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  • Writer's pictureellie weigand

Alfred Sabrey

Updated: Aug 27, 2018

Alfred Sabrey is a 93 year-old man living in Almaden Valley who has an amazing story. It’s filled with ambition and strength and is a perfect example of what a person can be capable of. He and his daughter Darlene can recall the days when Almaden Valley was nothing but orchards filled with fond memories. The fields and the trees and the dairy farms. The kids would play in the cherry orchards, using fruit as ammunition for food fights and enjoying the perfumed air when the trees were all in blossom.

The jobs in the area were either picking fruit or working at the Del Monte canning factory and the cultural diversity of the area was basically nonexistent. It wasn’t about whether a person was Caucasian or Latino, those were the jobs, pick the fruit or can it. “Picking the prunes was bad, and the walnuts made your hands go black,” he said. There was no Silicon Valley.

The house Darlene remembers growing up in had cow pastures behind it and she was always so worried about missing the school bus. If she missed the bus the fastest way to school was to walk through the cow pastures and she was terrified of the cows. This was her fate though if she was late, at 8 years old, just to make her way to George Minor Public School. The home itself cost twelve thousand dollars, a “bargain” by today’s standards

A big part of Alfred’s life has been dedicated to teaching English and he is a gifted writer, something he has done his best to pass down in the family. “He used to say, “If you cannot speak correctly, do not speak at all.” Darlene jokes. Teaching in Campbell and Marina after the war, Alfred explained, “English is a great subject except you have to know how to teach it, otherwise it’s a bore.” It was clear how much he appreciates the written word and that teaching and writing are exciting to him. He’s never published anything, he has always only been writing for himself as something that he genuinely enjoys doing. He is a talented poet, too. When Darlene’s sister was an airline stewardess, Alfred would take their daily lives and put it into a letter for her. Darlene saw from these letters how silly things that seemed so important really didn’t seem so important after reading the often comical letters. Her favorite thing is life has become her fathers writing.

The quiet of the area is what he finds so appealing about Almaden. It’s small, and a community where everyone knows each other or at least has mutual friends. Everyone isn’t in everyone else's business and it's peaceful. There is no sound of cars or a bypass, the quiet is perfect. “Coming here was a Godsend,” Alfred said. Darlene loves it here as well. She spoke about how different it is in the schools here because the parents fight for the kids so much. Giving a lot of time and money and just being very involved in the schools and communities to support their kids. It’s no wonder why the school here are so fantastic. Father and Daughter also remember the time when Almaden Valley was virtually crimeless. “No one needed to lock their doors, there was no graffiti, could leave your keys in the car and leave your bike anywhere knowing that it would still be there when you went back for it.” That was back in the 50’s and 60’s when the kids would all go play outside for the day and the only rule was to be back before dark. “If I wasn’t back by dark I would be in trouble.” Darlene laughed.

When looking at what has changed the most, Darlene and Alfred feel the same way about Almaden. The apartment buildings are exploding, the prices of homes are skyrocketing, and of course, the population has drastically changed. When they first lived in San Jose there were only about 30,000 people whereas now there are at least 1 million.

Darlene’s mother had been a pioneer for women in the 1960s. She was a manager at Fairchild and then Varian. She did not have a college degree, and eventually, as things in the economic and business world changed, she was forced to leave her job because of her lack of a degree.

When Alfred himself was growing up in San Jose, there weren't very many kids in the schools with him. When he went to college and experienced classrooms of 50 students after he returned from service during WWII, he noticed an increased number of kids in a class but that was part of the baby boomer generation. At the age of 13, Alfred found high school to be boring. He was a small kid, too small to play sports. He tried track and field but he wasn’t very good at it. The only thing he remembers about school that was enjoyable and memorable was reading. “I don’t remember doing much of anything else.” He said. He was a big fan of science-fiction and The Knights of the Round Table. Even though he enjoyed his English classes, he still flunked the exams before he left school in his senior year to go join the troops.

He enjoyed high school and got straight A’s after he returned from WWII and went to night school, but when he was in school before he had never enjoyed it. Regardless, as far as English went, Alfred is brilliant. “He would say words that no one ever uses.” Darlene said with a smile. When he finally became a teacher, he basically dumped everything he had been taught and started teaching his own way, using his own curriculum. It became exciting and the kids loved it so he stuck with it. He explained that “the methods of teaching was a one size fits all and it doesn’t suit all, and either you let the kids follow their instincts and you use the subject to develop it and then it becomes exciting. They all liked writing, they didn’t know it but they figured it out.”

In his first class he told the kids, “Once you write, just write anything you want, hate your mom, hate your, dad don’t worry about it, just write. When your finished, crumple it up and throw it away.” The pencils were flying and he started teaching parts of speech from their own writing and made what he called a “naked sentence.” Then he taught them how to add an adjective and it became easier to imagine and see what they were writing. He got them excited about it. Adding things, teaching little tricks that made it fun, and pretty soon what they wrote grew into sentences and paragraphs and full compositions. “The kids in 8th grade can write properly if you teach them properly.” He didn’t want them to learn the parts of speech, but memorize them. He taught constructive criticism as opposed to destructive criticism. Darlene said that Alfred always made reading fun. “He used to say ‘Read it as the author intended it to be read.’ You would start hearing what the author is saying.”

