A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, December 27, 2010

All Things Must Pass

I'll never forget the day Donald Crisp died.
More precisely, I'll never forget the look on my mother's face when I said, "Who's Donald Crisp?"
He was an English character actor who specialized in kindly grandfather roles. (He won an Oscar in 1942 in "How Green Was My Valley.")
But I didn't know that then. So when he died in 1974, my blank stare hit my mother like a sledgehammer.
She was 63 - two years younger than I am now - and at that age you're beginning to feel your own mortality.
For a while, you try to console yourself with the thought that even if you won't last forever, at least the world you've known and loved will.
But then something comes along to remind you that your entire world, too, will pass and be forgotten.
That's what happened to my mother. Donald Crisp someone she grew up watching. He was part of the cultural air she breathed. So my ignorance felt like a death knell for everything she loved.
And that's how I felt a couple of weeks ago when a young friend said, "Who's Don Meredith?"
There's no reason why she would have heard of him. He broadcast his last game on "Monday Night Football" in 1984, long before she was born.
But to me, it was a sign that my world, too, is rapidly fading.
Part of me wants to grab every young person I meet by the lapels and shout, "No! No! Don't forget Dandy Don and Humble Howard! Don't forget Don Sherwood, Tommy Saunders and Russ the Moose!"
But, of course, they will be forgotten. And that's the way it should be.
The younger generations need to make space for their own cultural icons. They don't have room for all the leftovers from my era, any more than my generation had room for Rudy Vallee, Emil Coue or the Clicquot Club Eskimos.
And there's no way we can predict what posterity will judge important. Bach was forgotten for almost a hundred years after his death until he was rediscovered in the 19th century. Ditto for Vermeer.
Then there's that Christmas classic I watched on TV last week, "It's A Wonderful Life."
Believe it or not, it was a huge flop on its first release. When the director, Frank Capra, wrote his autobiography in 1971, he lamented that he would be remembered for "Lost Horizon," "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" and "It Happened One Night," but not for his favorite film, "It's A Wonderful Life."
"Lost Horizon" was a movie that resonated powerfully for my father and every other man of his generation. But today it's almost forgotten, while "It's A Wonderful Life" is regarded as a masterpiece.
What happened? Simple: The copyright on "It's A Wonderful Life" expired, which freed TV stations all over the country to broadcast it every Christmas. And a new generation of viewers saw it with new eyes.
Incidentally, remember the scene where Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are dancing on the high school basketball floor, and it opens up and the fall into a swimming pool underneath?
That was my high school. We used to open it up 20 feet and have tug-of-wars, with the losers falling in.
I hope that's one tradition that won't fade.

Monday, December 20, 2010

No Room At The Inn

Remember those ads for Levy's Rye Bread that read, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's?"
Well, you don't have to be Christian to love Christmas, either.
I'm evidence of that. I'm not a Christian, but I love everything about the holiday - the carols, the food, the decorations, the excitement of little children, strangers wishing each other "Merry Christmas" on the street.
Most of all, I love the Christmas story. And I've felt that way since I was a kid.
How can you not? It has everything a kid could want.
Adventure: An innocent young couple on the run, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the evil king's soldiers.
Suspense: Will the soldiers catch them and kill the baby before they can escape to Egypt?
Intrigue: Who is this baby's father, anyhow?
Irony: If only those innkeepers knew whom they were turning away!
Best of all, the hero of the story is a child.
And not just any child, either. He's a true hero - wise, strong, loving and self-sacrificing.
Over the years, we've done our best to ruin Christmas. We've commercialized it, politicized it and smothered it with kitsch, including a talking snowman, a mutant reindeer and an overweight elf.
But try as we might, the true message of the still manages to shine through, despite everything.
You can see it in the families who spend part of their Christmas day working in a soup kitchen.
And the volunteers who build homes for the homeless.
And the kind souls who take time out of their Christmas celebrations to feed feral cats who otherwise would go hungry.
And the Meals on Wheels volunteers who bring food - and some human contact - to people who are imprisoned in their own homes by illness or infirmity.
And the cops, firefighters, PG&E linemen, doctors, nurses and paramedics who give up their Christmases to work that day to protect the rest of us.
Christians would call this generosity proof of the power of the Holy Spirit, and who am I to say differently?
This hasn't been the easiest of Christmas seasons. The recession keeps dragging on, and people are still hurting.
At the same time, donations to local charities and food banks are down. Many organizations that help the most vulnerable among us are in serious danger of going under.
It's not that people are ungenerous. It's just that we're all so hard-pressed, we feel obligated to look after our own families before we can think about helping anyone else.
And yet we must help them, because there's no one else. There's something worse than not having the latest flat-screen TV; namely, knowing that your neighbor is suffering when you could have prevented it.
And make no mistake: The poor ARE our neighbors. There's a mean spirit abroad in the land, with some people blaming the poor for their own plight.
But I'd rather listen to the man whose birthday we're celebrating this weekend. He said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me."
So even though we're all feeling the pinch, let's remember that there's always someone out there who is hurting even worse. We truly are our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Eat At Larry's

Yes, Virginia, there really was a Larry Blake.
The legendary restaurant owner died in 1992, but his fun-loving spirit still rules the eponymous Berkeley eatery that bears his name.
Larry sold it to one of his old waiters, Harry Kealey, in 1978. And although the name was changed in 2002 from Larry Blake's to Blakes On Telegraph, Larry would have no trouble recognizing it.
He founded the place in 1940, financed by $700 he won in a high-stakes poker game from a gambler named Porterhouse Pete - so called because he could devour two 2-lb. porterhouse steaks in a sitting.
Porterhouse Pete became one of Larry's best customers, always ordering the same thing: the 20-oz. "He-Man Steak" ("It takes a man to carry it in, and it takes a man to carry it out," read the menu); two baked potatoes with bacon, sour cream and chives; a double order of salad; a loaf of bread with plenty of butter; three slices of apple pie a la mode; and a pitcher of iced tea sweetened with saccharine because, as he explained, "I'm trying to lose weight."
But Larry's most loyal customers were the generations of Cal students who made his joint their home away from home.
Many were jocks, from Jackie Jensen to Joe Kapp, who held their training tables at Larry Blake's for decades until the cafeteria at Haas Pavilion opened in 1999.
Others were counter-cultural icons such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin - both lousy tippers, by the way - and Timothy Leary, who spent the entire meal asking for antacids.
Larry was a character, even by Berkeley standards. As a publicity stunt during the 1949 Big Game, he hired a real-life Arab sheik - who was a grad student at Cal at the time - to ride a circus elephant across the Bay Bridge holding a huge sign reading, "I'm going to Larry Blake's for a good steak!"
Back then, a Blakeburger cost $1.25. Today, it'll set you back $5.49. It's called a Blakes Burger now; and, as a concession to changing tastes, it's made from hormone-free Niman Ranch beef.
But the famous Blake's salad dressing is unchanged from the secret recipe Larry invented during World War II, when he was a cook in the U.S. Army.
That secret has been divulged only once: back in the 1950s, when the wife of a local Mafia boss requested the recipe.
"I said no as nicely as I could," Larry told me years later. "Then her husband came to see me and said, 'Suppose I give you this for the recipe?' and handed me a C-note.
"That was a lot of dough in those days, but I refused. So he said, 'Suppose I gave you this?' and offered me two C-notes.
"But I still refused, so he pulled open his jacket to reveal a huge pistol stuck in his waistband and said, 'How about if I give you THIS?' I gave him the recipe."
A few things have changed over the years. For instance, the sawdust on the Rathskeller floor was removed in the 1980s when they installed new sound equipment for the live music acts.
But in every important way, it's still the same old Larry Blake's. Happy 70th anniversary, and may it prosper for another 70 years!

