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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Peter Malmgren’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Peter Malmgren, an oral historian and cabinet maker, is the author of “Los Alamos Revisited: A Workers’ History,” which uses oral histories to tell the story of Los Alamos National Laboratory from the perspectives of the people who helped build and maintain it. Malmgren has been a resident of Chimayo, New Mexico since 1971. In this interview, he discusses some of the oral histories from his book and what he has learned about Los Alamos in the process. Malmgren describes interviewees’ perspectives on discrimination, health and safety, and working conditions. He also describes how the interviews have informed his own views of the Los Alamos laboratory.

Date of Interview:
October 16, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Peter Malmgren: Okay. My name is Peter Malmgren. It’s spelled M-a-l-m-g-r-e-n. My Spanish neighbors find it impossible to pronounce, but that in fact is my Norwegian family name.

Nate Weisenberg: Where did you grow up?

Malmgren: Newark, New Jersey.

Weisenberg: When you were growing up, did you have a particular interest in oral history?

Malmgren: I had a mother [Abigail Malmgreen] who was a social activist, who lived to be 100. I dedicate the book to her. She was interested in people of every stripe and really worked hard to try to make a little bit of a difference in the world, whether it was women’s rights, civil rights, anti-nuclear activities, and anti-Vietnam activities. My father worked hard and allowed her the time to be able to express herself politically.

That became sort of built into my DNA and the way I saw things. She had a tremendous capacity to be able to meet somebody she’d never seen before and in 10 or 15 minutes, not in an obnoxious way, but just out of deep curiosity – who is this person who I have come to meet? – find out their life story. She just extracted in the most natural way. I think I have a little bit of that ability, that great curiosity about the human condition.

After many years of study of anthropology, both in this country and in England, I gave up on academics, but I never really gave up on the basic feelings that lay behind it in terms of curiosity about people of a different background, or of a different culture. When I wound up, quite by accident, in a little Spanish weaving village in northern New Mexico, after having been a gypsy in my school bus for a year, I ended up sort of living anthropology rather than studying it or teaching it. It became a life choice.

Weisenberg: You were traveling around the country in a school bus?

Malmgren: I was. After I dropped out of my second or third graduate program, I can’t remember which. I took some people with me from the East Coast, New Yorkers who would come for a few months and then go back. I spent a year doing some music on the road and I stayed in a political commune for a while in Los Angeles, which was fascinating. Then coming back, I got into a snowstorm in Arizona, nearly froze to death. We had a little pot-bellied stove in the back of the bus, which I had painted a very beautiful evergreen.

“Easy Rider” had just come out and I was a little paranoid about the long hair and the wild-colored buses. We kept it pretty clean, never had any run-ins, but had a lot of fascinating experiences in that time.

Then I just had friend of a friend gave me the name of a woman who lived in this little village. I came to it and stayed, and then the school bus became housing for several young Anglo couples who moved into the community while they were building their houses. And so we were early settlers. It was in 1971. Not too many white folks in that community, and we tried to behave ourselves, but we were a little outrageous.

There was no communal living for me. I’d go to this exhibit and look at all this stuff in the history museum now and get sort of a kick out of it. We were more low-key. We weren’t sort of in your face or crazy wild people kind of thing. We tried to be respectful. 

But it was a slow process of being known, and I finally settled down to work as a cabinet maker and working with other men in the community. We didn’t have kids, so we didn’t have a connection through either the church or the schools, but started getting to know people. It was at some point many years later that I allowed myself the luxury of starting to poke my nose into people’s history. We started a little history museum in town, trying to really stress, turn the kids onto the riches of their traditions. It just kind of evolved from there.

Weisenberg: How did you embark on this particular oral history project with former Los Alamos workers?

Malmgren: Yeah. Let me read you a little of the introduction to this, if I may.

“Los Alamos Revisited,” an oral history project, was initiated by the El Rio Arriba Environmental Health Association at Northern New Mexico College in Española in the year 2000. The project was funded by the University of New Mexico, Center for Population Health, and later by the Centers for Disease Control. Its purpose was to tell the story of the creation of Los Alamos from the point of view of the people who helped build it. The historical record is filled with accounts from scientists and pundits, but the voices of the technicians, engineers, trades people and so many others remained silent. The project recognized this as a significant gap in 20th century New Mexico history, and thought it was worth trying to fill.

I raised my hand at a meeting when somebody suggested, “Why don’t we think about an oral history project?” Because the CDC had already come to Los Alamos to begin their five or ten-year, incredibly long, detailed study of documents, a document search to understand releases and all the kinds of things that happened historically. And they fought with the [Los Alamos] Lab over access to the materials. Very hard-working, good people, but very technical, epidemiologists, scientists of different stripes.

As they were getting geared up, here we are in our little group thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a corollary study, something that was humanistic, where all they’re doing is a paper search. We want to talk to people who were actually there, actually doing these things.” That struck me as a sort of exciting idea, so I raised my hand. Then the next five years were devoted to the search, going door-to-door and following leads, like that.

Oh, the other thing – it’s kind of cute – is that I was very nervous about this. I had no idea if I could accomplish anything. I mean, it’s Los Alamos, you know. Who’s going to talk to me? I spoke to two people. The first guy was my next-door neighbor, who was a hard-drinking welder from Los Alamos, an expert welder, doing highly classified work. He said, “I’m not interested in talking to you, and I don’t expect anybody else is going to be interested in talking to you. End of story.” Okay, so I got rained on there.

