Betty and Sid Gordon
“We’ve had a great life together. . . . And music has always been part of our lives.”
Sid: I started playing music in junior high school with Mr. Pihl. (editor: pronounced peel.) He was the one that got me going. Later I did my student teaching under him. I didn’t appreciate him then as much as I did later.
I had had piano lessons and I could read music. In 5th grade they organized a little singing group to go to PTA and I was picked and assigned to sing alto parts, the harmony parts, because I could do it.
I started clarinet in junior high school and after one semester they put me up in the band. Mr. Pihl did some finagling to get me in and my folks, who really had no money, bought me a clarinet. One of my brother’s buddies, a good clarinet player, took me down to Sherman and Clay music store and I picked out three clarinets, took them home and kept them for maybe a week to try them out. “Okay, this is the one I want.” And they bought it for 100 bucks. (editor: about $1800 today) It was a Buffet, top of the line. I didn’t know what I was doing but it was the one I liked. I’ve had it for 75 years. My daughter played it for a while but I kept it and played it in the band until my lungs started to give out.
Betty: It came within two months or three months of being burned up in the fire because he gave all his clarinet music and his clarinet to our granddaughter. (editor: Their home was destroyed in the Tubbs fired in 2017.)
S: And she’s playing it in college now. We have a picture of me playing clarinet with little Sidney—her name is Sidney Elizabeth. Here’s this little six or seven year old looking at Grandpa playing the clarinet and now she’s at the University of Missouri doing more with it than I ever did in high school and college.
I was born in St. Louis but I have no memory of it. We moved out here when I was four years old. I’m a Californian. I was born a Gimovsky. My father came over from a shtetl in Russia, Ukraine.
Betty: Around Kiev, I think.
S: We don’t know his birthday. (editor: Census records state that he was born around 1893.) We don’t know when or even where he arrived. (editor: Census records also state that he entered the country in 1906, the year after pogroms swept through the Ukraine. 64 cities including Kiev and 626 villages were ransacked. Odessa took the biggest hit with 300 Jews killed and thousands injured.) We had some papers but they were burned up in the fire. I’ve seen the names of some of the villages but I couldn’t pronounce them, couldn’t remember them.
My father was a little guy, a Jewish militant. You didn’t say anything bad about Jews around him. He probably had a score to settle from the Old Country. He was in the army in WWI for six years and he came out as a buck private because of fights, this short, feisty guy named Gimovsky. I think he made it to sergeant once.
He never went to high school. He was 12 when he came over and he never went to school beyond that. I don’t know why he came over.
B: They never talked at all about that.
S: My father had a hard life.
B: His mother also had a hard life. She had one foot in the Old Country and one foot in America. She didn’t want to speak Yiddish. She wanted to grow up American but her parents were very Old World and her father was very strict.
S: She came over as an infant. (editor: Bessie was 10 years younger than her husband Louis.) Her father didn’t speak English but she had no accent at all other than Midwestern. My father had a strong accent but my mother had none. They spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to understand. My brother spoke Yiddish but I didn’t.
I don’t know what my father was doing between the war and when my parents were married in 1921. (editor: Census records show that he was driving a bakery truck in 1920.) He didn’t have family in St. Louis.
B: It was your mother who had all her family there.
S: Oh, that’s right. And my father had some cousins but we didn’t keep up with them. Nor my mother’s family. Bunch of real wonderful people though. Crazy, loveable, not . . . crazy isn’t a word I should use.
B: They were unusual. They were an exceptionally loving and caring group of people.
S: I had a brother and a sister. My brother was four years older than me and my sister was four years younger. Both are dead now.
And my father had a thing about names. He went into the army Gimovsky and came out Leo James. Where he got that name I’ll never know. Later on he and his siblings–there were five of them that came here; I don’t know if there were some left in Russia–dropped the “sky” and used Gimov. I dropped the “sky” too but when I went into the service my birth certificate said Gimovsky and when I came out my discharge papers said Gimovsky and the GI bill said Gimovsky so my college transcript has Gimovsky/Gimov and it was during my college days that my father changed his name to Gordon. The whole family did. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay what I was but I wouldn’t go against my family.
