Recalling projects requiring jigsaws in the hands of grade schoolers, the discovery of darkroom magic, the hikes where we girls surmounted the giant sandstone rocks using the ropes the boys in our very own class had carried and secured for our safe climb, camping trips, hot air balloon flights, poetry of place names and articles published in a real grown-ups' newspaper, I wondered what experiences shaped a teacher who revered adventure, nature, the finer points of language and even magic. And what had caused him to successfully ignite in his students the desire to do the same? Bruce gives us a glimpse of the exceptional characters who raised him, 'law breaking' adventure, wild backpacking trips and the insatiable curiosity that made him the exceptional teacher I know him to be.
Please accept this invitation from his student of nearly 30 years ago and pull up a seat near the dancing campfire flames to listen to the warm, earthen voice of a master teacher and storyteller weave the tales of his own creation.
DO SOMETHING HARD. BE PROUD OF IT.
This interview took place on July 22, 2014 at Bruce Brownell's home in Solvang, California.
LH: Can you say when you were born and where?
BB: Not only that, I can tell you how I know. True story, want to hear it? Okay, we were trying to figure out how many quarters I had for Social Security. So we queried the Social Security Administration, and a month or so later got a letter back, one sheet of paper and it said, “Dear Sir, you were born August 21, 1942. If there’s anything else we can do, please contact us.”
LH: How did that come about?
BB: We wrote to find out how many quarters’ credit I had for Social Security. I’m positive when I was born. In Saint Cloud Minnesota. Swedish mother, worthless father.
LH: What were some of your earliest memories of being back there as a child?
BB: We spent a lot of time living with Grandma and Grandpa. Swedes. (laughs) Grandma was always throwing her hands up in the air and shouting….(Swedish phrase)…which means, what am I going to do with you, little boy? Constantly in trouble! She’d hang out the sheets on the line and I’d make a fort. Didn’t go over too well with clean sheets. Dirt, little kid, wrapped up: “Help! I can’t get out of my fort.”
Grandpa was a blacksmith at the reformatory in St. Cloud Minnesota. Old World type man. When he’d get home, he’d sit down to read the paper and no one was allowed to make a sound in the house. Not a sound. I did the usual little things boys only do in Minnesota. Like in the middle of winter, lick the flagpole. Stuck solid. Screaming and hollering ‘til Mom could come with lukewarm water and extricate me. Mind you, only the boys did that. And every one of them! (laughs)
Lots of water…lakes. Swimming in quarries. But we lived there only ‘til I was five and moved to Santa Barbara, so essentially, Santa Barbara is my hometown.
LH: So, how did you, how did your mom discover Santa Barbara?
BB: I have…had…a great aunt living in Santa Barbara, Aunt Maisie, married to my great-uncle, Walter Moses Charlesworth, half Cherokee….Meemo and Dado. Dado said he saw Meemo walking down the street one time in Santa Barbara and decided he had to marry her. Meemo said he followed her all over the country until she finally said, “Oh, well, I might as well marry him; he’s not going to quit.” So they got married. Lived happily ever after. Old Uncle Walter. They had to go to Georgia to get Cherokee tribal permission. He had to get it to marry a white woman. On the way back, their touring car broke down on a Navajo reservation and they set up in a tent for two weeks, beside the road, waiting for parts to fix the car. And when they left, they traded their tent for a handmade Navajo rug, which I’ve still got. Yeah, it’s pretty neat. Needs some repairs, but its, it’s a lovely old rug. Probably worth a small fortune now.
LH: Probably. It’s very old…
BB: Yes, this would have been certainly pre-World War II. Oh, more than that if they didn’t have towing service. This was long ago.
We moved in with Meemo and Dado when they were in their sixties. Meemo had never had any children. So, this was a new experience for her and me. She took charge of me. We lived in a little room out by the garage next to the chicken pen. The bathroom was on the back porch of their house up on Garden Street and Arrellaga. Still there.
Oh, it was tough on an uncivilized little boy! Five or six years old. No, I started kindergarten in Santa Barbara, so I was about five years old. There was etiquette imposed on me. I had to sit at the table and eat one bite of everything, couldn’t just eat the mashed potatoes first, or the meat first. You had to take a bite of this and a bite of that. And don’t forget your okra. Okra! Only Oklahoma people eat okra. But Dado was from Oklahoma. Tapioca pudding for dessert…gallons of the stuff. We ate tapioca every night, I think. Church every Sunday morning was just unbearable. It was agony. Agony! Had to sit between Meemo and Dado and every time I’d misbehave, Meemo would reach over and rap me with her knuckles, so my head was sore constantly. Before we’d go, she’d clean out my ears with a washcloth.
LH: What were you doing that was misbehaving that she would rap your head?
BB: I didn’t know about Tom Sawyer yet, but if I had, I’d have taken beetles and matchbox to church, (laughs) anything for excitement. It was awful, just awful. And I got thrown out of Sunday school because I’d misbehaved, so I had to sit with the big people in regular church. Sunday school was deadly. Boring. There was nothing exciting about it and I didn’t care anything about it, whether my soul was saved or anything, I just wanted to go outside and play in the dirt.
LH: Is there anything you gained from all this?
