The Manhattan Project

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Krik Krikorian's Interview

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Krik Krikorian's Interview

Nerses “Krik” Krikorian was born in Turkey in 1921. He was brought to North America at the age of four, escaping the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. After graduating from college, Krikorian worked for Union Carbide in Niagara Falls, NY during World War II. In 1946, he was approached to work at Los Alamos to build polonium initiators for one year. He ended up staying in Los Alamos and even helped to write the charter to govern the town. In this interview, he remembers his childhood and experiences as the eldest son in an immigrant family. He also discusses his work at Los Alamos and his involvement in laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation with the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 12, 2017
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Nerses Krikorian: My name is Nerses Krikorian, N-E-R-S-E-S K-R-I-K-O-R-I-A-N. I was born in Harput, Turkey in 1921, January of 1921, to Hachig and Lucy Krikorian. Somehow or another they extricated me from the genocide which was prevailing and in a four-year period managed to get me from Turkey, where I was born, through Aleppo, where my brother was born.

Then to Canada and then to the U.S. where my brother Mike was born – Miak, the Armenian name – in 1924 or 1925. Anyway, it was a four-year transition, and I still think it’s almost a miracle that somehow it all happened and took place. I’ve tried to trace what took place with poor luck. All I can do is say somebody had help my parents because they had nothing except the shirt on their back. Somehow through what almost are miraculous happenings, my parents managed to survive through all of this.

Finally, from Canada, where we had entered the country – it was Le Havre to Quebec from what I’ve been told. Somehow we ended up living among an immigrant community in Niagara Falls, New York. It was a mixed neighborhood of immigrants. Italians and Germans, a few Irish, and a few Middle Easterners. But we survived it all, and somehow with the encouragement of my parents I managed to get a good university education at Niagara University.

My professor there suggested I go to an interview at Union Carbide Research Laboratories, when Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Fields, Burnham Fields and Mr. Cunningham, and they took me on their staff. We worked at a place called the “Met Lab” or the area plant related to the Met Lab, but it was all classified at the time. It wasn’t a big operation, but it made high-purity uranium from the green salt. I could go into details where we speculated where the green salt came from, South Africa or elsewhere, but probably that’s been documented elsewhere.

From there, I spent three years making high-purity uranium with John Hertzog and Bill Chynoweth and Ray Powell. Incidentally, Ray became a vice president of Sandia when it was formed. Part of our team also included Gladys and Bob Dunlap, who came in from Union Carbide in New York at the time. These are the names I remember.

There were also metallurgists like Cecil Chadwick, Glenn Bagley and people like that. John Hertzog. These were all Union Carbide people. As a matter of fact, the Dunlaps came to Los Alamos from Niagara Falls. Although they didn’t identify it as Los Alamos. [Inaudible] southwest. They left and were followed by Ray Powell at the time.

Then, ultimately, when things simmered down in 1946, some of us were told, “Why don’t you go to Los Alamos?” Which at that point we knew about. But between making the uranium and coming to Los Alamos, we did a lot of technical things that were questionable because it didn’t make economic sense to do it the way we were doing it.

That was because the physicists were laying the ground work, for instance. How things were shipped were in a geometry that wasted ninety-nine percent of the space in a boxcar, but anchored the units to the floor. We had no idea that it was a potential disaster with reactors if we put them together. We learned a lot, and all of that somehow I was able to put together within the short time after coming to Los Alamos where they were much more open about the whys and the wherefores.

As a matter of fact, from uranium which we were making in kilogram quantities and shipping by train, a guarded train, I worked with polonium. Polonium, people have forgotten already probably, was used to create the alpha-n reaction that gave the neutrons that triggered the nuclear weapon.

Without the polonium at the time, unless it was a random neutron, there would be no nuclear weapon that’s measured as a weapon. So the timing and so forth had to be properly done and all of this stuff was being done separately. The security was pretty good considering the magnitude of the project and the quietness with which we operated.

The security rules were enforced and we all honored them. But it also created a brotherhood that was interesting, because we ended up with a laboratory at that time at the area plant that consisted of people like myself who were immigrants.

