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

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Human Wave

If you drive past the corner of Oregon Street and Martin Luther King Way in Berkeley on Tuesday, March 22, between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m., you'll see a bunch of people on the northeast corner waving and wishing you a good day. Some will be wearing orange construction workers' gloves. Several of your fellow drivers will be waving back.
They all - wavers and drivers alike - will be celebrating the 101st birthday of Joseph Charles, the late Berkeley Waving Man, who lived in the house on that corner.
For exactly 30 years - from Oct. 6, 1962 to Oct. 6, 1992 - he stood on his corner, rain or shine, and waved cheerfully to the passing cars. Instantly recognizable in his orange gloves, he would call out, "Keep smiling!" and "Have a GOOD day!"
On that first day, a few neighbors thought he was crazy and called the cops. But when the police arrived, they quickly sized up the situation and said, "Go ahead, Mr. Charles. You just keep on waving for as long as you want."
And people kept saying that to him for the rest of his life. Joseph Charles was to Berkeley what Sundar Shadi was to El Cerrito: He was our collective grandfather.
The Bible tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and that's exactly what he did. It might seem like a small thing, but he meant it literally when he wished us a good day. He loved us, and we loved him right back.
People would drive miles out of their way, just so they could start their day waving to the Waving Man. He brought a big smile to everyone's face.
Mayor after mayor issued proclamations in his honor no fewer than seven times. He was grand marshal of both the Solano Stroll and the How Berkeley Can You Be? parade.
Mr. Charles - that's what everyone called him - had quite an interesting life even before he started waving. He grew up in Louisiana and played ball in the Negro Leagues as a young man.
He faced Satchel Paige once when the great pitcher came through town on a barnstorming tour. He struck out on three straight pitches, but at least he made contact, which was better than anyone else did that day.
In 1942 he joined the great migration of African Americans from the deep South to the Bay Area, where he helped build Liberty ships at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond.
After the war he worked as a stevedore at the Oakland Naval Supply Center until his retirement in 1962.
That's when he began his true calling, the one for which he will be remembered long after you and I are long forgotten.
He died in 2002, just a few days short of his 92nd birthday, and the whole city went into mourning. He was truly one of a kind.
If you can, I hope you'll drive by his old corner Tuesday morning and wave to the wavers. I'll be one of them.
And if you can't, feel free to stand on your own corner, wherever you are, and wave to your neighbors. Already, people have pledged to wave in Portland, Oregon; Silver Spring, Maryland; and Germany, as well as all over the Bay Area.
Until then, keep smiling. And have a GOOD day.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Floating White House

Seventy-eight years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt stood before the American people and told us the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - words we would do well to ponder today.
The pressures on FDR were almost unbearable, and he got away from it all by going fishing on his presidential yacht, the USS Potomac.
That's the official version. But I think he really did it to get away from Mrs. Nesbitt.
Henrietta Nesbitt was the White House cook; and her food was worse than inedible, it was disgusting.
"And the worst part was that the menu was always the same, week after week and year after year," says senior lead docent Bill Hodges, one of the hundreds of volunteers who are keeping the Potomac alive, more than 65 years after FDR's death.
"Monday was boiled tongue, Tuesday was boiled chicken and broccoli - and he really hated broccoli - Wednesday was overcooked roast beef, Thursday was sweetbreads - and he hated sweetbreads, too - and so on.
"But aboard the Potomac the Navy stewards would cook the fish he caught on a little hot plate, supplemented by fresh crabs that local fisherman would sell the president as their boats came alongside. Security was a lot less strict in those days."
No matter how many times he begged Eleanor to fire Mrs. Nesbitt, she never did. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says it was because Eleanor's idea of a good dinner was great conversation, not good food. Personally, I think it was payback for Lucy Mercer.
Eleanor rarely came aboard the Potomac - she was prone to seasickness - but FDR's Scottish terrier, Fala, was a frequent visitor.
"Fala was not popular with the crew because he refused to use the sandbox," says Hodges. "He'd relieve himself on the ship's mooring lines, instead."
After FDR's death in 1945 the Potomac was decommissioned and went through a succession of owners. The last one decided to junk her and turn her into scrap.
But at the last moment a rescuer stepped up - none other than Elvis Presley!
He bought the Potomac and donated her to St. Jude's Hospital. The ship's later adventures included being turned into a floating disco and being seized by the DEA for drug running.
She was finally bought at auction in 1981 by the Port of Oakland for only $15,000. Under the leadership of FDR's eldest son, James, the ship was restored as close as possible to the way she was in the days when FDR fished off the fantail.
Today, she's a floating museum docked at Jack London Square. Thousands of schoolchildren have visited her.
Alas, nobody foresaw this recession, and two years ago the Port of Oakland was forced to cancel its financial support. But the ship's operating expenses go on.
One day, the economy is going to bounce back. The only question is whether the Potomac can stay afloat until then. It would be a shame if she can't.
If you want to help, one way is to visit the ship. Go to www.usspotomac.org for a schedule of dockside tours, historical Bay cruises and special events.
Even better, you can become a member of the Friends of the Potomac. Go to the website or call 510-627-1215 for details.
Don't give up the ship.