Tag Archives: Berkeley Hills

WALTER BACK THEN

 

We have all heard someone comment, “You know, I never thought that kid would grow up to be famous.”

Several of my relatives began saying that to me in the 1980s when they started to run across news reports about one of my childhood friends from the 1950s.

In 1951, when I was eight years old, my mother, my father, my younger sister and I took up temporary residence with my mother’s parents and their three sons at my grandparents’ new home in the Berkeley Hills. My father was a hospital corpsman in the Navy at the time. He was serving on a ship stationed in San Francisco Bay and was awaiting notification to proceed north to his new duty station at the Navy base in Bremerton, Washington, where all of us would be going when the word came.

View of San Francisco Bay from Berkeley Hills
View of San Francisco Bay from Berkeley Hills

The house in the Berkeley Hills where we were staying was only around a year old at the time. It was located on one of the highest promontories in the area, on a large lot that my grandfather had purchased simply by paying the delinquent property taxes. My grandfather was an armed teller for the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. He had gone into this line of work in 1945 after serving as a gunnery officer in the Second World War. He used his financial knowledge to find the vacant lot. His oldest son, a decorator at a department store in Oakland, designed the house. A licensed architect put in the final details and then worked with a local contractor to complete the construction. The style of the house was daring, like so much of the architecture in postwar California. It was single-story, very horizontal, with numerous large windows of plate glass, exterior walls that combined white stucco and panels of redwood, and an interior that seemed to create almost no barriers between the living spaces and the front and back yards. Most of the other houses in the neighborhood were nondescript structures built in the 1920s. My uncle’s design seemed almost intrusive by comparison, and in this sense a fitting metaphor for my family’s situation.

Typical homes in the Berkeley Hills
Typical homes in the Berkeley Hills

The house put all of us in touch with a class of people we might never have known if my grandparents had bought property elsewhere. Given the highly desirable views and the cost of property, Berkeley in its hilly areas was an upper middle class neighborhood — and in some areas a very rich neighborhood. My grandparents were only able to enter by buying at a bargain rate and doing much of the property improvement with their own hands.

And so they found themselves next to new types of acquaintances: corporate executives, attorneys, members of major San Francisco accounting firms, doctors and dentists, professors from the University of California, and retired admirals and generals. All were white. All had black maids and Japanese-American gardeners. Nearly all had college degrees. Into this environment, we came: My Scotch-Irish grandfather, who had left school at age 13 to become a Navy gunner, was a short, stocky, hard swearing, muscular man who had once been the wrestling champion of the Pacific Fleet (or so he said). My grandmother, from a Portuguese Catholic family in Hawaii, had been educated at a convent school for girls. She had an olive complexion, dark eyes and short, shiny black hair; she seemed almost Arabic in appearance. Her defining trait was a lighthearted, entrancing laugh that could cheer up an entire roomful of people. My oldest uncle, the department store decorator, never planned on college and never went; he was not only visually talented but also a gifted singer who, because he disliked show business people, turned down offers in New York City to join Fred Waring’s choir. The next oldest uncle loved to hunt and fish, drove a beer truck after leaving high school and then joined the Air Force during the Korean War, and was talented in mathematics. He went to college because his fiancee, a teacher, insisted. My youngest uncle was a talented gymnast who hated his studies in school but was handsome and an amazing dancer. He knew cars well enough to steal them and get in trouble with the law. Then, after graduating from high school, he married, entered the car business himself and eventually owned a dealership. And there was the eldest child, my mother, who eloped to Reno to marry my father but always remained close to her family.

Some of the neighbors didn’t like us. We were never invited to certain homes. Other neighbors were fascinated and liked the change from routine we provided. Next door, for example, there was an accountant who had grown up in a stuffy family. He dropped by often. He loved it the night my youngest uncle, by then a car salesman, arrived at one a.m. with three cars full of friends and hangers on from an Oakland nightclub, accompanied by a five-piece Cuban dance combo that played as they walked up the path in our front yard.

One of our upper middle class neighbors was the Alvarez family. Luis Alvarez, the father, was a famous scientist. He had pursued Physics at the University of Chicago during the years when Enrico Fermi was conducting the experiments that led to the world’s first controlled atomic chain reaction. In Chicago he married into a family as wealthy as his. In the 1930s he and his wife moved to Berkeley at the invitation of Ernest O. Lawrence. In the Second World War, Dr. and Mrs. Alvarez moved to Los Alamos and helped to make the Atomic Bomb. They had two children: a daughter, Jean, and a son, Walter. After the War, the family returned to Berkeley and moved into a house just down the street from the one my grandparents owned.

