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1st School Battalion
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
They had told me the construction surveying course would be very intensive-and it was. Sergeant Carlson, the chief instructor explained to us on our first day that since we (the students) had come from a variety of levels of education, he would assume that none of us had the any of the math skills needed to be a professional surveyor.
So, in order to keep everybody at the same level, he went on, he would start us out learning basic addition and subtraction-and take us all the way through college geometry and trigonometry-all in just two weeks. Then we would divide our time pretty much equally between classroom work and field work.
This sounded good to me-alternating indoor studies with outdoor work. I was looking forward to it. However, the daytime temperatures were now in the low thirties most of the time-and I didn't take to that too well. But I survived, and managed to get pretty good grades, even though simple math had always been my weakest point in school.
Strangely enough, I was usually able to understand complicated formulas readily enough, and figure out how a problem should be solved-but I'd frequently end up with the wrong final answer because of an error in simple addition.) But in spite of this handicap, I was getting passing grades in math, and did quite well with the field work-until one day when I triangulated us right into the flower garden of the Commanding General's private quarters.
We'd be sent out in groups of three to see if we could follow a map that was supposed to lead us sequentially around a string of pre-determined markers somewhere out in the field (the field, in this case, being mostly woods). You'd find these markers by using a transit, a Philadelphia rod, and a measuring chain. Without trying to get technical, the idea was that if you measured the angles and distances indicated on the map correctly, you'd eventually end up at a predetermined destination.
Usually I did pretty well at this, but on this particular day I somehow misread a couple of angles and was surprised to find that the map was apparently leading into a garden near this rather stately-looking house just beyond the edge of the woods.
As we got close to the house, a young woman came out and said, "I don't think you're supposed to be here. What are you doing, anyway?"
I was about to explain that we were just following a map when a pair of MPs came racing around from the opposite side of the house with their hands on their holsters. "Hey!" they were yelling.
Well, to make a short embarrassing story shorter, we were told by the MPs that this was the Commanding General's home and that the young lady was his daughter and that we were lucky we didn't get shot at. So I apologized and took a closer look at our map to see if I could figure out where we were actually supposed to be.
I did find my error, and quickly got us back on course. But from then on we were known around the School Battalion as the three guys who got into trouble with Base Commander's daughter.
The time at school seemed to pass quickly. The weather began getting a little warmer and the construction surveying course would soon be coming to an end.
THINKING OF DROPPING OUT - AGAIN
But about a week before I was due to graduate, I found myself giving serious thought to dropping out. (Does this sound familiar?) Not that I wasn't doing well-I'd been getting a B+ average, and was looking forward to getting my diploma. We had been told that Corps of Engineers Tech School graduates were needed all around the world to help build dams, bridges, and highways in what surely must have been exciting and exotic places.
But I decided to forsake all this for a desk job at Fort Belvoir.
I don't remember just how I became acquainted with Master Sergeant Francis M. Baggott, the school company's First Sergeant and ranking NCO, but when he found out I knew how to touch type he asked me how I'd like to stay there and be his Company Clerk. (In those days it was mainly girls who took typing in school-so a competent male typist wasn't easy to come by. And Sgt. Baggott needed one.)
But what would be the advantages of remaining at Fort Belvoir? Well, for starters, I would be out of the barracks and into a semi-private "cadre" room. I would have a steady 8 to 5 office job, with weekends off-and I would always get to go to "early chow" (meaning I didn't have to wait in the regular student chow line). An automatic promotion to corporal also came with the job, and remaining at Fort Belvoir meant I was just a few miles from Washington DC and all the interesting things our capital city had to offer. There was even a very nice roller rink a few miles up the road, just outside of Alexandria, Virginia.
Sounded pretty good to me, so I said I'd take the job. However there was just one catch-you couldn't just "drop out" of this kind of a military tech school. Sure, you could ask to be reassigned, but I was told the army took a dim view of spending thousands of dollars training someone, only to have him ask for a different assignment. If I really wanted to do this, there was only one course of action available-fail the course. And the only way I could do that was to completely flunk the upcoming final exam.
So there I was, looking at an exam I knew I could pass (maybe not with flying colors-but with at least a B) and was about to answer every question wrong that I could. This was not a comfortable feeling, and several times I found myself starting to erase the incorrect answers to replace them with correct ones. But then I would think of the skating rink where I'd spent many pleasurable hours, and how they might not have any roller rinks in Saudi Arabia or Formosa-so I went ahead and flunked the test.
Well, Sgt. Carlson was fit to be tied. What I'd done was pretty obvious, but he demanded to know why. And didn't I realize this test score was going to make him look like an idiot? (Well, no, I hadn't thought of that.) Then he said he had half a mind to grade all my answers with their opposite scores and pass me anyway. But he decided that would probably make him look like a bigger idiot, so he went ahead and let me flunk-but not without telling me he hoped I would have a miserable time at my new job.
"RA" ALL THE WAY
Sgt. Baggott had assured me that if I did flunk the course, he could pull the strings that would get me assigned as Company K's Company Clerk-and he did.
Sgt. Baggott was a career soldier who had close to twenty years in, and liked what he was doing. His job was mostly administrative, and struck me as being a fairly easy one. He was the one responsible for keeping the normal stream of bureaucratic red tape flowing through his outfit, and, with an efficient Company Clerk, he wouldn't have to work too hard at doing that. He rarely came out from behind his desk (which may have had something to do with the fact that he was about 30 pounds overweight). And he appreciated having someone in the office who could type with all ten fingers (although he was almost as fast with just two).
Well, I settled in and learned the ropes very quickly. Before long I was handling all the paperwork, and even designed a number of forms to help smooth the flow of the omnipresent red tape. Sgt. Baggott appreciated my efforts and we got along well-for a while.
But I began to get restless. I had a comfortable job-and probably shouldn't have rocked the boat-but the First Sergeant and I had totally different views on military life. He was strictly RA (regular army) and didn't have much use for anyone who was just "putting in some time" till he could get back to civilian life (which, of course, was exactly what I was doing).
And if you thought Sgt. Baggott was RA all the way, you should have met his wife. I ran into her in the waiting room of the infirmary one day. Down the hall we could see a line-up of soldiers of varying ages and ranks filing slowly into another room. Mrs. Baggott shook her head sadly and said, "Oh those poor boys. Whatever are they going to do?" When I asked what she meant, she said, "They're being processed for discharge. They're going to be civilians soon, and they'll be out there hoping someone will offer them a job or give them a handout. Oh, those poor boys. If only they knew what they're letting themselves in for."
Well, I could see she wouldn't like anything I'd have to say on that subject, so I excused myself and said I had to use the restroom-hoping she'd be gone when I came out. (She was.)
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But I got along real well with Captain Kenneth Maynard. He was our Company Commander, and pretty much of a regular guy. In fact I knew it irritated Sgt. Baggott whenever he heard the captain and myself joking and laughing in the captain's office. Capt. Maynard seemed to like me, and I knew as long as he was the CO, I'd have a job there-even if Sgt. and/or Mrs. Baggott got tired of me (which they did).
As things turned out, I stayed there for nearly two years-and for most of that time things went quite smoothly. But eventually Sgt. Baggot and I got to where we just sort maintained a polite co-existence and tried to stay out of each other's way. We got along-but anyone could see we really didn't care all that much for each other.
But I had other friends. James Wilson was a black sailor who was taking one of the courses. (Although this was an army base with schools that taught subjects normally associated with the army, five to ten percent of the students at any given time were from other branches of the service.) James and I were introduced by somebody who said we should have a lot in common because we were both interested in classical music. Well, James was more than just interested-he was a talented violinist, and had been playing since he was very young.
DC THEATERS - NO BLACKS ALLOWED
One day, while going through the movie listings in the Washington Post, I spotted an ad for a French movie that was supposed to be about the life of the composer Jacques Offenbach. It was playing at a small "art" theater that specialized in foreign films. I wasn't familiar with the theater's location-but James had been born and raised in DC. When I mentioned it to him (and suggested going to see the movie) he said he knew right where it was. He also said he was glad the film was playing in this particular movie house, because it was one of the few theaters in DC that he was allowed into. I thought he was kidding. He wasn't.
I could scarcely believe it. Here it was 1950, and the vast majority of movie theaters in our nation's capital refused to admit blacks? I guess I really was naïve.
James and I got to be good friends, and I was frequently invited to dinner at his parents' home. I also became acquainted with the various restaurants and theaters in Washington DC where blacks were welcome. Beyond that, I enjoyed hearing him play the violin, and he got a kick out of my coin and card tricks.
Then one day I ran across a book on hypnotism. I'd always been curious about whether hypnotism was for real, or was it just an act of some kind? It was a big book that can't be summarized in a few words-but it said, basically, that hypnotism is indeed quite real and, when used properly, it can be an effective tool in certain types of medical and/or psychiatric treatments. The book also explained that people can't be hypnotized against their will, nor can hypnotized persons be made to do things that are against their moral values.
The book also had a lot of precautionary notes as to the potential hazards of just fooling around with hypnotism. Having said all that, however, it pointed out that it is not all that hard for one person to hypnotize another-as long as the other is willing. Then the book explained how to do it.
I was curious to try it out. So was James.
To grossly oversimplify it-the idea is for the hypnotist to get the other person's full attention (usually by having him concentrate on an object of some kind) and then by telling him authoritatively that he is going to relax-and feel good-and, ultimately, follow the hypnotist's instructions.
So, one night (when my roommate was gone for the evening) James and I decided to try a little hypnotism. With James laying on his back, I dimmed the lights and asked him to concentrate on an object I would dangle in above of him. As he stared at the slowly swinging dogtag (army ID necklace) I told him he was beginning to relax. I then told him how his feet were getting heavy, and then his legs, etc., and finally how his whole body was so heavy he could scarcely move any part of it. Then I asked him to try to raise his right hand (after having told himit would be too heavy to raise more than a couple of inches).
He struggled to raise it, but could just barely get it off the blanket. (Was he really hypnotized, I wondered, or just trying to be cooperative?)
Next I told him that the heaviness would go away, and that he could sit up on the edge of the bunk. He did-but I still couldn't tell if he was just trying to please me.
Then I told him to stand up, put his hands at his sides, and make his body stiff as a board. Again, he did exactly as I told him. But I wasn't convinced that I really had him under my power. I needed a better test.
Then I thought of one.
I stood behind him and said, "James, I want you to keep your body stiff and fall backwards." I wanted to see if he would do this-or would he try to break his fall somehow?
Well, to my surprise, he began to fall straight backwards-and without making any effort to break his fall. I caught him and pushed him upright again. But here's the scary part-I started to step around in front of him while trying to decide what to do next. I'd barely taken one step when he started to fall backwards again. I had to scramble to get behind him and keep him from landing flat on his back on the cement floor.
Then it occurred to me-I hadn't told to fall on the count of three (or anything like that). I had just told him to fall-and said nothing about when to stop falling.
This scared me. So, as I stood behind him with my hands on his shoulders, I said, "James, you're going to wake up when I count to three." Then I counted, and said, "Wake up, James!"
His body immediately relaxed. When I felt sure he wasn't going to fall again, I stepped around in front of him and asked, "How do you feel?"
"Fine," he said. Then, after a pause, he continued, "So-what are we doing?"
I said, "Do you remember what we just did?"
He thought for a moment, then said, "You were going to try to hypnotize me. I remember looking at your dogtag."
Then I told him what had happened-and he claimed he could remember none of it. Well, either I had actually hypnotized him (and gave myself a good scare in the process) or he was the world's greatest actor. In any case, I decided that was enough hypnotism for me, and James said that if I was satisfied it was okay with him too.
Shortly after that James finished his course and shipped out. He had become my best friend at Fort Belvoir, and I missed him.
"ARTHUR MURRAY TAUGHT ME
DANCING IN A HURRY"
Or so went the words to a popular Andrews Sisters song of the day. I was still smarting from the fact that Norma Jean had fixed me up with a blind date so she could go to this party with another guy (a guy who was a better dancer). So what was the obvious thing to do? Take dance lessons, of course.
There was an Arthur Murray studio in Alexandria, Virginia (a few miles from Fort Belvoir )-so I went to inquire about lessons. They gave me the usual sales pitch about how I had a lot of potential-but that I really did need some professional instruction-and if I'd just sign up for this sixty-hour course I'd be sweeping the ladies off their collective feet in no time.
Well, the payments on this course would leave me practically nothing out of my $90 a month salary. No problem, they assured me-they could arrange for financing, and spread the payments out over a year or more. So I signed up.
Well, I quickly learned that all the instructors had two jobs at the dance studio. One was to teach you dancing-the other was to continually try to sign you up for more hours. (Their commissions and bonuses were tied to how well they did the second job-so they really worked at that.)
Most of the other students were women, and most were "middle-aged." (Since I was only 18, anyone over 30 seemed pretty old to me.) Two or three were widowed or divorced, but most were married-and they'd lament periodically how they wished their husbands would be interested in dancing. And I quickly became very popular with these women because whenever we had a "studio dance party" I'd be one of the few guys available for them to dance with.
Then there was Carole.
Carole was 23, and single, and very nice, and a very good dancer. She had obviously taken a lot of lessons. (In fact she was so good I wondered why she was still coming to the studio.) As we got to know each other a little better, I learned that she'd broken up with a guy about a year earlier-and still hadn't found anyone else. Although she never said anything specific, I got the feeling she harbored some bitterness about this former relationship. I also got the feeling the experience left her somewhat bitter toward men in general. This was because of something she said one night when we were practicing the tango.
The tango was very popular in those days, and one of seven dances taught at the studio. (The others were the foxtrot, the jitterbug, the waltz, the rumba, the samba, and the newest dance of the day, the mambo). One of the tangos they used was "Adios, Muchachos" (an old Argentine standard that can still be heard today wherever the tango is danced). But they were playing a new American version called "I Get Ideas" (recorded by Tony Martin).
Carole told me she didn't like the English lyrics (which began, "When we are dancing and you're dangerously near me, I get ideas, I get ideas").(
I had a feeling I really shouldn't ask why she didn't like the lyrics, but I went ahead and asked anyway.
WHO WAS GETTING "IDEAS?"
She pulled away from me with a look that said, "well, it's obvious, isn't it?" What she actually said was, "Well, I don't want any guys getting any ideas about me." Then she moved back closer-but abruptly pulled away again, and gave me a quizzical look. "You wouldn't get any ideas about me, would you?" Then she got closer yet, and whispered, "Or would you?"
Well, talk about mixed signals. I didn't know what to think. Actually, other than the fact that I enjoyed dancing with her and talking to her, I really hadn't given much thought to any "ideas" about her. After all, she was an "older woman" and, besides, my heart still belonged to Norma Jean.
But after that night I noticed Carole seemed even friendler than before, and a lot more relaxed than she had been. She also smiled at me a lot.
Well, what the heck, I thought-maybe I should invite her out to dinner and a movie. I didn't have a lot of money to spend on dates (my dance lessons took most of my paycheck each month). But Carole was aware of that-and I was sure she wouldn't expect me to go overboard on expenses anyway. And who knows, maybe if we were alone together away from the studio, things might click for us. So I decided the next time I saw her at the studio I would ask her out.
She was there when I arrived for my next lesson.
But something was different.
She wasn't dancing with one of the instructors, and she didn't appear to be waiting for one. In fact, she appeared to be waiting for me, as she stood there smiling, while I hung up my jacket. I looked around for my usual instructor, but couldn't see her anywhere.
Then Carole walked over and said, "Francine isn't here anymore. I'm your new instructor. Shall we start with the tango?"
