Tag Archives: Mark Twain



UC Berkeley campus with bell tower (Campanile)
UC Berkeley campus with bell tower (Campanile)

Growing up in Berkeley, California, meant that I was exposed to higher education even before I entered college in 1961. The experience was in some ways like being a college student, but also had some interesting twists.

The thing for which Berkeley was best known was its status as the home of the flagship campus of the University of California. I don’t recall when I learned the word “campus” or first saw one. My earliest exposure to all the elements of a campus occurred around age 8 – which would have been in the year 1951 — when I was living at my grandparents’ house in the Berkeley Hills. My boyhood friend Walter Alvarez, who was around 11 at the time, 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, Luis Alvarez, through a park-like area that was, I was told, “the Cal campus.”

Cyclotron at UC Berkeley
Cyclotron at UC Berkeley

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 U.C. Berkeley campus. We toured several buildings. At the Cyclotron, the atom-smasher that was Walter’s father’s workplace, I watched metal fly across the room, attracted by the Cyclotron’s powerful magnetism. In a long, low, shabby, wooden building nearby, Walter and his father 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 world’s first prototypes of a linear accelerator, one of the inventions that later earned Walter’s father a Nobel Prize.

UC Berkeley Faculty Glade, 1900 (Credit: Library of Congress)
UC Berkeley Faculty Glade, 1900 (Credit: Library of Congress)

I also had ties to the Cal campus through a friend, Randy Mosher, who was the son of one of the librarians at Cal. I knew Randy from the seventh grade onwards, when we met each other in junior high school homeroom and played on junior high volleyball and basketball teams. Randy was a dutiful student. He also liked mischief. In summer we often went to the Cal employees’ pool together. As the son of a UC staff member, Randy could use his entry card. I used the card for his brother, Al, who was five years old. The lifeguard always snickered and said, “ok, AL, you can go on in.”

The Cal campus was the place where I saw my first college football game, around age seven. Parents of neighboring children gave me a ride to Memorial Stadium in Strawberry Canyon. The guards let us in for free. I learned what a college marching band was. I tried to figure out how the cheering section did their card stunts. After the game, under the stadium seats, midst the web of steel girders, I stood in the crowd as the Cal coach, Pappy Waldorf, came out of the locker room to give the fans his comments on the game and the week’s performance of Cal’s star running back, Johnny Olzewski.

UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium (Credit: Roger 469)
UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium (Credit: Roger 469)

Then, as the sun started to go down, and the fog made its way up from the Bay into the hills, my friends and I did one of the things boys have always done, marching alongside the band as it made its way down the hill, back to its quarters. By the time I was twelve years old, this Saturday routine was a ritual. My friends and I capped off the day with a game of touch football at nearby Live Oak Park. It was our way of making the excitement last as long as possible.In junior high school, I got a job selling souvenir programs at the football games. Each program sold for fifty cents and you got to keep a nickel of that for yourself.

The Cal Marching Band (Credit: Broken Sphere)
The Cal Marching Band (Credit: Broken Sphere)

The second season of my work happened to be the year the Cal football team, with its All-American Joe Kapp at quarterback, won the Pacific Coast Conference championship and was invited to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. My friend Steve and I were two of the top sales boys. We were invited by the management to go to Pasadena to sell football programs and receive free tickets to the game. Steve and I took the Southern Pacific train to Los Angeles and stayed with friends of his parents. We rode an old Los Angeles trolley to Pasadena and sold programs outside the stadium. Then, on the steps inside, we watched as Cal struggled unsuccessfully to defeat Wisconsin.

Hearst Greek Theater, graduation ceremony for one of the UC schools (Credit: Audris)
Hearst Greek Theater, graduation ceremony for one of the UC schools (Credit: Audris)

By the time I reached high school, the Cal campus was also an educational force in my life. Our science classes made day trips to the Cyclotron and the newer Bevatron, which had been invented by Edward Teller, a Nobel Prize winning physicist who was the father of my classmate, Paul. For high school Latin class, our teacher assigned us to spend a Saturday roaming the campus identifying at least 50 copies of elements from ancient Greek and Roman architecture. My friend Steve and I catalogued Doric and Ionic columns, pediments, porticoes, keystones of arches, and all manner of Classical construction. On another day trip, led by my English teacher, I walked with my fellow students up the street to the University’s huge research library. Our class was studying Huckleberry Finn at the time. We walked down a long hallway, our footsteps echoing off the marble walls, and entered a room where approximately ten adults were seated around a large wooden table covered with old pieces of paper. These happened to be the original manuscript of Mark Twain’s novel. A bibliographer invited each of us to hold the sheets in our hands.

