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Friday, March 22, 2013

If Any of My Children Become Ministers

The San Francisco Theological Seminary looks as cloistered today as it did in this evocative post card from the 1960s. Relocated from San Francisco to San Anselmo in the 1892, the seminary sits on a small hill nestled between Mt. Tamalpias and Mt. Baldy, to the left and right just out of view. The 14-acre site was picked in part for its monastic isolation, a characteristic which changed only gradually after 1937, when construction of the Golden Gate Bridge linked San Francisco to Marin County. At the very top of the hill is Geneva Hall, the centerpiece of a major 1950s building program that received financial support from Neenah's S. F. Shattuck, Sam Pickard and others. The gleaming purity of Geneva Hall bathes the building's entrance terrace in reflected sunlight, and on one of the railings in front of a breathtaking view hangs a plaque with a quote from Psalm 121: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." The seductive power of the setting is made complete by the Westminster Chimes pealing from the tower, the sonorous dignity of the bells commingling with the languid scent of the redwood and eucalyptus trees, wafting effortlessly in an arid summer breeze that only California can produce.

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who are reading because they love stories about Neenah, I'm certain you'll find this chapter engaging and an important part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link link us all together.


I suppose one could say that what happened next was my fault - or that I was a key precipitate - for with me there were now five children living with two adults in a little three bedroom ranch house. Life could not continue as it had been for much more than a couple of years, nor could we manage with just a four-door sedan. The addition of a small family room in back off the dining room relieved some of the immediate pressure at home, but not enough to make remaining at 212 Brookside Drive a viable long term alternative. As for the car, Walt Lampson was successful in convincing Dad to buy a new Pontiac station wagon, which was no small task given that Dad had never purchased anything off the showroom floor, being a firm believer that the best deal was one where someone else ate the biggest piece of the new car depreciation.

For Dad this was more than a way of life, more than just about being frugal - and never about accumulating assets, or even achieving something so mundane as financial security. It was a game to him, a challenge to beat one's own personal best and see how little was really needed to survive in the modern world, much akin to backpacking up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For Dad, he who ended up with the least had the most, and no amount of effort in achieving that end was too much. The station wagon was a case in point. As head mechanic at a Pontiac dealership, Walt was able to get Dad a good price and still earn a small commission, which Dad chose to see as the dealership getting less and Dad more - through a kind of payback to Walt for the bumper he replaced. The vehicle itself was insignificant, so long as it met only basic needs and was the cheapest model available, striped of as many amenities as humanly possible. Here that required a custom order to remove the radio and clock from the dashboard, replaced by a pressed metal insert with imitations of those features. "You don't need a clock if you wear a watch," Dad said. "That's just something they put in there to get you to spend more money."

As for finding a bigger house, that was more of a conundrum, but only up to a point. For my brothers Brookside Drive was the center of their lives, where their friends lived and where all their schools were. For Mom and Dad it was where they had established many of their most meaningful adult relationships - Walt in Dad's case, and for Mom most particularly Mrs. King, a professional seamstress and tailor, the first to welcome us into the neighborhood, who had helped Mom translate her need for artistic expression into a part-time job as an assistant. In the final analysis, however, it all came down to one thing. While there were larger houses near enough at hand, they were all considerably more money and required significantly more maintenance than Dad was either willing or able to provide - or pay others to perform if he was physically capable of doing the work.

The road in front of Montgomery Chapel was intended to serve as the seminary's original grand entrance, like many things a design that never came fully to fruition. Built as the burial site of founding donor Alexander Montgomery, the chapel stands as one of history's prophetic warnings. Montgomery, a ruthless money lender during the California gold rush, was unprofessed in any religion and at 58 had fathered two children with an underage girl. Prone to binge drinking, an intoxicated Montgomery was tricked into marriage by the girl's mother, whom he claimed had brandished two pistols and threatened his life. Although the marriage was later annulled, the couple subsequently remarried in an unsanctified service that was referred to back then as taking place by "common consent."  After much bitter and divisive debate the seminary's board agreed to accept the $260,000 offered by Montgomery to build needed classrooms, dormitories and faculty housing in San Anselmo. Another $175,000 was bequeathed to the seminary in his will in 1893, along with $50,000 to construct the memorial chapel, which under Montgomery's direction was in effect a Masonic mausoleum devoid of all Christian symbols. 

