Alexandra Levy: Okay, this is Alexandra Levy with the Atomic Heritage Foundation, and we are here on December 27 in Florida with Richard Renner. My first question is to please say your name and to spell it.
Richard Renner: Okay, my name is Richard, and Renner is spelled R-E-N-N-E-R, it is palindromic.
Levy: Can you tell us a little bit about where and when you were born?
Renner: I was born in Gettysburg after the battle. And, that was in 19 [laughs], 19, oh, this is bad, isn’t it, 1927.
Levy: So, you grew up in Pennsylvania?
Renner: Yes, I grew up in Pennsylvania and I lived there until I was drafted into the Army and went to Los Alamos.
Levy: What year were you drafted?
Renner: At the end of World War II, 1944, and I was in the Army there from ’44 until 1945.
Levy: In the Army at Los Alamos?
Renner: Excuse me, let me correct that, 1945 to 1946.
Levy: So, did you go through basic training before you were sent to Los Alamos?
Renner: No. They decided that after we had been there about eight or nine months, we should have some basic training, because we were in the Army. And, so for a couple of days, we had feeble basic training.
Levy: What was that like?
Renner: We would get together and take guns apart and put them back together, and that is about it. It did not amount to much.
Levy: When you were drafted, was the war already over?
Renner: Yes, it was already over, and it had been over for about a month or two.
Levy: How did you find out that you were going to Los Alamos?
Renner: Well, what was interesting. They gave us an Army classification test. And, I do not know these tests, but I understand that they are, in general, intelligence tests. “Can you read and can you think things through?” And, as a result, they used it to find people for Los Alamos. They thought the best procedure was to use this intelligence test. They figured intelligent people, if they measure high, would be less of a security risk than anything else.
If we had high scores on the test, then they gave us—we could be interviewed by a psychiatrist. So a psychiatrist gave each of us a separate interview, and asked us if we wanted to go to a base in the West, or if we did not want to do that, we were just at the mercy of the—he did not put it this way—we would be at the mercy of the Army’s choice. So, we had a choice to go to Los Alamos or don’t.
I had been working up until I was drafted, and I had hoped to hitchhike to New Mexico. [Laughs] The only reason I did not is that they extended my employment for another month, and so I went to the Army instead. I knew Army was going to happen, but I did not volunteer, because—for a week or two early induction.
Levy: Why did you want to hitchhike to New Mexico?
Renner: I had never been there. Everybody has heard of Santa Fe and this is an opportunity to check it out. And, that is why I would have gone there anyway, but I did not, the Army took me.
Levy: Where had you been working up until you were drafted?
Renner: What was I working at? I was working a number of things, but at the time, I had worked all summer at the canning factory—peas, beans, and tomatoes.
Levy: What was that like?
Renner: [Laughs] Well, I had many different jobs. I was sort of a warehouse foreman and I also took off hot cans when they were busy. Otherwise, canning, and that is about what I did in the cannery. I had worked there two and a half seasons, summer, just summer.
Levy: Had you graduated high school when you were drafted?
Renner: Yeah, I was at high school, and I went when I was not in high school. I had graduated from high school and then they gave me some work for another extra month or two, which I did not expect because the season had ended. At that point, I then was drafted. And, so we went to, shipped to Ft. Meade, along with—my group turned out to be twenty-five different people, males, of course, all males.
We took the train. I think it took two and a half days to get to Lamy and from Lamy we took the bus up the Hill. And, if you recall, it is kind of an interesting bus ride, and it was much more interesting then, I guess, because it was not totally paved and there was lots of outlooks that looked dangerous. I thought it was interesting because the troops that were with me were also so quiet. I figured, “What are we doing in this place? How did we get into this?” Because they had never been in the West.
Levy: Did you have any idea what Los Alamos was for?
Renner: Well, by that time, the bomb had been dropped, but we did not have any advance idea what it was for, where we were going, that it was Los Alamos, the bomb base. But, when we got there, we found out.
Levy: Did they tell you that this is what the base was for?
Renner: Yeah, well, everything was secret. Why was it secret? Because this is where the bomb was made.