The other scientists included an Italian and a Greek named Nick Pappas. It included Doyle from Canada who came over every day who attended the university. We had people of French background in that lab. It was a wartime endeavor in which they hand-picked those of us to participate through our knowledge that we had as university people. It was my professor, Warren K. Agloff, who suggested that I go be interviewed. I felt very fortunate but very surprised.

The next thing I knew I’m working with uranium and I only read about it in a book by [Jack] DeMent and [H. C.] Dake in which they talked about the west half of the United States possibly disappearing in this book. But still it didn’t register in a broad sense with me.

Only after I got here did I get familiar with the details and the way things would follow. As a matter of fact I made the initiators. After the first two I had to disassemble the polonium-beryllium initiators and then recover them. This is in microgram quantities.

The transition was from kilograms from micrograms and that’s a radical change. Frankly, I think, if you’re careful you can do it all with care even though people are afraid of radiation, a subject in which I could go on. Because how did I live to be my age despite of all these things that we were making the rules to govern?

From a safety point of view and security point of view the question I often ask is, my God, how did we survive it all? The impunity and the unknowns that we were facing. The challenge was there but it was because we knew what we were doing and we were told to exercise care.

Now when I still mention the fact that in order to check the properties of the uranium – for instance, at Union Carbide, I used a hacksaw to cut the uranium and analyze it after cleaning it up – I still wonder. If you’re judicious and you are careful you can do all these things.

Then make a transition to something instead of a twenty-four thousand year half-life that’s only good for a hundred and thirty eight days in your weapon system. So all this has to be integrated and done properly.

Weisenberg: I was curious if you could tell me what it was like coming to the United States. You said you were four years old?

Krikorian: I was just four years old. I was four years old. Look, I owe that to my parents. I have no idea what took place and how they did it. You just don’t start in Turkey and end up in Niagara Falls in four years without somebody helping you. There’s got to be some organization that had to participate but I’ve never been able to trace it validly and figure out what took place.

I know that we went to St. Catharines, Ontario in Canada, because an uncle who was familiar with General Motors and cars and stuff, they had a plant there. He worked there. But he had been in the U.S. He was a part of the chain.

But how did all this get me to Niagara Falls? I haven’t figured it out yet. Or why did it get to Niagara Falls? What was the motivation for my parents to move? Because my father, although he was a carpenter in the old country, his knowledge was limited and he was an ordinary laborer in Niagara Falls. What did he do? Why did he stress education? Why did my mother insist that not only do I get educated in the U.S. as a child but what do I do with it?

As a matter of fact one of things that they insisted is that I learn the Armenian language. Not only the language but the history, the heritage and the whole thing. You wonder of what value would that be, if they’re only even today about ten million Armenians in the world. Who were you going to speak to and what language would you speak to them in?

All these questions arise and somehow they get settled in your mind. They paid off later in the sense of nonproliferation, when I had to deal with the Russians, and later on even when Armenia was freed up from Russian domination and from communist domination into the more recent days where it has some semblance of freedom. Although it’s overrun. It’s defended in a sense in the small Caucasus area by troops. Russian troops in Armenia, which we tend to ignore. So, it’s a very complex situation.

Weisenberg: You grew up in Niagara Falls and you went to high school there, and then you went to Niagara University?

Krikorian: That’s correct.

Weisenberg: You mentioned you grew up in a neighborhood that was a very diverse neighborhood that had a lot of other immigrant families.

Krikorian: Right. Correct. That’s true. As a matter of fact, it was a poor neighborhood, but you never realized it. Everybody was in the same boat that you were. I give credit to my parents dominantly for what they instilled in me and somehow it has paid off. It’s still hard to appreciate and to think in these terms especially in today’s culture. You might say, Oh, they had vision.” Well, they spoke several languages. They spoke Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian. The language that they could never master was English. I used to refer to my mother’s English as broken English.

Somehow it all seemed to work out and I’m grateful for it. They had some insights that to this day I wonder where it came from. I never met grandparents because they didn’t exist. They were killed and massacred. The genocide did it. You might call it divine providence but somehow it all fits together.

But that’s just the beginning. I’ve been treated extremely well at Los Alamos. Things have gone my way almost since the beginning, starting with the polonium work and then eventually getting into Project Rover, when we changed from polonium to other ways of getting neutrons.