One of my father’s nephew’s was a very successful lawyer. He changed his name to Gordon and his father followed him. And my father did too. My sister went for all those name changes too but she married a Tutorsky who changed his name to Terrell. So my sister went through Gimovsky, Gimov, Gordon, Tutorsky, Terrel.
Back in the days when there was so much more anti-Semitism I could see my father changing his name. They owned a small delicatessen which went out of business–Sidney’s. They named it after me because they thought Sidney was a good Jewish name but it was also not a Jewish name. It was on Geary Street–5051 near Park Presidio.
My Jewishness is invisible but it’s still there. Not the religious part, although I was bar mitzvahed at the Daly City shul where we lived when we first moved to San Francisco, but when you read about somebody who’s Jewish, you’re proud of that. My mother and father were active in that shul. It was a small wooden building which has long since been torn down. It was Old World. I knew refugees that came over. And I can remember kids going by and throwing rocks at the building.
We moved to the Richmond District in San Francisco and lived on 11th Avenue, 26th Avenue, 44th Avenue. They built up a little equity and sold every three years or so. Nice houses. My father had a job all through the Depression. He drove a bakery truck and during the General Strike he was allowed to go through because milk and bread and some other drivers were not scabs. He was a good union man. (editor: The 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike began on May 9, 1934 and lasted eighty-three days. Longshoremen in every West Coast port walked out. After two workers were killed by mounted police on “Bloody Thursday”, the joint marine strike committee called for a general strike. Fourteen unions voted support. On Monday July 9 40,000 people filed down Market Street in a funeral procession for the slain strikers and a week later the San Francisco General Strike officially began. Involving around 150,000 workers around the Bay, it stopped all work for four days and ultimately led to the settlement of the West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike and the unionization of all of the West Coast ports.)
I grew up in the Richmond District in San Francisco and went to Sutro Elementary. I had a very successful elementary and junior high. I was right at the top, got beat out by one guy, George Gleghorn. He was in charge of one of the space shots, not at the moon but when they were exploring. Son of a gun was always ahead of me. He went to Pasadena (editor: California Institute of Technology) and was a professor and all that jazz. We got to be very good friends, went to his house, model trains and all that. He was always a step or two ahead of me. He was brilliant. (editor: George had a distinguished career as an aerospace executive with Hughes Aircraft and TRW. He was manager of launch operations for Pioneer 1, Explorer 6, Pioneer 5 and was project manager for Able 5 Lunar Probes.)
I went to Presidio (editor: Jr. High School) and Washington (editor: High School).
In high school I was interested in music of course but there were no girls in band. It was ROTC (editor: Reserve Officers’ Training Corps). The band was separate from the rest of the music program and they had a military parade every Wednesday.
It was during the war. I was born on December 7, 1926 so I turned 15 on Pearl Harbor Day. I remember it very clearly.
When the war started my father went to work driving a bakery truck for Wonder Bread. He had diabetes and he didn’t know it. He found out when he passed out at the top of the stairs and fell down. From then on he had to take insulin. My mother gave him a shot every day or so. He couldn’t drive a truck anymore so he worked in the ship yards. He had been a little bit active in the union and Jack Shelley, who worked for the union and later became a congressman helped him in that. (editor: John “Jack” Francis Shelley worked his way through the University of San Francisco law school as a bakery driver. After receiving his law degree in 1932 he became a business agent for the Bakery Wagon Drivers Union. Active in both the AFL and the CIO, he went on to become a member of the California State Senate from 1938 to 1946. At the 1948 Democratic National Convention he helped marshal his state’s votes to support the historic civil rights plank. In 1949 he became the first Democrat to be elected to the House of Representatives for San Francisco in 44 years where he served until 1964 when he was elected as the first Democrat to be mayor of San Francisco in 50 years.)
I joined the teamsters union too. My brother got a job with the post office driving a truck but a month or so before he was to work, he got drafted. So I went down and took his place. I was sixteen. I didn’t lie or anything. It was hard for them to find people. I did it for a year and a half and I loved it. I was senior person other than the old timers. And I carried a gun when I had registered mail. Walking through the downtown department stores, a sixteen year old kid with a gun, pushing a cart.
