Interview with Edward Wallace
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: So, I wanted to ask you, going back a little bit, I wanted to ask you about education. You’d mentioned the schools you went to, but I wanted to ask, how did segregation or racism affect your education?
Edward Wallace: It wasn’t bad by the time I came along, you know? Pretty much blended in with the class. Wasn’t like my sisters’ or something like that.
Franklin: Were they older?
Franklin: How did it affect them?
Wallace: Well, the one you were going to talk to, I guess they got called names all the time. So, I said, well, what about the two older ones? The brothers? And she goes, oh, they loved those guys, because they played sports. You know? They go, but us girls, man, nobody would date us or ask us out or—you know? They go, forget about prom. I think my oldest sister went to prom, and I remember the picture of her. But I think that—yeah, I think his family lived in Richland, too, but I can’t remember, they didn’t live here very long.
But as far as me, I was just always shy anyway. I grew up pretty much they had to walk up to me and tell me where we were going and I’d show up. [LAUGHTER] Because I was concentrating on, after school I was usually either picking up my brother or sister—my little brother and my sister—or I was going to go practice with somebody or something else. I remember this one girl asked me, are you going to the football game Friday night? And I’m like, well, I really hadn’t planned on it. But I’d been saying hi to her ever since junior high and smiling at her. It wasn’t until, like, two hours later after school, I’m thinking, what the hell is wrong with you? She was basically asking you if you were going to be at the game, so you know. So I go to the game and I know exactly where she sits because I’d been there before and her and her buddies sit in one spot. So I walked by there looking for her and she’s not there. I’m like, oh, man, that’s too bad. Didn’t see her after that, except around school. And she didn’t talk to me after that or nothing, so I said, oh well.
Franklin: Who were some of the people that influenced you as a child?
Wallace: You mean, just people?
Franklin: Yeah. Like people who were important in your life. Family members, friends, teachers.
Wallace: [LAUGHTER] Well, that’s a funny question. Probably my parents.
Franklin: How so?
Wallace: My brother that’s two years older than me. Because he had an opinion about everything pretty much. I was kind of like, oh, okay, that makes sense, you know, even though it didn’t. But probably more them than anyone else. Because I didn’t go out much, like I said. I was—for me to actually go out and just hang out with people and stuff like that, it was not very often. I was pretty boring guy.
Franklin: Oh, come on now.
Wallace: No, I was. And it wasn’t until I got to know somebody a little bit that I would talk with them.
Wallace: I remember in high school, a couple of girls walk up to me and go, how come you’re not on the basketball team? And I go, because I don’t like being yelled at. They go, I’d think you’d want to be popular. And I go, I don’t. And they’re like--they gave me this look like they couldn’t believe it.
Anyway. As far as teachers go, I don’t think I paid enough attention to any of them to really—[LAUGHTER] I think, elementary school I remember three teachers’ names, and junior high maybe two. High school, you’d think you’d remember most of your teachers’ names; I only remember a couple. So, I know elementary school, I remember Mrs. Hutchison, which was my kindergarten teacher. And then I think Mrs. Graham was my second grade teacher? Then Mr. Lane. Mr. Lane, he’s the one who gave me hacks for not bring my book to school. So I remember him.
He gave us—I was a patrol kid, one of the patrol boys. And we were folding the flag one time, and one of the kids dropped one corner. Before it touched the ground, I grabbed it and pulled it back up and we finished folding. And the next day, we got hacks because someone said that it hit the ground. You can’t let the flag hit the ground. So we got hacks for that. Of course, it didn’t hurt. I remember the other kid walking out of there crying. And they go, god, Wallace, how come you’re not crying? And I go, well if you ever got a spanking from my dad, you’d know why. Because when he spanks you, he spanks you. I mean, you jumped and as soon as your feet hit the ground, he got you again. But you know, it wasn’t like he beat you up or anything, he just, hitting you with a stick or a belt or whatever. So we weren’t brutalized or anything.