And so as it frequently happens in life, it was just at this point that Dad completed his doctorate and was formally presented with the symbolic hood that entitled him to the professorship President Baird had promised him almost ten years earlier. The hooding ceremony was a milestone for Dad and a proud moment for Mom, who was convinced that Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty had disapproved of her having so many children and holding Dad back in his career. So in spite of these and other obstacles, there beneath the towering eucalyptus trees on the seminary grounds, processing in full academic regalia, Dad at age 40 was now formally the youngest in a long tradition of  honored faculty professors, at once a product and a part of the graduation ceremonies, and now poised to fulfill an important role in the seminary's future.

As a full professor Dad was also eligible for a faculty house, more specifically the one being vacated by the retiring Clifford Drury, a somewhat peculiar old professor of church history, who had turned the front yard into a vegetable garden (and which the administration was anxious to turn back into lawn). The house itself was nearly made to order: four bedrooms, two full baths, a maid's room off the kitchen that Dad could use as a study, and - from the days when the seminary's facilities were more limited - a professor's library with private entrance for students, a room perfectly suited as accommodations for Grandma. And because it was seminary property, all repairs and upkeep were the responsibility of the maintenance crew at no cost, allowing Dad for the first time to be completely free of all household cares and responsibilities, a factor which trumped all other family considerations and which became a turning point in our lives - although not necessarily for the better.

Just up the road from Montgomery Chapel at 118 Bolinas Avenue, hidden behind the seminary's delineating perimeter of laurel bushes, is one of two nearly identical faculty homes built by famed California architect Julia Morgan, the first woman accepted into  l'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and best known as the architect of William Randolph Hearst's La Cuesta Encantada - or simply Hearst's Castle - at San Simeon. In designing these two much simpler seminary homes (constructed in 1921 while concurrently working for Hearst) Morgan was reputed to have employed the look and arrangement of a carriage house in their design. This one became our home in 1956, while its twin was occupied by Francis Bouquet, the brother of Rev. John Bouquet, who was at that same moment serving as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Neenah and living behind my great aunts on East Doty Avenue. In his retirement Professor Bouquet lived in a small apartment off campus which was on my paper route. I remember him as an infrequent but generous tipper who always spoke fondly of my parents, especially Dad.

For as it also so often happens, other unseen forces were already at work. With its massive building program now complete, the seminary was entering the next stages of what would become an even more radical transformation, intended to raise the institutional standing of the seminary but which ultimately divided the faculty into camps of open warfare and undisguised hatred, bringing the seminary to the very brink of extinction. On the one side were the teaching pastors with limited academic credentials but who served as professional mentors, passing on years of experience and wisdom to new generations of clergy. On the other side was a new breed of ambitious academics hired with little or no experience in the pulpit but who brought with them prestigious degrees from Stanford, Princeton, Oxford, and the universities of Zurich and Basel, and who were scholars of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Camus, or at the very least devoted followers of Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other even more esoteric theologians whose names generated awe only among other scholars who had little or no knowledge of - or for that matter interest in - those who sat in the pews on Sunday and put money in the collection plates.

And so it was into the very center of this battlefield that Dad unwittingly brought his family, taking them from the comfortable working class obscurity of Brookside Drive and plunging them head first into the rarefied goldfish bowl of faculty life, where neighbors would never replace your rusty bumper but were increasingly poised to use you in any way they could to advance their careers, increase their status, or massage insatiable professional egos. It was a place where in the years that lay before us, Dad would come home at night, spewing invective against the men he had to work with during the day, men who might be living next door or down the block, often the fathers of my friends and playmates. "He's the only man I know who can strut sitting down!" Dad shouted on one occasion about my friend Steve's dad. Another time he reported with disgust how a group of the new faculty members had set a whispering campaign in motion on how another new rival professor (this one from Switzerland whose son Theodore was in my class at school) had been a Nazi sympathizer. It was all, to say the least, very confusing and ultimately more than Mom could take.

"If any of my children become ministers," she said, "I'll consider myself a failure as a mother."

