With a Little Help
Autobiography of Rick Wagner

Chapter 2: Elementary School

First Grade

Mom drove me to kindergarten every day, but in first grade I walked to school. John was in second grade and had succeeded in convincing Mom to outfit us in Levis (blue jeans) for school. Before we had worn tan cordoroy pants, which I suppose she regarded as more dignified. John thought cords were uncool. I had no opinion on the subject. I was six and the year was 1955.

I learned to read in first grade from a Dick and Jane book. "See Spot run. Run Spot run." Spot was Dick and Jane's pet dog. Miss Latimore was my teacher. Mom was occasionally a volunteer room helper. I had a single shot pirate style flintlock toy cap pistol that was my pride and joy. Cap guns were not allowed in school, and would be confiscated if found. One day I brought it with me by mistake. It must have been in my belt under my jacket, and when, on the playground before school, I realized I had it with me, I panicked. I didn't know what to do, so I hid it behind an open door. After school I went to retrieve it and it was gone and I never saw it again.

Dad built a tree house for us boys at Granddad's ranch in a large oak tree. There was a row of tall pine trees and dad wanted to remove one of them for some reason. To keep it from falling on the chicken coops he tied a rope from the top of the tree to the bumper of his car and then used a chain saw to fell it. John and walter and I used axes and hatchets to cut the branches off the tree. At some point the rope that was used on the tree got chopped into many small pieces. It was just a really cool feeling, for a kid, to sever a strong rope with a single blow of a hatchet. When dad discovered the finely divided rope he was furious. I kept my mouth shut, but somehow John got the blame. He got a bare skin whipping with Dad's belt. Walter and I walked down by the creek and we could hear him holler and cry. I felt guilty that John was being unjustly punished but I was terrified of Dad's belt.

Second Grade

A new elementary school with four rooms was built in my neighborhood, half a mile east of my house on San Miguel Avenue. Monterey Park School would be expanded to include rooms for grades K-6. School started in the fall of 1956 and the three Wagner boys were in first, second, and third grades. We rode our bicycles to school against the offshore wind in the morning and home from school, against the onshore wind in the afternoon. The wind always seemed to be running from the sun. Mrs. Rogers was my second grade teacher. I didn't hate school yet, but I found it dull.

A new subdivision to the south was going in and after school we would go look at the enormous trenches for the storm drain system with the concrete pipes installed before backfilling. We rolled some large dirt clods down into the trenches and watched them burst when they fell on the pipes. I rolled an exceptionally large one and it made a noise that sounded like the pipe cracked. One of the kids we were with said I broke it and we all fled on our bicycles. I was sure the police were looking for me. Each room in the school at that time had a telephone, and for weeks afterward, every time the phone rang in class (usually the principal wanting something) I was sure it was the police asking for me.

I was seven years old and I got my first sense of history when I realized what the year "1957" meant. Somebody pointed out a new 1957 Chevy and I went “aha.” It was our place in time and would never come again. The school year seemed to go on forever and at last summer came.

Of the three Wagner boys of Salinas, I think I was chosen for the summer visit to the Stong family in Azusa because, as the middle child, I was seven, the same age as cousin Peter Stong. My parents drove me the 15 minutes to Monterey Airport and put me on the plane, a twin engine turboprop. I had asked “will I be flying on a jet?” Not exactly: the turbine engine turns a propeller, the old fashioned way.

It was the first time I had flown on an airplane, and I flew alone. The flight attendant (we called them “stewardesses” back then) gave me a United Airlines wing pin for my jacket. I watched out the window the whole time, fascinated by the tiny houses and cars below. It was a good geography lesson for the coast of California. We landed at LAX and Uncle Harald, Aunt Bobby (my father’s older sister), and Cousin Peter, met me and we drove through Los Angeles to Azusa in their station wagon. We passed through one of the new wonders of the world, a five-high freeway interchange, brand new as part of President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system. Downtown LA was quite smoggy back then. The EPA, created during the Nixon Administration, was really quite effective. Too bad Trump is going to destroy it.

Peter was a big sports fan. He showed me his baseball card collection. We played football in the back yard. He let me wear his shoulder pads and helmet, letting me feel invincible. We played with Lincoln Logs in the shade of a tree. Peter showed me how to start a war between the black ants and the red ants out by the back fence, using a shovel to carry part of one nest to the other’s.

Uncle Harold was an optometrist and he had his own shop in downtown Azusa. Peter and walked there to visit him one day and Uncle Harold showed me some of the eyeglass making equipment he had there.

