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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Every now and then, when I see images of old trains, I ask myself whether there is much interest in that form of travel anymore. Millions of children eagerly watch the television adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, and some of them may see The Choo Choo Bob Show. On PBS, adults can view documentaries about iconic old routes like the Trans Siberian Express and the Durango narrow gauge mining network in Colorado. But the big excitement for most people relates to other forms of travel such as the space ships in the movie Star Wars, space capsules, and big airplanes like the Boeing 777. Even luxury cruise ships seem to attract more interest than trains.
But perhaps there are still people who appreciate old railroads. I hope so, because I want to talk about the role that trains have played in my life.
I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1943. I believe that my love of trains began even before I was born. In 1942, my father, then twenty one years old, was in his second year of service in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, working as an Operating Room Technician at the military hospital in Providence. At the time my mother was still in the East Bay Area of California, where the two of them had grown up, met, and married shortly before the start of the Second World War. When my mother became pregnant, the Navy paid for her and a friend to travel across the United States by train so that I could be born in my father’s presence. I have no conscious memory of that trip, but I am convinced that it was the experience that first made me love to travel by rail.
My mother and I lived in Providence with my father until he was assigned to be the entire medical department on a Navy destroyer that was directed to make its way south through the Panama Canal and then perform combat duty in the Pacific. Then for a while my mother and I lived in New York in the Bronx, where her father, recalled into the Navy, was imparting his experience as a gunnery officer to new recruits at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Shortly thereafter, unaccompanied except by me, my mother made her way back to the East Bay Area. I remember nothing about the trip. But I was told several times while growing up that a passenger on our transcontinental train was Bing Crosby. Insisting on no special treatment, he traveled on crowded troop trains just as my mother and I were doing. At one point my mother happened to be sitting across from him and introduced me. “Pleased to meet you, Gary,” Crosby said. “You know,” he added, “this is a special pleasure. I have a son named Gary.”
My next encounter with travel by rail occurred when I was eight years old. My mother, my five-year-old sister, and I were living in the Bay Area and my father was at sea on a Navy transport serving in the Korean War. We got word that his ship would be anchored for the summer of 1951 in San Diego Harbor and that it would be possible for the four of us to live together in San Diego during that time. My father came up to the Bay Area from San Diego to accompany us on the train trip south.
We put some of our belongings in storage, packed the rest in suitcases, and were driven to the railway station in Oakland by my mother’s parents. They waved goodbye to us as we boarded an enormous, chugging Southern Pacific passenger train, The Lark, to take us south. It is my first conscious memory of riding overnight in a rail passenger car — the lights passing by us outside the window of our safe compartment, the sounds of whistles and of bells at crossings, the constant rocking motion, the buttons and doors and secret spaces inside the compartment, the smell of fresh bed linen, and the certainty, whenever the porter answered our buzzer, that we were royalty.
For my sister and me, the summer in San Diego was hot and boring. I did enjoy some fascinating visits to my father’s ship and the harbor area. But otherwise I was anxious to leave.
Finally at the end of the summer we received news that we would be returning to the Bay Area where my father would be stationed at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. Within the week, we were on our way north. This time we went by plane. I had never flown before. The experience was an adventure. I even had the good luck to be invited into the cockpit and sit in the pilot’s lap and pretend I was steering. You would not be allowed to do that today. We were on Pacific Southwest Airlines, which had been founded by a World War II pilot and was only a couple of years old at the time. The owner happened to be acting as the co-pilot that day. He was fond of children and also knew how to please customers. But the most interesting thing to me about the flight, looking back, is that it did not enchant me the way my first train trip had.
After a few months at Mare Island, we got word that my father was being assigned to go north by ship to the Navy base in Bremerton on the west side of Puget Sound, where he would be serving at the large naval hospital. My mother, my sister and I would take the train north and move into the base housing that was being arranged for our family.
My mother’s parents, by that time relocated to the East Bay, drove us to the Southern Pacific station in Oakland where my mother, my sister and I boarded a train that went all the way east to Salt Lake City. There we transferred to the Northern Pacific line and made the rest of the journey to Seattle. The Southern Pacific train was sleek and modern. The Northern Pacific train was in good condition but very old in its decor, most noticeably in the dining car which had walls of brown wood, brass lamps on each table and red, cut glass chandeliers. This was my first encounter with fingerbowls. When the waiter put them on our table I thought they were rose-flavored cups of water for us to drink and I was lucky that my mother explained them to me in time.
