Grandpa, What Did You Do at the Atom Bomb Factory?

I'm told that my grandfather, Kenneth Orville Holloway ("Kenny"), worked at "the atom bomb factory" in Richland, Washington. He died in Richland suddenly at the age of 35, long before I was born. What little I knew about him was gleaned from stories told over the course of fifty years. But the older I got, the less sense many aspects of his life made. This was especially true of the events that brought him to Richland, the work he did at Hanford, and how he died.

I was told Kenny was a scientist, which by itself was surprising. Mine is an extended family not of scientists who demand extraordinary proof for extraordinary claims, but believers. They go to church, and not just on the holidays. They listen to and sing church music at home. They watch televangelists. Their children study at Bible colleges, and travel the world to spread the Word. The believe in the Book of Revelation and many of its modern interpretation. The believe that activities many would consider recreations to be indulged in sparingly are mortal sins, offenses against God. They don't just read the Bible, they quote it. They believe God will punish those who don't believe, and so they pray for them.

Almost everything I'd been told about Kenny said that this was not his tribe. He'd graduated from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon with a bachelor's degree. His field of study varied depending on who was telling the story and the occasion, but tended toward physics or mathematics. With one of his professors he'd built a Geiger counter. He'd been a "math wiz," tallying grocery bills to the penny in his head. He was an "atheist" who laughed out loud at the sermons he'd been dragged to. He'd won a cabin in the Cascades in a poker match.

And yet, he'd had an overnight religious conversion.

Knowing so little about Kenny's life, it was tempting to draw conclusions from the fragments I had. He'd served in World War II, and he'd worked at Hanford. Maybe he worked on the Manhattan Project. He'd studied physics, was really good at math, and worked at Hanford. Maybe he was a nuclear physicist. And so on.

The details of his personal life outside his marriage to my grandmother were scant. What did he do before college? Unknown. What did he do during World War II? He didn't talk about it, or at least not with everyone. What did he do before marriage? Hard to tell. What kinds of books did he read? It looked like Greek. What was his sense of humor like? He appeared to find humor in religion, but beyond that I had little to go on. Somehow he grows up in Salem, does something during World War II, returns to Salem, goes to college, starts a family, moves them to Hanford, then dies suddenly. I knew there was more.

The little I was told about his birth family and early years was sad. His mother died when he was a boy. His sister was committed to an insane asylum where she died. His father remarried, lived somewhere for a while, and then died.

And then there's Kenny's death. At the time he worked at Hanford. One day he was a healthy man of 35 who had driven his family to a weekend outing outside of Richland. Later that day, he was too sick to drive home. When he got there, he went to bed. The next day he went to the hospital, where he soon died. The doctor said it was "bulbar polio." Once again, it was tempting to draw conclusions from fragments of a life lived long aqo: he'd worked at Hanford, a facility that would develop a notorious reputation for environmental abuses decades later, and died suddenly. Maybe it wasn't polio.

For a long time I've wanted to push through the cobwebs surrounding this man's life. Even though we never met, the stories I'd heard had encouraged my interest in science. I also sensed that he was a highly intelligent, kind, and generous man. He held (at least until marriage) a humanist world view. Everything I'd ever heard led me to believe he and I would have been close.

A few recent events spurred me to action. The first was my diagnosis, which for better or worse opened new perspectives. Within just 100 years of his birth, the details of Kenny's life had been siloed within in the memories of the handful of people who new him. Most have since died. Some reflections of these memories are kept by people like me who have heard the stories. Slowly but surely, even these memories were winking out. The second event was watching the movie Oppenheimer, which reminded me that somehow I'm more connected to that story than just through world citizenship.

I faced a number of obstacles from the start. For one, I've never done biographical or genealogical research. For another, Kenny apparently wrote no letters, nor did he publish a single scientific paper. Any private papers or books he left were donated long ago. None of his friends, acquaintances, or coworkers ever came up. Even if they did, they'd be at least 100 years old by now. Then there's the classified nature of the work at the Hanford, which Kenny never talked about. Asking family members for details they may have left out when talking about Kenny out seemed iffy. Our conversations always revolved around the same handful of memories. It seemed unlikely that anything was left unsaid. At any rate the events would have taken place over seventy years ago, and asking for that kind of recall is a tall order for anyone.

With such headwinds, I was pessimistic about finding anything new. At the same time, it sometimes pays to take the first step anyway. seemed to be the service people used to do this kind of thing, but I was skeptical. I already had a sense of the family tree. Instead, I was looking for details about Kenny's life. Out of options, I created a trial account anyway.

After poking around I was ready to give up when something in the sidebar caught my eye. It looked like a newspaper article, but it was behind a paywall. Double-checking that I indeed had no good options, I decided to create yet another trial account.

The article ran in the Tri-City Herald, a newspaper that covered Richland, Washington. Dated September 16, 1952 and titled "One More New Case Reported," it was partly an obituary and partly a report of four polio cases in the Richland area, one of which was Kenny's. This explained why the article ran on the front page, with the alarming banner splashed across the top, "RICHLAND REPORTS FIRST POLIO DEATH!." The article goes on to explain that this was the first polio death of the year.

I realized I knew very little about polio, and was surprised to read this introductory paragraph in Wikipedia:

Poliomyelitis, commonly shortened to polio, is an infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. Approximately 75% of cases are asymptomatic; mild symptoms which can occur include sore throat and fever; in a proportion of cases more severe symptoms develop such as headache, neck stiffness, and paresthesia. These symptoms usually pass within one or two weeks. A less common symptom is permanent paralysis, and possible death in extreme cases. …

I'd always assumed that polio led to paralysis or death for all who contracted it. So it came as a surprise that 75% of cases showed no symptoms, or that when symptoms presented they tended to be mild. This sounded familiar, but I'd thought that SARS-CoV-2 was unusual.

More to the point was how the newspaper article described Kenny:

Holloway … was engineering assistant in General Electric Company's radiation monitoring unit. …

I thought Kenny worked for the Hanford Project, not GE. "Radiation monitoring unit" reminded me of the Geiger counter Kenny had built at Willamette. But how or even if this all tied together was a mystery.

It was a small step forward, but it was a start.