Version 2012 Jul 18

Between the Hill and the River

(formerly: “River Walks”)

By Loren P Meissner

 I grew up in this town. My poetry was born between the hill and the river.
 It took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forest.

(Pablo Neruda, Memoirs)


My parents, Manly Meissner (1897-1969) and Hazel (Kleeberger) Meissner (1891-1982), are buried at Crestlawn Memorial Park, among the trees shown here in the background “between the hill and the river.”

I could see almost this same view of “Wishbone Mountain,” looking south across the Santa Ana River,
from either of the two homes where I lived while I was growing up (1928-1947).


The first stories are my personal reminisces from Riverdale Acres – just north of the Santa Ana River between Wineville and Etiwanda Aves, where I lived from 1928 (when I was born) till 1949 (when I was married). I attended Eastvale Elementary School on Sumner Ave from 1934 till 1941.

1947 STORIES: “My River” and “Dog Street”;
Written for English class at Chaffey Community College

Some Things Never Change: Views of Santa Ana River Valley from Riverdale Acres;
Political rallies, Wishbone Mountain, Swimmin’ Hole

A Tale of Two Houses: Our family of four in six hundred square feet;
 A house built from surplus concrete blocks.

Blowing in the Wind:
Santa Ana Wind patterns; Sand; Effects of urbanization; Two vivid memories.

Santa Ana River: Peaceful stream or raging torrent?
A “slide show” running backward: Incorporated city; The dairy era; Diversified farms (My first job)

Herr Doktor Professor Meissner.

Compiled 2010-2012. For a printable (Word or PDF) version email LPMeissner – see address at


= 1 =


I wrote these two stories for an English Composition class at Chaffey Community College, Ontario, California during Spring semester 1947. The first one describes my impressions of the March 1938 flood, recalled nine years later. The first story received an A grade, and the second a B+.


Across the “Land of Sunshine” which is Southern California, there flows a river. It rises in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead, flows across the fertile valley, and finally empties into the Pacific just above Newport Beach. Although it travels less than a hundred miles, it gives life to men and animals and provides irrigation water for the fields and orchards along its banks. And about half-way between the mountains and the ocean the Santa Ana River flows beside a high bluff and separates the village of Norco from the little group of houses where I have spent my entire life.

The river has become a sort of symbol to me. When I was a child, it was a place to play. I loved to go to the river in the early spring, to splash in the water, to hunt cat-tails along the bank, to catch minnows in the little shady pools. In the summer, the woods along the river bank became a place for all sorts of picnics, wiener bakes, and swimming parties. But in the winter, most of all, the river meant a great deal to me. Let me explain.

In the cloudy night that often follows a day of rain, I lie awake and listen. A distant roar is stirring the cool air. The River is up! The next morning word comes: – “Bridge out – no school today – Dad can’t go to work – Let’s go down and see the river!”

A mile’s walk, and we stand on the bank that only last week was a hundred feet from the river. There used to be a tree where we got most of our mistletoe. Now the bank has washed away and there is nothing but water. The once-peaceful valley is a raging, roaring mass of waves and foam and branches. The brown, muddy water tumbles and pitches the great pieces of driftwood that yesterday were tree trunks, or bridge timbers, or perhaps even the rafters of a house.

But as we watch, the sun dimly peeps through an opening in the clouds and reflects on the water, turning gray to silver. The foamy water has been transformed into a sea of moving waves more beautiful than any on the ocean. The sun has made the ugly mass of water into a beautiful expanse of waves.

In the evening, I go back to the flooding river – this time alone. And the roaring water, as it races by, seems symbolic of my life. The mistletoe tree as it floated away took with it a part of me. The clean, new sweep of river bank symbolizes a new beginning. And as the sun shone on the river, bringing beauty out of chaos, a radiance began to sparkle through my life, to make me a better and stronger man.

[See also (below): 1938 Flood ]


The sign on the corner says “Lorena Street,” but I think it is very poorly named. Take a walk with me and you’ll see why.

Looking down the street we see a group of five houses. As we approach, a dog begins to bark. His clamor is echoed by another and another till the whole street is ringing with a tumultuous barking. Curs of all shapes, sizes, and colors pour forth into the roadway as we slowly struggle through.

