Remember Los Alamos!
By Michael Chandler
Author’s note: In 1978, I was a junior in high school, and I had a part-time job as a parking lot attendant at Maine Medical Center, in Portland. I worked by myself in a booth, mostly nights and weekends, and the radio was my constant companion, yet Sunday morning radio was always a letdown. Those are the hours dedicated to public service programming, to comply with FCC rules; church, community, financial analysis, an Anthropology professor emeritus from the University of Maine, youth outreach programs, care of houseplants, etc.
One Sunday morning, I came across a public service show, called “Young at Heart.” It was on “Magic,” WMGX, a popular 50,000 Watt FM station that had very high ratings, because the aging hippies were gravitating to “easy listening” music. Somebody on the station’s production staff had decided that “Young at Heart” would be a Sunday morning, one-hour news and interview show conducted by high school students.
The show started as fifteen minutes of oddball news pieces pulled off the UPI wire service, followed by a forty-five minute interview with someone that the regular news staff thought would hold an audience’s attention for three-quarters of an hour.
A girl named Sue Sterling conducted the interview that I heard that morning, and, for a sixteen year-old, she was engaging, perceptive, and had an instinct for avoiding lame questions and dead air. As soon as the show was over, I called the station and left my number. I met Sue during the week, and we got along great. They just happened to be replacing someone who had left the show, and Sue asked me if I could start that coming weekend. I did.
We taped the show on Saturday mornings for its Sunday broadcast. There were five of us “reporters,” a teenage engineer, and Tom, our station-appointed chaperone/producer, whom I mostly remember as being red with laughter at our naïve enthusiasm and irreverence. We all read our stories, and Sue and I remained to conduct the interview. That week, we had the actor, Robert Merrill, who lived in Cape Elizabeth. The following week, our guest was Peter White Horse, a Navajo elder and clan leader, from the Navajo Nation, in New Mexico. He was driving across the country to attend a Twenty Nation symposium in Old Town, Maine, and he agreed to stop in and do our show. He was a terrific interview. He had a unique stoicism interwoven with a dry, understated wit. He was both proud and humble at the same time, with the venom of a copperhead occasionally thrown in. Some elements of humiliating, near-genocidal, historical events, he tossed off in the manner of stand-up comedy; describing the low standard of education in the pueblos and reservations of that time, his eyes became knifelike slits.
As deft a manipulator as Peter White Horse was with conversation, I have met few people more genuine, more honest, in all my years since. When I looked into his eyes as he spoke, I realized that he was not talking to Sue and I. He was talking with us. Even as we awaited our turn in the interview to respond or to pose another question, Sue Sterling and I were being engaged.
After the interview, Sue and I were thrilled. It was still before noon, and we had had Peter White Horse in the studio for a few hours. The trip to Old Town would be a full day’s drive, so Sue and I offered Peter White Horse a big breakfast to start his trip. He said “yes,” and we were delighted.
We got into his car and brought him to Sambo’s, back then, a national chain diner. I know that Sue and I, in the presence of Peter White Horse, were somewhat self-conscious of the image that the name, “Sambo’s,” elicited, but they had a great breakfast, unlimited coffee refills, and it was right near the highway. We got our huge breakfasts, and must have drunk two pots of coffee between us, and smoked about ten cigarettes apiece.
I had brought a small cassette recorder with me, that I used for interviews for my school newspaper, and I left it running on the seat next to me. Now, thirty-five years later, I ran across the cassette, and it still plays. Here it is, transcribed:
(Various table and background restaurant noise)
Peter White Horse: Oh, damn it. I spilled syrup on my matches.
Michael Chandler: That’s okay, Sue has a lighter. (To Sue) Yeah, just leave it on the table. I need one too.
PWH: Hey, you know this place is pretty good. Back out west, we got Stuckey’s.
Sue Sterling: Which is better?
PWH: They’re both good, I mean for truck stops. Stuckey’s got a big breakfast buffet – lots of fresh fruit, ham, bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes, and it’s all you can eat, one price. Hell, you can sit there all morning if you’re not in a hurry. Lot of times, we’ll just sit around and swap stories until they start serving lunch (laughs).
S.S.: We know you’ve got a long drive today, but maybe you have a story you could tell us?
