‘A Tremendous Job of Public Conditioning’

I’ve been reading some of Mari Sandoz‘s works: “Old Jules,” her biography of her father; “Crazy Horse, the Strange Man of the Oglalas”; and “Cheyenne Autumn,” the story of the tribe’s 1878-79 exodus from Oklahoma to Montana.

All of the books were researched and/or written in the 1930s and ’40s, but they’ve aged well, maybe because they are unique in their perspective: a native daughter’s inquiry into her settler father’s brutal and brutalizing past; a white woman who spent so much time with both tribal people that she produced that somehow channel their experience (that’s not just me saying that; Vine Deloria Jr., who chronicled his Sioux people and was fiercely critical of white culture’s misunderstanding of Native Americans, wrote an introduction to “Crazy Horse” and called it “a work of real genius”).

Here’s just one passage, from Sandoz’s preface to “Cheyenne Autumn,” that I find strikingly modern in its perspective — especially in its observation of how, and how rapidly, the white American invasion overwhelmed the Plains tribes:

The Sioux and Cheyenne, Sandoz writes:

… had their “first real encounter with the United States Army in the Grattan fight of 1854. At that time the white men in the region were only a few little islands in a great sea of Indians and buffaloes. Twenty-three years later, in 1877, the buffaloes were about gone and the last of the Indians driven to the reservations—only a few little islands of Indians in a great sea of whites. 

This exploit of modern man is unrivaled in history: the destruction of a whole way of life and the expropriation of a race from a region of 350,000,000 acres in so short a time. It entailed first of all a tremendous job of public conditioning. In the 1830s and 1840s the buffalo Indians were considered the most romantic of peoples, drawing visitors from everywhere. Such men as Prince Paul of Würtemberg, Prince Maximilian, Sir William Drummond Stewart, Catlin, Parkman, and hundreds of others came to ride in the surrounds, to eat roast hump ribs, to study and become one with this great Red Hunter. 

But that was before the white man wanted these Indian lands. The discovery of gold and the rise of economic and political unrest over much of the civilized world, with millions of men hungry for a new start, changed that, and suddenly the romantic Red Hunter was a dirty, treacherous, bloodthirsty savage standing in the way of progress, in the path of manifest destiny. By 1864, with the nation at war ostensibly to free the black man from slavery, the public had been prepared to accept a policy of extermination for the red. …

… After this period of twenty-three years that turned a free hunting people into sullen agency sitters, there was a short series of rebellions. With the buffalo gone, the starving Indians, dismounted and disarmed, were easily shuffled off to land on which no white man could conceivably make a living. Congress now felt free to initiate more cuts in the appropriations for their helpless wards, dropping them far below the treaty stipulations, often to actual starvation levels. By midsummer, 1877, the quiet and peaceful Nez Perce were making their desperate break for survival. The next year the Sioux, Bannocks, Arapahos, Poncas, and others rebelled too, hoping to return to their old homes where the children were healthy and the cooking pots once held meat.”

— Mari Sandoz, “Cheyenne Autumn”

By the way, this week is the 140th anniversary of the Cheyennes’ attempt to break out of Fort Robinson, the northwestern Nebraska outpost where part of the band that escaped from Oklahoma in September 1878 was being held. The breakout, in which more than 60 of the roughly 140 Cheyennes held inside an empty, unheated barracks died, followed the Army’s attempt to starve the imprisoned group into returning to Oklahoma.

Hamburg and Paradise

The other day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Cal Fire, for short — caused a little bit of a ripple when it issued a report that likened the conflagration that recently consumed most of the town of Paradise with the World War II Allied bombing of the German city of Hamburg.

The comparison was included in a Cal Fire green sheet — a preliminary report the agency does to review the circumstances surrounding firefighter deaths and injuries. I’ve become a regular reader of the reports mostly because I’ve been editing stories by a colleague in the KQED newsroom who started getting them several years ago.

