Thursday, February 11, 2016

Article 11: Chester M. Ratliff, Jr.

I met Chet Ratliff in late March, 1979, when I was one of the people who interviewed him for a job at Interactive Applications, Inc., where I worked from spring of 1978 through July, 1979.  I remember having a cup of coffee with him and conducting the interview at a small cafe near IAI, and it was immediately apparent to me that he'd be a great addition to the company.  Chet joined IAI soon thereafter as a systems analyst/programmer.

Probably two weeks after Chet joined IAI, he and I had lunch together, and the conversation quickly shifted from work topics to our personal lives.  I wish I could recall every detail of that conversation, but I don't.  I only remember my impressions of him--that he was thoughtful, modest, very bright, and as much interested in knowing me as I was in knowing him.  I found out that he'd graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in pure and applied mathematics and physics, with a chemistry minor, and that he had grown up and still lived in Berkeley.  So, each day he commuted about 90 miles to work and back!

Although many things, including our diverse and common interests, drew me to Chet, one of the most interesting things to me was how he communicated.  Over the years I heard many people tell him that he was unusually quiet, even wondering if he was shy or intimidated.  From our first conversation I saw him much differently--as a person who listened intently and only spoke when he had something of interest to say.  That set him apart from most people, including myself.  If Chet was quiet for a short time, it didn't mean he wasn't "present."  I thought he was more "present" than anyone I knew.

Our early conversations soon led to our doing many, many activities together.  I think it's typical that a person does a few types of activities with a close friend-- maybe meals together, movies, shopping, one sport.  Chet and I had lunches and dinners together, saw many movies (I'm still somewhat embarrassed that I convinced him to see "ABBA: The Movie"), and went to classical concerts.  He introduced me to the comedy and late-night jazz clubs in San Francisco; I took him to a bluegrass concert in Berkeley.  He owned two beautiful Jensen Healeys, which he personally maintained, so what I know about cars I learned from watching Chet work on his cars.  We attended car road races at Laguna Seca and Sears Point Raceways, went to see the Reno Air Races, saw several A's and Giants baseball games, and traveled to Santa Barbara for a weekend to watch the Junior National Volleyball Championships.

One of our favorite pastimes was watching basketball together, and we often went to see the Golden State Warriors play, especially when one of Chet's four NBA-playing cousins was in town.  (He introduced me to Caldwell Jones and Major Jones after games in Oakland.)  When you sit court-side at a professional basketball game, you get a new appreciation for the remarkable athleticism of those players.

But what we probably loved doing most was skiing together.  Chet pretty much taught me to ski, helped me pick out all of my equipment, and coached me down many scary slopes.  Besides being one of the most graceful, beautiful skiers I've ever seen, he was infinitely patient and encouraging of someone a lot less accomplished than he.  He bought us a pair of fluorescent orange Northface caps so we could always spot each other while skiing on a crowded hill.  (I still have that cap!)  In all the years we skied together, I only saw Chet fall twice, both times when he skied onto a narrow strip of snow that gave way.

As I progressed to an advanced intermediate level, we had more and more fun together. Although I have many memories of those days, I have two favorites.  Once while skiing down a narrow, steep hill late in the afternoon, he saw me struggling a bit, and over the sound of our skis, I heard him say, "Ski the hill; don't let the hill ski you."  He showed me that I had the control and ability to be there.  And then there was the time we got caught in a white-out snow storm at the top of Heavenly Valley, on the California side.  You could not see more than ten feet in front of you, and it was getting worse by the minute, so he led me down the entire mountain without stopping--almost five miles of hills and trails--while dodging people who had fallen.  He knew I was right behind him, and he only skied as fast as he knew I could ski.  Those were great days.

Yet, what I remember more than anything from our years together is our conversations about life.  Although I consider Chet remarkable in so many ways, it is through our talks that he most influenced my life.  I also know that I influenced his life.

Chet pushed me to do right things.  Because of the influence of my father, who I write about in the first article of this series, I grew up believing that I had a fairly good "moral compass"--the ability to do good and right things.  Not until I knew Chet did I realize that I had a bit to go.  I met Chet's parents, Chester Ratliff, Sr. and Christine Ratliff, soon after Chet and I met.  They were the most thoughtful, kind, generous people I'd ever met, and it was evident that Chet and his sister, Deborah, had acquired those traits from their parents.  Mr. and Mrs. Ratliff welcomed me as a member of their family, and I always loved spending time with them, even when Chet was not there with us.