CHAPTER II continues HERE.

Friday, March 15, 2013

If I Put My Clothes In A Bag

In this Christmas photo from 1951 (posed in future graduate of University of California-Berkeley tee shirts) are Bob, Bill, Dave and Mom in back, with Steve at age two in Dad's lap. As is obvious by her expression, Mom was pleased to have more children. For the rest of her life she would gloat how she tricked Dad into continuing the production of offspring.  Had Steve been a girl his name would have been Helen Elizabeth after the aunts back in Neenah. When Mom asked if Dad was disappointed with having another boy, he replied, "When you got a good thing going, why change?" 

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who are reading because they love stories about Neenah, I'm certain you'll find this chapter engaging and an important part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link link us all together.


In addition to the general household chaos, my brother Bob was proving to be a square peg in a round world, particularly when it came to school. At virtually every grade level, getting an education was an endless sea of frustration for him, Mom and Dad, and especially his teachers. In elementary school while all the other children were learning to print their names, Bob tried his hand at writing in braille, and when the teacher objected to that, he worked on standard printing that could only be read upside down in a mirror.  The same was true when it came to learning rudimentary math: he did his work in Roman numerals. At the start of one school year his new teacher - a man and fresh out of school himself - promised Mom to make Bob his special project, only to concede defeat by the second parent-teacher conference:

"Some day someone is going to teach Bob something. It just isn't going to be me." 

The problem, of course, wasn't limited to school. At home Bob began in the kitchen, where he methodically made every cake in one of Mom's cookbooks to better understand the process. He then moved out to the garage where he progressed from  crystal sets to Heathkits to sufficiently powerful transmitters that started the neighbors on a rampage for the interference he caused with their television reception. In high school Bob and a friend even got a hold of a surplus Navy radar system that was eventually confiscated by War Department officials, in this case for interfering with operations at a new missile base on nearby Angel Island. Invariably the odd man out in any social situation, Bob was nevertheless an essential component in my brothers' ever expanding circle of friends. For while Bill had the power to attract followers like an adolescent Pied Piper, Bob's highly tuned engineering skills made it possible for them to assemble soap box derby cars, construct a simple but effective backyard roller coaster, or connect the entire neighborhood's collection of electric model trains into a single domestic transit system that on a dare ran through every room of our house.

Mom and Dad weren't entirely on their own when it came raising their family. For the first 20 years of their married life Mom's widowed mother lived with them or very near by, helping with the meals, cleaning, child care and whatever else was needed.  The relationship between these two ladies, as can be seen here, was at best cordial. A school teacher by training, Grandma openly favored Mom's older sister, Angela, the superior student, taking little or no interest in Mom's extraordinary artistic and musical talents. Having lost everything in the Depression, Grandma was at the same time financially dependent on Dad, whom she thoroughly disliked in spite of his advanced degrees and academic awards. And while she was unfailingly treated with the customary respect of those times, it was never enough to make her happy. After weekend visits to Angela and her husband George, Grandma inevitably made a point of telling Mom how instead of being put to work they treated her like a queen. 

In keeping with all this turmoil was Bob's beloved cat Tatter. The embodiment of domesticity at home, Tatter would turn feral outdoors, becoming fiendishly aggressive when it came to dogs. Undeterred by their larger size and greater ferocity, Tatter would roam the streets in search of canine prey, enticing them to chase him back to the tree in our front yard. From there this cat would launch a surprise attack, dropping down from the branches onto his unsuspecting adversary, biting and digging his claws into the hapless dog's back. Frequently bested but never deterred, Tatter spent the better part of his surprisingly long life in a condition consistent with his name, often at death's door from extensive injuries, with Dad serving as veterinary nurse.  In this capacity Tatter became the one remaining positive connection between Dad and Bob as my brother's intensely challenging intellect - in deadly combination with his teen years - pushed their relationship to the breaking point.

