Livermore Stories

“An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of home, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break. “ Chinese Proverb

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What A Teacher Does

Edwin Brush, an English teacher at Granada High School from the mid 1960’s until his retirement many years later,  died in 2002.  A prolific writer,  he left hundreds of poems behind.  In the years since his death, his former student Karen Hogan, along with his widow Lee, collected  his work for publication.   On the 29th of October 2016, many of his former students, colleagues, friends, widow, and children, gathered in Livermore at Alden Lane Nursery to celebrate the release of six volumes of his work.  Former students – Karen Hogan, Polly Greist, and this writer, Barbara Jessing, read from his works,  remembered touching and hilarious moments, and reflected on the lifelong impact that a gifted teacher has had.  It was one sweet afternoon.   Do you remember Ed Brush?   “Livermore Stories” invites you to contribute your story about Ed, or about any teacher who influenced your life.

By Barbara Jessing

When I met Ed Brush in the fall of 1964,  I was a partially formed human being.  I say that with affection, because it was clear that Mr. Brush looked upon fourteen  year old partially formed human beings with affection and respect.  I wasn’t yet accustomed to being  regarded as an adult with a mind, but it helped me turn into one.


He must have initiated every class year  in the same way:  a takedown of Joyce Kilmer’s Poem,  “Trees”. A ditty more than a poem; that was the point.  He read it once, invited a roomful of partially formed human beings to react to it; then savaged its rhymy couplets.  This, we learned, was not to be confused with poetry.   I remember thinking that it  seemed  a bit harsh, shocking, for a sheltered child,  fresh out of a parochial grade school ruled by Dominican nuns.     He challenged sentimentality; and pushed us to recognize  true beauty when we saw it, read it, heard it.

And over the next four years,  he built us up from the rubble of Joyce Kilmer.  In the process of writing this remembrance,  I could hear his voice, pushing me to find the right words; the rhythm; to avoid empty generalities or clichéd phrases; to  create a direct experience grounded in the real world.

Line by line,  we analyzed Shakespeare plays, and he gleefully untangled the sometimes smutty wit in those lines.  Shakespeare was storyteller to ordinary people – “groundlings” as the poorest occupants of the cheap seats were known.  There were field trips to San Francisco to see the modern day equivalent – raw and experimental dramas.  I remember Edward Albee plays at the American Conservatory Theater;    visits to City Lights Book Store in North Beach; learning  the work of the beat poets.   A line from  Lawrence Ferlinghetti – “I am Perpetually Awaiting the Rebirth of Wonder” – stayed with me with the power of a  mantra — and helped me understand my essential optimism in a dark world.

I can only imagine that these freewheeling field trips must surely be illegal now.

img_2343The epic assignment of the last semester of English was  the Shakespeare Paper.  We heard about it like an urban legend.  The anticipation built, year by year.  We’d select a play,  extract ten lines, and find in  those lines the integrity and the essential themes of the play.  In the hurried few days before we left to attend the poetry event,  I went looking for that paper,  and I found it in a dusty box under the eaves in our attic.  Somehow, in all the places I have lived since 1968 – from California to Nebraska – I have carried that paper with me.   It is 33 pages typed on an old manual typewriter on onion skin paper;  it has held up pretty well in less than perfect storage.    I  had chosen Antony and Cleopatra – why, I can’t remember.  It’s part history, part romance; part dysfunctional family drama.   Maybe that was the hook.   I wrote about lines in the closing scenes, spoken by Caesar over the corpses of the doomed lovers.  I was certainly enthused about true love, and how they fought the social constraints of the day, and just plain had each other with, and I quote myself here, “irrational abandon”.  I thought Caesar,  the symbol of social and political pretensions, betrayed the heart of Antony —  Cleopatra being collateral damage.

I’ve graded a thousand student papers since then so I imagine myself in the mind of Ed Brush as he read this earnest and passionate paper, written by an almost fully formed human being, who  saw a hint of feminist potential in Cleopatra; and was drawn to the pursuit of pure and true love in the shadow of political intrigue and war.    In the years to come there would be a place for this curiosity.  He knew what he was doing.

There’s a comment at the end.   “It’s impossible to place a letter grade on an achievement such as this fine paper.  I can say this much.  I believe it would receive an “A” at Cal, Stanford, or Harvard.”   I left for UC Berkeley that fall.  My Shakespeare paper went with me.  It is  a message  forever held close to the heart,.

