West Coast Business Trip, 1967

by Lyle Lofgren

(June 1967; edited and commentary added Summer 2005)

Lyle, 1967: I've read the reassuring safety statistics, but also the aircraft accident reports in Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, so I know that takeoffs and landings are particularly perilous. I mentally time the takeoff: one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three... If you get to one thousand forty without feeling a characteristic thump as the plane takes its weight off the landing gear, you're likely to ride straight into that field beyond the runway. The engines separate at the fence, so you'll leave a trail of flaming kerosene behind in case anyone wonders where you've gone. The fire department arrives in time to choose the charcoal pieces they decide to call human remains.

The gear thumps at one thousand twenty, so I can spend the rest of the trip looking out the window. From the air, you can't see the ground cover on the American Southwest: it looks like the Sahara desert. Somewhere around the Four Corners area, where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet, small mountain peaks drown in a sea of sand.

San Diego airport is on an ocean sandbar. We approach so low over a ridge, the corpse of a seacliff, that I can look into the windows of high-rise buildings as we go by.

Mission Valley once held the San Diego River. Gone dry, it yields its bed to a freeway. Someday the river will return and the freeway footings will become rapids. My Mission Valley motel, greenless beige inside and out, blends with the California landscape. My room has large mirrors, a tribute to Hollywood narcissism.

The letters to the editor in the San Diego Union strongly favor God, Country, Decency, Short Hair, Clean Underarms, and Beating The Commies In Vietnam. That's what I'd expect in a military town like San Diego, so I was surprised to read a single letter from a liberal. He says we should try to understand our young people, even though we disapprove of them.

One channel or other on California TV shows Roller Derby any time you tune in. Two teams of helmeted skaters with kneepads careen around a small circular track. It combines wrestling violence with freeway driving thrills. I suppose that's why it's popular here. The women's teams out-macho the men. I don't care who wins, so I promiscuously cheer for both the Texas Outlaws and the Los Angeles Thunderbirds.

Lyle, 1960s

Lyle, 2005: Fresh out of college in 1961, I joined a suburban Minneapolis instrument manufacturing company as Employee #173. I held many different engineering jobs there while the company grew to enormous size. I enjoyed 30 different bosses in 38 years, until I retired in 2000. In 1967, part of my job was to define technical requirements for platinum resistance temperature sensors. They're used for remote measurements where accuracy and ruggedness are important. Many of our customers at the time were (literally) rocket scientists, and each application required a special sensor design.

When I was growing up on the farm, a trip to Minneapolis was an adventure. Once I had a degree and a job and lived among the very "hoodlums from the cities" that my father worried about, a business trip became an adventure, since I didn't take enough of them to become jaded. I sometimes kept a journal of my impressions.

I later read books on Southwest geology, and I'm pretty sure that the "mountain peaks" I saw were a field of small volcanic cinder cones and the "sand" they were drowning in was ash from the volcanoes.

Aircraft safety is greatly improved, but I still time the takeoffs.

Lyle, 1967: The next morning, I drove out to the General Dynamics/Convair plant north of San Diego. The lobby building, built with profits from the now-obsolete Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, is a black glass cube floating on an artificial lake. Thin water fingers spout up from the pool surrounding the gangplank that leads inside. The pond continues into the building and runs behind the receptionist's counter. Above the pond, an elaborate stainless steel spiral staircase winds up 3 flights like a miniature, open-sided Guggenheim Museum. The terrazzo floor, pool, and dark glass look cool, metallic, modernistic, yet somehow menacing. Them Russkies better not mess with us!

Beyond the lobby building, windowless corrugated-metal  buildings stand in a tarmac field. Broad, 20 feet high and very long, they look flimsy, like pole barns on midwestern farms. Both exteriors and interiors are painted olive drab, brown, or gray, the colors of dead seriousness. The perimeters are used for manager's offices and conference rooms, but most of each building is one large area, called the bullpen. It's filled with desks lined up facing each other in double rows. There is not much room between the rows when people are sitting at their desks. Tall drafting tables occasionally break the visual monotony. Engineers and draftsmen mill around, but it's oddly quiet inside, except for a low buzz from the conversations. I meet with a couple of engineers. Our sensors measure liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen temperatures on their Centaur space vehicle. They have some problems, which means we have problems. I assure them that we'll resolve all the difficulties.

