Tag Archives: US Navy

THE BULLY AND THE FORT

 

Most Californians will tell you that they have moved around quite a bit. Mobility is one of the defining features of the state, and it affects attitudes toward lots of things. This is a post about just such a collection of feelings.

In 1953, when I was ten years old, I moved with my mother and father and my seven year old sister from an apartment in El Cerrito, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, to a small house that my parents found, in nearby Albany. At the time my father was stationed at the Navy base on Treasure Island in the middle of the Bay. As a Navy family, we moved around quite a bit. In this case, as often happened, we moved not because we had to but because my parents were in search of a better place. The rent for the house was only a bit higher than the cost for the apartment, and the house was rather attractive and in a neighborhood full of children, which ensured lots of playmates for summer, which had just begun.

Albany looking west from Albany Hill
Albany looking east from Albany Hill and the bay

The new house was a single story bungalow with a large front porch, exterior walls made of coffee colored stucco, and wooden roof beams and window frames painted chocolate brown. The front yard had a small lawn and flowers. There were hedges along each side of the house, and large honeysuckle bushes that gave off an incredible fragrance during both the day and the warm nights. The house had a large backyard with a lawn, bushes, flowers, and several big trees. A driveway led along one side from the street to an old, wooden, one-car garage that stood separately in a far corner of the backyard. The garage was full of junk and looked like it had not been used in many years.

California bungalows
California bungalows

At the back of the backyard, partly overgrown by bushes, there was a gray, wooden fence with a swinging gate that opened onto a wide, asphalt-covered walkway that extended, straight, for several hundred feet, parallel to the fences and bushes of all the backyards of the other houses. On the other side of the walkway, there were two tennis courts and, then, further along, the grassy playing fields of a large park that the city of Albany maintained for the neighborhood.

Typical East Bay park
Typical East Bay park

Because we arrived in our new house in June, just after the schools had closed for the summer, the neighborhood was full of children all day long. Along our street, and in the nearby park, my sister and I found it unusually easy to meet new playmates. We spent entire days playing Hide and Seek, Kick the Can, War, and Red Rover Come Over. The street was not heavily traveled. We could play baseball and kickball there. At night we often went to each other’s houses for dinner, then read each other’s comic books, traded baseball cards, or played each other’s board games. Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, and Sorry were our favorites.

Small_Box_Monopoly

Shortly after we moved to the bungalow in Albany, my mother and father both took on part-time jobs to increase the family income. My mother became a part-time secretary at a truck-manufacturing firm located in the industrial area of Berkeley down near the Bayshore Highway. She was home most afternoons to take care of my sister and me. When she wasn’t home, the families in the neighborhood watched out for us. My father was out of the house each weekday, commuting to the Navy base on Treasure Island, where he was assigned to a small ship that was making sonar maps of the bottom of the Bay and the ocean floor just beyond the Golden Gate. On most days, the ship remained in port and there was little to do. The Captain advised my father to use the spare time for naps on board and to help our family by getting an evening job. My father found work at a large grocery store called Park and Shop, a few miles from our house.

With the extra money they were earning, my parents were able to buy some things we all wanted. My sister got new toys and clothes. For my birthday I received a boy’s sized desk. My mother purchased a new table for our dining room, made of pink wrought iron with a glass top. My father got a car – a used, dark blue, 1950, two-door Ford convertible with a white canvas top. For all of us, there was a new television set. Looking back, I now find it interesting how much these purchases expressed the twin poles of my family’s values. On the one hand, we were striving to be settled. The desk, for example, helped me to feel focused, to have a space of my own in the bedroom I shared with my sister. On the other hand, we were eager to be connected to a larger world. The car, in particular, helped us to be out and about. We went out for dinner more often. We made more visits to our relatives. On pleasant summer evenings, we took spins around the neighborhood. We went to drive-in movies and to drive-in restaurants like Mel’s and the places that were the precursors to McDonald’s, where you could buy a hamburger sandwich for nineteen cents.

At home, I was not feeling secure. I had to listen to my parents argue. Their busy routines – my father holding two jobs, and my mother holding a part-time job and trying to manage the household at the same time — tired both of them and put them on edge. My sister and I had to put up with the bickering and find countervailing equanimity outside the house.

I discovered that the most efficient way to cheer myself up was to go through the gate in our backyard and down the walkway between the bushes and the tennis courts to the park.

For small children, the park had swings and roller skating or kickball or four square or marbles. Next to that were two sandy areas with poles rigged for tetherball. There was also a large grassy field where we could play football and baseball.

Kickball
Kickball

The park included a small building next to the play field, where you could borrow sports equipment, and where two recreation directors were on duty to keep order. There was a Ping Pong table inside where local teenagers liked to hang out.

