Early Years

I was born in 1940, in Oakland California, to a young but ill-starred couple: Robert (Bob) and Carroll Wilson. Bob was a genius at things mechanical, and a motorcycle 'hill climb' enthusiast. That was an early sort of motocross in which customised Harleys and other 'cycles were ridden straight up the steepest hillslope possible. To win was to ride all the way up; to lose was to tumble downhill with your bike and hope not to get too much mangled. He was also a maker of scale flying models, a photographer, and an amateur audio recorder. I still have some of the disks he cut with sounds and songs by Mother and myself, and a few photos he took of airplane models and of me.

Although he had enlisted in the Marine Corps he was allowed to move to the reserves in order to operate a machine shop in Pomona CA, making parts for the war effort. He had been held back as a rifle instructor when his unit shipped out for the Tarawa landings, where most of his buddies were killed. By that point his enthusiasm for the Corps probably was not what it once had been.

To make things worse, by 1943 his marriage was breaking up; Carroll had gone to stay with relatives (his, not hers!) in the far south of California, taking me with her. While riding helmet-less in Pasadena he had some sort of near-miss with a car that sent him at an awkward angle across one of the concrete rain-drains that interrupt the streets of Pasadena (I encountered them in my teens). That sent him out of control into a concrete curb; he hit his head on it, or something else, and never regained consciousness. His pillion passenger, a woman whose name I never knew and who may or may not have been a replacement for Carroll, was not hurt. I had just turned four at the time.

All that is what Mother told me, as I have no clear memories of Bob at all. By now it's probably too late to check any of it from other sources. As an 'origin myth' it works well enough. Mother is gone now, too; she died in 1992, so what follows is my version of her story and it is equally hard to check.

Carroll came from what would now be called a 'dysfunctional family'. Her father, another Robert/Rob, was of Scots-Irish origin and was a mechanical genius like my Father. He had built a thriving business on his design for a building-heater boiler (called the "Heggie Simplex"; I inherited a box of papers relating to it) and a fancy home for his family in Joliet, Illinois. That is just southwest of Chicago and best know as the location of a big Federal prison. Then came the Depression, and Rob was robbed of his business by its financiers. By this time he had three children, the youngest one in frail health, so he took the family to California and built a house on land in a failed irrigation project in Fontana CA. That is in the Los Angeles Basin, with San Bernardino the nearest city. It was also near an Air Force base (March Field, south and east of Fontana, I believe), where Rob was able to land a job in the measurement standards section thanks to demonstrated ability, as he had no formal engineering training at all. In fact, he had very little formal education and spent a lifetime trying to educate himself with how-to books and non-degree correspondence courses. He stuck that job out until retirement, though it was a poor fit for his mechanical talents. Not to mention the stress of working under 'Jory', his much-despised supervisor. Or the shame of moving from his mansion in Joliet to a self-built tarpaper shack.

To youthful me it was just the Grandparent's place, but looking back I realize what a ramshackle huddle of shack and additions it was. After WWII a replacement house was built to the east, with the interior drywalled but not taped. It was used for storage and never was finished; I believe it was demolished along with the 'shack' soon before he died, when they had a new bungalow built closer to Hemlock Avenue. In my childhood the first homestead had a windbreak of huge eucalyptus trees between it and a citrus grove to the north, while to the west across Hemlock Ave. was a vineyard of Thompson grapes. To the south was an empty field, then another windbreak and more houses.

Carroll's mother, Marie, was a second-generation German; I met Great-Grandma Schneider only once that I can recollect, but she was memorably Teutonic. So is her household's collection of 78-RPM records, much of which has come down to me: for the most part pure, classic schmaltz. Marie was tiny, no doubt a beauty in her youth, but as Germanically practical as Rob was Celtically visionary. That mismatch in temperaments would eventually kill Rob, when his dream of moving to the High Desert after retiring was blocked by her inability to imagine such a move. Marie lived on to a considerable age, companioned in her final years by Carroll as neither of her siblings would take on the chore. On their mother's death her brother, Robert Jr. (usually called Bobby), returned from Germany to find that the large inheritance on which he had been counting did not exist. Mother, never the best of financial managers, had spent liberally to make Marie's last years comfortable so presumably that is where much of the money went. Bobby went ballistic, launching a legal case against his sister and writing to me with hints that she must have diverted some of the missing money in my direction. Carroll had been devastated by his not-at-all-brotherly attack, so I wrote back to tell him bluntly just how wrong and wrongful he was. From that day to this I have heard nothing more from or about him, though I presume he is dead.

