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Lives & Times of Valley Folk: Fred Martin

On a bright, sunny morning a week or so ago, I met with Fred at his home at the very end of the Holmes Ranch Road, four miles up from Hwy 128. He made a good strong cup of coffee and we sat at the table on his deck looking far down below on the Valley and began to chat.

Fred was born in Los Angles in 1933, during the Depression, to parents Reginald Martin and Margaret Meiners, who had a second child four years later, daughter Frances. His father was of British heritage, from the county of Shropshire on the Welsh border. The family moved to Toronto, Canada just before the First World War in 1914 and then on to Los Angeles in 1918 where Fred’s father was one of nine children. “Back in England, the family had been in the mining industry – rock and coal, although one Great Grandfather was a boot-maker, as was his brother. My Grandfather was a mining engineer and so was my Uncle Joe, my father’s oldest brother... On my mother’s side I know that my mother was born in Amsterdam and they settled in the Midwest – Chicago and Indianapolis, in the early 1900’s. She was the eldest of three girls who were from a fairly prosperous Dutch banking family. At some point, my maternal Grandmother was abandoned by my Grandfather and left to survive in relative poverty. Eventually, in the 1920’s, she moved to Los Angeles with the three girls to live with her brother who was doing quite well as a mechanical engineer in the booming film industry.”

Fred’s parents met and were married, although the story goes that when Reginald’s mother died he moved into his sister’s house and needed an extra woman to take care of him so he asked Margaret to marry him. One of his other sisters had died in the sinking of the Lusitania during World War One and Fred has in his possession a copy of the letter describing the turn of events from his aunt’s cabin mate, who survived the disaster. “My father may or may not have graduated from high school, and I know my mother definitely did not. He became a journeyman welder working in the oil industry and also went on to run a trucking business of his own. He was a hard-worker but not a real hard-nosed businessman. He became a mechanical engineer and the shop foreman at oil well manufacturing company and eventually opened his own welding shop with a friend during World War 2.”

The family initially lived in southeast Los Angeles, in what later became called Watts but before the War they bought a house in Huntington Park between L.A. and Long Beach – basically the suburbs of LA. “I went through the school system there and attended Huntington Beach High School where I was the best boy student, although a couple of the girls always came out above me. I enjoyed school, particularly physics and math. From an early age I had been intrigued by electronics and mechanical things – I would disassemble old radios and put them back together again. Also, for several summers I attended the program put on by the LA Natural History Museum — an internship studying marine life, particularly mollusks. My parents were relatively strict but we were fairly obedient and co-operative kids. We had our chores to do. My sister and I had to work in the garden and maintain the few barnyard animals we had, but I never had a part-time job until I went to college. We lived in a single-family home on a standard lot in the suburbs — two-bed, one-bath. During the War we had to endure food and fuel rationing and five cousins of mine plus an uncle were all involved — my uncle was in the first battalion to cross the Rhine but when he came back apparently he was never the same again. My mother was a stay-at-home Mom, and my father earned enough for us to have short vacations and occasionally go to the theater to see films, shows and operas. I saw my first opera when I was twelve — The Barber of Seville. I was not very social kid and not into girls until later. I was quite shy and didn’t participate in sports, although I was on the School Debating team for a few years.”

During those high school years Fred really got into hiking and camping. “My father would drive my mother, sister and me out to the desert, where we’d stay for a week at a family friend who owned some cabins there. My father would return to work and pick us up a week later. The cabins were very minimal – a kerosene stove, hard bunks, $10 a week for the three of us. But I loved the experience and this was when my interest in the outdoors really began — and probably why I live here now. Later in my high school years, climbing became a further interest and I hiked with some guys I knew from the summer internship program into the mountains around LA, plus we did a rigorous backpacking trip to Mammoth Lake in 1950 and then we climbed Mt. Banner and Mt Ritter in the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area in 1951.”