Then, ultimately, getting into high-temperature chemistry and getting into scientific publications that were definitely at the cutting edge of material science. Because the goal with Rover was to start with a substance at cryogenic temperatures and expel it for power with a high-specific impulse in temperatures exceeding two thousand centigrade from the exhaust side. For a young scientist to have these experiences and go through it all is pretty heavy stuff.

Even in the days before then when, for instance, I joined the staff at Los Alamos. My boss decided – I mentioned to him that I wanted to visit my parents. He said, “Well, why don’t you stop by Dayton, Ohio?” The plans for Miamisburg [Mound Laboratory] were being set up at the time. Guess what? You’re dealing with people at the vice president level, and you’re only twenty-six years old or twenty-seven years old. They have to listen to you because you know the criteria for the need.

Somehow it all works out and you’re grateful about it. But how does it all happen? There’s a mystical side to it, too.

As a matter of fact, the hard core of quantum physics did not originate necessarily in the U.S. It started with a European thought. [J. Robert] Oppenheimer was fantastic. He was the right guy to pick to do it all and bring it about. But when you think about the problem, we had a core of people like Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, [John] von Neumann, and Leo Szilard. A lot of the people who were persona non grata in the European sector thanks to the stupidity of Adolf Hitler. We were getting them into the U.S. from Hungary, the Balkans. Even a Russian, George Gamow, was here also.

We somehow accumulated the bright brains of Europe here. My participation was incidental compared to some of those people. Those people, believe it or not, were the mentors for the rest of us who were somewhat younger.

Edward Teller kidded me one day. He said, “You must have been a child when you started,” and I chuckled. Edward Teller was from Hungary. As controversial as he was, he was a part of it.  

Then there were people like Nick Metropolis who really in a sense was a major impetus in putting nuclear computations into a useful form with computers. The MANIAC was put together by him, but it wasn’t originally set up for this purpose. It was set up for more or less trajectory measurements. Somehow the right combination amalgamated itself into fitting into what has become an integral part of the U.S. security system with nuclear weapons.

Weisenberg: You have some wonderful stories about your family, about how you helped them get a mortgage and about other things about growing up.

Krikorian: Oh. Well, that’s away from stuff like the technical side which is okay. For instance, I’m glad you brought that up. Being foreign born and familiar with both Armenian and English and the eldest son. Don’t forget the culture of the Middle East.

The eldest son becomes the focal point, at least in the Armenian culture, for a lot of the things that evolve. But what happened was at the point in life where most young people, teenagers, are still playing around and still exploring life, I didn’t have that latitude. I was the oldest son. Therefore, I inherited some of the old country culture, and this included the decisions made by the family for things like family finances.

My parents were frugal. They saved money and eventually they bought a house. Now comes the problem. They don’t understand English legal terms which is manifested in that time in New York State. You needed a lawyer. I don’t know what it is today. But in order to do it somehow I had to go to the lawyer, learn the legal aspects of buying a house, and then translating that to my parents what a mortgage meant and what the interest rates were.

In a sense it was broader than just learning it and conveying it in one language. Now you had to translate to your parents on a major thing like buying a house. You participated more heavily and more readily into what normally would be an easy transaction if all you had to do was do it in English. You had a language problem to overcome. What is the word for mortgage in Armenian? I don’t know to this day except you’ve got to explain it all. My parents understood this. As a matter of fact, they realized that if you paid more money, you saved money because you didn’t pay interest.

This is part of the education of being foreign born. It sounds trivial in a way today, even to me. But at the time I had to explain it to [parents] who had a difficult time with the English language. That’s an example of the kind of thing you run into when you’re foreign born. I don’t know whether it’s true today because there’s so many ways the world has changed. Maybe that isn’t an overwhelming problem anymore. But it was then and I had the brunt of it.

You sort of forgot boyhood and entered manhood because you were dealing with what elderly people were having to face. It’s great because I think it helped make me far more appreciative of what they were going through. But the fact that they could do it was a remarkable thing, to buy a house. I’m trying to remember when but it’s unimportant.

The point was you were faced with different problems and you had to adapt not only through your own capability, but you had to adapt to a system that was not totally understood by those who were involved. I think that’s just an example of the kind of things you run into.