PWH: You said you kids are buying breakfast?
M.C.: Of course. You’re our guest.
PWH: Okay, well I’ve got a story for you that’s never been told to anyone, at least not by me. I can’t say that some of the other warriors haven’t told it on their own, in private, but it’s not something that we really want to get around too much, and you’ll see why.
This was around the beginning of World War Two, and the world was changing all around us, so, in New Mexico a bunch of tribes got together in a kind of informal information chain. We wanted to keep up with the strange times happening everywhere and how it might affect our people. We wanted to keep our ears to the ground. They called it, “the moccasin telegraph.” We ran patrols on horseback out in the desert and just kept an eye on the land. There was a lot of military stuff going on down in the southwest, (laughs) and you know the history of the military and the Indians. We listened with extra sensitivity in the stores and diners and the post offices, and anywhere people would meet. Each pueblo or reservation would have an information chief, who would send what he heard to the smaller clans and families, and then on to other communities. Actually, a lot of times, the information chief would be a woman, they seemed to be pretty good at spreading news (laughs).
My clan was outside of Gallup (New Mexico), and in 1942 it was, we got word from one of our riders in the Tewa pueblo of Santa Clara (New Mexico) that they had closed down the old Los Alamos Ranch School and the government had bought up all the farms and homesteads around the Four Mesas for real cheap. The Four Mesas is what we used to call Los Alamos.
Now this raised a red flag for many, many reasons. First of all, the nations had great respect for the works of the Ranch School. It wasn’t perfect, but it was one white man’s effort to teach the ways of the land to young rich boys who wouldn’t have learned it otherwise. The writer, Gore Vidal, went there. They taught spirituality and a respect for living truly of the earth and the sky. We were sad to see it go, and it was very sudden. We wanted to know what Uncle Sam wanted with such a place that, as far as the white man saw it, was out in the middle of nowhere.
Another thing that was of great concern was what they had done to the Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. They had all been put in internment camps, even though a lot of their boys had signed up in the service. There were a few camps in New Mexico, and they had one for Italians and Germans right in Santa Fe, and later they started putting the Japanese there. “Undesirables,” they called them, like they were suspicious characters, because of their nationality or their politics. We didn’t know if we had anything to fear, but there was some paranoia, because our people had been put into internment camps not a hundred years before. And of course some of our boys were code talkers, and we wondered if that might have something to do with the government wanting to clear us out of the reservations and keep all of us in one place. The four mesas at Los Alamos would be the perfect place to do it.
In early 1943, the Army Corps of Engineers moved in and started surveying all the land around the four mesas. Lo and behold, they got a crew of about six Navajo and Apache to serve as guides to the engineering teams, so we found out that it wasn’t going to be an internment camp, but whatever the Army was doing up in Los Alamos, it was all very hush-hush. Anyway, we were getting reports every couple days about where they were surveying and how they were marking up the territory. One of the guides overheard a couple of the top brass guys talking about the place as “Project Y,” so, among ourselves, we used to call it “Project What?”
It wasn’t but a month or so that they started fencing the place in, and they started making roads and building barracks and buildings and a bunch of small houses, radio towers, and the like. They had to hire private contractors, because there was so much construction going on, so we made sure we got a bunch of our men got hired onto the crews. There was only one gate in or out, and it was heavily guarded. They put up a big sign that said the name of the place was “The Los Alamos Project,” and they started moving in all kinds of soldiers and civilians to live there. Everybody needed a special I.D. to get in and out. Plus they were patrolling the fence lines night and day.
We were still getting regular reports from our guys on the construction crews, but there were a lot of rumblings and rumors about exactly what the government was doing up there.
S.S.: Of course, we all know now.
P.W.H.: Well, back then, nobody did, and we were getting mighty curious. So it was about the middle of 1944, there was this Apache elder who was called Gray Owl, and he was descended from a line of great warriors. He was very wise, but many of his ideas of the world, and about our freedom, frightened his people. Grey Owl had earned his tribal name when he was only a boy, and he was a man who lived by the belief of independence for his people. I guess you could have called him a reactionary. He sent a couple of his most trusted men to the various pueblos and reservations, to find him a group of young, intelligent men, who knew how to be true warriors, who held to their tribes and to their teachings and their families, to attend a very important and very secret meeting with him. I happened to be among Grey Owl’s chosen young men.