The green sheet on the Camp Fire — the blaze that killed 86 people, by the current count, and destroyed 14,000 residences in Paradise and two nearby communities in Butte County — came out late last week. The bulk of the report recounted how five firefighters suffered burns during the first 24 hours of the blaze. But in setting the scene for how the injuries, sustained in two separate incidents, occurred, the report also sets the scene: the drought, the high winds, the low humidity that helped the fire become so monstrously destructive so rapidly.

The green sheet drops this remark about the fire’s character:

“When the fire reached the town of Paradise, an urban firestorm began to spread from building to building, independent of the vegetation, similar to the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. … It is evident in many areas occupied by high densities of residential and commercial structures that the heat from the fire was transferred horizontally to other structures and ground vegetation by strong winds. “

I like a striking historical reference as much as the next human. But the Cal Fire offers no further context or detail about “the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943.” Maybe it was a super-bad wildfire.

Of course, the year “1943” suggests a connection to a major historical event that’s known even to most ahistorically minded Americans: World War II. Even if you’re not a historian, you may be familiar with the heavy bombing that took place throughout the war and several noted incendiary bombing attacks, mostly by U.S. and British air forces against targets in Germany and Japan.

Thanks to Google, a couple of pretty good accounts of what happened in Hamburg pop up when you search the name of the city along with the word “firestorm.” One of them comes from the BBC, which describes the relentless British and American bombing that touched off the inferno, the winds that accompanied it, the appalling casualty count, and the harrowing stories of survivors.

“I struggled to run against the wind in the middle of the street. … We couldn’t go on across [the road] because the asphalt had melted,” one witness is quoted as saying. “There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed on to the roadway without thinking.”

Several months after Germany’s May 1945 surrender, the U.S. War Department published an exhaustive review of the air war in Europe. “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Over-all Report.”

The survey’s purpose was, in part, to measure the effectiveness of the Allied bombing strategy, which had aimed to achieve “the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

In a passage cited in “The Oxford English Dictionary” as an early use of the word “firestorm” to describe the effects of aerial bombing, the survey mentions in brief, clinical detail what happened in Hamburg and the tactics behind such attacks.

For residential areas … fire was the chief cause of the damage that resulted from bombing. … The principal weapon for setting fires was the incendiary bomb. This weapon was most effective in causing destruction in city residence areas. …

Many German cities presented partial areas of vast devastation. Perhaps the outstanding example was Hamburg, where a series of attacks in July and August of 1943 destroyed 55 to 60 percent of the city, did damage in an area of 30 square miles, completely burned out 12.5 square miles, wiped out 300,000 dwelling units, and made 750,000 people homeless. German estimates range from 60,000 to 100,000 persons killed, many of them in shelters where they were reached by carbon-monoxide poisoning. The attacks used both high explosive and incendiary bombs as it was thought by the Air Forces and later confirmed that the former created road blocks, broke water mains, disrupted communications, opened buildings, broke windows, and displaced roofing. Most important, they kept the fire fighters in shelters until the incendiaries became effective. But, of the total destruction, 75 to 80 percent was due to fires, particularly to those in which the so-called fire-storm phenomenon was observed.

Fire-storms occurred in Hamburg, Kassel, Darmstadt, and Dresden. Differing from an ordinary peacetime conflagration which begins at a center and then spreads, these storms occurred when incendiaries started many fires within a relatively short time over an extensively built-up area. It was estimated that, in Hamburg, within 20 minutes, two out of three buildings were afire within a 4.5-square-mile area as the result of incendiary bomb strikes. The intensity of the bomb fall was so great that fire-fighting efforts were fruitless. As the many fires broke through the roofs of buildings, there rose a column of heated air more than 2 1/2 miles high and 1 1/2 miles in diameter, as measured by aircraft flying over Hamburg. This column was turbulent and was fed at its base by inrushing cooler ground-surface air. One and one-half miles from the fire this draft increased the wind velocity from 11 to 33 miles per hour. At the edge of the area the velocities must have been appreciably greater, as trees 3 feet in diameter were uprooted. In a short time the temperature reached the ignition point for all combustibles and the entire area was ablaze. In such fires complete burn-out occurred; that is, no trace of combustible materials remained and only after 2 days were the areas cool enough to approach.

