July 30-1922.jpeg

Dad passed away a year ago today. I miss him, as I know the whole family does. I miss his presence, his grasp of the past, his intelligence, his curiosity, his generosity, his sense of fun. And of course there are a million questions I wish I could have asked about his life, about what he went through as a son, a father and husband, as a man. There’s a lot about him I have never understood and have spent countless hours examining, wondering at, and puzzling over. He was not an easy guy to sound out about what he’d gone through in his life.

The picture above is one from the archives. That’s Dad, Stephen Daniel Brekke, in the arms of his grandfather, Theodore Sieverson. The picture is dated July 30, 1922, and they’re standing outside the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Alvarado, Minnesota (the church, no longer standing, is out of the frame to the right; the brick building in the left distance is the town’s public school, which is still standing, though no longer used as a school). My father’s father, Sjur Brekke, was pastor there. Grandpa Sieverson was a carpenter from a town just outside Frederikstad, Norway, who with his wife, Maren Olesdatter, and six children emigrated to the United States in 1884. Dad’s mom, Otilia, was the first of five children Theodore and Maren had in Chicago.

Berkeley: Sidewalk History Underfoot

A ubiquitous feature of pedestrian life here: contractor stamps in the local sidewalks, saying who built the walk and, sometimes, when they did it. I assume the practice is much wider-spread than here in the Bay Area. When we were in Portland the week before last, I noticed a stamp on SE Ankeny Street, at SE 27th Avenue, that recorded a contractor’s name (Ryan) and year (1915).

What I like about the stamps: They give some sense of the history of the place. Walking around my neighborhood, you get a real sense of how development proceeded block by block. two blocks south and three blocks east, there are sidewalks dated 1910 or a little earlier. On the blocks immediately surrounding, the walks didn’t go in until the late 1910s or early ’20s.

I’m also impressed by some of the work I see. There’s a patchwork of replaced sidewalk here in Berkeley to replace walks damaged by tree roots or age. But a lot of the vintage walks have last nearly a century or more and look like they’re good for another 100 years. (I’m guessing that the climate here helps: There’s no hard freeze in the winter.)

Anyway, here’s a slideshow–a small collection of local sidewalk stamps and a handful of other notable sidewalk finds:

Road Blog: Oyster, Hero, Backhoe Man


A week ago, I was traveling down the coast of Washington with my brother Chris and nephew Liam. Just after sunset, we passed through a couple little towns in Pacific County, on U.S. 101 north of Astoria–first Raymond, then South Bend. Both are right on the Willapa River, just inland from Willapa Bay. As we rolled through South Bend, population 1,700, with Chris carefully watching how fast he was going in case of a speed trap, we passed a sign pointing to a launching ramp for kayaks and canoes. I glanced over and saw what appeared to be a giant shell with a sign that said “Worlds Largest Oyster.”

“Turn around,” I said to Chris as we rolled past. He pulled an apparently legal U-turn, and we drove into a little waterfront park. The “oyster” turned out to be made of concrete–maybe a draw for the rubes, of whom I had apparently proven myself one. The main display in the park turned out to be a memorial to a son of Pacific County, Robert E. Bush, who won the Medal of Honor as an 18-year-old Navy corpsman during World War II. In fact, there was a sign saying Mr. Bush, who did well in the lumber and building-supply business, had donated money for the park. He died in 2005, but there’s a small pavilion with a plaque inscribed with Bush’s Medal of Honor citation and a statue depicting Bush’s actions. Here’s the citation:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Robert E. Bush, Hospital Apprentice First Class, U.S. Navy, for service as set forth in the following:

Citation: Robert Bush, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while service as Medical Corpsman with a Rifle Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, First Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Okinawa Jima, Ryukyu Islands, 2 May 1945. Fearlessly braving the fury of artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire from strongly entrenched hostile positions, Bush constantly and unhesitatingly moved from one casualty to another to attend the wounded falling under the enemy’s murderous barrages. As the attack passed over a ridge top, Bush was advancing to administer blood plasma to a Marine officer lying wounded on the skyline when the Japanese launched a savage counterattack. In this perilously exposed position, he resolutely maintained the flow of life-giving plasma. With the bottle held high in one hand, Bush drew his pistol with the other and fired into the enemy’s ranks until his ammunition was expended. Quickly seizing a discarded carbine, he trained his fire on the Japanese charging point-blank over the hill, accounting for six of the enemy despite his own serious wounds and the loss of one eye suffered during the desperate battle in defense of the helpless man. With the hostile force finally routed, he calmly disregarded his own critical condition to complete his mission, valiantly refusing medical treatment for himself until his officer patient had been evacuated, and collapsing only after attempting to walk to the battle aid station. His daring initiative, great personal valor and heroic spirit of self-sacrifice in service of others reflect great credit upon Bush and enhance the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

–Harry S Truman

Bush was one of the veterans featured in Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation.” He died in 2005, and is buried near South Bend. I see on Google Maps that U.S. 101 through the town is named after him. And so is a naval hospital in Twentynine Palms, in the Southern California desert.

