Monday, February 20, 2017

“The Theft of Memory” – A Review

subtitled:  “Losing My Father, One Day at a Time”
Jonathan Kozol
Signal Press (imprint of McClelland and Stewart)
© 2105

Jonathan Kozol is a highly regarded author of books on education and the underprivileged.  As a school curriculum superintendent, I recommended many of his works to colleagues and staff.  He writes with clarity, passion and conviction and his authorial wheelhouse is the realm of the mismatch between educational opportunity and educational need.

Long out of the profession, I picked up “Theft” in order to revisit the wisdom of this extraordinary thinker.  Never mind that it wasn’t about schools, but his dying father.  On page 2, Kozol writes about “Daddy” smoking his pipe: “The aroma of the smoke as it rose up about him remains in my memory, comfortably intertwined…” My Dad smoked a pipe.  And his favorite leather chair and the maple ashtray stand Dad used to use is at my elbow as I type.  Kozol had me hooked.

Harry Kozol, a renowned psychiatrist of the 20th century, would succumb to Alzheimer’s at age 102.  My dad only made it to 76.  Jonathan Kozol writes about the journey he takes with his father.  Along the way, he shares the contents of some of Daddy’s musings and reports found amongst the boxes of memorabilia left for Kozol to store.  Included were thoughts about professional contacts his father had with, among others, Eugene O’Neill with his gnawing creative self-doubt and Patricia Hurst and her turbulent path toward captive revolutionary.  The passages make you somehow feel as if some aspect of HIPPA is being ignored.  It’s all fascinating. 

But more intriguing is the thread of Kozol’s personal history with a driven father – attending on Saturdays, as a youngster, father’s examination of patients as a “guest consultant,” fishing with Daddy and losing fancy lures in the thicket across the creek, the aching fatherly disappointment when the son foregoes an Rhodes scholarship, and the resolution of this – and how son’s relationship with that father evolves, turning 180 degrees as son the cares for an aging parent.  The memoir is poignant and compelling, concluding: “Some blessings our parents give us, I need to believe, outlive the death of memory.”

I lived several hours from Dad as he progressed through his illness. In his last year, my career brought me to within 90 minutes.  That change meant I could hold his hand and read to him just a little bit more than before – and I did until the end.  It’s been seventeen years since Dad died.  A dozen or so boxes of knickknacks and writings remain sealed somewhere here in the house.

Kozol has convinced me to open them up and explore.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


A Personal History

I watched ‘em build Oroville Dam.  Yep.  That Oroville Dam. 

Department of Water Resources
In the 1960s, we lived In Chico, California about a half hour from Oroville Dam’s construction site on the Feather River.  With the foresight that only a few wise parents possess, Mom and Dad thought it would be a good idea if their boys could witness the construction of what would become an Eighth Wonder of the World.

Courtesy: Dad
As kids, our folks ensured that we rooted around historic places in the general vicinity of Chico.  One was Bidwell’s Bar on the Feather.  It was the place where Chico’s founder, John Bidwell, did a little prospecting and placer mining.  Located on a stream course that would be crossed by what would become the Oroville – Quincy Highway, California’s first suspension bridge was built to span the gully.  With the filling of the reservoir, the bridge would be lost, so efforts were made to relocate the historic structure, but I remember it in its original location.

(c) Bill Talbitzer
Many tidbits of history were to be Lost Beneath the Feather, so local newspaper reporter Bill Talbitzer collected stories of both the mining camps along the Feather and of old Oroville, put these together with some historic photographs and published an entertaining volume of lore by the same name.  I have three copies.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica
Construction of the dam began with the installation of a concrete core way down in the bottom of the river canyon.  An observation point had been leveled out so the curious could see this process a great distance up the side of the canyon.  To my nine-year-old eye, the gigantic earthmovers and concrete pumpers looked no bigger than the Tootsie Toys we played with in the pile of dirt out behind the house. 

We would return to this overlook many times to watch the progress.  Being only nine, and then ten, it seemed like it took forever for any of that progress to be noted.  But the observation area proved to be popular – so much so that some entrepreneurial type threw together a snack bar with a large sign advertising “Best Hot Dogs by a Dam Site.”  I thought it was odd that they’d use a cuss word on their billboard, but that was long before I really grasped (and embraced) cussing.