BB: I learned a lot from them. Respect for your elders. People could deal harshly with you and still love you. Try to be understanding. (Laughs) Although Meemo did get pretty upset one day when I found the catnip, and uh, then I found out their two cats thought it was wonderful stuff, so I gave it all to them. Two loopy cats, they would have been picked up by the DEA if they’d have had one then. Oh boy, I caught it for that!
And they had various properties around town, and so when something would open up, they would move my mom and me to it. The first place we went, they had a rental shared, a what do you call it, a double rental down on Cota Street, on East Cota Street right across from the old Dodgers ball park. So we moved down there. And I remember watching ball games through the cracks in the wood planking and all of us kids would stand out in the street waiting for a foul ball, because if you got the foul ball, you could get in the game, or they’d give you a dime to get the ball back. But I was a little kid, so they’d usually knock me down. I’m not sure I ever got a ball. But I was out there trying. The big kids were, those were tough kids down there. (laughs)
Then, after about a year down there, we moved to another one of the rentals on West De La Guerra Street…the two hundred block of West De La Guerra, a court. In the front there were some decent houses….in the back there were little bungalows, all connected with a communal bathroom, shower, and it was all full of old retired guys. Some of ‘em winos, some of ‘em just waiting to die. Some of ‘em real characters, really interesting. Some of them knew a lot of things. Some were old cowboys. And I fell in love with an old man back there who took care of me for several years whenever my mom wasn’t available. Like at night, she’d be working night at the telephone company and I’d stay with Big Bill. Big Bill Hale. Ex-railroading man from Montana.
Big Bill and I went all over Santa Barbara together. We went everywhere. We walked down all the way to Pershing Park for the rodeos. We walked all the way across Santa Barbara to the Old Round House. It’s gone now, it was down by where Fess Parker’s Hotel is. It was a big huge, almost complete round circular building of brick. And trains, especially locomotives would drive into it on a dead end track where they could be serviced and then when they were done, there was a monstrous huge turn table and it turned, and the train was facing the other direction and drive off and another locomotive would pull on. Well, they knew Big Bill because he was a railroading man and we’d get to sit on a locomotive while they drove it off. Oh, this was so exciting for a little kid!
And on the way home, he’d stop and haul out his little pinch purse, those little plastic things where you squeeze it and it’s got leftover coins inside, and if he had a nickel, he’d buy me popcorn down at the beach from the old popcorn wagon. When his pension check came, it was a big day. We’d walk two blocks down towards State Street and there was a bar called Pals and we’d go in there, sit side by side at the bar up on those high stools and Big Bill’d have a schooner of beer and I’d have a little shot glass of beer. Nobody knew it wasn’t good for kids or against the law in those days, apparently. (laughs) But it was a big deal, and we’d stagger home.
Then later on, his daughter Mildred showed up to meet us. She was a Montana ranch wife. Mildred Hale. Then later on, many years later, when I graduated from high school, my pal Richard Hansen and I fixed up an old car and we drove across the country to Minnesota to spend the summer at my uncle’s farm and we stopped at Mildred’s ranch. The Kimpton Ranch. Mildred and Raleigh Kimpton and her boys Bill, and oh, I can’t remember. They had a thousand head of cattle, big haying operation, huge government lease up in the Rocky Mountains. Oh, we had a good time! We fished until fish were coming out of everybody’s ears. We chased antelope across the prairies in the car, wrecked it.
LH: How old were you then?
BB: Seventeen. We had a great time. Then we went on, no, actually we came home one day from fishing the Swamp Creek, Richard and I did, with a long string of fish and there, Mildred was sitting on the back steps with a high school girl who worked on the ranch in the summers to help with all the hired hands and this sort of thing. And she thought Richard was a pretty interesting guy, but he wouldn’t pay her any mind at all. We came home one day and there she was sitting with her father, who turned out to be the game warden. He suggested that if we had another state to occupy us, we ought to go to it. So we did. Mildred and Raleigh filled our gas tank and off we went to Minnesota.
Spent the summer canoeing and hunting and fishing. Stealing. Then the midnight raids in the canoe to steal vegetables from the farmers. (laughs) We shot squirrels out of trees and we shot ducks in the water. One day we were canoeing down the river, not far from Canada, down, the- what the heck was the name of that little river?- ran into the Rainey River, on the other side was Canada. We saw in the distance a branch floating across the river and thought, well, now, that’s contrary to physics. So we stuck the paddles in the water and went zinging down there. There was a big buck swimming in the river. So we pulled up along side of him and (laughs) Richard decided it would be interesting to see what would happen if he grabbed the buck’s antlers. I tried to tell him not to, but he reached out and grabbed them anyway, and over we went. So it’s the buck and two dumb kids in the water. We all swam to shore. (laughs) Then we had to run down, about a half mile, mile and a half, I don’t know, a long, long ways along the shore until the canoe got close enough to jump in and grab it, paddles floating by…
LH: You’ve had a lot of adventures.
BB: Oh, it was a lot of fun, just an awful lot of fun. We picked wild blueberries and made pies. Actually, I did, and I put them on the windowsill to cool, I’d turn around and it’s gone. It’d be my buddy Richard, the only person in sight. He’d steal a pie I would have given him anyway, and he’d run out behind the barn and eat it. His face was all purple. (laughs) I said “Richard, you don’t have to steal them, you dummy!”
LH: I want to come back to the old man you mentioned.
BB: Old Bill, Big Bill, the railroading man.
