Excerpt: Loretta HallPosted: July 16, 2014
Born in Arkansas, Thelma Swope moved to New Mexico in 1957 at the age of nine, when her father took a civilian job at White Sands Proving Ground. Beginning in 1967, she worked for three years on the Athena missile project at Holloman Air Force Base. While working at Holloman, she married Air Force Captain Don Pearson. This is her story:
I graduated from high school in 1966. After that, I went to Eastern New Mexico University for a year. A typical kid, I didn’t do very well. All of a sudden, all of this great freedom, being away from home, so I just managed to pass. My parents were not in a position to continue to pay for an education with B and C grades. So they told me, “You will come back and you will pay for your own education, or you will pick a job.” So I started interviewing and putting out job applications for an assistant’s job. At that time, Holloman was booming with the test business. The test track was the going thing. I put in applications with various contractors out at Holloman, and I got offers from three of them. One of the offers was from a company called Radiation Inc., which was a subcontractor working on the Athena project, and they had other subcontracts with the government. So I took their offer because their offer was a quarter more an hour than any of the other two….
I would assist in some of the drafting, and the changes that were made. I really didn’t have that much opportunity to become a physical part of the Athena. I had top-secret clearance. At that time, regardless of what your clearance level was, there were certain projects that you could not discuss with your spouse outside. Nothing. So, many times my husband Don and I would go home and we would eat dinner and watch the news, and we could not converse about one thing that happened on the job. You have one group working on one project and another group working on another project, maybe in the same building. You don’t really know what they are doing, and you really don’t want to know. You couldn’t take the risk of compromising somebody else’s job. And yet we would all get together occasionally and have parties. It was real interesting, even during the parties during those years it was all petty talk, because you could not really talk shop at the party.
When we moved from Holloman to [Kirtland] Air Force Base, it was the end of my career because even my husband didn’t talk to me. So all of a sudden, I was put in a very new position. I was at where most of the wives at Holloman had been most of their wedded life. I was, all of a sudden, nonplused. I could not have any information. I had been debriefed. I was no longer cleared. I was no longer active. That is a real rough thing, especially when you are spousal with somebody in the industry. I missed that activity. I missed the mental stimulation I was getting.
I directed bridge games. I became a bridge umpire. And I dealt with a lot of upset people. I traveled a lot. I got to go to Las Vegas and Dallas and deal with adjudicating bridge games and running bridge tournaments.
Don was so good at PR [public relations], and his foreign technology background made him develop this ability to deal with people and to get the max out of them. They made him liaison officer at Kirtland. Those seven years we were in Albuquerque, I ended up entertaining and setting dinners for all these big muck-a-mucks coming in from California, all of these big contractors. Don did a lot of the contract negotiations that went on with the laser projects. That is what I did. I became an enabler for him to negotiate contracts.
I moved from Albuquerque back to Alamogordo in’76. Don and I were divorcing.
Loretta Hall is an Albuquerque-based freelance writer. Her latest book, Space Pioneers: In Their Own Words, was released in mid-June. It consists of annotated excerpts from oral history interviews of ninety men and women who were involved in some type of space program from 1945 through the space shuttle era. Her previous space history book, Out of this World: New Mexico’s Contributions to Space Travel, won six awards including Best New Mexico Book of 2011. Loretta’s father, Frank O. Hood, served in the US Navy in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II. You can read more about space pioneers here.