Lyle, 2005: The facility was sold to Martin-Marietta, which was then bought out by Lockheed. The plant presumably still exists and my verdict premature, because Lockheed-Martin is still trying to sell an updated version of Atlas as a space launch vehicle. Some changes that I never imagined: all those milling white collar bullpen workers are now cubicle prisoners sending each other e-mails. The drafters no longer have drafting tables, they have graphic workstations. And there are now female engineers.

Lyle, 1967: I flew to Seattle, where our local salesman, Gordon, took me to one of the uncountable Boeing plants. Boeing, bidding on a giant military transport plane, wants to measure brake temperature because there was a recent incident where an aircraft brake overheated and made a wheel explode. The Boeing bullpen is exactly like the one at Convair, except only half of the building is packed with desks. The rest is completely empty, with the lights turned off. The engineer we contacted has a desk at the edge of the black emptiness. These people will be laid off if Boeing doesn't get the contract, so I'd be nervous sitting in a desk like that.

Lyle, 2005: Boeing lost the bid: the military transport became the Lockheed C5A. The engineers didn't get laid off, though. Boeing slapped some windows on their design and called it the 747. As far as I know, everyone stopped worrying about overheated brakes, so my visit was a waste of time. I haven't been back to Seattle since 1967, but I suspect most of the Boeing pole barns are gone, along with the employees. The dark half of the building was indeed an omen, but not an immediate one.

Lyle, 1967: Next stop, Hanford. The highway east from Seattle goes through the Cascade Mountains, where it's still  early spring. The snow-patched peaks above the road are mostly fogged in. Then the Douglas Fir forests disappear, replaced by grassland that looks like South Dakota. I had visualized apple country as forests of majestic apple trees, bright green and red. Instead, I see small groves of dwarf trees separated by open fields. If the land is unirrigated, it grows only short grass and sagebrush. They say the Yakima Valley is infested with Diamondback Rattlesnakes, but I see none along the roadside.

Hanford Reservation (government, not Indian) borders the Columbia River on one side and Tri-Cities on another. "Tri-Cities" designates Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, Washington. The houses were built by a single government contractor. Our salesman Norm and his wife Pat drove me around town. "There's a C house," said Pat, "and that's an R and that's a modified M and that's a B and that's an E and that's another C, except painted a different color." The alphabetical method for classifying architecture reminded me of the joke about prisoners who've assigned numbers to all their stories because everyone's heard them before. All the houses have the same windows.

Pasco and Kennewick, about 3 miles from Richland and each other, are newer but each has a golf course and a shopping center. I told Norm that I couldn't tell the differences between the cities, so he explained the distinctions. The people are very different. The Richland residents, for example, are completely dependent on the government and proud of it. The people in Pasco and Kennewick (where Norm and Pat live) also all work for the government, but they "have a more independent spirit." The crucial difference, though, is that Richland has a Black/Mexican district. Norm drove me through it. They also have A and C and R houses, in the same good state of repair as the rest of the city, but Norm assured me it's a Rough Neighborhood. A city of 70,000 government employees with a Rough Neighborhood! Neither Pasco nor Kennewick have Rough Neighborhoods.

Norm said that someone once erected some large crosses on the Columbia valley slope nearby. It was on government land, and some Richland people complained, so the crosses were removed. "It's the damn atheists that complained," said Norm. "No," said Pat. "Civil Rightists."

The Site, as it's called in Richland, is completely devoted to producing plutonium for atomic bombs. The process requires the controlled fission of uranium in an atomic reactor. Construction started around 1941 as part of the Manhattan Project. Enrico Fermi, the famous physicist, lived here back then, but he was called only by his code name, "Farmer." He had no calluses on his hands and probably never wore bib overalls, so that seems like a pretty obvious pseudonym for someone named Fermi. Everyone lived in a large trailer camp on the site, as the city of Richland wasn't built yet. The construction people weren't told what they were building, but they must have puzzled over the materials: large blocks of machined graphite, zirconium tubes, rods of bismuth-cadmium alloy, and short rods that were heavier than lead. The zirconium tubes are embedded horizontally in the graphite, and the short uranium rods, called billets, are inserted by machine into the tubes. As new billets go in, they push the old ones, which have been partly converted to plutonium, out the other side, where they drop into a large water tank. Under 20 feet of water, the billets make the water glow bluish-green. The billets are loaded by crane into special freight cars and moved to another plant on the site for plutonium separation.

