Bob’s mother, Alma Vass, had graduated from art school in San Francisco. She was an entrepreneur and owned a design shop with two other women in the city. She had been invited to study art in France. Bob says, “Fortunately for us, that’s right when she met my father, so that was the end of her art career and the beginning of a family.” It was not an easy choice, but one she thought about carefully.
Bob’s grandparents came from a well-to-do family in Lübeck, Germany. They moved to London in the mid-1800s. As tensions between the English and Germans grew, Bob’s grandparents were urged to go back to Germany, but they opted to stay in London instead. The family was extremely wealthy. They had become interested in gas lighting, put a significant amount of their money into it and lost their fortune. So, “disgraced,” they packed everything up, including the grand piano, and shipped it to Texas, then overland to California. Bob’s uncle had purchased land in Bakersfield, California, sight unseen. They lost two European manor houses and ended up in a tar paper shack. Bob’s uncle disappeared and his grandfather took one look at the place and folded; he died shortly after that. Bob’s father, Ernest, was now responsible for his mother, his two sisters and himself. Bob says, “In those days, in wealthier families, as soon as you were born you were given a silver spoon with your name engraved on it.” The highly educated wealthy class didn’t “work;” they managed their estates and businesses. For Ernest, however, when things got tough, you did anything you could to provide for your family.
In Bakersfield, they started a farm, raising strawberries and produce. They even planted an orchard. Unfortunately, the water they had been promised wasn’t always available. At one point, the little irrigation water they received simply ran into a hole in the sand. Their solution was to plug the hole by “planting” Bob’s Aunt Anna. That hole was so large that Anna stood in it and they shoveled sand around her. They added sand until Anna was covered up to her hips. With the area now covered with sand, the water was forced to the plants.
Eventually, they had to abandon the farm. The land was worthless. Although oil had been found in Bakersfield, none came from their property. The good news was that because of the land boom, they were able to get jobs at the land office in town. Then, an old acquaintance from Germany suggested they go to San Francisco where Ernest could get a job with Schwabacker-Frey, a large company selling stationery, photographic supplies and various printed items. Then came the earthquake of 1906. The business was destroyed, so Bob’s father worked during the clean-up and reconstruction.
Ernest lived in the East Bay and rode the ferry to and from work; the same ferry Alma rode between her home and shop. During this time, Alma and Ernest had an extended courtship. He, the proper Englishman and she, the vivacious girl from a mining family eventually married. However, Ernest and his German mother were quite close and she didn’t want to be left behind. So she accompanied her son and new wife on their honeymoon. Ernest and Alma’s first son, Edward, was born in 1917. Bob was born six years later. One sister was born in between the two boys, but did not live to see her first birthday.
Because Ernest didn’t want to raise a family in the city, they bought a farm in Napa, California, where they raised pears. They bought this farm in early 1929, only a few months before the crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression. Again, they lost the farm. Times were tough. The family moved to Kelseyville, California, living with relatives or on farms Ernest managed, and finally into Grandma Vass’s house. It was a large house and Alma’s
brother and his family also lived there. Bob’s father managed a pear farm and worked building a road between Kelseyville and Soda Bay, a fancy resort. He did any work he could find. Alma worked for a time in the packing sheds, packing pears in boxes. Jobs were scarce, but they were doing better than the dispossessed who lived in tent communities nearby. Bob remembers a middle-aged woman knocking at the door, asking if she could use the bathroom. After she was finished, they saw her just sitting in the living room, staring. She apologized, saying she hadn’t been in a real house for so very long. As little as they had, there was always something to share with those less fortunate.
The Kelseyville house, it turns out, was on the same block as the school. The principal of the school was a friend of Bob’s father, so when the existing maintenance man/janitor retired, Bob got the job. Bob remembers his father getting up at 4:00 in the morning to start the wood-fired heating system in the school, a far cry from a silver spoon and a private nanny! Bob says, “My father never complained. I learned a lesson from that: Play with the hand you are dealt, and do the best you can with it.”
Because Bob’s father was college educated, the principal would often ask him questions about things. One of the things he asked about was the value of a retirement fund. The principal realized that there was no retirement plan in place for anyone except teachers in California’s school system. So, between them, they came up with a plan. Once they had a plan, the principal went to Sacramento and fought for it until a retirement program was adopted for the entire state of California.
When Bob was a youngster, his mother became ill and went to a sanatorium for an extended period of time. So, Bob spent that summer and many others with his Aunt Mae and her husband, Pat. They ran a small dairy farm on the edge of Clear Lake. It is now a state park. But at the time, it was heaven for a little boy who loved being outside, playing with the animals, and participating in farm life. He especially liked the freedom to play in Kelseyville Creek and Clear Lake, much of the time without a stitch of clothes on. He was clearly an outdoor kid — a Tarzan in his own paradise.
In 1938, while Bob was in high school, he got a severe eye infection in his right eye. Bob’s older brother, Ed, was employed by Mr. Barrows of Kentfield, California. When Ed expressed concern for his younger brother, Mr. Barrows immediately told Ed to go and get Bob and bring him to Stanford Hospital for treatment. Mr. Barrows was a wealthy man. He paid for travel, housing, and doctors to treat the infection, and in effect saved Bob’s life. The following year, Bob was in an auto accident. He went through the windshield of a friend’s car. This time, he lost direct vision in his left eye. He only had peripheral vision in that eye after that. Feeling very fortunate to have any sight at all, Bob again played the hand he was dealt, and did the best he could with it.
Bob finished high school in December of 1940. Thanks again to Ed, he got a job at the Mare Island Navy Yard in San Francisco, where he worked building torpedo tubes. He graduated with his class in the spring of 1941. Bob applied for the apprentice school in the machine shop. Unfortunately , he received the letter accepting him into the apprentice program the very same day he received a letter from Uncle Sam inviting him into the U.S. Army. He was 18 years old, and off he went to boot camp.
After boot camp, he was sent to Fort Scott, next to the Presidio in San Francisco, where he was stationed for maybe a year and a half. His adventures in San Francisco with his crazy red-headed cousin, MariLouise Vass, could make up a separate story. MariLouise was an adventure in and of herself! Bob was very close to his cousins. It’s funny how things turn out, though. Because of his eye injury, he was only eligible for limited service and was not sent overseas to fight. Instead, in 1942 Bob was sent to “Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico.” At the time, Los Alamos didn’t even officially exist. The address for everybody and everything was Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. The reason: Box 1663 was the door to a little scientific collaboration known as “The Manhattan Project,” which developed the first atomic bomb. The scientists called it “The Gadget.”
Bob’s initial job was as a guard, including guarding Dr. Oppenheimer’s home, the only house in Los Alamos that was ever guarded. One evening while Bob was warming himself near the heating room vent, Dr. Oppenheimer came by on his way home from work and told Bob he wanted the guard duty stopped. He said he kept thinking, “There’s some poor devil walking around guarding my house whether I’m here or not.” He felt bad for this soldier, as it was cold and he felt it not necessary to be guarded. Bob says that Dr. Oppenheimer was highly regarded in Los Alamos, and subsequent negative writings and events offended many people who did not feel he was treated fairly or well.
One time while he was stationed at the Presidio, Bob had a dog on duty with Continue reading