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Spirit of Christmas Past

Ten years ago, the people of El Cerrito confronted a crisis. Sundar Shadi, the man who created the city's most beloved Holiday tradition, was forced by age and failing eyesight to call it quits.
The tradition started in 1949, when Mr. Shadi's neighbors awoke one morning to find a single star in his front yard. It was his way of wishing them a merry Christmas, even though he wasn't a Christian himself.
Every year after that he kept adding shepherds, wise men, angels, camels goats, sheep, doves, spires stars, minarets and domes - all lovingly handmade by Mr. Shadi from papier-mâché and chicken wire and painted by hand.
The display kept growing until it finally numbered more than 150 figures, depicting the town of Bethlehem.
But there were no statues of Jesus, Mary or Joseph. Mr. Shadi was a Sikh, and he came to this country from India to escape religious persecution from both Hindus and Muslims. So he purposely kept the display non-denominational.
The people of El Cerrito quickly took Mr. Shadi and his creation to their hearts.
"To many people around here, Mr. Shadi WAS Christmas," says former Mayor Jane Bartke.
And his fame spread far beyond the city limits. Tour busses used to line up, bringing visitors from as far away as Sacramento and San Jose - more than 70,000 every Christamas time.
Mr. Shadi died in 2002 at age 101. But despite the sadness, something wonderful happened that showed why El Cerrito is such a special place.
From its beginning, El Cerrito has struggled uphill. I mean, how you like to have a busy thoroughfare like San Pablo Avenue as your main street, effectively slicing your town in half?
But despite this, I know no other city that can match El Cerrito's down-home, small-town flavor. It may be in the shadow of bigger cities like Berkeley and Oakland, but its people love it dearly.
So it was no surprise that when Mr. Shadi died, they refused to let his legacy die with him
Under Bartke's leadership, the El Cerrito Soroptomist Club took over the sculptures - with the blessing of the Shadi family - and restored them to their former glory.
In 2003 the Shadi sculptures made a triumphant return, and they've been brightening our Holidays ever since. This year they'll be on display at the corner of Moeser and Seaview every day until 10 p.m. from Dec. 18 to 27.
It's been a true community effort, with individual volunteers joining forces with local businesses; PG&E, which provides the land; and Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230, who, working on their own time, haul the sculptures up the hill every year and return them to storage when Christmas is over.
But now the Shadi sculptures face a new crisis.
"We're getting too old to do this much longer," says Bartke, who is 72. "We need to start training the next generation to take over from us. If we don't get someone to step up, this tradition is going to die."
It's up to you, El Cerritans. The Shadi sculptures have been an important part of our Christmases since we were little kids. Are we going to deny our own children and grandchildren the same experience?
E-mail shadidisplay@aol.com if you want to volunteer.
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa,
"Last year I asked for a pony. I did not get a pony. Do you know what I got? Do you? Guess! Guess!
"When I say pony, I mean REAL! Do you know the meaning of this word?
"Well, just letting you know that I am a very upset individual. I hope you do better this year!
"With hope and dreams, Emily."

"Dear Santa, Thank you for all the stuff you gave me last year! How did you find the American Girl Chrisa swimsuit? I love it! You rock! Love, Camille."

"My name is Octavio and I am 10 years old. My brother Emilio is 9 years old and Danny is 3. My mom is very sick, so we won't be able to celebrate Christmas this year. My brother Emilio and I are disabled. Danny is OK. I like Transformer toys, and Emilio and Danny like remote control cars. Please Santa come to visit us. And make my mommy well."

Once again, thousands of letters like these are pouring into the downtown Oakland Post Office from children all over Northern California. Some are heartwarming, some are heartrending, and some are simply hilarious.
And once again, the post office is inviting the public to become Santa's helpers for a day and answer some of these missives.
"You don't necessarily have to send a present," says Consumer Affairs Director Elma Ramirez, who founded the Santa's Mailbag project 24 years ago. "Sometimes they're happy just hearing from someone who cares."
On the other hand, if you are moved to send a present, nobody's going to stop you.
To become a Santa's helper, call the Santa hotline at 510-622-7420 and leave your number. They'll call you back and sign you up.
In the meantime, here are this year's batch of letters. As always, the kids never fail to surprise:

"Dear Santa, What do you do after Christmas? My mom thinks you go to Hawaii. How is Mrs. Claus? I was surprised when I saw the golf clubs. I wanted them, but I didn't tell anyone. How do you know that stuff? Love, Caroline. P.S. Tell Comet I said hi. He's my favorite."

"Dear Santa, How are you? How is Mrs. Claus? Did you have a good summer? I did, and now I'm in the 6th grade. I just got my first report card, and you know what I did? My GPA was 3.75, and my report card showed my rad skills. I got 6 As and 2 Bs, so I did awesome! Your friend, Silas. P.S. I will never stop believing in you."

"Dear Santa, I was good because I didn't use bad words. Love, Ritwick."

"Dear Mr. Santa Claus, I have been nice sometimes. I was nice after school today, and I was nice last Thursday. Love, Jennifer."

"Dear Santa, I think I've been a good girl. But I can be rude or mean, so please forgive me. For Christmas I want my family to be happy. Sincerely, Madi-Moo (Madison)."

"Dear Santa, My grandma says I've been good, but my auntie says I've been bad. You be the judge. Signed, Richard."

"Dear Santa, I hope all is well at the North Pole. How are the reindeer doing? I'd really like a horse trailer with a red truck and tons of horses for Christmas. I'd also like to say happy birthday to Jesus. Love, Luke."

"Dear Santa, I have some good news and bad news. I'm sure you already know, but it would be nice to tell you. My mom and brother and I have to move, and we have no idea where we are going. All the money Mom made waitressing she spent on socks and toothbrushes and stuff for us. She is really doing bad this year, so I am asking you for stuff for her. Anything will do. I know she will be so happy. Thank you, Santa. I know you know everything because you are Santa. I know God will help us as well. Love, Jaida."

"Dear Santa, I really like your Macy's store. It's big and full of good stuff. Thanks, Anna."

"Dear Santa, I need supplies for school because I am constantly running out of pencils and paper because my dog, Choco, keeps chewing them. Sincerely, Jose."

"Dear Santa, My name is Choco, and I am a Chihuahua. I really need a chew toy that squeaks because all the toys I have are ripped because I keep chewing them. My owner, Jose, gives me his socks to chew but I really don't like them. Sincerely, Choco."

"Dear Santa Claus, My name is Ashley and my twin brother's name is Chris. We are both 9 years old. My mom is disabled due to spine surgery in 2002, and my dad is 80% disabled due to an injury at work in 2009. We are barely making it with only my dad's disability check two times a month. One check is always for the rent and the other is for food and bills. So maybe you can bring me and my brother some gifts this year. I would like some books to read, and my brother would like a Nintendo game. Thank you very much, Ashley."

"Dear Santa, I know this is a little silly, but may I have a gift card from Abercrombie or Hollister? I've been trying hard to be an extra good girl, but sometimes I am naughty, I have to admit. But I will be fantastic next year! Love, Juliette. P.S. Thanks for the card last year."

"Dear Santa, Hello, my name is Neylan. I wish there were peace in the world. I don't like violence."

"Dear Santa, What kind of cookies do you like? I like chocolate chip, don't you? Hey, why don't you send me back a letter? Then you can put questions and answers on it! Isn't that a great idea? See? See? See what I mean? Man, please? Oh, never mind. My wish list is on the back. Sincerely, Nicole."

"Dear Santa, This year I would like a last generation iPod Nano and a $50 gift certificate to iTunes. If you can't get it I'll understand; but could you, like, try hard? Sincerely, Connor."

"Dear Santa Claus, All I want for Christmas is a Meyer lemon and a plasma screen TV. Love, Brynli."

"Dear Santa, Can you please bring me some warm clothes? You know how much it has been raining and how cold it gets here. Santa, I will be waiting for you and your helpers. Please don't forget about me. Sincerely, Zaira."

"Dear Santa, The North Pole is very cold. If you need help with any toys, come get me. Love, Olivia."

"Dear Santa, My family is a family of six. This year has been a rough year, and we might lose our house. So I don't want something for me this Christmas, I want something, even if it's a small thing, for my whole family. Merry Christmas, Priscilla."

"Dear Santa, I am in the 2nd grade. I do my homework, I help my mom, I'm nice to my family. Thank you for reading my letter. Love, Carlos."

"Dear Santa, I am eleven years old. Some people I meet say you aren't real, but I still believe in you. Please write back Santa. Sincerely, Alysia."

"Dear Santa Claws, I would like my two front teeth and other gifts. Sincerely, Lydia."

"Dear Santa, Thank you for being there watching over us all year. My sister and I are trying to get along as best as possible. I will try to be a better boy until you come see us on Christmas, I will leave you some cookies and milk. Love you, John."

"Hello Santa. I have a question for you. Do you celebrate any other holiday besides Christmas? Please write back. From Christopher."

"Dear Santa Claus, I've done good things. I helped my friends from mean kids. I also got As and Bs. You are the greatest man in the worrrrrrrrrrrld! Love, Geronimo."

"Dear Santa, For Christmas I would like an i-Carly video set, a big ring for my mom, and some money for the Humane Society." (Unsigned.)

"Dear Santa, what would YOU like for a present? Love, Maggie."

