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Interview with Robert Elmer Friedrichs, February 25, 2004


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Narrator affiliation: Radiation Safety, Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company (REECo); Sr. Scientific Adviser, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)

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Friedrichs, Robert Elmer. Interview, 2004 February 25. MS-00818. [Transcript]. Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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Nevada Test Site Oral History Project University of Nevada, Las Vegas Interview with Robert Friedrichs February 25, 2004 Las Vegas, Nevada Interview Conducted By Mary Palevsky © 2007 by UNLV Libraries Oral history is a method of collecting historical information through recorded interviews conducted by an interviewer/ researcher with an interviewee/ narrator who possesses firsthand knowledge of historically significant events. The goal is to create an archive which adds relevant material to the existing historical record. Oral history recordings and transcripts are primary source material and do not represent the final, verified, or complete narrative of the events under discussion. Rather, oral history is a spoken remembrance or dialogue, reflecting the interviewee’s memories, points of view and personal opinions about events in response to the interviewer’s specific questions. Oral history interviews document each interviewee’s personal engagement with the history in question. They are unique records, reflecting the particular meaning the interviewee draws from her/ his individual life experience. Produced by: The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project Departments of History and Sociology University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 89154- 5020 Director and Editor Mary Palevsky Principal Investigators Robert Futrell, Dept. of Sociology Andrew Kirk, Dept. of History The material in the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project archive is based upon work supported by the U. S. Dept. of Energy under award number DEFG52- 03NV99203 and the U. S. Dept. of Education under award number P116Z040093. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in these recordings and transcripts are those of project participants— oral history interviewees and/ or oral history interviewers— and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U. S. Department of Energy or the U. S. Department of Education. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 1 Interview with Robert Friedrichs February 25, 2004 Conducted by Mary Palevsky Table of Contents Mr. Friedrichs shares his family history and experiences growing up near Las Vegas in the 1940s. 1 As a young man, Mr. Friedrichs joined the Civil Air Patrol and traveled extensively throughout the United States and Canada. 6 In 1949, the Friedrichs family moved to Boulder City, Nevada. Mr. Friedrichs describes the social stratification and small- town character of the city. 11 Growing up in Boulder City, Mr. Friedrichs often witnessed flashes of light from atomic tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site. Children of Boulder City were issued identification tags and monitored for possible effects of radioactive fallout. 18 Mr. Friedrichs moved to Henderson to attend Basic High School. The social structure and diversity of Henderson was much different than Boulder City. 21 After graduating from Basic High School, Mr. Friedrichs considered several career options, including military service or employment in the airline industry. He eventually went to work as a laboratory technician for a local industrial firm. 26 In 1963, Mr. Friederichs was hired by Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company [ REECo] to work as a junior laboratory technician at the Nevada Test Site. 29 Mr. Friedrichs and his wife both worked at the Nevada Test Site. He describes a typical working day and the commute from Las Vegas to the test site. 36 The need for security clearances affected work and daily life at the test site. Mr. Friedrichs discusses the background investigation process and how test site workers adapted to strict security procedures. 38 As a REECo employee, Mr. Friedrichs monitored levels of radiation exposure for test site workers. Different standards applied to certain types of workers, as civilian, military, and government authorities competed for jurisdiction at the test site. 43 While governmental secrecy often affected public perception of the nuclear test program, most test site workers believed their work to be patriotic. In the context of Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, the need to continue nuclear testing seemed to outweigh the risks. 