We met far out in the desert on horseback, and, as proof of our abilities, we had to make our own way there with only a knife, a rope, a water skin and a bedroll. We came in twos and threes, as we had been picked from our clans and communities. I traveled with a boyhood friend. I can only tell you his code name, because, as we arrived at the meeting place, we were each given a name that we would use for the rest of our mission. I became known as Tree Shadow, and my friend was Still Lake.
There were thirty-eight of us, not counting Grey Owl, and when we had all gathered, he gave us his blessing, and he anointed each of us with our new names. We took an oath of loyalty, unity, and secrecy. That wasn’t so easy, because Grey Owl had chosen us from many tribes, and we had our disputes. We were mostly Navajo, Apache, Tewa, and Comanche, but there were also some Zunis, and I was surprised to see two brothers from the Manso tribe. There are very few Mansos left.
We all sat and listened to Gray Owl, and he asked us to find a new brotherhood with all the men gathered. He was very persuasive, and every one of us knew he was right. He then told us that we had been selected to perform a mission, which was very bold and very exciting. We were going to infiltrate the Los Alamos Project compound and other military installations in ways that we had not considered. We would also keep an eye on the government men with their machines and headsets that they were hunting around the desert with. We had found out that they were looking for rocks called uranium and plutonium. We sure didn’t now why, and it wasn’t something like silver or copper ore or turquoise, that we knew where we could find it and they couldn’t. One thing was sure; if they found it on the reservation, they were going to steal it from us.
Gray Owl told us that we were going to be the front line for our own territory, kind of like the Indian FBI, and all us young men seemed to get along a lot better after that. Gray Owl was a wise man.
He kept us in our twos and threes, as partners, but he assigned us territory in larger teams, and some of us would have to work far away from our communities. We would be the guests of families in other pueblos and reservations, and we would fit into the clans, and we would share their work, at the new places we were assigned. Still Lake and I were put in with some men and their families from the Tesuque pueblo, among the Tewa people, not too far from the Four Mesas. They were gracious hosts, so we became good friends right away. We were also very happy to maybe meet some new young women.
(A waitress offers us coffee, and serves it.)
M.C.: So what did he want you to do? Go into Los Alamos?
P.W.H.: Well, first, we were supposed to talk to the guys who were going inside to do the carpentry and lay the roads. The place was growing every week, and they were having problems with the rains and the run-off water, so they were having to build wooden sidewalks and were constantly having to fix up the roads. Our guys on the inside weren’t going anywhere for a while, and we got them to draw us pictures of the place. Then, we men from Tesuque and Pojaque, a pueblo which was nearby, had to go out nights and find out the fences and the patrols. After we did that for a time, we were very confident that we could find out anything we wanted.
S.S.: Security must have been really tight.
P.W.H.: We were sending regular reports back to Gray Owl, and we waited for his word. When it came back to us, he told us to use the weakest points, and to go in and get back out, kind of like practice runs, and we developed it as we went along. We would always go at night, and no matter how many times we did it, it was always very exciting. After a while, it was child’s play. We knew how to cover our tracks on the way in and on our way out. Usually, we’d try to keep our entry and our exit a mile or two apart.
What a laugh. All of our “raids,” we use to call them, were done in silence, and the Army, I guess they figured the more noise they made, the more they’d scare somebody off. When they were patrolling with the jeeps, hell, you could hear them and see them coming from two miles out. They’d have regular rounds with guys on foot with dogs. First of all, dogs are the friends of Navajos for thousands of years, and we know how they think. What we used to do was to bring a Coke bottle full of wolf piss and sprinkle that around. We’d put some on our feet, and those dogs would take that patrol anywhere we weren’t. Someone back at the pueblo was raising llamas, and I used to pour some llama piss on the outside of the fence. I must have been responsible for about fifteen purple hearts, guys getting their arms scraped up trying to keep those dogs from running through the barbed wire.