When we were Seniors at Berkeley High, in 1960, Steve and I got jobs working in the press box at Memorial Stadium during the Cal football season. We had the majestic responsibility of distributing the brown paper bag lunches to the reporters. The jobs paid almost nothing, and we only worked on the Saturdays when Cal played at home. But the money was secondary. We coveted the chance to be at the center of things – to see the game from the highest spot in the stadium, to hear the cheers and the bands, to peek into the booths where the radio and TV announcers described each play in machine-gun voices, and to see the rows of manual typewriters where the sports writers for all the local papers and the wire services composed their stories.

As I stood behind each writer, I peeked at his creation and learned. I was surprised to discover that the lead in a story was usually written last and almost always traded on the same popular images regardless of which reporter I observed. So, for example, at the conclusion of the Cal-Army game, I watched as one reporter wrote “Cal was defeated today, after a tough battle, by Army’s heavy artillery.” At the next typewriter I saw “Army used a howitzer (its quarterback) and a tank (its fullback) today to grind down Cal’s under equipped infantry…” and so on.

Telegraph Avenue (Credit: Urban Commons)
Telegraph Avenue (Credit: Urban Commons)

My friends and I also liked to hang out in the business district near the campus, along Telegraph Avenue and College Avenue. Occasionally we went into the bookstores, but that was mostly to skim the pinup magazines. We were more likely to go to the pool halls, where we could smoke cigarettes and have the illicit thrill of winning fifty cents from a Cal student or one of the local bums. We also browsed in the clothing stores, spending very little money but examining row after row of polished cotton slacks and buttoned-down sport shirts in the latest Ivy League style, so we could learn how college men dressed.

To make myself feel even more a part of things, I liked to get my haircuts at a barbershop near the campus, in an old building on Telegraph Avenue that was less than a block away from Sather Gate, the ceremonial entrance to Cal. One afternoon, when I was in the shop, the barber told me I wouldn’t be able to come back. He could see from the look on my face that I felt hurt, and he explained that the situation had nothing to do with me. All the buildings in the block were going to be torn down, he said, to make way for a new university structure, something called a “student union.”

On display at the Cal Student Union, The Axe, awarded for one year to the winner of the Cal-Stanford football game (Credit: Broken Sphere)

I had never heard the term, and I asked what such a building was. “It’s an idea they got from the Midwest,” the barber explained, “and it’s sort of like a big central hangout. There’ll be a beer place, with a crew shell hanging from the ceiling, and a bookstore and a bowling alley and a room with chandeliers for dances.” I asked who was going to pay for everything. “The people over in Sacramento,” he answered. “The legislature is worried that college students are too apathetic. The Governor says the new building will solve the problem. It will pep up the campus social life and give clubs a place to meet, and just kind of increase activity generally speaking.”

At the time I heard those words, I had no way of knowing how ironically accurate they would become. The student union building was constructed; it was ceremoniously opened; it became a very popular gathering place; it stimulated the traditional kinds of activities, like dancing and club meetings; and then, in the early 1960’s, the patio in front of the structure became one of the favorite stage sets for Mario Savio, the Free Speech Movement, and the student revolution. By then, I was away at college, and the relatively quiet Cal campus of my high school years was a memory.

Mario Savio on the steps of the main administration building at Cal (Credit: Mjlovas/Gabbe)
Mario Savio on the steps of the main administration building at Cal (Credit: Mjlovas/Gabbe)

For a long time I assumed that Cal would be the university I would attend. But somewhere along the line I began to think that I might want to go away to college.

I remember the afternoon, shortly after I began high school, that I mentioned this idea to my grandfather Harry, who had always advised me to be sure to get as much schooling as I could. Harry was a retired Navy man, a gunnery officer who had received decorations for bravery in both world wars. His politics were very conservative. He was sitting in his living room and drinking his two daily shots of gin. He asked me why I was considering anyplace other than UC Berkeley. I told him my high school counselor had said it was a wise idea to get away from your family after age 18. Harry slammed his fist on the coffee table and asked “Who put that communist idea in your head?”