We shopped for souvenirs on Main Street. It was Tomorrowland with its rocket ships and spaceflight that made the biggest impression on me. There was an excitement about the future that I wanted to be a part of. I fell asleep in the car on the way home and didn’t get home until midnight.

Sputnik was launched later that year, and the “space age” was born. My father and I followed its progress, and when John Glen orbited the earth in 1962, my brothers and I tracked its progress with a marker on a map of the world as Walter Cronkite narrated on TV.

I was eight years old in the year after the Disneyland trip when I decided that I wanted to be a scientist. I remember thinking about it and telling it to my Mom. My mother took me to the children’s library in Salinas to borrow science books, and after I had read every science book for children, she took me to the main library on Main Street, and I started on the adult science books. A number of “obstacles” presented themselves on my way to becoming a scientist. The Vietnam War, completely unnecessary from an omniscient viewpoint, but necessary to history, led to my being drafted. I eventually would become a scientist, publishing robotics research articles in peer reviewed journals and conference proceedings, but first I went through periods of wanting to be a fighter pilot and a race car driver. I wouldn’t earn my PhD until 1997, 40 years after that Disneyland trip, but as they say, life is the journey, not the arrival.

Dad bought a .22 rimfire single shot bolt action rifle for John and taught us three boys to shoot. Dad also had a magazine-loading bolt action .22 with 5- and 10-shot clips and a target style peepsight, a semiautomatic .22 with telescopic sight, a 30-06 bolt action hunting rifle with telescopic sight, and 20 and 12 guage pump action shotguns. Dad told me that when I was eight I could have my own rifle too, but (probably wisely) that never happened. We were dangerous enough with BB guns.

Grandfather let us shoot sparrows. We killed many with BB guns. Sometimes Grandfather would let me take his bolt-action .22 and give me one .22 birdshot cartridge and tell me he wanted me to kill one sparrow and bring it to him. I would sit patiently under an oak tree that was full of sparrows, take careful aim, and bang, nothing. All the sparrows would fly away. That .22 birdshot was ineffective at more than about four feet. I would go back to Grandfather and ask him for another cartridge. He would go on about how he expected me not to miss and grudgingly give me another shell.

Grandfather had the best apples. I have never again tasted anything as good as his Watsonville Delicious apples. My brother Walter now has an apple tree with grafted scions from some of Grandfather's trees. One day Grandfather showed me how to graft apple scions. He sawed off the middle of a branch of the host tree, split it, and inserted two scions with their bases whittled to a wedge shape, matching up the outer cambiam with the host. He then covered the whole area with melted grafting wax.

Grandfather smoked a pipe and watched football in his bedroom upstairs on a black and white TV. I would sit on his lap while we watched. He would say "sit up straight, don't slouch." I couldn't really follow the game on TV. Just light colored shirts against dark colored, and the ball was hard to pick out against the gray background, but he loved to watch.

Birthday party, August 1957. One of my favorite toys, a Tommy gun.

Third Grade

Third grade began in the fall of 1957. Mrs. Strom let me use her typewriter when I broke my right wrist at Granddaddy's barn. I would peck out letters with my two index fingers. The class began reading about Yellowstone National Park and I was interested in the geysers and hot springs. That summer our family took a car trip to Yellowstone and it was good to see all the things I had read about. We stopped to visit friends at Lake Tahoe on the way home.

Breakfast with Mommy. My favorite breakfast was white bread toast with butter and hot chocolate. Mommy also made
hot cereal which we ate with milk and sugar, which is what I think we are eating in the photo. Mommy has just coffee.

One day before Christmas I was talking to my mother about peeking at presents before Christmas and she told me the story about when she was little one Christmas she found where her mother had hidden presents and peeked at all of them. She said it ruined her Christmas for her and she never did it again. I learned from that story and never tried to peek or unwrap a present before Christmas. Later I would tell my own children that a wise person learns from the mistakes of others.


Dad had told us boys one day about Zeno's paradox (of the dichotomy), the one about never getting somewhere because first you have to go through an infinite number of half ways. It did not seem a real objection to me, so I've never been impressed with the reasoning. Apparently, this really seems to bother some philosophers or mathemeticians. The abstraction is not the reality. The map is not the territory. Thinking that the abstract structures of mathematics are reality still seems to adversely influence some otherwise good physicists. Mathematics can describe reality, but does not define it. As the length of the half intervals goes to zero, the amount of time spent in them also goes to zero, so I didn't "get" the paradox. All the arithmetic we were learning in school at the time was intending to make me into a computer, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, which I resisted. A few years ago I read an article in Scientific American about a mathematician finally resolving some point of contention about it. I didn't get what all the fuss was about. To me it seeme perfectly plain that an infinite number of points could be traversed in a finite time. They (the points) were, after all, merely imaginary abstractions.