The evidence is that the bombing served not only to destroy much of Germany’s second-largest city, but also, as intended, to shock and demoralize the population.

In one sense — the scale and meaning of the events — the parallel between Paradise and Hamburg is all wrong. But in others — the physical characteristics of the fires, the way they consumed whole communities and left survivors with little or nothing of their prior lives — maybe the comparison is fitting.

Road Blog: Disaster Detour

Part of the ruins of St. Francis Dam, northeast of Los Angeles.

We managed to spend a whole day on the road today without getting out of Los Angeles County.

That was partly due to a detour to the Santa Monica Pier as we headed out of town. And then a second detour to the REI in Santa Monica. And then a third detour to Peet’s Coffee in Santa Monica. (We’re allegedly going camping and need to be real prepared.)

The main detour of the day was a search for the site of St. Francis Dam, which collapsed in 1928, killed at least 450 people, ended the career of William Mulholland, and wrought major changes in dam design and engineering.

We finally made it to the dam site in the waning half of the afternoon and spent a half an hour or so hiking part of the area (it’s worth more time; I hope to come back … soon-ish).

There is a lot of great background material on what happened at the dam. The best may be from J. David Rogers, a Berkeley-trained professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla who has spent decades investigating why the dam failed and documenting the disaster’s effect on the practice of engineering.

In one of his many papers and presentations on St. Francis Dam, he summarizes the catastrophe:

“The dam failed catastrophically near midnight on March 12/13, 1928, in its second year of operation. … The resulting flood swept down San Francisquito Canyon, with an initial depth of 140 feet above the streambed. About five minutes later, the flood destroyed a powerhouse (and workers’ community) approximately 7,300 feet downstream, killing 126 of the 129 people living there. The flood wave swept on down the canyon, widening considerably at its juncture with the Santa Clara River coming out of Soledad Canyon. It then swept through Castaic Junction and on down the Santa Clara River Valley, blasting a Southern California Edison construction camp (killing 84 of the 140 workers encamped there), thence inundating the migrant farm community at Camulos, before skimming the lower elevations of the established cities of Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy, and Montalvo. The flood waters reached the ocean around 5:30 a.m., after traveling approximately 52 miles. The official death toll was 432 persons, making it the greatest engineering tragedy recorded in America in the 20th century. But those official statistics did not include Mexican migrant farm workers, of which, an unknown number also perished. One hundred seventy-nine of the listed victim’s bodies were never recovered, including those of damkeeper Tony Harnesfaeger and his 6-year-old-son.”

As to what that disaster looked like, here’s one great resource, by way of the Los Angeles Times: “From the Archives: The 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse.”

The magnitude of the tragedy is a little hard to grasp standing at the dam site. There are some monumental heaps of rubble. If you look around, you can see evidence that the piles of broken concrete were part of something bigger.

But nature is reclaiming the site. A cool wind blew up through the cottonwoods and maples that have taken over the streambed where the calamity began. San Francisquito Creek sounded fresh and alive.

One note: It’s a little odd that there’s no official recognition of the site beyond a state historical marker about a mile and a half away — at the powerhouse that was destroyed in the 1928 torrent. This is a place — apparently national forest land — that deserves to be remembered and interpreted.

‘Individual Acts of Hospitality Are Not the Answer’

I think a lot about homelessness, about what it represents in our society, about our responses to it collectively and individually, about the many encounters — with a man named Charles, instance, and with Eric, and with Perry — with the destitute and down and out I’ve had over the years. And about the meaning of personal gestures.

The New York Times just published excerpts of the prison letters of Nelson Mandela. One, to his son Makgatho, talked about effective responses to poverty:

I have been reminiscing a great deal … Those were the days when you lived a happy life free of problems and fenced from all hardships and insecurity by parental love. You did not work, grub was galore, clothing was plentiful and you slept good. But some of your playmates those days roamed around completely naked and dirty because their parents were too poor to dress them and to keep them clean.

