The Manhattan Project

Gayleen Meservey's Interview

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Gayleen Meservey's Interview

Gayleen Meservey grew up in Idaho Falls, and worked at the National Reactor Testing Station. She describes the bus rides to and from the laboratory, which often involved card games and occasionally getting stuck in the snow. She discusses the positive relationship between the laboratory and the town, and how the influx of scientists transformed the town and the state. She also explains the incredible change in computers from the 1960s through the early 2000s, and what it was like to work on early computers.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 14, 2004
Location of the Interview: 
Idaho Falls
Transcript: 

Gayleen: Oh, I’m Gayleen Meservey, M-e-s-e-r-v-e-y, first name Gayleen, G-a-y-l-e-e-n.

I started as a data processing clerk at the Site in 1964, following a short stint in San Francisco at a technical school to train me to operate data processing machinery. We were actually involved in measuring the reactions that the scientists produced in the reactors, giving them the data that would help them to predict the tests and to go on.

But the question that may interest those that didn’t know is, the culture that came about in Idaho Falls surrounding bus rides. It was necessary to get from Idaho Falls to the Site, which was about fifty miles, and we all rode buses. You’d get up early in the morning, often half-asleep, get on the bus and then either go back to sleep, or there was a culture that rode in the back of the bus that played cards. It was very competitive. To get into the card game was a challenge. Then once you were in, you never wanted to leave. They would play card games, and that went on twice a day.

We would get on the bus early, about 6:30 in the morning and arrive at work about 7:30 or a quarter to eight. Get back on the bus at 4:30 and arrive home 5:30, quarter to six. Very prevalent, lot of people did it, buses going all over town.

One February—I think it was in 1964, it may have been ’65—we had a severe ground blizzard in Idaho. At that time, there was a lot of snow gathered on the road to the Site. There were big canyon walls. and the buses had a very narrow path to get through town at one point. Well, an 18-wheel truck had an accident and jackknifed in front of this very long line of buses. We were stuck. The buses got blown in, completely stuck, and we were stuck out there for hours, literally hours. This is a group of people, about forty per bus, that had been at the Site all day long working and was on their way home.

Nature takes its course, and a group of the gentlemen had to use the bathroom, and there was no facility on the bus at the time. They were just strictly transportation. They decided that they would get off the bus, go out across the snowdrifts a ways away from the bus, and take the relief that they needed. Unfortunately, they hadn’t counted on the fact that it was a very moonlit night, and only the bottom of the bus was obscured by the blowing snow. As they climbed the snowdrift and went out across the drifts, everyone on the bus was able to see very clearly what they were doing. The next group of people that went stayed very close to the edge of the bus, where they couldn’t be seen, because you can’t see straight down on a bus.

When we got to the point where it was about 11:30, 12:00 at night, everyone was so hungry. We had all eaten our lunches at the Site, there was no food on the bus. From the back of the bus, I heard someone say, “Does anybody have a stamp I could even lick?”

It was a usual thing to ride the bus every day. For years after I left the Site—I worked there about seven years—at 4:30 every afternoon, I would fall asleep. I just couldn’t stay awake at 4:30, because I had been so used to sleeping during that half an hour or forty-five minutes on the bus.

But it was a wonderful time. It was a great time to be involved with new science. The nuclear industry was just in its infant stages, really, and a lot of the very educated people of this world made their way to this very small agricultural community and began doing wonderful science. For those of us that were in the support staff that took that data that they produced or helped them edit and write the papers, it was a great time.

Originally, when I began, they would bring rolls of paper into us and we would use a measuring device like a ruler called a millimeter stick and we would measure all of lines that were produced on this paper to give them the information they needed about what had gone on in the test. The longer I worked there, we would began to use great new tools called computers, and there were rooms full of equipment that would record things on 12-inch magnetic tape reels, if you can imagine those huge heavy reels of tape. We would take those off and transcribe those into the same plots that we had been using rulers to produce before. The technology race was catching up with the nuclear race, in that we were producing technology to help us, and we began using newer tools to interpret the results.

It was a great time to be involved. These wonderfully knowledgeable people all gathered together in a group and produced some wonderful results. Some great things happened during the early years, and then the ensuing years at this Site.

When I worked at the Site, there wasn’t a computer at the site as far as we know them today. There were keypunch machines—I don’t suppose very many people know what a keypunch card is. But it was a way at that time to take printed data, run it through machinery and produce readout results. That quickly faded into magnetic tape. From that point, computers filled rooms, and that was in the early ‘60s, to now computers are in the palm of your hand. The roomful of computer that we had in the early 1960s was about [one-]one-hundredth as powerful as the computer that you can hold in your hand and keep your personal agenda on in these days. Of course, we went from computers being somewhat secret and somewhat mystifying to now children use them every day in school. It’s been kind of an interesting journey for me to watch the development of that field.

I did not stay involved, after we began to have children. I married my husband. I worked five years after we were married, and then left the Site to raise my children. But my oldest son is now working in the computer field, has become a computer expert in his own right, and travels the world doing computer-related things. My early work on those first computers maybe has translated into his love, that he has taken and produces a very good livelihood for his family, and has just made it his profession because he loves them so much.

It’s an amazing journey from those monstrous things that did very little, to these tiny little things that do an astonishing amount of tasks.

As a local, one of the few that was born and raised in Idaho Falls, during my early years in high school, it was really invigorating to see all of these young Navy men show up in our community. A lot of young girls married Navy men and were taken away, or the Navy men retired and came back here.

Then, we started to see an influx of scientists. Well, scientists are even more attractive than Navy men. Those of us that were lucky enough to get a job at the Site began to learn things and see things that really weren’t available to us before. Our minds were opened to possibilities that weren’t here before, having been mainly an agricultural community prior to the Site becoming the dominant industry in the area. It was interesting to see how the influence of the educated people that came here changed things.

Idaho Falls is a community of about 60,000, maybe, give or take a few. In this community, we have a symphony orchestra, we have a ballet company, we have professional choirs, we have dedicated theater groups. The educated people that came to work here in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, set the standard for the community. We have built a civic auditorium that is the largest and best-equipped this side of the West Coast facilities.

We have maintained a standard much higher than most communities our size in the arts, the cultural things, the outdoor sports and things. Because these people that came made good money, had good standards, had good education and good expectation for what they wanted to do with their leisure time.

We have a very well-rounded community that has stood well in the influx of people that come into it for what they want to do. That’s why people stay here, is because it’s a good place to live. There’s many interesting things for all types of people. We have a great time here. It’s a good place.

Kelly: I think the Chamber of Commerce is going to want that.

Jeff Nalezny: Did the old-timers have more trouble with it? The farmers, the people who said, “This is our place, and we like it just the way it is.”

Gayleen: Some of the long-standing people who felt that it was an infringement on their territory have had a little difficulty with people at the Site. You see a little bit of that today—not much, because the positive has been so much greater than the negative.

If they do, I think they’re not as vocal about voicing their opposition. The people that work at the site have integrated very well with the old-timers. The economic benefit is undeniable. You cannot look around Idaho Falls and see the good that’s been accomplished by these learned people that have come to work here, and say that the town is not better because we’ve had this next door to us all these years. To be honest, I’ve known more people that come to work and even go away, but come right back. Idaho Falls is a place you want to be, not a place you have to be.

The farmers and the locals, for the most part, if they opposed it, are not here anymore. The new ones are very grateful for the economic benefit that we’ve gained from having a multiple use community, not just a one-sided community. It’s become a lovely place, because of the diversity. All of us that live here find great joy in dealing with people that aren’t like us. It’s a great place. Maybe there’s a little opposition, but not as much as you’d think.