Bobby's life makes quite a story. Eldest child but something of a n'er-do-well, he had joined the army just as WWII ended and shipped over with the forces occupying Germany immediately after. There he met Helmi, elder daughter of a lumber merchant, living in the village of Mörfelden just southwest of Frankfurt-am-Main. They married in Germany and he brought her back to the U.S. He began a PhD program in Sociology (at UCLA, I believe) while she took a job with Sears, soon rising to a fairly high level in administration. Bobby struggled to write a defensible thesis—the one draft I saw was close to meaningless, and barely readable—and eventually graduated, taking Helmi and two children, Kathleen and Rolf, to a teaching job in North Carolina. There he failed to survive the tenure decision, after much twisting and turning, but in the meantime his father-in-law had died so Helmi decided to return to take up that inheritance. She was the brains and guts of the pair, and though in visits I could see how she was disgusted by Bobby's failure to live up to German ideals of manliness she also refused to become a divorcee. Bobby got some figurehead role in the family lumber business and returned to North America only once, to deal with his role as executor of Marie's will, as mentioned earlier.

Mother's younger sister Aletha, the sickly child, thrived in California. When I first knew her in her 20s she was quite horse-crazy, and had a showy palomino stallion stabled at the parental homestead (which must have included a good 40 acres, and must have sold for plenty when it went for suburban tract development in the 1980s). She was also a gifted artist. I vividly remember a longhorn steer's head she had sculpted from Ivory Soap that sat on a dresser in the Grandparental bedroom, and I still have a watercolor she did of a chestnut trotter pulling a racing sulky. During WWII she was employed as an art therapist for Italian prisoners-of-war from the North African campaign. Their prison camp was in the deep southern California desert, near the Salton Sea; that body of water will show up again later in my story. So will one of the prisoners.

Aletha married a black man, Wayne Smith, in the 1950s and so well before the shifts in Black-White relations of the '60s. Their daughter, Felicia, became a concert-class flautist with the checkered marriage history common to many musicians (and, thanks to both parents, a world-class nose on her otherwise pretty face). Aletha and Wayne were divorced in the late '70s, I think, and she supported herself from then on as a draftsperson for the California Dept. of Highways, doing engineering drawings of freeway interchanges and living in a trailer park alongside the San Francisco Bay. Rather than switch from manual to computer drafting she took early retirement, but continued working (at the San Francisco Port Authority) to support herself, her daughter, and a grandson, Mark. Aletha had finally retired and gone to Indiana to live with Felicia and her third husband when last I heard from her. There have been no more annual phone chat-a-thons with her for several years, so I presume she is dead, too. Wayne went on to marry another white woman, and the new pair had a continuing friendship with Aletha and Felicia and grandchild Mark. After several years of Christmas card exchanges I have lost track of them.

While accounting for siblings, I should mention my Father's younger brother, Walter. Walt was a classic youngest child: easy-going but hugely self-indulgent. In my teens I went to visit him in San Diego, where my parents had lived immediately after marrying, and watched as his marriage (to a very similar woman) was coming unglued ... late in her pregnancy. Walt went on to re-marry a much more solid companion, Nancy, and put in decades working as a punch-press operator for Douglas Aircraft in El Segundo CA. From childhood his passion had been scale models and flying, but by the time he could afford lessons a heart condition, probably related to diabetes, meant he could not pass the required medical exam. So Nancy got her license, and Walt just flew the plane.