Levy: Was there a big emphasis on secrecy?
Renner: Oh, yes, yeah, sure. Everybody, theoretically, was very carefully investigated and classified so that no one would know. The interesting was for us, we were recruited for—either as firefighters or policemen. There was approximately twenty-five of us in the batch of these kinds of guys, mostly young high school graduates, but not totally high school. A lot were not graduates, actually, and some were a little bit older, but they were young people in general.
We were not really told anything, but when we got there we found out that is was top secret. You would get in deep trouble. We were given passes. You could not move from one part of the base to the other, except firemen could, because if it is an emergency, you do not check their background to make sure they are good security risks, you send them in to stop the fire. That was the reason.
So, we were kind of unique as a group. I imagine the policemen were similar, and they called them MPs, of course. I think they were similar, too, in terms of their unique category in there. Everybody else, though, as far as I know, had controlled areas that they could go to and live in and work in. We did not.
Levy: Were you part of the Special Engineering Detachment, or just part of the military?
Renner: Well, we were part of the military; they called us SEDs, Special Engineering Detachment, yeah.
Levy: So, how did you end up us a firefighter? Did you choose that?
Renner: That is an interesting question. I do not know. All I know us they got a load of twenty-five people and after we got there, presumably they looked at our records and decided who was a good policeman and who was a good firefighter. It turned out that I was a firefighter. I was not given any choice, I was told, “You’re a firefighter. Here’s your bed. Here’s your pole to get down to the engines.” [Laughs] And that was it.
I started off that way at the main base in so-called downtown. They did not call it that, they called downtown Los Alamos, that was the main base. But I found out in about two weeks they transferred me and a number of my buddies to the top-secret station within Los Alamos, which later became Fire Station 2. It was also called S-Site, which I noticed does not occur in most of the current stuff when it is talking about Los Alamos.
Levy: Do you know what the S-Site was for?
Renner: I knew what it was for, at least in theory. We could visit their assembly areas where they put the bombs together, sort of a final manufacturing place. Although, I have read some material that it had other uses, too, and it may be they changed over time what they used it for. That was very close to our—across the road literally—to our fire station.
You have the pictures of our fire station, and that was quite a large fire station for that particular area, and had a lot of staffing. That was about half of our staff lined up there by the trucks, and that kept us busy sometimes, and other times not.
Levy: Why were there so many at that particular fire station? Was there an increased risk of fire at S-Site?
Renner: Was there any chance of fire at the—well, one of the chances, perhaps the only one that I know of at the time, was a—they did implosion explosions. That was, I guess a mile or two from our base, up in the woods. And, an implosion, you know, was to generate the technique to implode and then, you know, a bigger explosion. I do not pretend to understand it, and they did not pretend to explain it to us either. It is just, “You are going to have a fire out there. Go out there and stay about 1,000 feet away, and when it goes off, if the bits of metal that get scattered around start fires, put them out.”
Levy: What did the explosions look like? Were they small? Were they large?
Renner: They were relatively small, maybe, I really do not know, 200 feet off the ground and sometimes larger. I only attended only about six or seven of them, and never learned anything anytime about what was going on other than, “Stand by and put out the fires.”
Levy: Did they ever cause a significant fire?
Renner: Oh, yeah, yes, they cause quite a few little fires, and made us feel very useful to go around and put them out. The trouble was, in New Mexico that year, I was told it was the year with the driest climate in twenty years. As you know, New Mexico is pretty dry to start with, which made it particularly hazardous. So we did have quite a few fires, but these fires were forest fires, you know, ignited by explosives, that were not particularly dangerous. They were simply causing burning, and that is what we did most of the time, but not all of the time.
We did not do that all the time. We had big gaps when we did not have anything special to do, other than conduct inspections and that kind of thing, to make sure the safety things were being observed.