Sure, I thought, why not? This news had caught me off guard-but somehow didn't surprise me all that much.
Then she told me something I already knew-but, still, it had to be said.
"I guess you know-instructors aren't allowed to date the students. I mean-well, you can see why."
Yes, of course I could see why. In any case, this took a weight off my shoulders, because I really hadn't been all that anxious to ask her out anyway. Now we could continue to be friends-and neither of us had to worry about whether the other might be getting any ideas.
But there was one new problem.
"By the way," she said, "Have you thought about signing up for more hours? They're having this special, you see. If you sign up for just twenty additional hours,..."
FREE FLIGHTS - ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD
After I'd been at Fort Belvoir for a few months I had some furlough time coming and decided I wanted to go back to LA to see Norma Jean. But I was nearly broke (as usual) and couldn't come up with bus fare, much less plane fare. But I'd heard about MATS (Military Air Transportation Service) and decided to give it a try. What you would do is go to the nearest Air Force base, and sign in on a MATS list. Then, if there were any military aircraft headed the same way you were, you could ride along at no charge (as long as there was room for you and your luggage).
But when I told Capt. Maynard I planned to travel to LA via MATS, his face turned dark and he said very deliberately, "Don't do it!" as he pounded on his desk for emphasis. Then he leaned over the desk and put his face close to mine. "Go buy a ticket on a commercial airline-borrow the money if you have to-but don't go up in one of those MATS planes!"
Well, this surprised me because I had heard nothing but good reports from people who had told me about this service. But before I could ask him why I shouldn't, he had already begun to explain. "Listen," he said, "when a commercial plane takes off it follows a flight plan. The pilot is always in contact with various airports, and he always knows where he's supposed to be at any given time. Those cowboys flying MATS planes don't have to report to anybody-they just get up there and do whatever they want-and they all think they're God!"
"Let me tell you what happened to me," he continued. "I was about to get on one of those planes one day in Houston for a trip to San Francisco. But I was told the last seat had just been taken, and that I'd have to wait for the next flight. Well, about an hour later they announced that another plane of the exact same type was headed for Frisco.
"So I got on. Well, within an hour we could see that we were about to fly into a lightning storm, so the pilot opted to go around it. This took us way off course and we arrived more than two hours late. But guess what we heard when we got there-the plane that I got bumped from had tried to go through the storm and didn't make it. It went down, killing everyone aboard. See why you shouldn't go up with one of those fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants jockeys?"
So I thanked him for his advice, and headed for Bolling Air Force Base in DC to try to catch the next MATS flight headed west. Not that what he said hadn't made an impression on me-it definitely had. But I only had a few dollars to my name-and no one to borrow from.
FLYING FIRST CLASS IN VIP LUXURY
Well, I'd been at Bolling for less than an hour when they announced a MATS flight leaving for St. Louis. The aircraft turned out to be a specially outfitted C-36, which I was told was some General's private plane, and it was being flown to Saint Louis to pick him up. It was sumptuously appointed to carry about a dozen people in well upholstered luxury. This was my first time in an airplane of any kind and, not surprisingly, I was very impressed. As I stretched out in the plush reclining seat I was convinced that Capt. Maynard's close call was just a fluke, and that I would be doing all my traveling this way as long as I was in the army.
But the delightful trip from Washington to St. Louis was not to be repeated. There I had to wait two days before they announced a plane heading west. This one was a B-25 Billy Mitchell bomber headed for Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, and there was room for one passenger to accompany the pilot, the copilot and someone called a flight sergeant. And there were no luxuriously upholstered seats. There were a couple of hard benches just behind the open door to the pilots' compartment-one for the sergeant and one for me. And on either side of us there was a huge noisy engine that powered the aircraft's twin propellers. The noise from the engines was so loud we had to shout to communicate with one another.
But it was free and it was heading west.
PROPHECY NEARLY FULFILLED
Well, somewhere over Texas the skies started to turn dark and the airplane started to bump and bounce in a very frightening way. Then it started to rain. And it wasn't just any rain-it was a lightning storm. I knew this because I could see lightning bouncing off the wings. And, of course, I was now remorsefully remembering what Capt. Maynard had told me just a few days before.
Needless to say, I was scared to death. I even asked the flight sergeant if there was a parachute available. He said a parachute wouldn't do any good in this kind of weather, but showed me where there was one was anyway. As I was trying to strap it on, the youthful copilot caught a glimpse and started to laugh.
"Whadda ya think," he shouted, "are those wings gonna stay on?" The senior pilot, whose face had become very grim by now, gave him a dirty look, but the kid was having too much fun teasing me to quit.
"If you decide to use that parachute, try not to get hit by lightning on the way down!" Next he started singing the Air Force song, emphasizing the part that goes, "We live in fame or go down in flame." Then he laughed some more.
Well, the rest of us weren't laughing. The older pilot's knuckles had turned white and he was looking more serious by the moment. The flight sergeant looked as worried as I felt, and seemed not to hear me as I asked him how to open the bomb-bay so I could make a quick exit, should the need arise.
But the fact that I'm here to write about it tells you we made it through the storm all right.
However, when we landed in Oklahoma, I decided I'd had enough of MATS for a while, and that I'd hitchhike the rest of the way to Los Angeles. But the ride I ended up getting turned out to be as potentially dangerous as the B-25 flight.
( I suppose by 1950 standards the phrase "I get ideas" could be considered moderately suggestive-but the last line of the lyrics restored everything to a squeaky-clean Puritan state by explaining, "For that's the whole idea, you see-the lovely idea that I'm falling in love with you." But Carole's thoughts seemed to be stuck on the opening line.
(I also suppose that, had the lyrics been written a couple of decades later, the "ideas" would have been described in rather graphic detail-and not have been cleaned up in the last line.)
It was a cool afternoon when I found myself trying to thumb a ride alongside an interstate heading west out of Oklahoma City. Although I'd made myself a vow back in Chicago to never again wear a uniform off base, I found it helpful when hitchhiking. Even though we weren't at war, a serviceman always seemed to stand a better chance of being picked up than a civilian. And the uniform was the main reason this particular driver stopped for me.
When the late model Nash slowed down I could see its driver was also wearing a uniform. His was that of a US Air Force enlisted man. What also caught my attention was the vehicle being towed behind the Nash-a brand new Jeepster (the Willys/Jeep Corporation's first attempt to break into the "family" car market).
The driver was a kid about my own age. He gave me a big grin as he waved for me to get in. "Hurry up," he said, "I gotta catch up with the others." I assumed (correctly) that he was referring to a small convoy of cars towing other cars that had preceded him by a few minutes. After introducing ourselves, he said, "Ya know, I ain't supposed to be doing this, but I don't really care."
"Not supposed to be doing what?" I asked.
"Giving nobody a ride. But what the hell, I thought it would be nice to have somebody to talk to-so let'm bitch-I don't care." Then he began to fill me in on the details.
Somewhere back east he had spotted an ad soliciting drivers to help return stolen and repossessed vehicles to Los Angeles. There'd be no pay involved, but food and lodging would be provided along the way. And what the drivers would get out of the deal was free transportation to LA. The drivers only had to agree to stay in line, obey all traffic laws, and not pick up any hitchhikers. He went on to explain that the man driving the lead car made his living moving vehicles back and forth across the country like this.
Now, of course, I was wondering if these "road rules" meant I was likely to get kicked out somewhere along the way and end up stranded who knows where in the middle of the night.
"Naw," Rob assured me. "When he sees your uniform and finds out what a nice guy you are he ain't gonna say nothin'."
That was comforting to hear, but there was something about Rob that made me feel uneasy. As I was trying to figure out what it might be, he suddenly said, "Hey-you like goin' to cat houses?" When I told him I'd never been in one he started to tell me about his most recent experience. "I got a new way of dealing with whores. Take a look in that glove compartment."
I was surprised to see what appeared to be a semi-automatic pistol of some kind. "Ain't she a beauty?" he asked, "And it's loaded."
ANXIETY ABOUT ARMED AIRMAN
Then he continued his story. "Y'see, I snuck that in with me-then when I was done with this bitch, I showed her the Luger and told her I wasn't payin' her nothin'. And what was she gonna do-call the cops? She was already breaking the law being a whore. Pretty slick, huh?"
Well, I didn't know what to say. But I didn't have to say anything because Rob kept talking. "The trouble with this damn convoy is it moves too slow. I gotta get to LA and this is taking forever. Y'see, if any of us has a flat tire or engine trouble, we all gotta wait while it gets fixed. Y'know, if I could find a shortcut, I think I'd just take off and head for LA own my own. How 'bout you-wouldn't you like to there faster?"
"That sounds pretty risky," I told him. But before I could say more, we noticed that the convoy had slowed and was pulling into a big truck stop.
"Looks like we're gonna stop to eat," Rob said. "But when we're done here I got my own ideas. I picked up a map the last time we stopped for gas."
We got out and, along with the other two volunteer drivers, started to follow the lead man into a restaurant. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties and was kind of short and overweight, but he had an air of authority about him. Inside the restaurant he moved to a far wall and gestured to Rob.
"Hey, fly-boy-I want to talk to you!." Rob winked at me and went over to where the man with the angry face was waiting. I couldn't hear the actual dialogue, but it was obvious Rob was being chewed out, as the other man glanced my way several times.
Finally Rob walked back and gave me another of his rather unsettling grins. "I gotta use the can," he said, "but he wants to talk to you."
The man introduced himself as Phil Grainger, and said that I probably knew I shouldn't have been picked up back there. "But you seem like an all right guy, so I guess you can stay on with us-but I ain't buying your meals." I said that was fine and thanked him for letting me stay on.
"By the way," he asked, "do you have a driver's license?" When I told him no, he said, "But you know how to drive, don't you?"
LIED ABOUT KNOWING HOW TO DRIVE
"Oh, yeah-sure," I lied. Actually I'd never been at the wheel of a car in my life, but if it made him feel better to think I had, why bother him with the truth?
Then Mr. Grainger headed for the men's room, and I walked over to where the other two drivers were sitting to introduce myself. One was a clean-cut young sailor named Steve, and the other was a big burly black man named Ben, who said he was an out-of-work longshoreman heading west to look for a job. Since Rob hadn't yet returned from the restroom, they asked me what I thought of him.
"To tell you the truth," I replied, "he scares me. Did you know he's got a gun in the car, and he claims that it's loaded?" But before they could answer, Rob joined the group-and everything got real quiet.
As we were getting ready to leave, Steve said, "Hey, Don. How'd you like to ride with me for a while?" I looked over at Rob. He just grunted and mumbled something like, "Okay with me."
As you can imagine, I was very relieved to be riding with Steve. He seemed like a real regular guy. And as we were driving and talking he would check his side view mirror from time to time. "Funny," he said after a while. "I don't see Rob back there. In fact, I haven't seen him for about ten minutes. What was that again about a map and a shortcut?"
"I'll bet that's what's happening," I quickly agreed. "He seemed real serious about finding a shortcut and taking off on his own."
At this Steve started leaning on his horn and flashing his lights to get Phil Grainger's attention. The big Lincoln immediately started to slow down as its driver looked for a place where we could all pull over by the side of the road. Steve and I jumped out and ran up to tell Phil of our suspicions. Phil pulled out a map of his own and pointed to a fork in the road.
"That must be where he went. It may look like a shortcut on the map, but that road heads straight into the mountains. Well, he can't be moving too fast pulling that Jeep through those foothills. Let's go get the sneaky bastard!"
He told the other drivers to lock their vehicles, and then unhitched the car his Lincoln had been towing. We all got in, and as soon as Phil saw an opening for a u-turn his tires screeched as we headed back to the cut-off. But a couple of other things were bothering me-Rob had a gun-and he said it was loaded-and seemed just nutty enough to use it. And if we did catch him-who was going to be driving the Nash?
CAR CHASE IN PROGRESS
Anyway, we'd only gone a few miles when we saw a gas station that was closing for the night. When we told the attendant who we were looking for, he said, "Yeah, he was here a little while ago. Said his car was stuck in second gear and asked if I could fix it. I told him no, and that he'd best head for that big 24-hour truck stop back on the highway. Well, he just cussed and bought some gas and kept on going. But I don't think he could have gotten too far, what with pulling that other vehicle and doing it in second gear."
So we thanked him, and resumed the chase. Well, we'd only gone a couple of miles before we spotted the Nash and the Jeepster parked-guess where-in front of a sheriff's office. When we got inside we found a surprised Rob talking to a deputy seated at a desk. "Oh look," he said, "here they are now. Hi, y'all. Hey, I was just telling the sheriff how I got lost and was trying to find my way back to the highway."
LOADED GUN DID HIM IN
"Yeah, right," I said. "And did you tell him about the loaded gun in your glove compartment?"
"Gun-what gun?" asked the officer as he moved quickly from behind his desk. That's when Rob made a dash for the door. It was obvious he wanted to get to that pistol before anybody else did. And he probably would have succeeded had it not been for Ben's flying tackle that nailed him on the front steps.
"Hold him there," yelled the sheriff, as he followed me to the Nash. I opened the door and showed him the Luger in the glove compartment." The officer scooped it up, and said, "Let's see if this fella has a permit to carry a concealed weapon while we run a check on this piece."
By now another deputy had appeared from somewhere, and was told to search Rob for any other possible concealed weapons before putting him in a cell. When the sheriff asked Phil if he wanted to press charges, Phil replied no, as long as the sheriff had enough evidence to keep him there.
"I gotta get these cars to Los Angeles," he said, "and I'm already behind schedule. So if it's okay, I'll just leave this nut with you and be on my way." The sheriff said that would be fine.
When we got back to the cars, Phil told Steve to get in the Nash-and then he turned to me.
"Looks like you'll be driving that car as soon as we get the gear shift fixed. And don't worry about not having a license. I need a driver. If you should get a ticket or something, I'll take care of everything. But you won't have any trouble because you'll be with the convoy, and, as you know, we don't do no funny driving."
Well, if Phil had realized that I knew nothing about clutches or gears, he might have been less sanguine about the whole thing. So as we headed back to the truck stop I paid very close attention to how Phil did all his clutching and shifting along the way. Maybe I could just pick it up by osmosis.
LEARNING TO DRIVE THE HARD WAY - YOUR BASIC SINK OR SWIM
Fixing the gear shift turned out to be a minor job, and we could have resumed our driving that evening. But it was late and Phil said we might as well turn in for the night. However, he said he couldn't afford any more motel bills, so we'd have to sleep in our cars. This was okay with me because I wanted to ask Steve for some driving pointers before we got started again.
So Steve gave me about an hour's worth of impromptu shifting and clutching instruction, which made me feel somewhat less intimidated when we got ready to leave the following morning.
Well, I was glad to be at the tail end of the convoy, so I'd less likely be noticed by Phil as the Nash alternately lurched and stalled when I tried to get it out onto the highway. It was a white-knuckle struggle for several minutes, and a couple of times I was ready to give up and honk for help. But when I finally did get it into high gear and found myself cruising rather effortlessly down the interstate, I not only felt relieved-I was actually beginning to enjoy myself.
Of course-here I was driving for the first time in my life. That's always a thrill for anyone. And it gave me an extra measure of self-esteem to think that I was doing it without anyone sitting at my side telling me what to do. I could hardly wait to get back to LA and tell everybody I knew how to drive.
CALIFORNIA BORDER SCARE
But I wasn't out of the woods yet-as it happened there was a real scare waiting for me at the California border.
Having never been out of California before, I had no way of knowing that vehicles crossing into the state would be stopped for some kind of a fruit-related interrogation. It had something to do, I was told, with keeping pest-infested fruit out.
