Finding out Mom's job was making history

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SANTA FE, N.M. -- But for the revelation that his mother had helped bomb Hiroshima, Kevin McKibbin's lunch Aug. 6, 1945, was much the usual. He came home around noon, sat at the table with his mother, Dorothy, and they turned on the radio.

On this day, President Truman's voice filled the room.

"Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy," Truman began. "That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT ... It is an atomic bomb."

Dorothy and Kevin listened silently.

"As soon as he finished, she turned to me and said, 'That's what we've been doing,' " Kevin McKibbin recalled.

Suddenly, disparate and mysterious things came together: the armed guards who stopped Kevin the day he stopped by his mother's office for a ride home; the comically obvious FBI agents who wore the only suits in Santa Fe; the nights he slept out back because the beds were filled with physicists camped out at his house. An earth-rending halfway around the globe had made sense of the past 27 months in a boy's life.

"Wow," he said.

He said that 60 years ago. He said it again last week when he told the story of how his widowed mother became gatekeeper to a city she wasn't allowed to name. They called Los Alamos "The Hill." They called what they were building "the gadget." They called Robert Oppenheimer, the skinny man who spent hours at Dorothy's house constructing martinis and gobbling steak, "Oppie."

Kevin was 13 years old and relished the attention the visitors paid him. What they were doing he couldn't deduce and they dared not say. All he knew was that, one day in 1943 his mother was crossing the street when a friend asked her if she wanted a job.

"She said, 'what's the job?' He said, 'I can't tell you.' Well, that sealed it right there. My mother was a person who always took the road to the unknown."

A day later, she joined her friends for lunch at La Fonda, an old railroad hotel in the heart of Santa Fe. A stranger bounded lightly across the room and up to Dorothy's table, a trench coat draped loosely on his frame, and a porkpie hat covering a mass of impossible hair.

"One of the things she thought was that he was very light on his feet," Kevin said. "Just his whole demeanor. You could tell there was an intensity in there."

J. Robert Oppenheimer, a 39-year-old physicist, had been summoned to head the project. It would be months before Dorothy would fully understand what Oppenheimer was accomplishing.

Dorothy's job was to manage the office in Santa Fe, where she arranged for bank accounts and driver's licenses that, instead of names, had only numbers. She directed men capable of splitting the atom but incompetent at keeping house, through the gates of 109 East Palace, then 50 miles away, into the Jemez Mountains, where the federal government had seized a private boys school and constructed a strange, new city that was not on the maps.

Scientists unaccustomed to being locked away would often gather at Dorothy's home at 1099 Old Pecos Road.

"We had weddings there," Kevin remembered. On some nights, he would arrive home late to a note that all the beds were taken. He'd grab a sleeping bag and bed down in the yard.

On the afternoon of July 15, 1945, it was Dorothy's turn for a sleeping bag. She came home from work and told her son to round one up for her. She and some friends were going camping.

Kevin enjoyed camping. He asked who she was going with. She named a few of the friends he'd met at their house. Great, Kevin said. He'd get a bag for himself.

"She said, 'No, you stay here and hold the fort.' "

Dorothy set out for the southern flank of Sandia Mountain. It rained off and on toward the early hours of the next morning. With her friends -- to this day Kevin doesn't want to say who broke secrecy and brought his mother to the mountains for a look -- Dorothy McKibbin looked south to the desert flats.

At 45 seconds past 5:29 in the morning, the side of the mountain became a wash of gold.

"The world had changed," Dorothy would tell an interviewer in 1982. "Nothing would ever be the same again."

One hundred and twenty miles away, watching a mushroom cloud rise, Oppie was lost in his own thoughts, and remembered words from a holy book of Hinduism, The Baghavad Gita:

I am become death,
The shatterer of worlds

For the next two decades Dorothy stayed on as Los Alamos grew. Oppie moved on to head the Institute for Advanced Study and, as Dorothy watched in agony, lost his security clearance during the Red Scare.

Kevin went to Korea, came home, worked two uninspiring years at Los Alamos, then became a ranger at Bandelier National Monument. Dorothy died Dec. 17, 1985.

109 East Palace now houses an arts and crafts shop called The Rainbow Man. On a late summer's day, I strode past the tables into the three back rooms, now filled with prints and curios, to see the rooms in which Dorothy McKibbin held things together.

On a wall in the courtyard, a plaque reads: "All the men and women who made the first atomic bomb passed through this portal to their secret mission at Los Alamos."

They all had to walk past Kevin McKibbin's mother to enter history.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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