"Dear Santa, This year I don't really want anything. I feel so lucky that I have a roof over my head, food and water, and so many great family and friends to talk to.
"I lied - there is one thing I would love. It would be so nice if you could give something extra to families less fortunate than others. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Hattie."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Toy Story

Every town should have a toy store like Mr. Mopps'.
You know what I mean: an old-fashioned mom & pop store with friendly vibes, nooks and crannies to explore, and aisle after aisle piled from floor to ceiling with wonderful toys of all shapes, sizes and prices.
Since 1962, Mr. Mopps' has been a veritable Mecca for the children of Berkeley. Generation after generation have grown up and brought their own children - and now their grandchildren - to Mr. Mopps'.
So when word spread last April that longtime owner Eugene Yamashita was planning to retire and close Mr. Mopps', the whole city went into mourning.
But I have great news: Mr. Mopps' isn't closing after all. At the last second, somebody stepped forward to buy the store.
"Well, almost exactly," says new owner Devin McDonald, who bought the place with his girlfriend, Jenny Stevenson. "We'll still have swords and laser blasters, but that's about it as far as military stuff. No more cap guns or realistic-looking weaponry."
On the other hand, they'll keep stocking a few Barbie Dolls, much to Jenny's discomfort.
"We were torn about it because of what they say about body image," she says. "But our rep really twisted our arm."
Owning Mr. Mopps' has been a lifelong dream for Devin, who grew up in Berkeley. (His father is singer/songwriter and antiwar/veterans' rights activist Country Joe McDonald.)
Devin has been a loyal Mr. Mopps' customer since he was a toddler, when his grandmother, the late City Councilwoman Florence McDonald, took him there and bought him his favorite teddy bear, Mr. Choo-Choo.
(Incidentally, Mr. Choo-Choo is still with us, albeit a little worse for wear, resting in a place of honor in Devin and Jenny's living room.)
In a related story, one longtime customer, Gabriella Raymond, is spearheading a campaign to refurbish the huge Mr. Mopps' Lion, who has kept watch from his special window on Martin Luther King Way for more than 30 years.
"He's getting awfully mangy, and his head doesn't turn to greet you as you walk by anymore," she says.
You can contribute by visiting the "Fans Of The Mr. Mopps' Lion" page on Facebook or by dropping a few coins in the lion-shaped piggy bank on the counter in the store.
Ever since word got out that Mr. Mopps' isn't going to close after all, the tears have turned to cheers.
"We get hugged by strangers and thanked every day," says Jenny. "People come in all choked up, thinking they're going to be shopping here for the last time, and then their faces light up when they find out it isn't true."
Mr. Mopps' will be open through the Holiday season, then will close for a few days while Devin and Jenny brighten it up with a new paint job and get rid of decades of dust.
"I wouldn't have sold it to anyone but them," says Yamashita. "I was prepared to shut it down, but I saw this young couple who really understand what it's all about and want to continue the tradition. I hope they can do better than I did."
That's a tall order because he did it to perfection. But I think Devin and Jenny are up to the job.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dear Santa

The Holidays are almost here, which means it's almost time for me to write my favorite story of the year - the annual "Kids' Christmas Letters to Santa Claus."
The story will run in a couple of weeks, but I wanted to give you a head's up so you'll be on the lookout for it, and also because the Oakland Post Office's consumer affairs director, Elma Ramirez, who founded the Santa letters project 24 years ago, needs volunteers this year more than ever.
But they don't make it easy for you. Last year, the Postal Service instituted some new rules to protect the children's privacy. No kids have ever been harmed because of this project, and they want to keep it that way.
In the old days, all you had to do was call Ramirez, and she'd send you as many letters as you wanted.
But now you have to show up in person at the main post office at 2091 13th Street in downtown Oakland (corner of 13th and Alice), Room 226, so they can check your I.D. as a security precaution.
Then they'll give you letters with the kids' contact information redacted, which means if you write back or buy any presents, you'll have to bring them back to the post office to be mailed.
It's a hassle, but it has to be done. A sad commentary on the times we live in.
"But there's been one unexpected upside," says Ramirez. "Before last year, we never got to meet any of our volunteers. It wasn't until they started bringing the presents here that we realized just how generous they were. They showed up with bicycles, hundreds of dollars worth of gifts, and so many toys! And they were high end toys, too!"
And that's the final reason why I'm writing this column: Ramirez asked me to thank you all on her behalf.
In addition to letter writers, she also needs some people to help her staff sort the letters, which are already piling up in her office.
The letters will be separated into two stacks - needy and non-needy. And the kids never lose their capacity to surprise. One year, a little girl wrote, "Dear Santa, Do you know Jesus? Are you friends? Please tell him I said hi."
And a little boy wrote, "Dear Santa, I'm Jewish and I know I shouldn't believe in you, but I can't help it."
And, of course, there's always a wiseacre who writes, "Dear Santa, Can you please make my little brother go away?"
But overwhelming majority of letters aren't funny at all. They're from desperately poor children who are facing another bleak Holiday season. Some have never had a Christmas present in their lives.
What really breaks your heart is when they say, "Santa, you don't have to give me anything, but could you please bring something for my little sister?"
And you'd be stunned by the number of kids who ask Santa to find Mom or Dad a job.
So if you can help sort letters, or buy a present for a needy child, or answer a letter from a non-needy child, please call Ramirez at 510-622-7420 and leave your phone number. It'll be the best Christmas present you ever gave yourself.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

It Ain't Necessarily So

(Above: Oakland's newest council member, Libby Schaaf)

What will the historians of the future say when they write about the Great Shellacking of 2010?
Conservatives will say it was a voter revolt against big government and big spending.
Liberals will say it was an outbreak of mass hysteria stoked by cynical politicians who knew how to manipulate people's fears and prejudices.
And those in the middle will say, "It was the economy, stupid."
All three will have a kernel of truth. But it's equally true that the Democrats still might have pulled it out, despite everything, if John O'Connor hadn't been diagnosed with Alzheimer's 25 years ago.
By 2005 his condition had deteriorated to the point where his wife Sandra decided she had to give up her job to take care of him.
Her job was Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; and that seat was filled by Sam Alito, who turned out to be the critical fifth vote in Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates of corporate money and decisively tipped the playing field in favor of the Republicans.
As the old proverb puts it, "For want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost; for want of the horseshoe, the rider was lost; for want of the rider, the battle was lost - all for the want of a nail."
One of the biggest mistakes we make about history is to assume everything was inevitable. It wasn't.
What if St. Paul hadn't survived that shipwreck off the Maltese coast? Would Christianity still have become the world's dominant religion?
What if Robert E. Lee's Special Order No. 191, describing his plans and troop dispositions in detail, hadn't accidentally fallen into the hands of Union soldiers before the battle of Antietam? Would the North still have won the Civil War?
History is full of such what-might-have-beens. The moral, which we keep ignoring all the time, is that nothing is predetermined.
Yes, large overarching historical trends are important. But so are the choices that individuals make. Our actions do make a difference.
To paraphrase Shakespeare: The power is not in our stars, it's in ourselves - for better or worse.
And to paraphrase Scoop Nisker: if you don't like history, go out and make some of your own.
Meanwhile, I was glad to see that Libby Schaaf won the race for Oakland City Council from District 4.
She has a resume as long as your arm, including working as a top aide for once-and-future Governor Jerry Brown. But I remember her as that adorable little girl who was Raggedy Ann at Children's Fairyland in 1976.
The Raggedy Andy was her BFF Leslie Zimmerman, who, years later, was the maid of honor at her wedding. (They were seriously tempted to wear their big red yarn wigs at the ceremony, but they finally decided against it.)
Libby has always given Fairyland the credit for launching her political career.
"It taught me how to speak in front of large groups and to be responsible for the commitments I make," she told me. "But most of all, it taught me to be kind."
Congratulations Libby. Here's hoping you and your generation take over and kick us old folks out of power as soon as possible. I know you'll do a better job than we did.
You could hardly do worse.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Best Boss Ever

(Above: Admiral Clark in his dress uniform.)

A good boss is worth his/her weight in gold.
And the best boss I've ever heard of was Admiral J.J. Clark, who commanded Task Force 58 in the South Pacific during World War II. His flagship was the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, which is now a floating museum docked at Alameda Point.
He was the ideal leader, a guy you would follow anywhere, and he was a second father to every man on the ship.
He didn't stand on ceremony. Everyone down to the lowliest sailor called him by his nickname, "Jocko." And they adored him.
"There was nothing we wouldn't do for the Old Man," said Frank MacDonald of Oakland, "because there was nothing he wouldn't do for us."
There are so many classic Jocko stories, I hardly know where to begin. Like the time a young sailor swung open a door that Jocko was standing behind and knocked the admiral flat on his kiester. A lieutenant commander grabbed the kid and started screaming at him.
"The next thing I saw was a gigantic hand as it reached over and placed itself on the shoulder of the still shouting lieutenant commander," the sailor recalled. "In a loud voice, I heard Admiral Clark say, 'Go back to your work station and leave this boy alone! I was just standing in the wrong place!'"
Or the time another young sailor fell asleep while on watch - a hanging offense in wartime - only to be awakened by a gentle tugging on his arm. Standing over him was Jocko, murmuring, "Boy, boy, boy. You know you're not supposed to sleep on watch."
The kid spent the next few days in abject terror, expecting to be arrested at any moment. But nothing happened. Jocko hadn't even put him on report.
But my favorite Jocko story is the time a typhoon caved in the Hornet's bow, making it impossible to launch planes the normal way, off the front. Jocko simply turned the shop around and sailed backwards at full speed, launching the planes from the rear.
"The guys on the other ships must have thought the Old Man had finally lost his marbles," said MacDonald.
Jocko was unique in so many ways. He overcame prejudice to become the first Native American to graduate from Annapolis. And, since many of his battles were fought at night, he slept on a cot on the bridge so he could spring into action at a moment's notice.
It was a common sight to see him directing the battle wearing his polka-dot pajamas and fuzzy slippers - but with his admiral's hat firmly clamped on his head.
Next Friday would have been Jocko's 117th birthday. He died in 1971 and was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
But his real monument is the Hornet itself. Stepping onto the ship is like stepping back into history. So many things - the radar room, where they tracked incoming enemy planes; the ready room, where the pilots got their final briefings before battle; the mess hall; the living quarters - are in perfect working order. This isn't an amusement park ride. This is the real deal.
If you're looking for a good way to observe Veterans Day next week, I can't think of a better place to do it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cal's Greatest Generation