Then I called up a rather impressive man, who had been our supervisor on some other oral history projects before, Carlos Vasquez from UNM [University of New Mexico]. He was a bigshot and Carlos is plain-speaking. He said, “Don’t even bother. No one’s going to talk to you. Things are too hot up in Los Alamos right now. There was Wen Ho Lee, there was this, there was that. It’s just not a good time.” He had done some of his own work in this general area before, something called Impact Los Alamos, and they collected quite a few interviews. I was kind of, not piggy-backing off him, but I really was inspired partially by the work he had begun, that I wanted to expand.

I just kind of got my back up. I thought these two guys say, “Don’t bother,” and I was already excited about the prospects of trying to make a stab at it. Then I started in my own community, where people knew me, and then got referrals out and ended up talking to people in 25 different communities. Of the 150, only one or two were really feisty and didn’t really want to deal with me. Everybody else was just incredibly open and giving.

And, I just, I learned—I don’t know whether you’ve had this experience doing interviews yourself—but, when it clicks, when you come in with loving respect and put your energy and focus on someone and say, “Your life is important. You’ve never been interviewed before in your life about anything. And, now you’re coming toward the end of your life and I really want to hear it, and I want to value it.” That’s what I bring. What they bring is opening the floodgates and just really letting loose, with all kinds of information, some pretty delicate stuff about the discrimination. I’m sitting there as an Anglo talking to a Spanish person, and he’s not seeing me as white for some reason, he’s just opening up about painful experiences that he’s had.

So it was incredibly gratifying. They weren’t all that way, but a few of them were really – created instant friendships. People that I came back to, to see, and some I came back too late and were gone. But there were a lot of very deep connections made. So that’s how it happened.

Well, let me give you a few little examples. I wanted to pick some things that I didn’t talk about at the [Querencia Interrupted] conference. This is Josie [Josefita] Velarde. She reminded me of my aunt, very feisty, wonderful woman. I began by talking about the fact that:

Jobs were extremely scarce in 1945. Most men of the Española Valley had traditionally been forced to leave their homes in a seasonal pattern in order to survive. These migrant laborers went to the mines, the railroads and the sheepherders’ camps, leaving the women and children responsible for the farms at home for six months of the year.

Los Alamos changed all that. They no longer had to disrupt their lives by leaving home to seek out hazardous jobs far away and subject their families to the strains of separation and increased labor. This was a profound change in the social patterns of many families, and, in most families’ opinions, a change for the better.

When I asked Josefita Velarde, aged 92, if people were at all hesitant to work at Los Alamos, that secret place where it might be very dangerous, she said, “Heck no. We knew all about danger. Our men risked their lives every day in the mines. No, we were just glad to have a job where they could come home every night.” She was a pragmatist and a wonderful lady.

For those who worked a long career and managed to dodge the bullet of ill health, the benefits were substantial. One woman sat vigil with her dying husband, who had contracted a particularly gruesome skin disease that made his flesh separate and fall off the bone. His last words to her included thoughts about the Laboratory: “You may feel a need to try and blame the Lab for my illness and claim compensation. But don’t do it. The Lab was good to me and my family for 40 years, and regardless of what happened there, owed nothing.”

Another man, considerably younger and still in relatively good health, had worked as a radiological technician all his life. At age 54, he reflects on his working life and his future with an air of resignation: “I’ve been in every building in the laboratory and been exposed to all sorts of things. It’s been a good job and provided well for my family, but I know it’s going to kill me. I can accept that knowledge. I knew the risks going in, and I made my choices. Now it’s just a matter of time.”

The first chapter is on origins. I was particularly delighted to get a sense of the tremendous variety. People were drawn to the labs from every part of the country, and city-dwellers, farmers and people in all walks of life. This is just an example, from Felix DePaula, who actually was with us on Thursday night. He’s still here. He was the garbage man at Trinity site and has—I’m not reading from that particular part of his life—but he was at Trinity.

I enjoyed everything about growing up in Brooklyn, New York. At nine, I borrowed my brother’s shoeshine box and went out for a nickel a shine. Then we progressed to little wagons full of vegetables and went door to door. Later I was working in a quilting factory manufacturing Army jackets for the boys overseas. (Later, all five of us boys were to serve, five in one family.) We had the theater real close by, and there was Manhattan where you could go to the Paramount Theater and see the well-known stars, the singers, the big bands, all for 25 cents!

During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps came in and things were looking a little better. At least some people were working instead of just walking the streets.

My father had a very hard time of it. Because of the lack of money, he did what so many others were doing, which was doing as much as possible at home to save on expenses. He would put soles and heels on our shoes. We would get a pair when school started and they would have to last through the following year. He was repairing shoes one day and put a pot of glue on the stove that had hardened and that he wanted to melt. He went in to listen to his favorite ‘Amos and Andy’ radio show and remembered he had not taken the lid off the glue pot. He ran to the stove to turn it off and as he reached across the stove, the darn thing exploded and covered his fingers with molten glue. It fused his fingers together and crippled the hand.

