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Mendocino Talking: Martin Bradley

(Author’s Note: In the winter of 1982, after being laid off from a shop carpenter job in Cotati, Martin Bradley packed his Toyota pick-up and headed to Alpha Farm, an intentional community in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. He didn’t get any further than Mendocino County and has lived here since. Martin may be more widely known as the co-founder of Plowshares Peace and Justice Center in Ukiah [] and his work with non-profit organizations serving the poor and low-income families. More recently, he’s been involved with restoring the historic Ukiah Latitude Observatory and opening the City of Ukiah’s Observatory Park [ Why the switch from compassionate service to historic preservation, sponsoring a lecture series on science and having public viewing nights and leading school field trips at the the old astronomical observatory? Martin takes it from there…)

I was born in western Pennsylvania, in McKeesport, a steel mill town outside of Pittsburgh. I was the youngest seven kids and my dad was in the ice business, delivering ice to homes and businesses for their “ice boxes”. That was a business clearly headed for obsolescence. Shortly after I was born, he sold the ice business and bought a Mobile gas station.

When I was eight years old, my mother flew to California to visit her sister in Monterey. Returning home she told my Dad “Vince, we’re getting out of here.” After three weeks in California she saw nothing in McKeesport but a rusting and decaying mill town on the decline. That summer we migrated to Monterey. I am forever grateful to my mother for the move, even if it resulted in a lot of insecurity and culture shock for me. I left a town of mixed ethnic neighborhoods (generally tolerant of each other) and I attended St. Peter’s Catholic School, taught by the Mercy Sisters, in a three story crumbling brick school house.

It was a seven day cross country trip in a new but stripped down Rambler, my parents in front and two siblings and me crowded the back seat. On July 3rd, 1961 we landed in a suburban tract home on the booming Monterey Peninsula. I attended a new elementary school where classrooms opened to outside corridors and the playground had monkey bars, tether balls and basketball hoops. Nothing at all like the fenced asphalt playground next to the railroad tracks in McKeesport.

I wasn’t quick to adapt to the new environment. In elementary school, I found comfort staying inside for lunch and recess in a fifth grade classroom of a teacher with snakes in a terrarium and science projects on every wall. My first interest in science and astronomy started there and was propelled by the manned space program. I followed every launch of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions. By junior high, I fell in with a bunch of amateur astronomers… professors and students of engineering, physics and missile guidance systems at the Monterey Naval Post Graduate School. There was a small group of them in our neighborhood that were amateur astronomers grinding concave mirrors and making their own telescopes in a garage. The Monterey Astronomy Club drove to star parties in the Salinas Valley and up to Fremont Peak, far away and above the fog that shrouded Monterey Bay. My interest continued through high school, but soon faded when I realized that there was a lot of math and physics in astronomy. I was attracted to observational astronomy… I was born a century too late for the science I wanted to practice. I wanted to gaze through a telescope to find comets and new planets and listen to music of the spheres.


My curiosity in astronomy continued, but in the years following high school I was no longer active. It was about two years after arriving in Mendocino County in 1982 that I discovered the Ukiah Latitude Observatory. It’s ironic that I arrived the same year the 83-years-old ceased nightly viewings and was shuttered up. I had a momentary shiver and that feeling “I’m meant to be here.”

At the time, I was part of a gang of four along with Sister Jane Kelly, Susan Crane, and Debra Meek who opened Plowshares Community Dining Room. As a result, I was asked to serve as representative of the “interests of the poor” on the board of North Coast Opportunities, the community action agency dating back to Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.

I would go to NCO office every week and look through the Federal Register which was the official journal of the government containing everything… rules, proposed rules, and public notices about grants and surplus property, looking for funding, kitchen equipment, and anything the government had to offer that Plowshares might use. One day I chanced upon a listing of the Ukiah Latitude Observatory as a chunk of surplus government property.

I found the street address and went over to view it and then went to the City of Ukiah to find out if the City was going to apply to acquire it. I don’t remember getting a clear answer, so I told them I was on the board of NCO and that if the City didn’t want it, NCO did. I then informed Tom Mon Pere, NCO’s executive director. He dutifully informed me I was very out of line to represent the interests of NCO as an individual on the board. I expressed righteous indignation that this is why organizations have boards of directors and he better look into acquiring the property. Simultaneously, I also had a dreaded uh-oh feeling of “Uh, really? I guess I didn’t know that.”

None the less, true to the spirit of the Plowshares disarmament movement, I took direct action and went to the Ukiah Daily Journal… and on August 7, 1985 I urged the Ukiah City Council to form a task force to find out what the community might want to do with the property. At the time I was advocating for the observatory residence to be used for an “alternative birthing center, children’s day care, a shelter for battered woman, or a senior center.” The land could become a botanical garden. I didn’t bring up the Observatory building because that would obviously be preserved. I was advocating for a socially responsible use of the house. The council felt it was premature to form a task force without knowing if the property could be acquired by the City.

I kept track of the property, occasionally making an inquiry. My main priority was managing Plowshares, raising a family, and keeping food on the table, both at home and at Plowshare.

