Hanging Out in “Beserkley”

October 14, 2014

in Found in My Own Backyard

  • SumoMe

“California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.”

That lyric from the Mama and Papas’ hit song, California Dreamin, could have been playing on the radio in my 1960 Alfa Romeo as I drove south from Seattle, through Oregon, and on to San Francisco at the end of 1967. Having completed Air Force “boot camp” in Texas a few weeks earlier, I was on my way to Monterey, California to study Chinese Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute situated on a hill above that city’s famed Cannery Row.

After the Christmas holidays I had time to kill before reporting for duty at DLI, so I decided to spend a few days in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Long hours behind the wheel and the setting sun forced me to call it a day and pull off the highway 30 miles short of San Francisco.

The next day I made it into San Francisco, where I bunked in a budget motel on Lombard Street, dined in a “coffee house” on Union Street that was far “cooler” than the “coffee shops” like Denny’s that I had frequented back in Seattle. And at a theater just across the street, I saw The Graduate, the movie that launched Dustin Hoffman’s cinematic stardom.

On the other side of the Bay, I did an uneventful “drive-through” of Berkeley. I had no idea of what I’d experience there just a few months later.

(Eric Fischer Flickr Photo)

(Eric Fischer Flickr Photo)

Just as I was ready to begin my freshman year at the University of Washington in September of 1964, limits placed on students’ on-campus political activities at the University of California fomented what became known in Berkeley as the “Free Speech Movement.” The stage was set for confrontations between students and university administrators that would continue for several more years.

While UC-Berkeley was a hot-bed of political unrest back in the mid-to-late 1960′s, the University of Washington was by comparison an oasis of calm. The biggest protest I recall from my days at the UW was when students living in dorms marched in protest of a giant neon sign whose flashing lights penetrated the curtains of their rooms and disturbed their sleep.

Strict rules of behavior applied to fraternities at Washington: No liquor was permitted on-premises. Women were allowed only in the public areas on the main floor, not upstairs in men’s rooms.

On my second trip to Berkeley, in the spring of 1968, my DLI roommate and I stayed at the UC chapter of the fraternity I had belonged to at the University of Washington. It was like being in Delta Tau Chi, the fictional fraternity of misfits in the 1978 National Lampoon movie, Animal House, set in 1962 at “Faber College.” Booze flowed freely at a party we attended there, and when we tried to call it a night, we discovered that our beds were already occupied by students engaged in “immoral activities.”

No wonder Berkeley became known as “Beserkley.” It seemed like the entire town, not just the university, was populated by degenerates resembling John Belushi’s Animal House character, “Bluto.”.

But that was then, and this is now.

The University of California is still tucked up against the hills on the east side of Berkeley. Although the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement is being celebrated this month, those wild fraternity members I encountered in 1968 are now in their late 60′s or early 70′s, and unlikely to behave as badly as they did “back in the day.”

So is Berkeley still “Beserkley”? And what effect, if any, did that pot-boiling-over culture of the 1960′s have on what Berkeley is like today?

These days Berkeley is a “hip” place even if fewer “hippies” reside there than did five decades ago.

And the restaurant food is well, a bit different now then it was back then we we ate out at the “IHOP” pancake house. The Free Speech Movement has been replaced by the farm-to-table and sustainable-food movements.

Forty-odd years ago, it took me two days to drive to Berkeley from Seattle, and over two hours from Monterey. Now it’s a half-hour from my home, less from San Francisco, depending on traffic.

You can get there by flying into airports in Oakland or San Francisco, then hopping on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) light-rail train.

If you’re planning a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, Berkeley should be on your tour route. You’d be crazy not to hang out there.

(Learn more about visiting Berkeley in this story from The New York Times. Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan, has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1971. Check out his other “Found In My Own Backyard” stories.)

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