Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly and I am interviewing here Dimas Chavez. My first question to him is, please tell us your name and how to spell it.
Dimas Chavez: Dimas, D-I-M-A-S Chavez, C-H-A-V-E-Z.
I was born in the central part in New Mexico, a small little ranching, farming, Mexican-American community by the name of Thoreau, which is not too far from Albuquerque. My father was one of twelve and he and his brothers and sisters, mainly his brothers, they helped my grandfather run three ranches of which they had a lot of sheep, about four thousand head of sheep. Anyway, it’s just a small, simple little community. I grew up only with the Spanish language. We all spoke just Spanish there at home. And it was just a wonderful period of time as a child until December 7th of 1941, when our entire world was basically kind of turned upside down.
What happened with the bombing of Pearl Harbor is, it drained our community of all the young men, and a lot of the farms and crops and animals suffered as a result of them having to go off to war. Our family on both sides—my mother was a Chavez before she married and, of course, my father a Chavez, so I was pure-pure Chavez. I had an uncle, two uncles on my father side; Jose and Natividad. Uncle Tivi went to Japan. Uncle Jose went to Germany, he got wounded quite bad, he was sent home with Purple Heart. And my uncle Feliciano Chavez, my mother’s older brother, went to North Africa and fought as a foot soldier with General Patton.
But during this period of time, my father and his older brother, my Tío Carlos, they were given a deferment to run the ranches and so forth. And the drought then hit and it was just a chaotic period of time. A lot of the families moved to eastern LA [Los Angeles]. The majority went to Albuquerque. Their actually had in Santa Fe had what they call a “round house,” where they overhaul locomotives and so forth, so a lot of the man sought employment there. My father got a job at Bruns Hospital in Santa Fe. They were just at that time building it, and he drifted back and forth with that job. He was also a truck driver. He drove trucks to Arizona. And there were times that we would not see him, only on weekends.
We moved to Santa Fe at a very small simple one-room apartment, no bigger than this office, in fact smaller. It was on Buena Vista. It was right off of Old Pecos Highway and I still remember that lady who ran the place, Mrs. Gomez. And it was a unique little place there, because it took in individuals who just did not have a lot of income, which was my father and others. We had a communal bath, of which we took a bath once a week.
I started kindergarten at a school nearby and still to this day I remember my kindergarten teacher’s name, Mrs. Nicholson. Keeping in mind I said that I am still only fluent in Spanish. So I started my first few days of kindergarten there, and I remember I had to go to the restroom very bad one day. And I noticed that the children would raise their hand and the teacher, Mrs. Nicholson, would acknowledge and they would stand up and say something and then I would see that they would walk out the door in the direction of where the bathroom was. Well, Irene Sanchez, a cousin of mine, who had about as much ability in English language as I did—I poked her and I said, “Irene, I need to go to the bathroom. How do you say it in English?”
She says, “I have no idea.”
Well it became pretty dangerous for me. So I raised my hand and this caught everybody by surprise—“The quiet one is going to speak”—including the teacher. Now at this point, I want to fast forward to the old Johnny Carson show, and one evening he had an all-Mexican cast or whatever. He had Ricardo Montalban, Anthony Queen, Vicky Carr, the singer; others. And I remember Johnny Carson asking Ricardo Montalban, who had come from Mexico, what it was like for him to learn English as a second language. And his response was, that it sounds at times like a pack of dogs barking. So I stood up, and I open my mouth and I just started moving my mouth and saying words that I had no understanding, idea what I was saying, and it may have sounded like a pack of dogs, I do not know. But everybody started laughing.
I quietly sat in my seat and had to relieve myself. At about that time, we had a recess and I kind of hugged the walls until everybody spotted the wet spot, and they all started taunting me and what have you. And I ran home as fast as I could, just in tears and in search for my mother. As always, she just soothed me down, quieted me down, and she says, “We’re going to work on this. We’re going to get over this.”
At about this time, Dad came home with a big surprise and he says, “Guess what? I’ve been offered a job. I don’t know what I’m doing. Don’t know where exactly where it’s at, but it’s called Los Alamos and I have to go to a place called 109 East Palace to meet with a lady there and then she will give me further instructions.” Well, Mom and I are just so excited about this. And of course up to then I have only known our houses and no electricity, we had no indoor plumbing.
In fact, a real quick sidebar, Cindy. When I was just a little boy, my Uncle Feliciano, who as I mentioned earlier went to World War II, he took me one day, I was just a little kid, to Mountainair, which is about 15 miles or so from Thoreau, to treat me to my first restaurant. And I was so excited and when we got there, I told my uncle I had to go to the bathroom. So he took me by the hand and he led me back to the bathroom. I had never been in a bathroom, cause like I said all we had was outdoor toilets, and he showed me the mechanism of flushing, which just absolutely amazed me. I could not get over it. So after a while, my uncle got a little worried and says, “Where’s Dimas?” So he comes in there and he found me squatted on the floor just flushing and re-flushing because I could not get over where all the stuff was going and so forth.