I told him that Franklin Roosevelt had gone away to college. That made him angrier. So I told him Dwight Eisenhower had also gone away to college. That stumped my grandfather. All he could say, after a long silence, was “Well, that’s different. He was a military man.”

My parents left it up to me to decide where I wanted to go.

Bowles Hall, Cal, with pre-game football tailgate party (Credit: Broken Sphere)
Bowles Hall, Cal, with pre-game football tailgate party (Credit: Broken Sphere)

During my senior year of high school, I sent admissions applications to UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and Stanford.  In early Spring I received notification that I had been admitted to Stanford with a large scholarship. I said yes immediately, having never set foot on the campus, and began preparing for Autumn Quarter and a new journey.

I go back to the Cal campus from time to time and think about the wonderful experience I might have had there as an undergraduate. During football season, at the annual Cal-Stanford Big Game, I cheer for Stanford, but probably not as loudly as I would if I had not grown up in Berkeley.

Hearst Gymnasium for Women, University of California,designed in 1929 by Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck (Credit: SanFranMan)
Hearst Gymnasium for Women, University of California,designed in 1929 by Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck (Credit: SanFranMan)





Route 66 in San Bernardino County, California, with Roy’s Cafe and Motel, looking east

It occurred to me a few years ago that even though I have visited hundreds of places all over California and lived in quite a few, I have not set foot in most of the parts of the state where I have been.

This is because of an invention called the automobile. Before the 1920s, I would guess, most people in California would not have said they had traveled widely in the state. Land travel in those days was likely to be on horseback or by horse drawn wagon or buggy. Trains were reserved for the relatively few who could afford them. Cities had streetcars and limited bus services.

Then after the First World War came a transportation revolution. Detroit transferred a large part of its expanded manufacturing capacity to auto production. The economic upsurge of the 1920s enabled many more people to afford cars. Oil companies lobbied for better highways. The tourist industry promoted auto travel with free maps and advertising. Trucking assumed a larger share of freight haulage. And the automobile caused major social changes, affecting everything from teenage dating patterns to grocery store visits to proliferation of trailer camps.

I suspect that, from the 1920s on, many Californians, like me at a later date, began to notice that they had seen a lot of their state, but only from a car window, without ceasing to be in


Illustration from a 1930s auto manual

My earliest memory of automobiles goes back to age four, in 1948. My parents did not own a car, but one sunny day a friend of the family came to our house in Alameda driving a spiffy two-seater convertible (I didn’t know any of those words at the time) and invited my father and me to go for a ride in the “rumble seat,” the padded, nicely upholstered area for two passengers that appeared magically in the rear of the car when you opened the trunk that would otherwise be the place for luggage. My father and I climbed in, the car picked up speed, and we careened around the neighborhood. I felt unprotected and would not have wanted to be in the rumble seat without one of my parents. But the speed and the breeze and the quickly passing views were exhilarating.

My next strong memory of being in a car dates to age 8 when, with my mother and father and sister, I was on a winding road in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the way to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where we planned to go camping. That was when I had my first attack of motion sickness, something I have experienced from time to time ever since.

My parents first became car owners when I was 11 years old and my sister was 7 and we were living in Albany on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Although my father’s Navy salary was not much, he had an evening job working at a local supermarket and used some of the money to buy us a dark blue, used 1950 Ford convertible. That allowed us to go see movies at the local drive-in, to make trips to the local 19 cents hamburger stand, to cross the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge for tours of the seacoast, and to visit newly constructed tracts of homes in places like Hayward and San Jose where we thought about buying a house (we never did). During the day, my sister and I absorbed the sights from our car windows. On nights when my father continued toward our destination, my sister and I slept under blankets in the back seat, wishing that the canvas top of the convertible did a better job of keeping the interior of the car warm.