Following graduation in 1951, Fred applied for and was accepted to study physics at Cal Tech, Pasadena, one of the leading schools in that field in the country. “I discovered that I was not the genius I thought I was! I did enjoy most of it but, being a top school, it was very competitive. One professor referred to it as a ‘bit of a rat race.’ I persevered and graduated on time. Most of the students, all boys, were from more affluent backgrounds than myself. My father had died in 1949, at the age of forty-nine, when the rheumatic fever that had damaged his heart as a teen finally caught up with him and he had cardiac failure; he had drunk a little too much and smoked also. As a result, my mother got a job as a legal secretary and to get me through college, along with a scholarship, I worked at the college serving meals at lunch and dinner. I also worked in the summers, in a variety of jobs – a control chemist at a soda pop factory; a warehouse worker; in a machine shop operating a drill press; and on the campus assembling amplifiers for an analog computer. I was still really into climbing and one day at college I was talking about this with Professor Chuck Wilts in the Electrical Engineering Department who suggested I join the Sierra Club. You needed two sponsors so I also asked the chairman of the Biology Department, Jim Bonner. I was accepted, as were my two climbing buddies — Don Wilson and Frank Hoover and over the next few years I went climbing in the Canadian Rockies, Bryce Canyon, and Mt Zion National Park, where I climbed the Great White Throne.”

Fred graduated in 1955 with average grades and was uncertain about what to do next. He owed the college $500 so took a job paying $450 a month as a petroleum engineering trainee, while living with his mother at the family home. “After 14 months, I had learned quite a bit about engineering techniques, and also that the oil well business was not for me. The company thought the same, and following a mutual agreement, I departed. I had also decided that I no longer wanted to live in LA and took a job at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California in the Bay Area, later known as the Lawrence Livermore Lab, in the nuclear weapons business. Nuclear physics greatly interested me and I worked on a small nuclear reactor before moving into the theoretical group, learning to run programs on the computer for complex calculations in nuclear physics.”

In his leisure time, Fred was still pursuing his hiking and climbing interests. One thing led to another and in 1957, along with three friends, he visited Peru for a month and hiked and climbed in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, part of the larger Andes Mountain Range. Fred’s photographs from this trip were displayed at Lauren’s Restaurant in Boonville a couple of years ago, and in 2005 he donated three hundred slides from the visit to the Archeological Museum in the town of Huaraz, the State Capital of Ancash, Peru.

“After a time, while still working part-time at the Lab., I attended UC Berkeley as a graduate student, living at the International House there, before graduating with my master’s degree in 1959. By that time I had decided I wanted to try living on the east coast and so I moved there to study for an Advanced degree in the Department of Physics at the University of Maryland. Before leaving, however, I did make one final big climbing trip with a group of friends to Alaska where we climbed the two highest unclimbed peaks in North America, both over 15,000, north of St. Elias.”

Fred worked at the University in the Bubble Chamber in the Department of Physics as he sought “glory and fame — they passed me by somehow. I did go to Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961 and generally enjoyed living back there. Meanwhile a colleague of mine from the Lawrence Livermore Lab. had been traveling in Europe and had met a woman on a bus tour in Salzburg, Austria. This woman was half Argentine and half British, Scots actually. Her name was Frances Cowan and she worked for the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, not far from me. This was early in 1962. My friend gave me her phone number. I called her and we went out on a date. We had similar outdoor interests and went on a few hikes together in Virginia and Maryland, and also skiing in Aspen, Colorado. It all happened very quickly I suppose and we were married in a formal service that August in Buenos Aires, Argentina, following a civil service in June in DC that was necessary to legalize the marriage in this country as she was on a single-entry diplomatic visa at the time.”

They found an apartment in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of D.C. and stayed there for a further year. “I knew I wanted to return to California at some point. I was really into the mountains and deserts of the West and so when a job opportunity arose to work on the new accelerator at Stanford I applied. Professor Marty Perl hired me and in September 1963 we drove across, via Canada where I visited my Uncle Fred in Toronto. On re-entering the States, there were some difficulties with Frances’ papers but they eventually let us in, although within a few weeks she had applied for her citizenship and soon had her third passport, to go with the ones from Britain and Argentina... We settled in Menlo Park south of San Francisco, on the Peninsular, and over the next few years started our family – Fiona born in 1964, Stephanie in 1966, and Geoffrey in 1969.”

Fred’s rock climbing now resumed once more with some old friends, particularly in the Sierra’s, along with many skiing trips with Frances too. However, the vast majority of his time was spent at work – at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (S.L.A.C). “I worked for Marty Perl, a very ambitious physicist, who suffered from Nobelitis, as I called it. This was not unique to him, I should add. It was a job that required frequent intense bursts of activity, when designing and then proposing experiments to a committee had to be done. Then, if they were accepted, there would follow a very intense schedule for weeks, sometimes months, before the collection of data could be analyzed. Then there might be a slower period before the next experiment was ready for implementation. We were on a two to three-year cycle or so and I was supervising various groups, with perhaps sixty people working for me at one point. In 1968 I decided I wanted to work for another lab for a time and we moved to the Cern Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, for a year during which time Geoffrey was born. I had basically the same job and we got to do lots of skiing in the Alps, and visited Germany, France, and Italy. It was my first time in Europe, although Frances had been many times. She had gone to high school in England and was fluent in Spanish and French. I can barely manage English!”