B: He was never even told how to shoot a gun.
S: No. After school there’d be a two hour or three hour route to pick up mail and if you carry registered mail, you had to have a gun. They’d say, “Here’s the route” and “Here’s the gun,” either a big .45, World War I surplus, or a .38 which was small. The .38 I could shove it into my back pocket. But with the big ones it was webbed belts. One time I had to go from the Federal Reserve to the Main Post Office. I had a motorcycle police escort. A guy rode alongside of me with a gun and there was a police car behind me. I had to load the stuff, big cartons, and they told me it was money so I was pulling a couple of million dollars.
And then I was in the Navy for not quite two years. I went in in December ’44. The war was over in April ’45 in Europe and August in Asia, the day I was supposed to ship out. They cancelled it and then a few days later I went to Pearl Harbor and spent a month there doing nothing. Then I went to the Philippines for almost a year. I went with the motor pool, which I loved. The first time I drove a Jeep it was raining and the guys thought I was crazy getting out there with the open roof but I was just so excited.
But I had gone to quartermaster school in Mississippi. That’s how I got to be a signalman and I got one stripe on my right arm. They promised me a second stripe if I’d reenlist. I waited maybe a whole second before I declined.
My brother Bill was a radio operator but I was a flashing lights guy. There was a customs house in Manila, like the Ferry Building in San Francisco, a big tower with a big searchlight. You have a little shutter that you operate. I could do up to 45 or 50 words a minute with blinking lights. We used to play games with the poor merchant ships. We’d get our binoculars and watch them. They’d look up one letter at a time. When a Navy ship would come, they would send you a word and you would blink to signify that you got it. Well, we would hold it down. “You keep going, you keep going, you keep coming.” Who’s going to give in first? That was fun.
B: I had two older brothers and they were both in the war too. Bill was over in France, Chartres Cathedral. He was a signalman too and they’d set up a relay station in the tower of Chartres Cathedral tower. Dick was over in the Pacific.
S: Dick was a year older than me.
B: Six months. But he saw combat. Not a lot but he did see it. One thing that saved him was that he got yellow jaundice (editor: hepatitis A) and he was in a hospital when his outfit went on a mission.
S: I was in long enough to get the GI bill to put me through college. My brother had gone to San Francisco State when he came out of the service so that’s where I was going. It was automatic. In the army he became a spec 4 and went up the ladder. He went to the University of Washington in Seattle for a couple of years, learned Japanese, and then later went into the pickle corps. (editor: successful air qualification trainees who served as pilots, navigators, flight engineers, bombardiers and glider pilots in what was then the Army Air Force.)
He was one of four guys out of his original bunch who went back down to UC where he learned Chinese. Then he was in the special services in Washington DC translating. When he got out, he finished at San Francisco State and got a PhD at UC. So for me there was never any thought. I was going to State.
And that’s where Betty and I met.
It was ’46, the first year after the war, and a big bunch of veterans came to the University. I’m a couple of years older than her.
Betty: I was born in Oakland in ’29, May 22. Fabiola Hospital. I graduated high school in ’46.
S: I started as an art major, but taking music classes too. I had a music theory teacher who talked me into joining an introduction to a cappella choir. I had never sung except in that 5th grade thing and Betty was one of the students who was also taking that class. That group was just great. There were four or five married couples that came out of it.
But we didn’t get together then.
On Christmas Eve 1948 we went up to Hamilton Air Force Base to broadcast Christmas Carols over the PA system. And sitting around waiting she picked me up. I always tease her for that. We rode up separately but we rode back together. All of our dates were college programs. I’m a cheapskate.
One time we broke up because my dad was against it, her not being Jewish. But I couldn’t stand it. She called me up and we talked for a while.
B: I was miserable.
S: “And by the way there’s a program Sunday. Virgil Fox is playing the organ. Would you like to go?” And that was it. My proposal of marriage was, “I just can’t not marry you.” I just couldn’t not. And we’ve had a wonderful life together.
