My next writing project

For the past two years I have been working on researching my paternal grandfather and his work on the Manhattan Project. In reality, I have been working on this since my tenth birthday, when what I knew about my Dad and his parents, and the world they inhabited, began to change.

The year I was in 4th grade, and turned 10 years old, both of my grandfather’s died. My maternal grandfather, Joe, in November just before Thanksgiving, and my paternal grandfather, Fred, in April, just after Easter. In between those two events, we moved. I started the school year at the catholic school in Keene, New Hampshire and finished the school at a public school in Concord, New Hampshire. And as soon as we moved into the new house, Dad was being interviewed for a book. The interview was about Dad’s father, a Manhattan Project Engineer. This was not Fred, the grandfather I had known the first 10 years of my life.

My first inkling that something was a little different was when my  first grade teacher, Sister B, was reviewing family backgrounds. Ostensibly to teach us how last names worked, it was also done to figure out differences among the students. We learned that Maria’s mother had died of cancer the summer before school started, that many students in class were poor and had subsidized lunches, and that the fact that my last name was the same as my father’s last name, Macdonald, but Dad’s last name was not the same as his parents, Pingree, was somehow suspicious. Along with teaching us the importance of knowing our own names, Sister B. liked to shame students in front of the entire class by pointing out these differences. She had previously announced to the class that my mother was illiterate because she insisted on spelling our surname, Macdonald, with a lower case d in the middle, and Dad must know better. I related this story at home and the next day Dad visited the school principal on his way to work to set things straight. Sister B. had to apologize to the class. When she pointed out the last name differences, Dad visited again. She must have said something to the class about his visit because I was acutely aware that she had been disciplined for her outburst.  Sister B., a stern, self-assured, sarcastic nun, was was a terrifying figure at the dinner table. She was happy to see me go at the end of that school year. When their time came, my brother and sister were assigned to the other first grade teacher.

Manhattan Project plaques at Oak Ridge, TN
Manhattan Project plaques at Oak Ridge, TN

What I learned over the years is that my grandfather, Donald Macdonald, died in July of 1945, when my father was 16. My grandmother married Fred, the man I thought was my grandfather, when Dad was 21. Fred was as nice a grandfather as any child could want. He loved children, had his own office in the house where we kids could come in and read anytime, was proud of his small 5-acre garden that he cared for every day when they were in New Hampshire, and made the best hot cereal you could ever want. There was no need to explain to kids under the age of 10 the concept of death and remarriage.

After Fred’s death, Bertha, my grandmother, and Dad started to talk about Donald. Some of it was a bit rough, at least for my 10 year old ears, such as the time they joked about how both of her husbands had been shipped home in pine boxes. My curiosity overcame my shock and I started asking questions. These were all memorable events for impressionable, inquisitive me. I started asking lots of questions. Sometimes my questions produced answers, and sometimes my questions were met with stony silence. This became a regular routine until Dad died 47 years later.

It turns out that Donald had died in an airport in Tennessee and his body was shipped home for burial. Fred had had a heart attack at the Miami airport and died in Florida. He was shipped home for burial too.

Joe had been born, worked and died in Lynn, Massachusetts. He only left Lynn, Massachusetts, when he was drafted by the army during WWI, attended Red Sox games in Boston and for rare excursions to New York City. How could I have a grandfather who died alone in Tennessee? Since Bertha and Fred spent every winter in Florida, his death away from home made a little sense.

They didn’t tell me why my grandfather was in Tennessee. It was 1967, five years before the Manhattan Project documents were released by the federal government, so they kept the secrets they had both been well schooled in keeping for so long. I think they said something about traveling for business. Dad traveled for business, so that made sense. But the looks they exchanged made it apparent to quizzical 10-year-old me that there was something was not being said and I became all the more inquisitive.


It was probably not until the official Manhattan Project documents were released in 1972 that my father started revealing more details about this father. Over time I learned that my grandfather had two different jobs related to the Manhattan Project. The first was something to do with cubicles, and the second had to do with shipping product around the country in a manner that would make it hard to be traced. It’s taken some digging, and a review of the 150+ letters that my grandmother kept from that time period to learn what the cubicles, were and what product was. I didn’t know that cubicles referred to the Calutron Cubicles used for uranium separation and that product specifically meant enriched uranium being transported in brief cases on a train by men in suits wearing a film badge that would turn color if the radioactive uranium was leaking, or being driven from Oak Ridge to Los Alamos by a guy in a car. I thought product was pieces of machinery that were shipped on open rail cars like in the war movies.

My goal is to post additional items on my grandfather and the Manhattan Project, on my uncle and his service in the 10th Mountain Division during it’s formative years from 1942 – 1946, on my father who worked in the Manhattan Project’s Boston Office as a teenager and for Stone and Webster as an adult, and on my grandmother who managed the household and acted as the family communications center.

4 thoughts on “My next writing project

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