(Above: G.I.s hit the beach on D-Day)

Rosamond Castle '43 remembers Dec. 7, 1941, like it was yesterday.
"I was walking through Sather Gate toward Wheeler Hall, and I saw people huddling around, staring at newspapers. By the time I got to Doe Library I heard something about Pearl Harbor. Then inside the library everyone was talking about what had happened."
The news was so incredible, Catherine "Cappy" Vail Bridge '42 didn't believe it at first.
"I thought it was a hoax, like Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds' broadcast a few years before."
So began America's entry into World War II, which ended 65 years ago this summer. To celebrate the end of that terrible war, we talked with some of the Golden Bears who lived through it.
The days after Pearl Harbor were a mix of uncertainty and fear.
"It was the middle of finals," says Jean Heying Rusmore '42. "We didn't have blackout curtains yet, so we couldn't study in our rooms because you couldn't have any light showing outside. So we sat on the floor in the hallways and studied there, instead."
"The great fear was for the young men of our class," adds Rosamond. "The young man I was dating invited me to the Class of '42 graduation ball at the Palace Hotel, even though we were both Class of '43, because he knew he probably wouldn't make it to our real graduation in 1943. And he was not alone."
It didn't take long for tragedy to strike home. In April 1942, Ed Tackle '41, who had been editor of the Daily Cal, was killed on the infamous Bataan Death March.
Four months later, Rosamond's beloved older brother, Gordon Craig, was killed off Guadalcanal when an enemy bomb blew apart the bridge of his ship, right were he was stationed.
"My last image of him was the day he went away, when he turned and saluted me and my mother at the door," she says. "I still miss him every day."
Jean Marchant '45 adds, "Our class had a flag made, and we hung it from the Campanile. Every time we got word that someone from Cal had been killed, we added another star."
A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, tragedy struck the campus in a different way.
"One day, my best friend, Grace Imamoto, who was also Class of '42, asked me if I would keep her tennis racket for her," says Jean Heying Rusmore '42. "I didn't know what she was talking about. I said, 'Grace, don't you like to play tennis anymore?' And she said, 'Jean, I have to go away.'"
Grace and all the other Japanese-American students were sent to detention camps for the duration of the war.
"We wanted to help them," says Clavel Fender '43. "The day before they were taken away, we held a tea party for them, with everyone dressed in pastel evening gowns. How innocent we were!"
As the men went off to war, the women threw themselves into supporting the home front.
"We would pick tomatoes or wrap bandages or make Bundles for Britain," says Jean Marchant '42. "Whatever we could do to help."
"There was such a shortage of men on campus, many of us sorority girls used to go to the USO in downtown Berkeley," adds Gwyneth Caster Page '45. "I asked a Marine captain to escort me to the senior ball. I went out and bought a beautiful black taffeta-and-lace formal and little pearl earrings. I thought I looked very chic. The doorbell rang, and there was my date in full dress Marine uniform. He was prettier than I was!"
Many of the younger faculty also went off to war, which meant the remaining undergrads had the cream of the crop as their professors.
"We had all the big guns," says Margaret Cooney Walton '47. "Glenn Seaborg was my section leader in chem!"
Army Capt. Charlie Fender '41 and his wife, Clavel '43, wrote each other every single day of the war, without fail. Whenever his outfit liberated a new city, Charlie would buy a little charm and send it to Clavel, who put them all on a bracelet that remains her most treasured possession.
Charlie was the military governor of the devastated town of Cerignola, Italy, where he rebuilt the social infrastructure from the ground up, establishing a new judicial system, schools, food supplies, and fire and police protection.
"Every day was a lot of fun because I was being useful," he says. And the locals really appreciated it.
"Twenty-seven years later he took me back," says Clavel. "When we checked into the hotel, the man behind the desk took one look at Charlie and said, "I remember you!" He whisked us to the city hall and shouted to the chief of police, 'Get out of that chair! The governor's here!' You can imagine how that impressed me."
Gordon Binder '40 was an Army field surgeon in Europe, operating under enemy fire only a few hundred yards behind the front lines.
"We didn't have an operating room, not even a tent. Just a field somewhere where we'd put up a sign saying, 'Battalion Aid Station.' We'd just park there and receive the casualties."
Many of the casualties were beyond saving. The best he could do was shoot them full of morphine to ease their agony.
"Nobody can imagine how awful it was. It was just horrible. You assumed you weren't going to make it. You knew you were going to get killed. It was just a question of when."
Bob Breuer '43 served on the U.S.S. Wichita, a heavy cruiser in the Pacific. At 22, he was the old man of the group of 18 and 19 year olds whom he supervised.
"We were like family, and I was their uncle. One day, two of them were killed and several others badly wounded by friendly fire from one of our own ships. I just sat down and cried like a baby."
Chuck Auerbach '42 fought with Patton's Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge.
"Some of the things George C. Scott said in the movie I heard Patton say in real life. Unlike Scott, his voice was high and squeaky, but the pearl-handled revolvers were real. He'd race around in a jeep with a machine gun mounted on it, and he really tore down the road. I said to one of my buddies, 'That man's going to die in an automobile accident,' which is exactly what happened."
Not all the heroes were men. Catherine "Cappy" Bridge '42 was a member of the Women Air Service Pilots, or WASPs. Their job was to ferry fighters and bombers from the factory to the airfields, freeing up male pilots for the actual fighting.
"Gosh, it was fun! We just loved it. But it was still dangerous. Thirty-eight of our girls were killed on the job - mostly accidents, not pilot error. One of us would take the body home to her parents, and we would pass the hat among ourselves to cover the expenses."
There weren't many happy days in the war, but one of them was Aug. 25, 1944, the day Paris was liberated.
We've all seen the pictures of ecstatic Parisians swarming over the American tanks, showering the G.I.s with flowers and kisses.
One of the people in that crowd was Tito Moruza '43, who had already been in Paris for three weeks, waiting for the troops to arrive. Tito was an American special agent on a secret mission: As soon as the city was liberated, he was to make his way to Gestapo headquarters and seize all the documents so they could be used in war crimes trials after the war. Which he did.
Tito had landed in France on the morning of D-Day with the 82nd Airborne. Their canvas-and-plywood glider was ripped open by one of "Rommel's Asparagus" - wooden logs driven into fields along the Normandy coast. The three soldiers sitting next to Tito were mortally wounded.
"The youngest, who was only 18, cried for his mama. The second called for the medics, and the third cussed. That was when I lost my religion. I still haven't gotten it back."
While the others were fighting, Tito's job was to contact the French Resistance so they could smuggle him into Paris. He narrowly escaped capture several times, thanks to a heroic couple named Paul and Marcelle Dufour, who operated a safe house for Resistance fighters and escaping American prisoners of war. After the war, he named his first two children after them.
To this day, Tito refuses to watch a war movie. But he does have one happy memory of the war.
"My greatest blessing was that I never had to kill anybody. I'm not belittling those who did; that was their job. I was just lucky."
The war finally ended on Aug. 14, 1945. Jay Jacobus '43 heard the news as his ship was headed from San Francisco to the Pacific for the expected invasion of Japan.
"We all shouted, 'Turn the ship around!' So the ship made a left turn and headed for the Philippines, instead."
Gwyneth Page Caster '45 heard the news when she was in Cowell Hospital with a raging case of mono.
"Somebody sneaked me a bottle of something alcoholic to celebrate," she says. "It made me sick as a dog."
They have been called The Greatest Generation, a term that makes them distinctly uncomfortable.
"It bothers me a lot," says Dave Stewart '43. "I'm no hero. I just did my duty, like thousands of others. The real heroes are the guys who didn't come back."
Dave is being modest. He was awarded the Bronze Star, two combat medals and two Purple Hearts, the second for wounds suffered when he was hit by a German Panzerfaust anti-tank grenade.
"But I still have all my body parts," he says. "So I got out of it lucky."
But the last word belongs to Tom Mulcahy '43, who served on a Navy tanker in the Pacific.
"My two best friends were killed in the war," he says. "One was my best friend from high school, Danny Hurst. The other was Norm Hennessey, whom I rowed with on the Cal crew. I had a chance to get married to the greatest girl in the world, have kids and grandkids, and have a full life. They didn't."

