A letter to Maya, David, Edwin DeBus, and their children, about my remembrances of their mother, Bemi.
January 9, 2005. The phone rang and I answered, “This is Carolyn.” “Carolyn, this is Maya.”
Maya is the daughter of Bemi and Louie DeBus, my closest friends for fifty years. Maya had not been in touch with me since her mother’s Alzheimer’s put her in a nursing home where I could not visit.
“Maya, what do you have to tell me?”
“Mommie passed away yesterday afternoon. You are the first person I have called.”
We were both quiet to give ourselves time for tears.
Bemi was a remarkable woman who lived a complex life. As a child she spent her time in her father’s newspaper office in Littleton, Colorado. During World Was II she was a war correspondent in Europe, and then spent a year in Paris studying biology.
She had married Louis at the beginning of the war, but he was shipped to New Guinea to pilot gliders dropping paratroopers on various islands. At the end of the war Louis came to Los Angeles to go to UCLA and Bemi got an afternoon spot on CBS radio to deliver the news. When their first son David was born she quit her job and started many aspects of volunteer work Her most famous identity evolved in the Save the Whales movement.
The story starts during World War II in Los Angeles. Clinton E. Clifton had established a chain of highly successful Clifton Cafeterias. As a result, the California Institute of Technology gave him a grant of $30,000 to develop a food that would be a complete meal taking almost no preparation, would store for a long time under all conditions, and would be inexpensive. Clifton did just that. He developed and manufactured what he named Multi Purpose Food: MPF. It came in five pound cans and was sent to areas of the world where the people were starving. Husband Bob and I always had a couple of cans on hand for emergencies, such as earthquakes, the Cuban missile crisis, and for camping. It was not tasty, but a portion heated for ten minutes in boiling water made it edible and nourishing. Mr. Clinton served a bowl of it in his cafeterias with an Oreo cookie, a complete meal, for five cents. When Mr. Clifton died the manufacture of MPF stopped.
A group of people decided that the manufacture of MPF should be continued, and started meeting to implement the decision. Bemi heard about it, and became one of the group—all volunteers. As they started looking for sources of protein, someone pointed out that off of our coast every year was the migration of California gray whales that might be harvested for a new type of multi-purpose food. As they looked into the possibilities they came to realize that these whales, along with many other species, were on the endangered list.
The committee to provide an MPF type of food disintegrated, but Bemi spearheaded a new committee to do something about protecting the whales. They formed the American Cetacean Society, based in San Pedro, California, but before long there were chapters up and down the West Coast. They became politically active in protecting whales the world over. They worked hard to publicize the plight of the ocean environment.
How did this affect me? As a close friend of Bemi’s I found myself involved, with or without my consent, to be active in the Save the Whales activities. I organized and conducted many classrooms of school children on trips to San Pedro. There they boarded a whale-watching boat, and were taken to sea to observe the whales migrating between Alaska and Scammon’s Lagoon in Mexico to mate and bear their young. I also conducted tours to the University of California Riverside to learn about jojoba plants being raised for their oil, which had the same qualities as whale oil for manufacturing uses. I rode the Goodyear Blimp to count and photograph whales migrating off Palos Verdes.
As a teacher, I booked a bus to take my class to San Pedro’s Cabrillo Marine Museum and then persuaded the bus driver to take off across the sand dunes to where a group of naturalists had uncovered a complete gray whale skeleton preserved in the sand, and were digging it out to be displayed in the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.
Our family spent time whale watching, visiting the off-shore islands, and Bob and I had opportunity to take sailing trips along the coast on private yachts.
This set of activities was only a minor part of our relationship, but it is the one for which Bemi is best known. When I brought up American Cetacean Society on the Internet, there was her name listed as one of the founders.
To Maya, David, and Edwin, and their children, I feel compelled to write a whole series of memoirs for you.