Land Snakes Alive
Michael A. Kroll
Trajectory Journal, Spring 2018
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In 1965, I lived in the first-floor apartment of a large, old Victorian house on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. It was a great studio, complete with fireplace and back yard. It was the first time, since coming to Berkeley in 1961, that I did not have a roommate, but since it was my last year as an undergraduate, I decided to indulge myself. The place went for the grand sum of $60 a month, which — even in those days — was a bargain.
The owner, Mrs. Tooley, lived upstairs. I never knew Mrs. Tooley’s first name. She was not the sort of person to be called anything but Mrs. Tooley. Tall and stately, she might have been Queen-Mother of the Netherlands, a lady born to be respected, if not revered.
I seldom saw Mrs. Tooley, and when I did, she was usually regally watering the lawn. She never did anything except regally. I can’t recall ever seeing her stoop or bend, though she was in her seventies even then. There she would stand, bolt upright in the middle of her lawn, commanding the stream in various directions. Her silver hair was as immaculate as her perfect lawn.
Mrs. Tooley liked me. She found my politics stimulating, thouh she heRtily disagreed with them. While living in her apartment, I had been arrested along with more than 700 other students during the Free Speech Movement sit-in at Sproul Hall, the largest sigle arrest in the country's history to that date.
As a Berkeley graduate herself, she desperately wanted to understand what could possibly provoke that many students to go to jail over some perceived violation of their rights, real or imagined. She saw me as a key to that understanding, and liked my eagerness to talk, to answer her questions, to make her understand the righteousness of our cause. She never did, of course, but she liked the intellectual foxtrot we danced there — she standing like a queen on her lawn, me at a more respectful distance on the walkway.
In February, during the week between semesters known as spring break, I left for Ojai, the out-of-the-way farming community about 30 miles inland from Santa Barbara, where I was raised. I had been looking forward to this break for a number of reasons, not all related to the ongoing drama on campus, though the need for R&R was never more desperate. It was to be the last week I would spend in my hometown as a resident. I had secured a summer job that would start immediately after graduation chaperoning a bus load of foreign exchange students across the country. After that, I was to begin a most magical adventure, a two-year commitment that stretched to three years as an English teacher in “Darkest Borneo.” I needed that week in the idyllic setting of the Ojai Valley to savor the end of one portion of my life, and to contemplate the beginning of another.