Anyway, as we approached the checkpoint, I had a sinking feeling when I saw uniformed officers stopping all vehicles and talking to the drivers. Were they asking for drivers' licenses? And what if you didn't have one?
Anyway, because we were a convoy of eight vehicles we were told to line up on the rather narrow shoulder of the road-which meant we had to park at an uncomfortable angle. That the inspector was smiling as he approached the Nash somehow didn't relieve my anxieties. But all he did was ask if I was bringing any fruit into California. When I said no, he just thanked me and moved on to another car. To say I was relieved would be a gross understatement.
After the four of us had been cleared, they brought all right lane traffic to a halt so we could move our convoy back onto the highway in one group. As the other three drivers got their vehicles back into the traffic lane, each stopped and waited for me catch up.
LUCK HAD RUN OUT - THEY WERE COMING TO GET ME
But the Nash wouldn't move. No matter how hard I gunned the engine, or how carefully I let out the clutch, it refused to budge. Phil honked a couple of times as a polite reminder for me to get moving, but I was getting a dirty look from the officer whose white-gloved hand was being held up to keep the other traffic at bay.
Well, I wasn't going anywhere-and I really got scared when I saw an officer running toward me, shouting and waving frantically. But he ran right past me, yelling, "Wait a minute!" as he headed straight for the Jeepster. In the rear view mirror I could see him getting into the driver's seat and cranking hard on the steering wheel. Finally he jumped out and ran over to me with a big smile.
"The front wheels on that Jeep thing were turned sideways. That's why you couldn't move-but you're okay now." And sure enough, I was able to pull right back onto the road with no trouble at all. Well, I was still shaking, but at least I had one more story to tell all my friends about how I'd learned to drive
As we got closer to the LA megalopolis, traffic got a lot thicker. Freeways had not yet come to Southern California, and automatic transmissions were still the exception, rather than the rule. So knowing how to clutch and shift effectively in stop-and-go traffic was an essential survival skill in those days. And I'd gotten pretty good at it.
I learned to make the wide turns in crowded intersections that would keep the Jeepster lined up behind me just the way it was supposed to be. And if I could do this well with a stick shift, I thought, imagine how I'd do with an automatic.
Of course, I still hadn't had occasion to parallel park (what with the Jeepster hitched to my rear) nor had I learned to back up with another car attached-but as long as I could keep moving forward I was doing all right. In fact, I was feeling so confident that I could hardly wait to go someplace and apply for a license.
But I still had nearly three more years to go in the army-and my next opportunity at the wheel would come in Korea when they wanted me to drive a 21/2 ton truck which had multiple forward and reverse gears in two ranges, and required something called "double-clutching." By comparison, driving that Nash with the attached Jeepster was a breeze
eing back in LA with a couple of weeks of
furlough time turned out to not be nearly as exciting as the hitchhiking that got me there. I had hoped to be spending a lot of time with Norma Jean-but things had changed somehow. She was still in high school at Immaculate Heart, and had plenty of extracurricular activities to keep her busy as well. She had even gotten some television and movie work.
I remember seeing her in a White Rain Shampoo commercial, where she appeared dancing in the rain, wearing a white plastic raincoat and rainhat. The voice-over was telling how White Rain would keep your hair looking lustrous no matter what the weather-and to prove it Norma whipped off the rainhat to show how radiant her hair was.
She also had a tiny part in the Joan Crawford movie, Torch Singer. She was part of a group of teenagers waiting outside the torch singer's dressing room in hopes of getting an autograph.
I don't know if she ever did any other movie or TV work-but if she did I never saw it. Of course, I'd assumed the first time I saw her that she was destined for some kind of stardom, just because she was so pretty and had such beautiful eyes and such a wonderful smile. However, she wasn't the one who was interested in getting into show business-that would be her kid brother. Stevie had taken piano and tap lessons, as well as drama classes-and he was an extrovert who was always ready to perform.
As I understood it, the way Norma Jean ended up doing some TV and movie work was just by being along on some of her brother's auditions. (I feel sure that if she had really put any effort into it, she could have had an acting career of some kind, but she'd always told me all she ever wanted to be was a housewife and a mother-just like her mom. As for Stevie-whether or not he ever made it in show business I never heard.)
Saturday Night at the Hollywood Palladium
In the meantime, I knew how much Norma loved to dance, and I was anxious to show her all the neat stuff I'd learned at Arthur Murray. But where do a couple of teenagers go dancing? The Palladium was the only place in Hollywood that had a no-liquor bar (for dancers under 21) on one side of its large dance floor, and a regular bar on the other.
So we went there on a Saturday night. But I found the occasion less than satisfying. True, Norma was pleased that I'd finally learned to dance well (including doing her favorite, the jitterbug) and we did a lot of it that evening.
But being able to jitterbug just put me on a par with her other dancing partners-what I really wanted to do was show her how well I could do the rumba(c) (and all the other Latin dances I'd recently learned).
But all that was forthcoming from the Palladium band that night was one rumba-and one mambo-barely enough to get warmed up on. Furthermore, the Palladium was always packed on Saturday nights-so even the American dances weren't all that much fun when you barely had room to move (c).
We also went out to dinner and a movie a couple of times (including the movie she had appeared in-which turned out to be a real turkey-the only good part was seeing Norma in it). But it was disappointingly clear that she wasn't nearly as excited about being with me as I was about being with her. Not that she didn't want to be with me-she just wasn't ready to get serious-about me or anybody else. But I was very serious about her-and she didn't want me to be that serious.
So I went back to my comfortable job at Fort Belvoir and tried to convince myself that maybe she was right and that I shouldn't let myself be so serious about her. After all, there were plenty of other fish in the ocean (or so I'd heard).
OLD ENOUGH TO DRINK
I was now old enough to go into nightclubs in Washington DC and Maryland (where 18 was the legal age for buying beer or wine). So Saturday nights would increasingly find me in one of the honky tonks on 9th Street in DC, where there was always a supply of single women waiting to be asked to dance (or whatever). And though I met a couple that I subsequently took out on dates, I never really met anybody that could take my mind off Norma Jean.
As for Fort Belvoir, army life was beginning to change as the US became increasingly involved in the Korean conflict. Norma Jean even wrote and asked if there was any danger of my being sent there. I told her no-I'd heard that anybody with less than one year left in his hitch would not be sent overseas. (I'd just passed the two-year mark in my three-year enlistment.)
But suddenly that situation changed.
TRUMAN ADDS TO ENLISTMENT TIME
President Truman announced one day that an additional year was being added to the tour of duty of every serviceman whose enlistment was scheduled to end between two certain dates. My date of termination fell just a couple of weeks beyond this period. But the rumor was that the president would be doing this again soon-and that I would be among those whose enlistment would be extended a year. Then, of course, I could be sent to Korea.(
Well, I certainly wasn't anxious to go to Korea, but I'd become increasingly restless at Fort Belvoir. Sgt. Baggott and I had gotten to where we hardly spoke anymore. Capt. Maynard had been reassigned, and his replacement, Lt. Huddleston, seemed like more of a wet-blanket stick-in-the-mud type than Sgt. Baggott. I definitely wanted to do something else.
HOW ABOUT JAPAN?
Somebody suggested Japan. With my typing and clerical skills, I was told, I would be in big demand as a clerk typist in Japan. With the war escalating in Korea, support services in Japan were being enlarged, increasing the demand for my kind of office skills.
Think about it, I was told-Tokyo-the Ginza-geisha girls-what more could you ask for? But I couldn't volunteer for overseas duty because I only had 11 months left to go on my enlistment.
Well, I could voluntarily extend my enlistment for a year-and if the president was going to do it anyway, why not beat him to the punch and sign up for one of those fun jobs in Japan? Also there would be a $300 bonus for a voluntary extension. Hmm. Food for thought.
Well, Sgt. Baggott was in a particularly bad mood one morning, so I decided it was time to move on. I went over to Battalion Personnel and asked to have my enlistment extended. The lieutenant in charge seemed surprised. "This doesn't happen very often," he said. I'm not even sure I have the right forms."
He looked in several drawers and file cabinets-then went and asked a corporal sitting at another desk. The corporal shook his head, looked over at me, then shook his head again. Finally he reached into one of his desk drawers and pulled out three sheets of paper. The lieutenant brought them over to me.
The papers were three very pale mimeographed copies of a very amateurishly typed out form, which basically said that "I, (fill in name, rank, and serial number) do voluntarily extend my term of enlistment for one year." After I'd signed and dated the sparse forms, the lieutenant gave two of them to me, and told me where to go to file them for overseas duty.
FORMS I WOULD LATER "APPROPRIATE"
There they took one form, and told me to keep the other for myself. (There was no way I could have known then that less than a year later I would be smuggling the army's two copies of these forms out of a field office somewhere in Korea.)
They told me I would have my reassignment orders in a few days, and that my bonus would be in with my next paycheck.
TOO LATE TO TURN BACK NOW
The orders came four days later. They said I was entitled to three weeks of leave, after which time I was to report Camp Stoneman in San Francisco for overseas reassignment. The orders didn't specify where overseas-just overseas.
The orders also said that the leave time was optional and that if I wanted to report to Camp Stoneman sooner, I could use the free time later. My first choice, of course, would have been to spend the time with Norma Jean-but I was supposed to be trying to not be too serious-remember?
CURIOUS ABOUT CUBA
So I decided to go to Cuba. Why Cuba? Well, I think my interest in Cuba may have begun back when I was nine years old (about the same time fate decided I would become a sign painter). I know that sounds rather bizarre, so let me explain.
For reasons I've never understood, I've always been attracted to things Hispanic. When I was in the seventh grade and found that I could take Spanish as an elective, I couldn't wait to sign up. And even though Mrs. Keefauver had to be the world's worst Spanish teacher , I still got an A-and continued to get an A from every Spanish teach I ever had. (In fact, decades later I would go on to teach Spanish for Palomar College).
Then there's the music. When I was taking dance lessons at Arthur Murray I found the Latin dances to be infinitely more exciting than the traditional American dances of the time. Beyond that, I've always had a special rapport with Spanish speaking people, and continue to enjoy their company today.
But back to when I was nine. For as long as I can remember I've always enjoyed music (all kinds of music-well, almost all-I don't care for hard rock) and for much of that time I could sing along with just about any of the popular songs of the day-because I would listen to them on the radio every chance I got.
And I can still remember what some of my favorite songs were when I was nine (or ten or eleven). To name just a few, they were: Yours, Green Eyes, You Are Always in My Heart, What a Difference a Day Made, The Breeze and I, You Belong to My Heart, and Frenesi (among many many others). Do you see the pattern? Even though the above songs were played by American dance bands, with predominantly American rhythms, all were originally of Latin origin. (Of the above list, only Frenesi kept its name when they Americanized it.)(c)
In any case, it wasn't till many years later when I discovered that most of my favorite songs of any given season were actually of Latin American origin-even though I first knew them as popular American ballads played by the likes of Glenn Miller or Jimmy Dorsey or Artie Shaw.
OFF TO TOKYO, VIA HAVANA
So here I was, on my way to the Far East with three weeks to kill. I'd recently learned to dance the mambo and the rumba and the bolero-so why not go to the land of their origin and dance with some of the natives? Besides, I spoke just about enough high school Spanish to get me by in most situations.
Naturally I didn't have enough money to do all this traveling by train or plane. But if I hitchhiked to Miami, I'd have enough for round-trip plane fare to Havana-and then I could continue hitchhiking to San Francisco. So I packed my duffel bag, got out on Interstate 1, and looked for a ride heading south.
I didn't have to wait long. Again, the uniform helped. Now that the country was at war again (Korea) being in uniform got you a little more respect out on the highway. The driver of the 18-wheeler with the NO RIDERS decal on his windshield told me he used to be in the marines, and that he was always glad to help out a serviceman.
He asked how far I was going, and when I said Cuba he gave me a funny look. When I explained that I just wanted to see Havana on my way to Japan via San Francisco he said that sounded like an interesting trip. However, he would be going just as far as Charleston-but, if that would help, I'd be welcome to come along. The only thing was-he'd have to stop and sleep for a while about half way there.
So I thanked him and said I'd decide when we got to wherever he planned on sleeping. That was fine with him.
INTERESTING RIDE IN AN 18-WHEELER
The truck driver's name was Mac he reminded me of our iceman Barney back in LA. He was a jovial type who enjoyed telling jokes, and he liked to sing along with the C&W songs on the radio. We enjoyed each other's company.
Finally he said it was time to stop and rest. He had a sleeping cab, and said I'd be welcome to sleep in the driving cab if I thought I could get comfortable. But I wasn't sleepy. Yet I hated to have to look for another ride, when riding with him turned out to be so much fun. So I asked him how long he planned on sleeping. He said he had to be in Charleston by a certain time, and that all he could afford was about four hours.
Well, we were parked in a big truck stop-so I could kill some time in the coffee shop and maybe play the pinball machine a few times. I could also buy a magazine and do some reading. Maybe four hours wouldn't be so hard to kill.
But four hours later Mac showed no sign of waking up. I began to get very antsy. What should I do? Wake him up? Just wait? Look for another ride?
DROWSY DRIVER WANTED TO SLEEP
Well, I've never liked to wake up anybody who's comfortably sleeping-but four and a half hours had gone by-and he did say he had a deadline to meet. So I knocked on his sleeping cab door. No response. So I knocked a little louder.
It took another couple of minutes, but finally Mac's face appeared in the doorway. He looked at his watch and said, "Whoa, look at the time. I didn't mean to sleep that long. Thanks for waking me up." He apologized for keeping me waiting-and said it wouldn't take him too long to clean up and get rolling again. I could tell he was still pretty tired. But we made it to Charleston and he met his deadline.
By the time we got to Charleston I was getting sleepy. Mac said it would be three or four hours before he started back-so he again said I was welcome to sleep in the driver's cab. I thanked him and quickly fell asleep.
A combination of different rides (none of which was interesting enough to write about here) got me to Miami. At the airport I was told that the next flight for Havana would be leaving in about two hours.
Well, I'd never been to Miami before, so I stored my duffel bag in a self-service locker and bought a round-trip bus ticket that would take me to downtown Miami (and bring me back in time for the flight).
SIGHTSEEING IN MIAMI
Looking around downtown it was quite apparent that a considerable percentage of the local population was Hispanic (mostly Cuban, I supposed). And the men were all wearing a particular style of shirt. It was white and square cut at the bottom, and worn outside the trousers. Each shirt had four embroidered pockets with additional embroidery in different places. Well, if that's what the natives were wearing, that's what I wanted to be wearing when I got off the plane in Cuba-and it wasn't hard to find a store that sold them.
It was now about 40 minutes till flight time, and I went looking for a bus that would accept the rest of my round-trip ticket back to the airport. I found the bus, but I couldn't find my ticket. The bus driver was not impressed when I told that I'd bought a round-trip ticket and that if I had misplaced it surely he would understand and let me get on.
UNSYMPATHETIC BUS DRIVER
"Not without paying for the ride," he said. "That ticket is just like money. If somebody finds it they can use it to ride the bus-or they cash it in. So are you paying three dollars to get to the airport, or what?"
All I had was Travelers' Checks and he said he couldn't take those. He wished me good luck as he drove off. The only thing left to do was to hitchhike to the airport-and hope I got there in time for the flight. (At least I hadn't lost the plane ticket.)
There was plenty of traffic on the highway leading to the airport, but getting a ride wasn't all that easy. Maybe it was because the drivers didn't see a wayfaring soldier burdened down with a duffel bag-but rather a gringo kid wearing a Cuban shirt-and probably looking strangely out of place. But a middle-aged couple finally stopped for me.