Though I had my sights set on a degree in psychology, I fell in love with literature; with  writing; with the complexity of human stories.  Eventually I found a way to bring these passions together,  but at the time it felt like turning away from a beloved teacher,  to pursue that psychology degree and the subsequent career as a therapist,  where I often assigned literature, film, and plays as curative elements in therapy;   where writing became a therapeutic  endeavor.

Ed Brush wrote a recommendation for me to the Honors Program in Classics and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley,  and I was accepted.   It was a perfect path  into the academic world.  We had small classes and excellent professors;  the standard at that time being that the first two years of Liberal Arts classes were held  in huge lecture halls and  section meetings with graduate assistants.  Once again I felt heard and respected; with a new edge of challenge.   It was not so easy to produce work of academic quality, but I knew how to dig in.

In 1968 our class was about to set out into a turbulent world.  Some of our classmates went directly from Senior English to Viet Nam.  Others took to the streets to question that same war.   Many were on the ground in the urban conflicts of the civil rights movement.   There were profound changes coming in the lives of women.  People with mental illnesses were flooding out of  institutions worthy of the middle ages;  human warehouses.     We were on the edge of a vast social upheaval.   He must have known that.

When I think about his influence now,  I wonder how  my life might have been different had I never known him; had there been a traditional, straitlaced someone in his place; someone who did not love partially formed human beings or who saw the teaching process as routine or tiresome; autocratic, who was horror of horrors, a lover of Joyce Kilmer verse.

I am also speaking as a parent of two daughters.  Each found the gift of  such a teacher;  someone who saw their talents and challenged them, and changed their lives.   As much as we love our children,  we need someone else to walk them the last few steps to the threshold of the adult world – that shaky bridge where we can’t go.  Now I know that’s what Ed Brush was up to, and I love him for it.


Take Your Daughter to Work Someday

Barbara Jessing

My father went to work for the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory — popularly known as “the Rad Lab” –on October 1, 1959. What did he do? It was never very clear to me as a child. If I wanted to know something about my father – and I remember this vividly at eight years old – I needed to ask my mom. “He’s a maintenance machinist”, she told me. He graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, and went into the Army shortly thereafter, in that gap of uncertainty between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War. I am fairly sure that he learned the machinist trade through Union apprenticeships on the job. I remember knowing when I was very young, that he was studying at night for his job. I’d look at the books with curiosity but they were filled with indecipIMG_0758herable equations , no pictures, and very few recognizable words. I found one of those books in his study after his death – Audell’s Questions and Answers for Engineers and Fireman’s Examinations, published in 1953, with his neat square printing inside, his name and the address of our first home – 1537 St. Charles St, Alameda, California. Now I realize that he was studying for some type of qualifying exam. My father’s father was a tailor, a trade also learned as an apprentice to his own father. Our postwar Baby Boom generation was entering a wide new and meandering path toward a career – a four year liberal arts education.

The 1950’s were way too early for “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”, so I never saw the world he went away to every day. Over the years I could feel my brain retrieving those words “maintenance machinist”,  puzzling over their meanings, separate and together, piecing it together with the other traits and qualities I saw in my father: precision in the spatial world; but comparative silence in the interpersonal realm. Later, in my professional life as a therapist, I learned the term “alexithymia” — “ the sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self”. I say that and take it back, because those years have taught me that it is a bad idea to pathologize every variation in human experience. There was nothing, it seemed, that he could not fix or build. I don’t recall that my mother ever had to call a repairman for appliance repairs – he fixed them. When we needed another bedroom because there were now six children to accommodate in an 1100 square foot home, he built it; if our cars needed work, he took care of it in the driveway; when he wanted a boat for fishing and waterskiing, he built one in the garage.

He retired an even thirty years later,in October 1989,  though he was re-hired a few days later in some sleight of hand  post retirement role, a few days a week.   In the thin manila folder labeled  “retirement“  that  I brought home after his death,   I found  a  final pay statement  which  included his job classification:  “Senior Plant Facility Maintenance Coordinator”,   a net gain of three words over “maintenance machinist”.  That same folder contained a dozen photographs  dated from 1961 to 1970, mystery engineering photo 8 x 10, grainy black and white photos of   pump casings,  excavations,  complex mazes of pipes in dark underground tunnels, ladders descending into watery pits.  It’s hard to tell why these strange photos might have been saved.  If someone had asked him what he did, would this be how he would  wordlessly explain it?  Did it represent his best work?  Or is there a mysterious secret message  in these photos that hints that he was a whistleblower?