But anyway, back again with the moving or being in Santa Fe, dad mentioned that it looks like we were going to be moving up there. He did not know exactly what he was going to be doing, and there was some secrecy involved. Well, I had no idea what he was talking about, and I was just excited over the fact that we were going to leave that one-room house. Now keep in mind we had a bed in this house and in that bed my mother, my father, my sister, and I slept on that bed, the four of us.
Now I am oldest of five. The second-born was my sister Dolores who passed away in 1966 and she was born with Down syndrome. The third born, Trinidad, he only lived for about sixteen months. He developed some problems with dysentery fever and so forth. He passed away; we didn’t have very good medical services out there in the ranch. And then Leonora, my sister, was born in 1943 in Albuquerque in July of 1947, 31st to be specific. She was just a little girl or a baby while we were living at this one-room place in Buena Vista.
So when Dad got the green light he says, “Okay, we’re leaving,” and we packed up this ‘39 Chevy Coupe; Mom and Pop and Dolores and I and my sister Leonora in my mother’s arms, and we began this trip which I will never forget. It was an old dirt road. It was somewhat passable up until the time you get up for Pojoaque but then from there, there was an old dirt road that wove through El Rancho, San Ildefonso Pueblo, and it was just an old dusty dirt road. Then we approached the old Otowi wooden bridge and he crossed there, and then it got treacherous as the road started snaking up the side of the mountains and sheer drops on both sides. No guardrails of any sort; huge, heavy, earth-moving equipment all around us; just a lot of activity constantly.
And the first stop was the military police post, and there Dad had to present reams and reams of documentation. Well, I held on tightly to my sister Dolores, Mom with Leonora, and Dad began to interact. And I was actually amazed at the command of the English language that Dad had picked up. It was not the best, but nevertheless it was passable, and Mom as well.
And so a lot of questions were asked, and then they began just tearing up the car apart. They began removing the seats, looking in the trunk, under the hood, and I would ask Mom in Spanish what were they doing. She says, “They’re looking for something.”
And I says, “Why don’t they tell you what they’re looking for; we can tell them where exactly,” or something like that. Anyway, the inspection was finally completed and I know that the same thing happening with the vehicles that were departing the hill of Los Alamos.
The other shocking thing right after then, was that Dad was given the green light. He says, “Okay, Mr. Chavez, you have X minutes from this point to another checkpoint where you will be stopped, and if you don’t make it there on that prescribed period of time, the MPs will come after you.” Well, this just scared me to death. I had no idea what in the world we moving into. So, sure enough, we came to this checkpoint, and they checked Papa off, and then he goes to the next one, and then we eventually arrived at a log cabin that had been assigned to us, an original log cabin from the old boys’ ranch.
It was, as I understand, belonged to the caretaker there. It was just a simple two-room log cabin, very small. But we have running water, hot-cold water, and a flushing toilet. I will never forget that. Two entries, one that was on the front side and one on the back side by the kitchen, and we were just right on the shadows of the old wooden water tower that was there for the boys’ ranch.
Everybody was tuned in to a radio station at that time. Robert Portland, who was there with the Army and he had a radio station called letters KRS. And everyone who—was just tuned in constantly just to see how the war was going, interesting features of what may be happening in Los Alamos, etcetera. But the most important thing was whenever we had shortage of water, Mr. Portland would announce it. So that gave us a heads up, particularly Mom, and we come in with buckets and pails and what have you and fill it up with as much water as we possibly could because that water was going to be shut off or there would be no water.
And from there Zia Company, which is sort of the unspoken hero in my estimate of Los Alamos— they provided a lot in the development of the atomic bomb, a tremendous amount of effort; my father specifically but many others. But what they would do is they would drive down to the Rio Grande and they would fill up these trucks, they had these huge water containers; and they went through some purification process, and they would drive it back up and pumped it into the water tower, the wooden water tower.
Now, what was really neat is, not far from us was Bathtub Row, where all the biggies, Oppenheimers, etcetera, lived and they only lived fifty to seventy-five yards where our house was. But Dad had a friend that worked with him at Zia Company by the name of Joe Tapia, and his daughter Mary eventually went to school with me. Joe would come by Mom’s house first before he started pumping water into the tank, and he would give mom as much water as possible before they actually dispersed the rest of it of where it was actually needed.
Well, we moved to Los Alamos in August of 1943, and my command of English language was zero. The much awaited schooling year was about to begin and they were constructing Central School, the only school in Los Alamos. It went from the first through twelfth grade, and that had an enrollment in 1943 of 112 students, and I began the first grade there. My first grade teacher was Ms. Ruth Quinlan and she had a son by the name of Eddie Wortman who was here with the service, and he also later went—not also but later became an employee of the laboratory as a purchasing agent.
My father walked me to school and he informed her. He said, “My son does not have too much knowledge of the English language but I wanted you to know but he is willing to learn.” So I got introduced into the famous Weekly Reader with Dick, Jane, Spot, and the bouncing red ball; and I found myself in trouble because as the rest of the class was reading and proceeding I would translate as much as I could into Spanish and then back in English and I found myself falling way behind. Plus the fact when you are in school with the super students of eminent scientists and so forth who set the bar, I was intimidated, tremendously intimidated.