And while most other mothers under these circumstances would have seen the wisdom of drawing the line at three children, Mom wanted more. Dad, however, did not. At least that was his official position. When Bill came home from school in tears one day because his friend Brian was being taken to an orphanage, Dad immediately got on the phone and confirmed the report as true, learning that the boy’s widowed mother Sally had suffered a breakdown, lost her job and no longer had enough money to take care of them both. A few more calls and Dad had arranged for Brian to live with us until his mother was back on her feet. He then found her a secretarial job that paid more than the one she had lost. “Jesus knew I that I was in need and He sent your father and mother to me,” Sally told me decades later, kissing my cheek in their absence. At Dad's funeral Brian wept openly:

"He was the only father I ever knew."

On the issue of adding permanently to the inventory of Adams children, Mom's mother took sides with Dad. "They're all going to end up in prison," she predicted on more than one occasion. Grandma had lived with Mom and Dad off and on for years, and when we moved to San Anselmo she came too, renting a second floor garage apartment nearby. While accustomed to acting as a geriatric au pair, in San Anselmo Grandma had found part time work as a book binder at the public library and had started taking art classes at night. She enjoyed this new found independence, and so the idea of resuming her role as caregiver to a houseful of unruly boys (not to mention a predatory cat) was anything but appealing. She relented with my brother Steve, born in 1949, but when Mom discovered four years later that she was once again pregnant, this time with me, Grandma was fit to be tied. She told Mom in no uncertain terms that at 78 she wanted no part of any more babies. Mom would just have to tough it out on her own. I was the last straw.

At the hospital the nurses all proclaimed that I was a particularly adorable baby. Here just past my first birthday I am a curly-haired  Cupie Doll, ecstatic over the brief privilege of being allowed to sit in the soap box derby cart I had been watching my brothers build in the garage under Bob's direction. My brothers would later tease me by saying I was adopted, but with time I came to realize I was the only one of us who bore any resemblance to Dad.

Without Grandma, Mom had no time with a family of four to indulgently savour the prospect of having a new baby. Dad, however, off again on yet another round of meetings and hotel rooms somewhere, found himself alone, contemplating what it meant to be a father. In a break from his schedule he wrote home to Mom how he had come to realize that these four boys were an important part of his life and for the first time he was looking forward to the child waiting to be born. It was a letter Mom wore out reading and rereading, as she had begun - now entirely on her own with her children - to doubt the wisdom of large families. To her surprise Dad had even picked out a name, something he had never done before: Peter - for the late U.S. Senate chaplain Peter Marshall, whose biography, "A Man Called Peter," Dad had just read - and James for his own father, a man Dad had grown up without ever knowing.

As for Grandma, she pretty much stuck to her guns.  She did not come over when Dad took Mom to the hospital (one of the neighbor ladies assumed that responsibility), nor did she call or visit Mom, or come to see me, her newest grandchild, during our four-day hospital stay, the standard of that era.  Mom was certain this meant the breach with her mother was permanent, but when Dad brought us home and turned in the driveway, there was Grandma waiting on the stoop, as she had every other time in the past, in a freshly laundered white apron. Without comment or discussion she came over to the car, gathered me up in her arms and carried me inside - having shooed out the interloping neighbor and  once again taken charge, getting everything and everyone cleaned and organized for the arrival of the newborn baby. 

And as the neighborhood kids came over to stare in amazement at this latest addition to our family, one in their number was Mark - the boy who was an albino to the world but just another kid at our house. An only child, Mark looked me over carefully and then went up to Mom and asked her where babies came from. Not seeing his education on the matter as a responsibility she wanted to assume, Mom explained that she had packed a bag of clothes for the baby, gone to the hospital and brought me back home with her. Giving this answer the serious consideration only a child can muster, Mark asked one further question. "If I went home and put my clothes in a bag, would you bring me home from the hospital?"

CHAPTER II continues HERE.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Teetering On The Edge

In this photo taken in the early 1950s, the neighborhood boys mug for the camera, using candy cigarettes, wax teeth, fake moustaches, and what looks to be some kind of prosthetic tongue to assume an imagined adult male persona. My brother Bill, standing third from the right, embraces classmate Brian who was one of his many best friends and for a time lived with us when his widowed mother was facing financial hardships. My brother Steve, born in 1949 and at this point thrilled to be included with the big boys, kneels on the left next to Mark, the boy with achromasia who wanted to be part of our family.  Within a few years time Steve would have gladly traded places with Mark. 

