Who Stole My Country 16 – California

Covered Wagon

Anonymous Family in Covered Wagon

April 23rd 1949, we packed up another house and headed south on a four-month driving trip around the United States.  My parents were looking for a place to settle where my father would go into business for himself.  At the time, it seemed like an unusual thing to do.  But it’s the quintessential American experience.  We could have been traveling in a covered wagon for four months.

George and Helen_1949

George and Helen_1949

Looking at pictures of that trip today, I am struck by how formal we all looked … my father in a suit with a bow tie, a bit overweight and my mother, young and slim, in a neat blouse, pressed skirt and high heels, standing before some tourist site.

We drove along the Atlantic coast, past vast stretches of empty beaches and barrier reef islands that by the end of the Century would be packed with resorts and summer homes.  It was beautiful country, but my parents quickly agreed they could never live in the South because of its rigid racial segregation.  I recall staring out closed windows at black shacks just outside picture perfect white villages.  Racism was still ingrained in American life, north and south, in 1949.

At a WMCA camp on Lake George where my parents sent me for several summers, the campfire songs included many racial slurs.

“Young folks, old folks, everybody come
Join the Darky Sunday school and have a lot of fun
Please check your chewing gum and razors at the door
And you’ll hear some Bible stories that you never heard before.”

There were no boys of color at the camp, which drew mainly on New York City kids. My father, a rare Roosevelt Democrat in corporate America, believed in the rights of African-Americans his whole life.  But my father still talked about being “free, white and twenty-one” and on occasion warned that there could be “a nigger in the woodpile.”


Another version of the sign we saw in 1949


In the South racism was in your face.  In Texas we stumbled into a highway roadhouse looking for a cool drink after an interminable stretch along a hot Texas highway at a time when cars had no air conditioning.  A prominent sign hung over the bar.


My father turned around and we walked out.  Years later I learned the Texas Restaurant Association distributed the sign.

I should add that my WMCA camp was as misogynistic as it was racist.  We also sang lots of songs that put down women:

Jill was a girl of very great beauty
Who lived in a house of ill reputee,
She said to the Lord I do repent
But it’s still gonna cost you about seventy-five cents.


You can throw a silver dollar down on the ground
And it’ll roll, roll, roll because its round, round, round,
And as a silver dollar goes from hand to hand
So a woman goes from man to man.
And how she loves it …
A woman goes from man to man.

On June 10th, my sister, Mimi, arrived in Albuquerque aboard the El Capitan transcontinental Sante Fe Expresstrain.  I looked forward to having a companion, but she was in the midst of a courtship.  Her boyfriend, Ed Salaverey, had joined the Air National Guard and managed to get free flights around the country.  He’d  followed Mimi to the Southwest.  For several weeks our long driving trip was enlivened by the drama of her romance and my parents futile opposition to it … tears and screams through thin motel walls.

Helen_Mimi_Chris_1949 Web Ready

From left to right, my mother, sister and self in cool San Francisco



We finally arrived in California in August.  After a brief flirtation with La Jolla, California, rejected finally as “too rich,” we settled in Berkeley, California, just as the 1950’s began.  No one outside Berkeley had ever heard of it.  We were “across the Bay from San Francisco,” as I explained to people from outside the Bay Area until Berkeley became famous in 1962.

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