Now, if you are asking me if we did anything more exciting than that, if I could, I have a point I want to make that relates to other things, if I can make it. And, that is that there was one significant fire at the end of my tour of duty, after I had gone, after I had gotten out of the service. That was interesting, because the history of it is interesting. A guy, Fire Station 2, which was where I was most of my time, was a, oh, how shall I put it? It was a nice, isolated thing. We did not worry about the rules of [inaudible]. It was, “Do a good job and do not let any fires get ahead of us and keep your machine properly maintained and equipped and do an occasional inspection at F-Site when you went to see what was going on, if they had any big bombs on hand.” And, they had some that were radioactive and they were fenced off so nobody could touch them. And, they were the large ones, like the ones that were dropped. But, this is after the war, now, so it is not a big secret like it might have been a couple of months earlier.
But, anyway, there is a history of changes of personnel, and at S-Site, S site, we were kind of happy with the place, because we were on twenty-four hours a day, off the next twenty-four. Can you imagine, that gives you virtually every other day free, okay. And, so the guys did their work and then there they had the whole thing to visit around and mess around and goof up or sleep or whatever. That is what they did most of the time. They explored the base, explored the woods and so forth. So, it was not hard work, but it was important, like much military work is, to be ready in case of a big emergency, not to act like it is an emergency all the time, because that could kill you.
When we developed our forest fires later on in the season, when the woods really started to burn, not much by western forest fires, but here is a fire and here is a fire and here is one and there is one. And, you go out at night and there is one. [Laughs] You know, that was a problem, because we had to work hard doing our job there. When you have about, maybe, oh, six inches underground which is all dry tinder, pine straw, rotting pine straw, and you get it burning, how do you put it out? One of the problems was, well, you saw the old trucks we had. But, the real trucks that were most useful were Jeeps, and they are not even in my picture. [Laughs] But, the Jeeps we used, because when you are driving around putting fires out, you had to go between the trees.
Also, one of the mistakes that most of the firemen seemed to make when they were new, at least until they figured out what was going on, was, they would take a big tanker and squirt it and squirt it and squirt it and they would cover a lot of territory. By the time they covered the territory, this stuff was starting to burn all over again. Give it fifteen minutes, it will dry out, and there is a little bit of tinder and it will keep on burning.
So, what we figured out, I think, what I figured out and I think most of my buddies did, too, but not all of them, was that you have to do a lot of leg work. Carry a little tank, go over here and squirt this one to death and get ready to squirt this one to death and make sure you have got them good and soaked because they are going to be up again. And, not only that, at night, sometimes, these things would pop up when we thought we had done the job. Imagine driving a Jeep, or a bigger truck would be impossible, but driving a Jeep around to carry your water to squirt these things, and you have got fifteen of them around here in the next quarter of a mile, you know. That get interesting, even though you have five or six guys working at it. How do you manage it?
So, unless you are very thorough on each squirting, and that is tedious and not very exciting and not much fun, but it works. Unless you work like that, you cannot ever put the fires out. They will just keep burning and burning and burning. That is our big technological, if you want to [laughs] think of it in those terms. But, that is mainly what we did. Forest fires were our best fires in that gave us something to do, and it was fun and we felt useful. But, most of the time we had a bit of free time.
Levy: What were you saying about the fire that happened after you had––
Renner: Oh, yes. I did not want to talk about that, but it gets me into the organization of the fire department. I have no complaints with the fire department. The fire chief was a New York Irishman fireman, apparently had a lot of experience in New York. And, on that basis, I guess, he was recruited before we got there to service this little city, Los Alamos. He had a nice fire station, and he ran it his way, and he had a nice daughter, which got the troops excited when they arrived. So, they, this was something special [Laughs] But, obviously, that is irrelevant to fighting a fire, I think, I think. Anyway, I think I drifted from your question.
Levy: What happened, that you said there was a fire after you left.