B: His father wasn’t too happy about it. He asked me, “Do you want your children to be called Christ killers?” I had never even heard the term before. He and I didn’t get along. Bessie and I were very close friends but I never warmed up to his dad except maybe the last month of his life or so. His dad was more affectionate then.
S: Yeah. Y’know, he never came to programs of mine. I mean NEVER, not until my first job teaching up in Weed. He came up in the daytime and didn’t know how to find me so he went into the railroad station and talked to the stationmaster, Mr. Collins, to get directions. “You’re Sidney Gordon’s father?” Mr. Collins closed the station and personally took my father over to where we lived and rang the doorbell and stood by while we opened it. And the next day my father came to school and asked where Sidney was. He didn’t know that I was “Mr. Gordon”. I was Sidney. And that night I put on a concert. I was the master of ceremonies. There were duets and trios and the band. Now that sounds very sophisticated. It was “Twinkle, twinkle little stars” and the band was lousy but they hadn’t had a music teacher for more than one year so the parents were all happy and my father was impressed that all the parents were there. That was the first time. Things changed after that. His health had turned bad and he became very . . .
B: I don’t know if he was even 60.
S: That was a major point. I can remember being humiliated by him in front of other people by the way he spoke to me. And this was a change.
B: Yeah. He was sentimental toward the end.
S: He really loved Betty. But he never saw any of our kids.
B: I don’t know if he really loved me. He finally accepted me, I guess.
S: I was in Weed for three years. I went up at the beginning of the year. Betty had one more semester so she was down in The City.
B: Sid and I were both music majors but I changed to education in my senior year because I couldn’t see both of us trying to get the same job once I knew we were going to get married.
S: When they found out that she had a credential they were overjoyed. They took the two 4th grade classes and made three out of them. What they didn’t tell her was that they took everyone who was below level and gave her that class.
B: I was a beginning teacher.
S: Nonreaders. Kids that had flunked everything. And they didn’t offer any help. The other two teachers were glad to get rid of them.
B: I didn’t find that out until one of the other 4th grade teachers told me at the end of the semester. I thought I was a terrible teacher. I couldn’t make these kids learn. I was at a loss. Nice enough kids, very respectful but I didn’t realize . . .
Other than that I survived living in Weed but being in a small town was difficult. I was a fish out of water. It was very narrow minded and I was spoiled. I loved San Francisco. Weed was pretty rough and tumble, about 3500 people.
S: It was a real Southern town, segregated. Colored town was on the other side of the highway. There’d be an occasional assembly of all the colored kids when the principal would call them out for something, walking across somebody’s lawn or something. We had our battles. The administration of the elementary school were happy to see me go. The high school was a different situation. He was a good man. We came and left at the same time. We both got fed up with the program.
B: But I also was a choir director in the community church up there. I don’t know how the minister found out that I had been in a choir at church but somehow he did. I’m not religious but I was raised Presbyterian. Dad never attended church very much but my mother was very strict. I grew up on 82nd Avenue in Oakland, not the best neighborhood anymore. I went to Castlemont High. It looked like a castle. It’s been torn down but it was really beautiful. I’ve lost my home town.
And the church, Hillside Presbyterian, was probably at 81st. That’s where I got my musical training, a very musical choir with both high school and college aged kids. There were about 25 of us that regularly met with my mentor, Ellis Larson. After he got home from the service, he went to San Francisco State where he was a music major so all the music in the choir came from there. Really nice music. We put on concerts in Oakland.
And I was given piano lessons. My mother insisted. My brothers and I had them. My older brother was very good. I played cello in high school. I started in elementary school in 6th grade. They had a cello so they handed it to me because I showed some musical ability but they didn’t have an orchestra. I was cello and they had maybe a violin and a piano. .
S: Her father was musical too.
B: Dad was a natural musician. Never had a lesson. He was a letter carrier, a mailman. He played baritone in the band, went to band practice regularly. Self-taught, I’m sure.
S: He played guitar and banjo and he sang.
B: He had a nice singing voice. On Sunday morning he would make pancakes, “hot cakes” he called them. When he flipped them over, he’d pick up his guitar and sing some songs and put it down and take care of the pancakes. It was wonderful. I loved that.