Often you brought them home and gave them food. Sometimes you went away with double the amount of swimming fees to help a needy friend. Perhaps then you acted purely out of a child’s affection for a friend, and not because you had become consciously aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized our social life. …

It’s a good thing to help a friend whenever you can; but individual acts of hospitality are not the answer. …

This is not a problem that can be handled by individual acts of hospitality. The man who attempted to use his own possessions to help all the needy would be permanently ruined and in due course himself live on alms. Experience shows that this problem can be effectively tackled only by a disciplined body of persons, who are inspired by the same ideas and united in a common cause.

Naming the Golden Gate

Looking toward the Golden Gate, New Year’s Eve 2014.

From John Charles Fremont, “Geographical Memoir Upon Upper California,” 1848:

“The bay of San Francisco is separated from the sea by low mountain ranges. Looking from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the coast mountains present an apparently continuous line, with only a single gap, resembling a mountain pass. This is the entrance to the great bay, and is the only water communication from the coast to the interior country. Approaching from the sea, the coast presents a bold outline. On the south, the bordering mountains come down in a narrow ridge of broken hills, terminating in a precipitous point, against which the sea breaks heavily. On the northern side, the mountain presents a bold promontory, rising in a few miles to a height of two or three thousand feet [Mount Tamalpais, earlier called Table Mountain]. Between these points is the strait — about one mile broad, in the narrowest part, and five miles long from the sea to the bay. Passing through this gate,* the bay opens to the right and left, extending in each direction about 35 miles, having a total length of more than 70 and a coast of about 275 miles. It is divided by straits and projecting points into three separate bays, of which the northern two are called San Pablo and Suisun bays. …”

*Called Chrysopolae (Golden Gate) on the map, on the same principle that the harbor of Byzantium (Constantinople afterwards) was called Chrysoecras (golden horn). The form of the harbor, and its advantages for commerce (and that before it became an entrepôt of eastern commerce,) suggested the name to the Greek founders of Byzantium. The form of the entrance into the bay of San Francisco, and its advantages for commerce (Asiatic inclusive,) suggest the name which is given to this entrance.

Birthday Reflection

My father at age three and a half months, with his mother in December 1921.

Certain dates have acquired fixed meanings in my head. Family birthdays, for instance. September 3 is one of them — my dad’s.

He died five years ago this summer. He seems to have both vanished and to be as present as ever.

The physical presence is what’s gone, of course; that person about whom we worried, who often baffled and angered us, whom we loved and felt tender toward, was gone just like that. His ashes are in the same grave with our Mom’s — she died suddenly 14 years ago last week, and I still find myself saying “Oh, mom” out loud — and with the casket of our brother Mark, who died just before he turned two. There’s a whole story about that grave site, when and why it was purchased and how three family members wound up there. For another night, maybe. It must be said in the meantime that those remains in that spot were — are — the least of what those people were.

In that sense, in the sense of who Dad was and how he we saw him in life, he seems to be right here with me. I think about him every day. Still remembering a life of light and dark moments. Still trying to figure him out. Still trying to understand the gifts he gave all of us and those that he couldn’t give.

He lived to be nearly 91. If that’s a stake in the ground — I don’t presume much about my own future, but Dad lived nearly exactly as long, within about a week, as his mother — there are decades ahead to try to work all that out.

(The picture above is a favorite: Our grandmother, Otilia Sieversen Brekke, and my dad, at their home in Alvarado, Minnesota, in late December 1921. Dad was a little less than four months old. Grandma shows a warmth and attentiveness in this shot that doesn’t come out in other pictures.)

Eclipse Road Trip Day 7: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Eclipse Chaser

U.S. Post Office in Lodgepole, Nebraska.

Starting midday Saturday from Sidney, Nebraska — a town of 6,000 just off Interstate 80 in the southwestern corner of the Nebraska panhandle — we drove east on U.S. 30 through the towns of Sunol and Lodgepole (or Lodge Pole, if you believe the lettering on the Post Office building there).

