(Mis-)Adventures in the West: Episode 2 – The Sudden End of the Silver Fox

Episode 1 ended in early Summer 1968, as Linda and I reached Pasadena, California. Linda took a job in the Caltech development office, and I began as a graduate research assistant in solar physics in Caltech’s Department of Astronomy. I was one of the people who “baby sat” a solar telescope on the roof of the astronomy building (the larger telescope in this photo). During the late 1960’s, the smog in the Los Angeles basin was much worse than it is today. Surprisingly, that smog made for excellent conditions to observe the Sun. That’s because smog promotes a temperature inversion, in which the air temperature increases with altitude. When this occurs, the air is very stable against convection – in other words, very calm – so that the telescope’s camera could record very sharp images.

We rented a studio apartment on the second floor of a private home about a mile from the Caltech campus. In this next photo, Linda is standing next to the “Silver Fox,” our nickname for the Chevy Impala that had carried us from coast to coast with that three-day stop for repairs in Wyoming. The picture was taken in autumn 1968, and you may have noticed that Linda is wearing maternity clothes. Our first child was due in mid-April 1969, and that due date relates to the demise of the Silver Fox.

In 1969, Easter Sunday fell on April 6th, and another grad-student couple invited us for an Easter dinner at their apartment. The meal was interrupted by a loud bang, and the four of us went to the window to see what had happened. The Silver Fox, which had been parked legally on the street, was now up on the sidewalk, with another car smashed up against it. Fortunately, the driver of the other car had only minor injuries. She was very lucky because the police report showed that our car (with the transmission in “Park” and the parking brake also engaged) had been pushed up over the curb and a distance of 44 feet.

Alas, the Silver Fox was totaled. Furthermore, the driver of the other car was a ward of Los Angeles County, having been declared financially incompetent. (LA County eventually paid us for the loss of the car, but the bureaucratic wrangling took weeks.) Meanwhile, the hospital where we had arranged for Linda to deliver our child was several miles way, and the public transit system was woefully insufficient. We needed a new car – and fast!

As had happened in Wyoming, we were rescued by the kindness of others. There was a married couple who worked in the solar-physics group. When they heard what had happened, they insisted that we accept an interest-free $400 loan so that we could make a down payment on a car. They told us that as a young couple during the Great Depression, they had lacked the money to buy a bunch of carrots, and the vendor had given them the carrots, encouraging them to pay it forward someday. We used the loan to get a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle (similar to this one).

Less than two weeks later I drove Linda to the hospital, where we welcomed our daughter Lisa into the world. When Lisa was about six weeks old, we moved back East, shipping our possessions and driving the Beetle. Of course, Lisa was still being fed about every four hours, so to get an early start, we set out each morning about 3 AM. That way we avoided some traffic and finished each day’s drive by late afternoon. One downside was that Lisa got accustomed to the VW’s engine noise as her lullaby. It took months before she began to sleep through the night!

Stay tuned for Episode 3!