Most of the teenagers accommodated my friends and me, but one of them did not. When he appeared, things changed in a fundamental way. His name was Eddie. He must have been around fourteen years old — too old to pal around with boys of my age, but too young to be accepted by the older teenagers. And he probably had not been able to find a circle of friends at any other place, or else he would not have ended up in our park exactly when he did. Eddie was a bully. He took pleasure in intruding into our football and baseball games and punching us when we didn’t run the plays exactly as he ordered. If we asked the park directors to intervene, he waited for us at the edge of the park and beat us up, one by one, when we were walking home. If we simply stopped our game and boycotted him, by going from the field into the building with the Ping Pong table, then he came in and stared sullenly. The older teenagers noticed all this but felt no obligation to come to our aid. Our parents, likewise, kept on the edge of things. “You work it out,” my mother and father told me one evening at the dinner table when I brought up the problem of Eddie. Their view seemed to be that, as long as there was no blood or broken bones, then the appearance of Eddie was a minor matter and might even be instructional.

Thrown back upon our own resources, my friends and I did what boys of our age would have been expected to do. We gathered together, one afternoon, in a grove of trees at a far corner of the park and held a secret meeting, during which we swore a blood oath to protect each other. We developed a strategy of defense that seemed to us to be infinitely clever. Our plan was two-pronged. First, we would station lookouts at each end of the park, each sentinel ready to run back to and alert the rest of us that Eddie had been sighted and was drawing near. Then, as part two of our plan, we would build a secret hideout, a fort, to which we could retreat, but from which we could also peek into the park to keep track of Eddie and re-emerge once he could not find anyone to bully and was gone.

As the site for our fort, we selected an area near the tennis courts where there were dense clusters of low-lying juniper bushes. Beneath two of the bigger bushes that were very close together, we began digging a hole that would, we planned, eventually be about three feet deep and about five feet across on each side.

We agreed upon a work schedule, and used only broken bits of branches or our bare hands. I am not quite sure why we decided not to use other tools. I do recall that we told ourselves that secrecy might be compromised if we borrowed anything from our parents. Probably, though, we liked the feeling of heroism that came from digging primitively.

Our strategy worked well for the first few weeks. We coordinated our play at the park. We proved to be skilled lookouts. We took turns digging and rotated our times under the juniper bushes in an orderly, cooperative manner. Even with only a little bit of the hole completed, we were able to hide from Eddie and leave him feeling so bored that he eventually drifted away and came into our world only now and then, for example when we were looking at toy soldiers we were hoping to buy at the local toy store or going to the movies with our parents.

The thing that continued to irk us, however, was the fact that our fort was not completed. As the threat of Eddie subsided, we became careless about arriving and leaving the park at the same time and we often neglected to take our turns at digging and just played. Then, too, there were days when it rained and none of us came to the park, and entire weeks when some of us were away on summer trips with our families. Day followed day, the summer vacation was soon at an end, school was about to begin, and our fort was only half completed.

To decide what to do next, we held another secret meeting in the grove of trees at the corner of the park. We discovered that our opinions were divided. A majority said we should just forget the whole thing, and declared that their decision was final. But about four of us were determined to continue. I think, as I look back, that some kind of fundamental dichotomy in human character must have been showing itself. One group was saying cut your losses, get on to other matters, don’t waste time on a project that is no longer needed. The other group was saying that we shouldn’t run away from our commitments, that flight can become a bad habit, that faithfulness is a principle to be honored, that it is painful to start building something and then walk away before the job is done.

I am certain that, for each of us that day at the second secret meeting, there were personal values, even as young as we were, leading each of us to the choice we made. I will never know what influences operated in the minds of those who were with me in their decision. But I do know, as I look back, what was causing me to act as I did. My family was getting ready to move once again. My parents had found an attractive apartment a few miles away, across the city border in Berkeley. In a few weeks, I would be in a new home, in a new neighborhood, again going to a new school, spending too many evenings at home listening to my parents argue. There was no feeling of permanence in any of these developments, and the fact that I could not counteract them made me feel powerless. I knew that my parents loved me. But I was facing one of those times in my young life when I needed more stability than I was getting. And now, presented by the oddest of coincidences, was the chance to affirm the presence of stability, both symbolically and materially, by completing, with sticks and my bare hands, the construction of a primitive, secret fort.

Over the next several weeks, each day after school, my three friends and I faithfully met at the juniper bushes on the edge of the park and completed our project — they for their reasons and I for mine. Then, one day when the fort was completed, we shook each other’s dirty hands and said goodbye and went our separate ways and left our fort behind to wash itself into the earth in the coming rains.

 

 

WALTER BACK THEN

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1940s_bourbon_whiskey_bottles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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