Lodgepole was one of my destinations on this trip. According to letters from one of my great-great-grandfathers, Timothy Jeremiah Hogan, his parents moved their family to this part of Nebraska in the mid-1860s to work on the Union Pacific railroad. Tim suggests they lived first in Lodgepole, then Sidney, 16 miles west, so the family would have the protection from hostile Indians in the area.

We hung around Lodgepole for maybe 30 or 45 minutes. I took pictures, naturally. We cruised by the most substantial building in town, the old brick public school — every small Nebraska town seems to have one. Then we were off again in the rain — we were caught in the beginning of a pretty persistent thunderstorm — and stayed west on Route 30, then turned north on Nebraska 27 to Oshkosh, on the North Platte River.

North of Oshkosh, the state blacktop ends and you begin a 60-mile stretch that begins with well-maintained dirt roads for roughly the first (southern) half of the drive and continues on a single lane of choppy asphalt for the second (northern) half.

The reason you take that road, which goes through the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, is that it’s crossing one of the more remote parts of Nebraska’s Sand Hills.

The Sand Hills are a sweeping expanse of grass-covered dunes — about 20,000 square miles — said to have formed after the last ice age. And driving through on a road that twists and turns and somehow always seems to be climbing, it’s apparent you’re traveling through sand dunes being held in place by grasses and wildflowers (chief among the latter: black-eyed susans).

Anyway. I thought the Sand Hills would be the ideal place to watch the eclipse, and yesterday’s drive was to scout out the road. We saw a dozen, maybe 15 other cars, almost all with out-of-state plates, apparently doing the same. Passing ranches along the road, I had the same feeling of eclipse envy I experienced elsewhere on our trip — “Gee, these people live right here where the show is happening. Aren’t they lucky. I wish I could stay here.”

Near Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the Nebraska Sand Hills.

We got off that Crescent Lake road a little before 6 p.m. — another product of our late start — and headed east on Nebraska Highway 2, which runs for about 125 miles or so right through the heart of the Sand Hills. Our destination was Valentine, on U.S. 20 right up at the top of the state, and adding in that we crossed into Central time and lost and hour, we didn’t get off the road until 10 (it was all beautiful, though — even the lightning show to our east at dusk.

We checked into our hostelry, which I’ll call the Sketchy Rest, walked the dog, and then began checking on the latest Monday morning forecasts for the Sand Hills.

I want to say here that I am an inveterate, if not a sophisticated, reader of weather forecasts of all kinds. As I pored over forecast discussions and graphical forecasts and meteorological whatnot, the consensus from those who study computer models to understand upcoming weather was that it was likely to be cloudy in the Sand Hills on Monday morning. Part of me simply doesn’t want to believe that and found it hard to picture after experiencing one beautifully sunny follow another all the way through our trip. That included Saturday, when the Sand Hills were framed by distant, rising thunderheads but were spectacularly clear along our road.

The forecasts hadn’t improved by this morning (Sunday), so we went looking for options.

The forecast for Casper, Wyoming, was for clear, clear, clear skies. Plus, it’s close to the center of the eclipse path. What if we could find a place there?

I checked motels. There were a few room on offer online — $2,000 for a single night. No.

Kate, whom I believe is both charming and lucky (she wound up with me, after all), started to call motels. She found some friendly innkeepers, but no room.

I checked Craigslist. There was a single listing for a sort of in-law unit near the south end of Casper. No price listed. I got in touch with the person who posted the place. We talked. A price was agreed on (he happened to name the figure that Kate and I had previously agreed would be our maximum; more than I’d pay in any other circumstances, I think, but not a killer — and not anything like $2,000).

So we hit the road to Casper from Valentine — 325 miles on top of the 2,000 from the previous six days — rolling west on U.S. 20 about 1 p.m. It was a fast trip, with the usual dog- and picture-related stops, and we pulled in here just after (we gained an hour traveling back into Mountain time).