The first one we meet is a large shaggy black dog who dashes ferociously to the attack. We fight him off with a club and are just beginning to feel at ease again when two more appear from the house on the other side of the street: an old, half-blind bulldog who is really friendly; and a stinking mongrel who runs away at the mere shake of a stick. We are safe now, for the next house is surrounded by a high board fence. But inside there is a great clamor as Mrs. Terrier urges her pup to bark. He does his best, but the sound he makes is about as gruff as a flute and half as loud. There is a low-pitched, friendly growl as Dolly, the old German Shepherd, comes lamely from the next house to greet us. Just as we are patting her head we see a flash, and around a corner of the house whizzes a tan spaniel, close on the heels of a cat. Pussy goes up a tree, as all cats do, and the poor dog stands below and barks for several minutes before a lady appears at the door to call him away.

 “These dogs!” she exclaims. “The street is full of them! I do wish the neighbors would get rid of theirs so my poor pup could have some peace!”

= 2 =


“… between the hill and the river …”

– “Memoirs,” Pablo Neruda (1940-1973, Chilean scholar and revolutionary)

“Wishbone Mountain” over Goose Creek Golf Club (2010)
Courtesy: Golf Creek website

While I was growing up, till I went away to college, I always had a view of the Santa Ana River valley from where I lived. Down across Marcher Ave was the Holbrook Ranch. There are a few changes now: the road is called 66th St and the ranch land has been become part of Goose Creek Golf Club, but the vista is nearly the same. The tree-lined road still separates Riverdale Acres from the broad river plain, and majestic cottonwoods grow along the river bank. I remember how they gave shade to bushes and blackberry vines, thick in places but interrupted with plenty of sandy trails for local kids to follow, on down to the river’s edge.

Next to the river in the 1930s, there was a wide concrete platform in a park-like setting just east of Etiwanda Ave, where square dances and other public events were occasionally held. My dad especially enjoyed the political rallies. I have a vague memory from age 5 when Upton Sinclair, Democrat candidate for governor in 1934, came here and explained his plan to “end poverty in California.” At a later rally, a speaker poked fun at Roosevelt’s ill-fated “National Recovery Administration.” A joke about unemployment resonated with the Depression era audience: Two men are looking at an NRA poster and one asks, “What’s with the blue eagle?” The answer comes back, “Were gonna have jobs!” The first man is still confused and he asks, “Then, what’s NRA?” The reply: “It means, Not Right Away.”

The dances and rallies ended abruptly when the March 1938 flood swept away the river-side platform, but the river bank soon recovered, and dams were built along the river to decrease the flood hazard.

Wishbone Mountain

My view across the valley led upward to the La Sierra Hills. Only once, I threaded my way through the dense vegetation along the north bank of the river and up to the bluff on the south side. When three older teen cousins came from Iowa for a week-long visit, they were fascinated by the prominent hill in the foreground, which they denominated “Wishbone Mountain” on account of the pair of ravines that meet just behind the present location of Crestlawn Memorial Park (on Arlington Ave just east of Norco). They planned an all-day excursion, and returned very tired but proud that they had “conquered” the Wishbone.

The Swimmin’ Hole

Much of the Holbrook ranch was planted to alfalfa, irrigated by flooding with river water. A tiny irrigation canal had been constructed, to divert a small portion of the river from about a mile upstream into a simple unlined reservoir next to the ranch. When the alfalfa needed water, a gasoline-powered pump fed pipes from the reservoir to ditches along the upper sides of the fields.

But my buddies and I did not see a reservoir – for us it was “the swimmin’ hole.” A big cottonwood tree shaded the pool, and some daredevil had climbed up and hung a rope that we could hold onto while we swung out for a feet-first plunge into the water. A large log floated out in the middle, tethered by a cable to the far shore.

At first, my swimming skills were rudimentary. I never used the diving rope, and I only paddled near the bank where the water was not too deep, where I knew I could stand on the bottom with my head out of the water if I should need to stop swimming for some reason. One day when my city cousin Dan came to visit, we took a walk down to the river and ended up at the swimmin’ hole. I splashed around a bit. Dan swam gracefully out to the log, all of ten feet from the shore, and dared me to come. I couldn’t resist Dan’s dare, and soon I had surprised myself by swimming across deep water to the log. Dan proceeded to give me a couple of easy swimming lessons, and before long I was as agile a swimmer and as bold a rope diver as any of the neighborhood boys.