In the same folder, I found an award certificate,  printed on thin parchment paper, given in thanks for restoring power  and providing essential services during  five days in the summer of 1988.  I’d not heard of any heroic acts in that year of his life so I did a web search.  

According to the Los Angeles Times for September 6, 1988,

“The electrical system at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a key federal design facility for nuclear weapons and     Strategic Defense Initiative hardware, needs a $40-million overhaul, Livermore officials said. A spokesman said the defects were discovered as officials cleaned up after an explosion and fire that cut power for four days to the mile-square facility.”

Here’s the AP account of the incident:

Jul. 1, 1988 6:10 AM ET

LIVERMORE, Calif. (AP) The Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory was shut down today after an electrical         transformer blew up in a fireball seen a mile away, touching off a series of explosions and fires.

The blasts and fires Thursday night at the laboratory, where nuclear weapons are designed, followed a power outage that plunged the 500-building complex into darkness, said laboratory spokeswoman Sue Stephenson. There were no injuries reported and the     three fires were put out in about an hour, she said. Most of the damage took place at the lab’s main switching substation, a long   metal structure.

”The windows were turned brown by the flames and firefighters chopped holes in the roof,” said Stephenson, who estimated damage to the building at $250,000.

The fires began when the main transformer in the switching building exploded, sending an electrical surge into transformers at the two other buildings, said Jay Davis, the lab’s emergency duty officer. The other explosions and fires were at power transmission boxes outside two other buildings. Those fires also burned some nearby bushes. Davis said that when the main transformer blew up, it sent up a fireball that was visible from his home, about a mile away. The fires were all several blocks from the high-security building where plutonium is stored and did not affect any section of the lab where nuclear materials are kept, Stephenson said.
”They are safe and secure,” she said.

So I like to think that my father helped to avert the end of the world as we know it, on July 1, 1988.

I am sure he had to pass periodic security clearances for his work. But whether or not he was formally constrained from disclosing his day to day work life to anyone, he was already inclined toward silence. This sort of event would not have been shared with us over the dinner table — that part where you say “So how was your day?”

Dated that same year, 1988 – a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic end of the Cold War — was an administrative memo requiring that he notify the Department of Energy if he intended to travel to what were referred to as “sensitive countries” –tactfully interpreted later in the document to be “communist controlled”. Somehow I prefer  to think of them as sensitive countries. Such travel, whether official or not, required a “Foreign Travel Briefing” in which individuals were alerted to potential intelligence gathering methods they might encounter, and the defensive measures they might have to deploy. This was a common enough need that briefings were held on the first and third Mondays of every month. Having recently watched the television series, “The Americans”, a drama about espionage set toward the end of the Cold War, I am imagining those cheesy bar pickup lines, bad wigs, contraband taped under toilet tanks; verbal arrows aimed at one’s dark and secret vulnerabilities.

I could never get my father to say very much — so I’d have only been able to wish those Russians “good luck with that”.

When I think back on it, I guess my dad would have said he knew very little about my day to day work life either. Did he puzzle over the word “family therapist” as I puzzled over the words “maintenance machinist”? Could our worlds have been more different? I’ve had the experience of looking up to see confused, tuned out, or sometimes horrified looks from friends or family, when I try to explain the uplifting potential of family therapy with addicted and abusive parents and their tiny children.

So I’ve made another try at understanding what my father did for a living. I’ve been reading a few passages from Audell’s Questions and Answers for Engineers and Firemen . Old Audell apparently wrote down everything he knew, everything he learned over many years of experience. He comes across as a bit of a curmudgeon. He refers with concise contempt to greenhorns an1919390_584017672373_5635925_nd ne’er do wells, nondescripts and highbrows. He cites their engineering practices as bad examples to never do. Most of his chapters float right over my head, but I find myself going back to a table that shows the rate of heat transfer from steam radiator to chilly room.

During the time I was working on this writing, I had a dream about my father. It doesn’t happen very often so it has stayed with me. In the dream I am at a meeting, maybe a community meeting of some kind. I am standing, and I notice my father crouching on the floor beside me. I  sit beside him and we begin to talk, at the same level, as we are in this photo; as if picking up a thread of a conversation that had been started years ago.