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw and learned about them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who have been enjoying the background stories about Neenah and its millionaires, I promise you'll find this chapter just as engaging and part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link us all together.


On Brookside Drive my brothers spent most of their childhood out on the street with plenty of friends and - with the exception of Mr. Burleigh's shaking fist and voluble imprecations - little in the way of direct adult supervision or timely intervention.  Footballs flew into Mrs. King's garden and decapitated her prize roses, a running hose was surreptitiously stuck through an unguarded open window at the Shaul's house, and at a nearby construction site several kegs of nails were turned over, on this occasion precipitating a visit by the police. And these being the days before leash laws, the frequent discovery of a dog pile inevitably led to its being thrown at any other children who happened to be in close proximity - usually but not always foreign to the neighborhood. 

At our home, to which these boys frequently retired (more often than not when retreat was the better part of valor), the activities had a decidedly more creative bent, due in large part to Bob's less aggressive nature and more fertile imagination. In the back yard there might be a hole being dug to China, or an expedition being conducted into the dark recesses of the crawl space under the house. Coming inside they might run the front loading washer with the door open just to see what would happen, or bring in a dead cat to be autopsied, or get the car horn stuck after being expressly told not to go in the garage.  And while all this might evoke images of Beaver Cleaver or Opie Taylor, Mom, being the principal caretaker, had a slightly different take on things. 

"Someone was always kicking, biting, crying, scratching, throwing up or looking for something to eat," she would later recall.

A portion of this chaos was due to Dad, who in spite of the number of children he had fathered was not much interested in taking an active role in raising them.  He was focused instead on the resumption of his deferred teaching career at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, an ivy-covered Presbyterian institution which in spite of the name was located across the bay in San Anselmo. Dad was a graduate of the seminary and had been a teaching assistant there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Now five years later, with the war over and pastoral service in the coastal farming community of Watsonville behind him, he was back teaching speech part time and working on a doctoral degree that would open the door to a professorship, tenure, and for Dad the highly attractive perquisite of faculty housing (having no compelling interest in home ownership as part of his make up).

Dad took a more active interest in his children only at the point when they were old enough to share in his enjoyment of fishing and hunting, which eventually included some of their friends and even a few of their fathers. As these bonds of trust and friendship deepened, the excursions evolved into pack trips up into remote tracts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a perspective that would shape the outlooks and life goals of all these boys. Dwain, for example (shown here with Bill and Dad after an early and less demanding hunting expedition), told them he wanted to become a forest ranger, a career that countered his mother's expectations but that he eventually pursued. When I look at photos like this one it become clear to me that these are the only occasions where Dad smiled with such genuine peace and contentment. 

The seminary also provided Dad with the opportunity of developing its groundbreaking religious broadcasting program,  first in radio and then later television. This involved travel to Chicago and Hollywood to attend classes in scriptwriting and broadcasting at the University of Chicago and the Columbia Broadcasting School. After that came setting up the curriculum, organizing an international church news wire service, and stumping around the country for donations to underwrite the construction of studios in the seminary’s new multi-million dollar library. As the youngest member of a faculty made up of old men at the end of their academic careers, Dad was the golden boy and young turk, and as such the protégé of seminary president Jesse Baird. Pretty heady stuff for anyone still in his early thirties.

In Dad's absence the only dependable adult presence at home was Mom, who had grown up with only an older sister and had little understanding of how to handle the mob of grammar school boys that were regularly encamped at our house. Her job as a de facto single parent was made no easier by my brothers who were not in the least bit afraid of her - that is until the time Dad had been flown out for the better part of a week, ending up in New York City. Calling home to report that he was staying at the Waldorf Astoria (while she had been home tending to the ever increasing bedlam) Mom lost it - or rather she discovered an inner chamber in the private recesses of her demure soul that gave her immediate power over the world around her, a power that proved to be handy from time to time throughout her life.