= 3 =


House One: Our family of four in six hundred square feet

In 1928, when my dad moved his family to Riverdale Acres just before I was born, he bought a lot at the top of a hill on Charles Ave in the new Riverdale Acres tract, and soon afterward he built a small frame house on the lot. Somehow I remember, from later years, that the size of the living room was 10 by 14 feet. There were two other rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen, with a combined floor area not much larger: the total must have been less than 400 square feet. A little corner had been stolen from the bedroom and kitchen, which was supposed to provide a bathroom, but the plumbing was not installed at first. There was also a small garage and storage room underneath, opening toward the downhill side of the lot.

I guess 400 square feet was not considered an unusually small amount of space in 1928 for a young family with two babies: my sister is only two years older than me. But we soon outgrew the single bedroom, and Dad proceeded to enlarge the floor space with a second bedroom, a bathroom, and a back porch with room for a washing machine and a laundry sink – increasing the total area to a generous (?) 600 square feet.

I have only vague recollections of this second construction process, but I can clearly visualize the new bedroom, which my parents occupied from the time of my earliest distinct memories. My father had lived in Panama for several years, and he wanted to keep his nostalgia for the tropics alive, so he splash-stuccoed the ceiling with bright colors in a random design he called “Panama Jungle.” Red, orange, and yellow color splashes represented glimpses of parrots and other birds, as well as bananas, mangoes, and other brightly colored jungle fruits. Green for tree leaves and blue for sky showed through.

We had running water and electricity but no phone or natural gas service till many years later.

My sister and I shared the original bedroom for a few years, after which I slept on a folding sofa bed in the living room. There was no water heater; for baths, buckets of water were heated on the big wood-burning range (or later on a kerosene stove also used to heat laundry water). In winter, we children bathed in a galvanized wash tub in the living room near the pot-bellied wood stove.

House Two: A house built from surplus concrete blocks

Fast forward, to the late 1930s. The Metropolitan Water District was constructing the Colorado Aqueduct which terminated at Lake Matthews (south of Riverside). Huge concrete pipelines, fabricated along the distribution routes, would lead on from there to supply customers in Los Angeles and elsewhere. For a time, a major concrete pipe fabrication facility was located near Etiwanda Ave a few miles north of Mission Blvd. [Does anyone know where?]

The plot thickens: In Riverdale Acres there lived a man who survived by continually discovering new and unusual ways to make a living. He found out that the pipe fabricators mixed many tons of raw concrete each day, to be poured into very large molds for the pipe sections. But the plant shut down each night, always leaving partial batches of concrete that would of course be useless by the next morning. Our Mr. Genius got permission to use some of this leftover concrete, which the plant was happy to dispose of. He hired my dad and some others to construct wooden forms and pour the excess concrete into them each night to make building blocks. These concrete blocks were unconventional, in that they were complete rectangular solids without the usual openings inside that decrease the dead weight. Especially ingenious, but typical, was this man’s idea of paying his helpers (at least in part) with concrete blocks!

Meanwhile my dad had purchased another Riverdale Acres lot on Marcher Ave (later 66th), on which he piled these heavy blocks till he had enough to build a house larger than the one on Charles St. My sister was overjoyed when she heard she was finally going to have “a room of her own,” with closets and everything, that she wouldn’t have to share with her little brother. After a year or two, our parents decided the concrete block house was livable, so they sold the Charles Ave house and we moved to Marcher Ave in January 1941.

= 4 =


My father used to tell me, while I was growing up at Riverdale Acres, that he preferred this climate to any other he had experienced during his life – in Oregon and Washington, Texas, Mexico (Oaxaca), Panama (Canal Zone and Chiriquí highlands), or Peru. But there was one caveat: in this valley we had to expect windstorms every year, between about November and February.

Now that I have found an abundance of information online, I understand that “certain meteorological conditions in the high desert produce cool dry air that is heavier than in the coastal valleys. This heavier inland air finds an outlet through the mountain passes and canyons, flowing rapidly downward, usually becoming warmer and even drier as it descends.”

Nobody seems to know for sure whether these “Santa Ana winds” were named for one of their favorite channels, more or less along the Santa Ana River and down the Santa Ana Canyon; or whether they were considered “Devil winds” in early Spanish California and came to be called “Satana” or some similar variation of the name Satan.