There were some patrols that they had that didn’t come around at regular times, and they’d be the soldiers on horseback. We used to carry rattlesnake rattles on us for them. You’d give those things a shake, late at night, and I swear, you could have moved the whole Pojaque pueblo right on past ‘em, livestock and all. We used to use birdcalls to signal each other, but dammit, I never heard a bird laugh out loud like we used to. That was just about the hardest part of not getting caught, was us trying not to laugh at those poor army kids.
M.C.: What did you find out about the laboratory?
P.W.H.: Like I say, those were only test runs; even though we were successful, we had to wait for the word from Gray Owl to find out what we were supposed to do next. The good thing we had going for us, come to find out, was that they were all looking for infiltrators. They were worried about spies who would try to get in the front gate with a forged I.D. card. One of our squad from Tesuque used to say that, if we had asked the night guards politely, we could have opened a roadhouse and sold whiskey. We still didn’t know what we were trying to find out, but we knew we could whenever we needed to.
S.S.: How long were you making your “raids”?
P.W.H: Oh, I guess it was about seven or eight months, because I remember the cold winter and the snows, and the warming of the hills and the new, fresh water, but that was alright with us, because we were happy to be with the Tewas. They fed us and put us up, and it was a comfortable feeling to be among them. Of course, we were young men and new to the community, and there were girls to meet. Still Lake fell in love with a daughter of the family we were staying with, which was good for him, because he was a pretty shy guy. After the war, they got married. He has passed on now, but they raised a large and proud family of beautiful sons and daughters and grandchildren. It is very sad that they don’t know of Still Lake’s silent legend. As far as I know, he never told even his wife. I tell you now, that you may hold that legend within you, but that you should not reveal it until long away. Long away.
(The waitress returns with more coffee; ashtrays clink, and the cassette tape is flipped over.)
P.W.H.: We got the go-ahead from Gray Owl, in the spring of 1945, to make our way further into the compound and to get into the buildings. We knew by then, that many of the civilians working there were scientists and mathematicians, and sometimes they would work all night long. Of course, we had no idea what they were doing, and their late hours made our reconnaissance much more difficult. Still, we crept around like spiders, and we left no trace of ourselves. We saw only that they were doing science and mathematics, but we could not tell Gray Owl what it all meant, why they were doing what they were doing. It was still a big secret, but we knew that in the first place.
We were told to keep a day-long watch on the place, keep a nighttime eye on the buildings inside, and to report any large transport, coming or going, day or night, troops and vehicles. Something was going to happen, and somehow, Gray Owl knew it. There were eighteen of us assigned to Los Alamos, and we were all on high alert.
We men began feeling a restlessness of the people we were observing at Los Alamos. We heard it in the tone of their voices, and it was in the air around us. “Project Why?” started to be “Project When?” And it was our job to find out.
We saw that the army started moving out trucks of everything, men, lumber, food and first-aid, and heavy, covered trucks that you couldn’t see what it was inside. We got many more reports from our other scouts, that they saw a lot of activity in other camps, of the moving of men and equipment, and that it was all headed to the southern central part of New Mexico, down to Alamogordo.
Well, they started setting up all manner of things around Alamogordo, and security was very tight, but we had our scouts down there, and lots of wide open desert that our teams knew how to navigate without being seen. It was hard to tell what the Army was doing out there in the middle of nowhere, but whatever it was, it was going to be big; we knew that much, so we kept as close an eye on the area as we could, for a few months in the spring.
Then, at the beginning of May, KABOOM! There was an enormous explosion that shook the whole earth and lit up the night sky like it was high noon. Our two Manso tribesmen were about thirty miles away from it, and they thought the world was coming to an end. We had teams fifty, sixty miles away, and they could see the sky light up. We had to wait for several days to get in close enough to see what had happened, and it looked like the Army wasn’t done yet. They were still out there building and rebuilding, so we pulled our men back and kept our eyes on their supply lines. We also kept a sharp eye on what was happening up at Los Alamos, because it was pretty clear to us that that was the center of everything, with all its scientists and technicians and machinery. They kept moving out and moving back and ferrying the trucks out and back, and over the weeks, you could just feel the tension around the place, more people working longer hours, more guards patrolling, officers yelling at sergeants, sergeants yelling at the men...