Petersen Tractor
At 770 feet in height and over a half mile in length at the top, Oroville Dam is the world’s largest earth fill dam.  Materials for the endeavor linked Oroville’s 1860s past with its 1960s present.  Where the Feather River tumbles out of the Sierra/Cascade and into the broad, flat Sacramento Valley, the velocity of the falling water slows and it’s load of gravel and silt and gold was deposited along the river’s bottom.  Massive dredges were employed to scoop up this rocky sludge so that gold would be extracted from the goop.  The tailing left behind covered square miles of valley floor, sitting there, undisturbed, until folks realized they were a dandy source of earth-fill for an earth-fill dam.

A twelve-mile long railroad was devised to transport these historic cobbles from the valley floor to the construction site.  Trains of forty car lengths hauled the burden and were ingeniously unloaded using a machine that tipped the load out of the gondolas without unhooking them from the train.

One day, probably a couple of years into our visits, we were surprised to find that the observation area had been fenced off and the hot dog stand removed.  Following detour signs, we soon found ourselves several hundred feet above the old vantage point at a new one.  There would still be a lot of work to do.

Not the least of which was the removal of a concrete arch bridge that was filled around with tailings and protruding out face of the construction.  In order to ensure the integrity of the dam the bridge would need to be blasted away – and the blast would be spectacular.  With multitudes of others, we gathered at the upper observation point to witness the scheduled explosion.  Noon would be the appointed hour and at high noon – with the gathered holding their collective breaths – a plunger was pushed and, outside of what looked like a minor puff of dust, nothing happened.  It would be weeks before the old bridge was taken out.

Completed in 1967 or 68, Oroville Dam would corral the second largest reservoir in the state.  The route of the Western Pacific would be moved, and a new suspension bridge crossed over a now inundated Bidwell’s Bar.  It was predicted that in three year’s time, the lake would be full. 

But an unusually wet rainy season turned that three-year timetable into mere months.  We drove over to Oroville to watch the dam spill for the first time.  Water raced down the chute, crashing into bolsters at the bottom designed to keep the current from washing out the opposite bank of the Feather.  It worked perfectly.

Six or eight years later, when I was living in nearby Paradise, California, a large and rather disconcerting earthquake rattled Butte County causing many broken windows and some structural damage to buildings in downtown Oroville.  Speculation held that the weight of the water behind the dam might have caused movement along a minor fault or fissure with ripple effects across the immediate area.  I recall my brand new VW bus sitting under a wildly swinging carport and wondering what insurance might cover.

In January and February of 2017, California’s five-year drought was interrupted by a series of atmospheric river storms.  Funneling up the river courses of the American, the Yuba and the Feather, area reservoirs filled to capacity way too early in the wet season.  Engineers and hydrologists knew that to reserve capacity for future unknowns, releases from Oroville would be necessary and the spillway was again activated.   

San Francisco Chronicle
This time, however, the unforeseen occurred.  A fault in the huge concrete slip-n-slide allowed water to drain through the surface rather than over it.  In a short time, the boil of water washed out some strata or fill beneath the spillway and a hole developed.  Water rushed beneath the structure and began eroding the hillside.  Operators halted the spill to assess the situation while an incredible volume of water poured into the lake from upstream.

Sacramento Bee
Fortunately, an emergency spillway – one never used before – worked as it had been engineered, allowing inches of water to outflow over its 179-foot length.  In anticipation of this event, a little clearing of the overgrown emergency route ensure that trees, brush and debris would not wash down to the Feather’s course clogging it at the Table Mountain Boulevard Bridge and possibly wiping it out.

When the waters came, everything worked as designed.

Still, “experts” from around the country predicted that the dam was on the brink of failure, raising concerns that were generally unfounded.  Through this I’ve concluded, yet again, that the following is true:


Department of Water Resources
We live in an age where too many believe that nothing the government does is done well.  Oroville Dam stands in stark contrast to that belief.  It is a masterpiece that has lived up to its billing as an “Eighth Wonder of the World.”


Notes:  Here’s a DWR video that tells the real story of the dam’s construction.  It is worth six minutes of your time:

Please forgive any uncredited images found in this post.

UPDATE!!!  Two and a half hours after posting this the Department of Water Resources (DWR) called for an evacuation of low lying areas of Oroville as the soil/topcover in the emergency spillway began to show unexpected signs of erosion. It appears that lake inflow has slowed and that releases down the damaged main spillway have been increased to, hopefully accommodate the circumstance. That said, perhaps the Church of the Open Road was a bit premature in suggesting that "everything worked as designed."

Still, reports of a dam failure are still in the "too early to tell" category.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press