Don't ask questions
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Ed Halluska knew there was something peculiar about the metal the Army told him to grind into very precise shapes more than 60 years ago.
"You had to keep water spraying on it all the time or it would start to spark," he said.
He was told to save every scrap. The stuff was expensive. He wasn't told anything else, even that day he got off the train 18 miles from Santa Fe. A soldier picked him up for the rest of the trip.
"I said 'how far is it?' The guy said, 'Don't ask questions.' "
When he was drafted, Mr. Halluska was a young tool-and-die maker at Westinghouse. He thought he was being sent to the Navy, going to something called "The Manhattan District."
His wife, Helen, was relieved.
"I was happy that he was going to New York," she said.
He went, of course, to Los Alamos National Laboratory, a place kept quite secret, even if the secrets inside had a tendency to float free after a few weeks.
On a walk to the barracks one afternoon with a metallurgist from Brooklyn, Ed learned the truth about the weird metal.
"He was pretty sharp. He said it was a bomb. He said, 'It's a tremendous bomb, too.' "
Ed Halluska was handling the very core of the creature that would kill 145,000 people in Hiroshima. In another spot, someone was already shaping the core of the Nagasaki bomb. Doing so, they wore rubber gloves, overalls and little else.
Helen came to visit in Albuquerque and one night the secret came out of him.
"I told Helen this thing could be a chain-reaction and we'd all get killed," he said.
"I didn't think about it," Helen recalled. "I'd had one brother killed in Anzio and I didn't want to think about anyone getting killed."
Preparing for so many deaths, there was life to create, too. Helen gave birth to their son, Richard, in New Mexico and he is one of a select number of babies born in the 1940s whose birth certificates list a postal box "1663 Santa Fe, N.M.," as their homes. When the bomb was built and ended the war years early, Ed got a letter he keeps tucked among his papers at his home in Monroeville.
"Besides doing the work of your trade in an able manner, your work with special metals, requiring unusual precautions against loss or damage, was carried out in a manner to be commended."
It was signed "J. Robert Oppenheimer."
The other papers in the file are about Ed's cancer.
He has had it twice. The first bout arrived in 1976. Then it returned in 1993. Knowing what he'd been handling with all but bare hands, he's not surprised.
After the war, government agents came into his machine shop -- called the "hot room" -- took some measurements and issued radiation exposure badges for the guys to wear.
"I didn't even have a badge," Ed said. "They didn't have those until later. I was handling uranium with my fingers. I didn't know."
Ed, who's 87, has been waiting for several years now for the government to get back to him. Five years ago, Congress passed an act to compensate workers in the energy industry who'd been exposed to radiation. The list included workers at Los Alamos but, in Ed's case, specialists have to do an exposure reconstruction. That is to say, they have to figure out how much radiation he could reasonably have absorbed handling the core of the first atom bomb with thin, rubber gloves.
"They didn't know to ask about what kind of exposure they were experiencing on their jobs," said Larry Elliott, an official at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the agency instructed to work through these claims. "I am appalled by some of the industrial exposure scenarios I know existed at some of these sites." The worst cases were the guys handling plutonium. Uranium, Mr. Elliott said, is much less toxic.
To date, NIOSH has received 19,000 claims requiring a dose reconstruction. Ed Halluska is number 9,978.
"I'm not anticipating anything," he said. "I'm getting older every year."
Mr. Elliott wants Ed and Helen Halluska to know that his office is doing what it can, as quickly as it can.
"We're talking about Cold War heroes here," he said.
And we need to hurry.
First Published January 15, 2006 12:00 am