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Chapter 1 (1) (2) (3)
Car Accident Scarred my Face for Life
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Alameda, California

Puzzling Movie Poster
 'Whistling in the Dark' Movie Poster

There was a first-run theater around the corner from our downtown Alameda apartment, and when I couldn't afford to actually go see a movie I would enjoy hanging around looking at the colorful posters that decorated its entrance.

I wasn't aware of it at the time, but would later learn that the lettering on most of these posters was done by hand (as were the titles and credits you'd see at the beginning and end of movies in those days).

Later, when I became a working sign-painter, I would meet a number of the fellows who had done this lettering and who had been laid off when mechanical and photo typesetting methods came into use.

They were now looking for work as regular sign-painters.

But getting back to the theater around the corner—there was one particular poster that still sticks in my mind. It was for a comedy-mystery of some kind. But before I saw the poster, I saw the red letters on the theater's marquee reading:

Red Skelton
Whistling in the Dark

"Hmmm," I remember thinking. "Sounds like an exciting movie—something about a red skeleton who whistles in the dark."

But I was amazed that nobody had noticed the misspelling of the word "Skeleton" on the marquee.

Automobile Accident that Scarred my Face for Life

The other thing I remember about Alameda is being involved in an automobile accident that left the scars I have on the right side of my face.

My mother and I had gone to church with a friend who was a Christian Scientist. Going home after church, my mother was driving through an intersection when another car came skidding past a stop sign and hit us broadside. Our Car Was Broadsided, Scarring my Face for Life

The other driver was a dentist who told us he was running late for 12:00 mass, and that he just hadn't noticed the stop sign till the last moment. He did slam on his brakes—so the impact was not enough to cause major injuries—just enough to bang up our car and send shattered glass into the right side of my face.

I don't remember feeling any pain, but when I saw blood on my shirt I knew I had been cut somewhere. That's when my mother and her friend got a look at my face and the friend started shrieking hysterically.

My mother tried to calm her down, saying the cuts didn't look all that serious. And when an ambulance showed up, my mom told the woman to go along with me to the hospital while she stayed to talk to the police and the other driver.

Christian Scientist Faux Pas

But the woman never really calmed down. During the ambulance ride—and then when we arrived at the hospital—she kept screaming, "just because he went to a Christian Science church doesn't mean you can't take care of him."

Well, at the time I had no idea what one thing had to do with the other.

But apparently everyone else did. As soon as they heard "Christian Science" no one would touch me. I heard them telling the woman, who was now getting even more hysterical, "if they're Christian Scientists we can't do anything without his mother's permission."

And the fact that she was screaming we were not Christian Scientists, but had just gone to church with her this one time, didn't dissuade anybody.

So they just left me bleeding on a cot, waiting for my mother to arrive. And when she did get there—nearly an hour later—she started getting hysterical when she found out that nobody had done anything for me this whole time.

Lucky I Didn't Bleed to Death

Well, after she signed a bunch of papers, they took me into the OR, gave me some ether, and stitched up my face. I still have the scars. But we were told later that I probably wouldn't have had any scars (or, at least, the ones I have would have been much less noticeable) if they had started to work on me right away.

I don't believe my mother ever forgave that woman for mentioning Christian Science to the medics.

As for the "seriousness" of the cuts, the glass missed hitting my right eye and my right jugular vein by just a fraction of an inch on each one. Had it hit the jugular, I conceivably could have bled to death before my mom got there. Who knows? I'm just glad it was no worse than it was.

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Buggy Welcome to LA

The first night we were there I started getting real squirmy between the sheets, and when I jumped out of bed I found myself covered with a bunch of red splotches that were literally itching me to death.

At first my mom thought I was just restless about sleeping in a strange new place, but when she got a look at the red splotches we started checking out the bed.

Well, the mattress was crawling with bedbugs. My mom immediately walked down the hall and started banging on the manager's door.

The woman was embarrassed and very apologetic, and immediately had the mattress taken off the Murphy bed and dragged into the hallway. She promised to have the bed thoroughly cleaned and a new mattress in place for the following day. All I could do that night was take a bath and plan on sleeping on the sofa (where my mother said there'd better not be any bedbugs or she'd be suing somebody).

Well, there were no more bedbugs, but the small apartment was still very unappealing, and we were anxious to find something better. (A few months later my mom found a very nice apartment on a hill overlooking Echo Park, but in the meantime we had to make the best of this place.)

Silly poem that was popular with kids then:

I woke up in the morning
And looked upon the wall.
The bedbugs and the cooties
Were having a game of ball.
The score was three to nothing,
The bedbugs were ahead.
The cooties scored a homerun
And knocked me out of bed.

No Playgrounds Nearby

So what's a ten-year-old to do after school in a neighborhood where there are no playgrounds or other dedicated kids' facilities nearby? Well, there was a YMCA a couple of blocks away that had an indoor swimming pool and handball court, along with a few billiard tables and a basketball court—but it was mostly teenagers who hung out there.

So I found myself spending a lot of time at the Los Angeles Public Library that was a few blocks beyond the Y.

Soapbox Sermons — Long & Loud

As for a public park—well, there was Pershing Square. This was a whole city block that was basically one huge lawn with a generous supply of iron benches spaced out along the sidewalk that surrounded it. However, it had no playground facilities of any kind.


The thing Pershing Square was probably best known for in those days was its "soapbox orators" who would literally stand on wooden boxes and offer lengthy speeches or sermons to anyone willing to listen.

One guy didn't need a box—he'd just walk up and down shoutingt, "Ahh, it won't be long now!—Ahh, it won't be long now!"

That was all he ever said.

