Steinbeck Country

The other day, I found myself shooting south from San Francisco, down California’s Highway 101. Once through the Bay Area, past San Jose, the look of the drive changes significantly.

No more high-tech corporate headquarters campuses. No overly cute billboards. No knots of traffic. Not a Prius in sight, only trucks. Nothing you’d see in the driveway of a suburban house. These are working trucks.

And so, I entered the Salinas Valley, the place Steinbeck brought to life in ‘East of Eden,’ ‘Of Mice and Men,’ and many other of his stories. The closer I got to my destination, the pretty little city of Gonzales, the more I came to recall the opening of ‘East of Eden.’

     The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

.     I remember my childhood names for the grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer – and what trees and seasons smelled like – how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

My window was down on this chilly November morning, and I could smell those smells too. And I was transported to a time when a young John Steinbeck lived and played and grew, like the trees and the grasses, among the green fields of the Salinas Valley.

What Might Have Been

It’s human nature, I think, to wonder about alternatives to events as they actually unfolded, or the results of pursuing different paths at key moments in life. “What might have been, if only…” and so forth. I get into those moods now and then myself.

The other day, I was cleaning a few things out of the house my mom has lived in since the 1950s when I stumbled on this (above) antique campaign bumper sticker affixed to the garage wall.

Now, I don’t assume all my readers know ancient California history, so here’s the background.

In 1965, the governor of California was a Democrat named Pat Brown (current governor Jerry’s dad, by the way). The very first Republican to announce his candidacy for his party’s nomination to run against Brown was Laughlin Waters, a man who had a lot going for him as a candidate.

Waters was a legitimate World War 2 hero, having led a rifle company onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He was a universally acknowledged person of intellect and substance. He was a brilliant lawyer, well-experienced in private practice and as US Attorney for Los Angeles, a huge and important position. He was a well-regarded public servant, having served three terms in the state legislature.

And, as I can personally attest (his wife was a lifelong friend of my parents), he was a very nice guy off the clock. A solid storyteller. A real, honest-to-God family man. Funny in social settings. Nice as the day is long.

Here’s what he didn’t have: a particularly photogenic face (his photo, above), jump-off-the-page charisma, star power, famous friends.

Pat Brown was a popular governor. It was going to take just the right Republican to have even a chance of beating him in the general election. And, in the end, California’s Republicans went in a direction that very much represented a break from their party’s history.

Their eventual nominee was no war hero (he’d sat out World War 2 safely stateside), no genius lawyer, no public servant (aside from his career in the arts, his only real grown-up work experience was serving as his small union’s president). But he had in spades the precise qualities Waters lacked: prettiness, attractiveness, connections.  And they turned out to be what enough Californians wanted to vote for in the general election to unseat Pat Brown.

So was born our current political era, in which American voters support candidates for their attractiveness over their substance. And, too, was born a national political career for the man who forced Laughlin Waters out of the race, Ronald Reagan.

Public Works

Outside of our home, here’s what most of my young life looked like: libraries, schools, playgrounds and parks. To be more specific, public libraries, public schools, public playgrounds and public parks.

I grew up about ten blocks from two public libraries. The librarians – there were several – seemed to love having kids around. They took time to show us books, of course, but also how to look, how to use the card catalog (Anyone still remember those?), how to look through magazines and newspapers. There were author programs – a very fine kids’ author, Marilyn Sachs lived in our neighborhood – cultural events, a chess club, reading groups, and many more features that made for a healthy and robust community of young thinkers.

I attended public schools from kindergarten through college. My state was among the top 3 in per student spending for K-12 education when I was of school age. We had many experienced, engaged and talented teachers, books that were ample and new each year, school supplies, enrichment programs, music programs, art programs, school libraries, PE, special events, like spring festivals, up-to-date AV equipment. Once I got to high school, my school offered instruction in French, German, Italian and Spanish. We had several interscholastic athletic teams every season, a school play each semester, frequent musical events. Our science labs were well stocked. I was fortunate to attend my state’s university for a little less than $600 per year in tuition.