(This story originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of California magazine.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Least Of My Brothers and Sisters

(Above: Saint Vincent de Paul)

Every neighborhood should have someone like Bob.
(That's not his real name. I changed it to protect his family's privacy.)
He was one of those guys who know everyone on the block. Parents felt safe letting their kids play outside because they knew Bob would be keeping a watchful eye on them.
But one day he was killed by a stray bullet meant for someone who was running past him on the street. He was just an innocent bystander.
His family was devastated. And, since this was a high-crime area, they kept getting traumatized all over again every time they heard a gunshot, which was almost every day.
The obvious solution was to move, but there was a problem: Bob had been devoted to his dog, a pit bull. And his family couldn't bear to give the pooch away; it was their last link to him. But there aren't many landlords willing to rent to someone with a pit bull.
But Deb Collett, a case supervisor at Catholic Charities of the East Bay, wouldn't give up. She searched and searched and finally found a willing landlord in another city nearby.
They had to leave the kids' swing set and sandbox behind when they moved. So Catholic Charities provided the money to buy another swing set, and Collett personally built a sandbox in their new backyard.
"We finally have a home where we feel safe," said Bob's son.
That's just one of thousands of families and individuals whom Catholic Charities helps every year. Whether you're a low-income patient with AIDS, a working person who needs help getting a tax refund, or a recently arrived immigrant from Cambodia in desperate need of food, clothing and shelter, Catholic Charities is often your last, best hope.
And you don't have to be Catholic. They just want to help, no matter who you are.
Catholic Charities of the East Bay has been doing this since it was founded in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression.
The organization will celebrate its 75th anniversary on Nov. 6 with a gala fundraiser at the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in Danville. (Call 510-768-3138 to make your reservation.)
Even if you can't attend, you can still contribute by visiting www.cceb.org or sending a check to 433 Jefferson Street, Oakland, CA 94607. (Catholic Charities also gets major funding from Oakland's Measure Y.)
But the heart and soul of Catholic Charities is its volunteers, and you don't need big bucks to do that. Just call 510-768-3121 to sign up.
Get creative, like Dorothy Buckley of Oakland. Back in 1986 she decided to tackle an obvious problem: Some kids never get a Christmas present because their families are so poor.
She started buying toys at sales during the rest of the year to distribute at Christmas time. She named the project "Joybells," and her motto was "Every time you give a child a present, you ring a bell in heaven."
Buckley died in 2008, but Joybells is going stronger than ever, with more than 20 volunteers carrying on in her spirit. For 23 Christmases, they have collected tens of thousands of toys for needy children in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
They haven't forgotten Jesus' admonition: "As you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me." And neither should we.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


(Above: Joe Kapp back in the day)

Fifty-one years ago, Cal went to the Rose Bowl. And it hasn't been back since.
But some die-hards haven't given up hope - the guys who last did it.
Two weeks ago, that great 1958 team held a reunion at running back Bill Patton's home in Lafayette, and I was privileged to join them.
1958 was a different time, and Berkeley was a very different place.
"The most revolutionary thing that happened was that a non-frat man was elected student body president," said guard Pete Domoto. "That was considered radical back then."
The whole town was football crazy. There were huge parades down Shattuck Avenue featuring the Football Festival Queen and her princesses in formal gowns riding on floats.
On Saturday mornings, geology professor Norman Hinds led his class in football cheers. And before every Big Game, chemistry professor Joel Hildebrand delighted his class by magically transforming a red liquid into blue and gold.
Frequent sideline visitors included Chief Justice Earl Warren, who played clarinet in the Cal Marching Band during his college days (Robert Gordon Sproul was the drum major), and Chancellor Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who bragged that his name was an anagram for "Go Bears."
"And he was in our locker room after every game, win or lose," said Domoto. "I can't tell you how important that was to us. To be sitting in front of my locker, feeling sorry for myself because we got beat, and have the chancellor come in and talk to me personally for five or ten minutes - it was the greatest experience of my college life."
But there were inklings of things to come in the '60s when the team arrived in Austin to play Texas. The hotel manager told them the white guys could stay, but the black guys had to go.
"Coach (Pete) Elliot turned us around, and we all stayed together somewhere else," said tight end Tom Bates, who still holds the school record for most fumble recoveries and currently serves as Berkeley's mayor.
And that unity was - and is - the secret of their success.
"There's nothing anyone in this group wouldn't do for me, and vice versa," said end Bob Duey, whose identical twin, Dick, played fullback and linebacker. " When my brother died two years ago, all these guys were there for me."
It also helped that the best athlete on the team was also a charismatic leader who wouldn't let them quit - quarterback Joe Kapp.
Kapp, who went on to a stellar career in the NFL and later became the coach who broke Stanford's hearts in 1982 with "The Play," has reinvented himself once again - this time, as a winemaker.
His new vintage, "The Play" Cabernet, is a fundraiser for his charity, the What Do You Want To Be Foundation, which supports grassroots organizations that help kids stay away from gangs and drugs. The wine is currently available at Lunardi's markets. For details, visit his website, joekapp.com/)
Now, cabernet isn't the first beverage that comes to mind when you think of Joe Kapp, but tequila is out - at least for now.
"I swore in 1982 that I would never drink another drop of tequila until Cal goes back to the Rose Bowl," he said. "And I never have."
Memo to Jeff Tedford: Next year in Pasadena, OK? This man has suffered long enough.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

How To Get A Butterfly Drunk

It seemed as if everyone in Berkeley was celebrating last weekend's annual Homecoming at Cal - even the homeless people. On Saturday morning, I spotted a homeless man sitting on the curb at Bancroft and Telegraph, holding a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read, "Go Bears!"
Meanwhile, Sal Levinson, the UC Botanical Garden's "Caterpillar Lady," was leading a group of insect enthusiasts searching for drunken butterflies.
"Butterflies don't drink only nectar; they drink all kinds of stuff, including fruit that falls to the ground and starts fermenting," she explains. "And when that happens, they get tipsy and have problems flying."
You can see it for yourself in your own backyard.
"Just buy 10 pounds of grapes, take them home and stomp them," says Levinson, who calls caterpillars "the perfect pet."
"They're so cheap and so fascinating and so much fun. But the best part is that you never have to watch them die. You raise them, see the butterflies emerge, watch them fly away, and that's it. There are never any tears."
The Caterpillar Lady will lead her last butterfly walk of the season at the UC Botanical Garden on Oct. 26. For more information, visit berkeleybutterflyblog@blogspot.com/
Finally, I don't know what you're going to be doing on New Year's Day, but I know where Amit Pande of Dublin will be: He'll be riding an auto-rickshaw (basically, a rickshaw with a lawn mower motor) on a 3,000-mile trip across India to raise money and awareness to help solve the lack of access to clean water for millions of people in developing nations.
"More people in India have access to cell phones than have access to toilets," says Amit, who graduated from Cal last June.
Amit plans to stay off the beaten path and avoid the usual tourist destinations, camping out along the way or asking locals to put them up for the night.
"What would you rather tell your children? 'I took a tour bus to the Taj Mahal?' Or 'I remember the time my rickshaw broke down in the Thar Desert on our way to Mt. Abu, and we had to ride into the nearest town on our camel to get the parts to fix our vehicle?'"
The Rickshaw Run is hosted by a British adventure travel company called the Adventurists, whose philosophy is "fighting to make the world less boring." The goal is to raise money through online pledges for Frank Water, a charity that funds sustainable clean water projects in developing countries. Amit says more than 4,000 children die every day from water-borne diseases.
Each team is trying to raise $1,000 British pounds in pledges. If you'd like to contribute to Amit's team, visit www.bit.ly/dreamteamsupreme/
For Amit, whose parents grew up in India, this also will be a voyage of self-discovery.
"When I was a kid we used to go to India every two years, and I hated it - spending summer away from your friends, relatives pinching your cheeks, being covered with bug bites. having to eat Indian food.
"But now, as I continue to study and grow as a person, I feel an increasing pull to my roots. I want to see how my parents grew up and, more generally, I want to see how India is transforming into a global power and what this looks like for the rural population."

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Reporter Who Did His Job

(Above: Andrew Meacham)

I'm not in the habit of praising other newspapers; but something remarkable happened at the St. Petersburg (FL) Times last week, and I want to tell you about it.
On Sept. 12 a 48-year-old Tampa man named Neil Alan Smith was struck by a hit-and-run driver as he was bicycling home from his work as a dishwasher at an eatery called the Crab Shack. His head struck a metal light pole, and he never regained consciousness, dying six days later.
The Times ran a brief story about the accident, and that was that - or so they thought.
But then a reader posted a comment - anonymous, of course - on the paper's website that said, "A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead."
That impelled a Times reporter named Andrew Meacham to go back and revisit the story to find out what kind of man was Neil Alan Smith, whose life and death had been dismissed so cavalierly.
The first thing Meacham found out is that a lot of people miss him, including his landlady, who told Meacham that once, when she was worried that the power company would shut off her electricity because she hadn't been able to pay the bill, he gave her more money than she had asked to borrow and insisted she take it. "I'll never forget that," she said.
His co-workers called him steady and dependable, a man who showed up every day, rain or shine, biking four miles each way from his trailer park to the Crab Shack. He worked there for ten years - a virtual lifetime in a business known for heavy turnover - for the $7.25 per hour minimum wage.
"I'll probably go through another 10 people to find somebody like him," his boss said.
A native New Englander, he was a huge fan of the Celtics, Patriots and, of course, the Red Sox.
Aside from one open container violation in 2007, he was never in any trouble with the law. When he was hit by the car he was following all the rules, including wearing a safety helmet, light-colored clothing and reflectors, and staying in the bike lane.
His landlady plans to take his ashes to Boston and scatter a few at Fenway Park. Then she'll go to New Hampshire and lay the rest on his parents' graves - if she can find them.
In short, Neil Smith was a human being. He loved and was loved by others. He had both joy and pain in his life, just like you and me.
I called Meacham and thanked him for writing that story. He said he's gotten a lot of calls like that from reporters and editors around the country.
I think it's because he struck a nerve with the rest of us. In an era when newspapers are becoming an endangered species, he reminded us how important they really are.
I've heard people say that if newspapers go away, there will be nobody to keep an eye on the politicians, corporations and special interests that run our lives. And it's true: We need more Woodwards and Bernsteins, not fewer.
But we also need more Andrew Meachams, to remind us of our common humanity. He has brought honor to my profession. I hope he wins the Pulitzer Prize.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Life Line