Renner: Yes, you are forcing me into that. So, we continued happily at my little station, Fire Station #2, S-Site fire station. We did things our own way, pretty much. There were some older men that made sure we did not do anything really stupid, but there were not very many of those. Most of us were new guys. Then about, oh I had been there a little less than a year, a new guy showed up. He had been a fireman for two years in Panama, and he had done a lot of the stuff that we were doing here. But, he was a fellow that had been well trained as a fireman, unlike us, they never gave us much, except introductory instructions and a lot of practice. We had a lot of experience but we did not have any real good training. But, we did a pretty good job, because we had learned what worked and what did not work. But he had been trained to be an effective firefighter in Panama. I will not mention his name, because he is ten years older than me, but he is probably still alive [laughs] somewhere. And he was uptight. He had the answers to everything, and he looked down on the guys he worked with. They were inferior, inefficient. But they were not inefficient, but he perceived them to be that way. And, as a result, he was not very popular.
So, here we get a new guy who really knows what is going on in the firefighting business and he is with us, and we are not really cooperating like we should. It turns out that the chief probably was impressed by him, too, the chief down at the main one, the Irishman. And, as a result of that, he wound up appointing him as chief of Fire Station 2.
Now, prior to that, I think Congress passed a law that if you were in the Army, or in the service, I suppose, and you wanted to get out, you could if enough other people who were in the Army reenlisted. So, about that same time, I was out hustling my colleagues, my fellow firemen to reenlist. And, I think somewhere in your literature, they got a couple hundred dollars or something like that for reenlisting for a relatively short period of time, so that I can get out and go to college. And, so I was known as a hustler for reenlistment with those guys, but not me. I think it turned out that first of all I said, “I don’t want to be fire chief,” you know, although, I really didn’t want to be fire chief. I often organized the guys, but I didn’t want to be fire chief.
And, so when the fire chief sensed that I was eager to get out, maybe he noticed that I was a candidate, because he acted like it. Now, why did he act like? I am going to get back to, I hope, why did he act like that? When, about a week after I arrived, when I was recruited, after I arrived at the main fire station, he asked me, along with an experienced truck driver, “Would I bring one of the new red fire trucks, red, not Army style, up from Lamy, and up the Hill to his station?”
Now, this was sort of an honor, apparently, and I said, “Why pick me? An eighteen year-old kid? A draftee? One of the worst kinds?” [Laughs] I suspect that he looked at our Army records and he just picked a number, somebody who scored high. They never told me what I scored, but the guys that I worked with thought I scored high and that is why he picked me. I was sort of an organizer, but I was not a fanatic or anything.
So, when I dropped out of the picture, you know, many months later when this new guy comes on, the chief said, “Yeah, I want to solve this satellite problem and get somebody running that place more efficiently.” And, this guy from Panama, an American, but from Panama, would do the job. And, it seemed like a good idea. Okay. Now, a lot of my friends enlisted, or reenlisted, I should say. They liked the place, they were having fun, they were not doing anything much except putting fires, which is kind of fun if you are not threatened with your life. [Laughs]
Most nearly everybody re-signed up except me and one or two other guys. And, then I took leave and I went to—I hitchhiked to Mexico City for a couple of weeks, and then I came back on my way to college, which was in Pennsylvania. I was from Pennsylvania.
So, I came back, but I stopped at the station to see my buddies and see what was going on and how things were. And the news they had was, “Have you heard about the fire?” Apparently, the radium shack, by the way where [David] Greenglass worked—we visited him a couple of times—the radium shack across the road from the fire station, I was told—I really did not look at it carefully—well, it burned to the ground. [Laughs] That ought to be embarrassing, you know [laughs] to a fire department. Why did it burn to the ground? According to my buddies, it burned to the ground because the fire chief of that station, not the main station, said, “Don’t put hoses across the road. It’s in the rules.”
Yeah, that is a good place to end the discussion of this subject, because I do not know what happened since. But, that really shocked me, it shocked me.
Levy: That is pretty shocking.
Renner: Yeah. Now, I am trusting my friends, what they said, but he no longer was in charge, so I do not even know if he was there. Because I was not there very long to check the facts.
But that, anyway, that is what we did. You might ask, what did we do with our spare time? You are asking?