I remember stopping by his parents' home with him once to pick up a basketball from his room.  I noticed some old handwritten notes (really, heart-felt aphorisms) taped to his wall and read a few.  His mother had written them when he was a young kid, and I was stunned by their wisdom, simplicity, and caring, such as "Always be considerate of others" and "Do your best in whatever you do."  (These may be inexact wordings, but they are very much in the spirit of what was written on each small note.)  What I saw that day reinforced what I already knew about Chet--that he was a consistently, uncommonly good person, and the goodness was instilled by his parents every day as he grew up.

But being a good person does not necessarily mean that you do "right" things.  I think you develop that quality on your own when confronted by hundreds of situations in life, if you've already developed a good moral compass.  It might be an action as simple as picking up an object that someone else has dropped or helping an elderly person open a door or letting another car change lanes in front of you.  Chet so consistently did "right" things that it pushed me to be aware of what could be done, if only you paid attention to those around you.  Many of us lead good lives but remain mostly oblivious of others.  A frequent part of our conversations was centered on how people could do more "right" things if they paid attention and put themselves in the place of others--sort of a conscious, consistent Golden Rule.

Chet and I were sitting in a theater one day in 1980, watching Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when the movie was stopped, the lights came on, and we were all asked to leave the building.  After about 20 minutes, they allowed us back in the building and continued the movie.  Chet looked at me and said, "You know what that was, right?"  I nodded, and he immediately got up and walked out while the movie was playing.  A few minutes later he returned to his seat, the movie was stopped and the lights came on again--this time with the theater manager standing at the front.  He announced that there had been a bomb threat, the theater had been searched (with no bomb found), and he'd like to offer a full refund to anyone who wished to leave.  Between 10%-20% of a fully-packed theater got up and left.

How many people would even think to reach out to the manager in that situation, much less act on their thoughts?  I never asked Chet what he had discussed with the manager, but it was obviously the "right" thing to do.  He thought every person should know what happened and have the choice of staying or not staying.  Many times I saw Chet do similar "right" things that were automatic to him.  He "pushed" me by being a constant example of "right" action.  Over the years I've tried to emulate that trait, with varying degrees of success, and I still chide myself when I miss or avoid opportunities to do "right" things.  I often think of Chet when situations present themselves and I act to help someone.

Chet pushed me to look at my biases.  Growing up in the Bay Area, you are inevitably in contact with people of different races, nationalities, religions and cultures.  For Chet to have a white friend was certainly not unusual for him, but for me to have a friend who was black or Asian or Latino or Muslim or some other minority was unprecedented.  I grew up on the east side of town in Rockford, Illinois, which is predominantly white and, in particular, Swedish.  There were fewer than twenty "minority" students in my entire high school (of 2,700 students), only whites in my Sunday school and Jewish temple, and only one black student in my college dorm or any of my college classes.  I did not serve in the Armed Forces, nor did I ever work at a large company, so I almost never had occasion to meet people of other races, cultures and nationalities.

Yet, I did not grow up with any conscious bigotries.  My father, for the most part, saw to that.  Being Jewish, I was exposed to some biases from other students at times, and my father probably used those incidents as examples of how not to treat people.  However, I was dimly aware of my mother's "southern roots" biases, largely unspoken, and the truth was that my own racial thoughts and feelings had never been challenged.  I had been far too isolated in my life.

Chet and I never talked about how people might be biased, and so it is somewhat inaccurate to say that Chet "pushed me" to look at my biases.  What we did discuss was that all people should be treated the same, with respect and dignity and compassion, and from those conversations I intentionally pushed myself to look at whether I had any biases toward other people.  Was I quick to judge this race or that religion in any ways?  For that matter, did I identify people primarily by their race, their religion or their culture, thus automatically considering them as different from me?

I once accompanied Chet to a party of a few dozen people, and midway through the evening I realized that I was the only white person in the room.  What stunned me was not that I was the only white, but that I had not noticed it before.  Our biases begin when we notice differences between people and then magnify those differences into value judgments.  When we notice, share and enjoy our similarities first, our biases dissipate and are tossed aside, like getting rid of old, ill-fitting clothing.  It is so much easier to live that way.  Of the things that Chet brought into my life, that's what I value the most--an ease of living with and accepting other people.  I guess that's the definition of tolerance.

And Finally.... Chet and I live about 55 miles apart, so we don't get to see each other as often as we'd like.  Still, I am reminded of him often and he is always somewhere deep in my thoughts.  Now that the Warriors are playing so well, we should try to catch a game together again.

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