They were on their way to meet somebody at the airport-but they had plenty of time and were driving rather slowly. After I explained my somewhat desperate situation, the offered to put on a little speed. We got to the airport with just over ten minutes left till my flight time.
I thanked my benefactors and ran to the locker where my duffel-bag was stored. I got directions to my plane, which I could see loading passengers some distance away. I ran all the way and got there just as they were starting to close the door. The stewardess smiled and said, "Bienvenido."
FEBRUARY IN THE TROPICS
It was the middle of February and had been cold when I left Fort Belvoir. It was warm in Miami, and even warmer in Cuba. I was glad I was wearing a comfortable loose-fitting shirt-and didn't feel nearly as out of place in it here on the island as I had back in Miami.
I'd done a little research and found the name of a small hotel in downtown Havana whose rates were much lower than the fancy ones that catered to the regular tourist trade. I was hoping to find a bus that would take me there (it would be cheaper than a cab). But I didn't know which bus went where-and now I needed to use the bathroom. I should have walked back to the facilities in the terminal, but I thought that if a cab could get me to the hotel right away, I'd be able to hold out till I found a restroom there.
A cab driver who seemed amused by my Cuban shirt and high school Spanish told me he'd have me at the hotel in about 15 minutes. Oh, oh-that would be too long. So I decided to ask the driver if he knew of a restroom we could stop at along the way. But I wasn't sure of the Spanish word for "restroom." A literal translation would have come out "room for resting" and I was sure that wouldn't be understood. So I asked him if he knew where there was a "men's room" (which becomes "cuarto para hombres").
TAXISTA WOULD SHOW ME WHERE TO FIND SOME ACTION
His face lit up as he said, "Ah, un cuarto para los hombres-con las mujeres. Sí, sí. ¡Vámanos!" Well, this was no good-I needed a bathroom and he thought I was looking for a pleasure palace. And I was getting more uncomfortable by the minute. I thought of trying some sign language, but if I pointed to the part of my anatomy that was bothering me, he'd be even more convinced that I was looking for some action.
Then I decided to try saying "bathroom" instead of "men's room." Well, "cuarto de baño" he understood immediately-but he seemed disappointed that all I wanted was a toilet. Anyway, he stopped in front of a cantina, and pointed me toward the men's room.
TOUR GUIDES ESSENTIAL FOR ELDERS
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the hotel, and all I wanted to do was take a shower and hit the town. When I came back down to the lobby, I noticed a couple of dozen Americans waiting around for their tour buses. They were mostly middle-aged to elderly and listening attentively to their tour guides, who were telling them about the interesting places they would be seeing that evening. I had the feeling that without these tour guides, none of them would have dared venture out the front door and onto the street. In fact some of them looked downright amazed when they saw me doing just that.
But, to me, heading out onto the street at night in a foreign city I'd never been in before was something I'd been anxiously looking forward to. And I wasn't disappointed.
This was pre-Castro Havana, and it was a whole other world. Being February, it got dark early, but lights and music and throbbing activity were everywhere. Most of the stores and cantinas and restaurants had open fronts, with high retractable iron gates that would be pulled across them at closing time. There were no heating systems needed, and only the luxury hotels had air conditioning. Most other places depended on the open architecture and ocean breezes for whatever cooling they could get.
HAVANA HAD IT ALL
Music could be heard coming from inside every restaurant and cantina-and small bands would be playing on street corners and the little plazas that were here and there. I could see couples on their way to somewhere stop and dance for a while, and then move on.
The music, of course, was the popular Cuban dance music of the day, which encompassed the varied sounds of the rumba, the bolero, the guaracha, the danzón and the guajira (among other types of Afro-Cubano rhythms). I'm sure this music must have sounded foreign and exotic to my fellow Americans back at the hotel, but this was the music I'd come to hear and to dance to.
Judging from what I could see of the patrons in the various bars and cantinas on every block, there was no minimum drinking age at all. So I decided to stop and have a Cuba Libre (rum and Coca Cola). It was a little sweeter than I would have liked, but it was cold-and a shot of rum might help loosen up any inhibitions I may have had about asking one of the natives to dance (which I hoped to be doing real soon).
It was about this time when I noticed a gentleman at the other end of the bar looking my way. He smiled and waved when he saw I had noticed him-then started to walk toward me. He appeared to be an American, and was nicely dressed in a tropical suit and a Panama hat. He looked like he might have been in his middle sixties. I could tell he was a tourist-but there was something different about him.
ADVENTUROUS OLD GUY
"Hi," he said. "I couldn't help but notice you because you don't see any other Americans in here. As you can see, this is strictly a native hang-out."
"Right," I agreed. "That's why I stopped here. I want to get to know the natives."
He told me his name was Fred and that his wife had died a year or so ago and that he had always wanted to come to Cuba. He went on to say that he'd come over with a tour group-but that he really didn't enjoy being herded around with a bunch of old fuddy-duddies by a tour guide. So he had decided to just go out on his own and take a walk-and this is where he ended up.
When he asked me what I was doing there, I said pretty much the same thing he was. And when I told him I spoke a little Spanish and was hoping to find a place where singles went to dance, he asked if he could tag along.
"Sure," I said. "Let's go."
Of course I didn't know where I was going-but with all this music, and the dancing in the streets, I had no doubt that we'd soon find a place where unattached women were sitting around just waiting to be asked to dance.
WOMEN WAITING TO GRAB US
Well, we quickly found some waiting women-but dancing wasn't what they had on their minds. We happened to round this one corner, and before we had taken two steps a tough-looking tomato in a tight blouse and skirt stepped out of a doorway and grabbed Fred by the elbow.
She only said three words. The first was a four-letter word I won't repeat here, and the other two were "five" and "dollars." Suddenly another woman appeared at her side and said the same thing to me. I backed away before she could grab my elbow, and said, "Fred, I think we turned down the wrong street."
But Fred was smiling. "What do you think, Don? I don't know about you, but it's been a long time for me. And they look pretty good. What do you say?"
Well, even at 1951 prices, $5.00 sounded pretty cheap to me. And these two looked liked they'd racked up more than just a few miles along the way. Also, those training films we'd gotten in the army about the horrors of VD were starting to materialize in my head. "No, I don't think so, Fred. I'm just gonna look for a place to go dancing."
"Well, why don't you just come in and wait? It shouldn't take too long."
"How do we know there aren't a couple of guys waiting in there to jump us and grab our wallets?" I suggested.
"Naw, they look okay. I'm going in with this one. If you don't want to come, how about meeting back at that bar in about half an hour?"
"Well, I know it's none of my business, Fred, but I think you're making a mistake," I said. "But if you insist-okay, I'll meet you back at the bar. Just be careful."
"Don't worry, Don-I'll be fine." The woman who had grabbed Fred was now smiling as they walked inside, but the other one just stood there and glared at me. I ignored her and headed back toward the bar.
Well, I waited for nearly an hour, but Fred never showed up. And I hadn't come to Havana just to sit around a bar waiting for some guy. So I decided to resume my search for a place to go dancing. As I started to leave, in walked Fred with a silly grin on his face.
"Hope I haven't kept you waiting," he said sheepishly.
"What happened-where have you been?" was all I could say.
"Well, I'm too tired to tell you about it now," he said. "How 'bout meeting here tomorrow-say about noon?"
"Fine," I said. "I'll see you then." But I wasn't really sure I'd make the effort.
INTERESTING LOOKING GROUP IN STREET
After leaving the bar, I chose another side street, and saw a crowd of people gathered at the entrance of a building that had no discernable sign on it. The were obviously all natives, and were nicely dressed-as if they were going to a theatrical event of some kind. A couple of uniformed guards appeared to be taking tickets from them and then letting them go through a door.
My curiosity was aroused, so I walked over to see if I could figure out why they were all politely waiting to get into this unmarked building. One of the guards spotted me and gave me a puzzled look. It was obvious that I was not part of this particular group of people.
Nonetheless, he smiled and nodded at me. He was quite surprised when I asked him (in Spanish) what was happening here. He smiled again, and said this was a radio station, and that these people were going in to see a live radio broadcast. When I asked him what kind of broadcast, he gave me a rather condescending smile, and said it was a half-hour musical show that was put on nightly by a couple of Cuba's most popular singers along with the country's most popular dance band.
It was obvious that he was sure I had no idea who he was talking about-but when I asked him if he might be referring to Celia Cruz and Bienvenido Granda along with the Sonora Matancera, you could have knocked him over with a feather. His eyes widened and for a moment he was absolutely speechless. He blinked a couple of times, then quickly moved to grab the other guard by the arm. As he pointed my way, he whispered something that caused the other guard to also look like he couldn't believe what he was hearing.
GUARDS WERE NONPLUSSED
They told the people with the tickets to wait a moment-and then asked me to step to the side so we could have more privacy. "Who are you?" they wanted to know, and how did know I know about the musicians who were about to perform?
"Just an American tourist," I said, and went on to explain that I was very fond of Cuban music and that I happened to own a couple of recordings by the above mentioned artists (which was true).
Now both of them were speechless-but not for long. With one on each side of me, they hustled me through the crowd and into the
studio, apologizing to the surprised ticket-holders as they went.
It was not a large auditorium-it had seating for perhaps 120 people. About half the seats had already been filled by what appeared to be upper-middle class locals, who were appropriately dressed for the occasion (men in suits and ties, women in flowered hats, etc.). I was the only one wearing a casual shirt and khaki pants. I was embarrassed.
But it became even more embarrassing.
The first two rows of the small studio had been roped off and posted with signs reading, "RESERVADOS." Guess where they put me-dead center in the front row-all by myself with an empty row behind me. Hushed whispers had begun to arise from the people seated to my rear as they all looked my way with puzzled expressions. When I looked over my shoulder, many smiled and nodded at me.
This was ridiculous, I thought. A 19-year-old kid who just happened to like Cuban music was being treated like some kind of visiting royalty. I was glad I'd had a few drinks before I got there. They helped me to relax and make the best of it. Shy guys just weren't supposed to be treated like this. Yet it became even more bizarre.
If you're not a fan of Caribbean dance music, I'm sure the names I mentioned above don't mean a thing to you. But they were, at the time, the Cuban equivalent of Harry James and Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. (Don't ask me to name any current rock stars of equivalent star rating-although Linda Ronstadt would probably be a fair comparison.)
And one of those 1951 Cuban stars is even more popular now than she was then.
Celia Cruz left Cuba before the Castro revolution and went to Mexico. From there she began to tour the world-and continues to entertain with the same kind of traditional Cuban music right up to the present time. (Nowadays her kind of music is usually referred to as "salsa"-although Ms. Cruz says
she's never gotten used to that term and still refers to it as "música tropical.")(c)
Anyway, the thought that Cuba's most popular female vocalist would be coming onstage at any moment and see me sitting alone in the front row gave me a mixture of feelings that are hard to describe. I would have felt much less uneasy if I'd been dressed like everyone else and sitting back where they were.
SMILES FROM CELIA CRUZ
When Celia Cruz finally walked out on the stage that night and saw me sitting there, she paused, and bowed, and gave me a great big smile. (The rest of the ensemble just smiled and nodded as they came onstage.) Of course, I'd done nothing to deserve any of this-but it was a thrill I'll always remember. And whenever I see her on TV (which happens more often than you might think) the feelings still comes back.
MORE SURPRISES TO COME
After the show it was not too hard to hang back and let everyone else leave ahead of me. I thanked the two guards on the way out-and they acknowledged my gratitude with warm handshakes, big smiles, and slaps on the back.
Cuba was turning out to be more than I'd dared hope for. Now if I could just find a place where they had some romantic music and some friendly señoritas waiting to be asked to dance, my night would be complete. So I decided to ask the guards if they knew of a good place to go.
They seemed a little surprised by my question. Then they politely explained that in their country it was not considered proper for a woman to be found unescorted in a public place such as a bar or a night club. Any woman seen in a cantina or a hotel lobby without an escort was assumed to be a prostitute. However, there was one exception.
That would be the dancehall "hostesses."
They told me there were a number of ballrooms in the city where one could find these hostesses on duty. They worked for the house, I was told, and were paid to dance with the customers (nothing more-nothing less).
I said that sounded fine to me-so they told me of a place just a couple of blocks away.
The place they sent me was sort of the Havana equivalent of the Hollywood Palladium (or Manhattan's Roseland-and about the same size as Roseland). It was on a second floor-and the orchestra, rather than being on a stage at one end of the hall, was seated on a raised gazebo right in its center. The room was surrounded by large windows, which were all open to let the cool evening breezes in, and the lights were dimmed to add to the romantic atmosphere of the place.
The band was playing just the kind of music I'd come to hear-and, though the floor was filled with swaying dancers, everyone seemed to have plenty of room to maneuver (unlike the cramped dancing conditions at the Palladium).
Most of the customers appeared to be couples who had come together for an evening of dancing. But there were plenty of hostesses available, just as I'd been promised.
They were sitting in chairs along one edge of the dance floor, and appeared to be just average women who were here working at a regular job. None was provocatively dressed or overly made-up and I couldn't see any of them sending out any sexy come hither looks to the various guys who were checking them out. However, all of them gave me sort of a double-take and a nice smile-probably because I was the only gringo in the place. (This was definitely not a tourist hang-out.)
Well, there were so many lovely ladies, I didn't know where to start. But one of them seemed to have a more engaging smile than the others, and each time our eyes met I could sense her saying, "I'm the one you want to choose." So I did choose her.
Margarita appeared to be about 30 and was about 5' 4" with a shapely figure. She had an olive complexion with medium length black hair and dark brown eyes. We introduced ourselves as we moved into the crowd of dancers and discovered that she spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish. Communication would be no problem.
As we began to move to a romantic bolero, the dance took on a new meaning that I hadn't experienced with any of my Arthur Murray instructors. Margarita's body seemed to melt into mine as our hips blended rhythmically to the pulsating beats of the bongós and the conga drums.
We danced to three or four boleros and I was beginning to think I was falling in love. It was wonderful beyond description.
But the next song was not a bolero. It had a lilting melody that featured violins and a flute. I'd heard this music before, but couldn't quite place it.
"¿Te gusta bailar el danzón?" she asked.
Of course-they were now playing a danzón-a dance whose music I'd heard, but had never seen done.
Yes, of course I wanted to do the danzón(c).
It was easy to pick up the special steps from watching the other dancers-but I drew more than a few polite chuckles when I was still dancing after everyone else had stopped. Yes, Margarita could have told me when to stop, but she was enjoying the joke along with the others, and gave me a hug when she saw I was embarrassed.
But I wasn't so embarrassed that I wanted to quit-or to dance with anyone else. So Margarita and I danced the night away, and seemed to get even closer as the time passed.
I'd fully expected to be dancing with several different partners when I arrived, but Margarita and I had a special rapport that kept us together the rest of the night. And it didn't end with the dancing.
(c)The rumba (or rhumba) came to the US from the Caribbean (or Caribean, if you prefer) in the 1930s. Like other dances from south of our border, it evolved as a blend of Spanish-influenced melodies and African rhythms.
It became even more popular in the 1940s when it was featured in a number of Hollywood musicals that starred performers like Xavier Cugat, Desi Arnaz, Lina Romay, and Carmen Miranda (although Ms. Miranda was actually Brazilian and usually danced the samba).
The rumba is actually a "type" of dance that includes variations such as the bolero, the guaracha, and the danzón (among several others) and which eventually evolved into the mambo and chachachá.