And I would come in—Mother, I could tell her anything and we just had a beautiful relationship. She realized how this was affecting me. Well, my mother was a marvelous cook. A lot of the scientists’ wives were basically bored to death, those who weren’t part of the project, and they would just walk around. But they would walk by our house and they would smell these lovely odors coming out of her kitchen. And unknown to me at that time, they knocked on her door one day and wanted to know, “Why, what is this lovely smell?” and so forth and so on, and mother in her way explained.
She [one of the scientists’ wives] said, “We’d sure like to know how to cook some of that stuff.”
And my mother says, “Well, let’s make a deal.” My mother has a sixth grade education. My father had an eighth grade education. She cut a deal with some of these ladies starting with Stanislaus’ [Ulam] wife; Mrs. Bradbury—Lois Bradbury; that I remember. And the deal was, Mother would share with them how to prepare a variety of Mexican dishes in exchange for tutoring me after school. So I would come home after school, Mom said, “You’d be sure come home right away,” and then they would kind of walk me through. And Mrs. Quinlan, she would work extremely hard to get me to present myself, gain assurance, confidence, and so forth. This went on for a few years and the more we did it, the more comfortable I become.
Now right next to the log cabin where we lived, there was a lovely aroma that would meet us in the morning, at the very early morning. George Hillhouse whose wife, Dorothy Hillhouse who was a school teacher, in fact became my second grade teacher, was our baker. He opened the first bakery in Los Alamos, and it was located in an old wooden building there that I think some individuals indicated that it served as a car port or various other things, but he somehow managed to change things around to make it a presentable place where he could do some baking. People would just come in there, pick up their bread, “We’ll have it in the morning.”
But the goldmine for us kids was at the corner of this building. There was a German, by name Mr. Moore, who ran Moore Stationary. And there was a surprise item for a penny that you could buy that was called Fleer’s Bubble Gum. And we would all lined up for school with our few pennies in our hand in hopes that they would not run out, and we would get our little supply of bubble gum, exchange the little cartoons that came with them, and so forth.
Growing up in Los Alamos was really unique. It was special. We did not have fancy playgrounds or anything of that nature, and we had a lot of imagination.
The first real friend who to this day remains a very dear friend is George Brooks. George’s father worked for Zia as well, and George and I started hit it off pretty good. And I think what attracted me to him so much and vice versa is that George had an older sister Virginia, who graduated in one of the first classes out of high school there. But his other sister Glenda was born with cerebral palsy and she walked with a brace in her leg and her arm was not at one hundred percent use, and when she spoke she slurred words; but just a beautiful woman, and his mother was Mexican. So, George’s mother and my mother used to converse and chitty-chat quite a bit. And I think that that was really what drew George and I together as it did back then.
Glenda continued schooling with us and as I mentioned, I started the first grade in Los Alamos and the first grade was—at first through third—through fourth, I’m sorry, was at Central School. Fifth grade was at Mesa School. And by now, there is a huge housing boom going on in Los Alamos. It is growing by leaps and bounds, lots of boarders coming in from the lab for Zia. If you had a security badge, it was a controlled number that started with Z as in “Zebra,” and my father’s Z-badge number was 844, very long number. And I remember that because when I went to work at the lab, which I will discuss little later on, my Z number was Z14127. So Pop had one of the first ones that was issued there.
In 1947, we had a new addition to the family, my brother Anthony. And he was born at the old Army Hospital and it was still medical—excuse me, military personnel. Well I just get a laugh that Mother’s OB-GYN was a captain by name of Dr. Love, which was—we thought that was kind of neat. But up to then, there is a famous lodge. There is the big house. There is all of these buildings that people write about and talk about and The Lodge was a fabulous place to go to. They serve great meals. One of the chefs who became a good friend of Mother and Father’s was Gilbert Solis. He had a place down in at El Rancho, and we would ever so often go over there and he would sneak us little something to eat on the side and so forth.
The Lodge had a little dorm attached to it where the waitresses actually lived there. And then The Lodge itself had so many rooms where some of the scientists were living until housing was available and housing was really, really tight. It was just phenomenal the way people were able to exist back then. The hospital was located right next to Ashley Pond and I remember shortly after we moved there, there was the Bowen family and if I am not mistaken, the family, the son, was probably one of the first accidental deaths in Los Alamos. He was on a canoe out in the pond with some others and he fell over. Got tangled up with some weeds or something underneath and he drowned. And I remember being on the side and others when they brought him out of there. One of his sisters was a year or two ahead of me. Another, Marilyn was—Arlene, I am sorry, Arlene Bowen was one year behind me.
The hospital was kind of unique. It had an old military ambulance with the big red cross painted on the side, and later in time, I do not know where the money came from, but they came up with two brand new green Packard’s ambulances. These are big old cars and they were really fancy back then. But medical services were great. You did not pay for it. Basically, most of it was free. One of the physicians who remained there for years afterwards was Dr. William Oakes. He was there forever. And as we continued to develop and grow, in school, and in so forth, my parents became, for a lack of a better word, the charter members members of the first parish, Catholic Parish in Los Alamos, Immaculate Heart of Mary. And that was quite a deal, being the fact that we had no church of our own and we improvised among other religious organizations.
