By Bob Ferris
Memories are a funny thing. I, for instance, have trouble remembering Elijah Wood's name and differentiating between Sam Shepard and Sam Elliott. Many of us wrestle with lapses like this. But I do remember the first time that I heard the word "ecology" in the mid-1960s when I was twelve going on thirteen. It came in the form of a rebuke: Don't they teach you about ecology in school? And it came from the mouth of a man named E.G. Kern. A large round-faced German guy.
I later studied ecology in college and co-taught this subject in graduate school. I have given guest lectures on this and related topics at universities on both coasts. So, in retrospect, this seed planted by E.G. , or OK as he was also known, is important to who I became and what I am now. I am thinking about E.G. because I don't know or remember that much about him and that bothers me. And with the marching of time, in general, and my older brother Bill who knew Mr. Kern better and longer passing away this fall, the door to my knowing is closing. There is only a small crack where some light flows through.
|My family in 1959.|
When I tell people I grew up in Los Altos I generally get a city-boy stamp because of the developmental explosion of Silicon Valley. This strikes me as humorous as my older brother and sister often roamed our now densely settled former neighborhood with bows and arrows shooting apricots out of trees and wandering wild when they could. I was not anymore subdued and remember dirt clod and BB-gun wars as well as romps in Hale Creek and more than a few episodes when I would come home a little bloody only to start crying when my mother opened the door to let me know how badly hurt I was. Certainly we lived on a city lot but this was a base rather than something that defined our total home range.
|The French ormolu clock that my great-aunt Mary Morris Phelps gave my mother and then me came to us in a well constructed box delivered by train to the Los Altos train station.|
This was in a time before Foothill College, 280, and the Foothill Expressway. Before Mayfield Mall came and went and when Sears was the place to buy Craftsman tools that lasted a lifetime. During my youngest years the wreckage of what was San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake rested safe beneath the protection of sturdy, creosoted ties and operating railroad tracks that ran to a station that awaited passengers and freight in downtown Los Altos rather than the next iteration of a restaurant or some other enterprise. Whitecliff Market was operating and Clint's with its peppermint stick ice cream made after Christmas with crushed candy canes. It is also a time mostly populated by those now gone. So I triangulate and speculate with the help of my nearly 98 year-old mother and my older sister Caroline. And this story starts with eggs and apricots.
"--his first home was a cottage on the E.G. Kern chicken farm at the end of O'Keefe Lane." in The Passing of a Los Altos Legend: Co-Founder David MacKenzie Gave Local Community its Voice.E.G. Kern was our egg man in the 1950s and 1960s. We had a box where my mother would put money and Mrs. Kern would deliver our eggs never speaking or holding a conversation with customers. My mother thought she had little or no English. We also had a milk man named Gene and he was a little bit more gregarious when he brought us our Borden's.
We lived at the corner of Springer and Covington (nee Emerson) in the house with the Rancho sign. E.G., Mrs. Kern and Natasha, a Russian refuge rescued by Mrs. Kern, lived at the end of O'Keefe Lane in Los Altos Hills. I know this location from the sole electronic evidence I could find that an E.G. Kern ever existed which was an obituary for one of the co-founders of the Los Altos Town Crier, David MacKenzie. Mr. MacKenzie lived in a cottage on Mr. Kern's land that was also the site of the iconic oak tree which inspired MacKenzie's long-running "Under the Oak" column.
|David Yule and me in 1958|
We descended on the orchard along with Diane Nelson and Tris Rosenburger from across the street and John Millar from next door on Springer. We know it was 1960 not because we remember the date, but because of a bit of auditory annoyance. Mr. Kern had attached a transistor radio to the electric fence near the cutting tables. So while the boys picked and dumped galvanized buckets of apricots into wooden lug boxes, the girls and me, because at seven I was too small for the three-legged orchard ladders, sat at the tables, cut cots, and listened to music. It was the summer of a certain swimsuit song and according to my mother it played, and played, and played. This was also the year of the payola scandals that involved Dick Clark, so there you go.
|I had to look for pictures of wooden lug boxes like the ones we used. Large enough to hold some fruit but rigid enough so the cots would not be bruised or crushed when the lugs were stacked. Indentations on the end for finger grips.|
The other misty memory is that E.G. was married to a German countess and when she arrived at the Los Altos train station she was dressed in finery and furs. She was so elegant, in fact, that E.G. considered just turning around and leaving her there as he was so embarrassed about his happenstance and could not imagine taking this woman dressed as she was to his chicken farm. She came and worked side-by-side with him until her death. I have no memory of her.
The next few years are blurred for me. I grew and I remember cutting more cots and eventually being able to manage the heavy wooden ladders and picking--perhaps at ten or eleven. I also recall with a little bit of dread the ivy covered outhouse on O'Keefe where the black widows lived. I would stand but not sit. I recollect a Bavarian cuckoo clock, beer steins, and lived a little in fear of Natasha who was rumored to have chased a woman off the property with an axe because that woman had the temerity to show a romantic interest in Mr. Kern. Natasha wore bandanas and had gypsy kind of look. She rarely spoke with me and she was fiercely loyal to the memory of the Countess who gave her a home after her tribulations in Russia. My impression was that Natasha was institutionalized occasionally but neither my mother or older sister remember that.
|The first tape measure from the first tool box my father ever bought me.|
My father told me that I would have to earn the money myself for this new bike which brought be back to Mr. Kern and odd jobs at the chicken ranch and in the orchard. I shoveled chicken manure and cleaned stalls often stalked by Natasha's cats that were more wild than tame. There seemed to be hundreds of cats and I often found the little nests they made in the barn as the cats produced more and more. Luckily my father (or mother) advanced me the money so that I could ride the Royce Union the roughly two miles to work which seemed like an expedition. I kept that bike for nearly two decades.
