Working in the oil fields

When I returned to California in 1947, I had been to four schools, but still did not have a degree. I actually should have graduated from Chicago. I even went through the ceremony, but when I got home they claimed I was short a single course in Sociology. Chicago was doing everything possible to not give degrees in meteorology. The army was training so many forecasters, the school was afraid nobody would study there after the war.

Frustrated with Chicago, I decided to complete my degree in Physics at Berkeley. Before I was drafted, I had planned on switching from Physics to Botany, but I was so tired of school, I just wanted to get my degree and make money, so I stuck with Physics. At Berkeley after the war a lot of Germans had come over to study Physics. In fact, there were so many trying to fit into these tiny rooms that half the class had to stand.

In my final year at Berkeley I applied for a job to work on the recently built Cyclotron under the direction of Ernest O. Lawrence. At the interview Lawrence looked at my transcript and said, “I see you received a D in my class. Why?” I normally received all A’s, but Lawrence believed that everyone who studied physics should be able to complete long mathematical procedures. I refused to do these exercises because they had nothing to do with the subject matter. I was also very engaged with my botany classes at that time, so I answered him, honestly, “I thought I would become a botanist.” I was somewhat surprised when he offered to hire me. In the end, I realized, given my experience with this professor, I could not imagine working under his direction, so instead I took a job as a gas expert at the Tidewater Associated Refinery northeast of San Francisco.

The Tidewater refinery was located near the city of Martinez where the Sacramento river from the north merges with the San Joaquin river to the south and the edge of San Francisco Bay to the west. At Tidewater I worked in the oil chemistry lab. I was the only physicist in the lab. Oil refineries take crude oil and bust it up into various useful products like gasoline, engine oil, diesel and so forth. One of my jobs was running the gas separation unit which was used to check the various components of the oil to determine its constituents. The lab had a darkroom, which I often used since I had taken up photography as a hobby.

When I first started working there I just stayed in the barracks. Staying in the barracks was very cheap and proved quite interesting. There were a lot of bachelors who had no sexual outlet, so naturally in all male quarters they would sometimes partner up.   In fact, one night I was in the toilet and I heard one of the younger man open the door to the toilet where an older man was crapping. I heard the older man say, “Wait until i squeeze off this turd and you can fuck that.” The young man waited and escorted the older man back to the barracks. I smiled at this little slice of life. I believe that older man had several paramours.

San Francisco was nearby so I visited the city often, and one day in Golden Gate Park I met my first boyfriend. In high school I had girlfriends, but they were mostly just friends. I hung out with the girls because they tended to be the best students. However, there was a girl I became somewhat serious about. She was Swedish and considered very attractive. I even promised to marry to her via telephone from Japan. However, my mother cautioned me that because her mother was overweight, she was likely to become a big round woman as well. So when I returned, I broke off the relationship.

The boy I met worked as a clerk in a department store and had not been in the war because he was younger than me. He had humble origins and lacked formal education, but he aimed for a more classy environment. He lived in an elegant neighborhood, Pacific Heights, but could only afford a basement apartment. I moved in with him, and we got along. He was a very good cook, and I appreciated good food. We met just sitting side by side in the Japanese tea room, and I am not sure how, but we began to chat. I have never been reserved in these situations.

This was a wonderful time in my life, and I was making a great deal of money. I lived in San Francisco and commuted to the refinery a few days each week. Typically I would drive out Monday about noon, work from 230 to 1030 at night, sleep in the barracks Monday and Tuesday night, then drive back to San Francisco Wednesday afternoon. I would return Thursday, work the late shift, work early Friday morning then drive back to San Francisco in the afternoon. At those hours I avoided the worst of the traffic in both directions.

After a couple months with my first boyfriend, I met Bill Swan at a party for the British poet Steven Spinder. Bill was from Los Angeles, and I was immediately attracted to him. He was at San Francisco State University studying to be an English teacher, and he found a beautiful place near the top of Protrero Hill, a very classy neighborhood. He had no money since he was a student, but I was doing well at Tidewater making four hundred and a quarter a month. The rent was about thirty dollars, so I could afford it and we moved in together.

The address was 968 Broadway. There is a passage that goes under 970 Broadway that leads to the house in the rear, which is 968. The house had three stories. On the first floor was an empty basement. On the second floor was my parlor, a long narrow kitchen and the bathroom with a full size tub. On the third floor was a large room and a bedroom which was big enough and a porch with a windbreaker at shoulder height, so you could lie down and sun bathe. It looked on to trees and grass, so it was quiet as a tomb.

Over time I gained control of 970 and moved my friends in there. Ronald Bladen lived there with his wife Barbara. He used the basement as his studio. Sometimes, he would take the change from his pocket and just throw it around the basement. Then when he was short of money, which was common for him, he would dig around in his basement for some coins. He was a peculiar character. When he died they discovered dozens of early paintings hidden behind a false wall he had built in his New York studio. I had one of his paintings hanging in my San Francisco parlor, but I don’t know where it is now.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this page are those of Tram Combs and do not necessarily reflect the views of his transcriber, Paul Mason Fotsch.

Tram Combs Autobiography