There were two famous buildings in Los Alamos, Theater Number One and Theater Number Two. Number Two is located down a little further towards DP [Road] and Number One was closer to where the community center is now, up around where the Post Office is, not far from The Lodge. We had some fabulous entertainment in the war years. It was phenomenal. There were these touring groups like in basketball, we had the original Harlem Globetrotters. I saw Goose Tatum, the Goose Tatum played basketball against the men’s team in Los Alamos. We had the [All American] Red Heads, a woman’s team that had all their hair dyed red and they travelled the whole of the United States and the world, and they came there.
We got involved also in the wrestling arena ring. There was this gentleman by name of Gorgeous George. He dyed his hair blonde, he had this harem that would come out with him. There was another wrestler we will always remember by—he wore—he was called The Gray Mask and he would head-butt all these people. And he must have had this iron plate in his head, because a lot of the people that he would hit actually bleed. And then between rounds they had us little kids and they would put gloves on us, they put us in the ring, about eight or ten of us, blindfold us, and then we’d just start throwing our fist all over. And I could hear my father at the ring side, “A little to the left, Dimas! No, right there, now! Let it go. Let the left go. Let the right go,” or something. Sometimes it connected, sometimes it did not. My dad was a huge fight fan and at that time the famous Joe Louis was the World Heavyweight Champion.
Right on the front side of The Lodge was a beautiful green lawn and when Joe Louis fought, Billy Conn, and others, they would set up the speakers and it was full of the Zia Laboratory personnel, lots of military, and they’d have lots of beer and pop for the kids. We’d take our blankets there and listen for the fights at the front of the big house.
We had a youth center, a very nice one next to the big house. It was very specifically for us, but it was mostly the upperclassman. A very unique thing that we experienced is that because K through 12 were all under one roof, you got to know the upperclassman and ladies very, very well. So it was nothing unheard off to know the juniors and the seniors as well as the third graders and the fourth graders because we all crossed each other and so forth. That came in handy because a lot of them kind of took you under their wing and protected you. I remember one gentleman, Bob Martin. He was an upperclassman and his sister, Dolores Rightley, she lives in Jemez right now and we communicate to this day. But Bob sort of took me and adopted me as his little kid so no one laid a hand on me because they knew that they would have Bob to deal with.
Something that a lot of people do not talk about regarding Los Alamos, in the early years and being Hispanic is that, we had our fair share of Archie Bunkers up there. There was elements of blatant discrimination. I can recall going to birthday parties, not that many but a few, where my cake and ice cream was served to me outside. Later in years, there were families whose daughters were not allowed to date Mexican-Americans. But thankfully there was not that much, but it was there.
But I think the one that really bothered me the most was, no one owned a home back then; of course as you know, it was all Zia ran everything. Housing was awarded on the point system and the point system was based on salary. So the higher your salary, the greater your points; the better the home, the higher the points. So there were families who—many with just the wife and husband or maybe one child and they would get this nice plush homes, and then there was Pop. We qualified for a Denver Steel, which we moved there, I think when I was in about the seventh grade and it was just a two-bedroom home. They are still standing. And I am the proud owner of 3886 Ridgeway Drive, Denver Steel, that my mother and father had and which dad bought for $1800 back when the home sold to the private sector. But in this home, it had two bedrooms. One bedroom was taken by my sisters, Dolores and Leonora; and the other bedroom was my brother and I, Anthony and myself. My mother and father’s bedroom was the living room and as you walked in the Denver Steel on the right-hand side, there was a closet and in there they kept a rollaway bed. So at night they would clear the tablets and so forth, undo the roll-away bed, and that became Mom and Pop’s bedroom and they did this for years.
By now there are some additional schools that have opened up. Mesa School, where I went in the fifth grade, Canyon School, and they all still stand. Mesa is now part of the University of New Mexico or something, rather. Canyon School has been converted into maybe a laboratory complex or some sort, but I went from sixth grade there and I started the seventh at the new high school. Football and basketball, it was all—they did them all. The football field was actually where the airstrip is right now in Los Alamos as you come up on the right-hand side. Robert E. McKee, who was the primary project director that time, built that. There was a huge incinerator located right next to the football field where all the garbage was burned and collected and burnt right there. The first coach was Mr. McWilliams and after he left, then Robert Cox came by and took over after that.
Now when World War II broke out as I mentioned and things were going, there was a relocation camp in Santa Fe that I remember my father showing to us, where—back then President Roosevelt issued some executive order to round up all of the Japanese-Americans because—in fear that they might be working with Japan, who declared war in the United States. And I remember passing by these places and you could see them behind the barbed wire. And that was probably one of the sore spots in American history that we committed, civil rights, whatever, and that finally got clarified.
I talked about the military. They were there for quite some time. An interesting thing right on Trinity Drive, there was this huge building they called The Hanger because it is a humungous building and the military did all of their maintenance on their vehicles there. On the side were vehicles that were for use if they could check out and so forth, but it became a unique playground for us because they did away with a key system because they were concerning losing them, or what have you, so they just had a toggle switch. On Sundays there was very low, little security. The MPs used to just basically do a 24/7 there. So we would sneak in and we would jump in Jeeps and sedans and we—that is the way we taught each other how to drive. A couple of fender-benders here and there but it was just—it was a lot of fun.