Fred had taken a leave of absence and returned to SLAC in 1970. However, things were changing in the world of physics. There were new concepts of experimental physics that would now involve perhaps hundreds of people on a single experiment and these were changes Fred was not particularly comfortable with. He found it difficult to work in this “Cecil B DeMille cast of thou-sands.” However, he continued at SLAC for a further ten years before leaving in 1980.

Initially he moved to a small company before finding a job at GTE, the telephone company, which also worked on communications for the military. “I worked with about half-a-dozen other physicists and scientists in laser physics. It was far more my kind of working environment and similar to my earlier work at SLAC and I stayed there for ten years or so before the contract with the Navy was terminated and I was ‘forced’ into semi-retirement in 1991. We still lived in Menlo Park and the kids had all moved on by that time. Fiona had graduated from Reed College in Portland, Stephanie from SF State; and Geoffrey from Humboldt State in Forestry. He had got my climbing bug too. We had done lots of family backpacking trips over the years, many pretty rigorous ones, not leisurely at all, and the kids all knew how to ski well.”

“Through the 70s and 80s I had become quite active on environmental issues. I had become the President of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club and in the eighties we had introduced the recycling plan on bottles and cans to California, that was later passed by the State. I was also active on the Coastal Commission, particularly Proposition 20 to introduce planning control on the coast. With my work and all this environmental activity, I certainly led a very busy life. Frances had returned to work when the kids were entering high school age becoming a legal secretary once again, first at a law firm, then for the Stanford Law School, before getting a job in student admissions at the Department of Psychology. The kids had left ‘my welfare state’ and Frances decided to get her college degree, graduating from UC Berkeley in Third World Development with emphasis on South America. Meanwhile in the mid-nineties I started my own small business helping other small businesses deal with all of the new environmental regulations. I added two partners — one a marketing guy, the other a technical guy like myself, and that business is still going today, although my participation is limited.”

By 1996/97, Fred and Frances decided that, “while we had essentially both lived our whole lives in the suburbs, we did not want to die in them. It was clear that our professional lives were winding down and we wanted to retire to a rural area. Many years earlier I had been to the north coast on a few occasions and we started to look there – initially Anderson Valley, Arcata, and southern Oregon, where my sister lived. Well, Arcata has two sea-sons – foggy and foggier so we soon ruled that out and the other two possibilities were to remain on hold for a time. In 1998, I was given a Fellowship by the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers to move to Washington DC and basically kibitz on the industry’s policy and administration to various powerbrokers on Capitol Hill. We rented out the Menlo Park house and moved to northern Virginia for a year from where I commuted into DC for work.”

In January 1999, the family suffered from a traumatic experience when son Geoffrey was killed while climbing in California’s Sierra Mountains — he was 29. “He had been serving in the Peace Corps in Paraguay for the previous two years and was a very experienced climber, having climbed some major peaks, including Aconcagua, the highest in the Americas. He was certainly a far better climber than me, but perhaps a little less prudent. Although the family bonded together after this, Frances was very depressed and I saw that this was the window in time that opens up in people’s lives when opportunities must be seized before they pass by. I decided we would either stay in Menlo Park or move, but we had to decide. She agreed. I saw in a real estate magazine that there was property for sale on Holmes Ranch Road in Anderson Valley. It was pricey but Frances was very positive about it. We made several visits and our daughter Stephanie thought it was great but Frances had always said she did ‘not want to live at the end of a dirt road.’ Well, following the sale of our house in Menlo Park for a good price, in July 1999 we bought forty acres at the end of this dirt road, four miles off the highway.”

The house needed work, particularly the leaking windows, all 44 of them, which Fred replaced himself, and the water and septic systems were also in need of upgrades. He went on to build a workshop for his wood-working hobby; a carport; and later a barn for the garden tools and his all-terrain vehicle. Soon Fred had made the acquaintance of neighbors, Richard and Gene Herr and with their encouragement he joined the Valley’s Volunteer Fire Fighters. “I no longer haul hoses over the hillsides but am still involved with the Fire Department. They are project oriented and that is my strong suit. I was involved in the firehouse projects in both Rancho Navarro and Philo and the new one on Guntley Road and the Chief can call me on any number of technical issues if he wishes. Meanwhile, Frances had found a job working as the Adult School Administrator — a position ideally suited to her language skills.”