He lived that way for four years until he found a surgeon, a Jewish man. The doctor told me father after examining him, ‘You know you don’t have bone damage. It’s all fused skin. I could go ahead and operate, but it’s expensive.’ Well, we didn’t have the money. We had to raise $1,000 for the surgery and $500 for the hospital. Well, we discovered we could get the hospital fee down if my mother acted as his nurse.

My father notified the doctor that we could take care of the hospital costs and we were trying to raise the $1,000, but it was nearly impossible. That represented a man’s wages for an entire year. Anyway, sometime later the surgeon drove up to the house and said to my father, ‘I can’t go through life knowing that I could have made you a working citizen again, able to support your family. I will operate for free.’ He went ahead, and the operation was a great success.

This is a woman named Darleen Ortiz.

I was born in Los Alamos in 1955. My father, Max Ortiz, was hired in 1947 to build roads. From there, he went to Zia [Company] on the janitorial staff and stayed until his retirement in 1975. He used to hunt and fish a lot. I learned how to do both of them from him. We used to go the pond and fish underneath a bridge. There were tons of fish. We also fished all the streams that were nearby. For deer, he preferred to go into the restricted areas, where the game was larger. He did the same gathering piñon. He found them oversized in all the wrong places.

We used to eat so much that grew wild around us. I can’t imagine that some of it wasn’t contaminated. We used to eat wild strawberries, acorns, piñon nuts, monkey nuts, tiny nuts with furry bottoms and tiny seeds inside. We also ate flowers, like the one they put in salads now. We didn’t have snacks. As a matter of fact, we were hungry a lot of the time, and we would eat roses and carnations and little red and orange flowers that Mom grew that smelled like cloves. Mom would treat ice to her homemade snow ice cream. We also drank from the ice-cold streams, of course. I did that until I was ready to graduate from high school.

She goes on in a long interview to talk about all the cancers that came out of her large family.

This is a man – I went up and saw his widow recently. I was so glad she was still alive. She is 88 and doing well. This is Paul Guthals, and what Paul did was to supervise the Air Force planes that flew into the mushroom cloud, if you can believe that, to get samples of the fallout gathered in filters.

I was project leader for bomb cloud sampling. Our sampling people were Air Force people, and we flew them in their planes. With my Air Force background I had the job of making a “fit” between the civilian scientists and their way of doing things and the military methodology. We had to make the calculations as to what kind of activity we had to do in order to bring home the samples that others wanted and needed. Those samples were used to determine what the fission yield of the device was.

One of my primary responsibilities was keeping these pilots safe. We used integrating dosimeters, rate meters, and so on. I was in direct communication with the pilots in flight. I also supervised the recovery operations when they got to base. The mushroom cloud loses its identity in 15 to 30 minutes because of the heavy winds. At altitude they are much stronger than they are on the ground. Typically, we only made our penetrations after the cloud stabilized, that is, after it quit rising.

The airplane we used was the B-57. These were two-engine jets. They were the “grandchildren” of the British airplane. It was a tandem, two-person cockpit, which enabled both the front and back seat to have an unobstructed view. The capability of the plane was close to 55,000 feet. We recovered the samples from the airplanes mechanically, remotely reaching into the compartments and placing the filters into a lead “pig,” and bringing them back to the Lab for analysis. There the chemistry was done on them and we made critical measurements that we were all interested in.

We did a lot of testing in Eniwetok and Bikini, and later at the Nevada Test Site. We did a very high-altitude test on Johnston Atoll, which is southwest of the Hawaiian Islands.

I may have been fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it, but I was the person who was airborne for more detonations than anyone else in the world. 

A very mild-mannered, quiet, dignified gentleman, doing the most dangerous job there is.

This is from Ralph Partridge, who is a combination of an engineer and a physicist, who did a great deal of analysis work in the bomb testing as well.

My first shot on the islands was the Mike Shot, the first thermonuclear bomb in 1952. It went larger than expected. It was different from a fission bomb, and they didn’t know how to predict it very well. When we went in on recovery we traveled on a DUKW, an amphibious boat/car. Every day, in order to get to work, we had to go past the bomb as it was being constructed; it was like a large building, constructing that bomb. It wasn’t droppable.

After the shot we flew over and observed the entire island was gone. When it came time, the radiation people began flying over to check the levels. They decided it was down enough to allow us to go in. We could take our boat around the giant crater to our work station, where we could only stay for 20 minutes max, and then get the hell out.

We got into the concrete bunker, and there was no radiation inside, but we had to haul the sandbags away from the door and pry open the steel doors. Once inside we were faced with a lot of electrical wiring that had to be disconnected fast. We were in a big hurry, so we started ripping out wires, helter-skelter. We forgot about the 12-volt battery. I made a cross-circuit and some of the wires started to burn red-hot. The insulation vaporized and produced a terrible chemical smell. We were sure it was dangerous, but couldn’t go outside because of the radiation. We couldn’t stay inside because of the chemicals, so we ducked outside for a quick breath of air, then back inside to rip the wires and get the film out of the cameras. Back and forth we went while frantically waving for a rescue boat.

This was the best time of my life. Doing things under these kinds of conditions was almost like combat. It’s an interesting thing, in my personal philosophy. I wasn’t in World War II or Korea or Vietnam, but I felt like I had to do something for my country. If I went out and did a job that involved a certain amount of personal danger, it made me feel better inside, that you were sharing something with the men who were out there getting shot at.