There were three major elements that we all use to aspire to. Age twelve to join the Boy Scouts; we had two scouting troops, 20 and 22. Age of fourteen, believe it or not, that is all you had to be in New Mexico at that time to get a driver’s license, and that was basically due to the farming communities and so forth so that the young boys could assist with the machinery, driving trucks, and so forth. And eighteen, which would probably unheard of nowadays and it is, it was signed up for this selected board for the draft. There was a beautiful lady, Lucille Siglock, who was the selective service officer for Los Alamos and her son, Walter Siglock, a dear friend of mine, and we still communicate with each other and he married one of my childhood playmates, Beverly Seay. She was the lady that we all went to see at eighteen, and it was a monumental thing back then. It was an element of pride. No one was burning draft cards or anything of that nature. We all wanted to do our fair share and we were anxious to do it. We were honored to do it, and we also altered more draft selective cards that you have ever seen trying to make our age look as though we were twenty-one so we could buy a beer, something in that nature.
Now, speaking of that, when we became fourteen I started inquiring about where would be best to take the driver’s test. Everybody said, “Don’t take it at Los Alamos or Santa Fe. It’s a tough test.” Someone said, “Go to Española.”
So I talked Mom and Dad to see if I could possibly take my driver’s test in Española. So Mom and Pop said, “No problem.” So here is Mom, and I am proudly driving her and I down to Española. We arrived at the police station, and everybody knew Mom and Pop. A lot of the men that worked in Zia Company knew Dad, a lot of them worked for Dad; Dad was a foreman. He was a heavy-duty operator in labor.
So we walked into the police station. I will never forget this, I was nervous. I did not know what they were going to ask and I was not the brightest star in the universe. Still the English language was a thing that really, really haunted me. Being able to understand, being able to write, not being laughed at with my thick accent, and things of that nature. So I remember the question after Mom and I got in there, everybody want to know, how is Dad, how is this, how is that; and then one of the gentleman says, “Well, what can I do for you, Ms. Chavez?”
“Well, I brought my son down here. He is ready to take his exam to get his driver’s license.” Oh, so this is all in Spanish, because that’s we all felt comfortable with.
So he looks at me and he says, “Do you know how to drive?”
And I said, “Yes, sir.”
That was it. That was my driver’s test at the age of fourteen.
Now we made a huge discovery, again, thanks to our upperclassman and so forth. There was a place in Chimayo just outside of Española on the way up to Santa Cruz Lake, on the left-hand side in fact, that was dubbed or named “Mother Hubbard’s.” And what this was, was it—we would all gather our money and you would drive down the street in Chimayo and take a left to a certain house, and you would go through the gate and you would come upon a window and you would stop the car. A little sliding door window would open up, and this little old lady would say, “Can I help you?”
And we would say, “Yeah, we would like a six pack of these or that or whatever.”
She would produce it, then she would say, “That will be such and such.” We pay for her, no ID request or nothing, and we drive off and come back.
Now between Española and Los Alamos, it wasn’t a treacherous road, but it was called “the dips,” and there was just dips all up and down right next to the Black Mesa. And we thought it was a lot of fun to gun the car going down, de-accelerate as it went up, and we would come airborne, and we were doing Evel Knievel things before he was even on the planet. It was not very good on the struts or mufflers or what have you, but that was a lot of fun.
Next to that, by the Rio Grande and the Black Mesa, was a place called the Gravel Pits, where they had a batch plant for all the cement that was needed up in Los Alamos. And the procedure for this was basically, dig these deep holes to get all the aggregate to mix for the concrete or what have you that was needed. And that pit would fill up with water from the Rio, but it was clear water and also water that they used to clean off the aggregate. There was some pretty deep holes there and we’d go there skinny-dipping at night so forth, and it was another way to pass the time.
Or another fun thing to do was, we’d drive up to Española. We’d get off at the bridge with some inner tubes that were filled up. We’d take inside—we would set aside the inner tube and ride the Rio Grande all the way down to Otowi Bridge, and those who wanted the inner tube would go on down there, and they would set up a little camp fire and we—by the time we got there, we would have cold drinks and hot dogs or what have you. Just another way of passing the time.
I became an altar boy through the procedures of going through all of these various places that I mentioned for mass because we would improvise. It was either mass at Theater Number One or Theater Number Two or various other places. In addition to this, we had a tremendous amount of mess halls, military mess halls. There was East Cafeteria, West Cafeteria, South Cafeteria, Central Cafeteria. At each—and this is something that Dr. Oppenheimer wanted badly to do—they built and developed sort of a supper club element, if you will. It was called the Civic Club. They had nice white tablecloths, and you had to have reservations to go there, and they served a little better quality meal than the regular metal trays that you would get, go through for twenty-five cents apiece or whatever it was; and that went well.
