Hanford Reach: In The Atomic Field > Oral Histories

All my father ever knew was farming. He was an immigrant from Denmark, and my mother was born in Prince Edward Island, Canada. So they were both immigrants.

My folks had a farm in Richland; I was born in Pasco hospital, Lady of Lourdes, in 1932. That's where I went home to from the hospital, with my twin brother.

My father, he bought the ground there back in 1914, and planted a large portion of it to apples. They lived in a tent when they first came up, my mother and dad, and baby brother. And it was quite cold. My dad, when he’d get up, he’d light a newspaper in the washtub; it would momentarily heat the house up while my mother got out of bed… I wasn’t old enough to remember it when the Columbia River froze over. They drove bands of sheep across the river; there was water running under the ice, but the ice was thick enough that they drove model T fords across it, drove bands of sheep across it.

My folks started off with the apple orchard, but during the Depression, we couldn’t make a living on it. That’s when my dad started growing peppermint. And we grew peppermint until the end. The peppermint oil went for flavoring, gum, candy; we sold it by the pound.

One thing I remember about peppermint farming is you had to have a still, like a whiskey still, to steam the oil out of the leaves. My dad decided to build a still. And it steamed the oil out; it would come out as a vapor or as steam, and we’d run it through cooling coils and into a separator where the oil came to the top and the water went to the bottom. You’d skim that off, and be waiting for a buyer to come by. And there were several buyers in the area: a bit of competition. Some were buying for spearmint, and other uses of oil; I think maybe some medical uses.

It was a big tank, I think ten feet and six, eight feet deep in the ground, crossed steam pipes in the bottom: a giant sized still. The barrels were fifty-five-gallon drums... If you didn’t like the smell of peppermint, you wouldn’t make a good peppermint farmer! I learned to like it.

When they came in to seize the ground of Hanford Area, we were told that the ground had been condemned for war purposes; we were told that we had thirty days to get packed and moved. They would evaluate the value of the land and the property, and buy us out. We did get a little reprieve because we were far enough north that they let us stay to take the crops off. I think it was February that they came in, and condemned the land. I was thirteen when they came in, in the spring; we didn’t move until the fall. People in downtown Richland and Hanford and White Bluffs, what they had was thirty days.

When you tell people today, “Imagine that the government come in one day and say that you’ve got thirty days to pack your things and get out…” It sounds pretty amazing. And, in reality, it was. People went far and wide. Quite a number of them took the opportunity and worked for the government. But my dad was a farmer, that’s all he ever knew… I'm sure it was hard on him. But we were too young to really see the serious side of it.

As a very young person, it was kind of an interesting thing to watch what went on. They sent appraisers in, appraised your property and your house, made offers. Most everybody said the first offer they made wasn’t enough. It was the third offer that was filed. If you didn’t accept that, they took it to the courts to determine, and quite a few did that. My dad thought it would probably be quite a while before we would see any money, so he accepted the third offer. It worked out fine for us; some people until the day they died were bitter about what the government was willing to pay.

Then Hanford and White Bluffs Area there, it was wiped off the map as far as it being any farm ground, any longer. Any local business, school and everything, was nothing but a foundation now, at Hanford.

My twin brother and I thought it looked like a whole lot less work than farming. So we got jobs out there. When I got out of high school in 1951 I applied for a job and got it at the Hanford Area. I’ve always felt that when I applied for work, and they’d seen that I was a former native of Richland, that had to do with me being hired on. But that’s just an assumption I’ve made on my own.

By the time I took a job out there, all the private buildings were gone. There was one house out there that they saved; they did special testing in it. That was in the Hanford Area. There might even be still a bank building, and I don’t remember what else, in White Bluffs... It’s probably torn down, by now. But it stood for a long time... You know, I was young then. And it was kind of intriguing, I should say, to see it converted from all I ever knew, farming, to military use.

The reactors over there, I’ve worked in most all of them as an operating engineer. But to me, carrying that dinner pail to work every day wasn’t as gratifying as farming. There was no longer farmland out there… It was a beautiful area, for farming. What you could raise out there: strawberries, all kinds of fruits and vegetables, and five acres could make a living for a farmer with those specialized crops.

I’ve heard claims, I don’t know if they’ve ever been validated. They’re called the "Downwinders." There might have been something to it, there might not, I don’t know. And I don't know if they know for sure. And I don't know if any of the Downwinders were paid anything…

In fact one friend, both him and his brother passed away last year: a steam-fitter out there, and a plumber. And another one, he worked out there where they made the fuels. They died of cancer. And well, my brother in law, my sister’s husband… She died of cancer, but she didn’t work out there enough that she qualified. But he’s still alive; he had cancer removed off the top of his head. He got paid through that system…

I know quite a few. Some are gone. Some: their relatives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, if they qualify, they file for them. I know a number of those that have received compensation for living with cancer, and even having it successfully treated, as well as ones that… it took their life.

Well I’m not much one to worry about hearsay or speculation. Who knows? It’s kind of an unknown. They’ve done research, and feel like they’ve determined what does cause cancer, and what types wouldn’t have come from it. But I’m not privy to what their analysis is. I’m not one to say whether… It’s a very good chance that that’s what it was… I don’t think anybody knows.

I look at it this way: the Atomic Bomb saved lives; it didn’t cost lives. And if we hadn’t of had the atomic bomb, we might be speaking Japanese… I see it as an energy source that is as safe as any energy source; I think there are safe ways to handle it.

There’s no doubt that there’s people that got exposed out there, that there was a problem. But I don’t think it was everybody who worked there. It’s true that the longer they study it, the more they find out…

But I don't feel like I was misused, out there…