I lived across the street from a very well used playground – tennis and basketball courts, athletic equipment, a special play area for littler kids, art classes, a program of day-trips, a professional staff.

A huge urban park was only half a block away. It had a lake with boats for rent, baseball diamonds, a full track, football fields, open meadows, walking trails, horse rentals, a world class fine art museum, a natural history museum, open-air band concerts, a Japanese tea garden, several playgrounds, an animal farm, public art, a working antique carousel.

Almost everything about my experience as a youth told me it meant something special to be a part of my city, my state. I came to understand through that living, breathing, personal experience, then, the very concept of citizenship. I had a clear understanding of what government provided its citizens. I received education, enrichment, socialization, physical fitness, recreation.

Expensive to build and run? Without question. But what did my hometown get in return?

Generations of good, well educated, civic-minded, committed citizens.

When I hear people say they want government out of their lives, I can only assume they haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had. I would hate to think they were self-serving, hypocritical and cynical enough to criticize and even kill the very institutions that gave them such advantage in life.

A Moment to Breathe

I am just back from a few days in nature. I have breathed clean, cool, fresh air. I have walked fair distances, done significant physical labor, (for the most part) stayed off my electronics. I have sat in grassy shade and had long conversations about really nothing of lasting consequence. I have watched the sun rise over the hills and dapple the leaves of coastal California’s native scrub oak, manzanita and madrone. I explored part of a creek that wound its way down a ravine to reach the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Even in a singularly beautiful natural environment, I still drank too much coffee. I didn’t eat or sleep well (Chaperoning 7th grade boys can do that to a person.).

A change of scenery like this, even a temporary one, can lift the spirits and boost thinking and creativity. There is a reason, after all, that so many retreat centers are located in the woods and so many fewer in center cities. Undistracted by the Internet, television and radio, the latest self-serving whipped-up political shit-storm, I was more relaxed and creative. I did, in fact, think deep thoughts.

On balance, then, it was an undeniably positive experience, although I’m still plenty happy to be back amongst my people.

Look westward

My grandfather Vasilios, who would much later call himself Bill, landed on Ellis Island with ten dollars in his pocket. That’s not some kind of romanticized family legend, by the way, but a documented fact; I’ve seen the ship manifest with my own eyes. At that time, all immigrants had to declare the cash they’d brought with them and it was clear that Vasilios was operating on a crazy-thin shoestring. And he wasn’t alone.

They came west across the Atlantic by the hundreds of thousands each year and took up jobs and lives in the American experiment – over eight hundred thousand in 1921, the year Vasilios made his way – and powered one of the greatest economic and social engines in the history of the world.

For my grandfather, it was clear, to him at least, that his life was going to be made in California; there was going to be no other place for him. It was, he felt, meant to be his final destination from the moment he saw a crudely printed flyer in his village coffee house announcing the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. So, west became the direction of his attention, his immigration and his dreams.

And west he came, until there was no more land to cross and he stopped, where all like-minded crazies and dreamers stopped, at the far ocean of the American continent. The societies they built here reflected that combination of insanity that convinces a person it’s a good idea to leave home forever with ten bucks in your pocket, and the nervous tension created by running out of land to cross.

Wave after wave of immigrants have come to California and the west since, and they continue to come – even though now they more frequently travel north from Latin and Central America or east from Asia and the Pacific Islands to get here. And with them have come the unending hard work and blazing innovation and constant reimagining of the country that this region represents.

The pioneers of Silicon Valley, like David Packard and Gordon Moore, destroyed previously held ideas about the reality of technological boundaries. Alice Waters, Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan re-imagined how we should feed our kids and ourselves to achieve healthy lives and a healthier society. A long line of activists stretching from Harvey Milk to his legion of successors has completely redefined, not only who can hold elected office, but human rights and the very idea of family.

It’s no great wonder to me that our country so frequently looks to the west for innovations and new ideas; I walk out my front door, turn left and can see the same mighty Pacific my grandfather saw and find myself feeling the same crazy combination of feelings. Our country and the world still look west for yet unrealized, but worthy, dreams to pursue.

May we always.