Thursday, June 20, 2013


PAST 90 (6)

My first sight of California was of rolling green hills. In profusion they marked a landscape arrestingly different from anything I had seen before. It was Spring, probably the year 1950.  I could see the green mounds up close from above because I was coming in low on a two propeller plane; no jets yet in those days.

Cheap flights, all I could manage on an organizing trip for the Labor Youth League (LYL), were available on what were called non-sched airlines. It took us 20 hours, with multiple stops, to get from New York to San Francisco. My plane was listed as “Viking Airlines”. For all I know, it might have been the only plane in the “fleet”. The return flight, a week or so later, was a story in itself that I’ll tell as the coda to my first adventure in California.

I stayed with Bill and Jeanne Lowe in a small rented Quonset hut in south Berkeley. Bill and Jeanne were newly married, but to accomplish that, they had to go to Washington State. Bill was black and Jeanne was white. Interracial marriage was illegal in California in the early1950s. Many years later, the Lowes hosted a big event at a downtown Oakland hotel to celebrate their 40th Anniversary with other couples who had to leave California to marry, as well as the first couples to marry after the state’s ban was lifted. Roz and I, living in California by then, were guests. I remember how moved we were, and the memory comes back often these days as gay couples win the fight for equal rights to marriage.

Bill was the LYL organizer for Northern California, and he was my guide on this first trip to the West Coast. He introduced me to many new things, some impressive and some simply little tips to smooth my way. He took me to Columbus St. in San Francisco, where an Italian restaurant served a seven-course meal for a dollar or two (can’t remember the exact price, but it was important to me then). He took me to a great ribs place in Oakland. He told me that the right lane was best driving across the Bay Bridge. When we got up in the mornings, I noticed that he slept in a nightshirt — that seemed odd to me at the time, but, soon after, nightshirts became my favorite sleepwear.

The most memorable thing Bill pointed out to me was on a drive to a meeting in Los Angeles. We went through a valley town that featured a big sign; “No n-----s after sundown.”

In Los Angeles, during a meeting in a home, I experienced my first earthquake. That’s not quite accurate. Everyone else experienced it and exclaimed “earthquake!” I hadn’t noticed. The next day, in the same home, I felt a strong shake and exclaimed “earthquake!”. The others had a good laugh — it was the washing machine that shook the house.

Now for the coda, my flight home. My “Viking” non-sched made a landing in Kansas City. The passengers got off for a short break and a stretch. When we came back to board, there was a surprise. The plane had been attached at the airport and we were on our own. Stranded, and me without cash.... panic! But then I called home and got the phone number of Roz’s cousin, who, luckily for me, lived in Kansas City. I borrowed money to get the rest of the way home, this time not on a “non-sched”.

California has so much incredible beauty. I can never get enough of it after living here for more than 50 years, but it seems that’s not what I remember most about my first encounter.

Post Script, 6/25/13 - I asked Jeanne Lowe to fact check my memory of the trip made 60+years ago. She writes: "We lived in Codornices Veterans Village, as did many other LYLers. I believe it was 1951 or 52 that you came here. We were married on May 14th, 1948. Later in '48, the California law was repealed." Jeanne went on to point out that federal law sanctioned state 'anti-miscegenation' laws until 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. Under these laws, Jeanne adds,"Caucasians were not allowed to marry Filipinos or Asians as well as Blacks."

1 comment:

  1. Leon, you've called up fond memories of how I came to settle in California.

    I joined the army in Oct 1953.Eight months later I was assigned to take a year-long course in Chinese-Mandarin at Army Language School in Monterey, CA.

    I think my love affair with California began the moment I stepped off the plane in San Francisco. Everything I saw and felt--the brilliant blue of the sky, the colorful houses, the balmy air--
    was different from Massachusetts and I liked it. The two nights I spent in San Francisco were exciting. Then came the bus ride to Monterey through a countryside that seemed so exotic to me: palm trees, cacti, California poppies

    Monterey in those days was still much the way Steinbeck depicts it. Sunny Jim still had his relaxed, folksy bar; the shadowy Chinaman was still to be seen makimg his mysterious rounds; and the Owl Club still catered to a raffish crowd of poker playing soldiers, fishermen, and ranchers. Cannery Row was not yet a tourist attraction. It still canned fish seasonally, and during those seasons spread its pungent fragrances for miles around. Ah, all so delightful.

    Long before the end of my language course in Monterey, I knew that California was where I wanted to live. After a three year round trip via Korea, Japan and NYC, I made it back and here I've been ever since.