The last and final train trip of my early boyhood was the return journey from Seattle to the Bay Area after we had lived in Bremerton for about two and one half years. From that time on there was no need for long distance family travel because my father was able to get tours of duty at various Navy installations in San Francisco and Oakland.
My next train trip was therefore voluntary. In 1959, when I was in the tenth grade at Berkeley High School, my best friend Steve and I got jobs selling souvenir programs on Saturdays during the UC-Berkeley football season. We were good at it. So, when the news swept the Bay Area that Cal’s great football team would be going to the Rose Bowl, the supervisor of program sales invited Steve and me to be part of the small group of high school students who could hawk our wares in Pasadena.
Steve’s parents arranged for us to stay with friends of his family in Los Angeles. Soon thereafter we were on board a Southern Pacific train heading south. The trip took about twelve hours. It went down the Central Valley, stopping at numerous farm towns with names I found exotic, like Tipton, Tulare and Cucamonga. During a long, flat portion of the trip we went through the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley at speeds of ninety miles per hour. The track bed was old and seemed not to be in good repair. Our train vibrated precariously but gave us all a good adventure.
The train had a couple of Vista Dome cars, the kind that were always featured in ads in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines of the era. The cars provided the part of the trip that was the most fun. They were filled with UC Berkeley students and several young musicians. Most wore white wool sweaters decorated with blue and gold UC Berkeley insignia. Everybody sang the famous Cal drinking song: “California, California, the hills give off their cry, we’re out to do or die, California, California, we’ll win the game or know the reason why.” This is just a part of the lyrics. The whole song takes around ten minutes; longer if you are drunk. Many of the students drank beer as they sang. Steve and I ordered Coca Cola.
After the Rose Bowl and a few days with Steve’s family friends, it was time to take the train back to the Bay Area. This trip was quiet. Everybody was tired. I slept part of the way but also managed to catch up on reading for my high school World History class.
My next big train trip occurred in 1964. I spent the summer of that year in Washington DC as a college intern at The Pentagon, thanks to a wonderful, generous program called Stanford in Washington. At the end of the summer, I drove across the country to Mesa, Arizona, with a college friend who lived there, and then boarded a Santa Fe train to take me north to the East Bay. There was a flash flood in the desert along the way, adding three extra hours to our trip while the train proceeded slowly and cautiously at each large gulley. The high point of the journey was the conductor. He had taught himself the history of the area and told us fascinating stories as he stood at the front of the our car and pointed out sights.
My last experience with train travel as it used to be came in 1971, after I got my Ph.D. in History at Harvard and returned to the Bay Area to look for a job. Because I needed several months to find employment, I had a lot of spare time. I spent a great deal of it with a classmate from Stanford, Bill Moore, who was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Bill had grown up in Arizona and had numerous memories of old trains. He had flair and an amazing ability to attract groups of people for bizarre adventures. One of his favorite activities was to organize Bar Car Expeditions. We would board the southbound Southern Pacific train in Oakland, have many drinks and tell stories in the bar car, enjoys the views of the brown hills dotted with Live Oak trees, get off in Santa Barbara, wait twenty minutes, and then board the northbound SP train to take us back to Oakland. The scenery was gorgeous, the drinks were excellent, and the shared feeling of friendship was memorable.
That’s about it. After 1971, when I got my own car, there was little need to travel by train. And I didn’t really want to travel that way. The old passenger lines like the Southern Pacific, the Northern Pacific and the Santa Fe went out of business and were replaced by AMTRAK. I do ride on AMTRAK from time to time and I feel a stubborn form of nostalgia whenever I do so. But it isn’t the same.
While he was a reporter at the Chronicle, and before he became Managing Editor of the Sacramento Bee, Bill Moore won a prize for an article he wrote about the last run of the famous Western Pacific train the California Zephyr. I never had the pleasure of riding on the Zephyr, but I sometimes encounter it in my dreams.
