Ode to a Grecian Urinal… Life at UC Berkeley in the 60s

In last Wednesday’s blog-a-book post from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” I arrived at UC Berkeley and provided a view of my life in the surrounding community. Today I will take you onto campus and provide a broader view of my life as a student.

I had a number of classes at Wheeler Hall shown here, including one with over a thousand students. The campus’s iconic Campanile is peaking out behind. (Photo by UC Berkeley.)

My ambitions at Berkeley far exceeded the time and energy I had. There were student politics to jump into, classes to master, a relationship to support, bookstores to explore, cappuccino to consume and a thousand causes to sort out. Moderation was not an option. I did understand that my primary reason for being there was to learn and I soon discovered that learning was defined differently than at Sierra. 

But first, I had to find my classes. Berkeley seemed like a maze to me. Single buildings had more classrooms than were found on Sierra’s campus, and each building held its own secrets. The Life Science building, for example, displayed enough jars of pickled fetuses to stop the heart of a pro-lifer and give me nightmares.  

Even the social science buildings had surprises. I was searching for a political science class in Wheeler Hall when I came upon a string of marble encased urinals in the basement. I decided there was enough marble to refurbish the Parthenon, which led my mind to contemplate penning a new poem, ‘Ode to a Grecian Urinal.’  My apology to Keats. Stream of conscious thinking can be dangerous. 

I finally found the class and discovered I had over 1000 classmates. It was located in a large auditorium I had passed by because my mind hadn’t been able to comprehend a classroom of that size. The professor, Peter Odegard, was a star in the field of political science and frequently received standing ovations for his stirring lectures. In another life, he had served as President of Reed College in Oregon. His lectures inspired me but there was scant chance I would ever meet the man. Personal contact was through graduate teaching assistants, folks struggling to complete their own education while being paid minimum wages to interact with us. 

I had one class that was so large we had to sit in another classroom and watch the professor on television. This was mass education on a grand scale and the University’s job, according to Clark Kerr, the University President, was the mass production of educated people to go out and fill slots in society. 

It was easy to be overwhelmed. I was assigned 15 books in one class and actually thought I was expected to buy and read each one in detail. I was a fast reader but not that fast, nor that wealthy. It would take a year to master the art of skimming, buying old books, using commercially prepared notes and pursuing all of the other tricks of the trade that getting a higher education at Berkeley entailed.

For all of that, there was an excitement to the classes that was lacking at Sierra. I might be sharing my professor with a thousand other students, but he or she might also be a confidante of Presidents. Did I learn more than I had at Sierra? I actually don’t think so, but I did have a sense of being part of what was happening in the world and this made what I was learning seem more real.

Life quickly evolved into a routine that primarily consisted of attending classes and studying. Mainly I lived in the Bancroft Library with occasional forays over to Café Med. Friday nights were reserved for Jo Ann. We had met at Sierra College and decided to attend Berkeley together. We struggled to spend time with each other, to find moments of privacy, and to bridge the gaps that our new life was creating. Even though we had gone off to the University together and now lived less than a mile apart, we saw less of each other than we had at Sierra when we lived 30 miles apart. Dates, given my super tight survival budget, normally consisted of going out for pizza at Laval’s or a hamburger at Larry Blake’s or at Si’s Charbroiler. Later, when we both turned 21, beer was added to the menu. On rare occasions, we would go to a movie. One that I remember was the Italian film “8 ½” directed by Federico Fellini and starring Marcello Mastroianni. Its surrealistic, artsy nature seemed to match our university experience.

Sunday mornings, in lieu of church, I would go for hikes up in the hills behind Berkeley. Grassy knolls provided views of San Francisco and the Bay. The beauty and quiet provided my mind with an opportunity to contemplate what was happening in my life, to gain perspective. There was solace to be found in the woods.

Participating in student politics at UC was an added burden I didn’t need. But I had been student body president at Sierra and gamely jumped into the fray. The dormitories were new; so, the residents were new. They hadn’t had time to get to know each other. The fact that I was a community college transfer made little difference. Within a week of my arrival, I was president of Priestly Hall. I quickly learned that my new role of mastering football chants and organizing parties was boring in comparison to what was happening in the real world. That was about to change as I struggled to make the position of dorm president more relevant— and get in trouble.  That will be the subject of my post next Wednesday.

NEXT POST

Friday’s Travel Blog: I will continue our exploration of Harris Beach State Park near Brookings by focusing in on sea stacks, including Goat Island, home to over 100,000 nesting seabirds.