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. 

Berkeley… We Are Not In Diamond Springs Anymore Toto

I transferred from Sierra College to Berkeley in 1963. Here I am looking proud in my UC sweatshirt.

My wandering off to Berkeley in the fall of 1963 introduced me to a totally different world compared to my childhood home of Diamond Springs with its population of 750 and nearby Placerville with a population of 4,000. Sierra College got me out of the sticks, but just barely. I rode a school bus there and the kids came from small rural communities not much different from Diamond and Placerville.

Telegraph Avenue became my Mecca at Berkeley. Exotic smells emanated from a dozen different ethnic restaurants, while numerous languages assaulted my ears. I quickly discovered the Café Mediterraneum. In an era before Starbucks made coffee houses safe for middleclass America, Café Med was an original. It was a microcosm of Berkeley, filled with offbeat characters, esoteric discussions and great coffee. I became addicted to both the cappuccino and the atmosphere. I would grab my coffee and climb the narrow wooden stairs in back for a coveted balcony seat where I would watch the ebb and flow of the city’s unique flotsam. 

Cafe Mediterraneum as it looked on my last visit a few years ago.

A quick jaunt across Telegraph produced another treasure, Cody’s Bookstore. Started on a shoestring by the Cody family in the 50s, it had become one of America’s premier bookstores by the mid-sixties. I saved my explorations for Saturdays when there was time to indulge my passion for books. I would disappear inside and become lost to everything except the next title.

I was equally fascinated by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of soapbox oratory provided at the south entrance to the campus on the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. During any given hour, a dozen speakers could be found there espousing as many causes. I considered it high entertainment and would sit on the steps of the Student Union and listen during breaks from my studies. Over one lunch period, I reported in a letter home, I listened to a student who had spent her summer working in the South registering voters, a black South African talking about apartheid, a socialist railing against the evils of capitalism, a capitalist railing against the evils of socialism and a Bible thumper detailing out the many paths Berkeley students were following to hell. Apparently, there were too many to count.

Many of the speakers urged that there was more to college life than studies, football and parties. Change was in the wind and we should be part of it. Work for fair housing in Berkeley; oppose the unfair hiring practices at Safeway; picket the Oakland Tribune, sign up to help in Goldwater’s political campaign. Join CORE, SNCC, SLATE, SDS, YAF or a world of other acronyms. I struggled to take it all in, absorb it through my pores. It certainly wasn’t Kansas, Toto, nor was it Diamond Springs, Placerville or Sierra College.

To simplify my first year, I opted to live in a college dorm. I would have a room, a bed and regular meals. The University assigned me to Priestly Hall, which was ideally located a block away from campus and a block away from Telegraph Avenue. Three other dorms, one for men and two for women, comprised our corner of the universe. Co-ed living accommodations were still in the future. Strict House Mothers existed to enforce the rules and protect their charges. Women were only allowed on the first floor of the men’s residence hall. Slipping one up to your room was an expellable offense.

Each dorm was nine stories high, brand-new and exactly the same as the others. One of the grad students responsible for our well-being immediately dubbed them monstrosities of oblivion. My sixth-floor room came complete with a roommate, Clifford Marks. Cliff was a slightly built young man with bright red hair, freckles and a mischievous personality. Later, we would share an apartment. Like me, he was a political science major. Eventually, he too would join the Peace Corps.

For entertainment, we could watch the antics of the girls in the dorm directly across from us. If we were lucky, they might wave. One evening a pair of roommates pulled their shade, set up a lamp between them and the window. And undressed. Slowly. It was a surprise our building didn’t fall over, given that every guy in the dorm was glued to the windows on the women’s dorm side.

But all of these were the lighter side of Berkeley and college life. I was soon to learn how serious academics were at UC— and that a revolution was brewing. I’ll continue my story next Wednesday.

Friday’s Travel Blog Post: I finish off Peggy’s and my exploration of the tide pools of Harris Beach, Oregon. The shells of turban snails provide dandy homes for hermit crabs, limpets are masters of creating a vacuum, barnacles suggest why keel-hauling might make walking the plank seem like a stroll in the park, and we find acres of grass growing where we only expected seaweed.