I was still very young when I learned to recognize signs of an approaching windstorm. When I went outdoors to do my early morning chores, the weather would seem unusually calm, and often a bit warmer than normal for the season. The surrounding mountains appeared as clear as I ever saw them, because of the nearly complete lack of moisture in the air. When I came back inside, I’d announce to my parents and my sister that a Santa Ana was going to start before the end of the day. And, sure enough – when I got off the school bus that afternoon, I’d have to button my jacket tightly around me as I walked home, to try and protect myself from the wind that was already gusting at full force.

The pattern was very predictable. Gusting close to 100 miles an hour, the wind would blow continuously for three days, and then end as abruptly as it had begun. Lying in my bed at night, I heard gusts rattling the window panes. When I rode in a car, the driver had to use all his skill to compensate for the wind and avoid swerving.


The winds were uncomfortable for their steady gusts of pressure, but another feature of the Santa Anas had effects that lasted long after the wind died down.

The Galleano Winery’s family patriarch Domenico was attracted to western Riverside County by the sandy soil texture. Galleano still “practices traditional farming methods, which means dry farming. … This makes for good photosynthesis and gives the grapes intense flavor characteristics… ,” according to the winery web site,

Dry farming means that crops with a low moisture requirement (such as grapes) must depend on natural rainfall with hardly any irrigation. Care must be taken to reduce surface evaporation after rain has fallen. However, as a Wiki article notes, “Some techniques for conserving soil moisture (such as frequent tillage … ) are at odds with techniques for conserving topsoil.”

Furthermore, not everyone realized that the meteorological factors favoring a Santa Ana wind often occur a few days after rainfall; and in the interval, dry farmers had often stirred up the soil surface with discs or harrows. The topsoil loosened by this “technique for conserving moisture” was in ideal position to be blown away by a subsequent Santa Ana wind.

The many Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees that were planted throughout the valley were intended as windbreaks, to decrease the velocity and force of Santa Ana winds. They were obviously effective, but as a side effect, a row of the trees was often accompanied by a low ridge of sand that piled up at their base. Houses and other buildings exposed to the blowing sand often collected a mound of sand against their windward side.

Effects of Urbanization

The conversion from thousands of acres of dry-farmed agriculture to thousands of urban buildings has practically eliminated airborne sand, due to the lack of exposed soil. The wind velocity near the surface of the ground has been greatly reduced, since each individual building tends to deflect the wind into small opposing gusts. However, airplane pilots are still keenly aware of strong wind currents at higher altitudes as they pass through the channels of a Santa Ana wind.

Two Vivid Memories

1. WHEN I was about twelve, my family sold the tiny house on Charles Ave in Riverdale Acres where I had lived since I was a few months old, and moved to a larger house just around the corner on 66th Street. They had decided the new house was inhabitable, although a lot of finishing remained. For example, the exterior stucco still lacked its final coat. Windows and doors had been installed, although the windows were temporarily fixed in a closed position, and hardware for each exterior door was temporarily provided by a strap of fabric looped around a couple of nails – so the doors were rather loosely closed.

We carried all our possessions except for the largest furniture items in wheelbarrows and carts from one house to the other, finishing at the end of the day and going to bed soon after that.

Previous to that night, I hardly ever had trouble falling asleep, but this time I did. Everything was different: this was not the place where I had slept almost every night for the past twelve years. And it wasn’t just a temporary bed – I was not visiting my cousins, as I always had been when I was not at home. This was supposed to be home, but I couldn’t make it feel like home. It probably even smelled different. Feeling homesick, I cried myself to sleep.

Previous to that night, I hardly ever awakened in the middle of the night, but this time I did. A Santa Ana wind had come up, and the exterior doors on the house were banging against their temporary restraints. For the rest of the night I tossed and turned, feeling sorry for myself and wishing I were back in my familiar home.

Ever since, hearing the sounds of a Santa Ana wind while I am in bed at night brings back uncomfortable memories of my first night in the house on 66th Street.

2. FAST forward to age 28. By this time, I had grown up, gone to college at Chaffey and at UC Berkeley, and married Peggy. We had a 3 year old son, and a second child on the way. We lived in Corona and I was employed at the Naval Ordnance Lab (now the Naval Surface Warfare Center) in Norco, with health benefits at Kaiser Hospital adjacent to the Steel Mill in Fontana, a 25 mile one-way drive from Corona.