Congratulations to Terry Englehart, executive director of Senior Center Without Walls in Oakland, who was awarded a Jefferson Award for Public Service earlier this week.
I can't think of anyone more deserving. SCWW does more good for more people than any other organization I know.
As many aging Baby Boomers are discovering, getting old means aches and pains that often make it more and more difficult to leave your home. Your world shrinks down to your bedroom, and you get cut off from all the things you used to know and love.
That's where SCWW comes in. Even people who are homebound can still use the telephone. And that can be their gateway back to the wider world again.
Every week, SCWW offers dozens of different discussion groups, support groups and other telephone group activities, ranging from the silly to the serious. There are enough things going on to keep you busy from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you go to bed at night.
All you have to do is call in at the designated time and join the conversation. And get this: It's completely free!
So what's the catch? There isn't any. SCWW is sponsored by Episcopal Senior Communities as part of their non-denominational community outreach program, but you don't have to be Episcopalian to take part.
You don't have to live in Oakland, either. SCWW has active participants all over the Bay Area.
There isn't room here to list even a fraction of the many different discussion groups. But it's safe to say that whatever your interest, they probably have a group for it. Call toll-free 877-797-7299, and SCWW will mail you a complete schedule. Then sign up for the groups that interest you most, and you're off to the races.
As I said, there's no charge. But Englehart and her tiny, two-two person staff still have to pay for the conference calls. If you'd like to help, please mail a tax-deductible check to Senior Center Without Walls, 114 Montecito Street, Oakland CA 94610.
A few months ago, I had the honor of being the focus of one of the groups. I asked the participants, "What was the most memorable event of your life?"
"The feminist movement of the 1970s," said a woman named Lynn. "I had spent all my adult years fighting racial prejudice, and it finally dawned on me: When are women going to have our turn? I spent the next decade learning how to be a human being. Before that, I just learned to be a woman."
"It was 73 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday," said Beatrice. "One of my neighbors was someone I called 'Uncle Larry,' and he was very good to me. He would take me to the candy store and buy me everything. One day I opened the newspaper, and a big headline said a member of Murder Incorporated had been gunned down. And there was a picture of Uncle Larry. I was only seven years old, and I was deeply touched."
But my favorite was Rosalee, who said, "It hasn't happened yet. I'm always looking forward to the next most wonderful thing. I've been in a wheelchair for 30 years, and I love this telephone community. I'm in love with you all."
And that's why we need Senior Center Without Walls.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fighting The Good Fight

Oakland and the music community lost a giant when Irwin Silber died Sept. 8 from Alzheimer's. He was 84.
Perhaps more than any other person, Silber launched the folk music boom of the 1950s and early '60s. He was the editor of "Sing Out!" a folk singing magazine he founded with Pete Seeger and folklorist Alan Lomax. (Their office secretary was the future playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote "A Raisin in the Sun.")
Under his guidance, "Sing Out!" became a lonely voice of opposition to the McCarthy witch hunts, which caused Silber to be hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked the ominous question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"
In Silber's case, the answer was yes. He had joined the party in 1942, when the Soviet Union was known as "our gallant Russian ally" and everybody, including conservatives like Winston Churchill, called Stalin "Uncle Joe." He quit in the mid-50s, after Khruschev's "secret speech" in 1956 revealed that Uncle Joe was actually a cold-blooded mass murderer.
He didn't want to answer the question because it was none of the committee's business. Besides, he knew the next question would be a demand to sell out his friends.
But he didn't want to invoke the Fifth Amendment - his right against self-incrimination - because he didn't think he had done anything wrong. What was so bad about that fighting for civil rights, social justice and peace? So he refused under his First Amendment right to free speech, instead.
Undaunted, the committee chairman tried to get the answer another way: "Did you ever teach at the Jefferson School?" (a Marxist academy in Manhattan)
"Aha!" said the chairman, zeroing in for the kill. "And what did you teach?"
"Square dancing," Silber replied.
The room exploded in laughter, and that was the end of that.
That's just one chapter in the life of this remarkable man, who produced the first hootenannys at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, featuring blacklisted artists like Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly.
"Leadbelly always dressed impeccably, onstage and off, wearing the spiffiest suits and carrying himself with great dignity," he told me. "It was his reaction against Alan Lomax's trying to dress him in overalls or prison stripes when he performed."
Every summer, Silber played softball with Paul Robeson at a Marxist summer camp in New Jersey called Camp Wochica (short for Workers' Children's Camp).
Robeson wrote the forword to Silber's first book, "Lift Every Voice." John Steinbeck wrote the forword to a later book, "Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People." The title was suggested by Woody Guthrie.
He wrote 10 other books, including "Socialism: What Went Wrong?" "A Patient's Guide to Knee and Hip Replacement" and "Press Box Red," the story of Lester Rodney, a Daily Worker sports reporter who pioneered the campaign to integrate the major leagues.
For the last 30 years he lived in Oakland with his wife, jazz singer Barbara Dane. Appropriately, they fell in love on a May Day.
And he had no regrets - except one. In his later years, he regretted writing a scathing editorial in 1965 that ripped Bob Dylan for going electric.
Dylan responded by writing "Positively Fourth Street," which begins with the words "You've got a lot of nerve."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Back To School

(Above: Sather Gate at noontime)

I was walking across the Cal Campus last Friday past the informational tables on Sproul Plaza representing everything from Young Socialist Alliance to Campus Crusade for Christ.
Right next to Sather Gate, an undergraduate a capella singing group was belting out sweet-sounding four-part harmonies.
And I couldn't help thinking, "How thrilling all this must be for the new freshmen!'"
The next day I was on campus again, just as the crowd was filtering out of Memorial Stadium after the football game against Colorado. (Cal won in a laugher, 52-7.) I ran into a group of Colorado students who were freaking out at the names of the campus buildings.
"Look at that!" one guy exclaimed in disbelief. "Cesar Chavez Student Center! Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union! How long has this been going on?"
"A long time," I said.
"But why?" they asked.
"This is Berkeley," I explained.
I didn't have the heart to point out the Free Speech Movement Café; I figured their minds had been blown enough for one day. But it reminded me once again what a special place Cal is - unlike any other in the world.
Speaking of special schools, many happy returns to the College Preparatory School in Oakland, which will celebrate its 50th birthday with an all-day party on Sept. 25.
College Prep lives up to its name: 100 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges. But more impressive than the numbers is the way they do it.
"I think the seriousness with which I was taken as a human being at College Prep made me expect to be treated seriously in college," says one recent grad. "I dealt with my professors as fellow adults, and it worked out really well."
College Prep was founded in 1960 by Mary Harley Jenks and her partner, Ruth Willis.
Jenks had been a philosophy major at Cal, but she was told that "no respectable university would hire a woman in philosophy." So she became an educator, instead.
The school was founded on the principle of "egalitarian modesty," meaning that they wanted the kids to be highly motivated but not elitist.
They started with five teachers and 35 students, plus a housekeeper named Rosie who made tuna fish sandwiches (heavy on the mayo, as everyone recalls) for the entire staff - starting an enduring tradition.
"To this day, we do not have a food program for the kids, but we feed the faculty every day," says Murray Cohen, the Head of School. "But not tuna fish sandwiches, though."
Today, College Prep has 52 teachers 350 students. The average class has only 13.5 students.
Perhaps the most important event in the school's history was something that didn't happen: In the mid-'70s College Prep was offered some prime property in affluent Lafayette. But in the end, they decided to stay in Oakland.
"It would have changed the nature of the school and made our principle of egalitarian modesty very difficult to sustain," Cohen explains.
Jenks chose the name "College Preparatory School" because she wanted to be clear about the school's mission, but Cohen admits that he and his colleagues have mixed feelings about it.
"It sounds like we're a preparation for something else, rather than an appreciation for what we have," he says. "We think of ourselves as a participatory school, not preparatory."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bullish on the Bears

(Above: Roy Riegels on his infamous wrong-way run that lost the 1929 Rose Bowl)