He started on his “accidental” English career very young. When he was in grammar school as a boy, Alfred ended up being voted in as the editor of the school yearbook. He had no idea what that meant at the time. Aside from doing normal kid stuff like playing hide and seek and baseball games in the street, there were no real destructive habits for a kid when he was growing up. At 8 years old he had his first job selling newspapers on a corner, just like you would imagine a kid doing in the old time movies. That and shining shoes. A paper cost a nickel and he would earn a penny for each one he sold. “A nickel could buy a lot of things back then!” Darlene said.

As far as his favorite job ever goes though, Alfred quickly answered with teaching. In particular, at Marina and Campbell. “When I taught in the school, I loved teaching the kids in class but staying up until 2-3 in the morning marking papers wasn’t fun. Being there in the class with the kids was really great.” It’s clear that Alfred was lucky enough to have taught some very intelligent and wonderful kids, leaving an impression on them as most great teachers do. He even had the opportunity to teach a class of gifted students. There were only about 7 or 8 of them but they were brilliant, they learned quickly and in 8th grade one of them was even doing high-level math, including calculus. “It was fun trying to keep up with them.” He said happily.

Though teaching the gifted students was a rewarding experience, so was teaching the kids that needed a bit more help. “There was one boy, a football player who was having a hard time so he adjusted his teaching methods,” Darlene said. “He used to say, ‘find another way. If they’re not learning it, find another way.’ ”

Teaching English was definitely not Alfred’s dream job though. When he was younger, he always wanted to be a fighter pilot. Though he wasn’t able to pass the vision test due to an issue with one of his eyes, he did manage to land a position at 18 years old as a member of the flight crew on a B17 bomber plane.

He served for 4 years, from 1941 to 1945, traveling to many places and seeing many things during his time with the army. He had been determined to fly, no matter what the cost, so when he went for the exam to be on the flight crew, he read with his good eye and passed. He ended up as a radio gunner on a B17 and was stationed in England and tasked with bombing the Germans. On Tuesday, 6 June 1944, also known as D-day, the largest seaborne invasion in history occurred and the bomber Alfred was stationed on had been sent ahead of the troops that were set to land in Normandy. Shortly after, they had to fly off on another mission veering towards Paris to bomb a German ball bearing plant. That was his last mission.

Darlene is very proud of her father and it is clear in the story she told about his experience that she loves him very much. She explained one story, “He said there were 10 gunners, Dad did the Morse code and was a radio gunner. There was one guy, a waist gunner who would always get airsick.” Alfred helped tell the story, “This waist gunner would get very sick, this time, the second mission after D-day, we were flying towards the target. The waist gunner, a 50 caliber machine gun, wasn’t manned so I went over to see if the guy was alright and he was curled up on the floor very sick so I plugged him into the oxygen and took over his position.”

If it wasn’t for Alfred taking control that day, there is a good chance that man would have been killed. It was during this event that Alfred was hit by shrapnel and injured on his 29th mission. It's hard to imagine what that must have been like. “We didn’t know it but after all the fighting amongst each other we didn’t realize the effect of what was going on.” Alfred explained when asked about the emotional stress of fighting in WWII. After the war it was clear that he suffered from PTSD. They talk about it all the time and wonder how he did so well afterwards. Watching all these planes falling and blowing up was traumatic.

But he came back, met his wife, went to college, and settled down. When Darlene was little she couldn’t go in to him to wake him up, she would have to do it at a distance, he had been so conditioned to be ready to move or fight and defend. He didn’t talk about the war for 50 years. “The worst thing was the cold. It was 15 below zero up in the plane. There was no roof and there were icicles everywhere. All we had to wear was just a thick brown leather bomber jacket and gloves.” Alfred said. After the bombing was done, they would have to go out and take a picture and he said that one time he was almost sucked out of the plane. “You were too busy fighting back, you didn’t get scared then. The flak that would spray shrapnel everywhere would go right through the plane and all you could do was put on a flak suit and that was when you got scared. You were just waiting to get hit.”

Its amazing that Alfred and his entire crew made it back from the war. His injury was from the flak, the doctor had taken three pieces of metal out of his leg and gave it to him. A fraction of an inch over and they would have hit his knee which would have been devastating. He still has the scar from that day.

Even though Alfred really doesn’t have too many people left in his life as his crew and all his friends were older than him, he still has the love of his family and an excellent attitude about life. When asked what the best piece of advice anyone had ever given him, he said, “To read the Bible.” His father had been a Protestant pastor in a little church that still stands today in San Jose. He was a heavy influence on Alfred, as well as his faith in God.

Through all of the things he has lived to see, there is a tradition in the family which reflects his love of the written word and the bond between family. Darlene explained the most cherished family tradition that she holds dear. “Because dad was an English teacher, my favorite things were the things he wrote.” On their birthdays every year, they would write something for whoever’s birthday it was. They called them odes. They would stand up and read what they had written for one another. It could be funny, it could be poetry, they write the ode and sometimes without even talking to each other they would be on the same theme. “That was our most cherished thing. It’s a personal thing where you say things you normally don’t say, its important to us. Writing what you feel at that moment about them.”

Darlene spoke of how her mother wouldn’t write an ode, but when she helped move her father into the house in Almaden, they found all the odes that her mother had saved. Within the collection, they found many that she had written but never told anyone about. “It was very emotional.” She said with a smile.

At 93 years old and still full of life and a passion for words, Alfred (and his daughter Darlene, who’s in her 60s) make Almaden Valley a little more incredible with what they hold dear and the stories they have brought to the community.

Alfred and his daughter, Darlene

A poem written by Alfred, "Longing".

Alfred and his WWII flight crew. Alfred is in the back row, last one on the right.

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