The bolero is the slow romantic "love song" version of the dance, while the guaracha is the fast "flirtatious" version. As a theatrical dance, the guaracha normally features the male dancer in a shirt with wide ruffled sleeves (representing the randy rooster) while the woman wears a skirt split down the front and trailing behind with large pleated ruffles (representing the coquettish hen).
While dancing a bolero, couples hold each other closely and rarely separate-but while doing a guaracha, they rarely touch, since it's supposed to be a "flirtation/pursuit" type of dance.
(c) More about the rumba:
The thing all rumbas have in common is that they are danced to a 4/4 rhythm with the feet usually being placed flat on the floor. Also, the dancers' hips normally rotate in time to the music, with one "rotation" for each beat. It was this hip motion that gave the rumba its early noteriety as being a "suggestive" dance (and, indeed, it can be danced very suggestively-but that's up to the individual dancers).
( A couple of jokes that were popular at the time:
A young fellow (whose ethnic origin shall remain unnamed) was accused of trying to dodge the draft.
When asked to explain himself, he replied,
"Well, I've had diarrhea, pyorrhea, and gonorrhea. I just don't want none of this here Korea."
Another draft dodger was being pursued by police as he ran down the street yelling, "I don't want to go to Korea!" He rounded a corner and saw a nun standing at the curb. So he ducked under her habit and hid there as the police ran by. He came out a few minutes later and said to the nun, "I appreciate your not saying anything to the police. I felt badly hiding under your dress-but I really don't want to go to Korea. And, if you'll forgive my saying so, I couldn't help but notice you've got a good looking pair of legs."
The nun replied, "If you'd looked a little higher you'd also have seen a good looking pair of balls-I don't want to go to Korea either."
(c)In case you're wondering about the original names of the other songs, they were (in order): Quiéreme Mucho, Aquellos Ojos Verdes, Siempre en mi Corazón, Cuando Vuelva a tu Lado, Andalucía (or La Brisa y Yo), and Solamente Una Vez.
(I won't bore you with the names of their composers, but some were Cuban and some were Mexican.)
(c)A popular song of the day "South America, Take It Away" parodied some of the Latin dances with some amusing lyrics:
Take back your rumba-ay!
Your samba -ay!
Your conga-ay, ay, ay!
I can't keep moving-ay!
Much longer- ay, ay, ay!
Now maybe Latins-ay!
In the middle-ay!
Are built stronger- ay, ay, ay!
But all this shakin' of the bacon
And the makin' of the quakin'
Leaves me achin'-olé!
I've got a great big crack
In the back of my sacroiliac!
South America, take it away!
(c)The danzón never really caught on in the US, but has remained popular in Cuba (and Mexico) for decades. It originated as a special dance for young couples who wanted a little "privacy."
In olden times, the story goes, young women would always be accompanied to dances by their dueñas (chaperones) who would keep a close eye on them. So a rumba was designed that would have a point in its melody where all dancing would stop-so the couples could just stand and visit.
Well, dueñas had long since gone out of vogue, but the danzón continued to be a staple at every Cuban fiesta-and everyone (except me) would know exactly when to stop dancing and start chatting (even though there were no more dueñas to be concerned about).
WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
oy, did I feel stupid. Volunteer for over-
seas duty, they told me, and you'll end up with a nice soft desk job in Japan. Well, about all I saw of Japan was the port at Sasebo (for about an hour) as we transferred from the navy troop ship that took us there to the merchant marine ship that would take us to Pusan, Korea.
Well, maybe I'd end up with an office job in Seoul (Korea's capital). No such luck. They sent me straight to a 155 Howitzer battalion that was a couple of miles behind the front line somewhere near Chorwon. (Well, at least that was better than being in a 105 Howitzer battalion, which would be right at the front line. The 155 is a bigger cannon with longer range.)
But what was I doing in an artillery outfit anyway? I'd had no artillery training. In fact, my first day there nobody knew what to do with me. What they did tell me is that I'd better get busy building myself some kind of a shelter. They'd been getting a lot of rain and I'd better make it waterproof. So they handed me a rolled-up pup tent, some tent stakes, and some rope and told me to work fast-because another storm was on its way.
I picked out a spot on the side of a hill near some other tents and looked them over to see how they'd been set up. It was already late in the afternoon and starting to get dark-and I'd never had to do this before. A couple of guys came by and gave me some pointers-but nobody offered to help with any of the work. It was starting to get cold and cloudy, and they wanted to get into their own shelters.
Well, I got the tent erected and dug a trench which would hopefully deflect any water coming down the hill. It was now dark, and you could just feel that it was going to be raining soon. I was not at all sure that I had done a good job, but it would be warm in my sleeping bag, and I really wanted to get in out of the cold damp air. So I climbed in and hoped for the best. I quickly fell asleep.
MUDSLIDES & PTOMAINE
But I didn't sleep for long. A torrential rain came sweeping through and literally washed me and my "shelter" to the bottom of the hill. I had to scramble to keep from being buried alive in the mud. I grabbed my duffel bag and looked for someplace to get out of the storm. I could see a fairly large tent that had been erected on a raised wooden platform not too far away. It looked as though it might be a sleeping quarters of some kind-and indeed it was.
There were probably 18 or 20 bunks set up in its interior, and the tent appeared to be secure from the rain. When I stuck my head through a loose flap I could see that most of the occupants were asleep-and that there was no leftover bunk available.
"Come on in," somebody said. "But you'll have to sleep on the floor-that is if you can find any room." Well, there was room-but it was a miserable night. My sleeping bag had been left back in the mud, and all I had was what I was wearing (which was soaked) and whatever was in my duffel bag. My "horse blanket" overcoat was the only thing that saved me that night. And it just barely saved me-I shivered all night long. I was amazed that I didn't catch pneumonia.
I spent the following day cleaning up my gear. Fortunately it was a sunny day, so I was able to clean my sleeping bag and let it hang out to dry, along with most of my clothes. But my troubles weren't over yet. As miserable as my first night was, my second one was worse. I got ptomaine poisoning.
It was the ham we had for dinner. About a dozen of us got sick. But it hit me a lot harder than the others. (I have no idea why-unless it was because I had been weakened from the previous night's nearly freezing to death.) Anyway, the other victims spent a few hours running at both ends, but finally got it out of their systems.
I was sent to a field hospital (right, just like the one in MASH) where I ended up spending two days and nights. Besides the vomiting and diarrhea, my stomach felt like it was full of barbed wire. It was the worst stomach pain I've ever had in my life. They talked about pumping it, but decided that if I just kept taking the medicine, it would run its course, and I would be okay. After the third day, I began to feel a little better.
When I got back to the base camp, I was told that they had squeezed another bunk into that "barracks" tent and that I'd be sleeping there for the next week-after which time our unit would be moving to another location.
In the meantime, what would be my job assignment? I didn't know anything about Howitzers or any other kind of field artillery.
Well, the company CO didn't know what to do with me either. "So you were a company clerk at Fort Belvoir? Well, we already have a company clerk." But after thinking about if for a minute, he said, "Hey, wait a minute-we need a company PX Clerk. The one we have is being rotated back to the states. How would you like that?"
Sounded good to me. In fact it was almost too good to be true. Each company had its own little PX (post exchange-i.e.: general store). And being the PX Clerk meant you handled all the food and drink and various sundries that would be for sale to the troops-including the beer.
THE BEST JOB IN THE OUTFIT
Well, being in charge of the beer ration literally made me the most popular guy in the company. In theory, the monthly beer delivery would be one case of beer for every man in the company. Well, I was told we always managed to get about a dozen extra cases by padding the personnel numbers (usually by counting native Korean helpers as military personnel). Naturally the CO and other officers always had first crack at the surplus beer-but anything left over (usually 6 or 8 cases) would be left for me to dole out. Also, there were a few guys who didn't drink beer-so the monthly surplus could be as high as 12 to 18 cases. You can see why everybody wanted to be my friend.
Personally, I've never been much of a beer drinker-but it's easy to imagine why it's popular with a bunch of guys in a battlefield environment, who alternate between being bored to death and trying to stay alive. Even I would have a beer now and then.
HOW DO YOU KEEP BEER COLD?
When I arrived in March, the weather was cold-but as we moved toward summer the warmer weather made the beer even more popular. But how do you chill beer out in the field? Nobody likes warm beer (except maybe the English) and refrigerators were not available. Well, here's what you do: you try to find a fresh-water spring somewhere. Even in the middle of summer, a spring has cold water in it. So you put your cans of beer in a gunny sack, tie the sack with a rope, and submerge it in the spring (and hope nobody steals it).
If you can't find a spring, you try to get on the shady side of a hill or a mountain and dig a hole as deep as you can. If you're lucky you'll hit ground water (which is also cold) and drop your beer in there. (Even if you don't hit water, a deep hole makes a pretty good cooler.)
Now you probably know more about cooling beer than you ever really wanted to know.
ARMY NICKNAMES STICK
Shortly after I arrived and got settled in, somebody started calling me "Einstein." I don't know who gave me the name-but it stuck. In fact a couple of the officers actually thought it was my real name, because they would address me as "Corporal Einstein."
What I can tell you is that a good percentage of the troops I found myself thrown in with were from the deep south-and a lot of them appeared to have had only a minimal education. Well, there was apparently something about me that gave them the impression I was some kind of an intellectual-so they gave me this nickname. (In some circles this would be considered a compliment, but with these guys it was strictly a put-down.) And when I told them I was a high-school drop-out they'd just say, "Yeah, right."
In any case, I could tell that most of these country boys really didn't care for me all that much. Also, the fact that I breezed in there one day and immediately got the cushiest job in the outfit didn't do anything to endear me to them. But the thing that really clinched my unpopularity was what happened when we moved to our new bivouac area and were all told to "double-up with your best buddy." My best friend had quickly become Willie Canada (whom I mentioned in Chapter 1) so it was only logical that he and I would be tent-mates.
But to these die-hard white supremacist types, a white guy moving in with a black guy just wasn't done.
In fact, the only thing that really protected me from a lot of harassment was the fact that I had the keys to the beer ration (and the surplus). Not that I flaunted it. In fact, I tried to maintain the myth that there really never was a beer surplus. You see, each man was allotted one case of beer (24 cans) a month-and that's all there was-right?. Of course, the company officers were there whenever the beer arrived, and they got whatever they wanted.
As for the surplus that actually did remain each month-well, you just never quite acknowledged that it existed. Then toward the end of the month, when the regular ration began to run out-well, maybe you'd acknowledge that there were a few beers left lying around, and then sell it by the can. In fact, what I tried very hard to do was to stretch it out so that everybody had a fair chance of getting a little bit of the surplus each month.
Later on I would hear stories about other PX Clerks who made a tidy little income for themselves by black-marketing not only the surplus beer, but any other kind of a goodies they could get their hands on. I, for instance, was told that I could have done very well at black-marketing French cognac and other hard liquors-had I chosen to do so. Here's why:
Down the road from us a French division headquarters had moved in, and we found out that in their division PX, hard liquor was a regular staple-but off-limits to anyone but French personnel.
But guess what-we had a soldier of French-Canadian descent in our outfit, who, when pressed, agreed to see if he could pass himself off as a native and buy some of the hard stuff. My job would just be to drive him over to the French PX. (One of the perks of being the PX Clerk was that you could requisition a jeep whenever you wanted to go someplace-as long as it was on "official business" of course).
MAKE BELIEVE FRENCHMAN
So I ordered a jeep and drove this young soldier named Jacques down the road to the French encampment. The guys had found some fatigues with no insignias or patches of any kind-so you really couldn't tell where he was from. (Of course this was somewhat hazardous in itself, because not wearing proper insignia was considered "being out of uniform" and subject to disciplinary action. So Jacques wore a properly-marked field jacket over his unmarked fatigues-just to get through our guard post.)
Jacques was a very quiet, soft-spoken young fellow who really didn't seem all that thrilled to be on this mission. But he had said he would-so he would keep his promise. I tried to make conversation and to get him to teach me a few words in French, but I got the impression he wasn't much of a talker and would just as soon not have to visit. So we made the drive in relative silence.
Driving into the French compound was no problem because, as I had heard, Americans were always welcome-they just couldn't buy booze. We asked directions to the PX, and before we arrived Jacques removed the field jacket. He went in and very easily passed himself off as a real Frenchman. I also went in and browsed around (but gave no clue that I knew Jacques).
Jacques had no trouble at all buying several assorted bottles of the French joy juice his friends had requested. I met him back at the jeep and we headed back to camp, again mostly in silence. I had worried that we might be stopped and questioned at the French guard post on the way out, but they just smiled and waved us through. When we got back to camp, the main thing our overjoyed partners in crime wanted to know was-how soon could we do this again?
Well, to me, it had been an interesting adventure-but I wasn't so sure that getting caught at this sort of thing might not lead to some unpleasant consequences-so I wouldn't make a commitment as to just when I'd be available again. And Jacques let it be known he wasn't all that interested in doing it again real soon either. For one thing, he wasn't even a drinker.
And, as things turned out, I wouldn't be around long enough to have to deal with the situation anyway. (More on that shortly.)
MASH-TYPE DENTAL OFFICE
But in the meantime I needed to see a doctor again. (Well, actually, a dentist is what I needed to see.) I'd already been in a field hospital-now I'd get to see what a field "dental facility" was like. The problem was that I had a capped front tooth that had been killed in a bicycle accident when I was 14. But the cap wouldn't stay on. It had already loosened up three or four times in the past, and now it was coming unglued again.
When I got a look at the "dental facility" they sent me to I could hardly believe what I was seeing. It was in the open air with a makeshift canopy that provided dentist and patient a little shade. The dentist's "chair" was an old wooden kitchen chair that had been propped up on some large rocks to give it a little elevation. A patient was sitting in it when I arrived, and the army dentist was drilling a tooth.
The drill looked just like the ones I had always seen in a dentist's office, but it what was powering the drill that amazed me. Instead of being run by a gasoline generator (like just about everything else out in the field) the drill was being powered by a Korean teenager who was rapidly working the foot treadle of an old Singer sewing machine (which had somehow been connected to the drill).
Well, seeing this primitive jury-rigged set-up didn't give me much confidence in anything the dentist would be doing to me. Nonetheless he removed my cap, cleaned it out, put some kind of glue in it, replaced it, and gave it a tap with a small hammer. And guess what-it never came loose again.
He'd actually done a better job than my civilian dentists, who'd had all the latest modern equipment.
THE DUMBEST GUY I MET (IN THE ARMY)
Back at camp my CO got the idea that I should learn how to drive some of the various military vehicles we had, in case I should be called upon to make any PX-related deliveries, etc. So I was sent to a three-day driving seminar. That's where I met Morty, the other dumbest guy in the world. (Remember Elroy in Chapter One?) The only difference between them was that while Elroy was quiet, introverted and methodical, Morty was a hyper-active coiled spring who was always ready to leap before he looked. Again, I wish I had kept a log of all the unbelievably dumb things he said and did, but now only a couple of them come to mind.
The first day of driving school found us in a classroom, getting a two-hour lecture on the fundamentals of driving and maintaining military vehicles. Finally the instructor said, "Okay-are there any questions?" Even before the words were out of the instructor's mouth, Morty was on his feet frantically waving his hand. "Yes," said the veteran motor pool officer, with a friendly smile, "What's your question?"
"Do you know when we'll be getting rotated back to the states?" was Morty's anxious question.
The captain just stood there looking at Morty as though he couldn't believe what he'd just heard. Finally he shook his head and said, "All right, does anybody have any questions on what we've been talking about for the last two hours?"
Later that day we were taught how to give different types of hand signals. First we were taught the traditional right turn, left turn, and slow down or stop signals given with the left arm while driving.
