Alan Simpson ’58

My family moved from San Francisco to Oakland in 1945. We came after VE day and before VJ day. We lived on 29th near Broadway, closer to Harrison. We had a rooming house, a brown shingle Victorian. My father was a machinist in San Francisco and my mother ran the rooming house. The most expensive room was a double for $10/week and the cheapest was $6/week. There’s an apartment house there now. I went to Tech because I lived in the district.

I was the Class of ’58, but you won’t find my name in the yearbook. I didn’t graduate with my class so I had to take summer school to get my diploma. That’s probably why I’ve never gotten invitations to reunions. I am proud to be a graduate of Tech and I am sorry I didn’t make my graduation. That was a real downer. The day I got my diploma in the mail was depressing. I’d earned it, but to get it through the back door was depressing. I always felt bad about that.

We were proud of our school. It was beautiful. I feel sorry for kids today that go to modern schools that don’t have the feeling of history. The old schools had such beautiful architecture. I love the front of that school and I am glad they saved it, but the interior was just as nice. The whole school was impressive. You went into the auditorium and it was like going into the Grand Lake Theater. I felt a loss when they remodeled the school and tore a lot out. I snuck in once during the remodel and they had ripped it down to the bare concrete. They took out the actual floor of the second story. You could see from the first floor right up to the roof. They destroyed so much. The bathrooms had marble, white with streaks of grey. I remember a chair rail with wood paneling along the corridors. And every hallway had lockers, all over the school. Invariably, I had a class on the other end of the hall from my locker. With the crush of students going from class to class, it was practically impossible to go to your locker and make your next class on time. I remember up on that mezzanine level between the floors, when you got close to the front of the school, the sun would shine in and it’d always be warmer there than anywhere else in the school. The hall would be dark, but when you got to that point, on the second floor, you’d almost have to cover your eyes, the sun was so bright.

You had to park 3 or 4 blocks away from the school because so many students had cars. I had one too– a ‘39 Ford two-door with “bigs and littles,” meaning little wheels on the front and big ones on the back so all you saw in the rear view mirror was the moon.

Before school, Dave’s Coffee Shop parking lot was the place to be. That’s where you’d hang out, in that parking lot, and you’d watch the kids getting off the buses in front of the school The buses would line up on Broadway. They’d line up there before school let out too starting at around 2:45. School let out at 3:15. Dave’s was where that parking lot is now on 42nd and Broadway where they sell cars. I think you can still see the marquee sign, but it may have the car sign on it now. The action was outside not inside Dave’s. After school everybody split. You only hung out there before school.

There were two staircases on either side as you came into the school. And to the right, near the stairs, there was a small doorway and down below was the entrance to the snack bar. You had to go through the snack bar to go into the main cafeteria. During my time they shut down the cafeteria for a long time, maybe a year, to pull down the wallboard and replace it because it had asbestos. There wasn’t a crack anywhere, so they created asbestos dust to get rid of the asbestos! The snack bar had edible food like hot dogs, unlike the cafeteria that had inedible food. It also had chips, milk, soda, maybe hamburgers, and cream pies. In the cafeteria there were “mystery meat” patties and peculiar gravy and nasty stuff in the way of overcooked veggies. I mostly brought my lunch, but if I was late leaving in the morning, I’d go to the snack bar. I ate lunch on the front steps. Some kids went to Chris’ Hot Dog Stand across the street for lunch. Everyone was afraid to jay walk across Broadway. They knew if they got caught, they’d get in trouble. Some years I worked at the hot dog stand during lunchtime. I’d get out a few minutes early at lunchtime and 45 minutes early at the end of the day for “work experience,” which I got credit for.

I was not a college prep kid. I was a poor kid and had to work a lot. I always worked, starting in junior high. I had a paper route with over 200 customers and I worked after school at Kwik Way (the precursor to McDonald’s), first at the one next to the Grand Lake Theater when it opened in ’56 and later at the one on 22nd and Telegraph. I worked after school every day and on the weekends.

My favorite part of school was Auto Shop which was a double period. I loved it. It was a large shop on the 45th Street side of the school. There weren’t that many cars in there at once, but it was big enough to hold 6-8 cars. There weren’t any hoists, just a lot of car jacks. I have a scar on my neck from Auto Shop. Everyone had bad mufflers. You’d go in the Auto Shop scrap heap and find a muffler pipe better than yours and you’d patch and weld. My car had an undercoating and when I was welding, the undercoating caught on fire. I turned off the acetylene and tried to blow out the fire with the oxygen, but of course oxygen is flammable! The undercoating was tarry and when it gets past melting temperature, it burns and drips so it dripped right onto me. I was on fire. I didn’t scream. I was embarrassed. I knew enough to reach down, grab a hold of the drip, and pull if off of my chest. It was such a dumb thing. You do things spur of the moment and think later, ‘How dumb is that?’ I remember Kay Endo (who later had a towing and automotive business) aced the course by doing a valve job on his ’46 Ford Flathead Coupe. That wasn’t something that a schoolboy would normally be able to do!

At one point my senior year, I dropped out of school to join the Navy. I’d been to the recruiting office and had an appointment on Friday to have the recruiter come to my home to have my parents sign the papers for me to become a Navy Seabee. I was to report on Monday morning to join the Navy, but at my home on Friday night, the recruiter talked my parents out of it! He told them to have me stay in school because he couldn’t guarantee I would get into the technical schools I wanted in the Navy without a high school diploma. So, instead of reporting to the Navy Monday morning, I reported to school to re-enroll only to find out that I couldn’t get back into my classes. Since I needed those classes to graduate, I had to go to summer school. I never understood why that recruiter didn’t just come right out and tell me before I left school! I had to explain to everyone why I was back and I didn’t get to graduate with my class.