The sky when we got here? Starting to cloud up. Thunder was rolling. The light and storm clouds were beautiful. The stars are out tonight, though, and the forecast is still for sunny (and smoky) skies in the morning. Except for this one note from the regional forecast office, which noted the likelihood of some smoke in the air:

“One other feature to watch is (a) thinning band of higher clouds that is forecast by some of the guidance to be between the Wind River Basin and Casper around totality time. It may be clearing the Wind River Basin/Riverton vicinity in time and then possibly affect the Casper area between 11 and noon. May be a rather narrow band then but there could be some concern for viewing in this narrow cloud feature.”

Kate just reminded me that the moon will start crossing the sun’s disk here at 10:22 a.m MDT. Totality will occur at 11:43 a.m. I wonder where that cloud will be.

Sky above Casper, Wyoming, Aug. 20, 2017.

Eclipse Road Trip Day 4-6: Somewhere to Sidney

A driver’s seat view of the road from Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge up to Lakeside, on Highway 2, in western Nebraska.

Meant to publish this Saturday morning. But here it is at the tail end of Saturday night — we did make it to Valentine after an amazing drive through the Sand Hills (above) — instead:

Don’t have time to say much,
because we’re late getting on the road, but: We spent the night in Jackson on Wednesday; Thursday morning, we had breakfast with the parents of our son Thom’s roommate at Oregon, Barb and Tom Dillon, who live just south of town. They invited us to stay Thursday night, so we did — using the daylight hours for a leisurely drive up past the Tetons to Yellowstone and back.

Friday, we drove across Wyoming to Sidney, Nebraska, a town where our family has roots, sort of, that go back to the 1860s. Less than 10 miles outside town, the a tire-pressure indicator light went on in the car. We pulled over and discovered we had picked up a nail and had a leak big enough I could hear it. Since the tire wasn’t too bad yet, we jumped in and made it the rest of the way to our motel, just off Interstate 80, where the tire quickly went flat. I changed it (a chore in a vehicle as large as the 4Runner, but do-able thanks to the aid of a passer-by, a Seattle-ite named Michael). In any case, we got it done.

This morning I drove into Sidney to have the punctured tire fixed. It took a while, so I strolled through town, where a parade was forming up as part of the town’s contribution to Nebraska’s sesquicentennial. Chatted up some of the participants, went back and got the car, and now we’re getting ready to head out with a tentative destination of Valentine, which is a good piece up the road (we’re not far from the Colorado border, and Valentine is close to South Dakota).

The eclipse weather forecast in western Nebraska is not great right now. So we’ll see where we wind up Monday morning.

Eclipse Road Trip Day 1: Berkeley to Tahoe City

Last Aug. 20, in a rare example of doing well ahead of a long-contemplated event, I mused about possible destinations to view the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017. One location I pondered — where we’re headed now — is western Nebraska.

(But why western Nebraska? I hear the question even before the final schwa sound of the Cornhusker State’s strangely compelling name fades away. Answer: Decent chances for good viewing weather and good odds of avoiding eclipse country gridlock. On both counts, we’ll see).

I didn’t do a whole lot in the way of eclipse preparation last year beside write that post, order an eclipse atlas, and spend hours poring over pages of Airbnb and VRBO listings. Like most of West Coast humanity, I searched out places to stay in Oregon east of the Cascades. The now-famous municipality of Madras was already booked up (I’m not counting offers to sleep for only $150 a night in prickly pear patches or cow pastures), and other promising places that would have required a drive of some length did not pan out. (I did not consider Bend, a city of some size and reputation, because I could all too easily imagine Eclipse Morning gridlock, or rangelock or whatever you call it when you don’t have a grid, with traffic heading up the road toward the totality zone.)

Thus thoughts turned again to Nebraska. (Why? See above.) I will unfold our ultimate destination, which is currently semi-unknown, as we travel this week. I can, however, share the first leg of the journey.

Our destination was Lake Tahoe, the northwest side, where an old friend is spending a couple weeks and invited us to spend our first night on the road. So We left Berkeley early in the afternoon and drove up Interstate 80. There was sporadic heavy traffic in the usual places — in Fairfield, through Davis — but we sailed for the most part and got to our spot on the lakeshore by 6:30, in time to watch the evening light descend.

