Stebbins, A Life and Times

ROBERT STEBBINS’S MEMORIES

Written when he was 95 years old.
There is no logical nor chronological order to the memories.

Post 10

Saying Goodbye to MVZ 

Some years ago, when Dave Wake was still director of MVZ, I remarked to him that I was the oldest member of the MVZ old guard! Where-upon Dave said, “No, Bob, Seth Benson is still alive and he’s older”. (He lived to be 100). After a moment of reflection I remarked, “Yes, but he’s no longer active at MVZ”. Now, unless there is someone hiding in the wings, I do believe I am MVZ’ s ancient one along with some debilities that go with the territory. That is why I am reading my remarks.

I arrived in 1945, at a time when the need for a curator in herpetology had become evident. Emphasis had been on birds and mammals. I was lucky to get the job. Alden Miller was director. Thanks to his flexibility and willingness to promote the interest of staff and students, the following events occurred.

One day he told me that two important ladies were coming to MVZ – Annie Alexander and Miss Kellog. They were interested in meeting the new curator and to look at some specimens they had collected for the Museum.

As many of you know, Annie Alexander (Coca Cola heiress) had provided finances for the establishment of MVZ and supported Joseph Grinnel as director of the program. (I missed him by a couple of years.) Miller’s message to me (unspoken) was don’t blow it.

I had heard stories about these ladies – they carried guns and took gates off hinges to access habitats for the purpose of collecting MVZ specimens. I received their approval.

Alden Miller gave me all kinds of encouragement and support. When I told him drawing was an important part of my teaching and scientific life (starting at UCLA) that if I were to continue it as a curator and researcher it might well interfere with my advancement in academia (preparing scientific papers and keeping up with scientific literature), to my great relief he said, by all means draw. As it turned out I advanced at the normal rate.

Under Alden Miller (in those early days) MVZ’ s academic growth and public service involvement grew significantly, a trend that has continued over the years. His influence on a young naturalist neophyte was great.

MVZ made my life whole! I am deeply sorry to leave this wonderful organization and dear friends I will probably not see again. Anna-rose and I now go to a retirement home in Eugene, Oregon, near the beautiful Willamette River. I will continue painting and writing my memories. A recent one is titles, “An Act of Desperation: Evaporated Milk as a Substitute for Brake Fluid”. I’ll read it to you. It only takes 5+ minutes.

(Read to the staff and students at MVZ at my Going Away Party)

An Act of Desperation

June 1951

It was on a trip to Brock Mountain near Squaw Creek, Shasta Co., California in search of salamanders. The area was remote, with winding dirt roads, little travelled. With me were my children, John (age 9) and Melinda (age 8) and my graduate student Joe Gorman, who was working on his doctoral thesis on salamanders. We had finished our field work and were ready to head home to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was late afternoon.

The road ahead was a steep, winding, down-hill, track. As we started down the grade the car brake pedal felt soft. I placed the car in low gear. Soon the grade grew steeper and the pedal softer. I changed to compound low. Soon thereafter I decided I must stop. I ran the car into a road bank. An all night stand confronted us.

Joe immediately offered to go for help. The nearest lookout station (Brock Mountain) was 3 miles or so away and it soon would be dark. It fell to him to go for help. However, the children, who had become used to field work, were taking everything in stride – no complaints.

It took about 3 hours to reach the lookout. He must have arrived in the dark. At the lookout, at some point, a call for help was sent. A “Mr. Peterson”, at the other end, suggested that given our situation, maybe the best thing to do was to use an established out-back method (used in desperation?) – substituting evaporated milk for brake fluid!

The next morning Joe and Linn (a person from the lookout) went to a store about 8 miles away where they got 3 cans of evaporated milk. They returned to my car, perched with its nose in the bank, and put about 3/4 pint of milk in the brake fluid reservoir. The fluid was then pumped into the brake system by depressing the brake pedal. They had pinched off the line to the right rear brake drum, where the leak seemed to be. A pending nightmare had turned into a happy dream! We were able to drive all the way to Berkeley with evaproated milk for the brake fluid! The brakes functioned perfectly.

There was, however, a price to pay. MVZ had to have all the brake lines replaced because they were filled with coagulated milk. But there was really no less costly or better way to solve our problem. However, in retrospect, I feel I should have assured the kids that evaporated milk was no regular substitute for good old brake fluid.

Editor’s Note: With the exception of minor typographical and editorial corrections, all efforts have been taken to preserve Dr. Stebbins’ text as originally recorded.

For more information on this serial column featuring the life and times of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, please visit this post.

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