Water Alvarez, right, with his father Luis in 1961
Water Alvarez, right, with his father Luis in 1961

We might never have come into contact with the Alvarez family, so great were the class barriers, if I had not become friends with Walter. I was 8 years old at the time. He was 12. One day, I think it was while playing army man with several of the neighborhood kids in a vacant lot near our house, I met Walter. He found me refreshing. He was brighter than the other kids and he could see that I was, too. He enjoyed jokes and pranks just as I did. In his case, the proclivity had been passed on from his father, who used puns and absurd mechanical toys to relieve the mental and emotional strain of his intellectually demanding profession. Walter especially appreciated my ability to tell funny stories, which came easily thanks to a great fondness for conversation and wisecracks on both sides of the family. A free-flowing, communal feeling trailed along with me from my working class relatives. It gave Walter a release from the propriety of his own home.

At Walter’s house, life was heavy with civilization. There were Middle Eastern carpets on the floor, serious paintings on the walls, bookshelves in every room, and models of New England sailing ships in large glass cases at the top of the stairs near the bedrooms. The living room was dark and had just one small window that did little to take advantage of the view from the hills. For dinner, in the formal dining room, Walter had to put on a clean white shirt. Before the meal, however, he was required to sit at the family’s grand piano and do his daily practice. The first time I heard him, I was entranced by the beauty of the sound. I had never heard classical music before and I asked Walter what “tune” he was playing. He explained that it was one of Chopin’s Polonaises.

When Walter came to my family’s house, there was as much culture as at his, but it was untutored. My uncle Buddy, home from work, might be singing in the shower. My grandfather Harry, in a Hawaian sport shirt, might be telling lies about his experiences at sea. My mother, Flo, might be asking Walter what he liked about school, surprising him with the intelligence and perceptiveness of her questions.

The largest contrast between the two homes was the light. Walter envied the way the view of the entire Bay Area seemed to come right through our living room window, just as I envied his pedigree and social position and his parents’ formal education.

Walter and I spent most of our time together roaming the neighborhood. We did the kinds of things two smart aleck boys would do. One day, for example, we got some soap powder and used it as imitation white paint to put a sign on the concrete of the street with the words “Caution, Apes Crossing.” Most cars stopped. In the front yard of a house down the hill, where a pretentious couple lived, we constructed a sign made from orange crate wood and nailed it to a post. The sign read, “A former burlesque queen lives here.”

We directed our most inspired impudence at the house where the crabbiest family lived. It happened to be right next door to my grandparents’ house, which was important because our prank involved heavy lifting. My two older uncles often gave parties for large groups of friends. There was lots of gin, whiskey, and beer.   After the parties, the empty bottles and cans ended up in our backyard in cardboard boxes, where they remained until the family made the next drive to the city dump. One evening after dark, Walter and I carried all the liquor bottles to the front yard next door and spread them in the shrubbery and all over the lawn. Next morning, all day long and into evening, pedestrians stopped, and passing cars slowed, to register their amazement that any family could be so besotted. Walter and I had to clean up the yard and each lost an allowance. I sometimes wonder if, today, a prank such as ours might cause a homeowner to phone the police. Times were different back then.

1940s_bourbon_whiskey_bottles

The thing that Berkeley has always been best known for is its status as the home of the flagship campus of the University of California. That fact was hugely important in my life. I don’t recall when I learned the word “campus” or first saw one. My earliest exposure to all the elements of a campus — a zone, usually in a natural setting, where there were buildings and people devoted to advanced learning — occurred around that time at age 8 when I was living at my grandparents’ house. Walter asked me if I would like to “see where my dad works.” I said “sure, why not,” got permission from my parents, and rode with Walter and his father through a park-like area that was, I was told, “the Cal campus.” Then we made our way up a winding road, through a guard’s gates, to the Radiation Laboratory that sat on the top of the hill behind the rest of the university.

UC Berkeley campus, with Berkeley Hills in background and Radiation Laboratory at left
UC Berkeley campus, with Berkeley Hills in background and Radiation Laboratory at left

We toured several buildings. At the Cyclotron, I watched metal fly across the room, attracted by the powerful magnetism. In a long, low, shabby, wooden building nearby, Walter showed me a slender, metal structure that extended the length of the interior. It looked like a lumpy metal snake, or like an automobile crankcase. Walter’s father kicked it. “I built this,” he said matter of factly. I was unimpressed and wondered why Walter’s father wasn’t working on anything more exciting. Years later, I learned that I had been standing next to one of the components of the world’s first linear accelerator, and that the odd object was one of the inventions that earned Walter’s father a Nobel Prize.