LH: Would you say he was a mentor to you?
BB: Oh, he was a grandfather to me, no question about it. He could do anything, Big Bill could. He taught me how to rope. Got me a little quarter inch rope from Ott’s Hardware, put a honda in it. I’d run around roping fence posts and all kinds of stuff. I was only five, six years old, got good at it. We didn’t have any cattle down there.
In his little cabin, or whatever you call those apartments, it was just one room with a bed in it and a little kitchen you could hardly turn around in, he made pinto beans. We ate pinto beans by the tons. Vats of them. And under his bed he kept little wood working tools and scraps of wood and I would cut stuff and nail it together. I’m not sure anything was recognizable, but he showed me how to work a saw and hit a nail and all that sort of thing. Then at night when it got late and I was getting drowsy, Big Bill would sit in his big chair with the spittoon on one side and me on the arm of the other one, and he’d read westerns out loud till I fell asleep. And he’d lean over (makes spitting noise) and he’d hit that spittoon every time. And then he’d put me in bed until my mom got home from work, sometimes late at night, and he’d carry me down there and put me in my regular bed. He was a wonderful old man.
LH: What would you say, looking back, are some of the biggest lessons that you learned from him?
BB: I don’t know, what lessons do you learn from someone who’s your adopted grandfather? I know that he slept too late. I’d be up early pacing around waiting for Big Bill to get up, because the day didn’t really start until Big Bill got up. He’d come shuffling outside, put one foot at a time on the little fireplace, the little incinerator…everybody burned their trash in those days in Santa Barbara. Put one foot at a time up there and tie his shoes, then he’d lean over to one side, plug the off nostril and blow his nose. Then lean to the other side, plug the other nostril and blow his nose. Two great big cannon shots. Everybody in town knew Big Bill was up. And the day could begin.
But those were pretty interesting days. We didn’t…we’re like all people… we didn’t know other things. Being a little kid with people taking care of me, I had no idea we were poor.
And then pretty neat things too. Those were the days when the milkman still came to drop stuff off. There’d be a note in the empty bottle out front and you’d put down what you wanted and he’d read it. And then the ice man came, with those huge blocks of ice that he’d chip out, a big thing, and put it over his shoulder with those large tongs and the leather thing over his shoulder and walk in, just walk in your house and put it in the ice box. And my job was emptying, about two or three times a week I had to empty the drip tray at the bottom of the icebox. If I didn’t do it…half the time I was just too lazy, it was a chore and I’d rather be outside doing something else…it would drip all over the floor and my mom would get so upset. Or, if I actually was trying to do what I was supposed to do, I’d trip on something and spill it, or it would leak out one side and there would be a trail of water all the way across the house out the door. And the iceman would chip off slivers for the kids, chip ‘em off, and we, oh, we just couldn’t wait for the iceman to come! Or the Good Humor man. That was pretty neat too. Driving his ice cream truck down the street, playing a dumb little tune. And if we had a nickel, we’d run out in the street, and he’d stop, open up the back and give you whatever you wanted. That was a lot of fun.
LH: What would you get from him?
BB: Eskimo Pie. ‘cause you could go to the store and get two popsicles for a nickel, but an Eskimo Pie... I don’t remember what they’d cost. But I never had more than a nickel, so they couldn’t have cost more than a nickel. (laughs)
LH: That’s for sure.
BB: Yeah, and later on when I was older in elementary school, we all went around on Saturday mornings and looked in everybody’s trash to get pop bottles. You could get two cents for a pop bottle, which we traded in at the store and when we had ten cents, we could go over to the California Theatre on Cañon Perdido Street, West Cañon Perdido Street, see a double feature for ten cents. Double feature.
Yeah, there aren’t double features anymore, I don’t think. And there, on Saturday afternoon, they had these serial movies, too. If you went every Saturday, you could see another adventure in the serial with Tom Nicks or Roy Rogers. I always thought Roy Rogers was kind of a phony cowboy, turns out he could ride like hell. (laughs) Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
LH: From what I know of you, it seems like you are a person who is very connected to and driven by nature and being outside and interacting with the land and animals.
BB: Oh, I would say that’s my basic character, but I don’t know how innate it is. I know that I, like any little kid, I really enjoyed fooling around outside, but when I started to get interested in nature as a distinct entity, as something to be studied and appreciated and noticed is when I chanced to get in the fifth grade at Wilson school.
Oh, the most wise old school teacher in American history ran a combination fifth sixth grade there. And I came home from school the first day and my mom said how was school and I was crying and I said, “I don’t know, Mom. I think my teacher’s crazy.” A week later, she said how was school today. I said “Oh Mom, you won’t believe what we were doing. We have to have a knife! And it has to be sharp or Van’s mad at us. He says a dull knife is dangerous, who needs a dull knife?" So we go across the hallway into the big closet and we sharpen our knives. “It has to be sharp Mom!” (laughs)
“And we’re going on a camping trip. And we’re going to take his horses and we’re going to walk from his house up to Rattlesnake Canyon, camp overnight.” I had never been camping. I didn’t know anything about horses except that it was exciting. Oh, never got over it. Never got over Van. Friendship then ‘til he died at ninety-four. Oh, what a wonderful old man! He took us canoeing. He took us places that nobody in his right mind would go. (laughs)
When we were in junior high one time we went up to Mineral King in the Sierras and we were going to go to a place we had called Fox Boy Lakes because Van had put together the Fox Boy Society for a bunch of us. We all had to wear medicine, have it on us at all times. Like it was a sea lion’s tooth. And if you didn’t have your sea lion’s tooth medicine, everybody else got to hit you.
