|Kaiser Permanente historian uncovers
uncle's stint as shipyard reporter
Lincoln Cushing, Kaiser Permanente Archivist and Historian 2011-2021
Originally posted on "A History of Total Health" July 13, 2012, "unpublished" August 2020, republished here 1/26/2021.
Author's note and trigger warning: This article is an example of the challenges of publishing historical content that includes terms or images that may be seen as offensive, regardless of context. After the George Floyd police murder in 2020, many organizations reviewed their content and practices for better racial sensitivity. Understandable for corporate communications, but sometimes such efforts overreach, especially when quoting historical material. This piece, about pride in being a multigenerational Kaiser communicator, was removed after 8 years when one reader commented about another article that "['Jap'] is considered a derogatory word and may be perceived as offensive." On a related note about Dr. Heizer's professional evolution, he moved on from the then-common archaeological practice of "grave digging" to slamming the Anglo genocide of California's indigenous peoples.
Serendipity is the secret bonus of academic research. You can be prowling through documents, methodically and tediously looking for a particular item, when something unexpected comes along and gobsmacks you. I had just such a moment yesterday, as I was looking for photos of women on the various sports teams that served as recreational diversion during the hard work of shipbuilding during World War II.
My go-to source was Fore ‘n’ Aft, a sprightly weekly magazine published for the 93,000 workers in the four Richmond (California) Kaiser Shipyards where the Kaiser Permanente health plan was born. But in the course of learning about baseball teams with occupation-themed names like the “Yard Three Burners” and the “Grave Steamfitters,” I saw a captioned photo of my maternal uncle, Robert Heizer.
I knew that Robert, a distinguished U.C. Berkeley anthropologist who died in 1979, had worked in the Richmond yards during the war. It was family lore that he had replaced his security badge photo with that of a gorilla, just for kicks, and never got caught. I had even learned from one of my cousins that Robert had been a steamfitter. But no one knew much more than that.
Turns out my Uncle Bob was a reporter for the Richmond wartime shipyard publication Fore 'n' Aft. The accompanying short article extols his academic status and professional accomplishments, and goes on to describe his shipyard role as steamfitter leaderman (subforeman) and spare time reporter for Fore ‘n’ Aft.
The photo in the October 29, 1943, article has the uncomfortable but period-authentic caption “Bob Heizer is trying to decide whether to squash Mr. Jap or push him into oblivion.” A curious caricature of an Asiatic enemy (Hideki Tojo?) peeks out of a pipe, and my somber uncle is contemplating the absurd tableau.
There you have it, the circles close in. My uncle was also writing for a Kaiser publication, ten years before I was born. The world of information may be hurtling along at breakneck speed, but much of the human record remains outside the grasp of search engines and data mining.
Manual research still reveals unknown nuggets, and writers still put those pieces together into a compelling narrative. The vast human organism that was the Kaiser shipyards lives on as the vast human organism called Kaiser Permanente, striving to thrive and make the world a better place.
Here is the original article from Fore ‘n’ Aft:
“It’s a pipe to Bob!”
Hard hats off to you, Uncle Bob.
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