Weisenberg: What sort of concerns and stories did people share with you? Were they willing to share them, or were they fairly reticent at first?

Malmgren: In 1999, just a year before this, there was this incredible meeting in Española. 700 people showed up, dragging air tanks and all, and wheelchairs, for their first and only opportunity to talk to their political leaders and tell them once and for all what their health concerns were. It was just an overwhelming thing. 

I was taking advantage of this, because I was outside. It was standing room only. People were coming out. I was signing them up right and left to follow up with interviews. So the early part of it was really stimulated by that, and our background had to do with health issues as well, as well as our support from UNM. But me being me, I didn’t feel much responsibility to anybody except myself, and I, although that was very important, I didn’t want it to be a diatribe of just unrelenting stories of cancers and horrors. There’s enough of that in here, God knows.

So I realized if I had this opportunity to come into people’s homes, that in itself is a very personal kind of a thing. I want to get some family history, I want to find out how they felt, what they did for work, how they felt about it, what the pride was in connection with it. These were the themes that were bubbling up fairly early on, discrimination and health and safety issues. They were all there, but we didn’t want to be so narrow as to just focus on the health.

But, one guy said to me, “You know, Los Alamos, you can’t live with it and you can’t live without it.” You know, and that sort of sums up a lot of it. There’s so much duality and love/hate. I was trying to get at the more complex fabric of it, rather than talking about only the terrible need. And the compensation issues started. I hung out with a group called the LA POWs [Los Alamos Project for Workers’ Safety], who were advocating for workers’ health. It went on for years. Some people got compensated. Many didn’t and many died waiting.

It was not a pretty picture, the way the government was responding to their health needs, not at all. Putting the burden of proof on these elderly, sick people, you know. “Well, where are your records?” Well, you know, they should be having the records.

This brings up something else I want to mention. There was one person of the 150 who I gave special attention to in the book. He was a pipefitter named Gene Westerhold. Gene was there for 44 years. We have people in here who were whistleblowers, who from the get-go were fighting the Lab, had negative feelings about it, and, you know, all that activism is certainly chronicled here. But, a guy like Gene was totally pro-Lab. I mean, he was just true to the core, you know. He would do anything. It was almost like a military kind of attitude. He’d been raised in it. He started when he was 18. His father had built many of the buildings. He was the Lab, and he got himself into some really dangerous, difficult positions.

There was a criticality accident that happened in 1959 [misspoke: 1958], when Cecil Kelley was killed. He volunteered, along with one other man, to go in the next day and drain off this tank that could explode and create another horrible accident at any time. They went in and risked their lives to be able to diffuse that terrible liquid bomb. Other incidents of being in situations where his exposures were so high, they were throwing away the badges. They’d just go black and they’d throw them in the garbage, give him another badge.

At the end of his 44 years, he’s decided, “I’m just concerned enough about all the things that have happened to me over all these years.” He’s still alive, he couldn’t believe it. “I’m going to request seeing my medical records from the laboratory.” So he goes to the appointment, he asks to see a doctor. A guy comes out in a white jacket, no doctor, possibly a physicist, but we don’t really know for sure, carrying one sheet of paper. Now, he should have had a ream of paper the size of a telephone book for this guy, with the things that happened to him. One sheet of paper, and on that one sheet of paper were total misconstrued numbers, totally ridiculous.

He’s saying, “I don’t see anything here about radiation exposure. No, it doesn’t seem to be a problem.”

Gene blew up. I mean, it took a lot to get him going, but he was just so offended. He thought, “Did these people think that after 44 years of loyal service that because I’m asking for my health records, just so I want to get some idea of what I have to face in my retirement, that I’m criticizing the laboratory? That I’m going after the laboratory, you know?” But he could not explain how he was being treated any other way.

One of the things I love so much about Gene’s story is that he was like a hero to people, and he was just loyal up to the end. And then he was knifed in the back. There are other examples of this, where you rub the Lab the wrong way, it’s a heartless kind of a response you get. So that’s part of Gene’s story.

Weisenberg: It sounds a number of the people you interviewed felt similarly.

Malmgren: In terms of the loyalty, or in terms of betrayal?

Weisenberg: Well, both.

Malmgren: Yeah. This one guy didn’t really want to go to the Lab. But he did want to marry his girlfriend. She said, “If you want to marry me, you’re going to have to get a decent job. So go up there and get yourself a job.” He grudgingly did that, and he started as a janitor or something and he worked his way up to being a decontaminator, which was a pretty nasty job. He was finding he was having a lot of trouble with the higher-ups, but not the Anglos.

This is another pattern that I hadn’t seen very much of. I had heard about it. That is, that the kind of tremendous rivalry that existed within the Hispanic community. Who you know, who you’re related to. Somebody, when I mentioned this story, said it’s like crabs crawling up a bucket or something like that. When one of them gets to the top, claws their way to the top, the ones down below pull them back down into the mix. It’s a fairly familiar thing, and apparently it also existed within the Native American community, too. It’s like you’re not supposed to rise above a certain level. You’re a threat to your neighbors or something.