This last January, on New Year’s Day, I turned on my television set and watched the Pasadena Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game, as I have been doing, I recently realized, for more than half a century. For me, as for millions of others who have watched or attended the game and the parade over the decades, this New Year’s Day ritual is part of my identity and the culture of my country. Like anything that is deep in one’s consciousness, watching the parade and the game is for me almost an unreflective act. It is simply part of who I am. In recent years, however, I have begun to sense how much the whole thing has been changing, and how much the changes reveal about American life. I first heard the words “Rose Bowl” in the early 1950s, around age eleven, when my family and I lived in Berkeley and my young friends and I made the trek, on Saturdays in the Fall, to the University of California campus, where the ticket takers at the football stadium let us into the games for free. Midst all the cheering and pageantry and exciting plays, there was always speculation whether Cal would “go to the Rose Bowl,” even though, in most years, the team did not.
But in 1959 Cal did make it to the Rose Bowl, led by their All-American quarterback Joe Kapp and their great coach Pete Elliott, who had installed a “Split T” offense that gave his talented players an advantage over teams that relied upon the less deceptive, traditional “T” offense or the brawny, simple-minded “Single Wing” formation. This happened to be the season when, at age 15, with my best friend Steve, I had a job selling football programs before each game. When the news came that Cal would be going to the Rose Bowl, Steve and I learned that we were among the top sales boys and would be eligible to sell programs in Pasadena and would probably be able by this means to earn enough to pay for our travel, with free admission to the game guaranteed. When the time came, Steve and I took the Southern Pacific train down to Los Angeles where we stayed with friends of his family. From there we made our way via a combination of buses and old trolley cars to Pasadena, where we encountered an almost deserted Colorado Avenue and learned that we had arrived too late to see the Rose Parade. But we were early enough to arrive at the stadium well before the game, and to make a good profit as sales boys. The game itself was disappointing in some ways. We did get free admission, but had to sit in the aisles on the cement stairs because all the regular seats were for paying customers. The location of our seats was a long way from the field, the players looked like dots, and it was difficult to follow the action. The stadium itself felt very old, with its weathered, splintery timbers, and lighting that proved to be inadequate as twilight neared. Worst of all, Cal lost to Iowa. But the pageantry was unbeatable, and I still cherish the fact that I can say I once actually went to the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl game at that time was still frequently referred to as “the grand daddy of them all,” in honor of the fact that, having begun in 1902, it was the oldest bowl game. It was truly a national event. At the same time, it was an integral part of the identity of the state of California, an affirmation of pride in a vibrant region of the country. But things have changed over the years. Los Angeles no longer has its old trolley cars. The Southern Pacific railroad no longer exists, and the view cars you get on today’s AMTRAK are no rivals for the old Vista Dome that was proudly featured in every SP magazine ad. Today, if you make the journey to the Rose Bowl game, you are likely to fly or, thanks to much better highways and upscale motels, to drive. And today, in probably the biggest change of all, the Rose Bowl game occupies a much different place in national life. It is no longer a good-natured competition between two regions, the Pacific Coast Conference and the Big Ten of the Midwest. It is now a way station on the road to the National Championship. And the announcers for the game no longer project a feeling of being in people’s homes as part of a family gathering. Instead, the phrasing and accompanying toughness of voice is mostly about who has just “made the hit,” who is “dominant,” and who “is a contender for the pros.” The Rose Parade, likewise, is a more high-pressure event. The amounts spent by corporations to create prize-winning floats are enormous. The television announcers do little more than read from their briefing books. There are just as many plugs for TV network shows during the parade as there are actual commercial during the breaks.
Some things do remain the same, of course. There are smiling boys and girls in marching bands drawn from all around the world. The local community service clubs sponsor floats. There are the numerous, very happy queens and princesses and sub-princesses. The military bands play the rousing songs. The mounted horse formations strut their stuff in their ornate Spanish costumes. The floats, even today, continue to be made from all natural materials: seven thousand petunias, four thousand and twelve zinnias, six hundred begonias carefully intermixed with orchids to form a faithful representation of the solar system.
The Rose Bowl that I knew as a boy was by no means perfect. To take two examples: The press never talked about the fact that Cal’s star quarterback, Joe Kapp, was the product of a troubled childhood in a racially segregated community. By sanitizing his biography to make him into a mainstream American, the press diminished Kapp’s achievement. Nor was it disclosed, until a couple of years later, that Cal’s seemingly upright coach, Pete Elliott, had been breaking the rules with regard to players’ financial aid. But I do believe something has been lost over the years as the Rose Bowl has become like the world of professional football. Someday, I’m sure, a few decades from now, someone who is the age I am now will look back with nostalgia on the Rose Bowl of today. That will be OK, I suppose, as long as the petunias and the zinnias continue to be all-natural.