The 27-inch cyclotron at UC Berkeley
The 27-inch cyclotron at UC Berkeley

After my family left the Berkeley Hills and moved to Bremerton, I lost touch with Walter and did not hear anything about him for many years afterwards. Then, in the early 1980s, when I was back on a visit to the Bay Area, one of my uncles handed me a local newspaper and said, “Say, didn’t you used to play with a kid named Walter Alvarez? Well, he’s in the headlines.”

From that first newspaper article, and others that followed in later months, I learned that, after high school in Berkeley, Walter had attended Carleton College in Minnesota, obtained his Ph.D. in Geology at Princeton, and eventually joined the faculty at UC Berkeley, where he and his father Luis had developed a revolutionary theory that, 66 million years ago, because of the impact of a giant asteroid or comet on planet earth, a mass extinction had eliminated 75% of all species, due to ejection of large amounts of rock debris into the atmosphere, cutting off most access to light, lowering temperatures, and fouling the atmosphere. The result was elimination of all non-avian dinosaurs, with only smaller mammals and birds surviving. Walter and his father had propounded their theory before the 1980s and attracted worldwide attention because of it. The theory appeared to be confirmed in the 1980s by discovery of the largest impact crater on the planet, in the subsurface of the Yucatan Peninsula, dating precisely from the time of the extinction. Then in 2010 an international panel of distinguished scientists upheld the Alvarez findings.

Walter and friends in Italy at the meeting of the Big History Society he formed to relate geology to human history
Walter (in beret) and friends in Italy at the meeting of the Big History Society he formed to relate geology to human history

I have not had any contact with Walter since the early 1950s. But from time to time I read about his many discoveries and honors, and I remember the pleasure of having him as a friend and I imagine myself drinking a toast to him, using whatever whiskey might have remained in the bottles we scattered on that neighbor’s lawn many years ago.

For a fascinating memoir about Walter and his family, get a copy of the book by Luis Alvarez, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (1987).

Walter Alvarez at a campus-wide lecture convened in his honor at UC Berkeley
Walter Alvarez at a campus-wide lecture convened in his honor at UC Berkeley

 

 

COMMIES AND COOKIES

Senator_Joseph_R._McCarthy,_ca._1954

From its beginning after the Second World War until its end with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War was marked, as everyone knows, by great worry. Some of the fear, like the universal contemplation of the possibility of nuclear destruction, or the thought of losing a war in Europe to the Soviet Union, was well founded. And some of the anxiety, such as paranoia about the possibility of communist agents taking over the U.S. government, was less justifiable..

Many of the fears were expressed explicitly, for example in activities during the time which have become legendary, such as the construction of family bomb shelters in suburban backyards, the Congressional hearings chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the air raid drills which nearly all American students had to practice roughly once a month, when the sound of a siren emanated from somewhere down the street and our teachers told all of us to get on hands and knees under our desks and wait for the all clear.

In other cases the fears were expressed indirectly, for example in the many science fiction films of that era about strange invaders from outer space and lizards made monstrous by nuclear mutations in their genes.

Godzilla_King_of_the_Monsters_poster

I have some claim to being the originator of one of the more creative expressions of indirect anxiety to appear during the Cold War.

In 1953, my father, my mother, my sister and I were living temporarily with her parents at their home in the Berkeley Hills while my parents looked for an apartment for us in the East Bay area. At the time, my father was a Hospital Corpsman in the U. S. Navy. He had served in the Korean War and then completed a tour of duty at the Naval Hospital in Bremerton, Washington, a small city with a very large harbor, where a major portion of the Pacific Fleet was stationed. Now he was beginning a tour of duty at the Naval Hospital in Oakland, and we were purposely taking our time to find an apartment, enjoying the chance to be with my mother’s family again.

My father, my mother, my sister and I stayed with my grandparents long enough for me to spend about six months in the fifth grade at elementary school in the Berkeley Hills.

Hillside School, 1581 Leroy Ave, Berkeley, CA
Hillside School, one of the elementary schools in the Berkeley Hills

 

During that time, my thirty fellow students elected me to be their class president. The position was an honor, to be sure, but in reality I only had two duties: to lead the pledge of allegiance each morning, and to stand in front of all our desks once each month and preside when we held the class meetings to discuss such issues as whether we were all being polite in class, who would be responsible for cleaning the chalk powder out of the erasers, and whether we liked the food being served in our school cafeteria.

The point of it all, our teacher explained, was to learn citizenship. And the attention to duty was reinforced in other ways. In the boys’ case, for example, most of the fifth and sixth graders came to school early and left the classroom early each afternoon to put on uniforms and march together to assigned intersections where we served as junior traffic policemen assisting students to cross the streets.