Being an altar boy was quite a deal because when we had mass at Theater Number Two, our priest, when we were saying catechism—I made my first holy communion in June of 1945, and the nuns and the priests would could up from Santa Fe and they would instruct us on the procedures. The priest, when we had mass at Theater Number Two, usually on a Saturday night—there were big bands that came through. I mean, we are talking Glenn Miller. We are talking the biggies back then. And I remember in Theater Number Two, there was this huge globe that rotated on top with the mirrors and lights would reflect on it. You had Arno Roensch on one of your interviews and he was quite a trumpet player and he had a band. It was either the Blue Notes, something like that, and he had a beautiful-sounding band. He was also a glassblower at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and a very good one, and he did precision glassblowing and so forth. But there were a variety of other bands in the area. Bob Porton played the drums; Dick [Richard Kenneth] Money was another—he was a chemist, he played the drums. But we would arrive early on Sunday because we had to clean up and get ready for mass, and clean up all the old beer bottles and so forth. And occasionally someone who wasn’t able to make it home that night, so we gotta help him along somewhere. But there were really, really neat things.
And then finally we got our own church and it is on Canyon Road, and it is still there. And if you were looking from top down, it made a cross; and on the left-hand side, belonged to the Catholic Church, so we would have our daily masses there. And we all shared the center part, which was a larger area for Sunday masses or whatever other religious organizations were having there. And then we finally got our own church on Canyon Road and then of course now with the present one is the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish right next to the high school.
There was a gentleman who I will always remember and he is still around. He is an icon in Los Alamos by the name of “Bun” [Bernard] Ryan. Bun was a famous softball pitcher for Pierotti’s Clowns. And Bun and his wife, Jean, and their children lived not far from us. They are at the Denver Steels but they had a different of housing. And on Sundays, Bun would go to the early mass while Jean stayed at home with the children, and then Bun would hurry home and then Jean would go to the ten o’clock mass at which I was usually the altar boy for that mass.
And I remember this one particular Sunday. It was towards the end of the mass, and Jean always left just a little before eleven o’clock because she had her shift at the hospital. And I remember this priest, whose name I will not mention, he heard some noise and he just stopped and turned around and he looks at her and says, “Excuse me, but where are you going? Mass isn’t over.”
And I looked around and it was poor Jean, and she was so embarrassed. She came back and sat down and I was just so mad. And I remember right after mass, I came up to this particular priest and I took off my cassock and I told him with a trembling, shaking voice, I said, “You were wrong in what you did,” and I explained why. And I said, “As long as you are here, I’m no longer an altar boy.” So I figured I threw away my chances of becoming in effect the first Mexican pope but nevertheless, that ended that. I was concerned about Mom and Dad, how their reaction would be. I explained it to them. They supported me a hundred percent, all the way.
There were a couple of clubs. There was the VFW. There was the American Legion. The American Legion was special because at that time, they had the first home delivery [Mexican] food system, and that was Jesse and Alice Flores and they ran El Tepeyac, and he had a little green Jeep. And my dear friend Larry Nagy and I worked there and we would help Ross Garcia, a distant relative, with the preparation of the home deliveries. And we would load them up on this Jeep and had special ovens and we’d get their address and we go to their homes, a lot of eminent scientists’ homes and so forth, and we delivered the goodies there.
I remember going in homes of numerous scientists, and I guess probably one of my most memorable ones was growing up with the Bradbury boys, Dr. Bradbury’s family; Jim, John, and David. Jim was one or two years ahead of me, maybe two; John was in my same class; and David was a couple of years behind me. But I remember well on, I think it was like July the 15th of 1945, and John approached me at school and he said, “Dimas, I got a special secret I want to tell you but I would like to invite you.”
I say, “What’s this about?”
He says, “Well, tomorrow morning, we are going up to Sawyers Hill, but you can’t tell your parents and we need to be up there between 4 and 4:30 in the morning.
I said, “What are you doing? What’s going on?”
“Well, we’ll go with my mom and some others. I can’t tell you any more than that.”
So I went home and I got to thinking now, really how do you explain to your mother and father, eight-year-old kid or whatever, asking permission to leave the house at four o’clock in the morning to go up in the mountains and you can’t tell them why. And I figured not. It was so ridiculous and I just didn’t want to consider the volcanic reaction that Dad would have, so I let it go. But what it was is that those who went up there, they were instructed or informed as to look south which is to your right as you were high in the Pajarito Mountains there, and just keep looking down there.
So at about five hours and twenty-nine minutes in the morning, there was this huge ball of fire that appeared. All of it could be seen up towards the mountains are in Los Alamos and it was the detonation of Trinity, the “Gadget.” And John, I saw him later, a day or so, and they were saying, “Oh Dimas, you should have seen it, it was awesome.” And I told Dad about it. He just—nah.
Now, a lot of talk about Oppenheimer, a lot of talk about Groves, and you talked about the odd couple. My goodness. Dr. Oppenheimer was just a majestic person to me. I just adored him and I got to know him. General Groves, we would see him, and while Oppie was a tall, lean, those majestic blue eyes, Groves was just the opposite. He looked like a fire hydrant.
