(6 of 13)
"You want to know how I got to Los Alamos? It was my wife's good looks. We were married in May 1942, and Beverly got a job as personal secretary to R.L. Doan, the administrative head of the project in Chicago. She also handled the whole security system in Chicago--21 years old, an English literature major. She was pretty too, and whenever Oppie came around, he liked to talk to her. Naturally, when Oppie was going to start up the lab in Los Alamos, he decided that he needed someone to work for him who had experience--like Beverly. So he asked her to come to New Mexico. And it was reasonable that I should go too. Fact is, it seemed that everyone and everything was going to Los Alamos. The Princeton guys, the Illinois people. Tremendous effort. People today don't appreciate how frightened we were. Things were really going down the tube in '41, '42, '43. We were losing badly in the Pacific. There was Bataan. Hong Kong fell Christmas Day. The Atlantic was just horrendous.
"Anyway, when I showed up at Los Alamos, it was a Sunday, and my wife hadn't arrived yet, 'cause she was home saying goodbye to her brother, who was off to the war. And I ran into Oppie. And all he said was: 'Where's Beverly?' Which crushed me. From that day I knew exactly where I stood with that guy." Agnew chuckles. "I never really liked the guy, anyway. He was too smart and too rich and too handsome.
"And he was really a smoothie. We got about 128 bucks a month. The plumbers at Los Alamos were getting between $500 and $750. And the plumbers couldn't do anything the physicists couldn't do. So we went to see Oppie, about six of us, and complained. And Oppie says, 'The difference is that you know what you're doin' and the plumbers don't.' Then he walks out. And we took it. What an operator."
Modern Los Alamos makes it easy to picture what the town looked like in 1943, when the physicists began to arrive and settle in. Like Hiroshima, Los Alamos lives in two eras simultaneously; a road sign near Bandelier National Monument park indicates six miles to the "Atomic City. Birthplace of the Atomic Age, scientific laboratory and museum, gas-food-lodging-golf course." The makeshift wooden apartments that once housed the physicists and their families are long down, as are the PX with its cathedral-like jukebox and the commissary and the walls of bed sheets drying in the sun in front of Quonset huts. Yet photographs of all these are retained and displayed prominently in the new buildings, whose functions differ from the originals only in scope. The main business of Los Alamos is what it has been since the town popped up on a plateau just east of the continental divide 42 years ago: the design and development of nuclear weapons. These functions are performed in a surrounding of caves, canyons, mesas, mountains and sky so beautiful that all one has to do is look up from his work for a moment, and the day has changed.