52 Among test site workers, there was a strong sense that their work contributed to the policy of nuclear deterrence that was necessary to win the Cold War. 55 UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 1 Interview with Robert Friedrichs February 25, 2004 in Las Vegas, NV Conducted by Mary Palevsky [ 00: 02: 10] Begin Track 2, Disk 1. Mary Palevsky: As I said I thought we would start maybe with a little bit of your family background. I understand that you sort of grew up in this general part of the universe known as the desert southwest. Robert Friedrichs: Let me step back a little bit and tell you about my father and mother first. My father was a first- generation American. His parents were both born and raised in Germany and then immigrated to the United States, settling in Wisconsin in the Sheboygan Falls area. My mother has English/ Irish/ Scot mixed background and her parents, although born in the United States, I believe they were first- generation American, and they were in southern Utah. So my father worked for the railroad. In fact he was one of the founding officials for the union, the maintenance of way employees union here in Las Vegas with the Union Pacific Railroad, and was a union organizer in addition to his regular job. He in turn met my mother who was living with my aunt in Barstow, California at the time and my aunt, being the good matchmaker, made sure that her younger sister got a reliable man. And so they hit it off and married and then lived in various locations both in southern Nevada and in California. So when I was born they were living in Desert, California which is just over the state line, right up a dirt road from Nipton, California, so people driving to and from [ 00: 05: 00] L. A. [ Los Angeles] will recognize the name Nipton from the highway sign and the overpass and the road that goes off to nothing. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 2 And so for the first six years of my life I also lived in Desert, California, but I was born in Las Vegas since that was the nearest city of any population. And in fact I was born in the Las Vegas General Hospital on 8th Street, which after being a hospital became an alcoholic rehab facility and then a seniors’ retirement complex, and then in I believe 1993 or 1994 finally burned down. But it was a two- story building roughly one block off Fremont on 8th Street. And there were only two physicians in the hospital, and so when you walked in the front door you went to the doctor on the left or the doctor on the right and that was it. And anyone from that time period essentially was delivered by one of those two physicians. So it was a very small community at that time. Then after making sure that everything was all right they took me to Desert and we would come in and out of Las Vegas probably once a month. So how long would the drive have been in those days and what were the roads like, do you remember? It was a two- lane paved road, not any kind of edges on it or anything, I mean it was essentially two- lane and you pulled off into the dirt and that was it. So the driving was routinely about fifty- five miles an hour so it was well over an hour to drive into Las Vegas. Well over. And of course Las Vegas had a very small population then. Recognize I was born in 1943 and I can vaguely remember when the population broke fifty thousand people, and I mean that was just phenomenal to the individuals that had been here from the very early days. And the town, I watched that evolve from essentially just a few streets off Fremont and Main to what it is today. Yes, it’s really unbelievable. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 3 But it’s sort of strange to drive around and try to exactly pinpoint where certain things were. Different hotels early on, different ranches that have been totally swallowed up, no longer any trace whatsoever, and the city really grew rapidly. My father used to joke about the fact that he could buy the desert land at that time for five cents an acre that was well outside of town and had no value for grazing or anything like that, and it was the corner where the Sahara Hotel was built. And earlier that was actually an airport on that area. So before that whole thing happened there was gambling in Las Vegas in those days. Oh absolutely. It just wasn’t what we know now, with the Strip and the whole bit. Well, as a kid I can remember the early hotels: the El Rancho Vegas, the other hotels that were along— of course the Flamingo, the Last Frontier Hotel, and the Western Village that was there. Later on the Castaway Hotel with the carved wooden temple that no one seems to know whatever happened to it when they tore the hotel down and built the new and improved hotels there. And so it’s interesting because of many of the experiences that I remember as a kid. Good example: the railroad community was very close, and so we would go to places like Sloan and visit friends, spend time in Bracken which was an area where they had section houses and a [ 00: 10: 00] section gang based at, which is now just across the railroad tracks on Flamingo, and there’s no trace of it at all; it’s all industrial now. But we used to go there and you could see the Flamingo tower at that point, the funny round thing in front with the bubbles on it, and you could watch that at night as you lay outside to sleep because that was just more comfortable than sleeping indoors where there were kerosene lamps, believe it or not, in the railroad houses. And UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 4 no air conditioning. You were lucky if you had a swamp cooler. So you’d spend a nice evening outside and you’d see things like that. Now your dad with his work was headquartered in Las Vegas or where did he work? Well, the union meetings were here in Las Vegas and he actually was at the time of my birth responsible for the pump house at Desert, and it was one of the locations where the steam engines refilled their water tanks. And he was considered the senior official at that location, and there were other railroad employees there. For instance, during World War II when there was a military contingent based at Desert to protect the railroad— a