S: I liked him. He came up one time to Weed and I took him through the musical building. He saw the baritone horn and picked it up and played it a little. He had a ball. “Would you like to try this? Would you like to try that?”
B: So I was familiar being in a church choir and the minister asked me to be director.
S: She posted county wide in the Presbyterian churches. It was a good choir. I was a tenor. Now I don’t have the breath. I can’t even finish a sentence talking. They really liked her and they were very sad to see her go.
B: It was successful. Five tenors, all men. About the same basses. Good sopranos and several altos. I liked many of the people in it.
S: A good accompanist. We rehearsed one night a week. We would sing three or four times a month and I enjoyed it. It was beautiful music.
B: He was good enough. That was the crucial thing. He joined the choir so that we could get some music in our lives because there was nothing going on up there.
S: Not much. One of the kids in my band came up one day and said, “My dad flies airplanes.” I said, “Oh, that’s nice.” Next day he came back and said, “My dad said, ‘Would you like to go up in the air sometime?’” “That’s nice.” And the next thing I know his father calls and invites me up and that developed into a nice friendship. He was a nice guy. I traded trombone lessons for flying lessons, got myself a pilot’s license. Small plane. I never flew after we left Weed, couldn’t afford it.
B: I gave my name in to teach again but it was November or December before I was called. By then I was too big. Back then it wasn’t like today where they wear form fitting tops. It was something you tried to hide. We went to Healdsburg and Gail was born in February. That’s where we had our first two kids in 1954 and 55, 16 months apart.
S: Those are our two California daughters.
B: Then I waited four years and had two more girls close together. Linda is now living over in the Netherlands and Laura is in Lake Ozark, Missouri. In the Ozarks. It’s really pretty.
S: We were in Healdsburg for 5 years. My grand scheme of things was to start as a beginning teacher out in the boonies and then go someplace half way to the Bay Area and stay five, ten years and eventually either end up in Marin or San Mateo County. In Healdsburg they had just built the high school. The old high school became the junior high, though that has been torn down and rebuilt too. At first I taught in both schools. As the program grew I had my choice. The junior high was a great program so I stayed there. A great group! Four of those kids came to our last concert.
After five years I applied for a job at Redwood High in Marin, a brand new school at Larkspur. They didn’t even have a music room yet. They had gerrymandered the district so that all the hotshots went to Redwood—from Belvedere, Highland, Kentfield. It wasn’t a big program but I had some good kids. They were all going to become doctors and lawyers and so if they were interested in music they had already taken private lessons. I had a couple of good programs but a lot were borderline.
B: You’re belittling it. I think you had good programs.
S: The next to the last year we did the Bach Brandenburg Concerto and I had a kid that could do it. But the last year was worse. If those two had switched, I wouldn’t have retired. I was there twenty-two years.
One of my kids was teaching at the junior college then. I had always thought that he would take my place when I left Redwood High but he left the junior college and I took his place which I think is funny. We’re still close friends. Teaching there was fun.
Betty checked into teaching again after the kids were bigger but by that time they were letting teachers go; the schools were shrinking.
B: Once I had a family . . . it’s kind of like a career. You don’t get paid money but it’s a job and you have to stay home and take care of the kids and run the household. I had four and I loved having babies and having children.
S: And I didn’t appreciate it. I just took everything for granted.
B: That was the way it was back then. I really loved it . . . until they got to about high school. Then Sid stepped in. He understood high school. I still wanted to be the one in control.
So I went back to school at Indian Valley College in Marin and became a medical assistant. I got talked into being a music major and I’m glad I did but from the time I was in high school I wanted to be a nurse. So I became a medical assistant in two years. I just loved it. I got a wonderful job with Dr. Wagner. He was elderly, the grandpa everybody wishes they had, just a really nice man. But he retired after a few years and when I got a job with another doctor it wasn’t so good so I quit.
S: I was retired, being a bum then. Betty got a job as the secretary of the Unitarian Church in Marin and I’d go up and help her.