Then we were taught a bunch of special "convoy signals." These were gestures that the driver of a lead vehicle would use after stopping and getting out and into the road, where he could be seen by all the other drivers. For instance, to signal the other drivers to stop and stay where they were, the lead driver would lean forward with his arms hanging down, and then swing them in a criss-cross pattern (much like an umpire uses to indicate that base runner is safe).
After the lecture came a verbal quiz, where the teacher would point to a student and ask him to demonstrate a particular signal. Pointing to Morty, the instructor asked, "If you're driving a vehicle-any vehicle-what's the proper way to let other drivers know you're about to slow down or stop?"
"Oh, I know," said Morty with a serious look on his face. He immediately jumped to his feet, leaned forward, and started frantically criss-crossing his arms.
Again the instructor looked at him in utter disbelief. Finally he asked, "Would you be out in the road to give this signal, or standing in the back of the truck?"
Morty thought about that for a moment, and then said, "I guess I'd be standing in the back of the truck so they could see me better."
"I see," said the exasperated instructor, trying to keep a straight face. "And would your vehicle be stopped or moving?'
Morty, who by now was aware that everybody else in the room was falling out of their seats laughing, said, "Well, I guess I'd have to stop the truck first."
"I see," said the instructor, who by now had tears rolling down his cheeks. "And this is how you're going to let other people know that you're about to slow down or stop?"
At this point even Morty could figure out that he probably hadn't given the right answer. So he sat down with a chagrined look on his face and said, "I guess I'll have to think about that a little more."
Finally it came time to get behind the wheel and practice what we'd learned. We started with the jeep. There would be three of us plus one instructor on board. The three students would take turns, as we drove on the road, off the road, and through various kinds of rough terrain. We all held our breath and crossed our fingers when it came time for Morty to take the wheel. After several false starts, he finally got the jeep into high gear and seemed to be doing pretty well. The instructor told him to get off the road and follow a rough path that led into the woods. We were all very nervous.
However, Morty was going slowly and carefully and handling the jeep pretty well. Then the instructor said, "There's a nasty ditch up ahead-but you can manage it if you handle the vehicle properly." As we rounded a bend, the ditch came into view. Morty started to slow down when he saw it, then suddenly hit the accelerator and started heading for the ditch as fast as he could go.
"What are you doing?" yelled the instructor. "Slow down! You're gonna get us killed."
So Morty did hit the brakes-but we were already going so fast that he couldn't keep the jeep from hitting the ditch at a speed that threw two guys completely out of the vehicle and left the rest of us hanging on for dear life. When he finally stopped on the other side, the infuriated instructor yelled, "What's the matter with you? What were you thinking?"
"Well," Morty replied, "I was afraid if I slowed down I'd get stuck in the ditch-so I thought I'd better get over it as fast as I could."
Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt, but, not surprisingly, that was the last time they ever let Morty get behind the wheel. And, also not surprisingly, he was the only one in the class who didn't get a driving certificate at the end of the course.
STILL DIDN'T KNOW WHY WE WERE HERE
Back at my PX I found myself spending a lot of time wondering about the Korean war in general. I had arrived at a time when there was something of a lull in the fighting. The "peace talks" hadn't started yet, but the real aggressive fighting that had raged for about a year seemed to have quieted down. Neither side was now trying to overrun the other-it was mostly a matter of holding the ground they already had.
So most of the time there wasn't all that much to do. We only rarely had to take cover from incoming artillery shells-and we didn't spend much time worrying about being bombed, because, as near as I could figure, the enemy didn't even have an air force. We did see one lonesome Chinese Mig flying overhead one day-but I think the pilot might have just been lost.
The larger question that bothered me was: what were we doing here in the first place? Most of the guys I knew had never even heard of Korea until this war started. And what if North Korea did take over South Korea-how was that a threat to the United States?
The answer, of course, was that in those days the United States and its allies were afraid that the communists were out to take over the world. The Soviet communists had taken over Eastern Europe and half of Germany. They had also divided up Korea with the western powers and given "protective custody" of North Korea to the Chinese communists (who had already taken over Tibet and Mongolia). If the communists were allowed to take over South Korea, what would be next-Japan?-the Philippines?-Newport Beach? Anyway, that's how they explained it to us.
EXCITED ABOUT GETTING TO SHOOT
In any case, there was always a lot of excitement when we'd get a call from the FO (Forward Observer) for a fire mission. 155 Howitzers are capable of sending their rounds long distances over hills and fields-so you'd never actually see what you were shooting at. The FO would normally be dug into a hill overlooking enemy territory, and he would send information via phone or radio back to the FDC (Fire Direction Center) which was a special tent equipped with large maps and all manner of plotting devices.
The FDC would take information from the FO, do their calculations, and pass the information on to the gunnery personnel. It was all a matter of mathematics. The gunnery sergeant would be told to aim his cannon four degrees higher and six degrees to the left, for instance.
So here we'd be, getting all excited because we were now getting to shoot at somebody we couldn't see (and, of course, didn't know). And we'd be elated if we got a report back from the FO saying that it looked as though we had actually killed somebody.
Somehow the irony of a bunch of old men somewhere in Washington and Peking telling a bunch of young kids to go somewhere inside a third country to try to kill each other seemed as stupid to me then as it does now. So while I could appreciate that having a fire mission to perform relieved the monotony of sitting around doing basically nothing, I was just as happy that my job meant I didn't have to be an active participant in the shooting.
But I wasn't to be totally exempt from playing soldier. I was surprised when I was informed that I would have to pull guard duty one night.
GUARD DUTY - WHO, ME?
I was told to report to a remote location alongside a rode leading into our encampment at 0200 hours (2:00 in the morning). I would be armed with an M1 rifle and a walkie-talkie and I would relieve the soldier who had been there for the previous four hours. He would fill me in on anything special I needed to know before turning the post over to me.
It would then be my job to challenge anyone I might see coming in our direction and to make him identify himself, etc. If a situation appeared to be dangerous I could call for help with the walkie-talkie.
Beyond that, one was expected to observe the rules for performing guard duty he had learned in basic training-not the least important of which was staying awake. (Anyone found sleeping on guard duty was immediately subject to court-martial and severe punishment, including the possibility of death or life imprisonment if it happened in a war zone.)
I was praying that I would stay awake, because I've always had the ability to easily fall sleep just about any time in any place-especially if I'm bored. And, as I approached the guard post, the soft grass around it looked like a great place for a nap-especially at 2:00 in the morning.
Well, staying awake turned out to be the least of my problems.
I could see two people in the darkness, as I got closer to the guard post. One was standing, holding a rifle, and facing me. The other was a couple of yards behind him, sitting on the ground. The one standing gave me the regulation challenge and I identified myself. "Okay," he said.
Even before I could ask about the person sitting on the ground, the soldier who had spoken said, "I've got a patient for you. You need to take care of him."
"A patient?" I asked. "What's the matter with him?"
WHAT DID HE MEAN, "A PATIENT?"
"You know," he said, "he's a gook-just keep your eye on him." With that he picked up his field pack and headed up the road toward the base camp.
No, I didn't know. The impression I got was that this fellow had some kind of an injury or illness (a "patient") and that he had come here looking for help. And since we presumably wouldn't be able to speak each other's language, I should just keep my eye on him-probably until sunup, when I could get a better look at things.
The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn't like the word "gook" (a derogatory for "Oriental" or "Asian") just as I've never liked any other derogatory ethnic name.
Well, it wasn't till four hours later when I found out what my predecessor should have told me. Here's what he should have said:
"I saw this Korean walking by and told him to stop. He did, but he doesn't speak much English, so I can't tell if he's friend or foe. Anyway, I searched him-and he's unarmed. I called back to camp for instructions and they told me to keep him here until an officer came to get him at dawn."
And you don't need to speak the language when you see a gun pointed at your head-so the Korean sat down and stayed.)
In other words, I was supposed to be told that this guy was to be regarded as a prisoner of war-but I wasn't told that.
As for not speaking the language-well, I had picked up a little Korean. Not surprisingly, this fellow was surprised and pleased when I said hello and asked him how he was doing in my broken Korean. He responded that he was okay, thank you.
So now we're asking each other our names. As it turned out, he knew about as much English as I knew Korean. (This, by the way, was how I had learned a little of the language-just by talking to natives and asking questions.)
So I asked him why he was here-was he hurt or something? He said he was okay, but that he had taken the wrong road in the dark. He even tried to ask me if I knew the way to a certain village. No, I didn't.
So we just spent then next three and a half hours talking, and trying to teach each other more of our respective languages. The time passed quickly. I was still under the impression he was just waiting for the sun to come up so he could better see where he was going.
When the sun did start to rise, I asked if he was going to be going now.
"I go now?" he asked with some surprise.
"Well, do you want to go now?" I naively asked.
"Yes, I go now," he said, nodding his head and smiling broadly.
TURNED THE PRISONER LOOSE
So we shook hands and he went.
Five minutes later a jeep pulled up carrying the Officer of the Day and two non-coms. "Where's the prisoner?" the lieutenant demanded with an agitated look on his face.
"What prisoner?" I asked, already starting to realize what had probably happened.
"The one you're supposed to be guarding!"
"That Korean? Nobody told me he was a prisoner. The fellow I replaced said he was a 'patient' and that I should look after him. Since he didn't seem to need any help, I just sent him on his way."
"What kind of crazy talk is that? What do you mean, a 'patient?' Don't you know a prisoner when you see one?"
"Well, he didn't look like a prisoner to me. He was just sitting there-and the other guard didn't seem to be restraining him in any way. I mean-no handcuffs or anything. He even had his back to him when he was talking to me."
"This is the damnedest thing I've ever heard," the officer said in exasperation. Then he turned to the two sergeants in the back seat and said, "Have that other soldier report to me in 30 minutes. I'm going to get to the bottom of this."
THREATENED ME WITH COURT-MARTIAL
Then he turned back to me and said, "You could be looking at a court-martial, you know. Turning a prisoner of war loose is a pretty serious offense."
"Yes sir," I said, "I'm sure it is. And if anyone had told me he was a prisoner, I would have acted accordingly."
Well, guess what. That was the last I ever heard of it. Apparently the other soldier acknowledged what I had said-even without my being there to confront him. (Also, I'm happy to report, that was the only time I had to perform guard duty.)
One of the things the troops looked forward to every day was seeing a list of names posted on a bulletin board near the Company HQ. Actually there were two lists. One showed the names of those who were eligible for R&R (rest and recuperation for a couple of weeks in Japan although the guys preferred to call it I&I-intercourse and intoxication)-and the other showed the names of those who were nearing the end of their tours of duty and who would be getting shipped back to the states shortly.
Since I didn't expect to find my name on either list any time soon I never stopped to look at the posting. Needless to say, I was surprised when a friend told me he saw my name on the "going home" list one day. I figured it had to be an error of some kind, since I had only been there for about three months-and still had over a year and a half to go in my enlistment. But I went and took a look anyway-and there was my name, just as he had said.
MY NAME SHOULDN'T BE ON THIS LIST
Well, an updated list was posted each day, so I was sure someone would catch the error and remove my name. But there it was the next day-and the next. It was on a list of names of those who were scheduled to depart for Camp Stoneman in San Francisco in just two weeks. This didn't make any sense.
But after I thought about it a little more, it began to make a certain amount of sense-in a strange sort of way.
As was expected, President Truman had added another group of enlistees to those whose enlistments would be extended for one year. My end-of-enlistment date put me right in the middle of this group-as I had known it would. But I had already "voluntarily" extended my enlistment for a year-remember?
Okay, so here's where it gets weird. Since the war had begun to "wind down," the president had revised his last "one year" extension to be just "four months." Had I not voluntarily extended for a year, this would have included me-meaning that my enlistment would now be up in just another two or three of months.
BUREAUCRATIC BOO BOO
It was obvious what had happened. The paper-pushing people at Personnel had seen my name on the president's one-year list, and then again of the revised four-month list. But somehow they overlooked my "voluntary" one-year extension, which would have taken precedence over any "involuntary" extensions. Great, I thought. I really lucked out-as long as nobody found those papers I had signed. Hmmm.
There had been three copies. I had long since lost the one they gave me, but there would be two more in my files somewhere. If some sharp-eyed bureaucrat happened to spot either of them, I'd be doomed to remain in Korea for another year.
There was only one thing to do-I had to find those papers before someone else did.
CLOAK & DAGGER WORK AT PERSONNEL
As mentioned earlier, one of the perks of being the PX Clerk was that you could requisition a jeep whenever you needed to go someplace. So I got one and drove back to Battalion Personnel Headquarters.
I explained to the sergeant in charge that I had been sent back to check up on some company personnel information. "No problem," he said, and showed me where the file cabinet I needed was located.
It didn't take me long to find the folder with my name on it. And there they were, both of them-the two forms I was looking for.
Well, since I was all alone back there among the filing cabinets, it was no problem to remove the forms and stick them under my field jacket. Back at camp, a lighted match quickly reduced them to ashes.
However, this didn't necessarily mean there would be no remaining record of my voluntary extension.
There would still be (or, at least, should have been) the Morning Report entry.
In those days the multiple-copy Morning Report (sometimes known as the army's gospel) was the daily logging of all significant events concerning everyone in the army (I don't know about the other services). If someone checked in sick, or went on leave, or turned up AWOL, or got promoted-or whatever-an entry was made on the Morning Report of whatever outfit the soldier was in at the time.
How do I know so much about Morning Reports? Well, that had been one of my main jobs back at Belvoir-preparing the daily Morning Report for Company K of the 1st School Battalion. These reports were (in theory) supposed to be kept on file forever. So, presumably, the information about my one-year extension could surface at any time.
As for the ethics of destroying the copies of my voluntary extension form-here's the way I saw it: I had voluntarily extended my enlistment only because it appeared (on good evidence) that I was going to be extended anyway. The government then did extend my enlistment by one year-and subsequently reduced the extension to four months. In other words, the government had changed its mind twice about how long I was to remain in the army (without asking my permission). So I decided I could change my mind too (and in doing so, conform to what the government apparently wanted to do with me anyway). My conscience was clear-(well, I told myself it was clear).
Bu it would be many years before I'd stop having recurring nightmares about them discovering the paperwork snafu, and about them yanking me back into the army to finish up those eight remaining months-or doing something even worse to me.
In fact, I didn't have to be asleep to have the nightmare. The day I was to leave Korea I was sitting in a Chorwon train station (along with a few dozen of other troops) on what was to be the first leg of our journey home. I was excited and anxiously awaiting the train which was due to stop for us in about 15 minutes. Suddenly a voice behind me yelled out, "Hey-whadda ya think you're doing? You're not supposed to be getting out of Korea yet!"
My heart sank as I slumped into my chair. They found out. What were they going to do to with me?
I looked over my shoulder to see who had spoken. It was a big burly MP. But he wasn't looking at me. He was smiling and had his hand out, as he approached some guy on the other side of the room-who was also smiling. The MP had obviously spotted a buddy-and was just ribbing him. But I had to check my pulse to make sure my heart was still beating.
SIGHTSEEING NEARLY GOT ME KILLED
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back at camp, I still had about a week and a half before I was scheduled to catch that train in Chorwon. I had already started to pack. I wrote a letter to Norma Jean, telling her the big news. I was counting the days and hours till it would be time to leave. They even sent a replacement PX Clerk for me to break in. I was on cloud nine.
Then I stupidly went and nearly got myself killed.
With a new clerk now on duty, I had more free time than ever. So when one of my buddies said he had to take some supplies to the FO and asked if I wanted to go along for the ride, I said, "Sure, why not."