Levy: Yes, what did you do in your spare time? [Laughs]
Renner: Yeah, [laughs] because that meant more to me than the fires, you know. Okay, I was off, on twenty-four, off twenty-four, and I figured, well, I was interested in Santa Fe, not Los Alamos, and there was a bus several times a day up and down the Hill, about forty miles in those days. It is closer now, but forty miles in those days. In fact, I had a bike [laughs] that I acquired and rode down there one time, just because I like to ride bikes. And, it was later stolen.
But anyway, so I went down and I went to Santa Fe high school and said, “Well, I want to go to college, but I have some deficiencies in mathematics, going to take a course.” But then I could not figure out a way, how to get one day off and not miss a whole lot of classes. I mean, it did not make sense, and I thought maybe there might have been some flexibility, but I did not want to test that system, because it was kind of sacred for firemen.
So, what next could I do? I finally got a job at a 5 and 10, Taichert's 5 and 10, it was called. A Jewish guy from Las Vegas, New Mexico had a chain of three small 5 and 10s in different cities. And so I dropped in there and he hired me because Christmas was coming by that time, and it was just very timely. I did not realize how timely that was, but he needed somebody to work stock. His stock was a mess. He could not find a lot of things that were sellable, and he had a lot of things that were not sellable and could not rid of. And, so he hired me as a stockman every other day.
My job was to essentially—a girl comes down in the basement looking for this and looking for that, and I help her and get her what she wants if we have it and say you do not have it, and that is it. That is all what I did. What was nice about that is that after I had worked there a couple of weeks, I got to know about six or seven girls by name, girls and boys. There was one that retired World War I veteran who had been sent there, you know, he had been gassed and wounded, and the only thing that would heal him was New Mexico. [Laughs] And, here he was, healed. [Laughs] And, so he was one that I knew, too. They were not all girls. But they were nice girls; mostly high schoolers or part-timers, and then they had some full-time ladies that also did the work.
So, that was interesting because I had two years of Spanish in high school. I had just finished one of them, one of the years, so here is a chance to improve your Spanish, and I did. While New Mexico Spanish is pretty ancient Spanish, later when I got to college I found out it was ancient Spanish, and does not do quite the job that modern Spanish will do, but it was interesting getting to know people.
So that was one way I spent time. I also had Sundays. Sundays, for whatever reason my 5 and 10 was not operating, and so what do I do? I go down to Del Rico Dairy and helped them make ice cream. And, then what do I do with my spare time? I think if you read that little passage, you will find I would go to boxing matches and roller-skating. They had a wooden roller skating rink and so forth. And, that was routine stuff. And, I went to cultural events. I even went to church on midnight, Misa De Gallo, because I wanted to see what happened there in the cathedral, which is a nice cathedral, actually.
So, that is, was essentially what happened to half of my Army time. And, that is what meant a lot to me. Remember, this is after the war. It was not an issue of, “Let us kill more Japs.” It was all over, and we were just sort of, I do not want to say it, but we were victims [laughs] of the war since they had no use for us. But, you know, Congress never gets anything stopped on time, if it is good thing or a bad thing. They just keep on and on spending money. [Laughs] And, it was true then, but we did not perceive it that way. We perceived that the machine was raking us up, and as a matter of fact, it may have saved my life. I say this, because I have since met people who were not drafted at this time, but were held for later service and Korea took care of them, some of them died. So, that is an interesting thing to think about.
Levy: A few follow-up questions. When you worked in the 5 and 10, did you have to wear your military uniform?
Renner: Yes. Well, I assumed I had to wear a uniform. I did not have anything else to wear, but everybody did. But, in the 5 and 10, although normally I was not making appearances in public, although I did not hide from anybody. But, yeah, I was in uniform. I was in uniform the whole time until I hitchhiked to Mexico. And, somehow I got my hands on some civilian clothes, and then when I got to Mexico City I bought some extra Mexican clothes, or actually clothes to make me not look like a soldier. But I was not trying to hide or anything. My first ride I got was as a soldier in Mexico.
Now, that brings up another little point about rides. I was hitchhiking then. Usually, you could depend on the bus service up to the Hill. One night, one cold night like some we have been having in Gainesville, anyway, one cold night I was standing out at the road that goes up outside of town, and I got a lift in an army car, and you know who that was, don’t you? You don’t. That was Groves.