We sent out the word for our men to hang back, no closer than fifty miles to Alamogordo, just in case there was another explosion like the first one, and it’s a good thing we did. In the middle of July that year, 1945, they cleared out about half the soldiers from Los Alamos, and the place was nothing but hot and quiet, and we saw fewer patrols.
And then it happened. On a Monday night, July 17th, you would have thought the whole state of New Mexico had its own sun in the sky, but the light was white... and green and purple. The whole earth rumbled, and windows broke, and a hot wind blew. And then it was quiet, and there was just that unnatural wind, and you knew that something had happened that had never happened before. And for days, the desert was quiet and still, and the people were quiet, and when everyone had come back to Los Alamos, there was no more excitement. It was as though everyone was walking around praying.
When we were able to get anywhere near the place of the great explosion, we still had to stay a long way off. There were guards and scientists all around the giant crater, like it was an ant colony. Reports came back to us that the crater in the ground was like a great dish of green glass. They even have a name for the melted earth. They call it, trinitite, because the explosion was named, the Trinity Test. I have seen pieces of the stone, but I am afraid to touch it. I have pity for those who value it and use it as jewelry. It only reminds me of shame, and of disrespect for the earth, which gives us life.
Of course, it was only a few weeks after the Trinity Test, that we learned of the devastation of Hiroshima. The newspapers didn’t give all the details to the people, but we thirty-eight and Gray Owl understood what had happened over there, and then it happened again, in Nagasaki, and we were very relieved for the Japanese when they surrendered. But we were also very angry at the government for using our homeland as a testing ground for their ungodly destruction. Many of our own brothers had volunteered for service, and many had died, because, in the beginning, we had felt that our land was being threatened by the enemy. And now, here was that very same government that swore to protect us, and they were using the place of our birth to test their weapons of unimaginable power, and death as it had never been seen.
Now that the war was over, Uncle Sam was going to drink up the spoils of war. We wondered, what would we get out of all of this? Would we even be allowed to return to the simple lives that we had known, living as we always had, off the land and commending our bodies and our souls to the earth and sky? Or would we become slaves to this new and destructive fire? How many more atomic bombs would they blow up in the land of our ancestors?
Gray Owl called us all to our original meeting place in the desert. He had the answer for us. He celebrated us all for our bravery, and he told us that we would be rewarded for our deeds both spiritually and in earthly ways. We had, he reminded us, all profited from the new relations we had forged with our brothers and sisters of other Nations. There was a new unity among the tribes. He then told us we would also profit from the United States government, in a way that our great Uncle Sam could always understand – through his wallet.
Grey Owl’s plan was simple. We already had easy access to the Los Alamos compound, and we knew its layout and all of its workings. We were to break into one of the buildings which held the files, and we were to remove as many as we could carry. We would then hold the files for ransom. He called upon the eighteen of us who had been in the Four Mesas area for the detail, and sent the other twenty home and told them to wait for his call. Obviously, he didn’t have to tell any of us not to breathe a word.
A week or so later, in the dead of night, Still Lake and I and three of more of our team went through the fences at Los Alamos. We were brave, but I know I got a little nervous, because it seemed too easy, even though we knew our way around the compound like it was daylight. We got past the guards easy enough, and into the building where we knew they kept most of their records. Many of the filing cabinets weren’t even locked. We filled up our packs, and we dropped some files on the floor, so they’d know there had been a break-in the next morning. We were in and out of the camp in under a half hour.
We gave the packs to a crew from the Zuni tribe, and they took them to some of their ancient cave dwellings, far away in the desert mesas, where even their own people couldn’t have found them. Then we went back to our pueblos and reservations and waited.
Naturally, the government people thought it had been foreign agents, and the FBI came in, and they all squinted their beady little eyes around the place, but they couldn’t find any trace of where those files could have gone. I now feel bad for some of the men who must have been suspected and interrogated, but nobody even thought to ask us poor old drunken Indians, as they thought of us, who were busy putting up our corn supply for the winter.
Like I say, and will say again, Gray Owl was very wise and very crafty. He waited a whole week to send his ransom note, and when he did, he sent it on a sealed piece of bison skin. To carry his message, he chose three Apache children from a reservation that was not his own. The children, a very young girl and boy, and a teenage girl to look after them, had found the message at entrance of their adobe, along with bus tickets to Santa Fe, and instructions to meet a certain Army colonel there. They had no idea what the message was or who had sent it. Their parents were advised, through a mystery woman, to let them go alone.