There are many reactors here, but only 3 are still operating. The US has a large plutonium backlog, so the reactors, victims of their own efficiency, would have been shut down even without the political advantage of a publicly-announced production cutback. The Site is about 50 miles square, flat open country with distant hills, typical of the Columbia basin in eastern Washington. After clearing security, we drive for several miles before we pass a group of buildings, perhaps a plutonium separation plant. By the time we reach the next set of buildings, the last complex is only a dot in the distance. We're headed for the newest facility, the N reactor. The nomenclature indicates to me that the government is still using the same contractor they had when they built the Tri-City houses. The N reactor is unique because it produces electricity as well as plutonium. Output is 800 megawatts, or about half that of Grand Coulee dam. Norm says that it's the largest atomic electrical power generator in the US.

We meet Dick, who's responsible for measuring reactor cooling water temperature. He's about 40, and has been at Hanford for 15 years. He gives us a tour, showing us the pipes where our temperature sensors are installed. We walk around without any special clothing or precautions. It's a warm day, so the large reactor building doors are open. From outside, I can see the end of the reactor where the billets are inserted. Although taller, the reactor building uses the same pole-barn construction that I saw at Convair and Boeing.

Hanford N Reactor Lyle, 2005: I have no idea what the Hanford site looks like now, but I'm not surprised to read that it's highly contaminated. America is still awash in plutonium. Later commercial nuclear power plants were much larger than the N reactor.

When the Ukrainian Chernobyl reactor exploded in 1986, newspapers described a design identical to that of the N reactor, even including the pole barn containment vessel. The US government quickly announced that we had no reactors like that one. Some days later, they corrected the announcement: we had no commercial reactors of that design. They even mentioned the Hanford N reactor, but said it was completely safe. A follow-up statement, it was only a small item in the newspapers. I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't been reading all I could find about Chernobyl. Over half a year after that accident, the N reactor was shut down for a safety review. As you can guess, it never reopened. In 1967, design and operational details  were secret. Now that the reactor is closed, the Department of Energy even has a photograph (reproduced here) of the N reactor on its website. It looks about the way I remember seeing it through the open doors in the pole barn.

Lyle, 1967: We go with Dick for an early start on the Friday Night Communal Meeting at The Gaslight, a beer-and-pizza joint. The site buses unload outside and the place fills up. Norm and Dick reminisce about past Friday nights at the Gaslight. About Charlie, who lives across the river and therefore bought an amphibious Amphicar for commuting. One Friday night, he gave a visiting engineer a ride to his motel, taking along a bunch of fellow employees. Charlie pretended to be drunk and headed for the river at 40 mph. The stranger, who had also had a few beers, showed no particular sign of alarm, and in fact didn't even notice that they had become waterborne.

I met Pete and Edna and another Charlie and Dave and LaVerne and it's getting noisy as I hear about how Tom broke his leg and the N reactor will be run at higher power during a test next week, and Pete and Edna are taking a week off, during which time they'll fish the Columbia a lot and play golf on the Pasco course (the grass is in poor shape on the Richland course) and maybe drive to Spokane to shop some. We left at about the time a pianist and tenor banjo player started a raucous "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby."

I had spaghetti dinner at Norm's house, and he showed me his gun collection. There's a genuine Colt .44 from the civil war era, and an identical modern copy; a lot of .22 target pistols and rifles; a .45 service automatic; a German P-38 automatic pistol; a German ceremonial military sword; and a Belgian 12-gage double barreled shotgun with a Damascus twist-steel barrel just like the one my grandfather bought back in the 1880s.  Norm and Pat have four children, ages 5 to 12. The oldest one is having a school's-out party in the back yard. Pat is familiar with every business item, every potential sale that Norm talks about during dinner, even the Department of Agriculture scientist in Wenatchee who wants to instrument an apple orchard so the smudge pots go on automatically if the temperature gets too low. "Just think: we'll have every farmer in the Yakima valley buying temperature equipment from us."  Pat nods approval.

The sun is down and desert cold has set in as I head for the Tri-Cities airport. In Denver, I'll catch another plane that stops at several small cities in Montana and South Dakota, so I'll be timing a lot of takeoffs.