My interest in science waned in a high school when I became involved with a Catholic church youth group in Monterey. It was influenced by the Human Potential Movement from Esalen Institute down the coast in Big Sur. Gestalt therapy and humanistic psychology weren’t hand in glove with the Catholic Church, but it was a time of upheaval in the Church.

I was swept up in a tide of learning and doing good things when I left Monterey Peninsula College to attend Sonoma State College. I was reading Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker newspaper and a quarterly named Communities, a resource for information and ideas about intentional communities in North America. I developed a deep peace and social justice conviction driven by my faith. I didn’t graduate from college with a career goal, my desire was to live in a community, on a farm, raise goats, and have a garden. When I came through Mendocino County in 1982, staying longer than I planned, I heard about an alternative school up Low Gap Road. Mariposa School was a community where the teachers lived and worked. The school needed a bus driver, an afternoon teacher and somebody to milk goats, so I moved there. I had spent my twenties looking for a community and at the age of thirty, I had the epiphany that I didn’t need to go out and find a community because it already exists where you are, in a town, with the people who are already around you.

The community at Mariposa was also involved with the anti-nuclear group in Ukiah. I may not have found a career after graduating, but I certainly found work. I didn’t always have a job, but I had work to do. After a year and a half, I moved into town to be closer to work at Plowshares. Debra and I lived together and worked at Plowshares. Four years later, we felt it was time for a break. Debra applied for a job as a special education teacher in Micronesia. Saipan was a trust territory of the United States. They paid to move our whole family. Debra’s daughter Mira was twelve and our youngest, Marjorie, had just turned three. We joked it was the only way a family could move overseas without being in the military.

We subscribed to the AVA while there and I would send an occasional “Dispatch from Saipan” that Bruce Anderson would print. It was either my best or my worst writing.

If I had what could be called a career, it might be in human services, if that’s a career. I was the director of the Foster Grandparent Program for North Coast Opportunities, Executive Director of the Ukiah Community Center, managed Healthy Start for the Mendocino County Department of Social Services and spent eight years as Community Program Specialist with California State Council on Developmental Disabilities here in Ukiah. Never once did Bruce Anderson label me “poverty pimp”. Maybe it’s because after I retired from the State and got a job with County of Mendocino Health and Human Services, I failed probation, not once, but twice.

It was painful. I took some comfort knowing I was caught in the first phase of culling the herd at the public and private trough during the Great Recession. It was followed by hiring freezes, layoffs, furloughs and more layoffs. In 2008 my career in human services ended.

I said previously that the Observatory was the thread that wove in out of my life from the time I first moved to Mendocino County. In 2001, sixteen years after I approached the Ukiah City Council about the abandoned government property, I got wind that the city council was going to finalize the conceptual design plan for the park and request bids to make park improvements. It was pretty hasty, but I talked with the usual suspects involved with the peace and justice issues and we drew up a letter requesting that a Peace Pole be placed in the park to recognize the cooperative international effort to measure the variation of the earth’s latitudes.

Erica Enzer was a math teacher at Mendocino College. She’s also a chemist and a longtime member of the International War Resisters League. For over fifty years she had been involved in the civil rights and international disarmament movement. Lynda McClure was a caregiver for Erica before she died of cancer in 1998. Erica left an estate that was significant compared to her lifestyle. She named Lynda, me and her nephew David in New York as her executors. David handled Erica’s instructions for her family.

Linda and I distributed a large portion of her estate to her favored causes in Ukiah. If I remember right, it included Plowshares, where Erica was a regular volunteer, the Mendocino Environmental Center, and maybe Project Sanctuary. Linda and I had some discretion, and we both felt there should be a memorial for her in Ukiah. I’m sure Erica would have scoffed at the idea. The city council approved of the proposal for a Peace Pole at Observatory Park, but it would have to be paid for with private donations. Lynda and I decided this would be a fitting memorial in Erica’s honor.

For me that began my serious commitment to open Observatory Park and restore the historic Observatory. In January of 2002 I wrote several members of the community who I had talked to at one time or another about the Observatory. We held the first meeting of “Friends of the Observatory” later that month. Improvements to the park were finally completed last year in 2013 and it is now officially opened to the public. It has become more challenging and exciting having people engaged with the historical, cultural and scientific significance of the Latitude Observatory.

Astronomy is called a “gateway science.” It only takes one look at the long shadows cast deep into craters of the crescent moon or seeing the rings of Saturn and the four visible moons of Jupiter to evoke a gasp from students and some adults. For a few people, that’s enough, a memory they will hold for life. But for many students, I think because they are younger and more curious, the want to explore further, view nebula’s and galaxies they’ve seen pictures of from the Hubble space telescope. And for some students, the curiosity of WHY there are craters on the moon doesn’t go away.

Curiosity is asking why. I want students and visitors to ask why. I usually shrug shoulders and say “I don’t know, what do you think?” Some say, “I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you.” But people who say, “I don’t know” I’ll say, if you work on this I’ll help you all I can and we can find the answer together.

(Coming up: Jan Hoyman-Village Potter, Jan Hoyman Studio; Doug Mosel-Organic Farmer, Mendocino Grain Project; Spencer Brewer-Composer, Pianist and Performer, Concert in the Park, Acoustic Café.)

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