He said he left and then he was happier. He left. He said, “There’s a devil dancing on that hill.” That was his last statement. I think what he meant about it was that he knows a lot of guys who were unhappy being there. But once they started making the good money and everything, then they built big houses, then they borrowed more money, got more into debt, bought the boat, got the fancy truck for $40,000. They were in a spiral of materialism that was brought on by a higher wage scale, but resenting the fact that they were now a slave to all these bills. Another element.

Other people in my community, I see beautiful houses going up. Always know it’s a Lab house. I mean, people who have done very well. This one lady I interviewed, who was an executive secretary, she said, “I’m not ashamed at the fact that I started by cleaning houses up there and taking care of kids and went on to have a good career.” She said, “I have my own beautiful house now. I have three rentals, all paid off.” Then she started ticking off her children, who had all gotten advanced degrees and had professional lives. So she was obviously very proud and pleased with the choice she made.

I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, but at the end of each interview, I asked one single question and repeated it. And that is, if you had your life to live over again, would you follow the path again that led you to Los Alamos? Of the 150, I got 75 saying, “It was fabulous, it was security for my family, education for my family, and I encouraged my children and they have followed in my footsteps.”

The other 75 said, “I would never go near the place again and I would never allow my children to be anywhere near there, because my health was more important than the paycheck.” The people who dodged the bullet and were able to live and retire from the Lab without being seriously ill had a lot of positive reasons to praise it. The other people, a lot of suffering, a lot of loss, a lot of pain.

That’s why we have them – I have this, it’s in the book, too – a memorial list of people that we think have all died early as a result of their various jobs and exposures at the laboratory. It’s a long list. I’m sure it’s just a partial list, but I want to honor them, too. They’re kind of the hidden part of this story. You know, they’re dead and gone, not memorialized too much.

I was sitting across the table from a lady from Chimayó, who I’d never met. I can’t believe it. I’ve been there 46 years, and I don’t know this woman. She identified herself and it turns out she’s related some of my neighbors. Her father was Escolástico Martínez, one of the four men that were blown to smithereens in a terrible accident with the high explosives, and were blown through the fencing, and the birds came and picked their flesh. It was really a bad one. That was her father. She had a purse with her, she pulled a Xerox of the article from the paper from 1959 and showed it to me. It’s like she’s carrying this around.

The irony was she and her husband both went on to have long careers at Los Alamos, despite the fact that she had this terrible loss from the accident. Go figure. I think that says a lot right there. It’s like that was the opportunity that was a preeminent opportunity for many people in certain periods. And, to this very day, my community is incredibly dependent on the jobs in Los Alamos. We probably wouldn’t exist anymore if they weren’t there.

I’d like to say something about my own sort of personal take on this. Now, my background is anti-war, anti-nuke, anti-government and all their corruption and everything else. I for years came up to Los Alamos to protest the dropping of the bomb in Hiroshima. We were part of a group, a peace group, that would always do that every year. I came up one year more recently when I was doing the interviews, and I noticed that there was a little sort of a side protest, an anti-anti-nuke, pro-nuke, and Paul Guthals was there and some other guys who I had interviewed.

I felt really badly, because they were being shunted aside. It was like the day was for people speaking out against Los Alamos and all its evils. Here they were trying to defend their roles and their sacrifices that they made. I realized that I was caught somewhere in between.

I haven’t changed my attitude about bombs as solutions in the world, and I never will. But on that particular day, I went into a little side room and there were two Japanese elders there, speaking to a small group of people. They were survivors from Hiroshima. I found that was ten times more moving to me, to hear them speak. With their courage to come into the lion’s den and actually stand there themselves in peace, than hearing all the rantings from the usual anti-nuke stuff, which gets a little boring.

The fact that I have been spending so much time in the lives and recognized the critical importance of these jobs to friends and neighbors, all these people. I just couldn’t condemn the laboratory in the same way as I would’ve before. Because, somehow, I shifted. My concern was even more with these people and what was going to happen to them if Los Alamos dried up and blew away. It’s like it just shifted my perspective a bit, which is kind of interesting.

Weisenberg: What did narrators share with you about why they decided to work at Los Alamos?

Malmgren: Well, the early ones, because that’s where the work was. There weren’t any jobs. This whole business of what Josefita is saying about we just could come home at night. We weren’t breaking up our families, the men weren’t going off to these terribly dangerous jobs as migrant laborers, leaving the women to try to fend for themselves with the children. It was a huge benefit in that regard. They would have taken it regardless of how dangerous it was.

One guy who worked as a janitor for 40 years in one building said, “Oh, the kids now, they really got it made. My son is doing this similar kind of work, and if there’s a spill or something that he doesn’t like the look of, he’ll file a report. He’ll be taken off that and they’ll do an examination, what the problem is and all that.” He said, “If I dared say anything like that back in my day, I’d be gone the next day. We had to keep our heads down and do whatever was told, no matter how dangerous, you know.”

The jobs were everything. People couldn’t really complain or speak out. And they were expendable, too. Other people were told to their faces that you’re a dime a dozen, they’re lining up down the hill and they need the job. So you better keep your mouth shut and keep your head down. But that was the early times.

Weisenberg: Did the narrators feel as though their stories had been ignored?

Malmgren: Yeah, I think so. I mean, they didn’t say it in so many words. I think they were a little surprised and flattered that somebody wanted to come and sit down with them and really hear it. They didn’t seem to edit it that much, you know. It wasn’t, “I don’t know whether I can say this.” A few of the scientists that I interviewed would have to edit themselves a little. I did include some scientists.