Note: I was curious as to whether LLNL ever got into “Take Your Daughter to Work” day… and they did! Within a year or two of its origins in the late ‘90’s, they were on board.  More women in science and engineering. Fewer girls mystified about what their fathers  did.


On a lighter note, the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas is a contender in the second International “When You Work at a Museum” Dance Off Contest, “Electric Boogaloo”. Closes with  the music of Tom Lehrer…  “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.”

Reposted from “WHEN YOU WORK AT A MUSEUM”.

Embryonic Journey

by Barbara Jessing

el rancho

767 El Rancho Drive

As a child I remember taking an occasional look into my father’s top dresser drawer. I wasn’t interested in the clothing drawers. They were everyday boring — though it was surprising to find that he was so neat: such symmetrical folds and stacks. But the top drawer was more jumbled. It held everyday odds and ends – but among them were small relics of his past. Army dog tags, Military insignia – crossed rifles on a small brass disc – for serving in the infantry (though he was armed only with a saxophone as far as I know) – a rosary, his grandfather’s meerschaum pipe still holding the sharp scent of cherry tobacco in it; a pocket knife, silver dollars, a coin commemorating Franklin Roosevelt. Cuff links, money clip.

I can’t remember feeling ashamed about this invasion of privacy. And shame was the all the rage for Catholic children in the fifties. I’d gotten the message: born into sin, in need of redemption. At seven I was already inventorying my small weekly experiences for signs of sin. We didn’t have “elf on a shelf” to remind us that whether or not we knew it we were being watched and judged. But I felt no shame in opening that drawer. I knew to look when no one was around, but it felt to me like a clean healthy and driven curiosity. Who was this man? Where had he been? Why did he save these things? What did they mean to him? Every child is born into a mystery. Standing over that open drawer, that’s what I was trying to solve.

What has taken me back to Livermore? The end of my parents’ marriage; the endings in death of their separate lives. Having the responsibility to deal with the homes and belongings they left behind. Opening the huge top dresser drawer of their entire lives, asking those same small  questions again,  in loving grief and curiosity – who were these people, and what imprint have they left on me? What did they leave behind, and what does it mean?

From those childhood homes, we moved out, moved on. That house remained like a museum of our origins, though little by little the exhibits changed. I shipped boxes to my new address – college papers, square photos, old letters, baby blanket. These things became part of a new home, a new museum.

Closing the house. My father had died several years before, but until his widow sold the house to move to a retirement apartment, most of his things had remained in place. We had never lived here. We were visitors in the living room. In my grandmother’s home, where I knew every corner, I might have gone directly to the middle bedroom and know that in the dresser drawers I could  find baby photos, wrapping paper, or needle and thread. Here, I’d have to ask; I wouldn’t know.

Now, in his quiet absence, everything was open to us. In the hours after his funeral, as cake and coffee were served in the living room, I found my brother sitting silently in my father’s study, in the arm chair in the corner, and I understand why. Here we could be in the heart of the mystery.

A desk positioned into the corner, with wings to both sides, was exactly like my own. Clearly he knew his way around in this order. A book of stamps folded into a small cubbyhole; he would have known where to find them as I know where mine are stashed. Neat stacks of mail, drawers for fishing lures, bills filed by month; photo packets – these I investigated eagerly but most were pictures of wood,  and the small works of art he turned and carved with precision on the lathes in his woodshop; his friends who also were woodworkers, guys teaching woodworking classes; things made out of wood;  things he saw at art shows that he thought of making. An album of a cruise to Alaska taken several years ago, filled with gorgeous photographs of the inland fiords, eagles, moose, the wet distant back of a whale; but none of himself and few of any human person — as if his eyes were fixed only outward and then mostly on the natural world.

I did not find many pictures of my father, except a picture on his bookshelf — wood books, fishing books — of a young man wailing on a saxophone. His music collection, CD’s mostly, are shelved above the desk. I listen to the sounds I remember him playing on the saxophone. Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz.clarinet solo

There is evidence that the disease had begun to encroach on this space in the last few months — an oxygen machine, a collection of pills, a blood pressure cuff, an internet printout suggesting he had grappled here with the cool facts about the disease – chronic, untreatable, pulmonary fibrosis

In a file drawer I went looking for the military discharge papers needed to process some aspect of probate. In the search for that, I discovered his retirement folder, outlining his departure from   thirty years of employment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. And I also found copies of his medical records, obtained in the process of determining if his years of work involving radioactive and other highly dangerous materials, had anything to do with the failure of his lungs in his final illness. These folders came  with me to my own study at home, each holding its own questions about the mysteries of my father’s life.

