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Heritage and Hope
An Autobiography by Robert Morrison DeWolf
CHAPTER 1 - Houses
During a summer vacation several years ago, I drove to the edge of the town where I was born Raymond, Washington. It was the first time I had been there since my parents moved elsewhere shortly after my birth.
While the teen aged service station attendant filled the tank, I asked him what was going on in the town.
His answer was brief and emphatic: "Nuthin!"
I was tempted to explore around to see if I could locate the site of the hospital where I first saw the light of day just after noon on June 22, 1918. (A spoon given to my parents as a birth present marks the time and birth weight).
However, while we stopped for gas, the usual drizzle was falling, our small children were restless, and I was not that curious at the time. So we drove on.
When I was born in Raymond, the sleepy town had become a boom town because wooden ships used during World War I were being built there. It was located near the end of an inlet from the Pacific Ocean, and timber was readily available, so the ships could be floated out to sea from there.
My father, Charles Capp DeWolf, was an engineer who had been graduated from U. C. Berkeley in 1912 with the intention of specializing in agricultural and irrigation engineering. He was too old to be drafted and was married, so he wound up serving as a civilian on this wartime shipbuilding project.
The war ended just before I was five months old, so my father and his wife Maja, my older brother Charles Franklin (Frank) and I moved to Seattle. I have not learned what sort of work my father did then.
A couple of stories from my parents related to this period of time in Seattle.
One was that my brother Frank enjoyed looking at Mt. Rainier from the back porch and saying "That's our mountain!"
Another story was that Frank went around the house with a stack of newspapers under his arm imitating the street newsboys shouting "P.I. or Times Sunday morning paper!" (The Seattle Post Intelligencer was usually identified by its initials for obvious reasons).
On Sept. 4, 1920, my sister Mary Jane was born in Seattle.
Shortly after this, so far as I can reconstruct the chronology, we went off to the mountains where a dam was being built on the Skagit River to provide power for the city of Seattle.
The project was interrupted when the voters of Seattle turned down a bond issue necessary to continue it, and winter was about to shut down the work anyhow.
I remember my mother telling me that I was transported out of the area on the back of a mule. In those days, kerosene came in cans which were shipped in wooden crates two cans to a crate. One of these crates was mounted on each side of a pack mule, and one of these served as a cradle for me. (If Mary Jane was with us, she must have been carried in her mother's arms).
With this growing family, and uncertain economic conditions in the Seattle area, our parents decided to come back to California. As I recall, we stayed temporarily with my mother's parents at 1401 Arch St., at the east end of Rose St.
That house was built by my mother's grandfather Benjamin Franklin Ellis (also known as Frank), about 1880. It was originally built as a one story structure. But as his family grew, great grandfather Ellis jacked up the house and built another floor under it.
The result was that the original living room was on the second floor. As a teen ager, visiting my cousins the Clarkes, who were living then with my grandmother McCabe, I was struck by the novelty of having the living room upstairs. But the whole house was so unusual, and the family pattern so different from mine, I didn't inquire about the arrangement. It was several years later that I came to understand why the house was laid out in that form.
The first house I remember living in was at 5836 Virmar Ave. in the Rockridge district of Oakland.
My parents had this house built by a contractor. It was a 1920s version of a split level house, with the ground excavated to make room for the garage and laundry room under the living quarters. When I was small, the west half of the basement had a dirt floor, and the space was filled with vertical beams holding up the house.
On the east side was the garage, with a sloping driveway from the street. It was large enough for one car, but as our cars got bigger it became more and more of a tight squeeze to get past the car into the next room which was called "the inner basement".
When I was quite small, that inner room was filled largely with coal for our coal burning kitchen stove. The coal was confined to one side of the room by a high wooden wall in the middle of the room. The stove was replaced several years later by a gas range when natural gas became available, and the coal bin disappeared. The inner basement was often occupied then by another car, either a visitor's or some other temporary vehicle. As a family, we never owned more than one car, except for "jalopies" Frank acquired and fixed.
The stairway going up to the living quarters separated this room from the laundry room, which had two concrete tubs against the north wall. In the southest corner was a water heater, which consisted of a copper coil heated by gas. The burner was lighted when the water was turned on, so there was no storage tank.
One of the more dramatic events of my childhood was the paving of the west side of the basement. The contractor was a very Italian fellow named V. B. DeCarlo. He was treated with great courtesy by our parents and he returned the courtesy, as if the work was being done by one family friend for another, although so far as I can remember it was strictly a business deal. It was an example that obviously impressed me enough for it to stick in my mind ever since. As I reflect on it now, it strikes me that it revealed something important about my parents' dealings with others.