Levy: General Groves gave you a lift?
Renner: Yeah, General Groves and his buddy, I am embarrassed, but what is the other guy’s name?
Renner: Yes, thank you. See what I mean about my memory? Yeah. [Laughs]
Levy: Did you talk about anything with them?
Renner: No. [Laughs] They were very polite and then they just asked me what my outfit was and what I did, and, but they did not really want to know, they were just being nice. And, then they went on with their own chitchat in the back seat.
Levy: Do you remember how they looked at all? I mean, General Groves was a pretty large man, Oppenheimer was skinny.
Renner: Oh, yes, he was a substantial man, yes, yeah, yeah. They looked like they were supposed to look. We had seen pictures of them, you know.
Levy: So, you knew who they were when you got in the car with them?
Renner: Oh, yes, I knew, I knew right away. Well, I did not know right away, but I took a closer look and well, I saw, who else could they be? This funny couple. [Laughs]
Levy: So, were you kind of starstruck then?
Renner: No, I did not try to start talking. I mean, come on, they picked me up because I was a uniform guy, it was a cold night, the bus had not yet come through and they wanted to be nice to a veteran and the war was over. The war was—being over, did not really matter, I do not think it was an issue. That is all, they were just being nice.
Levy: Did you ever meet any of the other top scientists?
Renner: Well, the only guy that was not a top scientist, [David] Greenglass. He had his workshop across—directly across the road from the fire station, Fire Station #2, which is where I spent most of my time. Some of my buddies on their free days roamed around and got to know people better than I did on the hill. And one of the guys they got to know was Greenglass. One of the visits to his lab, I simply went, too, I went along with my buddies to see what was going on. I did not learn anything, because I did not understand what was going on anyway, nor did they, but they were friendly. Now, Greenglass, you know, gets credit for riding on his sister.
Levy: Ethel Rosenberg.
Levy: Were you surprised when you found that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union?
Renner: Was I surprised?
Levy: When you found out that he had been a spy for Russia?
Renner: No. I did not know the guy, really, except to talk to him a couple of times, just casually. I did not know him very well, but when I found out his sister had been executed and his brother-in-law, I guess, I was in Peru and I read it in the newspapers. That is how I found out, and I said, “Oh, my God.” Yeah. I did not know the intricacies of that, what was going on until I read about it later, which brings up a question.
I have done a lot of things later as a result of being at Los Alamos. One thing, I went back there and got a job in 19, what is, these dates, 1949, yes, in 1949. It was the year before I got out of college. I worked the summers. I worked for Wallboard Fabricators, building apartments, and what did I do? I worked with Louis Hernandez and myself. We had a big bucket of mud that the Wallboard workers needed to put their plastic on and they could finish. That is one content, pretty trivial, but there it is. Why did I go? Well, because I liked Los Alamos, I liked New Mexico and I went. I had a girlfriend, too, from Embudo while I was there. I just ran into her, she was a nice girl. I did not go back to the 5 and 10, though, because I, well, I do not think they would hire me, but [laughs] the Wallboard people paid fairly well. So, that was one I went back.
Levy: So, you said you did not get much training for the firefighting, to go back to that.
Renner: Well, they did teach us things, but, you know, how to do this and that, the routine maintenance for equipment and putting fires out.
Levy: So, what was your first experience like, the first time you got a fire call?
Renner: Oh, yeah, yeah. My first experience was a lousy one, because I was in Fire Station #1, and the dorms were upstairs. And, of course, I wanted to make a good impression. But I was always a good sleeper. So, “Bong, bong, bong,” you know, and it takes me a couple of minutes to realize this bong, bong, bong is not your kitchen. I went to the pole and I went down, but I got there too late for my truck. The truck had already gone. I learned to half sleep for a couple of months, or a couple of weeks rather, while I was there because I got transferred from there to the other station, where they did not have a pole. They only had a less formal situation.
Levy: What was the housing like there?