And at Tech Area One right off on Trinity Road, which was the primary area at that time, Dr. Oppenheimer worked there, and I would station myself directly outside the guard house and he would come by and I would sell him papers, Santa Fe New Mexican, and this happened periodically. And soon he got to know me and he’d looked at me and say, “Hello, Dimas. I’m Dr. Oppenheimer,” and so forth.
Well, I told Dad about this and he said, “Nah, nah, nah. I think it’s—you don’t know Dr. Oppenheimer. There’s just no way!” You know what I mean? This is a famous man, you know. So one day Mom asked Dad to go to the trading post and pick up some items, which was right next to the PX, the Post Exchange, there. And I am in line right behind Dad, he is getting ready to pay for some things. And I hear a group of people behind me talking, and I heard that voice and I turned around and there is Dr. Oppenheimer and he is chitty-chatting with some people. And he looked at me and he recognized me, and he said, “Hello, Dimas.”
And my Dad heard this and then the next thing is, “Dr. Oppenheimer, I would like you to meet my father, Trinidad Chavez.” It was the greatest moment of my life. Walked home, and Dad could not believe it. He just could not believe it.
Life continued and as I indicated a little earlier, Cindy, I really wished that more attention or more recognition could have been given to the Zia Company while they were there. Certainly, we have eminent world-renowned scientists from all over, and they are the ones who did all the scientific tinkering and so forth, but it could not have been done without the blood, sweat, and tears of all of the personnel, men and women, who supported the lab. Zia Company was the landlord. They were the plumbers. They were the electricians. They took care of the hospitals. They took care of the library. They built things for our public use. The first swimming pool on Los Alamos was erected not far from P-Prime [Building]. They were just a group of individuals who are outstanding, and they were always on the frontline. My dad, I remember vividly, in the ‘40s I remember that the gas line, natural gas, it came in from up high around from not the Bandelier but the Jemez, it froze. Back then building was a problem because there were no blueprints. If the water lines that Dad worked on would break, I mean, it was hunt-and-peck because you could not say, “Okay, it’s located right here,” or they didn’t have the instrumentation for this and that. Everything was built on a whim, and it was never envisioned that it would be a permanent area.
And I recall Dad was vividly involved that period of time and many others from Zia. He worked a seven-day a week for I do not know how long, and he just gave a lot. Now something that I would like to share with you, sent here, if I may, is upon—my father was awarded this, and not too many people that I know of, I know a lot of them did, but this is one of the few rare ones that I ever saw, and my pop’s name on the bottom. And along with that, the book that you recently finished or read on the Manhattan Project, there is the little medal for those who participated in the development of the atomic bomb. Dad gave this to me, I cannot remember how long ago, and this super mementos. Super mementos.
But anyway, he and numerous other Zia employees just gave a lot, a lot. There was a group of individuals that I remember called the iron workers and there were two particular individuals that I want to share with you. Louie [Louis G.] Rojas, who was not only an iron worker but he was the sheriff of Los Alamos County forever. I mean, he would run for his four-year term, and he had a deal with somebody and they would then run, with the agreement that they as soon they finished that term they would also—Louie can get back in.
There was another individual who worked there, Manuel, oh my goodness, my mind has slipped me. Excuse me. Speaker Ben Lujan, excuse me, Ben Lujan from Nambé. Ben was one of the original iron workers and he got into politics, became Speaker of the House [in New Mexico], highly recognized politically, and unfortunately, Ben just passed away a few months ago, but a superhuman being, a great person.
Schooling, as I have said, in—high school began in seventh grade went through twelfth grade. A lot of interesting things went on back then for kids. If you wanted to discipline your child you would take away their red badge of which you had to show on the exiting or entering Los Alamos, and we used to get around by that—on that—by stuffing people in the trunk. We used to frequent the drive-in theater down in Española, the Star Lighter, and there was one down by Tesuque.
One of the greatest compliments I think that I was ever given in high school was, we had the famous Sadie Hawkins Dance and this is where the girls would ask the boys to this special dance. So it was on a Wednesday, and most of my friends have then already asked and I have not, and then the unthinkable took place. A senior lady, a beautiful lady by the name of Mary Lyons asked me to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. So here it is. A senior asking a freshman. It was unheard of. And I was just absolutely thrilled and words spread and wow, was that something. Mary came by and picked me up in the family Oldsmobile ’98, and we went to the dance.
I had a great time, got married like everybody else. It was just a wonderful time. And there was never any real delinquency issues, drug issues, and anything of that nature. We all really had a tremendous amount of respect and I think that came from our parents, because of the conditions of Los Alamos, the regimentation—“Thou shall not.” My father never spoke—not that he was involved in any real scientific intricacies of the atomic bomb—but he never spoke about what he did or where he did or why he did. And certainly students of eminent scientists, we never talked about it. We talked about other things; “Let’s go fishing,” or “Let’s do this, let’s do that.” So it was just a—grandiose times like—I mean it is something that you will carry here and here for the rest of your life.