The people were just glad to have me. Then I would copy the interview, send them back a copy so they had it for the family, a copy of the tape. Not just take off and be gone, but to give them something for the family, too.

There was an interesting quote. I mentioned that I spoke to some scientists. This one guy, Jay Wechsler, who grew up—did you do an interview with Jay, you know that name?

Weisenberg: We have an interview with Jay from a few years ago.

Malmgren: He grew up in the same town I did in New Jersey. I could not believe that. Of course, some years before. But at the end of the interview, he just said, “I’ve been in weapons for 50 years. I know all about weapons. We have enough weapons. We do not need any more weapons. We have a tremendous wealth of brilliant, intelligent scientists up here, who are being wasted, because they’re being forced to stay with weapons research.” He said, “They should be doing stuff in sustainable energy.”

If you had the political will to make that transition, they would accept it in a flash. They’re not wed to this. They’re doing it because that’s where the paycheck is. It’s not like they suddenly have this great feeling that they have to advance the science of weaponry. They would be ready to go if only we had the leadership and the audacity to be able to really change this place. But as long as the money is coming in, the major – I’ve known people who’ve worked up here in non-weapons research and they have to struggle every year to get funding. They’re out there hustling themselves. The mainstream always has to be weapons, always has been.

Weisenberg: I just want to get a better sense of the range of folks that you talked to. You started in Chimayó, but then you were talking to people who lived throughout the Española Valley?

Malmgren: Yeah. As I say, I went to that meeting and I picked up probably 20 or 30 names just from that huge group of people. So then now I’m already spread out into neighboring communities, and people start giving me other names of people. You know, if they’re happy with me. There’s this guy you should talk to, and you know, some of those panned out. I look back on my notes from way back then and I had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of names of people. Many of them did not pan out, but they were all listed in there as possibilities. I might have gotten 20% of what I was aiming for.

Then I just ran out of gas at one point or other. I was transcribing all these myself. Can you imagine that? Crazy. A lot of oral history projects flounder and founder on the fact that they have no one to transcribe them. They just wind up with tapes. I mean, you’re doing everything digitally now, so I’m sure the process is different. But that was a big stumbling block in terms of how to get things in hard copy, which is what the folks at the archives in Santa Fe wanted. That’s what they got.

This [Malmgren’s book] is called Los Alamos Revisited: A Workers’ History, and it’s just being printed now. These are two sample copies that I’ve been hauling around with me, trying to interest people in taking them into the bookstores. It’s a little book, but it really packs a wallop, so I encourage everybody to read it.

Weisenberg: One other question about the book is, if people are interested in it, where can they purchase it?

Malmgren: Well, pretty soon, we’re going to put it on Amazon, but what I was doing at the conference was I just had a sign-up sheet. I can give people my email address, they can just write indicating they’d like me to send them a copy. Then I would just do that, give me their address and they can send me back a check. It’s $18 plus $2 for mailing. That seems to be a pretty clean way of doing it for now.

My email address is petermalmgrennm (for New Mexico) [at] Just write to me and I’d be delighted to send you a book.

Weisenberg: I just wanted to make sure we capture the range of people that you talked to. You talked to people who’d been pipefitters, people who’d been welders, people who’d been secretaries. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you really ran the gamut of Los Alamos.

Malmgren: Well, I wasn’t picking them on the basis of that, intentionally getting that kind of variety. Yeah, it just sort of turned out that way. A lot of technicians doing all kinds of stuff, welders.

This one guy who lost a leg as a child, from Truchas, managed to get some training. His specific job was to take the casing of a bomb, polish it to a mirror finish, and then attach these tiny little thread-like wires, and to gauges. It seems like no one else had the manual dexterity to be able to work at this level. So he’d be called out to NTS [Nevada Test Site] to be able to do this. They put an explosive inside, blow it up and then they’re testing the tensile strength of the actual casing. He became the specialist in doing that, so he was doing something with one leg and very delicate hands that several thousand people in the Nevada Test Site couldn’t do.

This is a lady whose claim to fame was that she made these tiny little scales to measure minute, tiny little—because, it was at a time when plutonium was just like grains of salt. Let me find her. She’s in California and she has this skill, and they want her out here to make her little scales to weigh the plutonium. Becky, where are you? This little vignette goes along with that wonderful picture that everybody uses of the Jeep bogged down absolutely to the axles in mud. Here she is.

I got off the Super Chief in Santa Fe in a suit. I wanted to make a good first impression. I had on my high heels, my precious nylons and a perky little hat with a veil. A WAC [Women’s Army Corps] came up to me and asked if I was Becky Bradford. They looked at me and just shook their heads.

It turned out that these WACs did a little job on the side. Los Alamos had no liquor, so they were doing some rum running. They stopped to get a load prior to picking me up, so they needed to make up some lost time. They chose the old road through San Ildefonso and El Rancho, which was off limits because it was so rough, and the government-issued tires weren’t really up to it. I’m the sole passenger and it rained and snowed like dogs. This road was a sea of mud. Welcome to New Mexico.

After a while, we got stuck. They looked at me and said, “We’ll help you into the front seat. You drive, and we’ll push.”