Berkeley has a long tradition of town-gown conflict, but next weekend the university and the city will get together to celebrate something everyone can agree on: the glorious history of Cal sports.
It's a new exhibit at the Berkeley Historical Society called "Golden Bear Pioneers: UC Sports & Athletic Traditions from Their Beginnings to 1945," and what treasures they have! Among them:
* A patch from the jersey worn by Cal running back Loren Hunt in the first Big Game in 1892. (Herbert Hoover was the Stanford team manager.)
* A football-shaped program from the fourth Big Game, featuring long (and, apparently, necessary) articles explaining how the game is played. They also have the program from the 1929 Rose Bowl, which Cal lost 8-7 because of Roy Riegels' wrong-way run.
* Lapel buttons reading, "I'm a stadium builder," which were given to contributors to the Memorial Stadium building fund in 1923. For a $100 donation, you got free Big Game tickets for five years, plus an option to buy tickets for the next five years.
* Action photos of tennis greats Helen Wills Moody and Helen Jacobs, football All-American and track star Brick Muller and the Olympic gold medal-winning 1932 Cal crew, shown at their moment of triumph as they edged out the boat from Italy at the finish line.
But my favorite photo is of Bill Rockwell, the original Oski, shown walking along the crossbar of the goal post (no kidding!) at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 26, 1941, when he appeared for the first time in the now-familiar letter sweater, baggy pants and oversized shoes.
Alas, he had so much fun being Oski, his grades quickly went south. At the end of the semester the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; so he dropped out of school, joined the Navy and won many medals as a fighter pilot. After the war he went back to Cal and got his degree in 1948.
The word "fan" comes from "fanatic," and that's what the curators of this exhibit, Keith Tower and Bart White, are. Tower, who attended Cal in the mid-70s, has been lovingly collecting Golden Bear memorabilia since he was a kid.
White, who graduated in 1995, didn't get the bug until he was an undergrad, but he's been making up for lost time. Taken together, their collections constitute the second-largest compilation of Cal sports stuff in the world, second only to the Bancroft Library.
"It's a very expensive hobby," White sighed. "And it's getting more expensive all the time, thanks to eBay."
I visited him while he was sorting through his treasures. The boxes and piles spilled out of his living room into the kitchen and hallway.
"We have an agreement that the stuff stays down in the basement and we get to live up here," said his wife, Michelle. "But, as you can see, this is not always true."
But she's a good sport about it, perhaps because she was a history major at Cal, so she understands the attraction of historical artifacts.
The exhibit will open Sept. 18 and run through March 26. It's on the first floor of the historic Veteran's Memorial Building, 1931 Center Street, and is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. Call 510-848-0181 for more information.
Go Bears!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Garden of Earthly Delights

(Above: Amprphophallus Titanum, aka the Giant Stinky Plant)

Is the cool weather we've been having this summer getting you down? That's nothing compared to how it's affecting the plants at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.
"It's delayed all kinds of plant activity - when they sprout, when they start producing leaves and flowers, when they bloom and when they set fruit," says Director Paul Licht.
"We have two Palo Verde trees at our entrance. Usually, they're covered with beautiful yellow flowers; but this year they've barely set buds. I don't think they'll bloom this season at all."
The geophytes - including tulips and gladiolas - are also suffering.
"We're afraid they're going to lose their bulbs. Every year, they have to grow their green foliage, which supplies food to make the bulb grow large. If it isn't hot enough, they miss a season of growth and use up a lot of energy from the bulb that hasn't been replenished. They feel miserable."
But there's an upside, too, especially for visitors: A lot of plants that usually are dormant in the summer are staying in bloom much longer than they normally would. So it you were ever going to visit the Botanical Garden, now's the time.
Licht gave me a tour last week, and I have to tell you: I was absolutely fascinated. The place is like Disneyland for plant lovers. And it doesn't take you long to become one.
I know nothing about plants. In fact, neither did Licht before he took this job. He had just retired from a distinguished career as a zoologist when the university called and asked him to come out of retirement and take over the Botanical Garden. And, like me, he got hooked.
The garden has more than 10,000 different species of plants, and 1,300 of them have been officially declared endangered species.
"The number is probably twice that amount because they're so rare, we don't even know if they're endangered or not," says Licht. "Some are so poorly known that we may have some species that haven't been described yet."
One new acquisition is a previously unknown orchid that was collected in the Dominican Republic by a local researcher named Donald D. Dodd, who left it to the Botanical Garden when he died.
They've named it after him: Orthinidium Donalddeedoddii.
The plants come from all over the world, including Amprphophallus Titanium - aka the Giant Stinky Plant - which comes from Sumatra. But some of the garden's rarest acquisitions come from a lot closer to home, such as the Mount Diablo buckwheat, which was thought to have gone extinct in 1936.
Just like a work of art, each plant has its own provenance. And a plant that has grown in the wild is much more valuable than a plant that has been hybridized or cultivated in a nursery.
The Botanical Garden only collects plants that were grown in the wild, which makes it an invaluable resource not only for other botanical gardens but also for us, the public.
Twice a year, the Botanical Garden has a public sale, where you can buy seedlings of some of its rarest plants, including the Giant Stinky Plant.
The next sale will be Sept. 26. But I wouldn't wait until then to check out this amazing garden, which boasts plants from every continent except Antarctica.
"And as soon as it melts, we'll probably get some from there, too," says Licht.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Two Good Guys

(Above: Mac. Below: Cliff)

First, a pair of sad farewells to two old friends and colleagues - Cliff Pletschet, who died August 8 at age 80, and Dave McElhatton, who died on Monday at age 81.
Cliff, who was born in Saskatchewan, was the longtime business editor and financial columnist for the Oakland Tribune, and a finer gentleman never lived. He was very, very good at what he did, and he never had an unkind word for anyone.
Mac, who was born and raised in Oakland, was the morning drive anchor at KCBC, in tandem with his good friend, Al Hart. Together, they made the show the most popular one in the Bay Area for 25 years.
Then he moved to KPIX, where he worked with Wendy Tokuda and Kate Kelly. And together, they made that show the most popular one in the Bay Area for the next 25 years.
The secret of Mac's success was that he was a great storyteller. It was like listening to the guy sitting next to you at a bar telling you what went down that day.
And the secret of Cliff's success was that he didn't tell his readers how to invest their money; he educated them so they could make wise investment decisions on their own.
They were successful both as journalists and as human beings, and I miss them both already.
On a happier note, here's wishing a happy retirement to Monica Clark, who will step down at the end of the year as editor of the Catholic Voice, the official publication of the Diocese of Oakland (which includes both Alameda and Contra Costa counties).
Under her guidance, the paper has been catholic as well as Catholic, which is no easy task in a diocese that ranges from ultra-liberals in Berkeley and Oakland to ultra-conservatives in Concord and Danville.
No matter how contentious the issue - whether it's abortion or priestly sexual abuse - she always manages to include all sides. As a result, the Catholic Voice, especially its letters-to-the-editor page, has been one of the liveliest reads around.
Anyway, good luck, Monica. You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith.
Meanwhile, Poulet, the upscale Berkeley deli specializing in (what else?) chickens, is coping with the recession by luring customers with a new gimmick: membership in the "Frequent Fryers Club." The deal: Buy 10 chickens, get one free. And the first winner is Poulet's most loyal customer, Ivan Skolnikoff., who always orders lemon-garlic.
Finally, my apologies to Berkeley Animal Services (aka the city shelter) especially its director, Kate O'Connor.
When I wrote about the disastrous fire that gutted the Berkeley Humane Society's shelter last spring, I said the city shelter doesn't have the time to be a full-time adoption agency. But I didn't mean to imply that O'Connor and her staff don't try their best to find new homes for their animals.
But with all their other responsibilities - including rounding up strays, busting dog-fighting rings, etc. - they need help.
That's where the Humane Society comes in. The two agencies - one private, one public - work hand-in-hand.
And the partnership works both ways. After the fire, the city shelter offered its time and space to house the Humane Society's animals who were evicted by the fire.
Hope I cleared that up.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Remembering the "Good War"

(Above: the USS Hornet, now docked at Alameda, California)