In the mid-1950s, I began to learn about car design. One of my mother’s brothers was a decorator at the Capwell’s department store in Oakland. He bought one of the new-model Studebakers. It was sleek and had a daring color scheme: a cream-colored body and a wine-colored top. Even more dazzling were the cars I encountered through another of my mother’s brothers, who was a Chevrolet salesman in Albany. In 1955 he gave us a tour around the showroom of the dealership where he worked. That was the year that all the Detroit carmakers decided to roll the dice and present the American public with radical new designs. Cars now looked like rockets or jet planes, dripped with chrome, and came in color combinations like pink and charcoal gray, red and white, and blue and lime. Simply to touch the cars was exciting.

1955 Chevrolet

By then I was accumulating many memories of automobile trips both short and long. But my first sense of ironic detachment regarding cars, an intuition that the automobile was a cultural phenomenon that could be analyzed and contemplated, came at age 16 when I made my first visit to Anaheim to see the new and already wildly popular amusement park at Disneyland.

The most attended attraction – nothing else came close – was the “California Freeway” ride. My friend Steve and I stood in line for over an hour for the thrill of climbing into miniature sports cars and meandering through a controlled maze of clover leafs and underpasses and overpasses, passing small billboards, miniature gas stations and replicas of motels and groves of plastic trees, and then returning with a sense of puzzlement and un-fulfillment to our starting point. We had been driven by family friends of Steve on a real, full-sized freeway to get to Disneyland from Los Angeles, and we would be returning in the same manner. Why had we cared so much about experiencing an artificial version of the same thing?

The freeway ride at Disneyland in its current version

We could not say. The answer, of course, had to do with sociology, about which I knew nothing at the time. Postwar America was in love with the automobile even more in the 1950s than it had been in the 1920s. And freeways had become emblems of California life almost as powerful as the Golden Gate Bridge or the HOLLYWOOD sign in the hills above Burbank.

Energizing all of America’s fascination with highways is a more long-term awareness of being in motion and being on a journey. America itself is a product of journeys, whether by the aboriginal peoples who came here via the Bering land bridge, or by the Europeans and Africans who came here via the Atlantic Ocean, or by the immigrants who came to America via the Pacific. There was a great filling in of the North American land mass and, in the case of California, from the time of the Gold Rush on, a great push to the Pacific Coast, sometimes in search of economic opportunity, and sometimes to explore spiritual and emotional frontiers.

In American literature, the themes of westward movement and migration from place to place are easy to notice. For example, in Huckleberry Finn (1885), the main characters are on a metaphorical road, the Mississippi River, and Mark Twain ends the novel by having Huck “light out for the territory,” that is, the West. In The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck describes the exhausting journey of the Okies to California in the 1930s. In The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), Wallace Stegner searches for the meaning of his father’s lifelong effort to find a place where there would be riches and relief from recurring cares. The tropes of constant motion and quest for a better place are everywhere in our literature, as also in our music, painting, and movies.

When it comes to writings about California, there is probably no author who has explored the subjects of motion and journey more powerfully than Jack Kerouac (b. 1922-d.1969).

Jack Kerouac

An important fact about Kerouac is that he was only partly a California writer. He was born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, where his French-Canadian family worked in the mills. After a troubled childhood he attended Columbia University, dropped out, and in the late 1940s made his way gradually westward, eventually becoming part of the Beat culture that centered on San Francisco and Big Sur. Thereafter he was in and out of California, living at various times in Oregon, Florida, and Montana, among other places.

Map of Jack Kerouac’s travels for On the Road

Whether he is discussing California or other places, Kerouac’s writings, notably On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Big Sur (1962), always involve a journey in the spiritual sense, as he struggles to synthesize Catholicism, Buddhism, environmentalism, and even jazz into a usable whole. And his physical motion – expressed with amazing power in the drive of his stream of consciousness prose style — takes him all around the United States as well as to Europe and Mexico. Still, he ends his life frustrated by the failure to find ultimate meaning in any of these places.

Kerouac’s biography helps us to remember an important fact about road culture in California specifically. Road literature in America is mostly about places outside of California. California writers have said a great deal about highway culture within the state, but California is the place where you end up. You can move toward the Pacific shore in your quest. But you run out of land when you get to California. Then all you can do is leave or go from one place to another within the state, and your quest for meaning must turn at least partly inward, as was the case with Kerouac.

I sometimes think of the Los Angeles freeway system as a symbol of this kind of road journey: an endless moving back and forth and around and up and down within California, on the way to a destination that can’t be defined.