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).
(This rather long inaugural post talks about sense of place, one of the themes I’ll be exploring from time to time. You can drive down some streets in Los Angeles or San Jose, passing nothing but fast food restaurants and franchise stores, and feel that you are nowhere. California has its share of anonymous spots. But the state as a whole gives people a strong sense that they are in California and not anywhere else. I’ve always wondered why that is so. This post explores the growing awareness of place I developed when I left Berkeley and went to college.)
Encountering a New Place
In 1961, after completing high school in Berkeley, I was admitted to Stanford University, with a scholarship that gave me the financial support I needed as the son of an enlisted man in a Navy family. There were several reasons why I went to Stanford. One was the football team. I loved their red and white uniforms, their school fight song (“Oh it’s whiskey, whiskey, whiskey/ That makes you feel so frisky/ On the Farm, On the Farm…”) I loved to watch their great quarterback, John Brodie, throw the ball.
And I also had role models. Several of the older students at my high school, the ones I most liked and admired, went on to Stanford. Another role model was my aunt, Jeanne, the older of my father’s two sisters. She had gone to Stanford Medical School in the 1930s to become a nurse. As the member of my family with the most formal education, and as someone who was used to talking with students, she had a great influence on my thinking.
My first view of Stanford was, in fact, from the window of her car, a 1947, blue, two door, stick shift Plymouth. My sister and I were staying with my aunt in her home in San Carlos at the time. Jeanne had to run an errand and invited me to keep her company. Our route happened to take us south along the Peninsula to Palo Alto. As we drove along the main avenue, El Camino Real, on a hot day, I smelled eucalyptus, looked to my right, and saw a long interruption in the storefronts. Suddenly the side of the highway was bordered by brown grassland divided by wooden fences, with rows of the familiar trees set in back almost as if to form a wall. “What’s in there?” I asked. “Oh,” Jeanne said, “that’s Stanford. You can’t see it from the road. It goes back in there for miles.” She paused, looked at the road, then looked again at me. “You know,” she continued, “you might go to college there someday. You’re bright. You could get in. I think you’d like it.”
At the time I sent my acceptance form back to the Admissions Office, I had never seen anything more of Stanford than that view from my aunt’s Plymouth. I had said yes based on notions I had developed from afar. In September of 1961, my father drove me, from our apartment in the Bay Area, south along the Nimitz Freeway, across the Dumbarton Bridge, into Palo Alto, and onto the campus. We parked at Wilbur Hall, the freshman dormitory complex. We unpacked my luggage, had a conversation, met my roommate – a Chemistry major from Arizona — and then said goodbye knowing we’d see each other again in November when my parents would be joining me and my aunt for Thanksgiving dinner.
Left to myself, I joined with the freshman class in getting to know my new surroundings. There were new people to meet from all over the world. There were new kinds of courses, new kinds of class schedules with large blocks of free time, new challenges for self discipline, and new kinds of social groups including fraternities and eating clubs, alumni, residence hall committees, groups organized around extracurricular activities, off campus networks, and cliques based on everything from who had gone to Exeter to who liked to surf.
Sense of place is a part of every campus experience. “Place and learning” could be the title of an interesting book. But it was especially important at Stanford. From my first day there, I noticed that the image of the whole University was built around an image of place. Stanford called itself “The Farm.” In Berkeley, there had been a verbal label that served a similar function. U.C. Berkeley was “Cal,” with after-images of Telegraph Avenue or the Campanile and Sather Gate. But this verbal shorthand was more abstract than Stanford’s. I noticed the farm features of Stanford from the very beginning: vast, empty fields of grass; areas where horses still grazed; old workers’ buildings where agricultural implements rusted in the rain. I also learned how “The Farm” was really a ranch. It had been not so much a place where crops were grown as the property where, in the late nineteenth century, Senator Leland Stanford had kept his racing horses. He dubbed it “The Farm,” because it was a “stock farm,” and probably also as a gesture of rural nostalgia traceable to his childhood.