Early that Saturday, the coastal fog  rolled over the hills into the valley. In these few days of boxing up my father’s study, I took  daily breaks to Peet’s or Borders for an internet connection, real coffee, and public radio. So I happened to catch Scott Simon on Weekend Edition, interviewing Yorma Kaukonen, guitarist with the Jefferson Airplane, who played a few minutes of Embryonic Journey, an intricate guitar solo, a wordless and powerful anthem of beginning. With this song, from the pink covered  album Surrealistic Pillow, the spring of forty years ago comes rushing back, this adventure just beginning; into such a future, unknown.

“How long do you plan to live”? This is the startling question I was faced with, the first time I consulted a retirement planner. Having enough money to retire, it turns out, depends on that. How long do you plan to live? In those Embryonic Journey days, how would I have answered that? Thirty seemed far away. Old age, impossible. Retirement from what one has not done yet, unthinkable.

And now here I am, forty years distant from leaving home; not only that, but I have made a home, set two children on their own embryonic journeys; and mine was the home they left.

“In my beginning is my end.”
T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”

We Want to Hear from You

Whether or not you had a family or other personal connection to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, do you remember when you first became aware of the nature of the work being done there? How and when did you gain a perspective and draw your own conclusions about it?

Three Minutes Till Midnight

Barbara Jessing

Livermore, our little hometown, has a place on the world stage. I didn’t know that as a nine year old immigrant from the big city. It might always have remained the dusty cowboy vineyard town; had the Cold War not flared up out of the embers of the Hot War.

Recently, WGN TV aired a television series called “Manhattan”, a fictionalized account of the American race to create a nuclear bomb in the last years of World War II, before the Germans accomplished the same. It was a fear that was spread by German and other scientists who fled Europe in advance of Hitler. Set in New Mexico, not far from the real life Los Alamos Laboratory, it depicts the aura of secrecy and the fierce competition among the scientific investigators; with the constant pressure on these frail humans to perfect what was referred to not as a bomb, but a “gadget”, to end the war. But what weight was given to the consequences, as huge and dangerous as the blast that was about to happen?
Robert Oppenheimer was quoted about his reactions to the testing of the bomb in July 1945, a few weeks before they were used in Japan:

 “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.                    I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the ‘Bhagavad-Gita’. Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he              should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become death: the destroyer  of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

-Robert Oppenheimer recalling the first atomic bomb test on July 16, 1945 (dubbed the “Trinity” test)

And yet they proceeded.

The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 caused the immediate deaths of 200,000 people, many civilians, some completely vaporized by the unprecedented blast, leaving only shadows that can still be seen in some places, on the ground. The National World War II Museum estimates that 60 million people of all sides and all nations, died in World War II — three times as many civilians as soldiers lost in battle; and another 25 million wounded. The use of nuclear weapons on the eastern front of the war was intended to prevent more American deaths; though there is evidence that the Japanese were close to surrender before this time.

The blast wiped out homes, industry, businesses, and almost any vestige of nature. It is said that the ancient tree species, Gingko Biloba, 270 million years old, was one of the only living things to survive the bombing; and the hardy Oleander was the first flower to bloom again after the blast. Growing up in the Bay Area, I remember learning that Oleanders were planted along the freeways, because they were strong enough to withstand the constant wash of car exhaust. Oh, and that you shouldn’t have them in your yard, because they are poisonous for children.

The surviving soldiers of World War II came home – in every country, from every side in the conflict — to reestablish homes and families. Young mens’ and womens’ lives had been interrupted – their futures set down for the duration of the war; now to be taken up again, to heal around the devastation – physical, emotional, cultural and moral devastation. It was the rebuilding of one family after another; but also a regeneration of the species – 76 million of us world wide made up the baby boom.

And some of them came home to Livermore, and we were their children, their down payment on the future.

Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, physicists who led the Manhattan Project, also had lives to take up after the war. Oppenheimer headed the US Atomic Energy Commission, and Teller came to lead nuclear weapons research at the University of California at Berkeley and its eventual expansion, in 1952, at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Yes, it was dedicated to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, national security, and the prevention of future cataclysmic use of nuclear arms – but in fact, nuclear weapons research has been an ongoing and central element of the work of LLNL.
Oppenheimer was correct, — the world could not be the same. Consequences would begin to unfold in the months and years following the end of the war. The Russians were known to be intent on producing their own nuclear arsenal. American nuclear research would continue with a new enemy in its sites, and the Cold War came to characterize the early years of our lives.

Tom Lehrer, a political satirist and songwriter of that era, nailed it with his song “Who’s Next?”, outlining nuclear proliferation from Russia to China to France to Indonesia to the ultimate fear:

“We’ll try to stay serene and calm
When Alabama gets the bomb.
Who’s next?”

Kids who grew up in the 1950’s learned “duck and cover” drills in their schools. We were taught to fear that Russians would turn nuclear weapons against Americans. I am haunted by images of small children curled under their desks, shielding their eyes against the flare of the blast; such a pointless gesture that yet instilled deep terror. I was one of those children. Once, in my Catholic grade school, we were crouched to the floor in a drill, heads covered, awaiting the nuns to give the all clear. Someone came into the auditorium, slow deliberate paces, surely a male stride, sharp sounds on the shiny floor. A child broke into sobs; sure that those footsteps were the Russians coming for us. It was in fact the parish priest, coming to inspect the drill.

duck n cover

 (This photo is not from our actual classroom,  but one I found as a postcard  A creepy postcard)

Down the block from our house, at least one neighbor excavated a huge pit to build a bomb shelter in his back yard, a place where he and his family could barricade themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. The shelter was to be filled with survival rations, water, and if he followed popular advice, a gun to keep out his desperate neighbors. Human connection and community would not survive such a blast. Every cowboy for himself.

bomb shelter

(Again,  not our actual neighbor.  Another creepy postcard)

In 1962, when I was twelve years old, I remember watching the black and white television news of the unfolding of the Cuban Missile crisis – Russian Nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at targets in the United States. No one said that Lawrence Livermore Laboratory was one of those targets, but kids fill in the blanks with their terrified imaginations. I live in Nebraska now, only a few miles from the US Air Force Strategic Air Command, the postwar fortress for the US nuclear strike force. Friends who grew up here have shared the same sense of doom they felt as children on that day in 1962. Surely those missiles are aimed at us. It seemed inevitable that we would die, and there was nothing that anyone’s mother or father or parish priest or government could do to stop it. In my mother’s stories of how she, a child living on the coast of California, heard about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, I imagine the same paralyzing fear.

How do young people learn to live a moral life in the world? The Livermore school district, growing to meet the needs of the population explosion, opened a second high school in 1964, and many of the faculty were graduates of the University of California at Berkeley. We had gifted teachers of history, literature, humanities, American culture, and social studies. I grew up in classrooms where I was both loved and challenged to think clearly and without sentimentality, and this moral question of war was central. Outside the classroom I remember wading through more than a thousand pages of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, struggling to understand the scope of evil so recently rampant in the world. But I do not remember any discussion with my father, or mother, about the use of nuclear weapons or about the weapons research still being done at LLNL.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. For 21 years I regularly rode or drove on Oleander lined freeways. In early adolescence I became fascinated with the physics and chemistry of atomic energy; it was mid to later adolescence when I began to construct a moral framework around this question. By the time I entered the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1968, I was no longer focused on pure science, but more on the human psychology behind it – the reasoning and morality of how it was used. I have always lived with those questions, and live with them today; struggling between transcendent hope and despair for the planet.

I came of age in the midst of the Viet Nam war. I do not remember a time when the legitimacy of that war was not being actively debated. First on the streets and on campuses, and eventually, through that constant pressure of cultural questioning, and beyond questioning, to outright resistance, the federal government had to come to terms with it. So I wonder what might have existed in the ‘40s, in the years and months leading up to the use of nuclear weapons, for any level of public debate about the moral implications of what was about to happen.

