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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).