Times Past

This Fourth of July, remaining an optimist during difficult times

Employees watch as crews clean up the sidewalk after an early-morning fire destroyed Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana in Pismo Beach on June 25.
Employees watch as crews clean up the sidewalk after an early-morning fire destroyed Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana in Pismo Beach on June 25. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

The past week has been filled with more surprises than any week since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. The success of the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom threw a giant wrench into the gears of our global economy.

Meanwhile, pundits are saying this is the darkest moment in American politics since Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Should we prepare for a new era of gloom and pessimism?

Some may accuse me of being an eternal optimist, but I argue for a hope-filled future for America. That hope can happen if we learn to embrace the more positive changes that we have experienced since the 1960s.

Change can be uncomfortable for all living things. We are always saddened when a favorite site is changed or destroyed. That certainly is the case for the former Plessa’s Tavern, which became Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana in 1988.

As a child, Plessa’s in Pismo Beach was a favorite family stop on our frequent trips between the Los Angeles basin and the San Francisco Bay Area. Price Street was Highway 101 in those days. Motorists were attracted to the formal dining setting seen through the large front windows. The napkins were artistically arranged sticking up in each glass on the tables. My family loved their stuffed clams and abalone dinners.

I had a colorful tale to tell my classmates when we witnessed a customer trying to leave without paying his bill. Mr. Plessa, an elderly Greek immigrant, was still in top marathon form as he pursued the culprit out into the traffic of Price Street.

He came back with the man handcuffed to a police officer. Mr. Plessa told his applauding clientele, “Nobody stiffs me!”

Joe DiFronzo, the proprietor of Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana, was my student during the mid-1980s. I was on a less than 400-calorie “liquid protein” diet. Teaching European history allowed me to speak of appropriate culinary traditions. Joe and I bonded on that note. He asked if I thought food was an appropriate topic for a senior project.

His senior project became an outstanding restaurant. Giuseppe’s, like Plessa’s, was a favorite.

Joe will come up with a new and exciting place, but the walls and windows will not be the Plessa’s of my youth. They are gone, and we have to accept the change.

Part of the problem for the supporters of Brexit was that England had changed rapidly since the late 1960s, and many didn’t like the change.

Gordon Wilcher and his wife, Carol, retired to San Luis Obispo several years ago. Carol helps Liz with the “book parties” for Hawthorne Elemnetary School’s grades 3 to 6 that we host in our home. Gordon is a docent at Mission San Luis Obispo. He gives great tours.

Gordon was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and is a graduate of its famed Citadel. He became a naval officer.

Recently, Liz asked Gordon how he grew up so totally free of the racial prejudice that once characterized Charleston. Gordon said he was not always free of prejudice. In high school, he and two of his friends harassed black girls with BB guns.

“When I graduated from Bishop England High in 1951, I worked for the Post-Courier, the local newspaper. As a full-time employee, they generally found something for me to do when I was not delivering newspapers.

“One of the other delivery jobs was to take bales of scrap newspaper to customers who used them for packaging and wrapping. These bales were heavy, requiring a forklift. They assigned me two black laborers on these runs. Since one of these runs took about a half hour, I ‘allowed’ the laborers to sit in the cab with me so I could converse with them.

“In talking with them, I learned that the newspaper was paying them 35 cents an hour. They had worked for the company for years. Thomas told me he had children. I had worked less than a year and was making 75 cents an hour.”

That set Gordon to think about injustice, and he began to change his attitude toward people of color. Gordon’s example is a sign of hope for all of us. The American South has moved eons ahead since 1951, partly because of experiences like that of people like Gordon.

This Fourth of July, let us trust that we can all release the loss of what is past and embrace a future of hope for what Abraham Lincoln called in 1865 “the last best hope of earth.”

This column is special to The Tribune. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library.