“We Thought We Were Heading for the Wild Wild West”
We moved to Livermore in 1959 when my father was hired to work at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. It was a high tech development in a town that had a cowboy reputation – but it wasn’t science that captured my nine year old imagination. As we threaded our way along the Nimitz Freeway, bordering dense industrial tracts with weird chemical smells and perplexing mottoes like “Stop Casting Porosity”, climbing the foothills into the first wide valley on the other side, past the Rowell Ranch, it felt like we were discovering the wild west, all the more so when we found out that Livermore had its own rodeo.
In my new elementary school, I joined a Girl Scout troop. We met once a week, in a little shack on the school grounds, called the Girl Scout Cabin. It totally fueled my sense of adventure. There were projects and badges and learning to build fires and tie knots and trek through the woods. Day camp, then sleep over camp. The world widened in front of me. Me, setting fires. And I got to have a knife.
Mary Strong was the Girl Scout leader, the mother of a girl I knew in my fourth grade class. I can’t quite remember exactly how the lives of the Strongs and the Jessings became so intertwined, but they did, and it’s been life long. This fall, Mary’s youngest daughter Paula – just a baby on the floor of the Girl Scout Cabin when I first laid eyes on her – came to visit us in Nebraska. Maybe it was that Mary loaded up all the scouts in her VW Van – the first I’d ever seen — and drove us home after meetings. Somehow, the parents met, and soon we were regular visitors in each other’s homes, playing cards, boating and picnicking at Woodward Reservoir. Mary had a distinctive, joyful laugh, something unleashed and cascading. I have a sound memory of it. Once in a while I will meet someone who laughs in that same way, and I will hear her again. She was almost literally round, as wide as she was tall, and the laugh resonated in her full body.
Mary’s house was warm and chaotic, and a little shabby. It hummed. There was noise and music. Mary’s husband Paul was not the traditional dad. He had a sort of bohemian air about him. I think he even wore a beret. If he ever worked, I can’t remember it. He played a huge upright bass fiddle, and as the children grew, they sang and played guitar and banjo. He introduced me to MAD Magazine, and to the satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer.
He loved to engage a guest, child or adult, in intellectual discussion. It was a unique experience for me – a bright shy nine year old, to be invited into adult conversation like this. I wasn’t unhappy at home, but I was one of six children, and my parents didn’t have time for this. He’d taken over the small garage, made it into a cave of a study; he loved books and jazz. It seemed, at least to a kid, that Mary was the sole support of the family, often juggling numerous part time jobs. For a while she was a cook at the Mission Pines Café on the Niles Alvarado Road, and most of the kids in both families – including me — did time as dishwashers or prep cooks alongside her, or helped deliver newspapers out of that old VW van, before daylight.
Meanwhile, Girl Scout Troop 7 met every week till we were out of elementary school. We started each meeting with the Girl Scout Pledge, and worked diligently to earn badges for various skills. Agriculture, arts and crafts, hiking, community service, knot tying, paddling a canoe, and home nursing — somehow that one sticks with me with visions of geometrically sharp folded hospital corners on the bed, and an handy paper bag receptacle for throwing away tissues. The Girl Scout Handbook was like a survival guide for the world. If you got all these badges, you would be in the most practical sense of the word, a Renaissance Girl. Able to throw on a washable apron and sensible shoes to fight back infectious diseases, ruthlessly inspect a home for baby hazards, throw up some semaphore flags to attract lifesaving assistance, or lash branches into a series of handy camp furniture items – or a splint for a broken bone.
A few years back, I attended a writing retreat on a ranch in South Dakota. We alternated times of solitary writing with explorations of the ranch and surrounding terrain. In preparation for a hike to search out badger dens, the retreat leader gave me a topographical map and asked if I knew how to read it. I practically shouted YES, remembering the nature explorer badges we had earned together as a troop, learning to read maps and use a compass in the fields and gullies on the west edge of Livermore. Not that it has ever saved my literal life — though on the ranch I did run into some cows who eyed me fiercely — but it is nice to know early on that you can survive with the odds and ends that you might find in your pockets or backpack, combined with your wits. I spent the rest of the retreat writing about how girls learn to be self-sufficient in life; how the specific meaning of that term has changed with the generations — and the role of strong women like Mary, in transmitting that wisdom. And I give the Girl Scouts credit for fostering that message, just a little bit under the radar of Feminism (where it still resides).
In my own family, I had learned that for some men it was difficult to reconcile the needs of a family with his own sense of restless adventure. My grandfather grew up on the high plains of eastern Colorado and dreamed his life to be as a rancher of wide horizons –not to be confined in a tiny urban stucco house and yard. I am sure that it was my grandmother who pressured for the choice of city life that created stability and survival for the family. And although he adjusted, he never gave up that vision of his future. After his funeral, my uncle told me that “Pop” said once that if Grandma died first, he’d sell this house and be out of here in a flash, once again somewhere on that wide circle of the horizon.
I will never know what my father’s vision of his life and future might have been as a young man. I’m not sure he intended to have a large family; or if his precise work as a machinist was sufficient expression of his skill and talent; if that flat roofed ranch style house in Livermore was enough territory to hold him.
I just know that words like “trapped” and “cornered” made me strangely sad, as a child who might have felt that she was the source of such feelings, in this wordless struggle between wildness and civilization.