of the X group. I’m not quite sure what his job was, but he was a friend that we hiked with and did other things with. And so the three of us—our car couldn’t have taken more than three—were up there, and we knew it was—the shot was scheduled to go off before sunrise in order to—for all the cameras to function properly.
And so there we sat at ten thousand feet and we slept a little, we put sleeping bags on the ground. None of us slept very well and so we got up about three o’clock, I guess, and started waiting for the shot, keeping our eyes glued on the site. And we waited and waited and at 4:30 the sun rose. And we were so crushed and disappointed and said, “Well, I guess it’s not going to go today,” and we had to go back up through the hill and get to work. And so we packed up our sleeping bags and got in the car. It didn’t take long, I mean, it was quick decision, and I was sitting in the car reaching for my ignition key—and the thing bloomed in front of us. And of course we had neglected the fact that at ten thousand feet the sun rises earlier then it does at two thousand or three thousand down in the dessert. So we blamed ourselves for not being good scientists there, but we did see it and it was just incredible.
Just a couple of nights ago I saw a film on PBS of the superbomb tests and it reminded me very strongly, and of course the scale is far bigger, but the pictures are much like what I remember in my mind as the—these sort of boiling clouds and color—vivid colors like violet, purple, orange, yellow, red, just everything. It was fantastic. And we were all kind of shaken up but—and we waited for the shock wave to come, which it did, requisite, I don’t know—fifteen, eleven, twelve, fifteen minutes later.
And then we backed up and started down the mountain, and we stopped at a diner somewhere near Albuquerque for breakfast. And the guy behind the counter said, “You guys know anything about that explosion they had down at the proving grounds?” We said, “What, no, we didn’t know about that?”
Yes, I remember the petition to—not to use the bomb as a weapon came around just after the test. And I don’t know—I think it may have originated in Chicago or maybe in Oak Ridge, but I think Chicago was right. And some of my friends in the same group, whatever it was, X something, were signing it. And I thought about it and I thought that was a good idea. I think many of us had really worked on it—on the bomb with the thought that it might deter Hitler. Once the European war was over with, well, a lot of the people left right away, Kisty left for instance soon after that. I don’t—there wasn’t certainly among the scientists the same gut feeling about using it. And we thought in our innocence—of course it made no difference—but if we petitioned hard enough they might do a demonstration test or something like they later did at Bikini and Enewetak, and invite the Japanese to witness it. But of course the military I think had made the decision well before that they were going to use it no matter what. And so we had very mixed feelings about that.
I think Don was still at Trinity when I signed it; I’m not sure about that. Actually he came back the next day from after the test. He and George drove up in a jeep with no top, and the jeeps in those days didn’t even have side straps. And they were both so exhausted of course. They took turns driving apparently, and then I remember one of them veered off the road, the other one said, “Time for you to take a nap, let me drive.” And they came —Irma was at our house waiting for them. They came over—they came late in the day around dinnertime and George literally fell asleep sitting in a straight chair. So Irma took him home and Don had a good long nap. But they were quite exhilarated; it had been a success.
But when the bomb was dropped we were—Don and I were actually in Milwaukee visiting his family because his brother was in the Navy and was slated to be shipped out and this was his leave, just a few days before showing up at the West coast. And we knew damn well he wasn’t going to be going anywhere, much at least not into danger, and we knew that the drop was imminent. We didn’t know the precise moment. Certainly Don’s parents didn’t have TV at the time and I don’t know if there were ever any news on, but Don and I went downtown. There were all the papers with the headlines, so we knew it had gone off.
That was an odd mix of feelings. I mean, certainly some triumph and the destruction was just so incredible. I think we’ve all been a little haunted by that over the years.
But we had an interesting experience several years ago. Don was asked to come and speak at the University of Colorado Science Policy Program that was working on a volume of all the science advisors they could find to talk about how science policy gets made, how the president makes those decisions. And while we were there we talked to and sat in various seminars and also went to an undergraduate class in physics and spoke briefly and then stayed for the rest of it.
Afterwards a student came up to us, a young man probably about thirty and clearly half Japanese. And he said, “I’m going to tell you something that’s rather hard for me because you know in Japan we’re very, very close in the family and we don’t talk much to other people about our feelings.” But he said, “My grandmother was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped and she survived and so did my mother. And she got engaged to an American serviceman later and was coming here.” He said, “My grandmother told her that she should be glad she’s going and that”—I’m trying to think of the precise words—but basically that the atom bomb had been a blessing for Japan because it got rid of the old government and the war like—well, the utter destruction that was taking place which was actually worse then what these bombs did. It all happened in a flash, one moment.
But I was very moved by that, that he told us that. He had been a Marine—he’d done a stint in the Marines and then he decided to get an education when he came out. So I’ve thought back about that a number of times.
It was a fabulous time in our lives, that’s really the answer; you know we were so young. When I look now at our grandchildren, the youngest ones are about the age we were then and they’re so not yet really adult in some ways, and they don’t think of themselves as having adult responsibilities. It’s very striking to me because we had no doubt that we were grown up, but the, you know, we weren’t the only people. There were lots of other people who were our age with very responsible jobs, massive social life—we’ve never had a busier one. Everybody had—got together for dinners or hikes or go camping or go riding. It was a theater group and Don was in and I did scenery for them and there was lots of music, but somehow we weren’t in that much. Don is very musical, he used to play the violin, but somehow he just didn’t there.
What else did we do? Well, we went off to Indian Pueblos for dances and that kind of thing. I remember—of course we had Indian women who were assigned as house cleaners. And one I had came from San Ildefonso and we went down one Sunday, we were up buying pottery, actually and ran into her and she invited us into her house. And I saw a papoose board with a baby on it, it was swinging from the ceiling, and everybody who went by gave it a little shove and that baby was happy as a clam. And then she said, “Oh the christening is next Sunday, will you come?”
And we said, “Yes, we’d love to” and so we came down there with a little present and all that sort of thing. There wasn’t any christening, nothing ever happened. That was kind of funny.
But yeah, there was an awful lot of sightseeing to do and you know, we did all we had time for. Some complained and some loved it. It depended a lot, I think, on how housebound they were with little kids. It was kind of hard work, not a clean place. There were a lot of dust storms and that sort of thing and you know, you came in from a dirt road directly into your living room. So if you were a good housekeeper, which I wasn’t, you’d probably fret about that.
Some of them—I had one friend who—her husband worked in the group and they had a one year old and a two year old and two dogs, two Dalmatians, and then she had twins and the dogs had eleven puppies in a two-bedroom apartment. It was a real zoo.