As a result of these new activities they both got to know quite a lot of people in a short period of time. Frances went on to get involved in the Garden Section of the Unity Club and Fred supported her activities in that in various ways. He did think about putting in some vines on the property but in the end decided against making an investment for four or five years hence and stuck with fruit trees and a large vegetable garden... The two of them became involved with the music scene on the Coast, mainly classical, and they took an overseas vacation every year, often to wherever daughter Fiona was working as a journalist and Bureau Chief for Reuters news agency in various cities. “Plus, Frances’ family was also all over the world for us to visit. The sun never sets on her family.” Fred got involved with the watershed issues on Holmes Ranch and championed the grant for $250,000 for roadwork up there. He also became embroiled in the “pissing contest” with Pepperwood Springs (and later Esterlina Winery) but when it became obvious it was going nowhere he backed off.

In 2006, Frances was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. It was terminal and she died four years later in early 2010. “It was a hard time, particularly the last few months. After she passed I realized I couldn’t just stay up here alone on the land so I became more involved with some other Valley activities. I attended the Chess Club at the Elementary School; participated in the Navarro River Resource Center; and started to go to the weekly Quiz at Lauren’s when I was asked to join a team with Rob Giuliani and Garth and Judy Long — three people I had met with the firefighters. It’s a lot of fun. Then late last year, I met Janet Morris, through my friends at private classical music evenings on the coast. She has lived in Elk for 31 years and her husband had passed away about twenty-five years previously. It was a case of two people looking for the same thing. Frances and I had discussed this very scenario and what would be the ‘right thing to do’ if it happened to either of us. We had agreed it would be fine and Janet and I were married in March of this year.”

I asked Fred for his brief responses to various Valley issues.

The wineries? “I have mixed feelings. I concede that they are preferable to houses but I do not know how the water management will be affected. They say they are concerned but seem to be gathering up all the water for themselves.”

KZYX? “We supported it and I volunteer for their fundraising. I like the classical music but am not terribly enthusiastic about the homegrown programs.”

The school system? “I have been asked to judge at the science fair and have tutored in the AVID program which was quite rewarding. Overall, I think the school does as well if not better than one can expect, although I do criticize their handling of the science teacher situation. It seems like we get a different one every year. That is not good.”

What does Fred most like about Valley life? “The quiet and stillness; the way the fog drips out of the sky; the glistening stars on a cool night; the full moon bathing that meadow below us. I can feel that I am part of nature up here. In the city I worried about my mortality much more. I have no buyer’s remorse, no regrets. It’s great living up here, and if I die here that’s great too.”

To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Fred and asked him to just reply as spontaneously as possible...

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “The physical and intellectual projects that keep me busy.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “The lack of political coherence in this country at this time. There is a lack of problem solving ability. Our grandchildren are going to have a rather different life.”

Sound or noise you love? “Classical music; a nice cello or flute playing. Silence also.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Noisy vehicles; motorcycles with poor mufflers. Oh, and high-pitched whines hurt my ears.”

Favorite food or meal? “Prime rib roast.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Some philosophical person, not necessarily with the same outlook as me. I dislike labels on people. I object to that – once that is done then any viable discussion ceases.’”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “A book would be one by Roy Chapman Andrews, an American explorer, adventurer and naturalist who became the director of the American Museum of Natural History and who wrote about his explorations in the Gobi desert in Asia and searching for dinosaur fossils... A song would be something from an opera – either The Barber of Seville or Don Giovanni. A film would be one by the Polish director, Kieslowski - The Double Life of Véronique or one of his final films - the trilogy ‘Three Colors’ (Blue, White, Red).”

Favorite hobby? Woodworking. I have always done some and now have a workshop with a pretty complete set of tools.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “An architect or surgeon.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Any tedious or repetitive job.”

Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “I have asked that question of myself and can’t think of anything significant.”

Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “I had a frightening experience on a mountain many decades ago that has always stuck with me. Conversely I have wonderful memories of climbing the east buttress of Mt. Whitney — a high quality rock route to the top of the tallest peak in the Lower 48. And perhaps sitting in an experiment watching data accumulate that nobody had ever seen before.”

What is something that you are really proud of and why? “My children. One should be careful of being too proud of things; however, I am proud that I probably fulfilled my parent’s wishes for me.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself? “I like to think that people recognize that if they need some help with a project they can come to me and I would try to help them carry that project out.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Good to see you, Fred, I need something to be built.”
To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Ben Van Zandt of the VanZandt Resort Family.

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