Interview with Robert Drake
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: Same deal. I got the introductory boilerplate, and then we’ll just, we’ll get right to it.
Marilyn Drake: Okay, thank you.
Marilyn Drake: Yeah.
Franklin: Okay. My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Robert Drake on July 17, 2017. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I’ll be talking with Bob about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?
Robert Drake: Robert J. Drake. R-O-B-E-R-T. J. D-R-A-K-E.
Franklin: Great. And you prefer to go by Bob, correct?
Bob Drake: That’s what most everybody calls me, yes.
Franklin: Okay. Is it all right if I call you Bob?
Bob Drake: Business world, doctors and so on, they all call me Robert. But that’s—
Franklin: Okay. Well, I’ll just call you Bob if that’s all right with you. [LAUGHTER]
Bob Drake: That’s fine.
Franklin: I’m not a doctor. So.
Bob Drake: [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: I just play one on TV. So, Bob, tell me how and why you came to the area to work on the Hanford Site. Or just first came to the Site in general.
Bob Drake: Well, I graduated from Sunnyside High School in 1959. I didn’t even know the Tri-Cities existed until one night, my dad decided to bring me down here and show me Pasco, anyway. Then—
Franklin: I guess that would’ve been kind of the big city of the area, right, besides Yakima?
Bob Drake: Yeah, I think Pasco, at the time, was the larger of the three cities.
Bob Drake: Because it was the oldest.
Bob Drake: Then my dad and my mom and myself moved down here, and we lived in a mobile home park in Pasco. He was working on one of the dams up the Snake River. Then I went to Montana myself and worked in a sawmill up there for about, I don’t know, six months or so. Then my dad told me, come on down, he says, I’ll get you called up on the dam as a laborer Monday morning. Well, I sat for six months without any work. I finally went to work in Columbia Park, and I worked in Columbia Park for five years.
Franklin: And what did you do there?
Bob Drake: A little bit of everything. Drove dump truck, bucket loader, mowed with the mowers that they had at the time. I just—whatever I was asked to do.
Bob Drake: So then, how we got to Michigan was, this gentleman and his wife came out, and I was taking care of the campgrounds in Columbia Park at that time. I did that for two years. But anyway, Fred Driller was his name, and Jackie was his wife. He was a pipefitter, and he worked out in the Area out here. Well, he’d get laid off every so often. After he went back to Michigan, he wrote me a—well, he called us. He said, Bob, if you come out, he says, you can get any craft that you want to be in, as an apprentice.
Well, I went back and the first job that offered me an apprenticeship was in truck driving. I told them, no, I didn’t want to do that. And then finally decided that—my dad had always been a carpenter, so carpentry would be good enough for me. We spent five years back there. Our first son was born in the old Beyer Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan which was just east of Ann Arbor, about maybe five miles. Then they built the new Beyer Hospital. Well, I was a carpenter and I worked on the new Beyer Hospital. So our second son was born in the new Beyer Hospital. It’s kind of a joke between the wife and I, when we moved back to Richland, they had built the new Kadlec Hospital. My wife looks at me and she says, don’t even think about it. So, yeah, we already had our daughter.
But anyway, I went to work for George Grant, I believe was the first contractor I worked for. I take that back; it was Lydig. Lydig was the first one. Then George Grant and Halverson pretty much kept me busy for most of the years I was here, except for when I worked at FFTF and at Number 1.
Franklin: What was the name of that first contractor? Lydig?
Bob Drake: Lydig.
Franklin: How do you spell that? L-I-D-I-G?
Marilyn Drake: That’s right.
Bob Drake: I only worked for them the one time.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Bob Drake: My brother—yeah, Lydig, he worked for them for years. But I only worked for them the one time.
Franklin: And what did you—what was your job at FFTF?
Bob Drake: FFTF?
Bob Drake: Oh, I was just a carpenter.
Franklin: And like what did you make? What did you—
Bob Drake: Forms. Forms for—and every time we’d get the forms built for a pour, we had to wait for a whole month before they made that pour, because if they made the pour, it was already obsolete. What the deal was, every month they’d get in new—mm!
Marilyn Drake: Specifications.
Bob Drake: Mm. My mind’s blank.
Marilyn Drake: Specifications.
Bob Drake: Well, specifications, but that wasn’t they called it. But anyway, because if they wanted to make any changes in the pour, they would do that.