It came up later, of course, when I got into the unique situation of being – the U.S. State Department does a lot of things that are different at times. For instance, in the sense of my being foreign born and then learning a foreign language fluently enough to be used in their business.

Then through other ways of manifestation, such as my daughter who ended up being an officer in the medical services. You ended up being useful to the State Department in the sense that you could walk into the government of Armenia and talk to them in their own language. I think the stellar thing that happened was, here I am on the American team. This is difficult to follow at times. You’re a member of the American team dealing with the Armenian government for their involvement on how we protect nuclear nonproliferation issues and export control issues.

It almost sounds like circular arguments, but they happen. There you are, you’re foreign born and you’re dealing with the Armenian people around the table as well as some of the foreigners we’re supporting. International science technology centers in Russia and the other countries. So you’re a part of it but it’s incongruous. You never expect to be in that situation of understanding both sides without a translator.

I smile about it, but it’s real and it happens and I don’t know whether it can happen today. But obviously it happened to me. I know because I sat around the table. In one case I recall one of the ladies who was heading the State Department team signaled me to come and sit next to her at the table. Who is on the other side but the nuclear weapons guy from Russia. It was a visible sign that our people knew what they were doing.

Weisenberg: You have a story about a train ride in Russia that took hours and hours.

Krikorian: Well, yeah. We got there. This was 1991. It isn’t that long ago. We flew into Moscow on TWA, thirty hours getting there, and we landed in Sheremetyevo. We’re told we’re supposed to spend the night. Danny Stillman and I. Danny and I are supposed to spend the night in Moscow and then fly to Sverdlovsk. Guess what? We’re told as we get off the plane, off the TWA flight, that hey, we’re going straight to the train station on an icy day in Moscow.

It was a white-knuckle ride over icy roads. There’s a train waiting for us because you’re not spending the night. You say, “But I made reservations.”

“Oh, we canceled those.” They had sent someone from their Livermore [the Russian equivalent of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory] to Moscow with security and food and even vodka if we wanted it to escort us to their lab. Because they had invited us, Danny Stillman and myself.

So, guess what? We’re thirty hours on the train. Their Pullmans are not the elegance of what the U.S. Pullman is like but it’s quite adequate. On route, you realize it’s minus 20 and minus 30. For the first time, not only do you have to take the train but they’re the hosts, so you’re on the train.

Now we have to make a change. The change is to get to Chelyabinsk-70, their name at the time. To do it – I’m trying to remember now – oh yeah, we changed trains. But that train was [Yuli] Khariton’s, their Oppenheimer’s, train, and guess what? The conductor has never seen a foreigner on the train and he wants to throw us off. The saving grace was there was a weapons designer in the next compartment and he took care of us. As a matter of fact, the story was they got rid of the conductor. That’s how brutal the system was at the time.

He was the one who saved us from being thrown out in the minus 20 or minus 30 snows that were prevailing at the time on that ride to Chelyabinsk-70. It’s this sort of thing that we did that was just accepted as being a part of the job at the time. I don’t think the formality with which such action would be done today. It’s almost bewildering when you think about it. But at the time, they trusted us to do the right thing and we did.

We got there and in a sense it opened the doors to activities that followed. It paid off in the long run. We stopped looking at each other as threats. We weren’t buddies but we were no longer enemies either. We tolerated one another. But that tolerance goes a long way. You don’t have to be nice; you just have to be polite and firm and respectful. You don’t do it by bullying.

Weisenberg: Well, I was curious about how you got involved in that kind of work in the first place. Was it because Harold Agnew had approached you originally?

Krikorian: Yes. Harold had some vision. He knew that things had to change and he wanted both strategic input and intelligence input. He trusted us who had been exposed to nuclear weapons, nuclear propulsion, and the broad scheme of things in high-temperature chemistry. Even some of the reactor technology. Harold had faith in the people.

There was a hard core of about six of us that were invited to participate in the establishment and the broadening of the base of the Lab at the time and it worked. But he personally, I think, used to sprinkle holy water on who was joining the group.

Because I recall one time after he left, I had been visiting with him in the San Diego area. I don’t know that I’ve told this story before in public. I told him somebody wanted to join us and he just bluntly looked at me and he said, “You don’t want him.” That was probably on a Friday.

