The Wives of Los Alamos

By TaraShea Nesbit

February 2014


Until We Found Our Own

The bus stopped at a barbed wire fence, and a man in a deep green uniform and a large gun at his hip stood tall at the gate. We had been told by our husbands to be careful what we said, but when the man boarded the bus and asked us for our identification, when the man in uniform said, Mrs. Smith and we forgot our fake name for a moment, or we were not sure if we were supposed to tell him the truth, our real name, we corrected him: Mrs. Mueller, you mean, and he lowered his eyebrows and moved in close to us, and we smelled coffee, or vodka, or onions, and he said, No. You are Mrs. Miller now. It was not until then that we realized the gravity of what our husbands meant when they told us: Be careful what you say. We were no longer in charge of ourselves or even our own names.


At the fence was a sign: U.S. Government property. Danger! Peligro! Keep out. Down below we saw Dobermans patrolling the bases of the cliffs, and above, on the peaks, we saw men on horseback standing lookout. In front of us, a six-foot rattlesnake hung on the guard gate. If it was night the military police officers shined flashlights into our cars and into our children's sleeping eyes; and if it was day they asked us to step out of the vehicle.


Some of us were not yet U.S. citizens; we were from the enemy's country, Germany, but we were not the enemy, and the Director vouched for us. Or we arrived and our passes were not ready and it was night and the Director was not available, and we could hear the coyotes echoing down the canyon. We were told to stay in the car until morning, and although it was summer the night was cold. We were pregnant. We do not remember how much we slept, but it felt like little, until finally, finally, the sun rose over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Someone official woke up and walked towards us and apologized and confirmed that we were who they said we were. We handed over our cameras. We denied we kept a diary. We received our clearances and continued through the gate, up the muddy unpaved road, past plots of land piled with felled trees and sheetrock and tubs of paint; past cranes and bulldozers; past a fast-moving truck, until we arrived at rows and rows of identical green houses, until we found our own.


Or we arrived without our husbands and we were greeted by Donald Moll Flanders in the Housing Office who ordered someone named Bob to show us to our home and take us to the square dance that evening. And when our husbands did arrive they came with a bodyguard, Baldovino. We were amused: our husbands needed a bodyguard?

Since we had no children or because we arrived later than the others, we were assigned not to a house but to an apartment on the second floor. It was stuffy inside but we could not open the windows because they were painted shut. We were disappointed or angry but when we entered our apartment we found a vase of wild flowers on the kitchen counter, a pitcher of milk in the ice box and a note: Welcome to the neighborhood! –Katherine & Louise.


Or we arrived, stepped out of the car, and Ingrid was already walking out of her door, towards us, and she said her name and tried to give us half her teaching shift. We arrived and Erica was in the next yard over saying soothing words in Swiss German to her daughter who was on the ground with muddy knees, crying, and Starla called out to those of us within shouting distance: I just saved these trees from the military! and pointed to the three pines in her front yard. Louise opened her front door and exclaimed, The Allies reclaimed Sicily! The two agreed it was high-time to celebrate, and called a tea party—or was it a cocktail hour?—for 3 o'clock.


Or we arrived as the first wall of our house was being nailed, and we wept. The week before we left we ordered from Marshall Field everything a new wife might need, but we arrived and were told, Your boxes won't be here until next month, and we did not even have a pot, a spoon, or a dish. So we made fast friends with the Mormon family next door and for two months we ate off their floral-patterned plates.


If it was night when we first arrived, we got out of the car and walked forward, our feet, still in heels, were pricked by the gravel. Our husbands led the way with a light. We walked toward our number written on a yellow piece of paper given to us in Santa Fe—our four, our number ten. It was a slanted piece of land and a piñon pine, without a structure to sleep in.


Our husbands led the way with a light, except they did not know exactly where our new home was situated, and so we moved forward and then retraced our steps. Someone called to us in the distance. The voice got closer and a man appeared and he said, Very sorry, we were expecting you later, it's not ready yet, come to the lodge. We were cold, but we smiled even though it hurt our cheeks to smile, and we went into the lodge, and made our way to our sleeping bags on the floor.


Though we did not know it then, this was something men, women, and children across the West were also doing, in former horse stables swept out but still smelling, on gymnasium floors with a hundred others, with their one allowable suitcase, with a four digit number pinned to the collar of their coats, because they were of Japanese descent. We were white, or we passed for white, or we were not white, but we did not look Japanese, and we did not know this about the Japanese Americans, or only vaguely did we know, and we thought they went to a place where they could be protected from other Americans, other Americans who might hate them because they were from enemy country. And we thought they would be protected because that was what we were told, if we were told anything. We were not informed they would be net makers and would be protected by men who lost their legs in the Pacific Theater. Because we did not know these things, what we felt was for ourselves, a bit of pity, and for our children, a bit of fear, and for our husbands, a bit of anger, and we undressed, and we tried to sleep.