Since the this is a travelogue of sorts, there ought to be a picture. Here’s one of our first and only stop today, at Nyack, about 15 miles west of Donner Summit at an elevation of maybe 5,500 feet above sea level. It’s an unprepossessing image — Shell gas, a convenience store, a tiny Burger King, and a huge expanse of asphalt.

Back in the days when a two-lane road, U.S. 40, ran across the Sierra here, there was a resort called Nyack Lodge. In January 1952, in the middle of a very stormy winter, a westbound passenger train, the City of San Francisco, was halted by snowslides a few miles east of Nyack. Passengers were stranded for three days. When rescuers finally reached the scene, the passengers — cold, hungry, some ill from an episode of carbon monoxide poisoning — were driven to Nyack Lodge. There, they got a nice feed and were put on a rescue train that had come up from Roseville for the trip to Oakland.

Nyack, California, on Interstate 80 west of Donner Summit.

A Plaque Story: ‘They Sacrificed Their Lives’

San Luis Reservoir, just west of the San Joaquin Valley town of Los Banos, is one of California’s key water facilities. Pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ship water down two massive canals — the state-owned California Aqueduct and the federal Delta-Mendota Canal — to a holding basin, or forebay, adjacent to the reservoir. From there, another set of pumps lifts water into the reservoir, where it’s stored before being pumped again for delivery to farm and city customers farther south. All reservoirs are artificial creations, but there’s an extra dimension of artificiality here: There’s virtually no natural inflow to the reservoir; it exists only to receive the water pouring down two huge manufactured rivers.

Memorial plaque at San Luis Reservoir to two Department of Water Resources divers who died in a 2007 incident at a nearby pumping plant.

The plaque above is at the Romero Visitors Center, just off Highway 152. There’s something artificial, manufactured — less than truthful — about the memorial to two divers killed at the pumping plant about 10 miles from the dam. But read the plaque first:

The plaque text:

“Dedicated in memory of Tim Crawford and Martin Alvarado, who lost their lives on Feb. 7, 2007, while performing underwater inspections at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant. They sacrificed their lives to keep the state’s water supply safe and secure for the people of the state of California.”

The wording is curious. These two men “sacrificed their lives to keep the state’s water supply safe and secure”?

It sounds heroic. What happened?

I had no idea. But armed with the two names, it’s easy to find out.

The two divers went into the water to inspect “trash racks” just upstream of the pumps at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant, apparently looking for invasive mussels. Five of the six pumps at the facility were shut down, and one was running full bore. Somehow the divers wound up near the operating pump. The powerful current there pulled them in and pinned them against the trash rack, a huge steel grate designed to stop large debris from going through the pump.

The untrained fellow Department of Water Resources employee who had been given the job of “tending” the dive soon lost sight of the divers’ bubbles, his only means of tracking the men, but had no idea what to do. By the time he thought to alert anyone in the pumping plant, the divers were probably out of air. It took more than an hour after trouble was detected to shut down the operating pump, and another 35 minutes after that before a recovery diver was in the water. Both divers were found at the bottom of the aqueduct, drowned. Subsequent investigations found a series of missteps, including some by the divers themselves, that contributed to the outcome.

I get the human impulse behind injecting a note of heroism into the plaque’s language. We want to find something to redeem such awful deaths, to give the sacrifice a purpose.

But it might have been more to the point, and a more fitting memorial, to say something like: “Dedicated in hopes that their deaths might serve to prevent future tragedies.” A message like that might serve as a living reminder to those responsible for preventing incidents that they must remain vigilant.

To read more: Here’s the Department of Water Resources report on the incident.

And here: a later investigative piece by San Francisco’s ABC7 on the episode. Key quote from the story:

Dive tender: How long these guys stay down? You know?
Control room: Uh-uh.

And finally: a DWR memorial publication to the two divers (see pages 5 through 7).