This weekend is the 65th anniversary of V-J Day, the end of World War II.
It's called "The Good War," which is a bitter irony because it was the most horrible war in history. Deaths were estimated at anywhere from 60 million to 100 million. And the overwhelming majority were civilians.So why do we call it The Good War? Because it's one of the few wars in history that, even in hindsight, absolutely had to be fought.
It has been perceived as a case of good vs. evil but even the "good guys" had some skeletons in their closets. The Soviet Union was a brutal dictatorship, Britain had a colonial empire and, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we imprisoned more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens behind barbed wire because of their ancestry.
But that just shows how truly evil Hitler really was -- he made a monster like Stalin look good by comparison.
As Churchill said when he heard Hitler had invaded Russia: "If Hitler were to invade hell, I would find something favorable to say about the devil the next day in the House of Commons."
The real good guys of World War II, of course, were the men and women who won it, both over there and here at home.
To call them "The Greatest Generation" doesn't even begin to describe the debt we owe them. Hitler predicted his Reich would last a thousand years, and were it not for the heroes who defeated him, it very easily could have happened.
But oh, how they suffered to give us this priceless gift of freedom.
Try to imagine yourself on a B-17 bombing raid over Germany without any fighter planes to protect you from the German fighters, who would attack you all the way to the target and all the way back home.
Or in a foxhole in the Voges mountains of Alsace as German 88 shells shattered the treetops overhead, sending millions of jagged splinters raining down on you.
Or on a Liberty ship in the North Atlantic, a helpless sitting duck for the U-boat wolf packs roaming at will through your convoy. Imagine knowing that if your ship was sunk, the convoy was under strict orders not to stop and pick up survivors.
Imagine yourself on a flattop in the South Pacific, fighting off attacks from kamikazes.
Or as a Marine on Okinawa, waiting for the next Banzai charge from an enemy so tenacious that even even the civilians were killing themselves rather than surrender.
"You assumed you weren't going to make it," says Dr. Gordon Binder of San Francisco, an army field surgeon operating just a few hundred yards behind the front line. "You knew you were going to get killed. It was just a question of when."
Finally, imagine yourself as a Rosie the Riveter at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, exhausted after another hard day's work but a little reluctant to go home because a telegram might be waiting for you from the War Department beginning with the words "We regret to inform you "..."
They don't think of themselves as heroes because in their eyes, the real heroes are the guys -- and gals, too -- who never came back.
And they're right, of course. But while we still have some of them with us, let's tell them that in our eyes, they are heroes, too.
Bless them all.

Thumbs Up For A Gentle Man

It was with mixed emotions that I watched the final program of "At The Movies," which ended its television run on Sunday after 45 years.
I couldn't help thinking, "I wish Gene Siskel were still here."
Gene was one of the guys who founded the show, and he was my friend. (We were in the same class in college.)
In 1975 he was the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, and a producer at the local PBS station named Thea Flaum got the brilliant idea of pairing him with his rival critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert. For a half hour each week, they'd argue about the movies and give each film a thumbs up or thumbs down.
The show was an instant hit, and no wonder: Gene and Roger were the original odd couple.
I'm hopelessly biased, but I think Gene usually got the better of the argument. He championed films that appealed to the mind and heart, and occasionally other parts of the body.
The most honest review I've ever heard anyone give is the thumb's up he gave to the soft-core French film, "Emmanuelle."
Instead of tiptoeing around the truth by talking about the cinematography or lighting, he looked into the camera, shrugged his shoulders and said sheepishly, "What can I say? It turned me on."
For me, the most memorable review is the one he gave to another French film, "Rififi," which depicts a jewel robbery, moment by moment. He said the reason it's so exciting is that we love to see the behind-the-scenes details of how people in exotic professions do their jobs. And what profession could be more exotic than jewel robber?
It's a lesson I've applied to everything I write. Whenever I interview someone, I always ask them to describe the details of how they do what they do. Thank you, Gene.
I'd run into him whenever he and Roger came into town on a promotional tour, and what most impressed me is that he never thought of himself as The Famous Gene Siskel.
He treated everyone, down to the go-fer who brought him a cup of coffee, with complete respect. He was a true gentleman, and you don't find that very often, especially among celebrities.
Gene died from a brain tumor in 1999, and Roger carried on with a succession of co-hosts until he, too, got sick and had to retire in 2008. For the last few years the show has been hosted by a series of critics who are very good, but not in Gene's league.
At our 25th college reunion, Gene passed on some precious wisdom he received from the master of his residential college, novelist John Hersey, and I'm passing it on to you:
"1. Don't do anything for money. In America if you do anything well, money will follow - if you want it."
"2. Have more than one career. Don't be trapped into working for one company or in one profession for your entire life."
"3. Don't view life as a test on which you can get a perfect score. Life is problems. Therefore, don't be unhappy when you're unhappy. Strive for and appreciate moments of serenity, a much more reasonable goal."
P.S. The last movie Gene reviewed was a romantic comedy called "Simply Irresistible." He gave it a thumbs down.

Monday, August 2, 2010

25 Years of Yum!

From the moment Lalime's opened 25 years ago, it shot to the top tier of Berkeley restaurants, which is really saying something considering that Berkeley is a town where people take their food as seriously as they take their politics.
Its loyal patrons come from all over the Bay Area, and its popularity has spread even farther as Cal professors on sabbatical at other colleges spread the word.
(There's a sign on the bulletin board in the faculty dining room at MIT saying, "When you're in Berkeley, be sure to eat at Lalime's." Ditto for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.)
I hadn't been there in a while, so when Lalime's held a 25th birthday party a couple of weeks ago I went to see if it was as good as I remembered.
Answer: No, it wasn't. It was better.
But don't take my word for it. Ask KCBS food maven Narsai David, who regularly dines there with his wife, Venus.
"We love Lalime's because of the wonderfully mellow environment and the friendly attitude of the staff," he told me. "But, of course, the most important thing is the creative presentation of the best contemporary cuisine."
But Lalime's has always had another role: as a local hangout for the folks who live in Berkeley's Westbrae neighborhood.
"There's this great big picture window, and as you walk by you can see the people dining there," said Marshall Platt, who lives down the street. "And when I dine there, I can see the people walking by. It's part of the fabric of Northwest Berkeley. Plus, it's very affordable, especially for what it is."
So how do owners Haig and Cindy Krikorian - Lalime is Cindy's maiden name - manage to juggle these dual roles?
"The answer is that we don't feel like a Top 10 restaurant, and we never have," said Cindy. "We just want to serve good food to our friends."
It all starts with local food, seasonally produced. That's a staple of California cuisine, but Haig learned this long before it became fashionable, when he was growing up in Lebanon.
"The Bay Area gives you so many food choices, it would be incredibly stupid not to take advantage of that," he said. "If the tomatoes aren't good that day, you don't serve a dish that requires tomatoes."
But the person who really set the standard was Haig's mother, Nevart. Almost up until the day she died last year at 87, she was the restaurant's official napkin folder - she didn't trust anyone else do it precisely enough - garlic peeler and produce buyer.
"She was totally in charge," said general manager Michael Hutchings as his baby daughter, Eloise, played underfoot. "She was like a second mother to me. I called her Nene, which is Armenian for 'grandmother.'"
Eloise is the latest in a long line of employees' children who have grown up at Lalime's, as have Haig and Cindy's own kids.
The extended family also includes patrons such as Chester Zinn, whose regular table, Table 18, has a silver plaque to commemorate his 100th birthday, Raider great Raymond Chester, and the physics department at Cal, who named a new scientific theory "Lalime's Theory."
"Haig has finally found a way to entertain all his friends," said Richard Mazzera, owner of Cesar's restaurant. "And he doesn't have to do the dishes!"

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pillar of the community

(l-r: George Jr., Kristina, George Sr., Sonja)

I was walking down Webster Street in downtown Oakland a few months ago with George Vukasin, the president of Peerless Coffee. He's a second-generation American; his parents came here from Yugoslavia.
He pointed to the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian restaurants on the street and said, "When I was a kid they all used to be Yugoslavian restaurants. Same people, different faces."
That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. He's never forgotten where he came from, and he doesn't think he's better than the people who came after him.
Vukasin, who is known to everyone at Peerless as "George Sr.," took over the business in 1975 from his father, John Vukasin (aka "Mr. V."), who founded the business in 1924.
Last week he announced that he and his wife, Sonja, are turning over the reins to their children, George Jr. and Kristina.
George Jr. will supervise the coffee end of the business, and Kristina, a former Alameda County deputy district attorney, will handle the finances and legal stuff.
It's an old family tradition: Mr. V did the coffee roasting and his wife, Natalie (aka "Mrs. V"), kept the books. Then George Sr. ran the coffee side and Sonja ran the business side.
"We didn't plan it," Kristina laughs. "It's just worked out that way."
Full disclosure: There are very few people in this world whom I admire as much as George Sr. If he had done nothing else but give good value to his customers and treat his employees like human beings, that would have been enough. But he did so much more.
As longtime president of the Pacific Coast Coffee Association and chairman of the National Coffee Association, he worked tirelessly with farmers in Colombia to make it economically profitable for them to grow coffee instead of coca, which is the basic ingredient of cocaine.
For this he received the prestigious Manuel Mejia Award - named after the father of the Colombian coffee industry - from the Colombian government and death threats from the drug lords.
He also convinced the growers to treat their own workers more decently, such as supplying free meals during working hours and free childcare for their children.
His method is as simple as it is effective: The better they treat their workers, the more he pays them for their coffee beans.
He also was president of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Commission back in the good old days, when the Coliseum was one of the most charming of the '60s "cookie cutter" stadiums instead of the dump it has become today.
It was only last week that I was quoting some longtime Raider fans who said the team's return in 1995 turned out to be an anti-climax. They complained that the Coliseum had been taken over by what they called "the thug element."
It was a different crowd in the Vukasin era, believe me. And we have that to thank him for, too.
He and Sonja are leaving some mighty big shoes for George Jr. and Kristina to fill, but I have no doubt they're more than up to it.
"What we learned most from our parents wasn't so much how to run a business," says Kristina. "It was about character and treating people the right way."
See what I mean?