national guard unit from the Midwest somewhere, I don’t remember where now— there was a fatality and he as the ranking local person had to go view the body, pronounce the individual dead and take charge until such time as the appropriate personnel arrived to then take over the investigation. So it was sort of a bizarre time. What was your father’s first name? Elmer. Elmer. OK. And you know give me a sense of how many people lived in Desert at that time. Oh, I believe there were six houses and probably counting the dogs too there were twenty- four. I mean it was not a large number. In some cases like in my family there were three kids there all the time. Sometimes my oldest sister would be up to visit from California but normally three of us. The Ford family that lived nearby had more children than that but then some of the others had none or maybe one child. So basically the reason that you were in Desert was the railroad, but was that why everyone was there? Yes. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 5 And then where did you all go to school? Was there a schoolhouse there? Nipton, there was a two- room schoolhouse, and that’s where my brothers went. The schoolteacher actually drove over from Searchlight, that taught my brothers, Minnie Peters who retired and moved to Boulder City to, you know, the big city when she retired. And I didn’t start school until after we moved from Desert to Boulder City. OK. All right. So you’re the youngest then. Yes. That was approximately 1949 when we moved, and so I had the benefit of actually going to school in a larger community. I had a class of maybe twenty- five in our first grade class. That was a lot of people. Yes, that is. Twenty- five is a good size first grade class for a small town. Yes. And the transition from my younger years of very few people, it was an adjustment to say the least. You were sort of shy or were you just not used to so many people around? I was shy. I was very reserved. I certainly had some social issues dealing with a large number of people. Social issues. Now you have to tell me what you mean by that. And I ask you because I found those transitions difficult. I mean I just moved from one village to another five miles apart and I remember how difficult that was so that’s why I’m curious. Just the new people was difficult. [ 00: 15: 00] Well, to be very candid, between my outright dislike for school— because of the fact it was very uncomfortable— and then being snowed in on a train going back to Wisconsin for several days, going back to Wisconsin and then my brothers taking turns coming down with the measles and myself, I literally missed well over a month of school. So when I came back I had to repeat first grade. And I never really liked school, all the way through high school. I truly UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 6 disliked it and found other activities that were interesting and exciting and gave me the satisfaction I craved, and it was not with school. Well, what was the deal with school then, if you had a “ because” for what— they just were not engaging you or it wasn’t interesting or they were too strict or—? It had nothing to do with strictness. It was the fact I found it very boring. I learned to read at home. My father had a nice library and I read voraciously. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and I had quite an active imagination as a result of that. Then to go to school when you’re learning basics and drills essentially, and I found absolutely no satisfaction in any of that, so I didn’t do well. So what did you do instead that you said you found the reading. One of the things that I did as a fairly young person, I got into an organization called the Civil Air Patrol and was very active in that and had some remarkable opportunities as a result of doing reasonably well in that organization. I was able to participate in the International Air Cadet Exchange and toured eastern Canada. At seventeen I flew in a T- 33 jet aircraft and at eighteen I flew in an F- 100 and broke the speed of sound. At eighteen? Yes. Oh wow! So those are the kinds of things that grew out of that opportunity. Now did this opportunity exist for you because of— because you’re really enlightening me about Las Vegas area history here— because the [ Nellis] Air Force Base was close by, is that why you could do this Civil Air Patrol, or is that completely another thing? UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 7 It’s a program that’s in many communities, totally unrelated to military bases, and they’re all over the United States. And essentially the adult program is primarily focused on search and rescue. The cadet program is to increase awareness and knowledge of aviation. OK, so it really is educational in that sense. Yes. And you have to take tests on different subjects as you go along and, you know, much like Boy Scouts, you know, you have a series of steps that you must go through in order to end up an Eagle Scout, and that’s what everyone’s goal is hopefully. So I wanted to complete the CAP training, I wanted to do the activities, and as a result I had opportunities such as the ones I mentioned that simply weren’t there for the average person. Do you remember the first time you flew a plane or went up in a plane? Actually it’s kind of interesting. When we lived at Desert my parents had a friend in Las Vegas that owned his own aircraft, and periodically he would come down and buzz the house and then he’d go down and land on the dry