They had strong feelings of superiority toward some people, and were certainly not "bleeding heart liberals" about racial differences, but in dealing with individuals they usually operated on a straight forward friendly basis unless the other person personally offended them. If that happened, they tended to walk away from the situation and avoid further dealings with him or her, except for friends or relatives they felt obliged to deal with patiently and forgivingly.
On the other hand, our relations with the next door neighbors to the west, the Morgensons, were occasionally strained because they had three children roughly paralleling Frank and me in age.
One example involved their meter box, which faced ours. One Hallowe'en night, while the Morgensons were out, certain parties pulled the switch on their electric line, then nailed the meter box shut.
When the family came home, they found their lights were off, and when Mr. Morgenson discovered the meter box was nailed shut, he drew upon his extensive vocabulary as a building contractor to express his displeasure. It was quite educational for the DeWolf boys to hear words which were not used in our household. Since there was little space between the two houses, Mr. M's remarks came through quite clearly.
Looking back, I can sympathize with Mr. Morgenson's feelings at having to grope for a flashlight and a hammer in a dark basement before he could turn the lights on again.
Our meter box furnished its own excitement when we were still small enough to crawl through the opening between the gas meter and the side of the box. This provided a sort of secret entrance and exit to the basement, although I can't remember using it for any particular memorable event. It was just one of those features of a house which the designers would not think of, but which added to its charms for a small child.
Paving the basement floor provided an exciting play area for various activities, including roller skating between the vertical posts. Our father also rigged up a chinning bar and built a sizeable work bench on the west side of the area.
One of my more expensive presents for my father was a vise which I brought home from the hardware store in the basket of my bicycle. I remember having a hard time steering the bike with this heavy weight in the basket. The vise was still on the bench when I cleared out the basement after the house was sold. I have used it often through the years, along with some of my father's tools which were also salvaged then. Our son Bill has them now.
At the north end of the basement was a large commercial type ironing machine which my mother learned to use with dexterity. Unfortunately, when she became involved with teaching and other activities as her children grew up, the clothes to be ironed often piled up. It became a major problem to find clothes that were not wrinkled. This of course was long before wash and wear clothes were available.
Next to the ironer, curtained off in a rather makeshift manner, was a toilet tank and bowl. Sometime during its early existence the tank lid was broken, so our father replaced it with a thick redwood top. As I think about that, it strikes me that this was typical of my father's way of repairing something: to contrive a home made replacement rather than to shop or send for an "official" part. Was this a hold over from an early era, when one was forced to make do because parts were unavailable or too expensive? Or did he enjoy responding to the challenge of making his own repair parts? Perhaps it was both. Also, as a child I may have been more aware of the home made jobs than when he simply got the "store bought" replacement.
The living area of the Virmar house was reached from the street by climbing two sets of stairs which led to an outside porch. A small inner hallway opened into the living room, which had a fireplace with a small grate.
The two main pieces of furniture in that room during most of my childhood were a couch and a large Morris chair. Before the couch was there, against the front window, the space was occupied by a single width cot. I still bear a scar in the back of my head caused when I was bouncing on the cot, lost my balance, and hit my head on the arm of the Morris chair.
Later the cot was replaced by a horsehair couch or "davenport". This came to be very lumpy as the years went by and attempts to fix broken springs were less than satisfactory. But I don't remember the living room as being the center of very much family life, so the comfort of the furniture was not much of an issue for me. By the time I became a teen ager we were living in another house, anyhow.
In fact, my most vivid memory of that room was standing or sitting in it after my little sister's funeral, and sensing the appalling tragedy of the occasion without being able to talk about it. I will come back to that experience later.
The dining room was closed off from the living room and entrance hall by paneled glass doors. The dining room table was a round oak table with several leaves. When all of the leaves were inserted, the table took up almost all of the room. With two leaves in it, the table was used for ping pong. We got to be rather skillful at bouncing the ball off the rounded edges, and when we played on a regular rectangular table, the "extra" space at the corners seemed to be a delightful bonus.
Behind the living room was a small bedroom used as a sitting room or sewing room when it wasn't used as a bedroom for one of my grandmothers. One or the other of them spent a large part of my childhood with us. (See chapter 2).
A short hallway ran down the middle of the house between the kitchen and the back bedrooms. Near the back of the hallway was the entrance to the stairs which went down to the laundry room.
At the other end of the hall, nearest to the front of the house and just outside the kitchen door, was the one telephone in the house, attached to the wall.
This location meant that conversations reverberated in the hall and tended to echo through the house. My mother was very fond of conducting social visits on the 'phone, so we often had to suffer from not having her getting meals on the table, and having to listen to her side of the conversation while we waited at the breakfast nook in the kitchen.