One early afternoon in February, Peggy had a prenatal appointment at Fontana. We took our son along and drove across the valley from Corona to Fontana, through a Santa Ana windstorm that had arisen. The doctor told Peggy she was closer to giving birth than they had expected; he recommended that she should not go back home that afternoon because, on account of the windstorm, some of the roads might be closed when we tried to return.

But I didn’t want to keep our young son there indefinitely, so I drove back across the vineyards through the windstorm (by now, pretty violent) to Riverdale Acres where Peggy’s parents still lived, deposited him there, and drove a third time through strong Santa Ana winds back to Fontana.

When I got to the Kaiser Hospital, Peggy was in excellent condition, having given birth to our daughter while I was out driving through the blowing sand. It was more than 50 years ago, but I will never forget that day when our daughter was born.

= 5 =


The Santa Ana River is a peaceful stream nowadays. Dense vegetation grows along the banks at some points, but without blocking the main channel. I grew up within a mile of the river, and I often took walks down the valley and made my way through bushes to the water, after which I could easily wade up or down the shallow river as far as I liked.

But long ago, the river sometimes became a raging torrent and spread far beyond its normal banks out onto the plain. In March 1938 I saw huge trees that had been uprooted by the strong flow and slammed against the supports of a bridge down stream. The big 1938 flood disabled almost all the highway and railroad crossings on the whole length of the river for at least a week, collapsing bridges or washing out their causeways. There was no way for Eastvale teens to get to school in Corona. As soon as possible after the flood subsided, temporary bridge detours were created and loads of rock were brought to fill in the causeways . A few years later, flood control dams were constructed, and major flooding is no longer considered a threat.

Should I remember the river in its present-day peaceful guise? Or as a dramatic image from the past?


I grew up in western Riverside County, but I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1959. Whenever I visit relatives at Eastvale, I see radical changes in the character of the region. Let’s flip through some more verbal images, like running a slide show backward from the present into the past. Is the newest image your favorite, or do you prefer an older one?

As of October 2010, Eastvale is an incorporated city with more than 50,000 residents. It has several shopping centers, schools, and even a Starbucks coffee house. A branch of the Riverside County public library is housed at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Several on-line blogs are devoted to local news, information, and public comment. Folks are hopeful for a bright future.

One local blog points to the year 1999 as “the beginning of large, affordable homes.” The census population ten years ago, when Eastvale’s growth spurt had just begun, was 6,000. During the three previous census counts (1970-1990), the population count had been stable, at about 1500.

Diversified Farming

The time period beginning about 1970 is often described as Eastvale’s “dairy era.” Many current residents remember this land use pattern. In the 1960s and 70s, rapid population growth in Los Angeles County forced dairies to flee eastward, and many of them settled near Eastvale. But by now, all but a handful have relocated to central California, to the Imperial Valley, or out of state.

As dairies moved into Eastvale, they displaced “diversified farms” of the kind I remember from before 1959. To most current residents, a date so long ago evokes only the haziest of images – let’s zoom in for a closer view. (But we’ll save for later the huge Fuller Ranch that stretched along the north side of the river.)

Half a square mile, 320 acres, was considered a large farm. Although most farmers raised some cows, milk was not their principal product. Fred Eldridge, who grew up on the ranch that was later sold to the Harada family, has pointed out that “except for the sandy area east of Hamner,” Eastvale has fertile soil where crops grow well. However, Galleano Winery considers the sandy soil ideal for their dry-farmed grape vineyards.

Some farms grew seed grains such as wheat, barley, and oats on portions of their land, rotating the crops and leaving some fields idle each year. There were fruit and nut orchards (peaches and apricots, walnuts and pecans), and olives. Most farms had a few beef cattle, sheep, or horses.

Alfalfa was a favorite crop because it keeps growing for several years, and the same field is harvested several times each year. The farmers fed some of it to animals and sold the rest at retail. Like other legumes, alfalfa enriches the soil by “nitrogen fixation.”