lake bed. And my folks would grab me and my brothers, you know, in the car and drive down to where he was at, and then he’d give everybody flights. And so I was flying in my mother’s arms as an infant and I have absolutely no recollection of the actual flights obviously. And so it was very natural for me when I got older to go up in little [ 00: 20: 00] single- engine aircraft, the L- 5, L- 16 aircraft that Civil Air Patrol had for training, and then the search and rescue. So you’d go up and how the training would work is the pilot would be there with you and then you’d take the controls, is that the kind of thing that would happen? We could do that. The intent when I went through was to be a qualified observer in order to let the pilot focus on flying safely and then the observer is scanning the ground for any sign of the aircraft crash site and survivors, or people who are lost. And so that was something that was the UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 8 focus but obviously you’re going through and some people could go forward and actually get their pilot rating. I did not and I to this day question why I didn’t. I should have because the opportunity was there and I just didn’t see that far ahead so. It’s hard when you’re young, I think, to see far ahead at all in a lot of cases. Very true. Then tell me about this jet thing that you mentioned. By the time you were eighteen you had flown in this T- what? Well, the T- 33 is a little two- seater trainer that is a modification of the F- 80 Lockheed fighter. And every summer we’d go to summer camp which was on an actual air base. Some were at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, some were at, for instance, McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento. I had a couple out at Nellis, and people from all over the state, or in the case of the California one, we actually had kids from California and Nevada there. And you would learn the different types of activities that went on on an air base. You’d get classes, you’d get orientations, and you actually lived in a barracks and followed the rules and all of that. As part of that program they provided the opportunity to fly in T- 33s for some of the people at the encampment, not certainly a majority but a small segment, as a reward for their performance. And so I got a flight in the T- 33 and then the following year when we were at Luke I got a flight in the F- 100. And that was the first real supersonic, the first century series jet, and it was a significant difference from the T- 33. In fact the T- 33 to me was very similar to flying in a prop aircraft. I mean there was not a major difference. You went faster but everything was in a fairly close proportion. When we flew in the F- 100 it was a significant difference because they could kick in an afterburner and that really puts you in the back of your seat, and it was just a far greater performance aircraft. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 9 And then you broke the sound barrier in that thing? What does that feel like? It’s rather interesting because as you start to build up you can feel the air resistance on the aircraft itself and you can feel it through the stick. You don’t really hear it as such in the cockpit but all of a sudden it’s like on ice. Perfectly smooth. And then as you slow back down you transition fairly rapidly back through and you don’t really think much about the shock wave effects, what have you, that you’re coming back out of. But I can remember that it was just like being on glass, it was so smooth of a flight. How interesting. How amazing that must be. [ 00: 25: 00] And to think, you know, I did that in, oh, 1959, 1960, maybe 1961 time period. I’d have to go back and look now. And to think that it was essentially less than fifteen years before that the first person broke the sound barrier. And so it was still unique. But they made a big thing out of it because you got a certificate from North American Aviation, you got a pin to wear, and you know all kinds of things that really let you feel special. You still have those things, I imagine. Oh absolutely. But no, I was born in 1949 so you’re about six years older than me and I was thinking as you were talking, when was that that the sound barrier was first broken? So you’ve answered that question. But I remember even as a kid that that was a big deal, you know. We had, you know, a neighbor who was a flyer and would talk about these things with my dad, and that was a big thing, if you’d been in a plane that had broken the sound barrier. Even then so yes, absolutely, that must have been really, really exciting. So that’s the way I got the feeling of satisfaction and excitement in life. