I must get this off my chest

It’s Sunday, so here comes my holy heartfelt confession:

My grandfather worked for the L.A. Department of Water and Power.

There. I said it. Yes, it’s true, fellow Stocktonians. Howard Earl Hillis — “Grandpa Hillis” to me, newspaper reader, crossword puzzler, coffee-guzzler and bequeather of Christmas presents — lived a double life as a cunning Angelino conspiring to suck every last drop from Northern California and, indeed, much of the western United States.

Here’s the proof:

UNLV Libraries, Special Collections

That’s Grandpa, with the mussed-up hair on the left side of this photo, dated May 26, 1954. He’s showing off Hoover Dam’s Los Angeles control room to mucky-mucks, including Spencer Butterfield, president of the Bank of Nevada (second from left), and Earl Shreve, national director of the U.S. Savings Bond and former vice president at General Electric (second from right).

Speaking of electricity, that was Grandpa’s game. Not water. Stand down, Nor Cal.

But in the latter half of his career, he moved to where the water wars began — Independence, in the middle of the now-desolate Owens Valley. He became a superintendent at the DWP station in town.

This was decades after L.A. first thrust its thirsty tentacles into the eastern Sierra. Still, I’ve long wondered what life was like for Grandpa in Independence, where there are more tumbleweeds than townspeople, and where a gaggle of old geezers drinking coffee in the lobby of the Winnedumah Hotel on a Monday morning can practically be called a town-hall meeting.

What would it be like to live in a little town like that and work for the “enemy?”

Unfortunately, I never asked Grandpa about it. He died 10 years ago last month.

In an oral history project a couple of years back, my mom, Judy, helped fill in some of the blanks. With a laugh, she remembered seeing a sign in a public restroom in Independence. “Flush the toilet,” it said, “L.A. needs the water.”

“There was a little animosity there,” Mom said.

“There were some experiences where (Grandpa) had to be something of a peacemaker,” she said. “People very much resented the Department of Water and Power. But it was probably the biggest source of income for them. There were a lot of local people hired. They’d go up into the mountains and measure the snow levels. There was a lot going on, and yet people don’t like big business a whole lot, either, when they have a lot of power.”

She concluded: “He (Grandpa) was well-liked, I think, but not always.”

OK, so the first part of this post was obviously written with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Grandpa was no turncoat. He was from L.A. — he moved to Northern California only after he retired from Independence.

And as a kid, of course, I was blissfully unaware that he had labored for the same agency that “filled up those L.A. swimming pools,” as folks around here might scornfully say. Grandpa was just Grandpa. He gave big tight bear hugs and said funny stuff like, “Good gravy!” when you told him you got an “A” on your report card. He wore big, thick glasses, he played the organ, and when I was a boy he let me sit in his lap and read books to him.

Grandpa and I, circa 1980

There was a piece in the New York Times today about empathy, or lack thereof, in the U.S. The article is really about socioeconomics. But I wonder if empathy is also missing in the endless argument over California’s limited water resources. Everyone’s so busy lobbing rhetorical hand grenades at each other, that there seems little time for moderate, reasoned debate, and even less time for considering the real people on all sides of these arguments, and the real people who will prosper — or suffer — based on the water management decisions we ultimately make.

I’m not saying people should compromise or give up their long-held positions in this “war.” And perhaps it’s naive to think that this is anything other than a zero-sum game in California, a game that will inevitably end with both winners and losers.

But is it too much to ask for an acknowledgement that we’re all human beings here? Real people, not caricatures of good or evil?

And while I’m asking for miracles on this Sunday, how about a little rain, too?

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  • Blog Author

    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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