I got more models of duty at home. Not only was my father a Navy man; so also, was my grandfather. He had served as a gunnery officer in both world wars and, after leaving the Navy, as an armed teller at the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. Both men were, I would say in retrospect, levelheaded patriots. They saw war as an inevitable human activity, but they also wanted it to be avoided whenever possible, and they told all of us stories from time to time that made the evils of war very clear. At the same time, the two men were firm about the need to do one’s duty when the nation called. And they did enjoy the adventure of war. An important part of my boyhood was the stories they told from time to time about sea battles, island invasions, outrunning typhoons, rescuing comrades and refugees, and visiting exotic foreign ports.

All of the concerns about citizenship and rising to challenges came together in a very odd way a month or so after I became class president. Probably because I did not yet feel accepted enough at my new school, even though elected president, I began to get the feeling that I was not making sufficiently impressive use of the powers of my office. And so I started looking for a way to change the situation.

At this point, television exerted its effects. In the 1950s, television was full of items reflecting the Cold War, such as the anti-communist weekly program of the Catholic bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the televised Congressional hearings led by Senator McCarthy, and the long-running documentary Victory at Sea, which chronicled in triumphalist manner the exploits of Americans during the Second World War.

One of the items that happened to come to my attention at this time, while I watched the TV screen at home with my relatives, was a public service commercial for Radio Free Europe. Operating in tandem with a companion organization, Radio Liberty, RFE was a network of broadcasting stations, widely known at the time, set up in the United States and Western Europe to beam anti-Soviet programs across the Iron Curtain via short wave.

FreedomGram
Fundraising leaflet for Radio Free Europe and its assistance to the Crusade for Freedom

 

Radio Free Europe received extensive funding from the U.S. government but also had authority to raise funds from the private sector as if it were a philanthropic group such as the Red Cross or the American Cancer Society.

Truth_Dollar
Newspaper ad for Radio Free Europe

 

On the black and white screen in front of me, as I watched TV one evening at my grandparents’ house, there suddenly appeared an ad for RFE. It opened with suspenseful music and a static line drawing of the map of Europe. Then, as the music became more menacing, tar-like black goo began seeping from the right hand of the screen just west of Moscow. Soon the goo was making its way across the Iron Curtain and beginning to cover West Germany and France, at which point, in white, a hammer and sickle appeared in the midst of the goo, and radio towers, to the left of the goo, began pushing back against the goo by means of the lightning emanations of their broadcast signals. Then, as the music quieted down, a deep male voice told us that we could help to fight the communist menace by sending our dollars to the post office address that suddenly appeared on the TV screen.

That’s it! I thought to myself. Our class needs to hold a Radio Free Europe Cookie Sale!

Chocolate_chip_cookies

To this day, I do not understand how I connected selling cookies with the communist menace. Maybe my mother and grandmother had baked cookies a few days before. Maybe there had been a Pillsbury commercial on TV earlier in the evening or the day before. Maybe I had passed a charity’s cookie sale downtown a few weeks before. But none of that mattered to me at the time. All I knew was that I had come up with a brilliant idea for doing my duty, and that it would make everyone more secure.

Later in the evening, when the TV was turned off, I asked my relatives what they thought of my idea. They were encouraging but not wildly so. Communism was a bad thing, they agreed; and being a good citizen was important. But, they advised, first present the idea at school, and, if you all get permission to go ahead, we’ll do our part.

The next morning, in class, after our pledge to the flag, I told everyone that I had a special announcement and dramatically outlined my idea. The students loved it, and our teacher gave his approval and said he would make the necessary arrangements with the Principal, other teachers, and the Parent-Teacher Association.

Three weeks later, during five successive lunch periods, our class set up card tables at one end of the school playground and sold the many, many platefuls of cookies our parents had baked or helped us to bake. Various parents showed up to act as chaperones along with our teachers and to help us be cashiers. The cookies were three for a nickel, and we made almost forty dollars in total.

Jan_Nowak-Jezioranski_RFE
A refugee Polish broadcaster for Radio Free Europe

Looking back, the innocence of it all is rather striking. Neither my fellow students nor I ever checked to make certain that the forty dollars actually made its way to Radio Free Europe. And most of the students who bought the cookies, especially the younger ones, probably did not know what Radio Free Europe was, even allowing for the fact that a couple of the parents brought RFE posters to school and set them on easels behind the cookie tables.

But we did all know, whether intuitively or logically, that we had done our part to be good citizens and to fight the communist menace, whatever it might be.