One day our teacher (Mrs. Strom) told the class that gravity was due to the "spinning" of the Earth. First, I knew the Earth didn't "spin" but that it took a whole day to revolve once. In a view from space the Earth would appear motionless. Second, centripital force at the surface of a revolving sphere is not normal to the surface, but radial to the axis of rotation, and at the equator would be pointing outward, not into the Earth like gravity does. I wanted to know how gravity worked and I was getting spurious tripe.

Later I would learn that nobody really "knows" how gravity works, even to this day. Newton's laws of gravitation merely describe gravity's effects, not how it originates. Mrs. Strom should have just said so.

Sputnik was launched and hula hoops were a fad. One evening I was with Dad in his car when he stopped for gas. The gas station had hula hoops as part of a promotion, so we got one and brought it home. We all took turns hula hooping.

Dad had built us a small "telephone pole" in the back yard to play on. It had a smooth 4 x 4 redwood upright and a 2 x 4 cross piece at the top with 1 x 2 recessed braces. Dad had put authentic utility pole climbing lags into it. John and I were at the top of it one day talking about the apparent contradiction of the Russian economic backwardness and their ability to launch an artificial satellite before the USA was able to perform such a feat.

Dad played around a bit with cinematography with his 8 mm movie camera. He started a silent film about a moon rocket but it wasn't very good and he never finished it. He did a bit better with movies of his Africa safari and Alaska hunting trips using 16 mm eqipment. He had some film editing equipment that involved a lot of cutting and splicing of the celluloid. My brother Walter still has the big reels.

Dad went on a safari to Kenya with his friend Red Middaugh. Red was a Buick dealer and our family would sometimes go to his house for a barbecue and vice versa. Dad bought a high powered rifle, a Weatherbee .300, that he used to shoot a cape buffalo. Dad would take us boys to the rifle range when he sighted it in. A bullet from that gun would go through about two feet of stacked glossy paper magazines. He dug a bullet out from the stack once and we saw its expanded mushroom shape. Dad and Red made a movie of their safari and brought home lots of trophies: various animal heads and skins.

A cape buffalo is one of the "big 5" dangerous game of Africa. The buffalo charged their truck and was raising the back of it off the ground when Dad shot it from above right between the horns. The buffalo's head was mounted on the wall of the play hall of our house, along with many more heads. Dad also had a lion skin rug with head and a leopard skin rug with its head. One leopard had jumped out of a tree onto their guide and was mauling him when Dad shot it five times. It was too shot up to use as a trophy, but shooting it saved their guide's life. The guide's scalp was torn nearly off his head. Dad sewed him back together.

With Christina in the front yard with the 1956 Buick with the sycamore trees in the background; I was 8 years old.

Dad bought a new Buick every other year from the Buick dealer in Salinas. New car leasing came in the 1960s and Dad started leasing his Buicks then. Sometimes I climbed in the sycamore trees. When they were in full leaf they were a good hiding place.

Dad had built an elaborate complex of chicken coops down by the creek at grandfather's ranch. He would take us boys out there frequently to work on them and take care of the poultry. Besides laying chickens he had exotic types such as bantams and Rhode Island reds. He had Chinese ringneck pheasants, ducks, geese, turkeys, etc. He built a shed for incubating eggs. The various coops were connected by a common central yard, enclosed in chicken wire. Sparrows would find their way in to eat the chicken feed. So Dad turned us boys loose one day with our BB guns. We killed a couple of dozen sparrows. It was literally shooting birds in a cage. I suppose it improved my marksmanship. Later, at uncle Newell's ranch in northern California I shot a ground squirrel on the run at 70 yards. We brought the sparrows home and Mom cleaned and cooked them for dinner. We boys would sometimes collect the eggs from the layers' nests, boxes built for that purpose, and lined with straw. Naturally, the chickens didn't like their eggs being taken. You either had to wait until they left the nest to eat, or just pull them off and take the eggs.

With Mom in San Francisco. She took me to the opera and symphony several times.

Sometimes our whole family would go to San Francisco, sometimes just Mom and Dad and one or two of the boys. We always stayed in the Saint Francis Hotel. Self-driving elevators were rather new, so the older Saint Francis had elevator operators. I recall seeing the Nucracker ballet, Swan Lake, and several operas including La Boheme and Il Trovatore. Mom was a real opera fan and loved playing opera records on the stereo in the living room.

Me, Christina, and Dad in the playcourt.