I'd never been to the FO bunker and was curious to see what it was like. Sure, it was on the front line of the battle zone-but things had been pretty quiet, so it didn't seem like a dangerous thing to do. Boy, was I wrong.
As we approached one particular hill that was somewhat higher than the others, I could see a network of trenches near its peak. "There it is," my friend said. "We'll park about two thirds of the way up, then use those trenches to go the rest of the way."
Why are we crouching in these trenches, I wondered, if there was no shooting going on? When we got to the top, my friend disappeared into the main FO bunker, but I decided I wanted a better look at things. So I climbed up on top of the bunker.
I hadn't been there two seconds when a voice from below yelled at me. "Hey, you idiot-get down from there! You trying to get killed? We've had incoming artillery landing around here all morning."
I jumped into the trench and stepped into the doorway of the FO bunker. I stood there squinting in the darkness, trying to see who had yelled at me. I quickly found out. A young lieutenant with binoculars yelled again. "Get out of the doorway, stupid!" He literally saved my life.
I had no sooner stepped further inside the bunker when a shell exploded in the trench just outside the doorway. Shrapnel flew through the doorway and imbedded itself in the dirt wall opposite it. As I looked in disbelief at the shrapnel-ravaged wall where I had just been standing, all I could think of was, "What the hell am I doing here?"
YOUNG LIEUTENANT SAVED MY LIFE
I never did learn the name of the young officer who had kept me from suddenly becoming Swiss cheese. We were all ordered to lay low in the deepest part of the bunker until things appeared to be safe again. The lieutenant continued to call in coordinates for a fire mission-and after about forty minutes of pounding from our Howitzers, everything seemed to finally be quiet on the northern front.
Finally the lieutenant said to me and my friend, "All right-get out of here-and move fast." We did. I was never so glad to get out of a place in my life.
UNNEEDED HORSE BLANKET
As for the trip back to the states, the only thing that sticks in my mind is the matter of the "horse blanket" overcoat. It had been issued to me back at Fort Ord, and had accompanied me everywhere I'd gone. I especially got a lot of use out of it during my first few weeks in Korea-but now it was the middle of summer. It wouldn't fit in my duffel bag, so I had to carry it separately-and it was a real drag.
I don't know where I left it, but somewhere between trains I'd lost track of it. Oh well-I wouldn't be needing it anymore. But a buddy pointed out that at the next "repo depot" (replacement facility) we would be turning in surplus gear, and we'd be charged for anything that had been issued and not returned. The coat, I was told, listed at about $60.00. Oh well-it was too late to go back for it now.
At the repo depot, as my friend had said, we were told to get in line and be prepared to turn in everything we had been issued, except what we were wearing. As I stood in line, I was trying to think of a believable excuse. I had turned it in back in Chorwon, but lost the receipt? Someone stole it? No, I didn't think they were going to buy anything like that.
As I stood there trying to figure out what to do or say, I noticed that the surplus gear was getting tossed into three or four piles in a hallway just beyond where the clerks were taking inventory. I also noticed that there was a certain amount of light traffic back and forth through this hallway. It occurred to me that someone walking through there could probably lift one of the items of apparel off a pile without ever being noticed. I decided to get out of line and take a little walk.
The coat had a nametag sewed in it-but it came off easily. When I finally reached the inventory clerk, he said the coat didn't look like my size. "Well," I said, "you know how the army is-they're famous for giving you the wrong size." He just shrugged and tossed it back onto the same pile I'd just taken it off of.
Back at Camp Stoneman the big day had finally arrived-my last day in the army. Well, actually it was less than a day because we were supposed to be getting our discharge papers about noon.
However the army wasn't going to turn us loose without giving us one more opportunity to change our minds and accept its offer of a nice bonus for reenlisting.
We were told to report to an assembly hall after breakfast for a final briefing. We were all very restless as a middle-aged colonel began giving us his own personal farewell speech. However the speech was brief, and had been punctuated with a number of timely jokes. The colonel had an upbeat sense of humor and had managed to make us all laugh and feel at ease.
But he saved his best joke for last-when he said, "And now, gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to Lieutenant Higgins, who will give you a three-hour lecture on the benefits of reenlisting."
"Oh, well kiss my ass!" was the loud, exasperated complaint that came out a friend sitting to my right, as he slumped down in his chair-and just as the poor lieutenant walked by us on his way to the podium with a look of shock on his face.
The young second lieutenant was so embarrassed he almost didn't know what to say. Yet I was afraid my less than tactful friend might be hustled off by the MPs for insubordination or something. But the chagrined officer finally composed himself and said he was there just to give us our final instructions for finding transportation home. My verbose friend breathed a sigh of relief (as did just about everybody else in the room).
Oh well-all's well that ends well.
BACK TO CIVILIAN LIFE
ell, I was finally out of the army-and couldn't be happier. But after more than three years in the service, what had I accomplished by way of building a résumé that would help me find a good civilian job? Not much. I had taken a construction surveying course at Fort Belvoir, Virginia-but deliberately flunked the final exam. That wouldn't look too good on a job application.
Okay, I'd been a Company Clerk in the states and a PX Clerk in Korea (nice soft jobs in the army) but clerical work and retail sales jobs didn't particularly appeal to me as career choices. And my self-taught lettering skills weren't really good enough to get me a job as a journeyman sign painter. Hmmm-maybe I should have stayed in the army.
My discharge came in December of 1952-just a couple of weeks before my 21st birthday. The only job I could find was one that would begin the day after Christmas-taking inventory at the Broadway Department Store. (How ironic, I remember thinking. My stepdad's first job, when we moved to LA, was at the Broadway-and my first job out of the army would be with the same company.)
It would be a temporary job (about two weeks) and pay minimum wages-but it was better than no job at all. It was also a boring job-but I decided to make the best of it while I continued to look for something better.
Well, much to my surprise, when the job ended my crew manager asked me if I'd like to stay on as a salesman for the Broadway. He went on to say that he had been pleased with my work and thought I could do well as a salesman earning a salary plus commissions. (He further flattered my by saying I was the only person out of this 30-member crew to whom he had made the offer.)
I'd never really thought about becoming a department store salesman, but-again-it would be better than no job at all-had I not just found another job the day before.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California had advertised for a surveyor, and I had gone to apply for the job (hoping I could think of some way of explaining-or avoid mentioning-my flunking of the surveying course at Fort Belvoir). But when I got there, they told me the job had already been filled, and that I probably wouldn't have gotten it anyway, because they were looking for someone with at least two years experience.
But they did need a draftsman. And, although draftsmen weren't paid nearly as well as surveyors, it was still more than the base rate for a department store salesman. So I went to work for the MWD-and stayed there for the next eleven months-after which time I decided to become a self-employed sign painter. (Big mistake. More about that later.)
In addition to needing a job, of course, I needed a place to live. Naturally my mother invited me to come live with her-but there was no way I would ever do that again. But I found a very nice room and board place in Hollywood.
Mrs. Glasser was a widow in her sixties, who had a house big enough to accommodate about eight boarders. For $7 a week, you got a room (which had to be shared with one other person) and a delicious full course dinner every night. (To me this seemed like such a bargain that I insisted on giving her an extra dollar every week. In fact, I would have considered it a bargain at $10 or $12-even at 1953 prices-but she wouldn't let me give her more than a dollar extra-and then only on condition I wouldn't tell anyone else about it.)
HARD WORKER WITH NO COMPLAINTS
She also did all the housework-all you were expected to do was keep your room neat. She was a very hard worker, who did everything herself without benefit of a maid or a gardener or any other kind of domestic help. Nor did she drive. Streetcars and buses took her everywhere she needed to go-including to the Grand Central Market in downtown LA.
She made the trip two or three times a week and bought as much she could carry in two over-sized shopping bags. Even though the trip took the better part of a day, she felt it was worth it because the prices were lower than those in the local food stores. She was a rather small woman with puffy legs and who was not particularly strong. Carrying those two heavy shopping bags the two blocks from the market to the streetcar and another two blocks to her house took a lot out of her. Yet she never complained. I remember Mrs. Glasser with a great deal of fondness and respect.
My roommate was Glenn. I liked Glenn and we got along fine-although we never had the chance to really get acquainted. He was a journeyman carpenter in his mid-twenties, and he'd be off to work early each morning. He had other friends or family in the area, so frequently wouldn't come home till bedtime. He also spent a lot of time at a nearby Church of Christ.
Glenn was a devout believer whose favorite topic of conversation seemed to be the errors in theology of the Catholic church and the obvious (to him) fallibility of the pope. His proudest possession was a collection of 78 RPM records, which contained a series of debates between someone from his church and one or more Catholic priests. He would frequently offer to let me hear them-and although I often thought I'd like to listen to at least one-I never did, mainly because of lack of time. In any case, he always assured me that his man won all the debates hands-down. Either way, Glenn was a very likeable guy and I often felt remorse that I never got to know him better.
NEW ROOMMATE WITH A NICE SMILE
After about a year, I moved out of Mrs. Glasser's. I was gone for less than a month-but when I returned I found that Glenn had moved away and I now had a new roommate-one who was gay (although in those days the word "gay" was still used to mean cheerful, joyous, or happy-go-lucky). The words that were used (by non-gays) had a less charitable ring to them: queer-fruity-homo-swishy. The least negative adjective phrase was probably just "that way." (The nouns most often used were queer, fruit, fruitcake, pansy, or fag.) In any case, the use of the word "gay" was just starting to come into use by, well, gays.
But going from Glenn to Bruce made for an interesting contrast in roommates. However I'll tell you more about this later.
In the meantime, I was wishing I had my old pal Carl for a roommate.
Carl had joined the army a few months after I did. We never saw each other while in the service, and wrote only occasionally. I was in for three years and four months, and Carl was in for three. Both of us ended up going to Korea.
But Carl and I had two totally different experiences in the army. While I had purposely flunked a construction surveying course to latch onto a soft office job, Carl had signed up for the Signal Corps and passed a radio/telephone communications course with flying colors. He was sent to Hawaii, where he received more training and eventually ended up doing communications work in Korea. He also developed a life-long love for electronics.
His discharge and return to civilian life finally came just a few months after mine. Carl and I had always talked about getting an apartment together, and I began to look for one when he wrote to say he'd be getting out soon. But just a few days before his discharge, one of Mrs. Glasser's boarders moved out. The spot that was vacated happened to be the only single room in the house (besides Mrs. Glasser's) and it rented for a couple of dollars more than the doubles. When I told Carl about Mrs. G's fabulous home-cooking, he jumped at the chance to move in.
CARL MOVES IN
Well, Carl and I would have liked to have shared a room, but when I suggested to Bruce that maybe he'd like to switch with Carl he said he really couldn't afford the extra charge for the single room. And Carl wasn't too unhappy with the arrangements because he had a lot of stuff to store, and the single room came with a lot more shelf and closet space.
Carl had always been (and still is) a very organized person. While in the service he had arranged for all his personal belongings (such as his record collection and comic book collection, as well as all his electronic gear) to be well taken care of. The larger single room would suit his needs quite nicely.
I, on the other hand, have never been good about taking care of my things, and over the years have lost track of many of them. I've given some away, lost some, and thrown out others because they became outdated or obsolete one way or another. Carl's things, by contrast, have always been meticulously cared for-and when they were no longer needed he would sell them-and not infrequently for more than he paid originally.
Carl was also a lot more organized about what he wanted to do with his life after the army. He signed up for every GI benefit available, and used them first to go to school and eventually to buy a home and start a business (among other things). I, too, was eligible for all these same benefits-but never signed up for even one -mainly because I hated to fill out forms (and still do). So while Carl was going to school (and getting a government stipend for doing so) I was going from one entry-level job to another, trying to find my future.
Then one day I spotted a newspaper ad for "Sign Painting Instruction." Well, so far sign painting seemed to be the only thing I showed any real aptitude for, so I decided to check out the ad.
Dick Relf had a small sign shop on Crenshaw Blvd. in LA, where he gave sign-painting lessons three evenings a week. He had three students at the time. I would be number four.
PHILOSOPHICAL SIGN PAINTER
Dick turned out to be a very interesting fellow, who would substantially alter the course of my life.
He was in his mid-forties and his sign business was basically a one-man operation. However, I came to learn that in the past he had run shops that employed a dozen or more sign painters, and that he had also been a teacher at Los Angeles Trade and Technical Institute (formerly Frank Wiggins Trade School).
Surely he could make more money with a larger sign business, I thought, and I knew he got paid more at LA Trade-Tech than he was getting with the nominal amount he charged us four students (whose number ranged from about two to five at any given time).
Why did he restrict his business to just what he could handle by himself, and do this part-time teaching for less money than he could have made using the same time for his sign work? Also-his shop was in a high-rent area on Crenshaw Blvd., and could easily be found because of its large sign which read "Modern Signs" in a stylish script, and which was followed in smaller type by "Gold Leaf - Vehicle Lettering - Silk Screen Printing." This was an ideal location for walk-in trade. Yet he was hardly ever there (except during the evenings when he was giving lessons). Most of his work was done outside the shop-and he didn't even have an answering service. (Answering machines hadn't been invented yet.) Economically, this just didn't make any sense-at least not to me.
But Dick Relf was a philosopher and an idealist. He had decided that he was going to spend his time doing only what he enjoyed.
What did he enjoy? Well, he enjoyed doing certain types of sign work-in particular, gold leaf lettering on windows. He didn't care for doing walls or billboards, but did enjoy lettering vehicles and posters and anything else of a smaller scale where he could put his highly creative layout skills to good use. And he loved to teach.
And he didn't just give lessons in lettering. He also taught you how to sell your work. Dick was a good salesman, and appeared to enjoy selling his skills just as much as doing the actual lettering. One of the first things he would tell a new student to do was go out and buy two books: "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie and "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill.
The Carnegie book would teach us important things about how to make a good first impression on a potential customer, and how to make the customer feel important and receptive to our ideas. The Hill book would teach us how to delegate authority and how to build a business based on being a good manager and getting others to do the actual work. (Dick acknowledged that regarding the latter, he used to do that-pay others to do the work-but had given this up in favor of his "one man, but less stress" philosophy of running a business.) However, there was no reason why we shouldn't learn to build a successful sign business where we would eventually profit from other people's work. And, in fact, I eventually did that-but not without a lot of hard knocks along the way.
Dick even had a philosophy about visiting prostitutes. He once told me that before he was married, there was one he used to see periodically, and whose services he always enjoyed. He went on to say that (before he finally met his wife-to-be) visiting a prostitute periodically made more sense than most of the "dating" he had done. Taking a girl out could be expensive, he pointed out, and where would it lead? There was the constant pressure of "how far would she let you go?" And if she did let you go "all the way" there would be the pressure of her wanting to make it into a steady relationship of some kind. But with a "working girl" you'd pay your money and not be worried that she'd expect you to call the next morning. No stress-no frustration. Except once.
He said his lady friend moved to a different apartment one day and phoned to give him the new address. But, she pointed out, she didn't wanted anyone in the building to know what she did for a living. So she gave Dick special instructions on how he was supposed to enter through the back door, and what he should say if he happened to meet anyone in the hallway. Then there would be a special knock so she would know who it was. Well, Dick went on to say, after following all these special instructions, the spontaneity of the event had been lost altogether-and by the time he got into her apartment he no long had the desire to do anything.
The lesson here was: if something causes so much stress that you can't enjoy doing it-forget it and do something else.
Hey, don't argue with me-I never claimed to be a philosopher.
Anyway, under Dick Relf's tutelage, I did learn a whole lot more about professional sign painting techniques than I had been picking up on my own. And he did give me the confidence to believe that I could do as he did-go out and look for work, and then sell myself to the prospective customer.