My first real job was on a farm, during the summer of 1944 following my junior year at High School. The farm was located on Merrill Ave west of Archibald and just north of the Eastvale boundary. Alfalfa was one of the main crops. At harvest time, mowed alfalfa was raked into long rows that had to be baled early the following day to retain moisture, essential to the curing process. On days when baling was scheduled, I mounted my bike at dawn and rode three miles from home to the field. The gasoline-powered baler was pulled by a mule. More experienced farm workers pitched alfalfa in, to be pressed into bales while I tied the baling wire and guided the mule. By nine or ten o’clock the day’s baling quota was finished, and the mule was hitched to a wagon that hauled the baled hay into the barn.

This baler at a contemporary Amish farm near Strasbourg PA, obviously pulled by horses instead of a mule, is similar to my 1944 recollection. (Photo by John S Murray.)

Besides alfalfa, the farm where I worked grew vegetables including black-eyed peas, potatoes, and sweet corn. A problem with potatoes is the large amount of labor required for digging them. My employer was testing a digging machine somebody had invented, but he found it unsuited to the soil texture of his farm because it produced clods about the same size as potatoes, making mechanical separation difficult. Sweet corn was a “truck crop”: we harvested it and packed it into crates, which were picked up by trucks each afternoon during the season and taken to early morning produce auctions near Los Angeles.

A reference to the 1938 flood

Riverside County weathered many significant storms in its formative years, but it received a wake-up call in March 1938. It was a call that could not be ignored. Storms of the past had been limited in their areas of impact and losses had been primarily to agricultural lands and to roads and bridges. Losses were measured in the tens of thousands of dollars. However, 1938 was different, very different. Nearly all bridges across the Santa Ana River were swept away, including the Pedley (Van Buren) Bridge, Riverside, and the Norco Bridge.

The City of Riverside was particularly hard hit by the uncontrolled Santa Ana River, forcing people from their homes in the northern sector of the city. Quoting from a report of the Advisory Committee on Flood Control filed later that year:

"Many persons were forced from their homes, or were isolated in them as the perilous situation developed so suddenly that but brief warning could be given. A number of men, women and children were rescued from trees where they clung when unable to reach higher ground after leaving their imperiled homes. . . .City in darkness. Riverside was without light or power from 5:15 p.m. on March 2nd to 3:00 a.m. on March 3rd. Hospitals, theatres, stores and homes were crippled in their operation. Most of the places of business were closed except night cafes where flickering candles were in use."

= 6 =


Prof Loren Meissner, Eastvale Elementary School 1934-41,
now living at San Jose CA

Left front: Freda (Pritchard) Morrow, Eastvale Elementary School 1941-48;
sister of Loren’s wife Peggy (Pritchard) Meissner.
Freda still lives at Riverdale Acres after almost 60 years.

Right front: Doris (Meissner) Klock, Eastvale Elementary School 1933-41,
sister of Loren, now living at Lake Elsinore

Picture was taken 1 Oct 2010 at Eastvale Incorporation reception.


I have a lot of information about my ancestors – I’ve been putting it together since my High School days when I spent a couple of weeks one summer visiting my dad’s oldest sister Dillie. There was hardly anyone else around, so she spent some time telling me what she knew about the Meissner family. That was more than 60 years ago, and I went on from there.

My great-grandparents were a mixed bag: some German immigrants, some Pennsylvania “Dutch” (German Mennonites) and Scots-Irish, some miners fresh from Cornwall, a couple of Mayflower descendants. I have traced some of them back to around 1600, before which date few records were kept. I have made contact with historians in a little mining town on the eastern border of Germany (next to Czech Republic) where there are records of the founding of their town about 1650 by several Lutheran families fleeing religious persecution, after a border shift had changed the official religion of their previous town from Lutheran to Catholic. My Meissner ancestors were among the miners already living there, who welcomed the “exiles.” They petitioned the Duke of Saxony, elector Johann Georg, for permission to create a village on a portion of his land, and he granted permission with the proviso that the village should be named Johann-georgen-stadt. I first found this story in a box of papers left in the house at my great-grandfather’s Wisconsin homestead after he died; and I have since confirmed it with the local German historians who also sent me church records and mining records they had compiled.

Overall, my ancestors are split almost evenly between German and British origins, with very few exceptions. The mother of my great-great-grandfather William Bray was “an Indian squaw” according to family lore – genealogists from Towanda PA where he was born suggest a “likely” candidate, whose great-great-grandmother had a Mahican Indian (native American) mother and a black father. William’s father was Irish (which of course counts as British) and might have been Catholic – if so, he was my only Catholic ancestor, so far as I know.


