Federal mapper reflects on top-secret career
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She easily would have stumped the panelists on the vintage TV show "What's My Line?" In an era when most working women were teachers, secretaries or shop clerks, she worked for the federal government as a cartographer.
For 30 years, in a building with blacked-out windows, she made hand-drawn, top-secret maps used by foot soldiers in such conflicts as Korea and Vietnam.
When man first photographed the moon, she mapped that, too.
Sworn to silence for 60 years, she didn't tell one soul about her work, not even her husband.
She recently received a Remember Me Award from the West Virginia Health Association.
"I grew up six miles south of Scotsville, Ky., in Petroleum. My father was a pharmacist and the postmaster. We had this little country store, the Petroleum Mercantile and Drug Co. It was big for the community. It had a drug store, but it was like going into a big place to shop instead of just a drug store.
"It had everything you would expect as far as groceries go. The women would come and get material to make a new dress. We had one of those brown rolls of paper to fold their clothes in.
"I was there all the time. When customers would come in to buy something, my daddy would say, 'You know where they are, go get them.'
"During the Depression, my dad took care of a lot of people. Everybody respected him.
"We were close to the grade school and high school. Now all the schools have been boarded up. Our house burned. Several houses burned. They were struck by lightning. We didn't have any fire department.
"Everyone would go to Western Kentucky, a teachers college. Who thought you would do anything else? You were just going to get married.
"A lot of people were getting married before the men went overseas. Nobody had big weddings. I met Edgar in college. We got married in 1944 and he went to war immediately. I taught for two years until he got back and then four years more. We were married for 67 years.
"One Sunday afternoon, we visited a friend in Louisville. I was going to Nashville the next day to go to Peabody and get more of a degree. I only had two years. This other boy had come to Louisville to take an art course.
"He mentioned this job with a map-making agency. He thought I would like it. He called me the next day in Nashville and said if I wanted that job, I'd better get back because they were hiring. The next morning, I went back to Louisville on the Greyhound bus.
"I got the job. That was 1952. Coming in just off the street, I had to take a test, but not much of one. It was top-secret work. We were based in the post office downtown. They occasionally had an open house, and a few people got to go in, but my husband and daughter never did.
"The windows on the ninth floor were blacked out. There were high-powered cameras at the telephone company across the street, and they didn't want anybody looking at what we were working on. I wasn't allowed to tell anybody anything.
"If there was a war or a battle going on, we worked on it. Vietnam and Korea, the moon walk, all of those things were going on.
"When Jimmy Carter was president and the hostages were taken in Iran and they had the plane crash, we did work on that location.
"They went up to the moon with all their cameras and photographed ... all that stuff and brought it back to us, and we made maps out of it.
"At the bottom of the map, there was a name of the place, but not the name they really used. They were afraid we would say something we weren't supposed to say. Beulah is one of the names they used. That was Egypt.
"They would give the maps numbers, and that's what you would call it among yourselves. You would say, 'I'm working on No. 50.' Even in the office, you used the code.
"We learned to draw these maps by hand. Terrain analysis is what they called it. We had to take some math courses. They took pictures from planes flying over and some from surveyors. They would give us the pictures for mapping.
"See the black squares on this map? Anything manmade, like a house or hospital or school was put on in black. The brown is the hills, the water is blue. All of this in brown or tan is vegetation. Everything had its own color.
"We would put in blue water and sometimes it would be too wide, and we would have to scrape it out. I made some of my implements. That's what I used this one for.
"We sat on tall stools at a long table. Everyone had a different job. Some in one room worked on vegetation. Some in another room worked on culture, like the houses.
"I would have been a higher federal grade if I had gone to one of their colleges because they were beginning to work with computers. But I was through with it. I didn't want to go to the University of Louisville to get a little extra grade. I finished as a Grade 9.
"It was tedious work. Sometimes you would feel like you didn't want to go back in the next day. But I lasted 30 years.
"I worked a lot of overtime, evenings and Saturdays. But nothing got in the way of a job that needed to be finished. We knew it was important. And I didn't mind more money.
"They were about ready to close the place down. They had each of us come in at separate times and they told us we couldn't talk about what we did for 70 years.
"I didn't tell anybody anything I'd done. We would go out for some special occasion, and everybody would be jabbering. If they asked me what I did, I changed the subject. Nobody had any idea. Even Edgar didn't know anything.
"After I retired, we traveled a lot and worked on chartering the Hurstbourne Baptist Church and Hurstbourne Country Club in Louisville.
"The mapping is what made me so interested in geography and traveling to other countries. We've been to maybe 16 countries, including some of the places I'd drawn. When we went on road trips, of course, I was the one who would read the maps.
"Who would have thought that somebody from Petroleum, Ky., would get into this mapping stuff? Or that they would have enjoyed it? It took a lot of patience, but I was good at it. I was proud of my job."Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.