Oppenheimer souvenir brings back bittersweet moment

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By Roger Snodgrass

Jerry Houlton started working at Los Alamos Science Laboratory on his 29th birthday, Feb. 3, 1963. A little more than a year later he had one of those extraordinary encounters that he would never forget.

The story was told for years within the family but only recently did Houlton write it down.

He worked as an “over the road driver,” for the Supply and Property Division. That meant driving trucks off lab property, to Albuquerque or to the Nevada Test Site, for example.

“Two of the guys I worked with had hauled the gadget down to Trinity Site,” he said. That was back in the days of the Manhattan Project, when J. Robert Oppenheimer was the lab’s director and the gadget was the first atomic weapon. Houlton’s buddies had probably met the man but that was before Houlton’s time.

One day in the spring of 1964, Houlton, “the new guy” had instructions to transport some personal items for an unnamed guest. As directed, he arrived at the “P Prime” building at 10:30 in the morning where the office of his division leader, Harry Allen, was located. “P Prime” fronted Ashley Pond, about where the former Municipal Building was until it was demolished last year.

Houlton lived in an apartment a couple of blocks away.

As he climbed the stairs, his boss and the “guest” were saying their good-byes.

Allen handed Houlton a set of keys to the office at 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, formerly the top secret entryway where lab scientists and their families arrived and were processed on their way up the hill.

Houlton was instructed to pick up some books and personal items and get them to the railroad station in Lamy by 4 p.m.

That’s when he was introduced to Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer, according to an article from the Atom Magazine of June 1964, “returned to Los Alamos on May 18 and made his first public address in the Atomic City since resigning as laboratory director in 1945.”

“We left the building and went out to the truck,” Houlton wrote in his memoir about the day. “Oppie had his briefcase and his notes on the colloquium he had given earlier and an overcoat. He asked if I could put the coat under the seat. I replied that I could run over to my house and get a coat hanger and we could hang it up behind the seat…”

Remembering Oppenheimer from that day, Houlton said in an interview Monday, “I could tell the man was heartbroken and exhausted.”

On the way to Santa Fe, Oppenheimer asked if he could smoke.

“We talked about everything from cabbages to kings,” Houlton wrote. “What kind of car did I drive? Who was my favorite baseball team? What kind of work I did before I started driving for Harry? These things made the miles go a little smoother.”

When they got to 109 Palace Ave., Houlton loaded some books and pictures and asked about the desk and chair that were also there, which Oppenheimer said he didn’t want.

Houlton saw a trash can, one of those gray, standard issue government trash cans and recalls saying, “I could use that myself.”

Oppenheimer said he would trade him the trash can for the coat hanger.

And that was that. They went on to Lamy where they met the train.

Oppenheimer, by then in his twilight years, a decade since his security clearance was revoked after a controversial hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission.

A year later Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died in February 1967 at the age of 62.

And the trash can?

“We used it for years,” Houlton said, who worked at the lab for 30 years before retiring.

He moved his way up from an apartment to a quad to a duplex and then a house in White Rock. “Every time you got a raise you qualified for better housing,” he said.

Somewhere along the way, the trash can, that had been something between an inside joke and a relic in the Houlton household, disappeared.

“I don’t know where it went,” Houlton said.

He still works part time at Metzger’s Do It Best in White Rock, and he will always remember that spring day he spent with an American icon.