It was around this time that I recall hearing some stories from my maternal grandparents. My grandfather fought in the great war and my grandmother was, as a result, very anti-war. She often spoke of the foolishness associated with war in any form. She said that any conflict can be resolved by diplomacy. Some might point to the second world war as a counterexample.

I still remember some of the war stories from my grandfather. He spoke of lying in a wheat field in Europe and seeing the tops of the wheat falling off around him from the German machine gun bullets. The allied machine guns fired twice as fast, so you could tell which were which. The German guns went pop pop pop, just like that. It was late in the war (as usual) when the GIs showed up in number. Grandfather was a surgeon. He was in a medical tent operating when a German with an artillery (long barrel) Luger appeared in the entry and fired. Grandfather's helmet was pulled low to shade his eyes from the surgical lamp and the bullet made a dent where his forehead was. Grandfather drew his own sidearm and shot the German dead. Grandmother showed me both the helmet and Luger she stored in a chest. When Grandmother died, my brother John inherited the Luger.

Dad would often barbecue dinner on weekends, sometimes steaks, sometimes chicken, often chicken halves. Sometimes we had friends over. The Middaughs, the Pulfords, or the Garins and their children were often entertained. Sometimes we went to their houses for barbecue dinner. Dad would use a mixture of beer and soy sauce to baste chicken with. It was not thick, but runny, and most of it would run off when basted on with a brush, but it helped to cool the chicken and the runoff would douse flames from chicken fat. We all liked the taste, so I suggested to Dad that he inject the sauce directly into the chicken. Sometime later he brought home a hypodermic needle and actually tried it. It worked great! I was very gratified that he tried my suggestion. Many years later culinary hypodermics are available for just that purpose.

In the summers we would go to YMCA daycamp. Harold was the bus driver and camp counselor, likely a college student with a summer job. The older girls on the bus (older than I but still schoolgirls) teased him by calling him "Hair Oil." Mrs. Patee also had a daycamp at her ranch. Besides horseback riding, we had swimming, archery, baking lessons, and crafts like leatherwork and cloisonné.

Waiting for the bus to take us kids to YMCA day camp in the summer.

Fourth Grade

Fourth grade began in September, 1958. Mr. Webster, our teacher, had been in the Army, and had the boys do some military style exercises, such as pushups, during physical education (PE). He taught us how to perform long division, an algorithm for computing decimal fractions. It was my first exposure to numerical methods. I hated it. It was too bad pocket calculators hadn't been invented yet. In high school I would learn how to operate a slide rule, and that came in handy later when I completed an electronics correspondence course while I was in the Air Force.

I had obtained a science book for children called "All About the Human Body" which I devoured. The children's library in Salinas had more "All About" books and I quickly read all of them on archaeology, chemistry, and physics, etc. I remember taking a book with me outdoors at school recess and reading while the other children played.

Dad and Mom had bought me a chemistry set and Dad helped to conduct some experiments. They also bought me a microscope, and Dad showed me how to use it.


John was a bit of a philosopher too. One day he remarked on the impossibility of imagining that there could be nothing, not even space. I had to agree with him, but the question didn't bother me, because if there actually were nothing, it wouldn't be possible to worry about it. This seems to bother some actual academic philosophers who have apparently claimed a belief in the inability to imagine nothingness. I have no problem with it. There could be nothing. Obviously there is something, so lets get on with exploring the mysteries.

That summer Dad took us boys on a horse and mule pack trip to the Big Five Lakes in the Sierra mountains out of Mineral King and over Black Rock Pass. A couple of Dad's friends came along. We boys went shopping for food for the trip and we filled two shopping carts at Lucky Market on South Main. Mineral King is a small village at over ten thousand feet in elevation, The first evening there we boys were running around as usual and I got altitude sickness and felt like throwing up. It was a two day ride up there. We brought tackle for fishing for golden trout. Dad offered cash prizes for the first fish caught, the most fish, the biggest fish, etc. I won them all and Dad seemed happy when he paid me when I went to collect it in his office after the trip.

Dad was a member of the Sierra Club and he practiced conservation. He told us his ethics of interacting with the natural world. We never leave trash, we pack out what we pack in. Human waste and other non-paper organic matter was buried. Tin cans were burned out and smashed flat for packing out. He was a true conservative. He was a staunch Republican. He and the American Medical Association, to which he belonged, were against what they called "socialized medicine," which is the government ownership of medical assets such as hospitals, and where medical service providers such as doctors and nurses were employees of the government. I don't recall anyone ever actually suggesting or promoting socialized medicine. Certainly not the Democratic Party.