One of the things I remember the most was the front lawn at lunchtime. Where there are big trees now, there were huge oak trees back then with really big branches that came way out, touched the ground, and went back up. The ones there now are small. It was like “Gone with the Wind” at lunchtime. The girls would sit with their skirts in full circles around them holding court. If you got there before the girls did, you could watch them spreading their skirts out around them as they sat down. They smoothed them out so there were no wrinkles and the skirt made a full circle. There were little cliques of girls, the popular girls. No one was allowed to approach them. It was girls only. Each tree had its queen and little princesses. You could sit off at a distance and tell which one was the queen. They were unapproachable.

I also remember the veterans’ memorial inside the school honoring Tech High alumni who had perished in World War II. It was very impressive to me. My brother was a Merchant Marine in the war and some of the names on that plaque were Merchant Mariners. That hit close to home. My brother was drafted into the Korean War. When he got his “greetings,” instead of waiting and reporting, he immediately went and enlisted in the army. He was in boot camp when the MP’s came knocking on the door to get him because he hadn’t reported. He served in artillery in Korea and lost his hearing.

At some point when I was at Tech, they initiated hall passes, but no teacher would venture into the smoking area to ask for a pass. There was smoking area for kids on campus. It was behind the cafeteria outside. There was a teachers’ parking lot on 45th at the end of the main building and just adjacent to that parking lot, through the breezeway, there were picnic benches and signs designating the smoking area. Even then, you were an outcast if you were a smoker. The college prep kids weren’t out there. I wasn’t in that area as much as some others and teachers never went there to ask for passes. They’d walk right by, intimidated. There were covered walkways between the main building, the shops, and the gym. And the gym and shops were connected with interior passageways. The gym was all the way at the end. The shops were to the left and right– metal shop, auto. I can’t remember a wood shop. And just beyond the auto shop, there was an adult school for diesel mechanics. The adults worked on diesel locomotives, with big long engines. They used to open their doors to 45th Street (they had their own entrance there) to let the neighborhood know when they got the engines started!

There were different groups. The preppies and the footballers were one group. The shop kids, including most of the smokers, were another. Then there were just little cliques at different levels. Everybody had to belong to someone. If you were a loner, you had no chance of survival. You’d get picked on. Everybody needs friends. You belonged to whatever group you belonged to and you were proud of your group. I didn’t want to be part of the pretty crowd. The preppies had their own classes, totally separate. It was like two different schools. The bad teachers who didn’t how to teach or control classes were relegated to the greasers and special ed classes. I remember Mr. Pease, a red-faced Irishman. I thought of him as carrying a whip, but he didn’t. He was the math teacher. You didn’t speak up in his class. Only he would talk. He would lecture at the beginning of class and if you had a question, he would belittle you so we learned quickly not to ask questions. Math was hard. I remember another one, who taught Social Studies, the saddest teacher in school. He had no control of his class. He was just a babysitter. He was very thin with eyes popping out of his head. He was an intimidated man.

There was a racial problem. Tech was mostly black, white and Hispanic. You didn’t want to get caught alone by somebody from another race. I was afraid of getting caught. I got beat up regularly. It was pretty common. They’d be in a group. It would mostly happen after school. Everyone would be gone, but there’d be a few here and there and if it was you, you’d be it. I would report incidents but nothing would ever happen. It was scary in the locker room too with kids ganging up on this one or that one. You’d hear a scuffle and get out of there. The Hispanics called themselves Pachukos. There were more of them than black kids. The blacks and Pachukos fought each other. They had switchblades.

I joined ROTC. I was in for one semester but then failed it because I suffered from hay fever and I couldn’t do the field trips they’d go on to practice digging fox holes. They’d announce where we’d be going and I couldn’t go so I failed. ROTC was just beyond the boys’ gym- between the boys’ gym and the pool. They had an indoor rifle range and I was a good shot, but that didn’t help my grade.

I also remember when the Thespian Club put on Antigone and Our Town. Our Town was the class play for ’58 and Antigone was ‘57 or ‘56. I loved Our Town. My girlfriend was the star. I forgot her name but boy, did she love to kiss! I watch it every time it comes on TV. I’ve rented it too. I really got it as a kid– the older generation passing on and the newer one becoming the older generation. People come and go and things stay the same.

After graduation, I worked for a bunch of restaurants– Canton Ferry, Kwik Way, Seafood Grotto at Jack London. Then I was in the Navy for four years. That was during the Cold War and I was part of Cuban Missile blockade in ‘62. When I got out, I started to work in plastics and worked in that for the rest of my working life. Satellites and missiles had a lot of plastic in them and I had a direct hand in a lot of that. I married and had two sons, grown now, and I moved to Eat Oakland and then to Livermore.

High school wasn’t easy, but I do have some nostalgia for that time.

About Tech turning 100, I had no idea it predated World War I. I think it’s great that its still there.

For advice to Tech kids today, watch out passing in the hallways. I have a permanent tattoo right on my arm from a pencil poking me. And I am sorry there’s no more shop for the kids today. I really liked auto shop.