Grabbing Bob and Bill by the scruff of their necks while in the midst of what was escalating into a particularly fierce pitched battle between siblings, she dragged the two of them into the room they shared and made them lay out their best clothes. From there she marched them back to the kitchen, yanked open the knife drawer, and directed them to go kill each other out in the garage. "I'll hose the blood out into the street and then call the undertaker, and when he gets here I'll show him where your bodies are and let him know where to find the clothes to bury you in." Left standing alone in the ominous silence of a darkened garage, each with a knife in hand, my brothers barely uttered another sound until Dad returned home, happy to receive any punishment he would dole out for their bad behavior as a fair price for being rescued from the clutches of a mad woman. To this day they recall the incident with a respectful silence.

Dad was temperamentally guarded and a hard man for anyone to connect with on a personal level, especially other men.  Through the friends of his kids, however, he fell in several fathers who liked to fish and hunt as much as he did.  One of them was Dwain's step-father, Walt Lampson.  A veteran of World War II and chief mechanic at a Pontiac dealership, he and Dad developed a mutual respect and real enjoyment of each other's company, the closest Dad ever got to having a best friend. Walt even installed a replacement bumper on our car because the old one was rusty, and Dad respected Walt's opinion enough to buy the Pontiac station wagon, the only car Dad ever bought new. Not long after we left Brookside Drive, however, Dwain ran away from home and showed up on the doorstep of our new house on the seminary campus. Thinking it was the right thing to do, Dad called Walt to let him know where Dwain was and to say that he could stay with us until they worked things out. Dwain eventually returned home, but Walt never spoke to Dad again.  The sudden and inexplicable loss of Walt's friendship was a painful slap in the face which Dad never forgot. 

But even when Dad was home, life at Brookside Drive could begin teetering on the edge of chaos in less a moment's notice. A case in point was the Christmas Mom decided to let my brothers participate in decorating the house for the holidays. Following the precepts of an article she read on the subject in a women's magazine, Mom bought a small tree and some unbreakable ornaments so they could do the decorating themselves. It was soon apparent, however, that whoever the author was he or she did not have any children. For while Bill and Bob were capable of placing the ornaments, Dave only succeeded in knocking everything off, which resulted in yelling and shoving, which in turn toppled the little tree over, and that followed by more shoving, yelling and then crying. After six or seven rounds of this, Dad stomped off to the garage and upon his return he nailed the ravaged fir to the floor with a spike. 

Then on Christmas Day, with beautifully wrapped presents from the aunts in Wisconsin piled high around the little tree, the pandemonium began in earnest.  At some point during these proceedings, both Mom and Dad stepped momentarily out of the room (a common story element in most of their accounts of domestic tragedy).  In their absence my brothers decided to be helpful and clean up the mountains of rumpled wrapping paper by stuffing them into the fireplace. This gave Bob the idea of lighting a match, without the requisite appreciation that the damper in the chimney needed to be open. In a matter of moments the house was filled with billowing smoke and the sound of screaming children, the festive holiday coming to an early conclusion when Dad stormed out onto the front porch and pitched the bedraggled little tree out onto the front lawn.

CHAPTER II continues HERE.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Preacher And His Kids

A three bedroom post war ranch is not what most people would expect a Kimberly-Clark heir to call home. The life my family led here was far removed from the finger bowls and uniformed maids of the house on East Wisconsin Avenue, but even so the world of Neenah's industrial families was inextricably woven into the very simplicity of this house and the people it sheltered. That said, Mom and Dad were not June and Ward Cleaver, my brothers were nothing like Wally and the Beaver, and no problems were ever solved in thirty minutes. You've been warned.

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw and learned about them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post  HERE.  For those of you who have been enjoying the background stories about Neenah and its millionaires, I promise you'll find this chapter just as engaging and part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link us all together.


My concepts of home and family began just across the Golden Gate Bridge in what was then the unincorporated town of San Anselmo, in what is now tony Marin County - the very name evokes California chic and sophistication, but back then was a very different sort of place.  Our address was 212 Brookside Drive, part of a failed Depression era subdivision on the outskirts of town that only started filling up with small ranch houses after World War II. Primarily a blue collar mix of young families, retirees and veterans, it was not a particularly welcoming neighborhood, at least not when my family moved there in 1947.  At issue was Dad, or rather Dad’s profession. 

“He’s a Presbyterian minister, so you’ll have to shape up.” 