So , were Americans ill prepared to understand the implications of using nuclear weapons; or were they ill informed, or did they fear they could not influence the choice? We continue to carry out that moral debate today. Clearly there has always been some element of citizen concern and opposition to nuclear weapons, but it has not prevailed to change direction significantly. Look at the fears in the last few years that Iraq and Iran possessed the makings of weapons of mass destruction, prompting more than a dozen years of American military involvement in middle eastern wars, with no end in sight. And now we have reason to fear not only other nations in possession of nuclear weapons, but small political cells, even renegade individuals, capable of using “dirty bombs”.

The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic measure of the ominousness of a global nuclear catastrophe, was developed in 1947 by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In 1947, it was set to 11:53 – seven minutes to midnight. During the weeks I was working on this essay, the Doomsday Clock ticked four minutes closer to midnight. Today it stands at 11:57: three minutes closer to catastrophe. What would peace even look like?

A few years ago I took up folding origami. A friend gave me a calendar, a page per day with directions for folding something new. When I got to the Cranes page, I stopped, and spent the rest of the year learning the complex folds of that single design. I made them by the dozens, by the hundreds, for my daughter’s wedding reception; for gifts and garlands and mobiles, randomly left in greenery, on the porch, at parks and retreat centers. I didn’t think of why. I did not intentionally or consciously take up a Japanese folk craft, nor was I counting down the hundred, or thousand, or ten thousand cranes that bring fulfillment of a wish; or ensure future peace. I didn’t know then that in the city of Hiroshima there is a Peace Memorial Park. Within it is a Children’s Peace Monument, made up of millions of origami cranes offered as symbols of peace. The association of cranes with peace in the modern world came about when a girl named Sadako Sasaki, two years old when the bomb hit her city, developed leukemia nine years later. In the last year of her short life she folded cranes as a wish for peace. The effort survived this one little girl. Ten million cranes are offered at the monument each year, for the peaceful repose of the many children who died in and after the blast, and for the cause of world peace.

Learning to live a moral life in the world:  still trying.

“We Thought We Were Heading for the Wild Wild West”

Barbara Jessing

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.

.Scout n Brownie

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.

lashing a buch of stuff

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.

What Draws You Back?

What has brought you back to Livermore over the years since childhood? We welcome your stories. You’ll find information for contributors at the top of the page

Keep a Fire Burning

Barbara Jessing

“Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found”

Jackson Browne, “For a Dancer”

What draws us back — what strong pull of the tide —  to reconnect with the people we were young with, long ago? It’s irresistible to wonder “what if?” What if I knew then what I know now? Most intriguing of all, what if I could do it over? Would the course of life be different? I am drawn back to Livermore at all the turning points in life.

For those of us born at the midpoint of the twentieth century – 1950 – the year 2000 had a mystical quality to it, an axis around which our lives would orbit. How far away it seemed; how terribly strange it would be to be fifty years old.  There was a constant process of recalculation as the years ticked by.   As I approached my 50th birthday, I could see Livermore in the rear view mirror.

Not everyone would arrive at that milestone. There was a boy in our high school class, seventeen, who drove his motorcycle into the path of a truck in 1967. Life was too hard at seventeen, he couldn’t face turning eighteen, much less turning fifty. He didn’t marry, he had no career, there were no children; he left parents without a son to turn to in later life. What could have been so tough on that day in 1967? What pain was unbearable? A failing test grade, a fight with a girlfriend, a draft notice, a bad day at home, family crisis, a misdemeanor offense, sexual confusion? Was the end a matter of impulsivity, an intolerable moment that might otherwise have passed, leaving the future to unfold? I recently learned that brain research shows that adolescents experience emotional events with twice the intensity of mature adults. So his pain, whatever the source, was shattering.

I remember kids who knew him, the girl he was dating, devastated. I remember her pure sorrow. I had not had at that time, the experience of knowing the aftermath of suicide, the complex grief, anger and betrayal that can be left for someone else, family and friends, to sort out. I know it now.

I browsed the internet for news of other classmates of that year, the year of the boy who died at seventeen. On message boards I learn in glimpses, who changed, who grew, who stopped, who remained the same.