On Monday morning, my phone rang. He said, “What did you do about so-and-so? Remember, you don’t want him.” Even after he left here, he judged people and openly would make a statement that he would not work in with the rest of us.

I mean that’s just an example. He was very direct about things and quite often very correct. He didn’t hesitate to share his doubts with you. I recall one time something came up and I showed it to him. He said, “You spent too much money doing that.”

I said “Harold, I have other things. Come look at it.”

He came with me and he said, “You did fine.”

I said, “Why are you giving me hell upstairs, then?”

You could talk to him that way. That kind of atmosphere has changed. Other directors had the same capability of being questioned and not taking it as an adverse way of operating.

Norris Bradbury had his own clientele and he did a beautiful job of running the lab for twenty-five years. But I think Harold expanded it and today it’s a major endeavor on the national security side, strategic analysis and stuff. We have a lot to be grateful for, for guys like Harold who were outspoken. You knew where you stood with him. When he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Good job,” I knew I had done a good job. He wasn’t just patting my back.

Weisenberg: It sounds like he wasn’t a praiser unless you really earned it.

Krikorian: That’s right. He didn’t hesitate. If you screwed up you knew about it too. But it was a lot more direct and a lot simpler than it is today. Because today you have the international scene with nuclear concerns and so forth. I think it’s a more complex world and more difficult in a way. But at the time he had the correct solutions for it. The world goes on and part of our job is to keep us from making mistakes.

This making mistakes, it can be serious. Because I recall, I guess, I haven’t touched on this with you at least. I was there for one of the early nuclear weapons tests that was a tower shot. Low yield, quite low. A toy compared to what is available today. But I felt the heat seven miles away and I’ve respected what a nuclear weapon can do. Even a low yield weapon. So I still have that healthy respect.

Instead of kilotons, we’re talking megatons. We have a bigger problem because the devastation can be far more serious than we had. For instance, we’re sitting there in Seoul with twenty million people in that vicinity and thousands of our own troops. We, in a sense, speak for a lot of the world on the nuclear safety side and nuclear security side and we’re not bullies. We get our way but we do it without acting like bullies at times. We do make mistakes. Governments all make mistakes but at least we respect people, and that goes a long way.

I don’t know how you do that without good leadership. Be that as it may, it’s still a problem. We live in a complex world and we’re having problems but we got to be judicious about pushing buttons. I don’t want to see us start World War III. That’s not our job. Our job is to keep the peace and keep it from getting worse even if we have to tolerate one another in questionable ways.

I don’t know what those words mean, but without using the nuclear side in anger. I don’t want to ever see a nuclear weapon used in anger again. I believe at some point we may have to check and see what their capabilities continue to be because things have changed technologically. But on the other hand, outside of the fact that we have to have one to protect our own integrity and our own security, we can’t have a situation where we can make mistakes of that magnitude.

Weisenberg: What were your first impressions of Los Alamos when you got there?

Krikorian: Oh, okay. That’s a very good question. When I came here I was treated just like anybody else. As a single guy, Ralph Liberto and I drove across country. We stopped on route. It was sort of a vacation drive in an old, I think it was a ‘36 Chevy, and we drove across country.

One of the jokes I like to tell is the fact that it’s raining and I see a sign that says “Dip Ahead.” I wonder, “Ralph, what the hell is a dip?” and then we hit one. The water splashed and shorted out all the spark plugs, and here I am with an umbrella and a towel trying to wipe spark plugs to get going, in the rain.

We made it. We made to Santa Fe and registered at 109 [East Palace]. I remember I was supposed to be here for one year and then go back to Union Carbide, and I’m still here. It was a one-year trip that has become extended.

It was the right place to be because I met the right woman and have a son and a daughter that has been a real sharp cookie as far as I’m concerned. A very capable young woman. She got her doctorate in molecular biology, microbiology, and has added to my knowledge of foreign countries and has been part of the U.N. team for inspection.

You groom yourself to the national security issues that are so important to the United States. But I intended to go back so I didn’t pay much attention to the culture and so forth. I was only going to be here about a year. Adobe? I didn’t know what an adobe building was. That wasn’t my focus.