The boys' elder sister, Adelle, I came to know only through letters and only late in her life. She married very late, enjoyed a few delightful years before hubby died, and then went to live with Walt and Nancy. Several years later Walt discovered her body, dead of (so far as I know) natural causes no doubt compounded by a broken heart. Walt himself died of heart failure, as expected, not much later. I exchanged Christmas cards with Nancy for a few years, then they stopped.

Following Bob's death, Mother was fortunate to have our basic financial needs covered by a small Military Widow's pension plus ex-gratia payments from a life insurance policy, even though premiums on it had not been paid since the marriage broke up. Her first move was to have a small, fabric-topped camper trailer custom made; this she towed to a bit of desert just outside Palm Springs CA—a much smaller and less glitzy place, at the time—where we lived for a bit alongside the war surplus Waco-glider-body trailer of her French friend Guido (whose last name I've lost) and his wife Anne (we visited her sisters in Paris, later). Soon enough the charm of housekeeping through desert sandstorms in a canvas shelter paled, and Mother found an empty house to rent ... out in the middle of the same patch of nowhere. I, through all this, was going to kindergarten at Desert Sun School, an independently run place of the Montessori (or at least Piaget) persuasion. Among other things, I learned to read using 'Dick and Jane' books and learned to duplicate pages with an early version of the 'ditto' process. It used a gelatine 'bed' to carry the methanol-soluble ink; great fun.

At the end of winter, and the school year, we moved down-valley to a seedy beach resort on the east shore of the Salton Sea. These days it's part of a State Recreation Area, along with what was the breakaway resort of Bett's Beach, set up by alcoholic old Mr. Betts when the managers at Salton Beach barred him from their bar. The Salton Sea was man-made, but accidentally. The Colorado River built a delta where it emptied into the Sea of Cortez and blocked off that Sea's north end. Ferocious summer heat eventually dried out the below-sea-level basin. Somebody goofed during construction of the 'Imperial Canal' in the early 1900s, intended to bring Colorado River water to irrigate the north side of this delta. There are tales of a Southern Pacific freight train at the bottom of the new-made Sea, caught by the flood. A Bureau of Reclamation project in the 1930s built the 'All-American Canal'. Acting as the sump for more and more irrigated land, the Salton Sea not only survived but grew ... and continued to grow even in my childhood years so that all the places I once knew were under water by the time I was 20. Although evaporation losses can't catch up with irrigation gains, they do concentrate the salt content to a level higher than even the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, pesticides now accumulate as well.

Learning to swim in water that wouldn't let me sink was easy; learning to dive off the low board at the end of the pier (already all but submerged) was, too, though the high board took some courage. And getting to ride on a plate of plywood while being towed on a rope by someone's inboard power boat was a major thrill: this at a time when waterskiing was new (or at least rare and expensive), so I didn't learn to do that. One shoreline hazard was barnacles: these had been introduced on the bottoms of flying boats that came across from San Diego to use the Sea as a bombing and gunnery range during WWII, and in the absence of rocks had colonized the firmer, clayey parts of the shore. Of course the pier's pilings were completely coated in these razor-beaked molluscs. One memorable adventure was the burning of the smelly corpse of a pig that had floated onto the beach. Another was the home-made toy paddleboat that Mr. Betts made for me from a 'U'-ended piece of plank with several rubber bands strung across a paddle 'X' made of light plywood, caught in the middle of the 'U'. Rarely were there other children to play with, so I got more and more used to entertaining myself; good practice for the rest of my childhood.

At the end of that summer Mother decided it was time I took on the regular school system for first grade, so off we went to Hailey, Idaho—a modest mining town just below the then-glitzy Sun Valley ski resort. How she picked that spot I never knew (and, at the time, didn't think to question), but it was a planned first step in a trip across the continent with the end goal of spending some time in Europe. Mother had looked at where 'youth culture' was going in 1946, and at her limited income, and made the quite rational decision that realizing her girlhood dream could benefit us both. On the trip to Hailey by Trailways bus we met an English family from Liverpool, with a boy my age; a few years later we were able to take up their offer of hospitality (much to their astonishment, no doubt).