Renner: The housing for the fire station, it was good. For the fire stations, both of them were good. It was comfortable, plenty of adequate food. In fact, in Fire Station #2, we cooked our own food, as I can recall, most of the time. But, and I say most of the time, because there was sort of a, if I recall correctly, a little eating area at the other piece of our small station. Funny, I cannot remember that, and I only ate there a few times. Mostly, guys were cooking their own meals on their own schedule. And nobody seemed to care as long as they showed up for their fires and did their drills and so forth. It was not Army, if you know what I mean, but it was Army. We dressed Army, we ate Army, we got paid, I think it was still $21 a month, you know. [Laughs]
It was Army all the way, but the interesting thing is you have this civilian commander and you also have the, well a whole sector of the town was civilians of all kinds doing research and acting like civilians and living like civilians, not in uniform mostly. But we were in uniform, we were Army, interesting combination.
I do not really know how many we were, what proportion was Army when I was there and was not, but it seemed to be roughly half and half, but that is a poor guess. Of course, you had to have your pass every time you went out of—off the post, had a pass to get in. We had that, all-purpose passes, you know. It was taken very seriously while I was there. But, of course, shortly after I left I think they started to relax a lot of that stuff, because there was so much public knowledge. I thought it was funny that they thought that people that were so-called intelligent were better risks. [Laugh] They may be the worst kind. [Laugh] But, look at the ones that got caught. They were not intelligent enough. But, that is a disturbing concept, you know, but if you are a bureaucrat you got to make some kind of decision, so maybe is it better than the other side.
Levy: Did any other firefighters also have other jobs like you did, or were you unique in that?
Renner: If they did, I did not know that, no. I think they could have. They did not want to. Los Alamos was a place of protection. I hate to put it that way, because they were not scared. It is just, you know, we go anywhere, people not talking English, you know. About half the population of Santa Fe was—native language was Spanish at that time. It is not anymore, it has changed a lot.
But, the interesting thing about Santa Fe Spanish is that in those days, even in those days, if you went to school for seven or eight years, you spoke better English as a Hispanic, as a second language, than a lot of the kids in my hometown could speak English, simply because you only spoke English with educated people, and that was all you knew. Whereas your Spanish was for hillbilly Spanish or, well ancient Spanish maybe I should say. Sometimes it was very good Spanish, too, and it did not have the stature it did. So, I think Hispanics, when they had to have it for the school, they had English idiomatically very well. You know, if that touches your point, maybe not, yeah.
Levy: Did you want to work in Santa Fe partly to learn better Spanish?
Renner: Well, yeah, that is what I did. [Laughs] I did it while I was in the Army, but I did not—there was no money to be made in Santa Fe for an independent businessman, and I figured that out. I did, though, along those lines, I did get back, go back about two years ago, later, and got a Master’s in Latin American Studies from the University of New Mexico, and I wrote it on Eva Peron, who died the day I finished my thesis. [Laughs] I did not plan it that way. [Laughs]
Levy: Did you know any of the Pueblo Indians when you were in New Mexico?
Renner: Any Indians, Pueblo Indians? Honestly, I did not. It disappointed me, but what could I do? I am sure I talked to them in the plaza, you know, and that sort of thing, but that is not meeting them as persons.
Levy: Did you get to know any of the civilians at Los Alamos?
Renner: Oh, yes, lots of them sure. But, mostly it was the girls and the guys who worked at the 5 and 10 and the guy who ran the creamery, and some of the guys in the restaurants, and Anita up at Woolworth’s [laughs], who used to give me nice portions of sundaes. [laughs]
Levy: What did you end up doing after the war, then? What kind of a career did you go into?
Renner: Career, oh. Now, that is a different thing. I was always interested in people who were a little bit different, meaning people of different cultures. But, the only angle I had on it was the fact that I had Spanish in high school. And, so I thought I had better latch onto that, because I never had access to people who knew foreign languages in my hometown. Everybody spoke English, nobody knew foreign languages.
