Some thoughts on the Oroville Dam.

In the early 1960’s when the state of California was building the Oroville Dam there was a small state park on the Feather River a couple miles upstream from the dam site. The park was built around a 19th Century iron suspension bridge that, until the Golden Gate was completed, was the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi river. There was also a toll house where the toll keeper and his family lived, and not far from the house was the first orange tree ever planted in the state of California. It was the mother tree to most of the early Southern California orange groves. At some point during construction a state functionary realized that soon this little bit of our history was going to be under 700 feet of water. Now you have to remember that back then Proposition 13 was not yet even a glint in the Scrooge like gaze of Howard Jarvis so the state of California had lots of money. A UC education cost a couple hundred dollars a year. A State college (before Reagan magically made them all universities) cost less, and Community Colleges were almost free. So the fateful decision was made to take apart the bridge and the toll house in a way that would allow them to be reassembled later somewhere not under 700 feet of water and to move the orange tree to, well, Orange County.

To do this job the state contracted with Henry W. Bigge of Bigge Crane and Rigging in San Leandro. Because there was some time pressure involved in the job Henry put his top troubleshooter on it. That was Al Walters, my grandpa. Al was one of that generation. He was a 10th grade dropout from Gadsen Alabama and I don’t know that I ever saw him without a half pint of Jim Beam or Old Crow in his hip pocket and a Lucky Strike or Bull Durham hand rolled in his huge calloused hand. The hand missing the last joint of his two middle fingers. Nowadays we would probably say that Al was a savant. He could not spell trigonometry or calculus but he could intuitively calculate loads and angles that always worked. Always. He did his calculations on yellow legal pads with those square flat pencils you sharpen with the stag Case XX Peanut you keep in your pocket, with the pony of Beam. Al moved and installed nuclear reactors and those cranes that loaded Polaris missiles into nuclear subs at the Navy base in Hunters Point and really big really heavy ungainly things all over the world. I pretty much exist because Al finished mounting the bowl for the Lowell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory early (it seems no one in Europe or the UK could figure out how to do it so they called Henry, and he sent Al) and had come to Sacramento to install the gates in Nimbus Dam and that’s where my mom met my dad.

Because of the dam construction there was not a motel room to be had within 75 miles of Oroville so the crew lived in tents and trailers at the Bigge compound in Oroville. But not Al. Al made a deal with the state that he and his family could camp for the summer in the day use only state park right on the Feather River where the bridge and the toll house were. Ya have to understand that nowadays we would probably be called White Trash, though Al and Bertha proudly preferred Oakie. Admittedly they were from Alabama but they had stopped in Oklahoma for a couple years on their way to California, just as the Dust Bowl peaked and the Great Depression was depressioning, and where my mom’s older brother died in a mysterious way that no one ever talked about so the label was not completely inappropriate. Because Al was an old school “git er done” sort and we were gonna be there all summer the camping concept sort of expanded. Al ran electric lines through the trees from the office with bare incandescent lights hanging from them like a used car lot. We had a fridge and an electric stove sitting on 2X4’s in the dirt and a couple old bookcases as a pantry and a black and white TV with rabbit ears tat got one channel sort of sitting on a three legged. Oh yeah, and an air conditioner blowing into the tent that my not quite a toddler and still in diapers little sister slept in. In other words it was freaking awesome. To my 10 and 12 year old uncles and I it was the lost boys go to Burningman decades before Burningman. No school. No chores. No baths. No bed time. I would put on shoes once a week when my mom took me into Oroville to the library, mostly because the sidewalks were roughly the temperature of molten lava, or McDonalds apple pies. We were as close to feral as boys could get, in the best possible way. I mean we even had a freaking pirate ship. Admittedly it was a bunch of used heavy equipment inner tubes, that required constant patching, lashed together with scrap wood from the job site. But it had a pole and a flag and we were the undisputed princes of the park between sunrise and sunset while it was open to the public. At night we would watch the one channel, or read, or sit on the half disassembled bridge and count shooting stars. It might have been the first place I ever watched the sun come up from the night side. It probably wasn’t my best summer ever, but it was certainly the best boy summer ever.

On Labor Day we went home to the Bay Area to go back to school and Al stayed a bit to finish off a few details of the job and eventually the dam got filled and that summer disappeared under 700 feet of water, that some of you drink from. I still occasionally like to imagine there is a dusty cobwebby Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse somewhere in California with all the parts of the bridge and the toll house and hundreds of pages of wrinkled and smudged yellow legal pads with the #2 pencil slowly fading that everyone has completely forgotten about. Which is a good way for the story to end.