Mr. Kern had another property in Corralitos near Watsonville. It was an apple orchard surrounded by forests which he called Laugh-a-Lot. When I was twelve Bob Climo and I went to work for a period at Laugh-a-Lot staying in a primitive one-room cabin near the orchards. Part of our job was to break up packrat nests near the trees. It was an adventure and I was armed with older brother's Benjamin pellet rifle. It was pump model and shot .22 caliber pellets until we ran out of ammunition and eventually tried to make our own out pebbles, sticks, and even pepper which unfortunately ended up in my friend's face (he got me back when a firecracker blew up in my face two years later). We were generally boys on the loose and that is when Mr. Kern talked to me ecology, which was a little before my father talked to me about jamming the barrel of that pellet rifle with wood so completely that my father had to make a drill out of brass welding rod to bore it out. The former lesson stuck with me longer than the latter as I still do stupid things occasionally.
My brother was fifteen that first summer of the apricots and twenty-one when I camped out with Bob at Laugh-a-Lot. My brother took German in high school and college; I assume largely because of Mr. Kern. His memories were probably deeper and broader, but they are gone. I never knew OK's first name or that of his wife or possible later partner who joined him in Corralitos after Natasha was gone. I don't know for sure what he studied at Heidelberg or when.
Stories were told by OK and Natasha while we were cutting cots. My older sister Caroline was too young and likely too distracted by a crush she had on John Millar to remember or appreciate the tales. It was old people talking in often hard to understand accents. My mother remembers some of what was told but was probably more focused on making sure I did not eat too many apricots, cut myself with the wooden handled paring knives, and keeping my younger sister Mary, who was four, out of trouble. We held all of this in our hands and let it drift away.
This could have been the end of it. In doing my research I contacted former anchorperson and Los Altos High School classmate Robin Chapman who wrote a book on apricots and blogs about Los Altos and the region. She was not aware of E.G., but knew our house. I also contacted Judy Malmin who runs a Facebook page and website dedicated to Corralitos History. I thought that she might know about Laugh-a-Lot and Henry. Judy found a Kern farm but not the right one. Judy also did a census search for 1930 and found Emil G. and Hildegard Kern. She did the same for 1940 and then it was off to the races. (Thank you, Judy!)
Once I had a first name for E.G. I got beyond the exempli gratia (i.e., e.g.) confusion of his initials and eventually ended up with the above gem. This is E.G.'s draft card from WWII. He was 44 at the time and missed being in the so-called Old Man's Draft by less than a year. When I saw this card it took my breath away, because I was also born on September 26th...but not in 1897 nor in Kirchheim unter Teck, Germany.
Into the wee hours I looked at census records, old phone books, immigration records, and social security information and here is what I found in addition to the information in his draft card. Emil came to the US in 1924 and by 1926, when Hildegard arrived and they were married, the couple called Los Altos and O'Keefe Lane (Avenue), specifically, their home. They were not citizens in 1930 but were by 1940. I do not know if this was the natural course of things or in response to events brewing in Germany. E.G. was listed as a farmer in all documents and Hildegard as a his wife (the above is from 1940 census).
Of his life and how they met or courted there is not much. He was of an age to have served in WWI. He never mentioned it, but that is not uncommon for veterans. He was around 27 when he came to the US and the education section of his 1940s census record (above) seems to indicate that he went to college and perhaps graduate school so that seems to agree with our impressions. (The "no" refers to school or college in 1940 see instructions). Emil was 29 and Hildegard 28 when they married for their first and last time. And I cannot find any record of children, but the couple collected people like Natasha and Henry. My brother and I might be on that list as well.
I could not find a maiden name for Hildegard but suspect that she very well could have been a countess and was "von" something or another. Being noble had some meaning in Germany during the early 1900s but not much after 1919 when the privileges of German nobility were removed. She went to college for at least one year. I could not find when or where she died but suspect it was in the late 1950s.
Emil Gustav Kern breathed his last on November 28, 1973 in Santa Cruz two months after his 76th birthday. By that time my parents had moved from the Covington house to Los Altos Hills and would leave there in a couple of years. My brother was in the Navy and my sister Caroline was married and had just returned to the area. I was in college at Oregon State and my sister Mary was in her last year at Chester F. Awalt High School (now Mountain View) and had just been crowned homecoming queen (she is in the yellow dress in the above video). My point is that we had all moved on from apricots and lug boxes. We would not collectively return to Los Altos and sleep in one house for something like forty years and then we did that missing two family members--my father and brother.
|The last picture of my entire family in 2014.|
No one wrote an obituary for Mr. Kern or Hildegard that I can find. My mother seems to think he was with another woman during his last days, but I could find no record of that. I think this an egregious oversight, but then I remember my brother's love of German, my pursuit of ecology, and that this piece might serve as an obituary of sorts. Auf wiedersehen, Herr Kern.