Another feature of the campus I noticed right away was the horizontality. Berkeley has a small area of flatlands that rise from San Francisco Bay, but the city quickly becomes hilly as you go toward its eastern edge. Cal nestles in rising hills. Palo Alto, on the western side of San Francisco Bay, also starts at the water as a flat area. The difference is that the flat area goes westward through the city and continues for a long distance on the Stanford property. I found it interesting that all of the buildings on the Stanford campus were on rather level topography. There were no hills until you reached the relatively undeveloped area further west that bordered the Pacific Ocean. This acreage was also part of the Stanford campus, but it was still mostly empty grassland dotted by bushes and Live Oak trees. The buildings on the Stanford campus seemed to me, nevertheless, to be much like the ones I knew from Cal. There were low-lying, stucco-walled structures with red tile roofs echoing the Spanish tradition; a smattering of wooden bungalows and Victorian houses; and modern buildings with lots of aluminum and glass and not much individuality, which, I judged, had been added in the 1950s.
At the end of my freshman year, I joined a college fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and began forming friendships that were to last a lifetime. The original SAE house was an old, wooden structure dating from around 1900, near the center of the campus. In 1961 it was torn down. I was part of the first group of students to move into the new house, a sprawling, ranch-style structure that had just been constructed in the low lying, sparsely settled hills on the west side of the campus not far from Lake Lagunita and the golf course. Just over the hill, on its own large plot of land, was the University mansion The Knoll, built in the 1920s to imitate a small Italian villa. It greeted you suddenly as you walked across the grassy fields and clusters of oak trees and pines. There was a clean feel to the area. The grass was green in fall and winter, nourished by the rain. In spring and summer, the hills turned brown and the air was hot and dry. Year round, on nights when there were no clouds, you could see an amazing number of stars.
Our fraternity house could board about 80 people, two to a room. We gathered for meals in the dining room, and hung out or gave parties in the living room and library. The house had a patio off of the dining room, with a grape arbor, where we could enjoy our meals on sunny days. In the back of the house, we had another patio and a small paved area for basketball and volleyball.
An experience common to most college students is the search for an especially comfortable place on campus to study. Interest in History dictated my choice. Some students preferred to study in their rooms, some at the campus coffee shop, some in reading rooms or the stacks of the library, some in the evening in a certain classroom, some in the lab. The place at Stanford where I felt most comfortable was the reading room on the first floor of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, located in the tall, neo-Spanish bell tower built in the 1920’s to honor Herbert Hoover, Stanford’s President. The building contained offices for scholars and librarians, and a large collection of books, original documents, and artifacts. The reading room, on the first floor, displayed objects donated by Hoover himself: his books, for example, and letters of thanks from European children whose lives had been saved by the food drives he organized during the First World War. On the walls of the reading room, there were large, hanging tapestries given to Hoover by the people of Belgium. I enjoyed the contrast between this very European setting and the view through the large windows, of palm trees and the California Mission architecture of nearby Encina Hall.
Getting to Know an Editor
My interest in the place where I was being educated was strongly reinforced by the coincidence of encountering a very interesting teacher during my first year. Whenever I think about him, I think about a man with a beard — not because he had one, but because of a photograph I saw, of a man with a beard, when I was thinking about applying to Stanford. The bearded man’s photograph was on one of the pages of the booklet I received in the mail after writing to the Stanford admissions office and asking for information and application materials. The booklet, which had a title along the lines of “Introducing Stanford,” was the standard kind of breezily written, attractively printed overview that all universities circulate to get young people interested in attending. On one of the pages, there was the photo of the bearded man. He was offered to readers as the typical Stanford faculty member. He had an encouraging, puckish, kind smile and very intelligent eyes. He was wearing a tweed sportcoat. He was sitting on the edge of an old wooden desk and looking at a small classroom of students who sat in old wooden chairs and seemed to be eagerly engaged with him in a conversation about some unnamed but exciting topic. The picture corresponded perfectly — as the crafters of the booklet must have known — with all my hopes about the college learning environment. I carried the memory of that photograph in my mind when I began my first day of classes at Stanford in the Fall of 1961.
As things turned out, I didn’t have any professors with beards that first quarter. Nor were most of my classrooms even physically similar to the one in the photo. My course in introductory German, for example, was held in a small, modern room next to the big auditorium in the Physics building, while my classroom for introductory Geology was too full of rocks and models of dinosaurs to imagine anyone there wearing a tweed sport coat.
But, for Introduction to the History of Western Civilization, I got a lot closer to my goal.