Franklin: So this was like a wood form—
Bob Drake: Yes.
Franklin: To mold the concrete?
Bob Drake: For pouring walls.
Franklin: Oh, for pouring walls, okay.
Bob Drake: Yes, that’s what we poured mostly. When I went to work there—I worked swing shift for about nine months.
Bob Drake: Then I quit that job and went to work elsewhere.
Franklin: Okay. And then you mentioned that you worked at WPPSS, the Washington Public Power—
Bob Drake: Yup, I started up pretty much on the ground floor of that. Made the base for the containment, was the first big pour that was made. And then the form worked for the containment was poured in ten-foot heights and we went up to over 300 feet.
Bob Drake: But as you got used to—you got used to going up to those heights, because it was just ten feet at a time.
Bob Drake: I never got afraid of heights at that time. And like my wife said, we worked out there until they got ready—in fact, the carpenter work was virtually done when the big layoff came. They had come out about maybe three weeks before that. Superintendent on the job told all of his carpenters, we wouldn’t have to worry about work because he had 24 other plants on the drawing board at the time. Not knowing that the nuclear system was just about done as far as that went.
Bob Drake: But, yeah, it was quite a deal. I remember the one guy that, on our crew, Ray was his first name; I don’t remember if I ever knew his last name—but because of the information that we’d received, he and his wife went out and bought a new home, new cars, new everything. And then they walked up to us about three weeks later and handed us our final check. Ray said, you can’t lay me off. I got to have this job. And the boss says, we’re sorry, but we’re—they’re shutting it down. And as far as I can remember, it seems like to me, that one of the guys told me that Ray had had a massive heart attack and died shortly after that. Because of just the worry of how he’s going to make his payments on his home and stuff.
But up here at the golf course in Kennewick, Meadow Springs, a lot of the guys that worked out there, men that worked out there, had gone up there and bought homes. They just let them go back, because they couldn’t afford to make the payments if they didn’t have any work. So they just all left the area. Most of the iron workers went to Denver, Colorado. Most of the carpenters went to South Bay, California, down around San Jose.
Franklin: Which is where you ended up.
Bob Drake: Yes, that’s where I ended up. Yeah, and it was really a surprise when we went down there. The parking lot at the carpenter’s hall was pretty good size. And there must’ve been probably 60 or 70 of us carpenters that had our—well, we stayed in the parking lot of the carpenter hall. And they welcomed us there because they said the carpenter hall had been broken into several times. But I take it you’re more interested in the things that went on-- I worked at the Tank Farms.
Franklin: Oh, really?
Bob Drake: Yeah, worked for George Grant when we were pouring bases for the tanks. I don’t remember which farm it was that I worked on. I helped build several of the office buildings in the 300 Area. It was Grant and Halverson. Halverson was out of Spokane; Grant’s local here in Richland. But, like I say, for the 13 years we lived here, George Grant and Halverson, out of Spokane, kept me pretty busy.
Franklin: What were some of the unique challenges doing carpentry at Hanford versus elsewhere?
Bob Drake: It wasn’t any different. I remember one time, we’d made the lift that had the forms all formed up and ready for a pour. And they had the company people come out and check the forms and everything, and they said everything was fine. Then they sent the government inspectors out and they said—well, before they ever wanted the forms they told us they weren’t going to okay that pour. Well, 59 straight days we were there, waiting for them to give the okay to make the pour. Now, that meant Saturdays and Sundays, so we were taking home some pretty good paychecks. We mostly sat around and did nothing, just waiting for them to give us the okay to make that pour. And then they made the pour, and then of course, we made the next ten-foot lift. But yeah, 59 straight days that we were on the job.
Franklin: Wow. [LAUGHTER] That is classic.
Bob Drake: Yeah.
Franklin: I’d like to ask a similar question to the one I asked your wife: what are your memories of the major events in Tri-Cities history such as the plants shutting down, WPPSS shutting down, and also but the plants starting up, like FFTF.
Bob Drake: Well, by the time FFTF took off and was actually functional, we were living in California at that time.
Franklin: Oh, yeah, that’s right.
Bob Drake: Number 1 was, I believe, 65% done when they laid most of the people off. The only carpentry work left to do out that at that time was building scaffolding and such for pipefitters and the electricians. And then it was several years after that before they ever got Number 1 online. What was the question again?