We told our children, This is an adventure! though we preferred the adventure of something new and exciting with the potential for a high return—a love affair, say—rather than a risky undertaking with a probably unfavorable outcome, like the Klondike gold rush. Would this be our kind of adventure? Our husbands saw our faces and said, You'll love the country once you get used to it.


We tried to sleep but we could not. We thought about our mothers, who, when we got married, said, Marriage is not easy. We thought about our mothers who said, He is a good man, and our mothers who said, Be kind to him. Our mothers who said the secret to a good marriage was a clean house and a warm meal, our mothers who said the secret was keeping quiet, or our mothers who said the secret to a good marriage was picking your battles. Or, for one of our mothers, the secret to a good marriage, she said, was sex.


We thought of our mothers who were right now on the back porch enjoying a cigarette, our mothers who were standing in the kitchen wrapping up a plate in tinfoil and putting it in the oven to keep warm, we thought of our mothers writing letters to our brothers who were crossing oceans we would never see. We thought of our mothers who were drinking gin gimlets with our fathers at a party, who were drawing a bath, who were asleep. Our mothers who told us they were so proud of us. We thought of our mothers and we knew this was not our home, this New Mexico. Nevertheless, we would make the best of it.



From Fields, From Concrete

We were warned by our mothers, our grandmothers, our uncles, our fathers, our priests, and our rabbis not to marry them before the war was over; they worried we were making a hasty decision; they thought time would change our minds. Our fiancés were men they did not like, or they loved the men we chose but they thought we were too young, or they wanted us to finish college first. And when we did marry them we were told, Well, Virginia, you'll need a broom and a dustpan. Perhaps we did not marry our first loves—men who in our memory were reduced to caricature—the athlete, the class clown. We married the scientists instead, men with big heads and scrawny bodies. Or we had always loved the scholarly ones most of all.


Our husbands came from small towns, from large cities, from fields, from concrete. We met them on boardwalks in Atlantic City, on football fields in Iowa, at cafes in Berlin, at scientific meetings in Moscow. They were disqualified for the draft due to rheumatic fever as a child, diabetes, being overweight, being underweight, asthma, deafness, or poor eyesight. They spoke several languages, they were aggressive at sports, they loped across the street, they shined with knowledge. They thought we were beautiful, they thought we were smart, they thought we had soft breasts, they thought we would make good mothers.


We married them weeks or months after Pearl Harbor—in spring, summer, fall, and winter—when our West coast hometowns were declared to be in a state of emergency and all citizens had a curfew of ten o'clock. We wore smart white suits or dresses our mothers made. We were married in the presence of neighbors, distant family members, our mother's bridge partners—people we were obligated to invite though we did not really like them.


In the air was the threat of every man leaving, of every man being a hero, of every eligible bachelor dying in war—these threats made our fiancés seem more desirable to us, or our love more urgent. We were willing to decide something very large about our futures.


We were featured in the celebrations section of our hometown newspaper along with a paragraph about our wedding, what we wore, what we were doing now, and what our parents did. We were Audreys and Susans and we carried bouquets of white orchards surrounded by stephanotis. Our bridesmaids wore French blue chiffon, or grey tulle, and held yellow cascade bouquets of gladiolas and daisies. We wore cotton and did not tell the celebrations section that under our dresses were our worn out saddle shoes.


Our brothers said we looked like movie stars, like angels, like ourselves, like ourselves but prettier, or like our mothers. Our brothers were late to our weddings because they were taking the officer candidate exam. Or our brothers were not there to see us wed—they were in a bunker in Europe, they were at Army gunnery school. They were navy bombers, and on our wedding day the newspaper reported: A Navy patrol plane with ten men aboard has been unreported since it took off on a routine training flight Friday and it is presumed lost in the Gulf, and we did not hear from our brothers on our wedding day, or the next week, or the next.


Our parents cried; our parents' friends told us how much they loved weddings because they got to feel as if they were renewing their own vows, too; and we looked around rooms and lawns and churches and we could only see the smiling people, and we felt an abundance of love, though photographs later might show frowns or boredom.


Now we thought we had lost our glow but only from lack of sleep or because of the desert air, and we thought our husbands looked more distinguished these days, or less wild in the eyes, or more so. We felt in control of ourselves, we felt hopeful we had made the right choice, we felt weary, we felt all these things at the same time, but more so: we felt we could not turn back.