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When My Willie Come Home

Square Dancing at Los Alamos

Higinbotham   Brode   Feynman
William A. Higinbotham, Bernice Brode, and Richard Feynman


While in Los Alamos this Christmas, I picked up Tales of Los Alamos: Life on the Mesa, 1943-1945, by Bernice Brode. It turned out to be a book in which music plays a central role.

Tales of Los Alamos is a light-hearted portrait of life as one of the Manhattan Project's young newlyweds, who lived somewhat like prisoners of war. For Brode and her colleagues, Los Alamos was like college or the military is for a lot of people — a golden time to work like hell and then explosively blow off steam. It was a safe place to get a little practice at being an adult. Really, the designers of the first atomic bomb were horny young party animals.

The average age of a Los Alamos resident was 26, according to Brode ("The Day after Trinity" says 29). The military brass tried (without success) to limit the number of babies were being born, while the single GI's on the mesa defended (with success) a prostitution ring against efforts to shut it down. Pure laboratory alcohol spiked the punchbowls.

Brode writes:

We had a good deal of music at Los Alamos, organized and unorganized. Walking along the roads in the evening, we heard the strains of Bach or Mozart that filled the air. High up in the mountains, radio reception was poor, but we had our own radio station in the last year. [The station used records from the collections of residents] and our otherwise quiet mesa was soon saturated with the world's best music.
A lot of physicists and their wives were classically trained musicians, so there were many recitals and an annual chorus Handel's "Messiah." Edward Teller's piano playing was particularly brutal on everyone's sleep cycle, with its odd hours, workmanlike style, and inclusive repertoire.

But the men and women of Los Alamos were generally too young and stressed out for much serious music. Besides, Brode writes, residents had "an instinctive knowledge that vigorous gaiety must be our tenor, and that we perhaps could not afford much emotional content and contemplation."

The mesa had a barber shop quartet and a jazz band, and the children mounted several ambitious musical revues. For one such revue, new words were set to the tune of the Marine's Hymn:

From the East Coast, from the West Coast
And the land that lies between
We arrived here at Los Alamos
Queerest city ever seen

Oh, we love our mountain stronghold
And our homes among the stars
It's the strangest story ever told
This mesa town of ours

From the plains of neighbor Texas
And the sidewalks of New York
We arrived here at Los Alamos
To learn, to play, to work

We have vision strong to guide us
Proud form of Liberty
Whatever is denied us
Is all for Liberty
When Los Alamos residents wanted to really cut loose and break a sweat, there was always square dancing. Its popularity on the mesa isn't surprising given that the dance style had been consciously popularized throughout the 1930's and 1940's by the likes of Lloyd Shaw, Benjamin Lovett, and Henry Ford. Online histories cite 1948 as the peak year of a square dancing fad in America. Apparently, the twenty-somethings of Los Alamos were only very slightly ahead of the curve.

"Calling" the square dances was initially handled by George Hillhouse, chief butcher at the Los Alamos commissary. Eventually, the job was taken over by accordion player and leader of the Electronics Division, William A. Higinbotham. His accordion playing was intensely energizing ("electric sparks went over the Lodge," writes Brode), but his square dance calling was even more compelling:

The time came when we could squeeze no more squares into the Lodge, and we reluctantly moved to the Mess Hall, a much larger floor space ... It became increasing hard for George [the butcher] to keep order in so many squares, but Willie could out-shout any disorder. He said the bigger the mob, the better he liked it.
Brode once tried to calm the nerves of a British couple who'd been having trouble adjusting to the pace of Los Alamos. She took them to the quiet ruins of Bandelier National Monument, but was surprised to find 200 members of the Electronics Division square dancing among the ruins, driven by Higinbotham.

On occasion, when strangers visited, the residents of Los Alamos staged square dance demonstrations as a symbol of their group identity, an illustration of who and what they were. A few months after Nagasaki, the mesa's Tesuque Native Americans invited a group of Los Alamos residents to visit their pueblo for a celebration. The leader of the Tesuque contingent was Popovi Da (also known as "Po"), who was also an Army technician in the lab's Technical Area.

Next, Po called on us to put on a demonstration of square dances. We formed four squares, which we had practiced ... we used our most experienced dancers to give a smooth performance and make the best impression. Most Indians had never seen square dancing before, but after we finished we asked Po to invite everyone to join in with us ... They were natural dancers.

[Afterwards, the Tesuque dancers gave a demonstration] and took hold of some of us, indicating we should shuffle around with them. Po shouted in Tewa the directions, which we gathered were for a sort of serpentine style dance game ... We formed circles and did any number of very fast movements, and, believe me, we had to keep our wits about us. The drummers went faster and faster. It seemed to be an endurance test so none of us dared give out. At the height of this excitement, with yells and shouts, Montoya [a Tesuque who oversaw care of the main Los Alamos dorm] got up on a chair and shouted above the din, "This is the Atomic Age! This is the Atomic Age!"
The stories of Richard Feynman's and Enrico Fermi's attempts to square dance at Los Alamos are fairly well known.

Feynman was the kind of physicist who could amuse classrooms by solving two complex math problems on the board simultaneously — one with the right hand, one with the left. Nevertheless, he was utterly defeated in his attempts to learn to square dance. "It's too hard, much too hard, I can't learn, I'll never learn," he said.

Fermi, on the other hand, refused to dance at all until he had spent many long hours staring intently at the steps of the dancers. Only after he had memorized even the slightest motion did he join in:

He offered to be head couple, which I thought most unwise for his first venture, but I could do nothing about it, and the music began. He led me out on the exact beat, knew exactly each move to make and when. He never made a mistake then or thereafter. I wouldn't say he enjoyed himself for he was so intent on not making a mistake, which the best of us did all the time.
After the war, square dance caller and accordionist Willie Higinbotham emerged as the leader of the segment of Manhattan Project scientists who wanted to aggressively use their new-found status for progressive politics. Their goals were to put atomic power under civilian control, prevent proliferation, and educate the public. Willie went to Washington to learn the art of lobbying. Brode writes:
By all reports, he had the Congressmen and newspapermen working so hard nights that he began to take along his "Stomach Steinway" and had them square dancing when they got tired of atoms. Willie later denied this, but those were the tales we heard [in Los Alamos] at the time.
(Incidentally, in 1958, Higinbotham created Tennis for Two, sometimes cited as the world's first video game.)

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