So we went camping together a lot. Like all summer long. And we were headed for these unnamed lakes, high above tree line in the Sierras. Van said, “Lets not go on the trails you guys. If we go right over this ridge, we should come right down on the lakes.” So we went straight up the damn mountain. And up, and up and up from the valley floor, up, and we got way up in the air about twelve thousand feet. Nothing but granite and climbing huge chunks of granite. And we got to the top and we were all just beat. I mean really tired. And Van says, “What do you think you guys, pretty neat, huh?”
And someone in the group says, “I’m callin’ that Damn Van’s Pass” and so it has been for, thirty years, forty years. We still talk about Damn Van’s Pass. (laughs) And we went over it more times after that too. All the way through high school when we could tackle it, and carry some load with us, you know. We got up there one time in the middle of a terrific summer storm and we were all hiding under huge pieces of granite and the lightening was striking all around us. Oh boy, I remember being half deaf for two days after that. And that ozone smell and chunks of granite flying through the air like shrapnel. Oh, It was exciting!
Yeah. We were all, if any of us had had the faintest idea about religion we’d have been saying prayers, but we were all pretty much heathens. (laughs) Yeah, old Jerry Chu and Richard Hansen, Joe Chu, Michael Ward, Bobby Bosch, John Paciano. Good old Wilson School guys.
LH: So this may be one of those obvious questions. But what value do you see in kids being kids exposed to activities such as that? Camping, being outside, hiking…
BB: …I think it is, but I don’t think a lot of people realize it, even in the educational field…but understanding our natural environment and knowing how important it is might be the most important subject kids can learn in school. I mean, I love English and I know it’s important. And I know a lot of people crazy about math, and history is important too. Science is important. But if we don’t learn how to take care of our world, none of it, nothing else is important. We’re not learning fast enough, I’m afraid. Scares me a little bit. Probably you too, huh, Lori?
Old Van, he never instructed us, except in certain broad ways. For example, if you kill it, you eat it, no matter what it is. (laughs) We were camped out at Jalama Beach one time, long before it was discovered. Before that stupid magazine Sunset did and article on it. The next week they had toilets and mobs of people in there and were paving it. We were camped there, running around like savages with our homemade bows and arrows that we made in Room Ten, Wilson School, and I took a wild shot and I hit a mud hen out in the estuary. Everyone was dumbfounded. I almost fell over with surprise. “Hey we hit something!”
I had to eat it. I plucked that thing and I cleaned it and I…awful looking meat, it was like a bird made entirely of liver. All red, no white meat. Gamey, tough. And Van never said a thing. There was a rule: you had to eat it. I ate all I could of it. I stopped just before I puked up. Lessons like, lessons like that.
LH: So, what are, what are the most important lessons that come out of being in, being a part of nature?
BB: Learning to do hard things. And following through. When we were kids, we were doing forty and fify-mile backpacking trips with old Van in the Sierras. Sometimes I thought I was gonna die, but what can you do? You can’t just sit down and stay in the mountains by yourself. And Van’d say, “Gees, you can’t stay here alone, a bear’ll come along and eat you. Let’s go.”
And so you’d get up and keep going. You had to do it with a modicum at least of grace and good humor. You had to be tough.
Sometimes I think of some of the hikes we did with the kids at Vista, and for a lot of those children it was the hardest hike they’d ever done. I remember the group we took up from your ranch up over the top of Gaviota Peak and down, back through the ranch. So hot you could hardly stand it. I was thinking, “Well, if I die, it’s okay, they can just pile rocks on me, and I’ve lived for forty years, but it’d be a shame to lose a kid up here, we’d have to carry him all the way back to school.” (laughs)
But they all made it. Some of them were really mad at us, but they made it. They were proud of it too. Do something hard, be proud of it. See something other people don’t see. Remember it. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun.
LH: That makes me think of another question. What do you see a s some of the most important lessons that kids need to learn?
BB: …(there are) lots of things kids need to do whether they like it or not because adults know better what’s good for them and what will be beneficial in life than children do. Children sometimes in school, and children’s parents too, sometimes, think that they’re entitled to more say as to what goes on in schools than perhaps they ought to. I mean, parental involvement is good, but I mean involvement, not parental dictate. Some of the goofiest people I have ever met have been the parents of my students. And very few of my students have been as goofy as some of their parents. I exempt the Hennings from any of that. (laughs)
For example, there’s hardly a kid in America who doesn’t whine and complain about having to study Shakespeare in high school. I guess in high school everybody gets it. The master of the English language and situation and human emotion and involvement. A man who could…can you imagine Richard the Third, in the first chapter, he has that horrible, horrible Richard threatening to kill the twin boys and asking their mother to marry him almost in the same breath, and sitting here, it’s completely implausible. But not when you read the play or see it. And who do we quote second to the Bible? Not hard to figure who it is. Justifiably so, too.