Franklin: Oh, just, I wondered, some of your events of the shutdown.
Bob Drake: Oh, the one thing that sticks in my mind—when Columbia Center first went in, Richland was offered to take that in, and be in the City of Richland. But for some reason, the heads of the city decided they didn’t want to take the Columbia Center. Which I thought at the time was kind of foolish because of the tax revenue that they could get off of it. But, yeah, they allowed Kennewick to take Columbia Center.
Bob Drake: But that’s the one big thing that I thought was a little bit ridiculous, as far as the city—
Franklin: Tri-Cities history?
Bob Drake: Yeah.
Franklin: You mentioned, earlier, that you—or your wife mentioned earlier that you have stage IV lung cancer that you link to working at Hanford. Is that something you want to talk about? And if not, that’s totally fine.
Bob Drake: Yeah, it don’t bother me at all. In fact, I’ve come totally at peace with it; did shortly thereafter because I am a Christian, and if the good Lord decides to take me home with him, it’s a win-win situation.
Bob Drake: It was a big surprise, because prior to getting the information that I had the stage IV lung cancer—I play golf three days a week, and I walk the course. Never ran out of breath or anything like that. Then the winter hit, and I was—neighbors on each side are—well, the one lady’s 90 years old, so she couldn’t scoop snow. The neighbor on the other side, he has lung problems and he’s on oxygen 24/7. So I was scooping their driveways and sidewalks with snow, and never got short of breath.
The good Lord had his hand in that, too, because I was sitting at home one day and the phone rang. And it was our primary care doctor’s nurse or receptionist called and said, Bob, according to our records, you haven’t been in in over a year for your physical. So we set up a date, went up there, and she checked my breathing and everything, and said more or less that I was fine.
And then Marilyn, my wife, said, why don’t you tell her about when you lay—because six or eight months prior to that, when I’d lay on my right side when I was in bed, I had a hard time breathing. And so I mentioned it to her, and she checked my lungs again. She said, I’m going to send you downstairs and have an x-ray taken immediately. And then she said, within the next two days, I’ll give you the results. Went down and had the x-ray taken and left.
By the time we got home, the phone was ringing, and we answered, and it was a doctor. She said, I want you to see a pulmonary doctor. She said at Kadlec they have three of them. She said, I want you to take the first appointment you can get. So my wife called and it was 4:00 in the afternoon and they were all gone home, but she left a message on the phone.
The next morning, we got up and we just kind of lazing around the house. The phone rang, and again, the receptionist or nurse from the pulmonary doctor said we want you at Kadlec Emergency ASAP. So went over there, and they took—they had the x-rays and the doctor looked at me and he says, I can almost guarantee you, you have stage IV lung cancer. So, anyway, the next day, the three pulmonary doctors got their heads together and decide the next step they needed to take. So they decided to go in and take—
Marilyn Drake: A biopsy. Biopsy.
Bob Drake: I can’t—
Franklin: A biopsy?
Bob Drake: Yes, biopsy. So the next morning at 6:00, I was in and the doctor took the biopsy. It took seven days to get the results back. But anyway in the meantime, the pulmonary doctor that I had, he said that I had anywhere from three to five liters of liquid in the area where the lung was supposed to be. Well, the lung had totally collapsed.
Bob Drake: That evening about 5:30, he put the tube in, in my side, and drained about a liter-and-a-half of liquid. And—[LAUGHTER]—my wife has some pictures she can show you of—I was sitting in my bed, trying to watch TV and I was propping my eyes open, trying to—because all of the sudden, I couldn’t see the TV. She looked at me and I was swollen up like a toad. Well, what had happened when he took the biopsy, he must’ve nicked the lung, and the air was going into my body—
Franklin: Oh, my gosh.
Bob Drake: Yeah, and they related it to—
Marilyn Drake: Rice Krispies.
Franklin: Rice Krispies?
Bob Drake: Yeah, Rice Krispies. Yeah, it was really strange.
Bob Drake: So anyway, they had virtually every nurse off of every floor down there wondering what they could do for me. And the head nurse on the fourth floor where I was at, she finally decided that they better call the doctor in. Well, it was about 8:30 when the doctor got in there, and he put this other tube in my side that was about at least a half-inch in diameter. They started pumping all of this air out of my system and so on. I was in the hospital for nine days.
