The Presidio Brat

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Finding Balance: Indian history on the Presidio

At a recent Trust-sponsored discussion, someone pointed out that our language about the history of the Bay Area can be completely offensive to Indians. The speaker was talking about literature at the Anza Trail, but after considering his comments, I stumbled on a local example:

It is true that the Spaniards founded the original Presidio on that site, but it certainly overlooks the 5,000 years before that when Indians lived here, "founding" this place. You can't very well live somewhere for 5,000 years and not consider it "settled," can you?

And this wouldn't be true either:

I guess "building" excludes any tule huts or sweat lodges erected by the Ohlone. They would certainly qualify as the oldest ones in town. Like the original Commandante's Quarters, they are no longer standing. They have been built over by new structures. They were pretty minimalist to begin with. When you live so lightly on the land, you leave only the faintest traces of evidence behind. Good for reducing your carbon footprint, not so good for cultural preservation.

The Presidio as a distinct entity may have been created by Europeans, but Indians lived here, and it is well within the bounds of honesty and fairness - I would even argue, necessity - to focus on Ohlone culture anytime we discuss the general history of the place.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


When you grow up in the army, you learn a lot about army history simply by osmosis. Stilwell, MacArthur, Scott -- these weren’t just neighborhoods, they were famous generals. People occasionally talked about what these guys did.

But a couple of streets on the Presidio are named for Surgeon Generals. I used to live on one of those streets, and I can tell you that nobody ever had any idea what those guys did. The first and busiest of these streets – “Gorgas” – usually gets a puzzled reaction. That’s because it sounds like it should look like this:

The second one – well, there are very few people on earth who even know there is a street called O’Reilly on the Presidio. These two streets form the northern corner of the old Letterman complex - a reminder of its heroes' glories. 

Wm Crawford Gorgas
First of all, these guys were Surgeon Generals of the Army -- not to be confused with the US Surgeon General. The latter are the men who wage the invasion of the hand sanitizer and the trench war of cigarette warning labels. Those guys are in charge of the US Public Health Service. They’re not combat soldiers. They just nabbed the title “general” because they like dressing up in uniforms, too.

Surgeon Generals of the Army are real soldiers. They’re in charge of the US Army Medical Department – that’s basically, you guessed it, all the army's doctors and nurses and dentists and veterinarians, etc. The office was established by Congress in 1775. Last year we saw our first-ever female Surgeon General of the Army: Patricia Horoho. (She's a nurse, and certain former military men have been heard to whisper that it's pretty silly that they appointed a nurse, given that the title is, well, surgeon general.)

The Epic Mosquito War

The great thing about Gorgas: he wasn't interested in weakening his enemy by attrition or siege. He didn't give a damn for breakthroughs, encounters or encirclement. He was in for nothing less than the complete annihilation of the enemy:

In 1906, the engineers and construction crews of the Panama Canal could not stop dying of yellow fever. 85 percent of them had been hospitalized. Doctors couldn't agree on what caused the disease, and naturally their treatments were epic: high doses of eggnog, ice baths, and enough quinine to make you deaf.

Looking dapper despite the quinine
As chief medical officer, Gorgas was determined to do something about it. He and his entire team had contracted malaria, and he was going to kill every damn mosquito in Panama if he had to. But when he proposed his battle plan to the US Congress, they dismissed him with laughter: no way we're going to spend one million dollars waging war against a critter. Anyone with sense knew that diseases were spread by "miasma" - the putrid air of the tropics.
Carlos Finlay

Gorgas turned to President Theodore Roosevelt, a man sensible enough to listen to the advice of his personal physician, Alexander Lambert. Gorgas was relying on the research of Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay, and that of another army doctor Walter Reed, that linked the mosquito to the epic hemorrhagic fever, which caused its victims to turn yellow and begin bleeding from the mouth, eyes and intestines. Teddy gave Gorgas the funds he needed, and triumphantly, Gorgas returned to Panama with his Mosquito Brigades.

That's it, critters, balls to the wall!

Gorgas and his new reserve of 4,000 men undertook the herculean task of organizing recon for the entire canal zone, mapping every last corner of the enemy's terrain, and destroying its breeding grounds. They fumigated every single home, put mesh over every window, and sprayed every cess pool and storm drain and dirty old tire in 500 square miles of swamp and jungle.

Sierra Hotel, baby.

A year later, the disease was gone. Not only had the entire playing field been sanitized, but people finally understood the nefarious mosquito and how to combat it, army style.

So thank you Gorgas for saving millions of lives. And for being a real general. And for having such a great street named after you. It is merely the wurst of the brat that I tease you about your name.

Goldsworthy's Latest

Driving through the Main Post yesterday, we came across something odd: a team of men attempting to slide a tree branch into a forgotten building on the Main Parade Ground.

That's building 95, an old powder magazine on the corner of Anza and Sheridan. In my mind it's called the Lily Pad, thanks to its weird isolation and the abundance of lilies sprouting at its walls.

Turns out the tree is part of an upcoming art installation by Andy Goldsworthy. The Presidio Trust rep on site couldn't say whether the branch was a eucalyptus or not, only that future tours inside the building will be limited to ten people at a time.

Directly in front of the branch stands Goldsworthy himself, in white pullover and yellow helmet. He seems impertinently relaxed for a man trying to stuff an outsize branch through a tiny doorway. (Think how much more fun he could be having if there were still explosives in the building.)

Directly behind the tree branch, you can see a living tree that celebrated its 137th birthday this Fourth of July. The Centennial Tree was planted in honor of the 100-year celebration of the American Revolution, but it has come to be viewed as a memorial to all the army families that lost relatives during service.

I'm liking this contrast of old and new. And I love that we love trees so much here that we're even letting artists stuff them inside the buildings. All we really need to do next is build the world's most awesome treehouse. Maybe the Trust could do a Treehouse Inn. You could sleep in the foggy nights, based on a Goldsworthy-inspired philosophy of "wanting to be alert to changes in material, season and weather."

Goldsworthy's other two Presidio projects - the Spire and the Wood Line - are still at the park and can be seen here. Welcome number three!

Spotted At Baker Beach

The Western Fence lizard. He was hiding in the scrub, just to the side of the sand ladder.

According to the NPS website, this lizard is "fairly uncommon in the Presidio," and yet "the most common reptile in California."

The cool thing about these guys is that they have germ-killing superpowers. If a tick bites them, they are able to annihilate the bug's lyme-disease bacteria, leaving the tick's future bites harmless. (More from the California Academy of Science here.)