Los Angeles freeway

On the other hand, California on its own is such a beautiful, inspiring place that one can, from time to time, go on the road within the state and have an experience that is just as fulfilling as any journey from elsewhere.

For me, one such experience occurred when I was 14 years old and my sister was 11, and we made our first trip, in early June, to Yosemite.

Our father drove us. Our mother, who did not like camping, stayed at home in Berkeley. But the other three of us made the journey enthusiastically.

It took several hours of driving eastward from Berkeley, across the flat, central farming area of California, before my sister and I felt reassured that we were in fact going to reach a place called Yosemite.

As we came to the area around the city of Merced, the highway began to rise and the topography started to change. Pine trees and big boulders began to appear, then ravines and streamlets, then occasional patches of melting snow. The two lane highway meandered ever higher and eventually we arrived at a gate where a ranger from the U.S. National Park Service came out of a small, brown, shingle-walled booth and collected our entrance fee and gave us a map and some friendly advice about bears and matches and snakes.

Afterwards, the road continued to climb upwards, and there were rock walls along the edge to guard us from dropping five hundred feet straight down. My father explained that the walls had been built in the 1930s, by prisoners and out of work young people who were members of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As we rounded one of the turns in the road, I was especially glad the walls had been built. A car coming from the other direction was trying to pass on the blind curve and was heading straight at us in our lane. My father, with the incredible athletic quickness that I had seen him demonstrate many times, swerved instantly to his right and found just enough space near the wall to prevent a head-on collision.

A short while later, we found ourselves driving downward into a hot, dry area where there were no more rock walls and the road followed the bank of a river. There was almost no vegetation. The sun reflected off the high, stone cliffs on both sides of us, raising the temperature to almost one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Then the road started to climb again, the temperature lowered, and we were back into a forested area.

By now, however, the trees were bigger and the river flowed in cascades. I recognized redwoods that reminded me of the ones I had encountered many years before on our family’s first camping trip to Big Basin. But the boulders were unlike anything I had ever seen – huge chunks of gray, textured granite that looked like they had been tossed into the middle of the fast moving river by some mysterious, unseen giant. Around, through, and over the rocks, the water ran and churned, in amazing, translucent color.

Then suddenly I noticed that my father and my sister were laughing happily. I asked them why. My father explained that I had been exclaiming “Ooh” and “Wow” for several miles, apparently without realizing it. I was usually much more reserved, my father said – more like my mother and her father.

Another wonder followed. The road soon opened before us on either side and we drove alongside the by now deep green water of the river into a huge, flat valley — a vast amphitheater, walled on all sides by gray granite cliffs over two thousand feet high, with groupings of trees here and there on the valley floor, and vast swaths of Alpine meadows and marshland. This was the center of Yosemite National Park, and from here it was only a short drive to the wooded camping areas where we could begin searching for a site.

My father told us that “camp 7” and “camp 14” were the two most desirable areas along the river. There was a conspicuous firmness in his manner as he relayed this information. He was really saying that the areas had been the most desirable twenty years before, when he had gone to Yosemite with his father and mother and two sisters, and he wanted the camps to be the same way now. But, as we drove the dirt roads between the trees, I could see that his information was up to date. We found a beautiful site right next to the river and parked our car in the fresh, white sand that had been deposited recently by the spring floods. And, because my father had remembered to come in June and beat the rush, our site was almost twenty-five yards away from the ones occupied by other campers.

As we got out of our car, I was struck by how odd it looked: an industrial intrusion in our forest surroundings. But there was no time to dwell on the contrast because we were soon busily unpacking our cargo and setting up camp: a brown canvas tent, three cots, an ice chest, and a kerosene stove placed on top of the wooden picnic table the Park Service had constructed at the site along with a stone grille.

Our stay in Yosemite over the next two weeks was not perfect. We could see that the Park was already beginning to be under stress from too many visitors. We had to wash our dishes in cold water. The public bathrooms were not always clean. I got a bad sunburn. And so forth.

But the meadows in the valley and the high cliffs and the cool water and clean air and the stars at night were more than worth traveling to see. And the most rewarding thing of all, for me, was that first sight of the park as we entered it, on the road.

Woodcut illustration of Yosemite, 1879