“But I don’t know how to drive!” I said. I had never driven in my life.

They looked at me like I was from Mars. “What do we do now? We have a useless passenger.”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve never driven a car, but I’ve pushed one before.”

“In those clothes?”

I took off my nylons and my dainty shoes and put them on the seat. I rolled my skirt up and told them to drive while I pushed. And I did it and we clawed our way out of the muck.

They said they needed to make one more unauthorized stop, this time to get me cleaned up before I went for my badge and my dorm assignment. That was my introduction to Los Alamos, and I made two good friends in the bargain.

She was a delightful woman, just this bright, cheery. She stayed for the rest of her life.

Weisenberg: What have been some of your big takeaways from this project, from this book?

Malmgren: Just that there are no easy answers. Nothing, certainly, is black and white. Everything is sort of subtle gradations. I don’t know, I don’t really have anything profound to say about all the information. I couldn’t really sort of wrap it up into some very wonderful-sounding conclusion. It’s just that the Lab has meant life and the Lab has meant death in full measure, both ways.

I live downwind of it. I was up in an apricot tree some years ago picking apricots for a neighbor. This guy walks up. He looked Native American, well-dressed, with two sort of graduate student type people in tow. He said, “Could I have some of your apricots?” 

I said, “Yeah, but what do you want them for?”

He said, “Well, we’re doing an environmental study of the fruit and vegetables in the valley. You know, we’re from the laboratory.” Made me very nervous. I tried to convince him to contact me when he published his findings, or whatever he is going to do with his project.

But concerned about air quality and the fires and what they’ve done to us. I mean, we have lots of concerns, too. I’ve never felt very comfortable up here. I built cabinets for many houses up on Barranca Mesa, but I was always anxious to get out of there as quickly as I could. It still seems like it’s a huge time bomb to me.

Here’s a little vignette I can throw at you. One day I was coming up. I had two people to see, okay, down near the high school, nice little old neighborhood. A Hispanic couple that had been there since early 1940s, same house. We had a long interview, and he talks about his struggles to try to get a slightly better job and work his way up. At the end of it, we turn off the tape recorder, and then his wife comes in to offer coffee. We start talking about cancer. She must have listed eight or ten people in her immediate neighborhood, just a street or two, that were all victims of cancer. I was just staggered and just trying to digest that. 

Then I left and thanked them and went a few blocks away, not very far, to an Anglo weapons expert who was already pretty ill. I didn’t question him about his illnesses. But I brought up the thing about the cancer, and he immediately went into this study, all the findings that tell us that we have nothing to worry about, all within normal ranges. I was just so struck by the completely different attitudes and perspectives between these two families, living so close to one another. That really was food for thought.

I think that there’s been a tremendous level of deniability, of people feeling like, “Don’t question my decision to have come here, raise my family, live my life here. I just will not accept the fact that there’s still very much present dangers from the soil and contamination.” We have a problem with the water up here now, in this perchlorate that’s in a plume heading down the mountain. I mean, a lot of crap was dumped up here, and a lot of it doesn’t go away in a short period of time. There are a lot of serious concerns that we all feel, as we live in close proximity to the laboratory.

But the people, wonderful people, mainly focused on people of the valley. We must not delude ourselves. This is not me doing some kind of extensive thing within the community. I was feeling a little that I needed to do some balance, so I was sort of drawn to a few people to give me a little of the flavor of what people were thinking and doing up here. But primarily, this is a tribute to the workers from the valley, both Anglo and Hispanic. I never got to first base, really, with the Natives, sadly, so that was another reality to face.

I’ve been going to my senior center for a million years in my own community. The first thing I did was just go over for lunch one day, start talking to some ladies. They were absolutely ready to have me come back and spend an afternoon with them and hear their stories. Then someone said, “You cannot do that. You have to go to the tribal leaders, to the council, and clear this with them.” As soon as I did that, of course, the iron gate came down, and that was the end of it.

I have that wonderful man, Mike Padilla, who is a Native American. He called me by some miracle, he had heard that I was doing this, and actually gave me a call. So I was able to speak with him.

You just do what you can do. What surprises me, when I first thought I wanted to do this, my first instinct was to come up here, go to the biggest bookstore there is up here—it’s no longer there—and just peruse the shelves. It was all bigshots. I didn’t see any working-class concentration, focus at all. So that gave me a bit of a boost. I thought there really is a hole in the history, and maybe I can be so pretentious or so ambitious as to try to fill it in a little bit.

Then, many years later, just a few months ago, we came up here for some opera thing my wife was doing. I just went next door, because I can’t stand opera, and looked at their little bookstore. This is 15 years later now, and I’m still not seeing anything. It’s like no one has stolen my thunder. My God, am I still doing something that has not been done?

I am a product of Chimayó now, after 46 years. I’m no longer a product of white, upper-class type people. So that’s my story.

Weisenberg: You had mentioned the perspective of the environmental and health concerns, both as someone who’s been doing this work and also because you live downwind. I was wondering if there are any other – related to that or other concerns – that you haven’t mentioned that you’d want to talk about. I know you mentioned discrimination and I didn’t really follow up on that.