I was writing, not long ago, Lori, about one of the high school classes, one of the English classes I go in as a substitute. And I walked in and the kids were doing Macbeth. I believe it was Macbeth. Maybe Hamlet. And their textbook was one of these horrendous modern things. Well on each page, half of the page was contemporary English and half was Elizabethan English. And the instructions were to do it in contemporary English. Have the kids read and go through it in contemporary English, and I thought, “What? That’s criminal. I won’t do it.” And I could afford not to because they only paid us eighty-five bucks a day and if I got fired I didn’t care. Joe Redig stood up in class one day when he found out, and he said, “Mr. Brownell, that’s horrible. I make more than that fencing.”
But they all had to ask and only a substitute would tell him how much he made. So for three days we did Shakespeare in Elizabethan English. The first day there was resistance, the second day they were asking for parts and the third day they got into it so much, they kind of shoved me aside. And they were all getting up and doing parts and saying, “No, that’s not how…you said that wrong!” It was one of the best high school English things I ever did.
Better than any I had, except for a wonderful old teacher in Santa Barbara. She, her name was Marion Whelpley at La Cumbre Junior High School and she was an English teacher and she was an old maid from Boston and she knew every box score form, every Red Sox player, daily as they changed. And she loved her subject. And she knew it forward and backward. She loved it, and she made lots of us love it. Not all of us. I remember one day she had us diagramming sentences. That’s almost like accepting communism nowadays. But I noticed that, near the end of her stay at Vista Del Mar, Cynthia was having the kids diagramming sentences again. Can you believe that? That’s super. And I thought to myself, “That’s great. At least they’ll learn a lot about our language, even if they don’t want to.” So it’s okay to shove some stuff down kids’ throats.
Anyhow, one day Miss Whelpley, she asked me something about diagramming sentences and she said, “Don’t you understand that, Bruce?” and I said, “I don’t understand nothin’.” And she grabbed me out of the seat and hauled me out in the hallway and slammed me up against the lockers, and she said, “Not only Is your attitude atrocious, young man, so is your English, and I won’t have it.”
She dragged me back in and slammed me back into my seat. I said, “Yes ma’am.” (laughs) Oh, she was sensational. One day she was writing test questions on the black board in the front of the class, and I don’t know how she did this, but without turning around, and writing the whole time she said, “Bruce Brownell, are you copying Jerry Chu’’s paper again?” and I said, “Yes Ma’am” and she says, “Well, stop it!” And I say “Yes Ma’am.”
Oh, I just loved her. A lot of kids didn’t. A lot of kids grew to accept her. But I loved her. And the thing was she knew her subject, she knew it was important, she knew all about it and she was going to let us know too. And she insisted on it. You couldn’t tell her it wasn’t important.
LH: And you didn’t have a choice.
B: Oh no! I was only thirteen years old back then. She had me completely buffaloed. Miss Whelpley, she had…she was a monstrously buxom woman who kept her Kleenex tucked into her cleavage, and being teenage boys, of course, we were flabbergasted at such a thing. And Billy Cherry said, “I think she’s got a whole box of Kleenex in there!” (laughs)
LH: Fascinating to the young ones.
BB: And that’s probably the nicest thing a teenage boy could say. How did we get to Miss Whelpley, anyway?
LH: We’ve been…
LH: and lessons, yeah. So another question that I have is just, in your own life, throughout your life, what has been a source of strength for you?
BB: I’ve been tremendously fortunate in having known all kinds of wonderful people. Known them well and closely. And by fortunate, I mean, it was pretty much chance. There is no reason aside from desperation that my mom came to California. I mean, my father was out here after the war, and she was looking for him. And my great Aunt Maisie, she was his aunt. So technically speaking, she was a Brownell, so, yeah. I saw pictures of her when she was a young woman. She was a drop dead gorgeous woman. Beautiful. This was in her eighties. She lived to be 96, I think. 96. She hauled out a large black and white photograph of her and a couple of other women on the impossibly long legged thoroughbred horses in their full length gowns and parasols and big hats out on the Great Plains. And there was nothing else in the photo except a wagon way in the background. And I mean, you looked from the camera to Texas. And she had been married, as a young woman to a Texas oilman. And every summer they rode horse back from Texas to Colorado for the summer where it was cool, and then in the fall, mounted up and rode back to Texas. And I had never heard this before. I figured she had been married to Uncle Dado forever, which wasn’t true at all.
And I said, “Well, what happened with that marriage, Meemo?” And she said, “Well, I found out he was fooling around with another woman, so I left. Never saw him again. Never spoke to him. Never wrote to him. Nothing. Until Dado started stalking me all over America and I had to marry him.” (laughs)
Dado as a young man came out to California and got a job at a gas station. You can bet there weren’t many gas stations. This was in L.A. and he thought, “You know, this might catch on.” So he came up to Santa Barbara, with his brother, who I had never met, died young. And they started the first gas station in Santa Barbara, right on the corner of de La Vina and Mission St. Now there’s a café there called Derf’s, and I’ve got some photos. If you want to see some photos, I’ve got a couple of the original photos of the place inside, Lori. When we’re done.
