Where I Was From

Joan Didion’s latest book is an extended reflection on California, seen through the eyes of a native Californian; a musing at length about how the mythology and promise of California differ sharply from its reality.

Come to think of it…every Joan Didion book I’ve read has been an extended reflection on California, seen through the eyes of a native Californian; a musing at length about how the mythology and promise of California differ sharply from its reality.

As a native Californian myself, I know narcissism when I see it, and I’m not going to let Joan Didion have all the fun.

Where was I from?

Unlike most Californians, I have a hometown rather than an undifferentiated and undifferentiable home suburb. Benicia is an old city by California standards, having been founded in 1846-47. After an initial boom failed, the city, surrounded on two sides by water and marsh and one-and-a-half sides by hills, became an isolated and charming backwater kept alive by an Army arsenal on the east end of town.

Then came World War II, bringing millions of people into California to serve in the military or work in the war industries. When the war ended, they stayed. They wanted suburban living, and so housing developments begin to snake through the valleys east of Oakland. They wanted cars, and so roads were built to transport them.

By 1962, the development approached Benicia, 30 miles from Oakland. The Benicia-Martinez bridge opened, connecting the new East Bay suburbs to Sacramento. Seven years later, the first suburban tract housing was grafted onto old town Benicia. In 1972, my 27-year-old parents bought a house for their four-child family in one of the new neighborhoods.

And where did they come from?

My father was a native Californian, born in Burbank. His father was a civilian contractor—a term that’s been in the news lately—who worked (usually) for the United States Navy and was paid by Lockheed. In 1932, Grandpa Casburn had taken his Tulsa Central HS diploma, jumped on a motorcycle, and headed west to the promised land. Finding the promise not so promising after all, he ended up serving a four-year stint in the Army, then found the job with Lockheed that he kept until his death in 1968.

In 1940, Lockheed sent Grandpa to England to work in a bomber factory outside of Liverpool. (Family lore has it that Grandpa disappeared during a layover in Lisbon, and spent some time on a motorcycle exploring German-occupied Europe.) At the plant, he met Phyllis Tayler, daughter of an English merchant, and married her a year later. Shortly after, he sent her for safety to live with her in-laws in Tulsa; they moved to Burbank when Lockheed transferred him home in 1943.

After the war, Grandpa moved from assignment to assignment, and his family moved from house to house, usually near a Naval Air Station. At the end of 1961, they moved from Corpus Christi, Texas to Dublin, California, an old ranching town that, like Benicia a decade later, was evolving into a bedroom suburb.

My mother was born in Bellingham, Washington. Her father was in the South Pacific with the Fifth Marine Division, preparing for the assault on Iwo Jima. A Columbus, Ohio native, he had volunteered for the Marines in 1940, after a couple of desultory academic terms at Ohio State. His first view of California came in January 1942, as he sailed up the coast to help garrison San Francisco after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He wrote to his mother that it was foggy and rained all the time; not at all what he expected from California!

A few months later, he met Roberta Montgomery, who had moved to San Francisco with her two sisters a few years earlier (my mother has a picture of my grandparents in 1942, triple-dating with my grandmother’s sisters and two other Marines). She had been born in Palo Alto, just south of the City, but had grown up on a farm east of Bellingham. My grandparents married in 1943.

After the war, Grandpa decided not to go back to Ohio, and found work as a private investigator. The family stayed in the Bay Area, slowly migrating out from the City—first to Albany, then to western Walnut Creek, then to Pleasant Hill. (My mother would continue the trek with us after my father graduated from college: next to Concord, then Martinez, and finally Benicia.)

When my mother graduated from Pleasant Hill High School in 1962, she went to Diablo Valley College, a community college just up the road, to study to be a dental assistant. One day that fall—around the time that the Benicia-Martinez Bridge opened—she had lunch in the DVC cafeteria with some friends and their friends; a group that included a boy from Dublin named Jeff Casburn.

And that’s how the world goes on.

In the last chapter of Where I Was From, Didion writes about a day when she was in her late thirties, visiting her hometown:

Later it seemed to me that this had been the moment when all of [my family history]—the crossing, the redemption, the abandoned rosewood chests, the lost flatware, the rivers I had written to replace the rivers I had left, the twelve generations of circuit riders and county sheriffs and Indian fighters and country lawyers and Bible readers, the two hundred years of clearings in Virginia and Kentucky and Tennessee and then the break, the dream of America, the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life—began to seem remote.

I wrote all of the above family and city history from memory; from things I’d learned and heard 15, 20, 25 years ago. It still seems romantic to me, and I’d like to know more.

But, like Didion, I no longer connect to it. It’s outside of me; something that could have happened to other people; that doesn’t feel real. When I last visited Benicia, it seemed alien, as if I were a tourist rather than a native son; the familiar landmarks were there, the familiar people were not. My grandparents have died, my parents have moved far away; the past is gone.

Time to begin something new.

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