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

Archive for the tag “Lawrence Livermore Laboratory”

“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.


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!

“Growing Up In Livermore”

Julie Winkelstein

Like Barbara, my memories of growing up in Livermore are complex and intertwined. One of my earliest memories is holding my dad’s hand as we stood together, watching our new house being built on College Ave. This must have been about 1952 or 1953, when I was around 2 or 3. I don’t know why that memory has stayed with me – maybe it was the comforting presence of my father while we together watched something that was exciting and interesting.
I also have faint memories of nursery school, where I met (I think – this is how I remember it, anyway) two children who would stay my friends for years: Sally Hill and Paul Leith. My adventures with both of them are integral parts of my childhood. All day bike rides, an attempted 50-mile hike the year Kennedy (I think it was) challenged the nation to exercise. I remember my parents and Paul’s parents driving by frequently as we trudged on, stopping occasionally to add more bandaids to our increasing number of blisters.
The year I was four was a big year for me. I learned how to ride a bike, whistle and tie my shoes. It was also the year my brother Geoff was born and I remember going with my sister Debby and my uncle Peter to see Geoff for the first time – through a window at Kaiser hospital in Walnut Creek. My mother brought him over to the window and held him up so we could admire him. The best part of him being born was that for some reason my parents gave me a pocket watch – one of my most prized possessions for years. I wonder what happened to that watch. Read more…

“Send Me On My Way”

June 2013 in Berkeley California
Barbara Jessing

I can see the University of California Berkeley’s Campanile Tower from my hotel room, the outline softened by coastal fog which rolled in sometime after midnight. On this cool morning, it has not yet dissipated. And I am out the door, early Sunday, walking back to campus after more than forty years. There are a few things on this visit, not many, that I want to find again, and one of them is fog. Within a block, I find something else: the scent of eucalyptus. It is the Mediterranean heat of the full day that brings the sharp scent out of the leaves – but the damp night air holds it close to the earth overnight, like a blanket. More prosaically, I can smell the extremes of urban poverty – a homeless man who spent the night in a doorway, urinating across the sidewalk. I’d rather have eucalyptus. In the deep shade of the West entrance to the campus, there is a trail ascending along Strawberry Creek.

Forty years ago I was an undergraduate liberal arts major here, one small and lost person among 26,000 students. Day to day life had an overlay of solitary worry; stretching a few dollars through the week. The price of my room at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza last night would have paid a month’s rent in 1970, in one of those shared and shabby apartments or boarding houses I could afford then. I remember being tired enough after a late shift at a residential institution where I worked then, to fall asleep on the ground in this same eucalyptus grove; head resting on my backpack. Read more…

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