By Howard Kercheval
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"It was way out on the mesa," he recalls. "I arrived at the Wyoming Gate, but I can't remember whether Wyoming was even paved."
What he does remember is that "when the wind blew, rocks moved -- literally moved" across the sparsely vegetated dirt landscape. "It looked truly desolate."
Merrill (5715) is one of two people who have been at Sandia during its whole 50-year history as an independent laboratory -- Roy Crumley (10200) is the other (Lab News, Aug. 29, 1997) -- and Merrill recalled that history last week as the Nov. 1 official anniversary celebration approached. They were recognized during anniversary ceremonies Monday, along with Renee Foster (3535), who started work at Sandia in April 1949, left in November 1953, and returned to the Labs in February 1977.
He arrived in Albuquerque about midafternoon on Friday, July 2, and remembers thinking it was too late to go to the lab and sign in. He did that on Tuesday, July 6, because Monday had been a work holiday in honor of Independence Day, which had fallen on Sunday.
"I always regretted not coming on out and signing in on Friday," he recalls with a chuckle, his head cocked slightly to the right. "If I had, my first day at work would have been a holiday."
He had been hired by one man, but by the time he arrived in Albuquerque, there had been a reorganization and he went to work for someone else, in the electronic fabrication shop, called SLF2. That stood for Sandia Lab Fabrication, he says, but he never knew if there was an SLF1 or, if there was, what was done there.
"In the early years, this was a place of mystery," he says. "Everybody suspected they knew what went on out here, but they didn't really know. They did know, however, that there was money in it."
And that mystery figured in his first trip into the tech area. The late Danny Padilla took him in, but told him he wouldn't say much about what went on in the assorted labs behind the fence. "The last person I brought in here, I told 'em too much and got in trouble," Merrill remembers his escort saying.
He came to Sandia from the Sylvania Electronic Products plant in Williamsport, Pa., where he had gone to work in 1944 to learn about something called microwaves and radar.
By the time he finished the courses, though, the war had been over for a couple of years and Sylvania was closing the plant. The plant manager was trying to help employees find other jobs and heard about a lab in New Mexico "doing secret stuff" and recommended some of them look for work there.
Four were eventually hired. One went straight back because his wife didn't like the Albuquerque area; one eventually earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico and joined the bar; and the other "knew a lot about making doll heads" and left for work in the injection molding field.
Merrill worked for a time in the electronic instruments calibration unit, then moved to the Primary Standards Lab when that was established -- although at that time it was known as the Sandia Standards Lab. He was the second person on the staff there, assigned to equip the lab for electrical calibration. The first employee in was the late Joe Moody, in the mechanical calibrations area.
Merrill came to Sandia without a college degree, he recalls, planning on taking advantage of the University of California connection to earn one. But before he could get started, the UC connection ended as Sandia became an independent lab managed by AT&T, and the prospect of a UC degree evaporated.
His sympathetic superintendent made arrangements, though, for Merrill to attend classes at UNM, and after wavering between physics and engineering for a while, he earned a degree with majors in mathematics and psychology. He later earned a master's degree in math with an emphasis on computer science.
He spent most of his early years in standards work, although he did a variety of work within that group. "As computers came along, I applied that technology to standards," he explains, noting that standards work was among the early users of computers at the Labs.
Merrill now works in the Testers and Experimental Ground Stations Department, designing and building testers for satellite subsystems and payloads.
He met his future wife, Frances Kekar -- who worked for the Sandia Road Department -- in church and asked her out for their first date when they encountered each other in front of the base bank during a sandstorm. The bank was a small wood building near the present Coronado Club.
He remembers those early days as a time of constant change, expansion, and improvement. "You look at that kind of change and say it can't continue," he says, "but it does. We keep going back and looking again at things that didn't work when we first began to research them, and finding that some of them do work now."
The entire lab site was housed in well-maintained, but drab, wooden buildings, Merrill says, that sheltered "some of the best minds and some of the most advanced technical equipment in the world. The buildings have changed, but I still have a sense of awe at the talented people who surround me."
In an effort to brighten up the drab building they worked in, he says, some of the women who worked with his future wife painted pictures on their windows. "Those windows are long gone now, but I often wish that I could recover them and label them 'Early Works of Betty Sabo and Kitty Sadock,' because that is what they were. And, of course, Betty and Kitty -- Kitty died some time ago -- went on to be accomplished and highly recognized artists."
Entertainment was also different in those early days, he recalled with raised eyebrows, saying much of it was traveling around his newly adopted state and seeing the countryside. He laughingly remembered one memorable trip with Adrian Boudon, another of the transplanted Keystone Staters.
"We camped one night in Sandia Cave [a now-protected prehistoric site in the Sandia Mountains], but I can't remember whether we climbed up or down to get to it," Merrill says. "In any case, we must have been among the very few to sleep there in recent times, and we learned a valuable lesson: Do not build a fire in a cave if you're going to sleep there!"
After all those years of Sandia service, is it time to think about retirement?
"I think about retiring every day," he says, but adds with a shrug, a chuckle, and a twinkle in his eyes, "but I've been doing that for some time and I still don't have any specific plans.
"All I wanted was to get a good education and then get a good job, but I never could have found a better job than what I had."
Last modified: June 25, 2002
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