The classroom for this course was in the basement of History Corner, along one side of the big quadrangle of older buildings that forms the original center of the Stanford campus. The space had never been remodeled. It proved to have exactly the kind of old wooden desk and rickety captain’s chairs I had seen in my treasured photograph. In this encouraging environment, along with some twenty other first year students, I sat in one of the chairs and waited for our instructor to enter.
After a few minutes, he walked in. The first thing I noticed was that he had a cherubic face and no beard. The second thing I noticed was that he was not wearing a tweed sportcoat, but, instead, a light blue searsucker sportcoat, a white shirt, a red wool tie that had a Tartan pattern, charcoal black slacks, bright yellow socks, and brown penny loafers. The third thing I noticed about him was that he walked on crutches.
With visible effort, he pulled himself to a location behind the large desk, then contorted the upper part of his body slightly downward so that he could set onto the desk the stack of papers he had been carrying under one arm. Then, in a smooth motion with which he was obviously familiar, he placed his two crutches against the edge of the desk and, when his hands were free, firmly grasped the sides of the speaker’s lectern that was fastened to the top of the desk.
Looking out at us, with a broad smile that indicated his intention to be friends, he said, “Good morning. My name is Charles McLaughlin. We’re going to be together for a while. I wonder if I could trouble one of you to pass around this pile of course outlines.” His voice as he said these words was firm, but he had to pause several times, occasionally in the middle of a phrase, to get his breath, and he had difficulty preventing his voice from jumping too high in pitch or too low. You could tell that extra effort was required for him to speak and to keep a consistent range, because the muscles all of us need to use to talk were, in his case, not as strong as they are for most of us. For all that, he had no difficulty in going on at great length. He spoke to us for about twenty minutes regarding the strategy of the course, the readings we would be assigned, and ways to study efficiently. Then he laughed and told us we could leave early.
Thereafter I was in class with Dr. McLaughlin and my fellow students every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday throughout the Fall quarter. We followed a standard routine. We made a point of arriving early and took our chairs. He walked in soon thereafter and took his position behind the lectern. Onto the lectern he placed his instructor’s notes, some of which were typewritten and some of which were in his tiny, precise handwriting. Then, never lecturing, always following the Socratic method, he led us in a discussion of the assigned readings.
For some of the students, especially the ones who were not planning to go on in the social sciences or the humanities, and for whom Western Civ was simply a requirement for a degree, McLaughlin’s approach was tedious. But, if you had even a small amount of curiosity about the past , he was a very good teacher. His questions were powerful (“Why do you think the habit of worshipping one god, instead of many, began in Israel rather than in Egypt?” “You may have noticed that the biography of Julius Caesar you were assigned to read is a translation from the German. What do you make of that fact?”). He helped you to realize that textbooks have their weaknesses. (“The author of our textbook is in the habit of saying that Babylon, Assyria, and Persia were afflicted by something called ‘Oriental Mysticism.’ I hope you realize he hasn’t thought much about the term.”) And he was very careful to make you feel good, as long as you were thoughtful, when you got up the courage to challenge academic authority. (“You’re right, Gary, a course in Western Civilization does neglect three quarters of the planet. In our instructors’ meetings, we’re talking about that.”)
I had an aptitude for History, and so I did very well on the final exam that McLaughlin gave us at the end of Fall quarter. Over Christmas, at home in the East Bay area, I got a postcard from him inviting me to join his advanced class, so called “Special Civ,” in which each instructor excused two or three students from attending regular classes and instead met with them in the evening to discuss not only the regular readings but also research papers on topics of our choosing. Thanks to this arrangement, I had the opportunity to know much more about McLaughlin than I learned about any of my other first year instructors. And it was for this reason that I came to know of his very strong interest in the ways human beings use the space around them.
A Maker of Landscape
Around midway through the Fall quarter of Western Civ, the topic for the day was the civilization of ancient Greece. Inevitably we got around to mentioning the Greek genius for architecture. The usual terms popped out: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Acropolis, pediment, portico, and so forth. The terms were all rote for me, because I had covered them back in high school Latin class. But just as I was about to tune out of the class discussion, I heard McLaughlin use a term I had never heard before. “By the way,” he asked, “does anybody know the word to describe the architecture of the Stanford campus?” None of us did. McLaughlin gave a big smile, looking very pleased by the opportunity our ignorance offered. “It’s Romanesque!” he declared. “We’ll get to it later when we study the Middle Ages,” he added. Then he got back on the track of questioning us just about the Greeks, with all of us still wondering why a man who was usually so focused had gotten off on a tangent.