Franklin: Did you have any other—did you have any role models in the community or anything? Or anyone that when you were coming up, anyone you kind of looked up to?
Wallace: Nah. [LAUGHTER] I really don’t—I don’t know if I’m just a negative person or not, but I really don’t remember—I probably looked up to Mr. Piggy, because he had a pretty calm demeanor, and he was kid of like me in a lot of ways.
Franklin: Who was this?
Wallace: His name was Mr. Piggy.
Franklin: Oh, one of the families.
Wallace: Yeah, yeah. His name was Robert Piggy. He worked out there as a coal handler. But we kind of had the same demeanor, in a way. He was a little more outgoing, but he cracked me up. And he always drove a Volkswagen bug, and he had a hat kind of like yours on all the time, different hats. But everything he did was like on the money.
Franklin: What were some of the—what were the major civil rights issues for African Americans at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities during your time there?
Wallace: During my time?
Wallace: I would say, during my time there, the fact that I got fired because of a racial thing. That kind of did a couple things to me. First, I realized that—well, see, he wrote me up, first thing was for sleeping on the job, okay? It didn’t matter how long I slept during the day when I could get sleep, when I got to work, got changed for graveyard shift—only for graveyard shift—that first two hours, I could barely stay awake. Matter of fact, I started smoking just to stay awake. That’s how I started smoking, was just to stay awake, and even that didn’t help. I’d put it out, and—chh—be gone. But after that first two hours, I was good for the rest of the night. So, I used to get up and go walk around just to stay awake. And as soon as I went back and sat down—pff—gone. But he wrote me up for sleeping on the job. But not because I was falling asleep in front of everybody. And believe it or not, that first two hours is when he made his rounds.
But there was a guy that came back from vacation, and he would go into the break room and go to sleep. So when he got back, he told me, Ed, I want you to be with this guy. You’re not asking enough questions, you’re not really learning the things we want you to. So I want you to hang around with this guy. Okay? Now, before this guy got back, we had some kind of birthday party and the chief was back in the lunchroom, and the alarm went off, saying boiler pressure was going up too high. So I went back and told him. And I said, hey, the boiler pressure’s going up and the alarm’s going off. And he said, yeah, go ahead and acknowledge it and I’ll be out there in a minute. So I acknowledged it, and it’s still going up. So I go back, and I tell him again, and he goes, yeah, just go ahead and acknowledge it. He goes, what’s it up to? And I told him. He goes, yeah, just go ahead and acknowledge it.
So, yeah, I’d read the whole manual, how to run this thing, right? So, third time, I go up there and acknowledge it and I turn the water flow down. Because, you know, it was getting a couple of ticks away from going into the red. He comes back, probably 15 minutes later. And he goes, man, that pressure’s just about where I like to keep it. And I go, yeah. He goes, I thought you said the alarm was going off. I said, it was, so I just cut it back a couple notches. He goes, well, how’d you know to do that? And I go, well, there’s no adjustment on the flames, there’s no adjustment on how much oil you put through it, which creates the flame, of course. I go, you can’t adjust how much flame you’ve got, so the only thing I could figure was you had to turn the water down and I believe, if I remember right, that’s what it said in the manual anyway. The pressure gets high, you cut back the water flow. And he was like, damn. You should be a chief. [LAUGHTER] He goes, most of these guys wouldn’t know what to do. And I go, I’ve always tinkered with stuff, you know.
Anyways, so for the boss coming in and telling me, yeah, you’re not learning anything that we want you to learn, so he puts me with this guy. And so that guy goes, well, after we did our rounds, he goes, I’m going to go in and take a nap. And I go, well, I’m going to try and stay awake, so I’m going to hang out here and talk to the guys. I’ll probably fall asleep anyway, but—and he goes, well, nope—his name was Freymeyer, my boss. He says, Freymeyer said to stay with you, stay with me. He goes, so, you’re going to stay here with me. And I go, oh, okay! So they had some magazines, so I see one on cars, I pick it up and start reading it.
