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 him. That night, he had to fill in for the soldier who walked the perimeter around Officer’s Row with a guard dog. Because of that one night, Bob was later chosen to go to the guard dog school in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, to be trained with army dogs. While he was gone, the men built kennels. They built 15 kennels and 15 runways even though materials were hard to get in those days. Bob was gone maybe two months. When he returned, he brought 10 dogs back with him. The dogs and man were given priority on every bus and airline to get those dogs to Los Alamos. Bob became the dog handler, and trained dogs for the army at Los Alamos.
The first and only test detonation of a nuclear weapon prior to WWII occurred in the early morning hours of July 16, 1945 at a place called “Trinity Site.” The test site is located in the barren desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The site was named by Dr. Oppenheimer, inspired by the poetry of John Donne. In attendance were Dr. Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Brigadier General Leslie Groves, Vannavar Bush and others. Also in attendance but further away were the cattle of local ranchers. The “critters” were moved as far as the testers thought necessary to avoid the effects of the bomb. Nobody really had a clue as to the distance needed, and the distance back from the bomb epicenter was misjudged. The animals were moved back only about half as far as needed, and suffered radiation burns from the explosion.
By this time, Bob worked for a veterinarian, Dr. Thompsett. Cattle meat had to be inspected by the vet or his assistant. Also, any dairy products had to be tested and brought into compliance with standards probably set by the army. That is how some of the animals were sent to Los Alamos, where they were tested to see what effect the radiation had on them. Later on, Dr. Thompsett lost his contract, (by then with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) so Bob lost his job.
Dr. Norris Bradbury was the director of the laboratory and had a cat that Bob had treated. When Dr. Bradbury found out that Bob was about to lose his job, he called and told Bob that, one way or another, he would have a job working at the lab. The laboratory was organized into divisions, named by what they did. Bob worked in the physics division; thus, he worked at “P-9.” This group focused on hurling various atomic particles at very high speed by way of a “particle accelerator” to a “target” of different materials to see how they reacted atomically. This vertical accelerator was housed in a 10-story building on the laboratory campus. In addition to testing, scientists at P-9 designed more sophisticated and powerful machines to improve their atomic research.
Bob eventually became the building manager. The attitude of the lab at that time was “Get the job done. We don’t care what you have to do; just do it.” Bob ran the accelerator from starting it up to shutting it down. He sat with the scientists during their experiments, regardless of the time of day or night. They worked out problems together until the experiment could be concluded. Bob took care of all maintenance and repairs. “Horse-trading” of parts and labor between groups was common, and Bob was a master at this. As building manager, he followed all electrical circuits and labeled them on the circuit board, something that had not been done in the rushed atmosphere of the Manhattan Project. Whatever needed to be done, he did it. Bob is understandably very proud of the job he did at P-9.
The Manhattan Project involved one of the largest scientific collaborations ever undertaken. At the end of World War II, there was speculation that Los Alamos would close. Fortunately for us all, it did exactly the opposite. Out of it emerged countless new technologies, going far beyond the harnessing of nuclear fission. “Maniac,” predecessor of today’s modern computers, was built in Los Alamos. Multidisciplinary research now includes supercomputing, space exploration, medicine, nanotechnology, national security, denuclearization, engineering, mathematics, photography, renewable energy, environmental studies and other public and civilian missions.
In 1945, Bob married Anita Amador from Vallecitos, New Mexico. In 1946, his daughter, Rosemary Linda, was born at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe. Not long after Rosemary’s birth, Bob drove his young family to California for
a visit. Rationing was still in effect, so Bob needed to go to the nearby town of Lakeport, California, to get gas coupons from the Ration Board. These boards controlled and distributed scarce resources, goods, and services. They were part of the Office of Price Administration. Bob and Anita ended up with many gas coupons plus 2 certificates for tires. The man with the Ration Board said he had heard of Bob because of the FBI investigation done for his security clearance. The FBI interviewed anybody and everybody to make sure they were not a security risk. To this day, employees must pass a security clearance process before being employed at the lab.
Bob’s first son, Charles (Chuck), was born in 1949 and a second son, Rick, was born in 1950. Unknown to them at the time, Bob’s wife had developed MS (Multiple Sclerosis). Sadly, it affected her mind as well as her body. In time, the doctor told Bob that because of her mental state, he had no choice but to get the kids out of there. The children were being physically abused. The police were involved in helping keep track of the kids until Bob could take them to his brother’s. Bob had called his brother, Ed, in California, who said, “Pack up their suitcases and bring them out here.” Bob basically kidnapped the children and took them to San Anselmo, California. Ever to the rescue, Ed sold his pride and joy, a 1939 Packard convertible, in order to buy a house big enough for the whole family (by now including his parents, wife, seven kids and a dog!) Anita was eventually confined to the state mental hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where she later died. Bob says this was the hardest part of his life.
Bob made a side comment about his brother: “In school, they told me, ‘Your brother would never do that.’ My brother never did anything wrong. He was always there for me. He told me he wished he had been more like me because I had so much fun.” Bob’s brother died in 1972. He was Bob’s best friend.