Explanation for the anomaly became available gradually during Winter quarter, as I dropped by to talk with McLaughlin about research papers I was writing for Special Civ. His office was just down the hallway from his regular classroom in the basement of History Corner. Here I would find him sitting in front of a large, old, light brown, ubiquitously scratched, roll top desk. In the numerous pigeonholes of the desk, all over the writing surface, and on two wooden tables in the room, there were pieces of paper — some in piles, some in boxes, some by themselves; some of them on typewriter or legal size paper; some of them handwritten notes; some of them three-by-five with just a few words scribbled on each.
In the course of visits to McLaughlin’s office, I gradually learned that almost all of the pieces of paper were parts of a very large puzzle, one he knew he would need about twenty years to solve. In the late nineteenth century, McLaughlin told me, there was a man named Frederick Law Olmsted. Most Americans had never heard of him, there were almost no biographies of him, and no-one had yet produced a really first rate edition of all the published writings and private papers. This was a shame, because Olmsted and his sons and partners were the people who gave us, among other places of great importance, Central Park, the grounds of the United States Capitol, most of the park system for the city of Boston, major portions of the Lake Michigan waterfront for the city of Chicago, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stanford University campus. And, as if that were not enough, Olmsted was also an important writer. His account of his travels in the American South, before the Civil War, was an acknowledged classic — one of the few pieces of his work, in fact, for which there was a well done edition.
McLaughlin said all of this to me quietly and in a matter of fact way, taking care not to frighten me as he painted his panorama of places to which, for the most part, he could surmise, I had never been. And, like any first rate teacher, he avoided any suggestion that I ought to know all the historical details about this man Olmsted and his times that he, McLaughlin, had obviously mastered. I felt that I was being welcomed into the center of McLaughlin’s intellectual world. I also sensed that he was trying to convey his awareness that he would need to gather companions to cheer him. Looking back, I can see that he needed the encouragement not only because of his personal vulnerabilities, but also because he was a pioneer. In the early 1960’s, strong scholarly interest in the environment was still exceptional. The term “environmental movement” was not yet widespread.
Gradually I learned that McLaughlin had grown up in New England. He was from a well off family and was still, even at Stanford, dependent on his father, whom he did not like, for a supplement to his small income. McLaughlin spent his undergraduate years at Yale, then went on to get his Ph.D. in the American Civilization program at Harvard. In the early 1950’s, he got caught by the last great wave of polio to sweep across America before Jonas Salk and Albert Sabine eradicated the disease. While at Harvard, McLaughlin discovered that he liked editing. He learned that, while most historians don’t want to be editors, the production of an edition is an allowable way to meet the requirements for a doctoral degree. A friend suggested to McLaughlin that he consider taking on Olmsted. The fact that Olmsted’s ancestors, like McLaughlin’s, were Celtic, may have been the thing that cinched the choice. McLaughlin got his Ph.D. and then found a job opening at Stanford. Given that Stanford was one of the places Olmsted designed, it made good sense to accept the offer to go there. In some ways, though, the job was a risk. Very few Western Civ instructors were ever promoted to Assistant Professor, and most were not invited to stay longer than four years. Moreover, a historian specializing in the environment, even the Stanford environment, was not a hot academic commodity at the time.
McLaughlin the Easterner
McLaughlin was in his fifth year at the University and not especially happy. He didn’t like the rigid class system. All the Western Civ instructors were at the bottom — in the basement both figuratively and literally. The tenured members of the faculty had their offices upstairs. For McLaughlin, who had to get around on crutches, the very word “upstairs” was repugnant. There was no elevator, not even a ramp. He dreaded going upstairs. And he had special dislike for several members of the tenured faculty. One, an author of famous books and also a mesmerizing lecturer, was, according to McLaughlin, “a tiger in graduate seminars,” an arrogant man who had difficulty forming close relationships. Another prominent professor, known as one of the grand old men of the department, was to McLaughlin nothing more than an “absent-minded, dotty” person who should retire. From such comments, you could not tell whether McLaughlin really wanted to be asked to stay at Stanford or not. Sometimes, from his comments, I got the impression that he was an unreconstructed easterner who was biding his time until he could return to the more traditional part of the United States where the time span of refined behavior was several centuries longer. I sometimes wondered if, for McLaughlin, the typical Californian was Mrs. Leland Stanford, “Jane,” the woman who, after Senator Stanford’s death, saw to it that the university survived, even if she did not understand Olmsted’s conception of it. McLaughlin looked pained whenever he talked about her, as if she had been well meaning but crazy, like a movie fan from the 1920’s who could not adjust to the death of Rudolf Valentino.