My father was one of 11 children of a “poor dirt farmer,” Adolph Meissner, and his young wife Loretta, both born in Wisconsin. Adolph’s father came from Germany about 1845; Loretta’s ancestors had been in America for a very long time, including the Irish (etc) guy and the Mayflower Pilgrims. Loretta was never satisfied with her lot, and kept the family moving – from Wisconsin to southern Oregon (where my dad was born in 1897), to Texas, then to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. When Americans in Mexico became “undesirables” during Pancho Villa’s revolution in 1914, the Meissner’s left, with only the shirts on their backs, and came to Upland California where their oldest daughter Dillie was living. But three or four years later they went to Panama with the youngest half of their children. My dad and one brother worked on some finishing touches for the Panama Canal, while Adolph and Loretta with the younger kids moved to a small “plantation” (which I now realize should more accurately be called a “jungle clearing”) in the Panama highlands near Costa Rica. I have some letters Loretta wrote from Panama admiring the climate of the highlands, expressing satisfaction that nothing like the Pancho Villa episode could happen because the US Government needed to protect Panama on account of the Canal, and complaining because there weren’t enough Americans nearby to provide adequate schools for her children. Mainly for the latter reason, they came back from Panama to Los Angeles about 1922. But with all the moving around, mostly to places with inadequate education, my dad and several of his siblings ended up almost illiterate.

My mother’s maternal (Reed) family were miners in Cornwall who immigrated to the area along the Mississippi River near where Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa meet, about 1865. By 1902 all the Reed family members except one had died: my grandmother lived till 1945 and I knew her well. Mom’s father Joseph Alonzo Kleeberger was half German and half Scots-Irish (from West VA); he became a Methodist circuit rider in Nebraska but after his first wife died Joseph returned (with two very young sons) to live near his parents in Illinois. He married my Cornish grandmother, had four more children in quick succession, and died in Mississippi from a tropical disease. (I’ve never been quite sure why he went to Mississippi.) My mother was the oldest of the four (born 1891); she went to work at a pretty young age; then in her 20s she went to a Bible school in Indiana for a while, and overflowing with missionary zeal she came to Los Angeles, intending to convert the Mexican Catholics to the “true” Protestant religion. Meanwhile she got a job as a nursing assistant at a maternity hospital (where I was later born).

So my parents met at church in Los Angeles about 1922, when Mom was in her early 30s and Dad in his late 20s. He took a shine to her, but my Cornish grandma thought he was too uncouth for her daughter.

But wait … the plot thickens! Loretta (Dad’s mother) still owned the little chunk of land in Panama. She knew she’d never go back there, but while she was in Panama she’d noticed the natives all had very bad teeth, because they never had milk to drink. She wrote a letter to the Church mission board, offering to let them use her land to raise cows to help with the Panamanians’ teeth problems, meanwhile teaching them about Jesus. I’m not sure the letter was ever sent, but Dad heard about the idea and proposed to Mom that they should get married and fulfill his mother’s dream of providing milk for the Panamanians. And at the same time Mom, who I think wasn’t having much success converting the Los Angeles Catholics, could try her wiles on the Panamanians (who, in the highlands, I don’t think were Catholics or much of anything else). So they went to Iowa (where Dad’s brother had some cows) and they were married in June 1924, about a week after Loretta died in California in a car accident, while chasing her dreams to another “promised land” near Palmdale CA – but they didn’t get the letter about her death till after their wedding.

Late in 1925, my parents took a boat from New Orleans to Panama, accompanied by two heifers. The cows soon died of whatever tropical disease (tick fever?) had long inhibited the Panamanian dairy industry. (I have said, they might have done better with goats or yaks as a milk source, instead of cows.) But they lived at the “jungle clearing” for about a year – till Mom discovered she’s pregnant, and my sister Doris was born April 1927 at a hospital in Canal Zone. They had been subsisting on their jungle crops, but they soon found there was not enough left over to feed another mouth, so Dad got a job helping build a railroad maybe about 30 miles away, and he came home on most weekends. When Doris was about a year old – oops, Mom’s pregnant again (it’s me). They decided, no way were they going to support a family of four from that little piece of land, so in August 1928 they returned to Los Angeles where by now a lot of both Dad’s and Mom’s siblings and their surviving parents were living. They sold the Panama land for enough to buy a lot and materials for a house in the Los Angeles basin; and Dad had enough construction skills to put it together. (He was a very intelligent and skilled guy, even though he could barely read and write.) Mom’s sister Ruth was living in Mira Loma (or I guess it was called Wineville then) and she told them about Riverdale Acres. They bought a lot on Charles Street and rented a house across the street for a few dollars a month while Dad built a little house. I was born November 24 1928, at the hospital in Los Angeles where Mom had worked.