Bob’s father died while the children were with Bob’s brother in San Anselmo. They were all at the beach — parents, grandparents, kids and dog. When they returned from the beach, his father said he was tired, and laid down on the bed. Later, when the family came to get him, he was dead.
In 1957, Bob married Connie Huntington. (Connie #1.) In 1964, they bought land in the Jemez Mountains at La Cueva. By then, the kids were finished or almost finished with high school. The couple started building, and moved to
their new home in 1967. It was a 45-minute drive across the mountains to Los Alamos. Bob often said that he never minded it, though, because even in the winter, the place was so beautiful.
Connie, sadly, was an alcoholic. She eventually quit drinking but then had to face her demons. In 1977, she, Bob, and a good friend, Joyce Jarmie, planned a camping trip. At the last minute, Connie decided not to go, stating that she wasn’t up to it. Midway to their destination, Joyce said, “I don’t feel right about this — let’s go home.” When they returned, they discovered that Connie had committed suicide. A year or so after Connie’s death, Bob and Joyce were married.
Bob retired in 1978 at age 55. He says, “I have been retired longer than most people work.” Bob and Joyce joined with neighbors in founding the La Cueva Volunteer Fire Department. It has expanded to 5 stations and is a substantial part of the area’s fire, EMS and rescue services.
A couple of years after they retired, Joyce was diagnosed with breast cancer. The operation didn’t slow her down a bit and she had no trouble with the treatments. Consequently, she and Bob were able to enjoy the next few years, being involved in community activities, spending time with family and friends and spending a lot of time exploring the country — hiking, backpacking, and camping in their travel trailer. They went to the British Isles and Switzerland and took several trips to Mexico. However, the cancer returned and Joyce died in 1987.
Bob and Connie Darnell (Connie #2) had met casually years before when Connie was in high school. In the late 1960s she was living on a ranch nearby and also worked in Los Alamos. They became friends when Connie’s car needed repair and they rode back and forth to work together for several weeks. Bob and Connie were married in Gustavus in 1989. Tim Sunday
performed the ceremony. At the time, Connie worked as an operating room nurse on a “per diem” basis, filling in on days when extra staff was needed so she could go to Gustavus without the constraint of “vacation days.” After their marriage, Bob and Connie split their time between New Mexico and Alaska. During that time, they improved the cabin Connie had built in the late 1970s. Eventually they improved the land so they could build a larger house.
The first improvement Bob made was to build a new outhouse. He hated the half-door affair Connie used because she didn’t like dark outhouses. Bob didn’t like the exposure, so the compromise was a window facing away from visitors.
Bob made another improvement to the place around the year 2000. Connie was working in Juneau, and while she was gone, Bob and Don Bryant built a carport. What a nice surprise to find upon returning home!
The house building was a staged process, taking several years. When Connie retired from the State of Alaska, she and Bob took her retirement money and put in the
foundation of their present home. They put the New Mexico house on the market and once it sold, they had the money to build. The Patrick brothers did the actual construction of the new house while Ponch and Justin Marchbanks, Marty Rogers, and Monte Mitchell were some of the locals who helped make it possible. Bob and Connie moved into their new home in the fall of 2016, even though it was not quite finished.
Life became a lot easier in the new house. For most of its life, the old cabin
had no electricity and no plumbing or running water. For laundry time, Bob would wash the clothes in a bucket using a plunger. They had an outhouse, propane lights, and a propane refrigerator — and room for Connie’s crafts!
Gustavus life is not complete without a few interactions with the wild animal residents. Bob enjoys the wildlife, especially the bears and moose who come to visit the yard. Years ago, (pre-refrigerator) Bob woke early one morning, sat up in bed, and said, “There’s a bear outside! Right outside!” By now Connie was awake as well. Then they heard a loud crash — it was the cooler box, and now all the food was scattered around. These primitive cooler boxes had screen on a couple sides for ventilation. Hearing the crash, Bob jumped out of bed and threw the door open. (It was fortunate that the door was built to open out.) Bob yelled at the bear, who moved off a little way. Bob jumped off the porch and yelled again and the bear backed up a little more. Bob made one more move toward the bear and yelled, and the bear ran up a tree. At that point, Connie said, “Better come in — he can get back here faster than you can.” In the meantime, Connie had gathered up the strewn groceries while Bob was running interference. After that incident, they bought a refrigerator.
Another time, Skipper Buoy went crabbing and brought home a laundry basket full of crab. Bob and Jessie Buoy shelled and cleaned them, froze a good part of it, and ate some, but didn’t save even one bite for Connie. She never let Bob forget it.
GUSTAVUS PHOTO ALBUM (Click on each picture to enlarge)
Now, in 2017, Bob is 94 years old and still enjoying the outdoors, doing small projects and especially spending time with his friends. He looks back on his life saying, “It’s been a darn good life and I’ve been very, very lucky.”