Bob Drake: That was during the worst part of the winter when the weather was really bad. Then they sent me home and told me to go see the cancer doctor. I walked in and sat down in the room, and he told me, he says, Bob, if you don’t have anything done—any procedures done, you’ve got three to four months to live.
So, anyway, as time went by—well, I took five days of massive radiation, five consecutive days. And that was over with. Then it was about six weeks before they got the okay for the medication. Pfeifer, I believe, is the name of the company, but it was going to cost $15,300 a month for the medication they were—it was a pill they were going to put me on. Well, I couldn’t afford that. So, anyway, the nurse and other people said, well, have you had your income tax made out yet this year? And we said, no. So they said, well, go down and get your income tax made out as soon as you can. And we took all that information back to the cancer doctor’s office. The lady there sent the information back to Pfeifer, and they said that they would give me my medication free.
Bob Drake: Which was a good—well, it was wonderful. Anyway, my oldest son and my wife were sitting there, and I said, if the pill makes me deathly sick, I’m not going to take it anymore. I’ll just—meet my maker. My oldest son says, Dad, you got to consider you’ve got loved ones here that love you. Well, anyway, as it turned out, the first morning I took the tablet, it made me a little nauseated and a little bit weak. The second morning, virtually the same thing only a little less, and since then, it hasn’t bothered me at all.
Bob Drake: And I take that cancer pill twice a day.
Franklin: Wow. And what led you or the doctors to suspect that you had got that—that cancer was linked to Hanford?
Bob Drake: Well, I really can’t say. But anyway we filed through the government for the program they have going.
Franklin: Right, the EEIOCPA, I think?
Bob Drake: I believe that’s right, yeah. Anyway, they accepted my—you know. The forms that we filled out and sent in and so on.
Franklin: Oh, that’s great.
Bob Drake: So, yeah, I was accepted into the program.
Franklin: Oh, that’s great.
Bob Drake: Because of the time period that I worked in the Area was the main reason that I got accepted in without any having to prove or so on.
Franklin: Right, because you would’ve been out there doing carpentry work during production.
Bob Drake: Yeah. Yeah, well, like I said, I worked in the Tank Farms, and I remember looking over at a tank maybe 60, 80 feet away and it had rust around the bottom. You could tell that it had probably leaked.
Franklin: And you were there constructing new, additional tanks.
Bob Drake: Yeah, we spent some time out there building new bases for more tanks.
Franklin: These would’ve been the double shelled—
Bob Drake: I believe, so, yes. Yeah.
Franklin: So concrete surrounding the steel.
Bob Drake: I believe so, yeah.
Franklin: Well, great. I mean—great that you were able to get into that program at the end easily without too much of a fuss. And thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for sharing your story with us.
Bob Drake: Well, it’s—no problem.
Franklin: I’m wondering if you could describe any ways in which secrecy or security ever impacted your work?
Bob Drake: No. Out at—when I worked out at 2 West, I had to check through the gates every day. Of course any time you worked in the Area, you had to go through the gates. But out there once a week, we had to get new permits and new tags that we wore around our necks. And those checked the radiation that we received while we were out there.
Bob Drake: But, no. It wasn’t that bad, the security, at all.
Franklin: Okay. That’s good to hear. And my last question is what would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford during the Cold War?
Bob Drake: It was just—to me, it was just another job. As far as the future generations, I still think that atomic energy is probably among the best electrical plants that you can build. And me and my wife have discussed this before, we’ve told each other many times, that we’d much rather live around an atomic energy plant, as to a—come on, dear, help me out.
Marilyn Drake: Chemical. Chemical.
Franklin: Chemical, or—
Bob Drake: Chemical plant, yeah. Anytime.
Franklin: Yeah, you hear that a lot from people that live next to nuclear power plants and chemical plants, yeah. That’s a very—
Bob Drake: Well, you think of all the ships, most of the ships we have now in the Navy are atomic powered. And they’ve never had any problems with one of those, that I know of.
Bob Drake: So, yeah. I’m not afraid of atomic energy. But chemical plants, yes.
Franklin: Yeah. Yeah, me too. Well, great, well, Bob, thank you so much for sitting down and interviewing with us today. I really appreciate it.
Bob Drake: I just wish my memory was still quick enough that I could answer your questions without hesitation and so on.
Franklin: You did a great job. That’s just how it happens with memory. You know? It’s just the way it goes.