And Dado. Dennis’ relatives had a shoe store right across the street. And so Dennis remembers Dado and what a character he was. Dado was a businessman. He bought properties all over Santa Barbara. He bought, he owned, the corner across the street from that were, there’s a coffee shop now. and there was Miratti’s Liquor. There’s stuff all over the place. And he would do anything to beat the opposition. Like, I remember he had flagpole sitters, have you ever heard of those? Something that came and went real quick after World War II. Professionals would go around and sell their services to sit for days and weeks to attract attention. So Dado would hire flagpole sitters. And they guys would be up there for two or three weeks and the mobs would come and they’d drive there, and they’d have to fill up at Dado’s gas station and he’d go buy some more property. (laughs)
Dado grew up with Will Rogers. And his daughter Dorothy Grettenberger had Dado’s old bow in her office and I didn’t really appreciate that sort of thing. And Will Rogers stopped in to see them a few times and I didn’t know who he was, damn it! I think Dado’s bows and artifacts and things are in the Santa Barbara Historical Society now, at least I was told they are…And he ran around as a kid shooting rabbits and that sort of thing with his bow. Just like an Indian. (laughs)
LH: Which he was.
BB: He was a dark little thing with a smile. Smoked a pipe all the time. I never think of Dado without smelling the pipe tobacco. Sir Walter Raleigh in a can.
LH: What is it that inspires you to be creative? That inspires your creativity? That keeps you creating?
BB: I’m not sure there is such a thing as a when, and D’Anne would question the creative part, too. I think it’s natural things that, without any special skills, or actually, without any real ability, I’ve just been innately prompted to. I’ve tried everything and loved all of it, even when people would threaten to shoot me if I gave them one more thing like a thrown vase. Adult Ed pottery. Loved it, I loved it! Couldn’t figure out why other people’s things turned and mine fell over. (laughs) But I had a lot of fun.
And I love the photography. I love it. Before I even thought about doing my own photos, I was running around with a Brownie and taking…oh, I’ve got some still there…horrible pictures. Hardly ever a picture was taken without movement. You know, those old cameras didn’t tolerate movement.
LH: They’re these ones you hold like this?
BB: Yeah, (laughs) the one ... the one twenty-seven film that was the back of it had paper behind it. And a young kid could never roll it without exposing it. I used to have my old school teacher’s wife Lois Van Schaick would load my film for me when we were on camping trips, she’d say, “I don’t want to see any more black pictures Bruce, let me do that.”
And then Old Van, my old fifth and sixth grade school teacher he got interested in photography and built a dark room along side of his shed. And he was taught that by Dick Smith, the pretty famous News Press employee, cartographer, and artist. Wonderful artist. He wrote columns on natural history. Dick Smith was a real Renaissance person. He decided on day he’d like to make a saddle so he made a beautiful saddle. And he worked with stone and he took great photos and he showed Van.
Well, then Van took me into the darkroom and taught me how to use it and I was entranced, just immediately, and started fooling around. Got to high school and they said, “What do you want to do in high school?” and I said, “I want to play football, basketball, and work on the yearbook.” So all I did with the yearbook was the photo lab. Oh, I was in heaven! I had a key. I could go over on the weekends and do my own stuff. And I would go over, you know, I’d print up my own photos on the weekends and then sell them to the kids on Monday in the hallway. I made a lot of money.
LH: (laughs) That’s smart.
BB: And I took photos for the high school newspaper, The Forge, and I remember there was a lovely advisor, a keen lady who was the newspaper advisor and Santa, her name was Mrs. Brubeck. Dorothy Brubeck. Her husband Henry was the band director at the High School and his brother was Dave Brubeck. And I want to tell you, every now and then we’d be having an assembly and Dave Brubeck would walk out and start playing his flute or clarinet or something, clarinet. And walk off the stage. walk off. And everybody would say, “I don’t know who that was, but it was really good.” (laughs)
And so then, from there, I went down. Oh, I met the Santa Barbara News Press sports editor, Phil Patent, and promoted myself into a photographer’s job. So there I was, a high school kid, taking photos and rushing down to the Santa Barbara News Press, Friday night, getting there around 11 o’clock, souping my film. I’d soup my film and print up. And it had to be done quick. And Saturday nights were worse, because they had a deadline for the Sunday edition and it was big and they had to get stuff rolling early. And say I was taking photos at one of the colleges or something, I’d go down there and soup not only my film, but some of the other photographer’s too, if they had any. And print wet, with the film still we and get a bunch of photos for the editors to look at, and they’d say, “Do this one over, crop this one, go print some more, or be done!” And then couldn’t wait for the Sunday edition, see your photos. Sixteen, seventeen years old, and there were your photos in the News Press. Yeah, yeah, I had a press pass for the LA Coliseum. The Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley.
LH: It seems like you have always had a lot of determination, too. Would you consider that a truth for you?
BB: Yeah, not a lot of planning. But was pretty much willing to do anything. And actually, I’m still that way. My friend John Paciano, before we build anything, he says “Now, now, put the hammer down Bruce, put the saw down and watch my lips: measure twice, cut once.” I say, “I got it, I know John, I know, now let’s go, let’s get on with it.”
Yeah, almost everything I’ve ever done, I’ve just done. And then learned while I was doing it. And if I had to do it again, then I had a good foundation to build on. (laughs) I had never built a deck until we needed one when we lived up on top of the mountains in a trailer while we were saving money to buy property. So I built a deck. It was keen. A great big thing, I expect it to fall down any minute. But it didn’t. And I had never done viticulture. And heck, we make, we grow, the best Pinot, Petit Syrah grapes in maybe all of North America.
LH: I’m sure.
BB: That’s what is says on the bottle and I put it there! (laughs)
But I knew I wanted to teach school. And it was, a lot of it had to be from Van. But I liked the very idea of it.
