Monday, February 10, 2014

Reflections on the “Irish Sporting Green”

John Dobson
One of my recreational pursuits is reading the weekly obituary column in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Most death notices tell you next to nothing about the person who died: their name, dates of birth and death, sometimes place of birth, surviving relatives, sometimes occupation, and where and when any services will take place.  That’s all.  Still, it’s worth at least scanning them for the gems found among them.

Sometimes I learn of the passing of someone I knew or know, more and more frequently as I age, of course.  Last week there were announcements about two people I knew in life, albeit not well.  The below-the-fold front page featured an article about John Dobson, the sidewalk astronomer. Born in China, he spent many of his 98 years teaching anyone who’d listen about the stars – and I don’t mean taking tourists to the homes of Hollywood celebrities.[1]

Many years ago,[2] my late husband, Rod Wolfer, and I were wandering around Golden Gate Park one night, enjoying a hit of LSD.  We saw some activity on the sidewalk in front of the Academy of Sciences and went to see what was going on.  We heard John’s call:  “Come see the moon and Saturn!”  So we did.  He had this huge telescope he’d made from marine porthole glass and a sauna tube.[3]  He taught others to make these telescopes, now known as “Dobsonian” telescopes.  He spoke enthusiastically about the heavens and he made sure that everyone who came by got a chance to view them through his telescope.  This happened probably around the time that John first founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, now an international organization known as the Sidewalk Astronomers.  As you might imagine, this was quite a fine experience to have while on an acid trip.  I feel blessed to have had this experience.  To John I say: “Hail the goer!”

Estelle (née Klein) Griffin

The second death of someone whose path through life crossed mine is of Estelle Griffin.  She was my neighbor in the third place I lived in San Francisco, circa 1964-65, on McAllister between Central and Masonic in the Fillmore District.  We were three white girls living in a flat above a Chinese laundry (hence we had zero hot water from about 6 am till about 5 pm).  Estelle and Herman lived next door with their kids.  We did our laundry at Estelle’s laundromat.  There was an elderly white couple who owned a corner grocery store across the street.  This was the most racially mixed neighborhood I’d ever lived in, and I was at a formative stage of my life, all my senses open to new experiences and new ways of looking at life and the world.  We met Estelle through our friend Karl Klein and his older brother, Mike, who were Estelle’s nephews from New York.  I remember Estelle as being warm and kind and competent.  I thought of her as being sophisticated and daring, an impression that seems, from a bit of her obituary, to be the case.

All three Kleins – Estelle (née Klein), Mike and Karl – exposed me to progressive political thinking.  I remember Mike’s reading Hesse’s Siddhartha and being really into Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book (1971).  They talked about the W.E.B. DuBois Club and the Wobblies; the Ukrainian Bakery was still operating in the neighborhood and one synagogue still held services.  I’m sure none of them remembers me, but I remember them because they influenced me and helped me evolve from the Republican politics of my family towards a more tolerant, diverse, and socially aware person of the far left persuasion I am today.  They were not the only influence, but they influenced me enough for me to remember them this way after half a century.  So to Estelle, I say thanks and “Hail the goer!”

[1]   See here for more about this remarkable man’s life, including links to videos.

[2]   Late 1960s or early ‘70s

[3]   Sauna tubes are cylindrical forms for pouring concrete.