Fifth Grade

Fifth grade began in September, 1959. I was 10 years old. My teacher, Mr. Thompson, who told us tales of life on a destroyer in the War, encouraged my interest in science. I had by then memorized most of the periodic table of the elements, having obtained a chemistry book from the adult library on Main Street. I went there because I had read every science book in the children's library.

Playing with a flash bulb and balsa tower. 10 years old. Photo by Walter Wagner.

Up until this time, my parents and friends called me "Ricky." I was becoming dissatisfied with the diminutive, and began to insist on being called "Rick," which I go by today. I got a new gray jacket with "Rick" embroidered on the front left to help people remember.

My friend and classmate, John Wayne Humphries, who lived a few doors away on San Miguel Avenue, was also interested in science and we used to fly kites and model airplanes. Walter would help us launch them.

With cousin Peter Stong on a fake pony while visiting Azusa in the summer of '59.

Sixth Grade

September, 1960: Our Teacher, Mr. Winston, lived alone in an apartment on Pajaro Ave., not far from my house. I was getting interested in rocketry and designed a rocket built out of soldered coffee cans and copper tubing. It wouldn't have worked. I built some of the Estes model rocket kits that I ordered via mail, but the engines for them at that time were considered fireworks and were illegal in California. I bought the rocket kits via mail order, but they wouldn't ship engines to California, so my model rockets just gathered dust on my window sill. After the New Year holiday, I noticed, when I turned around in my school desk and looked at the kid's paper behind me, that the year "1961" read the same upside down.

That year I finished reading Grandmother's collection of L. Frank Baum's Oz books. I was beginning to understand the distinction between magic and science. Science excludes any supernatural agency. Phenomena are part of nature. Supernatural agency is nonexistent but can be the subject of fantasy books.

I started hanging out at the medical lab at Dad's office. The lab technician there tolerated me, I suppose, because I was her employer's son. She taught me how to use the real binocular microscope and use the centrifuge to spin down and examine blood and urine samples. She also showed me how to use microscope slide coverslips, to stain specimens to reveal more detail under the microscope, and to use the oil drop for the really high magnification for red cell counts. I used to spend hours looking at pond water, chasing paramecia, etc. Single celled protozoa can have complex behavior, so the simple Pitts-McCulloch view of neurons (two states) was never convincing to me. If a single cell can command the complex motions of thousands of body steering cilia along with the sensing to set direction, then a neuron, designed (in a manner of speaking) for thought might be at least as complex.

Christmas 1959. I loved playing with my erector set.

We generally went out to visit Grandfather and Grandmother Reeves on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grandmother always had a big turkey with stuffing and gravy. She also usually made tart applesauce with mashmallows baked on top, mashed potatoes, and sweet potatoes. I never developed a taste for sweet potatoes but loved everything else she served.

Cousins at grandmother's house for Cristmas in 1959 with the Santa's head.

Grandmother always had a Santa Claus head game for the grandchildren. A nametag for each child on a ribbon would lead to a card hidden under the head with directions to a hiding place for a gift. Each child, starting with the youngest would follow the instructions and retrieve a wrapped present. We all loved this ritual.

Dad again took us on a horse pack trip to the Big Five Lakes in the summer, and this time Mom came along, but without any of Dad's friends. It rained a lot and Mom was mostly miserable. It snowed in late August and we returned a few days early. My feet were very cold in the stirrups.

In the summer there was a small carnival in the parking lot in back of the stores on the west side of south Main Street, the block with the Lucky's grocery store and Woolworth's five and dime. Walter and I were there and some kid stole a dime from Walter. A dime in those days was made out of silver and could actually buy something. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was the principle. I demanded that the kid give it back to him, and when he wouldn't I started struggling with him. The police came at the disturbance, and somehow Walter and the kid ended up locked in the back seat of the police car talking to the officers while I looked on from outside. My parents were informed of the incident, and I thought Dad would be angry with me for fighting, but he said he was proud of me for sticking up for Walter. I was also quite frustrated because I had not been able to subdue Walter's antagonist. I didn't lose the fight, but I didn't win either. I was right and he was wrong, and he fought hard and I couldn't defeat him.

November 20, 2011, Kit's Kitchen restaurant, Moiliili, Oahu, Hawaii.

Note to other Rick Wagners about the use of our name: I am Richard J. Wagner, and I know there are lots of us Richard Wagners who go by "Rick." I use our name, "Rick Wagner," in the title of this autobiography because that's the name I go by. I established my personal home page under that name back in 1995, long before many people even knew the Internet (much less the Web) existed. So I consider I have a kind of Web presence precedence, and therefore am entitled to use my nickname in the title of my work. I know and/or hope you will understand.

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