BB: I’m not sure. It’s an important thing to do.
BB: Because we need well educated children who will think for themselves and it’s, D’Anne and I were talking, just before you got here, about how exhausting teaching really was. How, since we’ve retired, we hardly ever think about it, because while we were teaching it consumed us. We never stopped thinking about it. And I think that is one of the things that people who aren’t teachers don’t understand. It wasn’t a ten-month job. It was a twelve-month job. Day and night. I never stopped thinking about what I had done wrong, about what could I have done better, what should I do next year. I think when I retired, I was just at the point where I had it all figured out and might be doing a good job. (laughs)
LH: I think you were there long before that.
BB: (laughs) That’s how I felt at times. I don’t regret any of it and I look back at almost all of it fondly. We had a few stinkers. Kids who just weren’t fun to know.
LH: What were some of the most important lessons, and I don’t necessarily mean the lesson itself, but the bigger lesson for you that you held as being important for your students to learn?
BB: Yes. They have to learn, hopefully they’ll learn, that there are many things that they need to know and they won’t necessarily come easily. And they can be important. They can’t know entirely what’s good for them when they’re children, or there would be no sense in society. They need to learn how to work together and do things together. There are lots of basic things that aren’t innate, but seem innate, and are really taught one way or another when children are young, like treating others fairly, the basic tenets of democracy. They don’t always get what they want because we vote on it, the majority makes the decision.
Ah, you got me here. When you go home, I’ll think of one hundred more things to say. But I won’t call you up and bother you.
LH: Oh, you can, I’ll come back with the recorder and even bring you some more peaches..
BB: (laughs) Oh yes, or maybe I’ll find out when you’re somewhere else doing this, and I’ll go over there and raid your trees. (laughs)
LH: I have another question for you. We’re almost at an hour so I want to stop and give you a second, or just stop and close. But, has your life in any way, been different than you imagined?
BB: Oh sure, sure. My goodness. Not that I imagined too much when I was a kid. The things you wanted to do. But it got interrupted here and there. For example, my first marriage fell apart and who would have thought that? I mean I did at the end, but not at the start. And I didn’t envision getting drafted out of UCSB. I was getting ready to go up to graduate school at Cal Poly, San Luis for my fifth year teaching credential (laughs). And I got an invitation from the President to join his army. I thought, “Hell, I can’t turn this down, because I’m a citizen, so I’ll go do it!” (laughs)
And, how about lucky breaks? My unit, the second 34th armor was loading for Vietnam at San Pedro. Oh, it takes a long time to get ready to ship over seas. And along comes this hot shot car with some officer in it who calls five of us out of the ranks. We look at each other and say, “What could we have done?” This was during the Vietnam build up and they were taking five college graduates, and they shipped us back East for a crash course on MP duty. Because they were short of everybody.
LH: What was that, MP?
BB: Military Police. And so the second 34th armor went to Vietnam and I went to Fort Gordon and then right back to Fort Irwin, where I’d been, and became the operations sergeant there in the military police, and it turned out that was a hard job. But interesting. I never wanted to be a cop, but it was pretty interesting and I was essentially in charge of the MP at the Fort for my last year there. Met a lot of interesting people, got in a lot of interesting situations, some were trying, some were simply interesting. Good guys. Nobody liked the MPs so they housed us all together and we were all young guys with young wives and had parties drank most of the beer in North America, or tried to, anyway. And if we couldn’t walk, we’d call a patrol to come and get us and take us where we needed to go, like back down to the PX for more beer. (laughs)
And we had the best arrest rate in the sixth army. Conviction rate for arrest. So, you know, who would have guessed such stuff? I learned a lot in the army, and it wasn’t about military stuff. And it’s something that I feel bad about today because the military and public education are the two places where all of America gets together and mixes. And we have people trying to get rid of public education and make it all private, and we’ve got a volunteer army. And there’s a lot of people who need to be in the army – it’s the only time in their lives where they would run across other types of people. For example, you could not be in the military when I was and not run across a whole lot of black guys that were bigger, stronger, smarter, better looking than you were. And say, “Huh, that’s an interesting thing for America to know.”
LH: And so what value, so can you just articulate what value this has?
BB: I’ve always believed that this is the sort of thing that all of America needs to know, especially the children need to know.
How are we going to be a democratic society if we don’t learn that lesson? And that’s not even necessarily a civil lesson. That’s even a philosophical and religious lesson. That is not learned buy enough people and, I don’t know if it…oh, it’s been changing. It’s for the better, but it’s still not good. Larger and larger segments of society are being parceled away now, and that’s not good. Think of the prison populations and their make up. I know what to do about it, but I don’t know how to make people listen.
LH: So what needs to be done about it?
BB: Well, some of those things are starting now. Like getting rid of mandatory sentencing now for misdemeanors. You know, I don’t know how much an ounce of marijuana is, but nobody should go to jail five years for it. And no one will, soon. But who went? Black kids. Do you recall- no you wouldn’t recall– when I was at UCSB we had five university students who were form the South and at Christmas they all got in the car together and drove nonstop to drop each other off in the South and then two or three weeks later they were going to get together and come back, and so on. They got stopped in Texas for speeding or something. And the cops found a marijuana cigarette somewhere in the car, probably in the trunk, because they were never accused, and the four white guys were let go and the one black kid in there got five years in prison. Until the whole university rose up and raised countless amounts of money and noise until Texas let the kid go and he came back and finished his schooling. That was common in the South.