And a buddy of mine and I got together. I had a driveway and a big garage. So we bought old junk cars and fixed them up to make money. But this friend of ours, he knew somebody who was hard up and really needed a car. So okay. We never sold a car. We gave one to Betty’s brother who did the same thing. He had a ’55 Buick and wore it down to nothing and a friend of his needed a car. He sold it to him for $5 but the guy didn’t have $5 so he gave him the car. That sort of thing.
B: Sid loved building cars, taking the engines apart. And he’s a wonderful carpenter. He loves working with things, taking them apart and putting them together.
S: When we first got married I built much of our furniture. And the kids’ furniture. Laura, the one in Holland, still has a little child’s desk. And I made matching ones for the two pairs of daughters so you could put them together. I put curlicues and stuff on it. I made table and chairs for the kids.
I started at Weed. I always wanted it. They had a woodwork class at night. One of our first purchases was a radio and record changer. I built a matching console for our records. I think they still have that too.
Betty was working but we couldn’t keep up financially. I had retired fairly young so my retirement wasn’t very high. Marin was getting too expensive. And I was getting a little tired of it. Betty was happier there than I was.
B: Yes. I wasn’t anxious to leave. If I had kept working we could have stayed there.
S: But we couldn’t have afforded to do the things that I wanted to do. We had traveled a lot and I wanted to do more. We’ve spent at least one night in all 50 states except Rhode Island. I don’t remember how many trips we made across the country.
B: We’ve been all over. Sid loves to travel.
S: And it’s not just the main roads; it’s back roads.
B: We’d never get there fast. I just cringe when I hear people do that because there is so much to see. There’s a lot of history.
S: We started with the two of us in a 9 x 9 umbrella tent, pole in the middle and when we had kids we used that–four kids, the six of us in there. Then we got a little bigger tent and a U-Haul trailer that I built up. And then a camper trailer and then a bigger one. By that time the kids had gone their ways, we had gotten a very small regular trailer. It didn’t even have a toilet.
B: We had to buy ice for an ice box.
S: Then we got bigger and bigger trailers until the last one was full size with a shower and a toilet. Our nicest looking outfit—a small, blue Toyota wagon and a camper trailer. I painted the trailer blue with a white top. It was really pretty.
B: He was very proud of that.
S: We had it at the top of Crater Lake and up into Canada. One of the ways I try to date the trip was what car we had.
B: I always wonder how old the kids were. That’s my way of remembering.
S: The biggest problem now is that I’ve only been out of Sonoma County twice in the last two years.
B: Yeah, he gets stir crazy.
S: So in order to do some of those things that I loved we sold the place in Marin where we’d lived for 30 years and bought a house in Santa Rosa.
B: I thought it would be more handy to Marin and San Francisco than it is. I loved going to San Francisco.
S: Now it’s too much for us to drive down there.
And later we downsized to go live at Orchards, an upgrade mobile home place just behind Coffee Park. When the fire came, our insurance wouldn’t replace that mobile home but between the two home sales we have an estate to leave our kids.
B: We could have had a new mobile home delivered, but the difference was about $60,000 between our insurance and a new one. Maybe more.
S: It was based on what we paid when we bought it.
B: I don’t think that we realized at the time of the fire how much damage was going to happen. We escaped in our car and I expected to come back after the firemen put it out. I took my breakfast pills because I thought, “Well, maybe we’ll have breakfast out.” Our house was burned totally down to the ground. Nothing at all . . .
S: Our daughter Gail in Oakland was awakened by winds and smoke and she called us up.
B: She turned on the TV and Channel 7 said there was a fire in Santa Rosa but she didn’t pay too much attention until they said that the fire had just jumped Highway 101 at Bicentennial and she said, “That’s the exit to go to their house. Oh my God, I’ve got to call Mom and Dad and let them know, get them up.”
S: We were awake.
B: We were awake because the wind was so strong. That made noise, the trees . . . And I heard popping noises. I couldn’t figure out what it was and I thought, “Is somebody shooting something?” I smelled smoke earlier in the evening but I thought, “That’s strange. Why is anybody barbecuing at this time of night?”
S: We went out to look and embers were flying. There was smoke and of course the glow. We didn’t know what to do.