There’s one other personal memorial in South Bend’s waterside park. And whereas you can easily track down the basics of Robert Bush’s life, buy his autograph on eBay, and find pictures of him receiving his medal from President Truman, I can’t find a thing about this second honoree. Here’s his marker:


The text reads: “Burke J. Welsh, 1948-2005. Expert Backhoe Operator. South Bend Fire Department, 1975-1993. Lifetime Community Volunteer and Lifelong Friend.” That, and the fact folks in town thought enough of Mr. Welsh to remember him this way, is all I know about Mr. Welsh despite deploying my magical Internet skills (there’s a preview of my own someday plaque).

After we left the park, we saw that one of the local cops had pulled over a car–a gaudy PT Cruiser with British Columbia plates–about a block down the way. Always watch for that speed trap.

Outside Editing Work

So, in a flattering moment a few weeks ago, a radio reporter acquaintance, Julia Scott, asked me to edit a story she was working on, a piece tentatively titled “The Last of the Iron Lungs.” It was about one of the handful of people in the United States, a woman stricken by polio as a child in the 1950s, who was still reliant on one of the old tank respirators. (I say “flattering” because Julia’s an accomplished reporter and I think she could have had any editor she wanted.)

Like most people who grew up during the second half of the Baby Boom—after Salk’s vaccine and later Sabin’s had halted the polio epidemic—I had heard about iron lungs but had only a vague idea of what they were, how they worked, and what role they played in treating the disease or helping patients survive.

My friend Christian Warren, a science historian, helped me with my research. He sent me a couple of articles and pointed me to David Oshinsky’s “Polio: An American Story.” Here’s one thing I picked up in that reading: the story of Fred Snite Jr., infected with the polio virus in his mid-20s while traveling with his very wealthy parents in China in the 1930s. He wound up spending the rest of his life in an iron lung and may have been the first medical technology celebrity–his every move, including his return to the United States, a trip to Lourdes, his marriage and family life (he and his wife had three daughters), visits to Arlington Park racetrack outside Chicago, and his regular attendance at Notre Dame football games was recorded in newsreels and the press.

Anyway, to cut to the chase: Julia’s piece relates the story of Martha Lillard, who lives outside Oklahoma City. We edited the piece on the phone, so I never really only got a sense of how immediate and compelling Martha’s voice and Julia’s storytelling was. Until today, when I heard the finished piece, mixed by KALW’s Chris Hoff, online. Give it a listen:

Timeline of Bay Area Plane Crashes and Aviation Incidents

Below is a test of a project I’m working on for KQED. It involves a spreadsheet of Bay Area-related plane crash (and related incidents) data that I edited and uploaded to Google Drive. That uploaded spreadsheet in turn is parsed by TimelineJS, a service that converts the data into a pretty nice (if not absolutely perfect) timeline. Here’s the result:

A Thought on the Fourth of July

The first thing I read this morning: “Even Postal Service is Watching: Outside of All Mail Is Recorded.” Here are the first few paragraphs:

WASHINGTON — Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.

“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.

“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who with his wife owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Mr. Pickering’s mail but told him nothing else.

As the world focuses on the high-tech spying of the National Security Agency, the misplaced card offers a rare glimpse inside the seemingly low-tech but prevalent snooping of the United States Postal Service.

Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.

Together, the two programs show that postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.

Now, when the recent NSA disclosures were made, one loud strain of reaction I heard was that anyone who didn’t understand that the government was grabbing phone logs and doing whatever with them was foolishly naive. “You should have known that they’ve been doing this,” people said. And one could say the same about recording the outside of all the mail you and I receive. After all, the story goes on to say that one part of this surveillance program is more than a century old and that the legal position of the executive branch is that we don’t have any reasonable expectation that the outside of an envelope handled by the government on its way to or from your home will be private.

So one is left to wonder where in our lives we might have a reasonable expectation of privacy. It seems that the sphere of privacy has shrunk to the point that if one goes beyond thinking a thought–a completely internal musing, never uttered aloud–the government has established that it’s within its legitimate power to know about it. Of course, we don’t expect that limit to last forever. Not to worry, though. If you’re not thinking bad thoughts, you have no cause for concern.

And so my thoughts on the Fourth of July, and on many other days as well, turn to Justice Louis Brandeis and what he wrote in a 1927 dissent in a case involving a bootlegger who challenged the government’s warrantless wiretap. Brandeis looked beyond the bootlegger’s plight to the effects of unchecked government power on the lives of people, even–or especially–when the government insists its goal is the public good.

… The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings, and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men. To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the Government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And the use, as evidence in a criminal proceeding, of facts ascertained by such intrusion must be deemed a violation of the Fifth.

… Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.

How far we have come.