On the other hand, the public nature of telephone conversations had an inhibiting effect on the social communications of my brother Frank and myself. Trying to make a date with a girl often seemed excruciating to me, especially when my parents were coaching from the other room or preparing to offer critiques on my handling of the situation afterward. Thus the scenes of teen agers gabbing by the hour on the 'phone, as pictured in the movies or in comic strips, had no relevance for my adolescent years.
Our one bathroom separated the spare bedroom from my parents' bedroom. As I recall it, the bathtub had no shower connection, although this may have been added later. The floor was tiled with hexagonal tiles in a pattern I have seen often in houses built during that period. There was one wash basin and a toilet in the room.
One of the traumas of my childhood associated with the bathroom had nothing to do with bodily functions. This was the time when my mother lost a ring in the bathtub drain. The drain was torn out, but the ring was not recovered, as I recall. I am confused as to whether this was her wedding ring or engagement ring. She often promised the other ring (or the replacement for the lost one) to Carol before she died, and Carol has it as I write this. The clear part of my childhood memory is not which ring it was, but the keen sense of loss and the commotion involved in trying to retrieve it.
In addition to the facilities in the main bathroom, a wash basin was tucked into a corner of the clothes closet in my parents' bedroom, but this was obviously not available for general use.
Parallel to their bedroom on the east side of the house was another in which I spent most of my childhood. Most or all of that time, there were twin beds in the room. My most colorful memory of that room was spending some time recovering from the mumps. To pass the time, I rigged up a tramway out of string on which I could run a set of wheels made of Erector set parts. I wonder whether any child today with fancy electronic toys could enjoy them any more than my home made one.
Completing the living quarters was "the back porch", a small room just big enough for a double bed, attached to the back bedrooms and thrusting into the small back yard, supported by heavy posts. The inner wall was finished in stucco plaster because it had been the outside wall of the house before the porch was added. When I was very small, I scrawled on the walls with a crayon. The marks could not be removed without marring the stucco, so that act of vandalism haunted me the rest of my childhood when I looked at those walls.
We lived in this house until I finished the 8th grade in 1932. At that time my father became Personnel and Research assistant to the Berkeley city manager. City employees were required then to live within the city limits. So we had to move to Berkeley.
My parents took Frank and me to look at the most promising houses they were considering. Dick went too I suppose, although I can't remember this. He was four at the time.
The house chosen was in the north Berkeley hills at 1856 San Antonio Ave. I realized later that this house appealed to me when we were inspecting it partly because the seller's furniture was still in it, and it seemed more home like. I lacked the imagination to see how other houses might look with our furnishings. Our "new" house turned out to be much less elegant when our well worn rugs and furniture were installed in it.
This was a much more spacious and imposing house than the Virmar house. It had two stories, and the bedroom windows on the west side offered a splendid view of the bay until a house was built on the street below which partly blocked this view.
One of the highlights of my high school days was watching the Golden Gate Bridge being built. The north tower on Lime Point was built first, then the south tower was built on the outcropping from Fort Point. Next the cables were strung between the towers, and finally the roadway was hung from the cables. I wrote a poem which was published in the Berkeley High literary magazine about the view of this from my bedroom window. The poem was far less impressive than the construction job, but it helped me to remember the experience.
One of the boys who lived on the street behind us in Oakland, Peter Stackpole, got his professional start as a famous photographer by taking some spectacular pictures of this bridge and the Bay bridge from the vantage point of the work crews.
The Berkeley house provided space for us to entertain our friends, particularly those in the church youth group at St. John's Presbyterian Church. However, there was usually a sharp distinction between Frank's peers and mine, since he is two and a half years older a big difference in the teen years. This explains why I didn't remember when Frank's contemporary Luther Newhall brought his cousin Carol Burrowes to one of these parties while she was visiting from New Jersey. It was a party for Frank's friends, and I was either up in my room or elsewhere that evening. (See chapter ten).
Another party I do remember very vividly was the night we made ice cream which never got eaten.
My father had rigged up an attachment to the handle of the ice cream freezer which was connected by a wooden shaft to the rear wheel of our 1926 Buick. The car had wooden spokes, and the shaft fitted between the spokes.
When the wheel was jacked up and the car started, the wheel turned the handle of the freezer. It was typical of my father's ingenious devices. One of his U. C. engineering classmates was Reuben Goldberg, who became a cartoonist. Goldberg used his engineering knowledge to devise the nutty contraptions which became famous as "Rube Goldbergs". Dad's devices really worked, but sometimes there was an element of clever foolishness,as in this case.
Unfortunately the ingenuity did not include an alarm or automatic shut off when the ice cream hardened and the dasher froze. When somebody remembered to check on the freezer, we found the whole freezer was turning and was being smashed against the driveway, spattering ice cream, ice and fragments of the freezer in all directions.
