“My life has been a constant state of surprise,” Betty Reid Soskin says. “At my age, I’m involved in a grand improvisation, because all the models in my life have died off. So I’m just making stuff up as I go along.”
Soskin, who turned 97 in September, is a National Park Ranger at Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif. She has yet to hammer out the details of her Litquake appearance at Porchlight on Monday, Oct. 15, where she’ll be reading from her memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life alongside writers like Dickson Lam, Sisonke Msimang, and Steve Almond. That “grand improvisation” could apply to amiable ad-libs on a stage, but the phrase characterizes the life and times of a working professional who was present at major events of the Civil Rights movement, who served as a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention, and who has met figures like James Baldwin, the Obamas, and — only the weekend before — Gloria Steinem.
That she is also a uniformed park ranger — technically, the oldest full-time United States park ranger, although it’s a title she’d like to pass on — is just one facet of Soskin’s marvelous life.
“I’m pretty much unique in that my experience in the National Park Service is only about 12 years old,” she says. “I came in as a consultant on a four-year contract and eventually became a ranger when I was 85.”
She’s visited many national parks, including a two-week training module at the Grand Canyon, but her favorite park remains her own. The reason?
“Because I helped save it,” she says. “So I have sort of a proprietary interest.”
While the Bay Area’s naval and wartime history remains well-known, some of the more significant moments have managed to slide into the memory hole. The 1944 Port Chicago disaster, an explosion that killed 320 servicemembers and injured 390 more — mostly African American men — is significant for more than just the fatalities. A widespread refusal among laborers to resume the job of loading munitions under obviously unsafe conditions led to 50 men being court-martialed for mutiny. Outcry at the demonstrable unfairness of their trial contributed to President Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Forces three years later.
“It’s an ongoing story,” Soskin says, “because we’re still working toward exoneration for the survivors, posthumously — for the men who were dissenters in the case. It’s the only time we ever tried 50 people in a single trial and found them all guilty and sentenced them to 15 years in prison for refusing an order during wartime.
“If you didn’t live in the Bay Area, you had no idea Port Chicago even happened, because it was a deeply held naval secret,” she adds. “But that explosion registered on the Richter scale as far away as Reno, Nevada.”
Soskin, who was 22 at the time, regards the task of educating new generations about that era as a personal challenge. As with the renewed appreciation for the terrible injustice of the Japanese-American internment camps and the re-evaluation of the contributions that women made to the war effort, she believes it is possible to make the historical record more accurate.
“As long as there are people in the audience for whom those stories are new, they become new for me each time,” says Soskin, who identifies as polyracial but who considers herself politically Black. “I’m a primary source for that period. I get to be heard for the first time.”
An unusual site in that the National Park Service administers but does not own the buildings, Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park lures between 5,000 and 7,000 monthly visitors to the former Kaiser Shipyards complex in Richmond. Soskin gives presentations in the 48-person theater on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, working from memory and contextualizing Richmond’s history with that of the region.
The Bay Area, she says, is still a collection of strangers seeking a common identity.
It’s “still a place where the visionaries come to find constituencies for their wildest dreams,” she says. “You can go in 30 miles and lose it, but the Bay is a generator of social change — and that was put into motion by what we went through in those years. And that’s what I get to share.”
She can produce the requisite stats: Richmond had 23,000 residents in 1942 and almost 100,000 more by the time the war ended in 1945. Henry J. Kaiser, who went on to found the health-care giant that bears his name, oversaw the construction of more than 700 ships, contributing to a winning military strategy of out-producing the enemy.
Richmond’s history is under-recognized at home, but not everywhere. Soskin tells a story of Orinda mayor Amy Worth’s 2000 visit to Paris, where she encountered an artist’s map of the world on the Champs-Élysées that was big enough to walk around. The only California city depicted wasn’t Sacramento or Los Angeles, but Richmond. Inquiring why, she was met with the response of “Don’t you know that Richmond saved the world?”
Between its role in the victory in the Pacific theater and the postwar Civil Rights movement, Richmond’s significance should be better recognized. But Soskin grasps one reason why it isn’t: Even people who live through history don’t always know that they are doing so until much later. And she gets to leverage her long, dazzling life against the resource of a federally funded historical site to teach people about it.
“We don’t realize it’s in tiny acts — that don’t get marked — that what we do or fail to do on any given day creates the future,” Soskin says. “I’m living now in the future that I helped to build with millions of other civil rights activists in the ’60s. I get to live into that future — yeah, that’s amazing. I’ve lived the American narrative to the hilt.”
Advice: A Night of Stories with Porchlight, Monday, Oct. 15, 8 p.m. at the Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St. $20; litquake.org
Read more from SF Weekly‘s Litquake issue:
This Is the Last Literary Death Match at the Elbo Room
Don’t expect authors slamming each other over the back with folding chairs on Oct. 17. Expect literary excellence with a little silliness.
What Would the Kids in the Hall Do?: Dave Foley at Litquake
Dave Foley discusses his memoir, Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy, and the sketch-comedy troupe’s legacy.
(Lit-)Crawling out of This Mess, at Survival of the Queerest
There are dozens of events within the three segments of this year’s Lit Crawl. But only Baruch Porras-Hernandez’s showcase has QTPOCs of this caliber.
Ron Stallworth, Real-Life BlacKkKlansman
As in Spike Lee’s film adaptation, the Black police detective’s memoir of infiltrating the Klan reminds us that the ugliest parts of our country never quite left us.