Offer Hard to Refuse

We'd only been there a couple of weeks when I was approached by a man as I walked home from school. He said he was on his way to the movies, and asked if I'd like to come, too.

I said sure, but I'd have to ask my mom first. (I loved going to the movies, and this seemed like a very friendly man with a very nice offer.)

No, he insisted, I didn't need to ask—and we wouldn't be gone that long—so let's just head for the movies.

Well, I told him I'd be in big trouble if I went without getting my mom's permission—but he promised to explain it to her later and that everything would be all right. He followed me right up to our apartment door, insisting the whole time this wasn't necessary.

But I told him I'd be out as soon as I talked to my mom. (I was very excited about getting to see a movie in the middle of the week).

When my mother heard there was a nice man waiting in the hallway, she let out a scream and pushed me into the kitchenette and ordered me not to move.

"So what's the matter with her?" I wondered as she apprehensively cracked the door and peered into the hallway. And when she turned to say there was no one there I was genuinely surprised.

Then, before I could tell her again how nice he was, she shoved me into a chair and gave me an animated lecture about accepting offers from strangers. But I thought she must be exaggerating. He was so nice!

"Nice" Man

 Approached by a Strange Man

"Well, if he was so nice, why didn't he wait and talk to me?" she demanded.

Well, she had a point—but the disappointment of not going to the movies had clouded my reasoning—and it was only after I'd thought about it that I began to agree he probably was what she said he was.

Well, it was a valuable lesson, and I never had any more childhood problems of that kind—but I did meet a few weirdoes after I got older. However, that's a whole other collection of stories.

Tongue-Twister Turn-Down

Although Pershing Square had no playground area of any kind, there was a raised, covered platform in the middle of the park, where occasionally some informal entertainment was offered. One day they had an "amateur show," that featured some singing and some dancing and some poetry reading. In between these numbers the master of ceremonies would ask if there was anybody out there would like to come up and perform.

Well, I figured, if somebody could stand up there and read poems, I could do a tongue-twister, and then ask if anybody thought they could come onstage and repeat it. (I had just learned a new one and was anxious to try it out.)

So I caught the eye of the Master of Ceremonies, and told him I had a tongue.twister and would like to challenge anyone to repeat it after me. He gave me a surprised look, but said to come to the back of the stage where we could discuss it. Because an act was in progress, he bent over and in a soft voice asked me to tell him the tongue-twister.

"Okay," I said, "it goes like this:

"If a doctor is doctoring a doctor,
does the doctor doctoring the doctor being doctored
doctor the doctor being doctored
the way the doctor being doctored wants to be doctored,
or does the doctor doctoring the doctor being doctored
doctor the doctor being doctored
the way the doctor doctoring the doctor being doctored
usually doctors?"

The MC looked at me for a long moment, and then asked, "Is that it?"

When I said yes, he gave me a condescending smile, patted me on the head and nudged me toward the steps. "Run along, sonny," he said, "Your mom's probably looking for you".

My Favorite Place

 Cliftons Cafeteria

But the place in downtown LA I remember most warmly was Clifton's Cafeteria. This was a large restaurant exotically decorated in a Polynesian motif that included live palm trees, cascading waterfalls, and aquariums full of tropical fish, as well as continuous live organ music.

The food was good and the atmosphere was enchanting. (Noticeably absent from the décor were any of my stepdad's serigraphs—although, over the years, I would occasionally see them in motel rooms and furnished apartments.)

Polynesian Paradise

Anyway, one would think that a place with this kind of atmosphere must be a very expensive place to eat—but quite the opposite was true. My favorite thing about Clifton's was the live organist who played in a balcony overlooking the beehive of activity below.

There were comfortable theater seats behind the organ, where anyone was welcome to sit and watch the constantly moving tableau below, or to just close one's eyes and enjoy the melodic strains of the Hammond. And the organist was always willing to play requests.

I spent many happy afternoons sitting in the balcony, bombarding him with requests for all my favorite songs. (And I had dozens of favorite songs.)

But my parents' favorite thing about Clifton's was the small sign that greeted everyone at the cafeteria's entrance. It said that the prices of all the dishes would be plainly marked and that you'd pay the cashier at the end of the line—but—that you didn't have to pay any more than you could afford.

You Needn't Pay
Any More Than
You Can Afford

Well, they never told me if they ever actually took advantage of this generous offer, or if they always paid full price—but I knew they appreciated knowing of a restaurant that would charge no more than one could afford to pay in case times got tough (which for us they usually were).

Next Page

Prologue   Ch.1 Alameda — Los Angeles 1939—40   Ch.2 Echo Park 1943   Ch.3 Virgil Jr Hi 1944   Ch.4 Le Conte Jr Hi 1945—46
Ch.5 Gower Gulch 1946   Ch.6 Hollywood Hi 1946—47   Ch.7 Drop Out 1948   Ch 8 Norma Jean Salina 1948   Ch 9 Fort Ord 1949
Ch.10 Fort Belvoir 1950   Ch.11 Korea 1951   Ch.12 Back to Civilian Life 1952   Ch.13 Cornet Stores 1953   Ch.14 Puerto Rico 1955
Ch 15 Signs by George 1956   Ch 16 Mexico 1958   Ch.17 Fullerton 1960   Ch.18 Fallbrook 1973   Ch.19 Costa Mesa 2000

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Since I have no personal photos from my youth, I've used pictures found on the Internet to help illustrate some of the stories told on these pages. In a couple of instances I've used photos of people who just happen to closely resemble someone I once knew. However, if it's found that I'm using any images in violation of someone's copyright, please let me know and appropriate action will be taken.
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