  • Are you alive? Do you remember me? I was going with Chris and he didn’t allow me to talk to any guys. I dropped out senior year to marry him. Dumb thing to do, just want to say Hi.
  • High school was . . . educational. And I’m not talking classes.
  • Looking for a friend of my youth
  • Just call me “Married with Fish”.
  • Does anyone remember me? My nick name was Outlaw, I rode around on a Honda during 63-64?? Friend of mine was a guy who played good football Johnny Stone, he died in 1967 – does any of this ring any bells– if so post something
  • I am searching for two of my best friends that, through all the years, I can’t forget. Please help me find ’em!
  • I spoke with Sharon years ago. I thought she married Bill, that tall and very handsome guy who’s friends were Jim Parker and Richard Vierdon. As for me, I ran away and married Prince Charming in the 70’s.
  • Remember that trip to the lake with Jerry and your sisters, we got high and started that tractor? The times we went to the Fillmore,and Winterland to see Ten Years After?
  • Mariposa, on the Merced River. Very Very Clear, like yesterday, believe me. The Gold Rush Inn, room 212 An image burned into my mind, that will be there until the day I die. When we went into the room, I shut the door, turned around and looked at you. It was the look you gave me. that every man in life would die for.
  • “I thought I was going to change the world. Now I live in Tracy and I have to pay a mortgage.”

I searched for the name of the boy who died at seventeen. In the vast cyberspace, there was nothing. He did not survive into that world, where it seems almost everyone leaves a trace – white pages, pool tournament victories, public records of marriage, divorce, cimes, promotions, obscure mention in newspapers. For him, nothing.

In the year 2000, it seemed particularly important to go back to Livermore; to reconnect with a circle of friends who hold the continuous thread of identity for one another. We sat at a table together on a sunny fall afternoon. We have known one another as children, as girls, as young women, as adults now fifty years old. We have children in early adulthood, careers established and productive; parents aging or dead; marriages that either grew and held, or didn’t; feeling the first twinges of aging in the body. I notice in their faces, as others surely notice in mine, what subtle changes come with age: texture, color, and light. Who are we, who have not shattered, now that we are in midlife? We are made harder, we are more enduring, by the fires we have passed through; we have experience to moderate the glorious and terrible intensity of youth.

“Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know”


“My Family Landed in Livermore After a Nomadic Journey….”

Susan Michael Harris

My family landed in Livermore after a nomadic journey from eastern Washington State to California.
From the time I was 3 or 4 my dad worked at the Hanford nuclear bomb site in Richland Washington. Then one day, when I was 12, my parents announced to the three of us kids that my dad had decided to quit the rat race at Hanford and that we were moving to California. California!! To a tween like me, that was amazing news! I was thrilled to get out of this dusty , boring, company town – and California was the best place on the planet to land.
We packed up all of our stuff and optimism and moved initially to Vallejo where my parents were partnering with some other relatives to run a printing business. We rented the house next door to an aunt and uncle and spent the summer helping the business to get off the ground. It was a fun summer – working (yes, even the kids) and exploring this golden state. In September I started Jr. High – 7th grade. I was absolutely unprepared for this experience. Small town girl meets giant school filled with diversity and chaos! I was terrified. I suddenly longed for the security of my small town.(I am the oldest of three kids. Marsha is just 14 months younger and David is 2 years younger.) For the first we were not together in the same school. It was pretty traumatic.
The printing business was short lived – something about one of the relatives taking the money and running off… ANYWAY .. We found ourselves, along with my aunt, uncle and cousins, renting a house in San Jose. Jr High # 2 – Even bigger and scarier !!
My Dad was frantically looking for work. After all – we had come to California and opportunity was everywhere – right? After a couple of months he was hired at the Lawrence Livermore Lab. We moved to Livermore, rented a house on Falcon Way and I embarked on my third Jr. High experience. I was very wary when I entered Junction Ave Jr High. However, it was a much smaller school with friendly classmates. Some even lived in my neighborhood and so was the beginning of making new friends and finally starting the California – LIVERMORE, California – chapter of our lives.
Change is constant. In 8th grade the news of JFK’s assassination rocked everyone’s world. It was unbelievable – inconceivable!! Our home room teacher left the classroom and returned a few minutes later crying. He told us the news. School was let out for the day. Teachers, students – we were all reeling in shock.
1964 – My parents had a beautiful new home built on El Caminito. (I remember my mom being so delighted that we were going to live on El Caminito – the little road. “Such an exotic street name!” she would say. “El Caminito”. This was a shining moment for my parents. Finally, California was living up the promises that had enticed our family. Not only were we moving into a lovely new home, I was starting high school at Granada High School just blocks from where we lived. This was a brand new, experimental high school. The school opened its doors in September, 1964. This is the beginning!

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