The message told the Army that their files were safe and not in the hands of the enemy; they had not been duplicated, and they would be returned upon the receipt of thirty-eight million American dollars. Gray Owl specified that the money should come in small bills, from the airplane manufacturing companies in California. They had it in their payrolls, and it could be put together quickly. He told them that we Indians had eyes all over those companies, and that the men in charge should do as he asked. I am pretty sure he was lying, but he knew what he was doing. He gave them a very short deadline.
(Laughs) Do you know how embarrassed those men in the government were? Our leaders? (Laughs) They were so smart when it came to enemies of the state, but to have their top-secret papers waved under their noses by two little children and their babysitter? How can you top that?
They had the money for us in a six-ton truck, within twenty-four hours. We watched them fly it in and unload it. Even though every soldier within a hundred miles was keeping their eyes out for suspicious-looking Indians, what the hell did they really expect to find? They were back on their heels, and they couldn’t make a howl, because (laughs heartily and coughs) their faces were so red... (laughs and clears his throat).
Gray Owl had them moving that truck at eleven o’clock that night. Again, he had it thought out ahead of time, because that night there was no moon. At Gray Owl’s instructions, there was to be no escort for the truck, just an army driver and a navigator. He had sent one of our men down to Texas, who called and told them what to do. They drove an old winding dirt road through the desert, and into the mesas. Our men cut down trees and telephone poles and blew a bunch of craters into the road behind the truck, so it couldn’t be followed. We could see the airplanes tracking the truck from the sky, but there wasn’t much any of them could do about it at night.
About twenty miles away, we ambushed the truck, old west-style, as it was coming through a pass in the mesas. We scooped up that money, about two dozen of us, and rode off in four different directions. We transferred the money to some guys who had pick-up trucks, and by the time the sun came up, it looked like nobody had been in the desert. Gray Owl had moved their files to a bus station locker in Tuscon, and we left the key with the poor boys handcuffed to their truck.
Gray Owl made sure we all waited for six months before we ever saw any of the money. By that time, the feds weren’t snooping around anymore. I guess they just gave it up and filed it away, because they were so embarrassed. When we finally got the money, it came out to exactly one million dollars a man. Hell, that was a big box. Do you know what a million dollars in five and tens and twenties looks like?
S.S.: But there were thirty-nine of you. I was going to ask about that.
M.C.: Yeah, I wondered, too.
P.W.H.: Well, Gray Owl had long decided that he didn’t want any of the white man’s money. He told us that, if we were to stay true to our people, we would know what to do with it. He told us that some of it belonged to each of us, but that we had always been working for our people. Our true personal gain was that we had learned to work together. He said that to spread our wealth among our communities was the honorable way to increase our personal wealth and the best and truest way to make a future for our children and our children’s children.
S.S.: So, is that what happened?
P.W.H.: You know, I’d like to tell you that every penny of it went back into our culture, but there is a certain portion of every population that have only themselves in mind. It is true that a few men drank themselves to death, and some men gambled much of their money away. Some took themselves and their families far away and divorced themselves from life on the reservation. But the majority of us gave most of what we had back to our people. We built schools and community centers, roads and new homes, and we helped start new businesses that would be independent of the white man. We bought seed and livestock, and land with flowing water. We set up college funds, for the young and old who wished for higher learning. One man even established a library of Native American history for all tribes and peoples who wanted to participate. A million dollars went a long way, back in those days.
S.S.: Where did you tell people you got the money from?
P.W.H.: (Laughs) We just said we got it from the government.
Now, you kids. I’ve really gotta hit the road. You said you got my breakfast, right? I ran out of my share about ten years ago (laughs).
M.C.: Oh, no, no. I’ve got it.
S.S.: Thank you for everything, Mr. White Horse.
P.W.H.: Sue, please call me Peter, always Peter.
M.C.: Thank you, Peter.
(The tape recorder rustles loudly.)
S.S.: (Whispering to M.C.) Did you get all that?
M.C.: I think I did. I hope so.
(End of recording)