In any case, it was not his opinion of California or the west coast that made me so eager to visit McLaughlin’s office. The thing he gave me, I can now see so many years after the fact, was an awareness that it was possible to approach History as a way of thinking systematically about the physical settings we create around ourselves. In conversations with McLaughlin, I obtained my first knowledge of thinkers like Olmsted, Lewis Mumford, and Patrick Geddes – historically important individuals who, in their books and in their practices, had explored the ways we relate to our surroundings, and the ways that our environment can be seen as a collection of zones, ranging from those like forests and mountains where human influence is often least pronounced, to those like villages and towns and cities where the human alteration of the land is most pronounced — with a huge variety of combinations in between, including suburbs, parks, farms, and specially designed environments such as university campuses, where humans have tried to discover ideal balances between our species and the rest of the planet upon which we find ourselves.
McLaughlin’s View of the World
I was also surprised to find that study of the history of environment could help me ponder the human predicament. At the point in my life when I knew McLaughlin, I was trying to decide how I felt about Christianity. I was alert whenever our readings in Western Civ returned to the theme of religion. One of the books McLaughlin urged us all to read was Gods and Men, by Henry Bamford Parkes. It explored the hypothesis, which also happened to be the organizing principle of the American Studies program in which McLaughlin had participated at Harvard, that myths are the organizing principles of all civilizations, the keys to our understanding of societies, the root causes of historical continuity and change. McLaughlin seemed to me to endorse this assumption, but also to believe that myths were nothing more than emotionally necessary creations of the human mind. I knew that he was not a Christian. He did not believe that people were massively sinful creatures who needed to be saved. He once said to me, “I could never believe in a god who insists that we say ‘I am vile.'” Yet I also knew that he found no refuge in Stoicism, that philosophy which has often filled the spiritual vacuum for people who cannot bring themselves to believe there is a god who intervenes in the world. Thus, when on one occasion I was talking with McLaughlin about Bertrand Russell, he told me he found Russell’s avowal of Stoicism rather depressing. “According to Russell, the universe is governed by natural laws but is otherwise a cold, dark place — and all we have, ultimately, is each other. I’m not comfortable with that.” Given McLaughlin’s interest in a man who designed landscapes, I occasionally wondered if he was some kind of worshipper of Nature, perhaps a pantheist. But I suspect McLaughlin would have talked more about wilderness if he had believed we should worship a god who is the spirit of all creation.
To this day I continue to wonder how McLaughlin formulated his personal response to issues of ultimacy. In this connection I keep coming back to the strongest memory of him that I have, which is of certain little notations that he frequently put in red ink in the margins of the blue books and research papers his students wrote for him. The marks were always next to grand generalities, the kinds of sententious pronouncements that all of us, and especially college freshmen, fall into from time to time. When your comment was in the negative mode, for example, if you wrote, “It is indeed regrettable that so many suffered so much during the years of the Black Death,” then you would find a little figure in the margin of your paper: (circle frown) When, on the other hand, you penned something along the lines of “It was truly a cause for rejoicing in human progress when the chronometer was invented,” then you could also plan on finding a little mark in your margin: (circle smile) In the 1970’s, long after I was a student of McLaughlin’s, smiles and frowns of this kind were patented by a professional cartoonist and widely marketed. But, in 1961, when I was a first-year student in college, it was still possible for McLaughlin’s use of them to be unusual and arresting. The lightness, the Celtic fairy spirit emerging from some magical forest, expressed by the little faces in the margins of my papers seemed to me to be the thing that sustained him.
I lost touch with McLaughlin after my first year at Stanford, as I shifted out of his Western Civ course and into others. He remained at Stanford for a few more years and then became a professor at American University in Washington DC, where he spent the rest of his career. His monument, a great achievement, is the multi-volume series of the papers of Olmsted published by Johns Hopkins University Press.