B: There was a phone call at one or two in the morning. I can’t remember what they said but the last words were, “LEAVE NOW!” And I thought, “That’s pretty direct.” I was in my pajamas and bathrobe. I thought maybe we could leave for a few hours and come back and I didn’t know whether I should change or not.
S: We were lucky that the power wasn’t off because we might not have been able to open the garage door. Other people had that problem. But the traffic was so bad that we couldn’t get out of the trailer park. Fortunately the fire wasn’t near the exit. We waited ten, fifteen minutes . . . I don’t know . . . to get onto Piner Road. That’s as far as we got.
B: They told us to go to Finley Recreation Center but we couldn’t move.
S: We pulled off to a side street and sat there until the traffic thinned out about two hours later. By then it was five o’clock and so we tried to find some place that would be open for breakfast but everything was closed.
B: Except the Sonoma County Coffee Shop on Brookdale.
S: Gail had found a place for refugees and after breakfast we went and met them there.
B: “Thank heaven, Mom,” she said, “that you put the cell phone in your purse.” They had just given it to us. It turned out to be a life line. Gail was so good. They were worried about Sid’s COPD (editor: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), that the smoke was going to bother him. It was 6:30 or 7 in the morning and they thought, “Let’s go over to the house and pick up a few clothes so you’ll have something to wear.” They were the first ones to see the devastation. They had the awful job of telling us about it.
S: Gail had walked around back and all of a sudden she realized that they were looking at where the house used to be. They were shook up. We didn’t see it.
B: We didn’t have a home. We didn’t have a place. That got to me. They made arrangements for us to go to Sacramento where our other daughter Judy lives.
I’ve had a harder time dealing with it than Sid has. He seems to have been able to move on but I joined a fire support group and it helped just to have others who also lost their homes. They were wonderful people, most of them younger than I am. We’re in our 90s and they’re mostly in their 60s I would guess. I dropped out but the group is still going.
S: I don’t know why it was easier for me.
B: We handle things differently. I think the home and the things in the home meant more to me than to him. But we lost our journals, our trips, our pictures. The kids have all gotten together to give us some pictures but Sid’s an artist. He had several paintings that we lost.
S: I do some pencil sketches now.
B: You need a space. You need an art room where you don’t have to clean up every time. We don’t have space anymore. I’m sorry about that.
S: Yeah, I am too.
B: Because he’s really good.
S: And so I went into pencil and charcoal.
B: I’m so glad that we didn’t try to rebuild because it is so difficult.
S: It’s two years plus and there are people who still have no idea when they’re getting in.
B: Nobody expects their house to burn down to the ground.
S: But fortunately we have the equity from our other house, enough to last. We’re not loaded obviously but . . .
B: We better not live too long because we don’t want to have the money run out. He went to the fire support group a couple of time but he said that for him it was an adventure.
S: Did I use the word adventure? I like adventures, not extreme but I love to travel. I don’t even like going back and forth over the same route.
B: He’s always wanting to try a new way home.
S: There were three or four trips to Europe, to China in 2000 including five days on the Yangtze River before the big dam was done. I hadn’t particularly wanted to go but it was an adventure. And an eye opener! We’d go along and there would a big sign where the water was going to be . . .
B: With the date–2003 and then 2006 or 9. In other words all of that was going to be underwater.
S: There were already deserted cities.
B: There were archeological sites and places people had lived for thousands of years and they had to be uprooted. They just seemed so coldhearted about it but I guess it did provide a lot of needed electric power and flood control.
S: People who were used to living in a river bottom were put up in a mountain.
B: It was really a sad thing for me to see.
But our main interest has always been Europe.
S: We visited 130 cathedrals and major churches and if you showed me a picture I could identify it.
B: With his art and art history background he was a great person to be with. In 1973 he took a half year sabbatical. Gail got married and then Judy went off to college. We spent two or three weeks driving across the country. We left our car and our trailer and Lynn and Lora with my brother Dick and his wife Joan for that semester and then spent a month traveling around Europe, two months in Florence going to school, side tripping, and another month after that traveling again. That was really nice for us because I think that I had neglected Sid for a while. I was so much into the kids.