Another thing that got me started, and this is really off the topic, but when I was eight years old, Swiss butter company put canceled foreign stamps in their butter. If you are old enough, but you are not, you would remember that. “You mean, people in the world that do not speak English? How could that be?” So, that fascinated me, because and then I started to collect foreign stamps. That created a lot of interest in different parts of the world. And, then as a consequence of that, I did travel when I could.
But, when I went to college, I was practical. I majored in economics and Spanish, [laughs] had to major in something. The trouble is that Spanish is good if you want to understand the old culture, but it is not much good these days, and fluency did not concern them much unfortunately, so I had to make my own fluency.
But, yeah, and then my career? Well, so what do you do with a major in economics? Well, you want to get another degree, so I went to Albuquerque and picked up a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies. And, then what do you do after you got that? Well, in those days you could—it was easy to get jobs. I had a whole lot of different jobs, but they were entry level jobs, if you know what I mean. I learned a lot from them, but ultimately you are not going to go anywhere that way. So, I knew I needed another degree, and I liked teaching. I liked teaching adults, so I went to University of Texas and majored in education, which seems like it is practical. It is practical, but a lot of people who practice it are not practical. [Laughs]
Levy: How did you experiences at Los Alamos affect your career?
Renner: Well, my experience at Los Alamos, and I am sorry to stretch your point, my experience in Latin American affairs and not atomic affairs, if you will forgive that switch, that is my connection. It nurtured for the first time my chance to be in a, to give people of different ethnicity and a different language, figure out how they worked.
Levy: So Los Alamos really opened your eyes as it were to different cultures.
Renner: Opened my eyes about what?
Levy: To different cultures, Los Alamos did.
Renner: Oh, yeah. Los Alamos really did not do it. The opportunity to work in my off days––
Levy: In Santa Fe, that is what I meant. Santa Fe opened your eyes.
Renner: Essentially, that is it, yes, yeah.
Levy: That is great.
Renner: And, that is why I am a little apologetic when I get into this business, because I had a good science background in high school, but I was not interested in science of it, I was interested in the chance to get to know another culture.
Levy: Well, and that is great that Santa Fe was able to help you on that path then. That is great that Santa Fe was able to help you on that path.
Renner: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Levy: To go back a little further, you had mentioned that when you were at Los Alamos, there were a few boxing matches that you saw? You saw some boxing matches? Do you remember who was boxing?
Renner: I think Red Devil was a guy I remember. [Laughs] I saw three or four, maybe more, just because what else do you do on a cold night and there is nothing to do and you have a little money? I guess that is where I learned that boxing is acting. If you can throw a guy and he hits and it does not kill him or cripple him, you have done a good job, because you entertained the audience. Now, I am sure there is legitimate boxing, too, and wrestling, but it seems a lot of it is sort of a skillful song and dance. At least it satisfied me and the crowd, I mean, the crowd more than me perhaps, because they were supporting the bad guy. And, you know, you play a role, you are the bad guy, somebody’s got the be the bad guy, and then you turn into a good one, and blah, and blah, blah. It was a game, at least when we saw. It was not top quality, it was, but I did not know any kind of that sort of experience before anyhow. So, it entertained me.
Levy: Are there any other social or recreational events that you can recall attending, or participating?
Renner: No, just roller skating. I did quite a bit of that. I was, that was fun. But, I didn't do any fixing, just go around in a circle, and around and around and around.
Levy: Well, it is really great to know how firefighting played into Los Alamos, because that is not something we have ever had anyone talk about before. You know, that is not something people ever think about, but, of course, New Mexico does have a lot of forest fires, so it is good to know.
Renner: Yeah, I have read a number of things about Los Alamos, not only with much interest, but because my daughter gave me—she works for the New York Times, and when some books come in that nobody is interested in, [laughs] not just Los Alamos, but other things, she will ship them down to me because she knows I will read them sooner or later. [Laughs] And that is what I have done at Los Alamos. I enjoyed the one on housewives. Have I brought that up before? Maybe not. There is one that came out about a year ago or less, about housewives and their role in Los Alamos during the war. And, what pleased me about that is that it rang true about what I thought the women I had met there were thinking about. The women, their husbands, the wives and the husbands and their relationships.