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 10 Well, you know, it’s a real education. We have these ways of saying school and not school, but that sounds like where your real education and learning happened. There was a lot of learning there. Yes. Yes. And when you say that do you mean just about flying or other kinds of things, when you say there was a lot of learning? I learned a lot because, for instance when I went on the air cadet exchange, we stayed on military bases sometimes, sometimes in private homes, it just depended on where we were in Canada. And when we were on Prince Edward Island I actually stayed with a private family. I can remember vividly the father trying to convince me that what I should do after I graduated from school was to come to Prince Edward Island and start growing oysters. And he explained the whole process, how you get started and everything else, and how I’d really enjoy that. So you know I learned about oyster beds and oyster as a crop essentially, just through the opportunity to spend some time with someone that I would never have met in any other way. Right, and yes, thinking that you’re a kid from the Nevada desert, that really is amazing that it’s oysters. So there was this cultural exchange or this cultural learning happening. And then obviously in Quebec Province, going into a village store that was out of one of the big cities and having the older people in the store talking French and expecting me to talk French, and having no idea about French, and finally a young lady came out and talked to me and took my order in English. But I realized when the older people turned and started to walk away and they said a couple of things, a portion of which was in English, that by God, I was in their province and I was to speak French. So those kinds of things that the average person just would never have experienced. It was exciting. And of course at the time I was there, there was a very active separatist movement in Quebec and they had not all that long before broken into a military UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 11 munitions storage facility and taken weapons and ammunition. So it was a very, very strong feeling that the people had and, as I understand, have to this day. That is also my understanding, yes. French identity. So that puts you sort of, what, at the end of high school era. Actually I need to tell you more about school itself because I told you my first grade experience [ 00: 30: 00] and then really didn’t talk anything about the rest of school. We had a great school which was in a single brick building in Boulder City. All of the six classes were there, and two- story. And while in grade school I started doing art work as part of the class work, and enjoyed that and got an award for one of the watercolors I had done, and so that was really fun. And there again that was something that although it was within the framework of school it really was different. It allowed you to have your own vision and then learn the techniques of putting that down on paper for someone else to see. And so I enjoyed art. And the opportunity, because it was a very stable community, to develop friendships that in some cases I still have today. Keep track of certain people I went to school with, and we’ve had the opportunity to work professionally in our adult lives, so that’s been really pleasant, to know that person well enough that you can have total trust in them. Yes. That continuity must be interesting, that trust that you know from those early years and then translating into an adult work relationship. Yes. When I went to junior high school that was in a different school in Boulder City, and that’s the point where I really got rebellious. I wore my leather jacket and I sneered and I was not a very nice person sometimes. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 12 So let’s just get the cultural information here for the students who don’t remember these years. When you’re rebellious in those days you’re looking toward, okay, you’ve got a leather jacket so it’s sort of what kind of— like a biker thing? No, you’d have to see the movie Rebel Without a Cause. So Rebel Without a Cause, the James Dean thing. Yes. Thank you. So it wasn’t a Marlon Brando on the bike. What’s that one called where he rides into town on that bike? It was a James Dean thing. OK. Actually that whole culture, I’ll give you a little flashback here. The whole biker culture came out of the fighter pilots of World War II who formed motorcycle clubs because it was the closest thing to flying and the independent spirit and everything else, and then through time evolved into the motorcycle gangs and all of that. But really the foundation of the motorcycle clubs in the United States were as a result of World War II and the fighter pilots getting a social organization together to ride together. That’s interesting, and when you even look at the fact that it’s leather jackets, of course you want leather when you’re on a bike, and the hats with the logos and stuff. It’s perfect. I actually never knew that. Well, there’s another piece of trivia for you. Yes, that’s interesting. OK, but that wasn’t your thing. It was the James Dean thing, and that’s right, that’s about that era. And I had one schoolteacher that really made an impression on me. He had been a football star in college football and had come to Boulder City and originally taught athletics in addition to other formal classes. And then he contracted polio and he was wheelchair- bound but he had upper UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 13 body strength that was phenomenal. And he had this arrangement where he would roll the wheelchair into his desk and then he could take these arms that were like wrapped pipe and he could stand up. And he would stand there and lecture. And just a phenomenal individual. And he taught government and world affairs. And one of the things that was required of all the students was that you get a subscription to U. S. News and World Report. And we would discuss the magazine each week in great detail. I still have a subscription to this day. It’s just one of the magazines I read but it’s the one that historically I have felt had the most objective reporting. And I may be biased in that sense but it’s