S: Poor me.
B: Well, we neglected each other for a while, I think, but anyhow it was just wonderful for us. And it opened my eyes. I wasn’t into art history like he was but I learned so much being in Florence. We had access to museums.
S: We had student passes.
B: Underneath the Uffizi are archives that date back to the year 700. The Signoria of Florence (editor: the governing authority during the Medieval and Renaissance periods) made the laws and kept minutes and recorded them and stored them downstairs.
S: Four or five stories on a hill and at the top is this fabulous museum and below are offices and below that . . . dark, no lights, humidity controlled by the natural walls. To see the manuscript they used a flashlight.
B: We looked at a page from the year 900. That was exciting.
S: Our concierge helped us buy a used car off a lot, a Fiat–stands for “fix it again, Toni.” It rode nice except . . . we got to know several mechanics.
B: Sid liked cars so he enjoyed talking to the mechanics and I would sit there with my Italian/American dictionary.
S: We were studying Italian and we could get by in restaurants and places to stay. But describing a car, that’s another story. They would push the car under THE light in the garage and four guys would stand around and there’d be a big shaggy dog and we’d point and . . . whatever. We all became good friends.
B: That was a highlight for us. For me it was.
S: And later the kids lived in Chicago and Philadelphia. We spent a year in Philadelphia between Marin and Sonoma with our kids who are now in Holland. He’s a big shot chemist and they moved around. There aren’t many jobs for him. He’s so overqualified.
B: Oh, we loved it. I think I could live on the East Coast. There’s so much happening and it’s so exciting. I didn’t know anything about Philadelphia.
S: And we loved Chicago. We visited them there too. We had a trailer. My plan was to go back for a year and when the winter comes we’ll go down to Florida. But!
B: Winter came!
S: We couldn’t get the trailer out. Snow was up to the hub of the trailer.
B: We had a fair weather mentality. We just didn’t realize it. And if you did get out it’s very dangerous with the ice on the road.
But we traveled up and down the coast, all the way from Florida to Maine and made another trip to Iowa to visit friends. Gail was living there at that time in Iowa City. She was working in the hospital. She works for Kaiser now in the hematology department —middle management.
And Laura, the wild one, was performing in Branson, Missouri.
S: Branson Shows is big there, all kinds of things including country and western. So she was a showgirl, never made it big but she was in the limelight. She was on a poster of them going down the street.
All the kids have turned out well with the normal amount of tsoris (editor: Yiddish for trouble and suffering). I promise I’ll stop bragging but we have six grandchildren. Three of them have their masters degrees, one of them has a BS and one of them is in college. And the four son-in-laws— there’s one Ph. D., one masters—he went to the UC Divinity School. The only one who didn’t graduate from college is the one in Branson and he’s easy to get along with.
We’ve had a great life together.
B: Yeah, we have.
S: So my life has been a blessing. And I pride myself on having a good sense of denial. Selective memory. I’m old enough that I can tell any lie I want. No one can refute it. Betty once in a while catches me.
And music has always been part of our lives. We sang together in the Winifred Baker Chorale in Marin and 1991 was the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall. Choirs from all over the country were invited to New York including us. I was the deputy director at the time.
And we played in the Santa Rosa Symphony together. Betty belittles how well she played cello because her standards are higher than what she can accomplish but she played well enough to play in the Santa Rosa Symphony.
B: Yeah, but that was when it was a volunteer orchestra.
S: And when we moved up to Sonoma County she played in a couple of groups.
B: The Baroque Symphonia.
S: A chamber group. It was a good.
B: They played for the sing along Messiahs usually. Jean Shepherd was the director.
But I am so proud of him that he’s still going strong, at 93 he’s still in there conducting and doing a good job.
S: You forgot how handsome I am.
B: That too, in my eyes.
S: Her eyes aren’t too good.
And now I have the band. If I didn’t have . . . We’ve discussed this many times. What’s going to happen when I have to quit? My legs are the weak part. When I assemble something like furniture, I do it on the floor and I have no problem but standing up . . .
But the band–it’s a reason for living for me now.