Malmgren: Well, there was this one guy who typifies it so strongly. A lot of people were treated badly, for sure. This one man who is still alive, bless his heart, he’s 94. I’m about to go visit him in a few days. Ruben Montoya from Santa Fe was good at whatever he did. I mean, he was in the Army, he got out, he did surveying, then he came up on the Hill. He went to metallurgy at Sigma Building, and he was very disciplined. Every day of work, he had a logbook and he just wrote what he did, his experiments. He also included in that logbook people who died in his building. When I got to him, he was long since separated from the laboratory. He had 48 names in 20 years in one building. That was astonishing to me.

In terms of how he was being treated, it was like he was smarter than any of his Anglo bosses. He would solve problems that they couldn’t figure out in terms of how to do certain welding procedures that were extremely complex. He just had that kind of mind. The more he showed them up, the more they hated his guts. He got more and more angry, and sort of eaten up by that. He said he overheard one guy talk about his people as “aborigines,” and he just blew his stack. He said, “It started to ruin my marriage and my health, because I don’t know what to do with my anger. It’s so bad.” 

So he left, and he turned his hand to his artistry. He does carving, pottery, and painting. He opened a gallery. His house is filled with the most amazing things that he’s created. And it saved his life. He really realized he had to go. So, and at 94, he’s still doing his art. An astonishing man. But his was the most extreme case of sort of continued discrimination that I’d run across.

What else was I going to tell you? A lot of people say, “I had my job for ten years or something, and then this Anglo guy comes in and they immediately put him above me. You know, they give him a raise.” There’s a lot of bitterness about that.

Then to sort of counteract that, there’s this man from Dixon who said, “You know, I don’t like the fact that these young men come in and they make more money, of course. I wish that that wouldn’t happen. But what do they have? They have a rented place and a big paycheck. But what I have is my family, my church, my farm, my animals. I am the rich one.” So you get the whole range, from people who were just outraged and want to kill somebody, to someone who has that kind of—I think he was also a minister, a lay minister, might’ve had something to do with his tolerance approach. But it’s very true. These were just hired hands coming in, and they didn’t have much to do once they weren’t at work. Didn’t have a wonderful wife to cook for them. So it’s a little bit of this and it’s a little bit of that.

I was very interested in the racial issues. I think it still exists. I was talking to a Spanish man at the conference, and he was saying he was there for 40 years. He said, “We didn’t really make close social friends. We learned to work together and cooperate and get our jobs done. But we were commuters. When the day was done, we’re in the car and we’re heading back down to the farm, to wherever, the house and all our responsibilities. It was like we don’t have time to linger and hang out and go to a pub or do anything.” And so in that sense, the two races have really remained – if we can take what he says as being fairly accurate, it reinforces the separation.

Then there was a guy who came, a young Anglo, during the time of the RIF [Reduction In Force], which I write about it in my book, which is a very important political time, people being laid off. He joined the group, but he said, “I’ve been warned. I’m new here, but I’ve been warned never to go to Española. I mean, these older people took me under their wing and said, ‘It’s a dangerous place. They’re all drug addicts, and whatever you do, never go to the Valley.’” 

So then Manny Trujillo, who was the head of the organization, is a brilliant engineer and a beautiful person, said, “Why don’t you come down. I’m having a party at the house.” He goes down, and he’s totally blown away by the beauty of the man’s hand-built house, the music, the fabulous food and the conversation. He broke through it all in one night. But there were other people, when they took the fences down, they were complaining. They did not want to be robbed of their sense of protectiveness, didn’t want to be thrown out of the nest.

Weisenberg: When you’re talking about taking the fences down, you’re referring to– 

Malmgren: Security fences all around the place.

Weisenberg: Ah, I see.

Malmgren: 1957, yeah, it was a big deal. Before that you had to show passes and jump through hoops to get into the place. It was tight security.

Weisenberg: It was still a closed city.

Malmgren: Oh, yeah. Some people really were upset by changing the status of that. Some of those old prejudices may still remain. It’s hard to tell. I don’t know younger people at Los Alamos. They’re probably a lot more progressive, possibly, than their grandparents. 

Weisenberg: What did you learn about yourself from this project or from this work?

Malmgren: I grew. I learned so much. It was such a rich kind of a thing. The sense that I am a people person and it reinforced that in a very wonderful way. There were times in my life when I’ve been extremely depressed to the point where I can’t deal with the outside world at all. I know the other extreme of that, so to have come as far as being able to feel well enough about myself to be able to reach out to people, it was like a curing thing for me, and I think it was sort of a healing thing for some of them, too. It was like we were both reaching out and showing some of our frailty and humanness. I mean, some of it was really quite powerful. So it made me a little better person.

I’m a good listener, you know. That’s what I like to do.

Weisenberg: That’s great. My very last question: is there anything I haven’t asked you that I should’ve asked you?

Malmgren: What do I do next? That’s the big question. I can’t ride on the coattails. I mean, it was embarrassing that it took me so long to write this book. Now, that’s done, and I’ll really knock myself out trying to promote it. But trying to find something that could match this in terms of the wealth of it, you know, I don’t—and, I’m really settled where I am. I mean, I grow a garden, I have apple orchards. We live an old-fashioned lifestyle. So if somebody said, “Come to Nevada,” or something, to interview miners or something, you know, as much as it would be really a tempting assignment, I’m not at the point in my life where I’ve very mobile. I have to be at home and just doing what we do.

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