My sister Doris started in first grade at Eastvale Elementary School in 1933, a year before me. The school we attended during the 1930s housed all 8 grades in two rooms.

I was a very high-profile guy so a couple of years in, the teacher decided to push me up a grade to keep me busy. From then on, Doris and I went through school together including high school at Corona and community college at Chaffey. Most other students thought at first we were twins. My younger age, which advanced me academically, made social integration even more difficult: I was too uncoordinated for athletics, and even more immature than my male classmates in relations with girls.

During the fall of my first year (1941) at Corona Jr High, a few foreign airplanes dropped unfriendly stuff on some US battleships in Hawaii, so my secondary school career coincided rather closely with World War Two. By the end of my senior year (1945) most of the young men in my class had been drafted or enlisted in the military. In that year’s graduation, the only guys were me (still only 16) and a couple of medically challenged fellows.

I began to hit my stride at Chaffey, since age groupings at college are much less homogeneous. During my second year there, the student body was swamped with veterans a few years older, taking advantage of the GI Bill. I strongly admired some of my professors, including especially math professor Arthur Flum who was an alumnus of UC Berkeley – he posted some Cal literature on his bulletin board which helped me decide to put in my application there.

Another dominant influence in my early life was the church in Corona where our family attended. When I was about sixteen, I invited Peggy Pritchard to attend with me. She was a couple of years younger than me and had recently moved to Riverdale Acres. Our friendship deepened over the next few years, and produced lots of revenue for the US Postal Service while I was at UC Berkeley. In June 1949 I graduated (BA Math), Peggy graduated from Corona High, and a month later we were married. (I tell people I was a Bachelor for one month.)

We lived in Corona, not too affluently at first. Then by a stroke of luck, in 1951 the US National Bureau of Standards decided to build a West Coast laboratory in surplus Naval Hospital facilities, using a group of buildings on the south side of Lake Norconian (west of Hamner, between third and fifth streets in Norco). They hired me as a Mathematician, and I thrived in the computing culture there.

But by about 1959 I had advanced about as far as possible without an advanced academic degree. (As the Wizard of Oz said to the scarecrow: “Anyone can have a brain … they’ve got one thing you haven’t got: a diploma!” – in my case I was wisely advised to go for a PhD.)

Peggy and I moved to the SF Bay area in 1959, where we have lived ever since, and where our three children grew up. While in graduate school at UC Berkeley, and for many years afterward, I worked at the “Rad Lab” on the hill above the Berkeley campus, and eventually became slightly famous as author of some Computer Science textbooks. The Lab sponsored my membership in the international committee charged with standardizing the Fortran programming language, which required annual visits to Europe (often to Amsterdam, Turin, London, or Vienna) – my first travel outside North America. In 1981 I left the Lab for an appointment as Professor of Computer Science at University of San Francisco (Jesuit school) where I taught till 1995.

Meanwhile, when our youngest of three children finished high school, Peggy went back to school (in her 50s), earned a Nursing license, and was immediately hired by the US Veterans Hospital system. She retired soon after I did, and we settled down in our home in the Berkeley hills.

But a few years later, we found ourselves driving quite regularly to San Jose and Fremont where our children now lived with their families. So we decided, as Peggy put it, to “move while we had a choice.” In 2003, well into our 70s, still in quite good health, and having spent more than half our life in our Berkeley home, we moved into a newly constructed house in San Jose near our son and his 4 children (and two more born since 2003). So we have been spending a lot of time helping with our grandkids. Our daughter at Fremont has two sons, the older of which was recently married – so maybe there will be some great-grandchildren after a while?


or go to “”: Meissner Family Web Site