That was the end of the "automatic" ice cream freezer. I can't remember getting another freezer. In any case, we did not have a refrigerator or an ice box in that house, so ice cream was not an ordinary family dessert. It was definitely part of some special occasion.
Thinking about the driveway of that house reminds me of the various jalopies my brother Frank parked in it from time to time. There may have been fewer of them than my memory indicates, but I marveled at the time that he could repair or improve such machinery. My talents, such as they were, ran in a very different direction. As a result, the mechanical chores tended to be handled by my father and Frank, while I wound up doing a rather indifferent and unenthusiastic job of helping my mother with the housekeeping chores.
Moving to the new house involved a new pattern of travel to school and other places. Daddy (as I recall, we persisted in using that childish nickname even when we got older) sometimes took us to school on his way to work at the Berkeley city hall. Otherwise we walked up the hill to Arlington Ave. (then called The Arlington) and rode the street car to school. I went to Garfield Jr. High, near the intersection of Hopkins and The Alameda. Frank went on to Berkeley High, many blocks farther south. After my final year at Garfield I traveled the same route on the street car to high school. (After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the school was renamed after him. It occurs to me as I write this that Pres. Garfield was also the victim of an assassin).
I don't remember sharing the ride with Frank. He may have been on the same car sometimes, but we did not pal around in general, so having to get to the same school by the same means of transportation did not bring us together. He may have had friends who drove him to school, and in his later high school years he had his own car.
One memory that stands out during this period was negotiating for carfare with our father. As I recall, this was doled out in fifty cent units as need arose. It is my impression that the fare was ten cents per ride on a single fare basis, and tokens which could be bought in quantity (50 cents or a dollar) cost a little more than seven cents each.
Having a regular allowance or a systematic arrangement for carfare was never worked out. Our parents' finances always seemed to be too precarious at this stage in our lives to make such an arrangement possible. I realized to some extent then and see more clearly now that it would have been more economical and perhaps less of a nervous strain all around if we had been able to face the situation more clearly together.
But the problem was not only economic. My father in particular found it too painful to face up to the fact that he could not provide for his family as adequately as he had expected to do, and as he had done when we were younger. He preferred to have his children dependent on his largesse, even though this sometimes precipitated arguments over money, rather than to take us into his confidence and to let us know how tight things really were.
The negative side of this, of course, was that sometimes we tended to assume the situation was even more desperate than it really was, and sometimes we recklessly spent money on frivolities out of desperation. I tried to cloak this wild extravagance if possible, with devices like skipping lunch in order to see an afternoon movie. But it tended to make me feel less responsible than I might have felt otherwise.
There may have been a more positive side to this, however: I seized every opportunity to earn money. Some of the attempts were dismally painful and unproductive, like trying to sell The Saturday Evening Post as a very small child. Another was trying to sell my uncle Jack DeWolf's jellies, jams and other items to our neighbors, including the Morgensons. Salesmanship was definitely not my strong suit as a child. By the time I was a senior in high school, however, I was much more employable (see Chapter Five).
After Frank graduated from Berkeley High, he signed on as a merchant seaman, on ships that went to various ports in the Pacific basin. During a lull between trips, he bought a small motorcycle to help him get around when he was in port for awhile. However, he left the motorcycle at home during part of that time, and gave me permission to ride it.
One Sunday night I decided to take the motorcycle to the high school youth group, called Sigma Iota, at St. John's Church. The motorcycle didn't have a light, so I strapped a flashlight between the handlebars and set off.
Going down Grove St., I saw a car at the stop sign on Cedar St., heading east. The driver saw the light on the motorcycle too, but he assumed it was attached to a bicycle traveling at bicycle speed. So he started to cross Grove St. just as I arrived at the intersection.
The front wheel of the motorcycle hit the left front wheel of the car, and I went over the fender and hood. When I began to pull myself together, I realized my shoulder was rubbing against the left front tire. My only injury was a gash on my right knee, but my "Sunday" trousers were torn at the knee.
I left the motorcycle leaning against the store building nearby, and the motorist very kindly took me to the church meeting. The trolley took me home, and I limped into the house. My mother was usually very calm in the face of an emergency, but in this case she was really upset when she saw the rip in my trousers. When I showed her the gash in my knee, she told me rather bluntly that I would have to mend the knee myself, but she would have to mend my trousers. I knew she was feeling very sym pathetic underneath, but she was expressing her immediate reaction.
When I went to retrieve the motorcycle and removed the front forks, they looked undamaged until I realized that they were curved in the opposite direction from what they should have been. When I paid for the repair job, I realized that it would have been a lot cheaper to ride the street car. But I was also aware that I had come close to having a much more serious accident.
Not long afterward, Frank sold his motorcycle and eliminated further temptations and adventures. I'm grateful that David and Paul were also cured of motorcyclitis without suffering permanent injury when they were young adults.
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