And next thing I know they’re like, busting the door open. And they’re like, oh, you guys are in here sleeping. And I’m like, what’s the deal? This guy does this every night, you know? Well, I’m going to have to write you up. Well, I didn’t know he wrote the other guy up, too. I guess he decided he just didn’t like him. So, I found out later he wrote him up too. He never fired him, but he did write him up.
So the next thing I got wrote up for was coming in late. I come in one night within five minutes. My boss is standing out there with his boss, the operations manager. As soon as—I’m looking right at him, I recognize him from the parking lot. And as soon as I come through the gate, they kind of turn away and start pointing at other stuff. And I’m like, I know that guy’s out here just for me. I’ve never seen those two stand and have a conversation. So sure enough, a week later, I got wrote up for being late.
Now, the next time, I’m waiting for—I’m unloading—they brought the oil in in trucks, tanker trucks. So I’m waiting for another shipment, and I guess we’re really low because there was going to be like three of them that night. So I’d had the job before, and I knew the sign said, stay at least 20 feet—or no smoking within 20 feet. So, I’m not only 20 feet from the place; I’m like down here where you load the truck and start the pump to pump the oil over. So I know I’m at least 50 feet away, right? And I’m just kind of walking back and forth. But I’m not walking towards the tank, I’m just going back and forth vertically the other way. Between the river and the road. Him and his buddy pulls up, his little fat buddy, Rich. He pulls up and they go, hey, Wallace, what are you doing? And I go, I’m waiting for the next truck to come in. Well, I’d noticed when I got there, the tanks had been painted, and there was no signs up. But I already knew I had to be at least 20 feet away. So I’m 50 feet away. And they go, well, you’re not supposed to smoke within 20 feet of those tanks. And I go, I’m not smoking within 20 feet of them. I go, this is at least 50. And he goes, nah, you’re within 20. So he writes me up for that.
So a few weeks later, I’m on vacation, I get a phone call from HR. They say, well, you’ve been released from work. And I’m like, for what? They go, well, you’ve been written up three times. So I go, well, it’s nice you called me while I’m vacation, you know? I’d taken the week off, and they called me like on the second day. So I’m like, it would’ve been nicer to do this in person, don’t you think? And they just hung up the phone, right? So, they called me back a few hours later and told me where to turn my badge in at and everything. So I went and turned my badge in. Walked away, thinking, wow, what assholes. I’m going to sue them.
So, I got this lawyer up in Seattle. Because I know all the lawyers around here were bought off a long time ago. I was pretty much told that by one of the union reps. And I had a consult with him. He said, yeah, he goes, let me get the records and everything and then you can come back up and we’ll talk about it. So I walk in, and he goes, well, Ed, he goes, I would really like to represent you, but it’s not going to do any good. And I go, why not? He goes, well, you signed every one of those. Which meant that you’ve seen it and you acknowledged it. Even though you made the note on there that you don’t agree with it, just the fact that you signed it is enough. He goes, but that’s not all. He goes, and then there’s this. And he reaches over and he gets this thing that’s this thick. And I go, what the heck is that? And he goes, well, that’s all the other things about your behavior and everything. And I’m like, what?! He goes, oh, yeah, this guy spent some time on this. There’s notes in there from people you probably don’t even know. And I go, how do you know that? He goes, well, because where they work. They work in town. You worked out at the Site. And they’ve got comments about your behavior in there. And I go, oh. I’m like, I guess the joke’s on me. This guy’s really got his act together as far as getting rid of someone. So, I said, well. Wasn’t about two days later this guy calls me up and goes, Ed, I’m going to start up a band. I need another guitar player. And I said, hmm! Sounds like fun.
Franklin: Right, that’s when you started the band?
Wallace: So that’s when I started playing.
Franklin: So, I’ve got one question left and hopefully it won’t take too long.
Franklin: My favorite question to ask. What would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and/or living in Richland during the Cold War?
Wallace: What would I like future generations to know? Well, first of all, the government is great. And it basically does what it’s supposed to do, for the most part. But there are things that they don’t tell you, and there’s things that can harm you that they don’t tell you about.
