When Monty Stratton sees a way to do something more easily or efficiently, he makes the tool that’s required.
As he turns 100 today, that may be part of the reason that he still keeps house at the Richland home he’s lived in since it was owned by the federal government to provide housing for Hanford nuclear reservation workers.
“I come up with little gadgets that help do different jobs,” he said. “No patents — I build little gadgets.”
One that impressed his neighbor Teri Kessie is a tool he built to grasp and lift down wall clocks, allowing him to change the time without climbing on a step ladder.
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To help former Hanford workers he and a coworker came up with and built a device that automatized the tedious recording of temperature records for the cooling water in the core of Hanford’s historic B Reactor.
In the early days of B Reactor, a large board kept track of the temperature of water in the reactor at more than 2,000 spots, Stratton said. Someone would have to read out each temperature while another person sat at a typewriter and recorded them.
Stratton called what he and a mechanic came up with in about 1948 to eliminate that two-person task an electric typewriter.
They attached solenoids under the typewriter keys and hooked them up to the temperature recorder. The recorder sent a signal to the typewriter solenoids to pull down the correct key to type out a record.
“It was a crude device,” but it meant that the work no longer had to be done manually, Stratton said.
He had come to Hanford in February 1944, just four months after ground was broken on B Reactor, the world’s first production scale nuclear reactor.
He had been working under a military deferment at a DuPont munitions plant in Ohio. As work was winding down there, he applied to work at Hanford, where DuPont was the prime industrial contractor for the federal government.
Just days before he planned to start the drive to Hanford to his new job there supervising instrument repairs, he received a draft board letter.
“I wanted to see the West,” he said. He had grown up in Virginia and never been west of the Mississippi River.
He gave the letter to his landlady and asked her to send it to his new supervisors at Hanford. It arrived a couple days after he showed up at Hanford, but he was granted another deferment to keep him working on the Manhattan Project, a high defense priority to produce the nuclear weapons that would help end World War II.
What was being produced at Hanford was a secret that few knew. But Stratton had an idea.
The type of equipment repaired in the instrument repair shop gave a clue, he said.
One instrument that measured radiation had a meter on the front that said “millirankines” on it when received from the manufacturer. It had to be blacked out before they were used.
The devices were used to measure off site radiation, with two hidden in houses in Pasco and Kennewick, and another in a small building in West Richland, he said.
B Reactor produced the plutonium for the world’s first nuclear explosion, the 1945 Trinity test in the New Mexico desert. The test was secret, but the blast could not be hidden from nearby communities.
The Air Force issued a press release claiming that the blast was caused by a munitions explosion and that some people might have to be temporarily evacuated.
A coworker tipped off Stratton that a short article that appeared in the press had something to do with the secret project at Hanford.
Stratton clipped and saved the news item, but he was not talking.
“We were given documents to read in which the consequences were spelled out very specifically for what the punishment would be if you released certain information … death,” Stratton said in a 1993 interview quoted in a Hanford history booklet prepared by the Department of Energy.
He and his wife, who he met at Hanford, were vacationing at Mt. Rainier when they read in the newspaper that a nuclear bomb had been dropped on Japan, according to the same 1993 interview. A uranium-powered bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, followed by a bomb dropped on Nagasaki that used plutonium produced at Hanford.
He received a frantic call from a supervisor who had tracked him down to tell him “Don’t say anything!” because Stratton knew more than had been made public. Stratton and his wife had not even tell anyone that they worked at Hanford.
Stratton played a part in a major turning point in history, the start of the atomic age, but the scientific advancement that seems to have most captured his imagination in 100 years of life is the advancement of space flight.
He was born just 12 years after the Wright brothers managed to fly an airplane 20 feet along a beach in North Carolina.
He took flying lessons from a civilian instructor at the Richland airport when he came to Hanford in 1944. When the airport closed to civilian use, he continued driving to Prosser as gas was available during wartime to complete a solo flight.
But about that time, he met, Laura Palumbo, his future wife. “I got interested in her and never got back to flying,” he said.
He has tracked satellites since the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, in 1957. He would use his ham radio equipment to listen to transmissions and make recordings as they passed over. He’s tried repeatedly, along with other amateur radio operators, to make radio contact with an astronaut as a manned satellite passes over the region.
On his to-do list for his 101st year is renewing the amateur radio operator license he’s been using since 1937.
He may not have talked to an astronaut in space, but a relative arranged for him to meet with Barbara Morgan, an Idaho teacher picked for the Teacher in Space program. She would become a NASA astronaut.
“It was a real nice occasion,” Stratton said, in his low-key way.
He’s not excitable, says his family. That, along with no tobacco, no alcohol and a slender build, may have contributed to his long and healthy life, said his son, Frank.
Stratton says he tries not to eat a lot of junk food, gets plenty of rest and does “not gallivant around,” he said. Asked to explain, he said that means he does not run around with wild women.
He does have a sweet tooth, he said.
He does his own cooking, including baking cookies. His wife, Laura, died in 2012.
His days are filled with household chores and driving himself around the Tri-Cities, including to grocery store and church.
He renewed his driver’s license a year ago. It’s good until 2018.