That focus became later when I began to appreciate the culture, the age, the people. Because my vision was to get the job done that I had been sent to do and to get more education so that I could be more useful. So in a sense, it was very limited to start with. It took me quite a while to really get to understand the magnitude of the Southwest, the history and the architecture and the people. But the original plan was learn the science and go back to Union Carbide. That sounds like a very narrow focus, but you’ve got a year to do it in and you’re going to go back. Gradually it grew on me that “Hey, this isn’t going to happen.”

I feel like I’m a part of what’s here and I’m glad to be a part of it. I am only a part of it. The importance of my participation is good, but other people have also quietly given to it and grown with it, enjoyed it, appreciated it and become a part of it. I look at it as this has become my life, for whatever that’s worth.

The sad part that comes is when you live long enough like I have. You don’t know what to do with yourself because you’re no longer doing things in the same way that you were doing them before, and you wonder, what is your usefulness about it? That’s a little more difficult to swallow because that’s a mental thing. That’s not physical. But that’s my feeling.

Weisenberg: I know you’ve been very involved in the community here, so you’re welcome to talk about that.

Krikorian: Oh yeah. I helped write the charter to govern Los Alamos. That’s another aspect of things that is fascinating. Here’s a foreign born American. Think about it. Born in a foreign country, coming to the U.S. and becoming part of establishing a city, and helping write the charter that governs that city. How often does that happen? It’s pretty heady when you think about it, especially when you realize that you were asked to do that. You didn’t volunteer.

I didn’t volunteer to become a part of the charter commission. Jim Loucks, who was an OB/GYN guy, plus Steve Stoddard called me to say, “Would you serve on the charter commission to write the charter to govern Los Alamos?”

What? You’re foreign born and you’re writing the constitution to govern the city. That’s pretty heady stuff. It’s important but it also is unique.

I didn’t look for that job. I spent a year doing it. It’s still getting changed. The irony of it is we only had one lawyer on the staff, and I’m not sure that what we did in one paragraph is not expanded to six paragraphs when the lawyers get a hold of it, but that’s the way the system operates.

We wrote that charter in about a year and it was accepted by I think fifty-seven percent of the voters, if I remember correctly. I’m really proud of the fact that I was one of the few, and probably the only, foreign born one. There were about ten or eleven of us on the charter commission.

I could tell you a sort of a joke. Today, it’s one to say, “Oh, you don’t show the proper respect.” Jay Wechsler and myself and Howard, I want to say Wilson but I could be wrong [Howard Reynolds], who was a Baptist minister. The three of us were the core people who were writing the agenda for the next meeting. But this went on for a year, and we rewrote the charter that had been turned down before. When we wrote it there were some controversial issues that came up.

Jay and the pastor were the key guys, the president and vice president. I was there as a scribe in a sense, and also to make mistakes in writing at times. The funny part was they got into a little argument about who’s going to present the discussion on this topic that’s a questionable one. The cute part was the words went something like this. Jay was of Jewish background, I’m of Armenian background, and then we have the pastor of the Baptist Church. Jay turns to him and says “Well, you’re the leader. You present it.”

The pastor had a real good sense of humor. He said “Jay, I’ve been following a Jew all my life.”

Weisenberg: That’s wonderful.

Krikorian: Of course, all I could do was laugh. Today that would be taken in a negative way, perhaps, but on the other hand we knew each other and we trusted each other. I have followed your leadership for all these years, and he turned it around in a very playful way and said “Jay, I’ve been following a Jew all my life.”

It put it in perspective of the friendship, the trust and the joy of working with each other. It was work and it was at times controversial, but we tolerated one another and we even made fun of it. This is the sort of thing that I think makes Los Alamos even to this day, pretty good. I don’t how acceptable those words would be today, but at the time it brought home the fact that could you imagine the three different backgrounds. There were eight others on that committee and it was a polyglot mixture of the head of the Democrats and the Republicans, the Post Office and the teachers teaching people. We did pretty well.

We wrote a charter that has endured even though it’s been changed. A lot more words have been used but the basic intended document still stands. But they’ve tried to rewrite it several times. All they do is spend a year or two rewriting it, and I’m not sure it’s an improvement at times. Some of the things we’re still having problems with, such as the sheriff’s problem that has manifested itself recently. But it’s that kind of atmosphere to work in.