I’ll give you a for instance. When I hired on as a janitor, a guy that was showing me around said, I’m going to show you two places you never want to go. He took me down to C Plant. He goes, okay, that’s a place you never want to get a job at, because once you go in there, you can never get out. He said, you see that place across the street? And I go, yeah. He goes, I don’t know for sure, but you need a higher clearance to even walk up to that building. He goes, and I’ve been told that they’re making these lenses for being able to see from outer space back to here. But that’s just what I heard; I don’t know anything about it. He goes, and neither do you. But stay away from that building. No matter what. He goes, I don’t care if your truck breaks down, you go someplace else and make a phone call. Do not go near that building. Okay?
Years later, I come back and we’ve been in the—my group of 35 had been in the building working for about two years, and the training was right there in the facility. Well, they moved training out to that building. So we spend about five, six years going to that building for training, take our tests and our recertifications and everything. And then all of a sudden, that building is shut down and the training is back in the building, the main facility, and then they put up a trailer at the end of the parking lot. That’s the new training department.
Okay, so another five years goes by. You’re like, you’re looking at this building going, I wonder why they shut that thing down. No one ever tells you anything. So five years later, you’re in this class and it’s about beryllium. And then they tell you, well, these are beryllium facilities and if you’ve worked in any of these facilities, you need to be on the list to be checked for beryllium sensitivity. Then they tell you how beryllium builds up in your lungs and how your body attacks it. But it can’t do anything, and once it happens and you start having a reaction to it, you need to go in every now and then to have your lungs cleaned out just so they can function. And you’re on oxygen. These are the buildings. And guess which one one of them was? The one we’d been going to training for five years that they—I mean, they didn’t leave part of it open; they closed the whole building up and sealed it up. Everybody else is like, laughing and joking. And I’m like, pissed.
So I’m like, I asked the teacher, I go, why’d you wait so long to tell us what was going on with that? Because we’d started hearing about the beryllium tests and stuff. They were testing our tools and we had beryllium tools that we used, they called them non-sparking tools that were made of beryllium. We used them for opening cans and stuff that might have gases in it. So I’m sitting there, and I’m just getting pissed off. I’m like, well, you mean in the building that we spent five years doing training in is filled with beryllium? And we’re just now hearing about it? That’s the reason they closed it off? And now you’re telling us what beryllium will do to you? And he goes, well, you know, the truth is, people used to not live that long. People used to live to only like barely past their 60s. So most of the stuff, they figured it would never affect you. But now we got guys living into their 80s who are coming down with this beryllium problem. I go, so you’re taking these 80-year-old guys and washing their lungs out? I’m like, you got to be kidding me.
Wallace: So you know, I used to always wear my coveralls. And when all the new kids came in, they would run around the place in their regular street clothes. And I told them, I said—they’d always ask me, Ed, how come you wear your coveralls all the time? And I go, well, number one, when I get hot I sweat a little bit. So I might as well just take a shower, put on my clothes that I wore in this morning, and go home with it. I go, plus, when they say places are clean, like where we’re at now, I go, if you want to take that home, you got to take it in to the HPT office, which is radiation protection, they have to go through it, make sure it’s thoroughly clean before they’ll release it so you can take it home. I go, now you’re sitting in the lunchroom. So you don’t know what you’re picking up along the way when you go to do any job. I go, so I’m not going to sit here in my street clothes and wear my street clothes home not knowing what’s on them. They said, oh man, get out of here. I go, okay. I go, you keep wearing your street clothes. I go, but one day when you slip out of here with something on you and the detectors don’t pick it up outside, and you get home and you’ve crapped your wife up and your kids and your whole house has to be cleaned, I go, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Franklin: Well, Ed, I don’t want to keep you too much longer.
Franklin: But thank you. Thank you for the interview. It was a pleasure.
Wallace: All right.
Franklin: Yeah, I really appreciate it. Thanks for coming down today.
Wallace: Ah, no problem.