In 1955, June 2nd to be specific, one of the commencement speakers that we had, and he came not as a scientist but as our county representative, was Harold Agnew and he spoke eloquently. And Harold, I just loved that man. Later in time, after I graduated, I did not have the funds to go to school, my parents did not. So I laid out a year, got myself a job, and I landed working at the lab as a truck driver—yeah, truck driver helper. I used to deliver a variety of things all over the lab, and one place I used to go to was down in the Canyon where the ice skating rink is located at the other end. And Harold had a group down there where he was a group leader, and I got to know him a little better then.
I then finally found the funds to go to school, and thank goodness for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, they had this summer student program because without that I could not have achieved a college education with the money that I was able to save from that. Went to the service later in time, much later in time. Harold became the director after Norris Bradbury departed, and he had an opening for the Employee Relations Manager, a brand new position that he had come up with, and I interviewed and he selected me to come and work at the lab as the Employee Relations Manager.
The uniqueness of Harold that I remember vividly was his personality; his way of interacting with everybody. Marge Dube, who was his sectary, whenever Harold needed me I had to be there quickly and Marge would only say a couple of words, “Dimas, he wants you now!” And click! And I would take off, run up on his office on the fourth floor SMK-43.
And I remember when I came up there one day, and Marge had just called me, and she says, “He’s busy right now.” Now this is typical Agnew. And so I sat and fifteen, twenty minutes go by and I could hear a little laugher in the office. And the door opens and I see Mon, the janitor of the fourth floor, comes out holding his broom. And Harold had just ran into him at the men’s room and he asked him to come it and they’ve just—I mean, that was Harold, who just started chitty-chatting about this, about that. His wife Beverly was a lovely lady, they used to host all the staff member get-togethers and so forth. He would greet all the newcomers there. Harold used to share with us, he said the only reason he ever got a job at Los Alamos was because Oppenheimer had the hots for his wife, Beverly. And Harold was a handsome man and he still is. I still stay in touch with him. We interact periodically on email or by telephone.
There were other scientific families that I got to know throughout the years, some that I have stayed in contact, others that I have not. Some sad ones, sad stories like John Woodward, who was in my class, just a brilliant, brilliant, student. Got a full scholarship at Harvard and I remember right after he finished his freshman year he came home for the holidays. And he and his father had this interaction or this argument, for a lack of better word, that one could honestly overcome carbon monoxide. And John was hell bent on proving that. And one day he took the family car off the Barranca Mesa before they built the homes up there, and he took an extension hose from his mother’s vacuum cleaner, hooked up the exhaust, curled it around the back window, rolled it up, and then stuffed the opening with a cloth and began writing, “I now do this,” and that was it, he died.
In ‘46 something like that, speaking of Barranca Mesa, they used to test bazookas, ordnance, and duds they would just leave lying there. There was the Wither [PH] boys that—they found an old undetonated bazooka shell. They brought it home. And they would keep it in the room there, and I remember we’d toss that around, we’d bang on it. And then we developed a little game where you would lean out—they lived in one of the Sundt’s [houses]—would lean on the upper railing and at the bottom we would open the garbage can and drop it. And if you could go inside, you got a point; and the person that got to ten would win. Well unfortunately what happened, sometime shortly thereafter there was a group of kids, they were mimicking what we were doing. Leroy Chávez, no relation; and Don Marchi, he was only five years old at the time, and they dropped it and it detonated. Leroy had his legs severely broken, he had to have several operations. And thank goodness for Don, he just had some cuts and scratches and so forth. But those were kind of the hardships that we faced from time to time and crazy things that took place.
But all in all, as I said, I think of Los Alamos constantly. I get back there two or three times a year. My wife and I are just now presently thinking of making a trip back there in April . I still have some friends there that I communicate with and stay in touch with. I have memories of the rain, the rolling thunder, that lovely odor that would permeate the area with the pine; just everything, just something that would put you in a total different world. I feel fortunate to have been brought up in Los Alamos.
And I applaud you, Cindy and this organization, all the people that you have been able to bring here to preserve the history of Los Alamos. And I am honored to cover for you to present a different slant, that of the young kid. It is a story, we all have a story to tell. It is one that I have really enjoyed sharing. And of course, I truly, truly enjoyed listening to all the ones that you have had—Jay Wechsler, another dear friend of mine—listening to them talk about the old days. It is really, really good.
I applaud the National Science Foundation. I worked for them at one time. P. W. Keaton, a top physicist at Los Alamos who was selected by President Reagan as his scientific advisor. And at that time the National Science Foundation had an opening, and P. W. whispered in the President Reagan’s ear, “Ed [Edward Alan] Knapp is the guy for you to head up NSF.” And Ed was selected and he worked out a deal with Don [Donald MacLean] Kerr, who was the director [of the Los Alamos National Laboratory] at that time, who I was working with as the Employee Relations Manager after Harold left. And I got a change of duty station from Los Alamos to come to NSF to work for Ed Knapp. And while I was there, I got an offer from the Department of State to work at Diplomatic Security so I got my leave extended a couple of years. And then as the old saying goes, I was made an offer I could not resist, so I resigned from the lab and went to work full-time, and round up my federal career with the Central Intelligence Agency. But during that period of time, it was just wonderful, but I have never and will never forget my dear Los Alamos.