That was the dire warning issued by the seller to her neighbors immediately upon closing the deal. Only who she meant to impress is not exactly clear. The Jewish widow up the street? The doctor whom everyone thought was an abortionist? The couple who blamed each other for their only child being born albino? My money is on the neighborhood drunk, the improbably named Burleigh MacDonald, who lived right across the street. “Mr. Burleigh,” as he was generally known to his neighbors, always reeked of tobacco and alcohol, and made his presence known by either yelling at his wife Agnes or the children playing out in the street and blocking traffic.

Incensed  by the impending arrival of a preacher and his family, Mr. Burleigh located a pinball machine and set it up in his front window, certain that such a coarse and loathsome device of lowbrow entertainment would shock the delicate sensibilities of a milk toast pastor, his mealy-mouthed wife and their anemic children. Of course, Mr. Burleigh had no idea who he was dealing with. During the war Dad had served as interim pastor of a  Presbyterian church in Watsonville, California near Camp McQuaide, Fort Ord and a string of Navy air fields all operating on high alert. Transformed almost overnight into a staging ground for the war in the Pacific, the area was soon flooded with military personnel and equipment, all arriving in a 24-hour schedule of droning transport planes. Still only in his twenties, Dad took turns watching the night sky for enemy attack, drove the town hearse due to the wartime shortage of able drivers, and married endless young soldiers and their brides whose future together was measured in days and sometimes hours.

An accomplished amateur photographer, Dad took this family shot just before they moved into the house on Brookside Drive. Unfortunately, he didn't think to pull up his socks. From the left is Bill (5), Dad (31), Dave (2), Mom (31) and Bob (8). For all appearances this stained and damage image would appear to capture your typical post-war suburban family, which we were not. Developing a brilliant mind early in life, Bob also exhibited a form of attention deficit disorder, which no one knew anything about back then, creating endless turmoil at school and at home. Mom served as a buffer between Bob and the world, while Bill and Dave gravitated towards Dad, as clearly expressed here in their body language. Their expressions speak volumes.

Adding to the chaos was an influx of Japanese Americans who were rounded up by the thousands and brought to a nearby rodeo fairground, where the stables and sheds had been called into service as housing until the detainees could be shipped off to internment camps being built in Arizona. As a great many of these Japanese were local people with farms and businesses, Dad organized other pastors into a response team that helped record and store their personal property in a church gym appropriated to serve as a warehouse for the duration of the war. And as a result of their efforts, several of the good citizens of Watsonville - or more probably some of the tens of thousands of soldiers flown in every day from around the country - egged the house where my family had been living, made harassing phone calls, and even threatened to kill Dad, Mom and my brothers (the oldest being no more than five at the time) for providing aid to the falsely accused enemy among us. 

Mr. Burleigh had Dad all wrong, not to mention Mom and my brothers.

Upon their arrival at Brookside Drive it was my brother Bob who took immediate command of the situation with a direct retaliatory assault. Establishing a beach head on the nearest street corner, he and my brothers stood there for the better part of an afternoon yelling “shit ass” at every passing car. Bob had learned this verbal weapon of choice in Watsonville on the playground at Mintie White Elementary School (click on the link if you think I made this name up). The phrase, he found, had a similar impact as the atomic bomb when said to adults (or at least it did when used on the adults leading the Sunday school where Dad was pastor). And like a good drill sergeant, Bob insisted on correct pronunciation, giving his full attention to Dave, who as a 2-year-old was having difficulty with the staccato letter T.

"It's not shi ass," Bob insisted. "It's shit ass. Say it. Shit ass. Shit ass. Shit ass." 

Mom, as always, was horrified about what the neighbors would think when she learned what had been going on, but somehow she had the presence of mind to ask Bob if he even knew what he was saying. "It means a grunt donkey," he replied, surprised that he had to explain anything as self evident as this to his mother. As for her concern for the neighbors, Mom's fears turned out to be baseless. When word of the incident got around, the pinball machine quietly disappeared from view, and my family was soon universally welcomed into the neighborhood. Other parents it seems were relieved to know that a preacher's kids could be as great an embarrassment as their own, while the children living in and around Brookside Drive were indebted to my brothers  for effectively lowering the expectation of decent behavior.

CHAPTER II continues HERE.