I’ll tell you another interesting story about the South. I never hated the South because I never really knew it. But the first time I ever went there, I had been in Mexico with a friend…we had spent six months traveling around Mexico. And I got my stuff stolen in Mexico City. Essentially, I got my backpack stolen and it had my visa and my travelers’ checks and all that stuff in it. And so I wanted to get a new visa at the consulate, or whatever it is, in the Mexico City downtown there and the bureaucratic thing is supposed to take a couple of days and they just would not give me my new visa. Actually, once I saw it on the desk. But I was not going to get it ‘til I bribed them, and I couldn’t bribe them. So one day, I jumped over the railing and went grabbed it and told them all to go to hell. And they didn’t like that. So they gave me a three-day persona non grata visa to get out of Mexico. So I hitchhiked on trucks to the border. This was winter too, and the only reason I lived through it was I had a great, huge thick raw wool serape, or poncho, which I still have in the closet, I still use. It smelled like sheep. And I could sit in the back of those trucks without dying, you know, freezing. Got to the border, hitch hiked a little further, and got to a town called Harlingen, not far from Brownsville in Texas, and I was headed for Mobile to see a friend of mine in the Air Force and get some money from him to go home, back to Santa Barbara. Well, I was asking an old couple on a street corner where the highway was, so I could get there and start thumbing, and a cop drove by and he pulled over and he accused me of panhandling and the people said, no he wasn’t, he was asking directions. And the cop looked at ‘em and he said, “Get the Hell out of here”
And he hauled me in for pan handling. And the reason, the real reason he stopped me was that I was a tall blonde kid with hair to my shoulders wearing huaraches with a serape over my shoulder. He didn’t like my looks. So they took me down to jail and they beat the hell out of me. And then I couldn’t do anything, so they took me to the hospital. So I was in the hospital for a week and then back in the jail for a week before I could see a judge because I was all purple and my eyes were closed and all that sort of thing.
And this is all because he didn’t like my looks. I was never accused of anything until I got in front of the judge and he fined me one dollar more than I had, which made me an indigent. And I was in for a long stretch.
I had already spent a week cleaning restrooms at the courthouse in Brownsville with the prisoners. That was a lot of fun. They gave me a cup of coffee in the morning, two pieces of plain white bread with a piece of bologna between it for lunch, and that was the meal for the day. And our water was in the…you know those tall plastic pitchers with little handle on that you pour with…on the other side of the bars, so you picked it up and you squeezed it so you could drink. All the guards would come by and they would spit in your water.
LH: How did you get through something like that, like without being so resentful?
BB: Yeah, well I was, I’m still resentful, but I’m not bitter. Because I was supposed to be back in my country where we treated people decently and it was a real good lesson to learn that not all people were real, really Americans. They would shout Constitution and ignore it. They would shout truth and justice and ignore it. But we’ve got enough good people who won’t do that. That’s the good thing about our country, anyhow, Lori.
Finally, I told the judge, I said, “These guys won’t even let me make a phone call.”
And he says, “What? This kid hasn’t even made a phone call?”
They said, “Well, he was in the hospital.” You know, “We didn’t get around to it.”
He said, “Well, let him make a phone call, anywhere he wants.”
I said, “I don’t know anybody locally, it’s got to be a long distance call.” So they took me to a phone and I dialed the operator and asked for information. (laughs) She says, “Yes, sir, go ahead.” I said, “I’d like the number for my cousin Herbert in Washington D.C.” She said, “Your cousin Herbert?” I says, “Yes, he’s in the Department of Justice.”
And this cop grabbed the phone out of my hand and he hung it up and he says, “Herbert Brownell?” And I says, “Yeah, the Attorney General.” and an hour later I was on the bus on the way to Santa Barbara. One-way ticket paid for. And actually cousin Herbert was not the Attorney General at the time, but he had been recently, for Eisenhower. Worked out pretty good. (laughs) And I’ve never met him.
LH: It’s one of those lucky breaks.
BB: Yeah. (laughs) Pretty lucky thing. So you know, my last name is fairly uncommon and it paid off, once. (laughs) Anyhow, I’m sorry I got off subject there. But you asked about influence. And I’ve made fun of Texas ever since. But aside from that, I’ve never met a person from Texas that I didn’t like.
LH: One last question?
BB: Have you had, you haven’t had enough of this yet? Stuff and nonsense.
LH: Just one.
BB: Yes, yes. Of course.
LH: Is there any message or any wisdom that you would like to share?
BB: Do something really important so you won’t regret not doing later on. I wish I had joined the Freedom Marches in the sixties. I didn’t. I thought about it, but I was busy, I was trying to stay alive and eat and go to school, but I should have done it and I wish I had. Learn a foreign language. Don’t go to church, but be spiritual. Read the Bible, it’s beautiful. But don’t believe it, it’s fiction. Learn to play a musical instrument. Learn to dance. And think about things. Be thoughtful. Study things. Question things. Find good things and stick with them, beliefs or practices. Go camping, for God’s sake. Don’t teach school unless you really want to, don’t do it for the money, because you won’t get the money.
LH: Thank you very much. I’m going to turn this off.