Sunday, October 11, 2009

Date pegs; panty raid; UC Berkeley library

It was very hot in mid-May of 1956 in Berkeley. On the evening of May 16, I was sitting, on a towel, at my desk at 2308 Haste; I think I was writing a term paper. All the windows were open; all over the neighborhood all the windows were open. The sound of a crowd was heard. No street demonstration beyond an AFL strike in downtown Oakland had occurred. It was not football season, and Berkeley hadn't won much since 1950; parades were nice and well planned—for the town, mostly. But it was the sound of an unplanned crowd; one knew it from the movies. It never came into the "independent" students' realm, south of campus and largely west of Telegraph, but it was large and loud. There was no 24/7 radio or television (and I had only my little KPFA FM radio), but this was stupendous raucousness. It had crescendos and lulls. The next day, morning paper headlines and the campus Daily Californian reported the unheard-of vulgarity of a major Panty Raid. The whole Bay Area was shocked. I read, nearly in disbelief, what had happened. If I'd been advanced enough in Greek, I'd have thought of the Bacchae and been familiar with comparing it with St. Vitus' Dance (its origins). I did know vase-painting, but surely fraternity boys didn't have satyrs' tails, and satyrs had never been so cheaply fetishistic as to go after underwear (if ancient maenads had any). It was the common cheapness that shocked me, and their going into the women's dormitories where the girls hadn't parental allowances such as allowed replacing the losses of a night's hysteria. We'd believe anything, almost, of the "Greeks", but the university administration, and the city of Berkeley, would never have thought that what had begun in a few water fights, understandable in the heat, could quickly turn into common and stereotyped mob actions. It was too large and confused to pin down primary blame; some restrictions were placed on the living groups for the rest of the year, but I don't know what they were. Nothing like it happened again. The Free Speech movement and then all the other activism, while more disruptive, were quite different.
This was my last undergraduate year, and all the excitement in my life was in the way my studies were shaping up into a lifetime in history of art and, already, especially in classical archaeology. That is why I was taking Greek and, in the following Summer Session, doing a year of Latin in six weeks. I loved these languages (actually, I loved all languages) from the beginning. So far as this blog is concerned, it was largely a very routine time. I made friends and all that, but I was working in the Loan Department of the UC Library at least 20 hours per week with a full 'load' of five courses. Even the loan department was interesting, being Search Clerk for part of my time, coming in the morning to run the IBM machines, with their long files of cards, one for each book charged, to sort out the overdues with the 10-brush sorter, key punching the faculty charge cards so that they could be sorted at the end of the semester, wiring the steel plate with a few dozen short cables so that the big machine could read the prepared cards and punch in the additional information. The computing power of these machines was negligible, except that you can't neglect the importance of the job they did for us. But I've never forgotten dealing with the simple 1 and 0, contact and no contact, wire brushes reading through the punches to the metal cylinder, the absolute rudiments of digital computation in palpable, visible form. The rudiments of programming for a simple routine job with a few dozen little colored co-axial cables plugged into a steel tablet with numbered rows. At the Service Bureau Corporation in San Francisco D.S. showed a couple of us the wonderful big steel tablet they had wired up so that when you ran it, with paper rather than cards to print on, it made, out of letters and type symbols, a sort of a picture of a pin-up girl. The regular work of those machines was to print out all the accounting for companies like Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
The loan department also had pneumatic tubes to carry book requests up and down to the 8 tiers (I think it was 8, two per storey) of stacks, where pages scurried to get the books, placing the book(s), each with its IBM card in it, in a sturdy tub and clamping them into the conveyor that took them down to the desk. Only graduate students and the faculty at that time actually had access to the stacks. Each page had a number and wrote it in one corner on the IBM card before going for the book, marking NOS if it wasn't there and in that case sending it back down the pneumatic tube where more experienced student library employees (SLEs, we were) would check the circulation and then, if need be, the Missing Book files, adding his own SLE number to the page's. Some books were in special collections, locked rooms. The joy of my life, the privilege above all privileges, was being given keys to the Classics and Art History seminar rooms on the 3rd floor of the library. This happened when I began to take advanced courses, especially in Greek vases. In these rooms the most needed periodicals as well as sets of reference books and essential specialized monographs were kept together and non-circulating. Only occasionally did someone page something from the desk for use in the library reading room itself. Access to this paradise may seem privileged, but it was earned for the explicit purpose of enabling real learning by the persons who had a vocation for it (no other word will do). This is how scholars were made.
Now, apart from describing how a few things worked, like how pneumatic tubes and early IBM machines worked together, 19th and 20th century technology jointly, half a century ago, this blog is not about my studies. I might write about them elsewhere and otherwise. And it is not about my social and sexual development (unexceptional—and I will not talk about my friends and companions, anyway). As in childhood, I only want to try to record the concrete things that I remember, to see whether they can give their own kind of truthfulness about one kind of living at one particular time and place. The professors and the fellow students whom I came to know in the 1950s at UC Berkeley were exceptional, interesting, kind, learned, wise, delightful people, almost all of them, and these years I have to mourn their passing one by one. I cannot write well enough to evoke them fairly. I can only write what is within my compass.