certainly something that stuck with me from junior high school all the way through. What was this teacher’s name? Robert Gettler, and in fact there is a school here in Las Vegas named after him. And there’s a school named after him. Yes. He was an amazing person. And he was a junior high teacher to you. Yes. Well, and he was also a coach, believe it or not, even though he was in a wheelchair they allowed him to continue to teach, I believe it was track and field instead of football. But still he would be out there and just really working the kids to do the best they could. Yes, that’s another piece of that era that people have forgotten about, that whole polio epidemic. But you think mostly of children, don’t you, so for an adult to have lived a life to a certain extent and then contract the disease, it must have been a big challenge for him. Yes. He had a double pipe arrangement in his backyard that went from one end to the other and he would go out there and he would literally lift himself up and then walk from one end to the other, turn around, and walk back. And that’s how he maintained the upper body strength, but I UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 14 mean— give you an example, I wasn’t the only smartass in class. We had several. And one of the individuals lipped off to him one time. And he shot out from behind his desk and down the aisle, grabbed this kid with one hand, grabbed the front of his shirt, lifted him out of his seat and shook him, and slammed him back down, and then rolled back up behind the desk. And this kid never lipped off to him again. You learn very, very quickly. This man was incredibly strong and he was not handicapped. He had issues that he had learned how to effectively deal with, but he was not handicapped. And I’d never tell him to his face that he was. Yes. So would I be correct in drawing the conclusion that somehow with your own turmoil that you were going on at that point, that somehow he spoke to you as far as, what, that things can be difficult but you have to face them. I’m just trying to understand what it was. Well, he got me to look globally. OK. To look beyond Boulder City basically. Oh, absolutely. You have to understand that Boulder City was a government town. It had been built by the government, it was run by the government, and we had lived there several years before they essentially turned it over to the community to run. But as a kid, it was still a government town, government police, the whole thing. And there were essentially three categories of people in Boulder City. You had your government workers, and the higher your GS [ government service] rating the more important you were. You had a heavy Mormon contingent, and if you happened to be a Mormon in government that was even better because you covered two bases. But the Church was extremely strong in Boulder City. And then you had essentially everybody else. And because my father worked for the railroad we were very low on the social ladder obviously, and there were a lot of other families like that. In fact there was an entire community that was built just outside of Boulder City called McKeeversville, and that’s where UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 15 the really poor people lived. And essentially they didn’t have houses built to code. They were [ 00: 40: 00] just very, very poor people. And I mean they were not part of the social community at all. As I got into high school I truly recognized that disparity and became a little more vocal on occasion. In fact, I can remember one time where there was a lot of dissension in school and so one of the teachers had us all come together to talk about why we felt there were issues. And I obviously was one of the few who had the outside position and talked to that fact. And it didn’t alienate the kids of those family members that were in the social structure but they found it impossible to understand. So you know we weren’t chastised and anything like that but you certainly knew your place in the community and you stayed in your place. And so that again reinforced my dislike for school. Because although I liked many of the people from any part of the community and it really made no difference to me, that was not necessarily a reciprocal situation. That’s so interesting. So there’s social stratification to such a degree that you couldn’t be friends with or you couldn’t have a girlfriend—? Our parents couldn’t be friends. Your parents couldn’t socialize. Now we snuck around and did a lot of things, but— Like kids do, crossing those social boundaries is one of the most fun things to do. Absolutely. But outwardly those social boundaries were clear to you? Absolutely. Absolutely. No doubt about it. And being a small town, and the fact my mother was a housekeeper or a maid, on many occasions if my brothers or I did anything inappropriate the phone rang at the home and my folks were told. And so when we would get home we would be UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 16 sat down and asked certain questions and if we didn’t come up with the right answers then we got nailed for that in addition to whatever it was that was reported. But you know, things like running a stop sign. I can remember one of the community calling and telling my parents my next older brother had run a specific stop sign, specific location, specific time, and so when Carl got home he got hell for that because that wasn’t something my parents, number one, appreciated because of the