So when I told him I thought I'd come far enough to quit my job at the MWD and become a freelance sign painter (like he was) he tried to talk me out of it. "You've come a long way," he said, "but you'd be well advised to keep your job and try to sell your sign services part time, to start with." He even offered to let me use his shop for any inside work, but suggested that working weekends and evenings would be a smart move rather than giving up the security of my regular job just yet.
But I couldn't wait. I decided I was ready. Dick said I was crazy. He wasn't the only one who thought so. I had worked at the MWD for eleven months. After one more month I would be eligible for a one-week paid vacation.
"You're going to quit now, and give up a week's paid vacation?" my friends asked in amazement. "Would staying there one more month kill you? What's the big hurry?"
GOOD ADVICE IGNORED
Well, I rationalized, I was going to be so successful at my new career that I would more than make up for the week's pay I'd be forfeiting. Boy, was I wrong.
Not that I didn't succeed at getting some orders-I did. I diligently went around and handed out cards at businesses that looked like they could use some sign work-and would get an occasional order. But what I wasn't prepared for was the fact that nobody would give me an order without first haggling over the price. I was not good at haggling then (nor did I ever become good at it). Nor did I ever develop any love for making cold calls in the first place. Dick loved it-I hated it (and still do). I was now wishing I had stayed at the MWD for another month and gotten that week's vacation pay.
There were other problems. Even when I got an order (whose price had already been haggled down from what I thought it should be) there would be the cost of the supplies (paints, solvents, etc.) which were somehow always more than I thought they would be. But my biggest problem was the time it would take me to do the job. I always had this "perfectionist" attitude about my work, and would spend way more time than I should on little things that, for the most part, no one would ever notice but me. By the time I added up all my expenses, and subtracted them from what I got paid for the job, and then factored in the time I had spent, I was making way less than minimum wages. I didn't even have the $8.00 for my next week's rent at Mrs. Glasser's.
I asked Dick if he had any suggestions. "Get another job," he said, "and stick with it until you're really ready for this." In the meantime, he offered to let me live in his shop until I got back on my feet. His shop's bathroom had a tub in it, so I used some 2x4s to build a frame over it, onto which I placed an inflatable air mattress. Also, he had an electric hotplate and a refrigerator. I was able to struggle along for about three weeks like this, but it became embarrassingly obvious that he (and all my friends) were right and that I'd better start looking a for job.
So I became a milkman-another job for which I turned out to be eminently ill-suited.
The Carnation Company was advertising for milkman trainees, so I went and applied. Hey, didn't milkmen work in the early morning hours-and wouldn't I have the afternoons off to pursue my freelance sign painting business? Well, the first thing I learned was that you didn't get to be a milkman without first being a door-to-door salesman, where you would try to sign up customers for a milk route. Door-to-door selling-just what I liked least to do. But, they assured me, it was just temporary and I'd be getting a salary (rather than being dependent on commissions to get by).
Our main selling feature was Carnation's new "multi-vitamin" milk that came in brown bottles to "filter out harmful sun's rays." We were taught how much of each vitamin a quart of milk contained, and what the average adult's minimum daily requirement was for each one. Since we were representing a major company and offering a service that would make the buyer's life a lot easier, making these sales calls would be easy and fun. Yeah, right.
Our instructors at this cold-call selling were guys who did it for a living. (They were not doing it as a stepping stone to become route drivers.) My crew leader was a shifty-eyed guy named Cliff with a gravely voice who'd obviously been doing sales of some kind all his life. He would also say anything to make a sale. To me he looked like somebody I wouldn't trust to give me the time of day, but the Carnation milkman's cap he wore lent him a certain air of credibility. When one of the crew said he'd just had a doctor answer the door (and not sign up for milk delivery) Cliff said, "Oh, I forgot to tell you-if a doctor ever answers the door you look him right in the eye and say, 'Good morning, doctor-I'm with Carnation's health department.'" Yeah, right.
In any case, after about three weeks of this they finally sent me out on a milk route. I would spend the next three weeks working as a helper to a seasoned route driver, who would prepare me to become a professional milkman. I was excited.
But I was also disappointed to learn that the most successful route drivers became so largely because of their ability to continually sign up people as new customers. Hmm, in order to make money at this job you had to be a salesman-not just a delivery man. Not too encouraging.
The fellow I would be helping for the next three weeks was a likeable guy (and a good teacher) named Bob Prettyman. However, he was a little defensive about his name, and would advise you right up front that it was to be pronounced, "Purtyman." Anyway, he liked everything about being a milkman, and was genuinely convinced that one day he would become Carnation's president. "My first day on the job," he was fond of saying, "I took to delivering milk like a duck takes to water." Well, I soon discovered that I took to delivering milk like a lead pipe takes to water.
PARK LA BREA BLUES
Have you ever heard of the Park La Brea Towers? In those days buildings over three or four stories high were rare in LA (earthquake country, you know). Well, in the vicinity of La Brea and Wilshire Blvds., there was a large development that interspersed 11-story apartment buildings with 2-story four-plexes. Park La Brea and its Towers quickly became the nightmare of my route.
But shouldn't this have been a dream route for a milkman? It was beautifully landscaped with lots of green areas around the structures. You didn't have to compete for space with buses, trucks or streetcars-and at 4:00 in the morning there was relatively little automobile traffic to contend with. The tenants were relatively affluent and rarely stiffed you on a bill-and some were even known to give generous tips from time to time. Furthermore, Park La Brea was only a ten-minute drive from Carnation headquarters. How could this be anything but the ideal milk route? Easy.
For starters I felt lousy even before I got there. I had to be at work at 3:00 AM to get my truck loaded. I was never a morning person to begin with, and having to go to bed in the middle of the afternoon didn't work out worth a darn. I was lucky to have gotten four or five hours sleep by the time I arrived at the terminal.
Then there was my truck. Refrigerated milk trucks had only recently come on the market, and Carnation had just a few. Only the drivers with the most seniority got one. The rest of us had old open-air Dodges and Divcos, whose milk (and other dairy products) were kept cool by laying gunny sacks filled with icecubes over them.
The first thing I had to do every morning was to place these icebags. Well, being a Southern California boy, I was not good at working with cold fingers. And at 3:00 AM (especially in winter) handling these icebags would numb my fingers for the rest of the day. This made it hard to drive, to write notes, and just to function in general.
As for those towers (there were about a dozen of them) they all looked alike. The only thing that identified one from another was the address over the entrance. And the four-plexes spread around between them only had three or four different floor plans-so they all looked pretty much alike too. Now this sameness may not sound like such a big deal-but early in the morning, when it was still dark, and I was cold and sleepy, it was easy to confuse one building with another. The streets curved around with no right angles to their intersections-and, with no sun, you really couldn't tell east from west. I'd basically be lost as soon as I drove into the place.
There would be several deliveries in each tower, so the idea was to try to carry all the milk, cream, butter, eggs and cottage cheese that the customers normally ordered in one trip. And getting to the eleventh floor of Building No. 11214, only to discover you were carrying the goods for Building No. 11204, did not get your delivery day off to a very good start.
But even when you took the right goods into the right tower, you'd frequently find a note from Mrs. Shapiro on the tenth floor (whose standing order was two quarts of regular milk and a pint of cottage cheese) saying today she wanted three quarts plus a dozen eggs. Well, you weren't going all the way back to the truck for the eggs and extra milk until you'd checked out all the other stops to see if anyone else had changed his or her usual order. This meant writing hasty notes with cold stiff fingers, or hoping you could remember all the changes when you got back to the truck. Neither system was very reliable, and it was not uncommon to get back to the terminal and be told that Mrs. Shapiro had called to complain that you left skim milk instead of regular.
Then people would move (or go on vacation) without telling you, causing you to leave a delivery at the door of an empty apartment. (Deliveries that didn't get paid for came right out of your paycheck.)
My friend Carl would say he could hardly wait for me to give up this job, because he had to listen to all my woes after each day's work. He finally got to where he'd say, "I don't want to hear anything about wrong addresses, or unreasonable customers, or ice that melted too soon-and I especially don't want to hear the words 'Park La Brea Towers.'"
To this day Carl cringes in terror if I ever say, "Remember when I used to be a milkman?"
EARLY MORNING EYE-OPENER
I survived this job for about four months. I couldn't wait to start going to bed at midnight again. But the four months weren't totally unrewarding. There was this one stop (not among the Towers) which was across a walkway from another apartment, where a pleasant surprise awaited me one morning. As I was placing the milk on the doorstep, a light came on in a large window of this other apartment. A shade was raised and revealed the shapely body of a totally nude young woman. I couldn't see her face, because the shade stopped just at the neck. (I probably wouldn't have been looking at her face anyway.) After a few moments, the woman turned and walked into another room.
Well, I didn't know what to do. Would she come back? And if she did, would she turn the off light or pull down the shade? I waited-but nothing happened. Well, I couldn't spend the rest of the morning standing there, so I finally went back to work. In any event, this had certainly brightened up my morning, and made suffering through Park La Brea a little more bearable that day. Not surprisingly, I could hardly wait for my next delivery at this address. But the window remained dark and Miss Godiva never revealed herself to me again.
But there was this other apartment where a young woman in a see-through negligee invited me to come in. She said she hadn't decided on her order for that day, and if I'd come in and wait she'd get it all sorted out. Over her shoulder I could see three other delectable young things clad only in a variety of bras, panties, and slips. One was in the process of hooking up a strapless bra when she dropped one end. She discreetly turned her back as she finished hooking it up.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?" I asked the woman in the doorway, trying not to notice the curvaceous bare breasts which were pushing through the cinched up negligee.
"Come on in, and I'll see what we need," she repeated.
"Uh, well, we're really not supposed to go into people's houses," I said with a catch in my throat.
"Oh, come on," she said as she grabbed my arm. "It's cold out here." She disappeared into the kitchen, and the others all smiled at me as they continued to get dressed. One asked me to zip up the back of her dress.
"Darn," I was thinking. "Wouldn't it have been nice to have been invited in when they were all getting UNdressed? Oh well. Just be grateful for small favors," I told myself. A few moments later the brassiereless one returned and told me what she wanted. I wished I'd had the nerve to tell her what I wanted. Anyway, I thanked her for her order, and spent another day that was a little more tolerable than the others.
WASN'T SURE ABOUT MY ROOMMATE
As mentioned earlier, upon my return to Mrs. Glasser's (after living at Dick Relf's sign shop for a brief time) I found I had a new roommate. Bruce said he was studying drama at the Pasadena Playhouse, and would soon be appearing in one of its plays. He wanted to become a professional actor.
Well, Bruce definitely had a theatrical air about him, and the thought that he might be homosexual had certainly crossed my mind. But he wasn't making any moves on me. And outside of the fact that he seemed obliquely effeminate, he didn't say or do anything in our room to confirm my vague suspicions. He was pleasant and good-natured and in many ways made an ideal roommate. But I couldn't help but wonder about the pink Jockey shorts.
When Bruce noticed me noticing them, he said, "Oh, those. Well, you see, they went into the wash with a red shirt I'd just bought. I mean, who knew the silly thing would bleed?"
"All right," I thought to myself, "If you say so." But that didn't explain how come all his shorts were pink-or did it?
When I asked Carl what he thought of Bruce, he said, "I don't know. Seems like a nice enough guy to me. But he does smile a lot, doesn't he?"
Then one afternoon I came home and found Bruce lying on his bed reading a small booklet of some kind. He was on his stomach and had the pamphlet propped up against his pillow. As usual, he was smiling. He gave me the regulation friendly hello and then went back to reading. Suddenly he was laughing. "Oh, this is just too funny," he said.
"What's too funny?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't think you want to see this," he said, pushing the literature under his pillow.
"Don't want to see what?" Now, of course, I did want to see it.
"Well," he said coyly, "All right. But I'll just let you see the cover. You wouldn't like what's inside."
By now I was ready to kill to see this mysterious missal.
"Here," he said, sliding it out from under the pillow. "But don't say I didn't warn you. And don't look inside."
I reached down and picked up the small magazine. Well, I guess I was just about as shocked as Bruce expected me to be. The magazine looked as though it might have been produced in someone's basement print shop. It had a plain white cover with its title printed in bold black letters. Its name said it all: "ONE - The Homosexual Magazine."
This was 1954, and you just didn't see stuff like this out in the open. In fact, my first reaction was that it must be totally illegal-and that Bruce was probably in danger of being arrested if he were found with it.
"Where did you get this?" was all I could sputter.
"In Pasadena, at a newsstand near the theater," he answered with another smile.
"Is this legal?" I asked, still in a state of shock.
"Well, it's on the newsstands, isn't it? It's just that nobody ever had the nerve to print this sort of thing before. This is the first edition, by the way."
"Yeah, and probably the last-if the police see it," I said, still in a state of disbelief.
"Oh, don't be so provincial," he said with feigned indignation. Then, as I started to open it, he said, "Oops-don't look inside-you might be even more shocked."
Of course at that point nothing short of an earthquake was going to keep from looking inside.
"Naughty, naughty," said Bruce with another coy smile.
Well, the insides contained mostly text with just a few photographs and some simple line drawings. The photos were mainly of handsome young men (some were more than handsome-they were downright beautiful). But none of the graphics could be described as even remotely "pornographic." (This would have been illegal in 1954.) I quickly browsed the text and found no hint of profanity or other objectionable language. It was mainly just a simple collection of love stories-only all the lovers happened to be the same sex.
As I handed the magazine back, I said, "Does this mean that you're-uh-you know..."
"Gay? Why my dear boy, didn't you know?" Then he added with a limp-wristed gesture, "Oh, I see-you're probably wondering why I never made a pass at you. Well, I do have a friend, you see. You've just never met him. But you're in luck-Freddy's coming to visit tomorrow."
I was pretty sure I didn't want to meet Freddy. And what exactly did he mean by "gay?" When I asked him, he said, "Oh my dear child, you really are provincial, aren't you? You honestly don't know what it means?"
"Well, I thought I did. You know, as in 'Our Hearts Were Young and Gay' or 'The Gay Divorcee.'"
"Oh, you are sweet-and you have so much to learn," he said with another coy smile.
"Well, what about this 'Freddy'-I suppose he's 'gay' too?"
Bruce just looked at me.
"When did you say he's coming?" I asked, silently assuring myself that I'd be away at that point.
"Oh, I don't know-sometime tomorrow afternoon. You must meet him. He is such a doll."
I was starting to feel sick to the stomach. I knew there was no reason in the world why I would want to meet Freddy-but in a way I felt overcome with curiosity. Then I found myself wondering why Bruce and Freddy weren't rooming together. And if Freddy was anything like I was starting to visualize (and he was!) what if he started visiting regularly? All of sudden living in Dick Relf's sign shop was starting to look pretty good again.
Or maybe it was time for Carl and me to start looking for that apartment we always said we wanted.
HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN HAVING A GAY ROOMMATE?
When Carl got home that evening I couldn't wait to tell him about Bruce. He didn't seem surprised.
"What do I do now?" I asked rhetorically. "Do you suppose everybody else knows?"
"Well," Carl replied, "I think everybody's been wondering-I mean, he does have a certain way about him."
"Great," I said. "So what are they thinking about me since I'm his roommate?"
"Well, I don't think anybody has any doubts about you. But it does make for kind of a weird situation. Anyway, did you say he has a boyfriend?"
"Yes-and he's supposed to be here tomorrow afternoon."
"So what's the boyfriend like? Did he say?"
"Yeah-he said he's a doll."
"Now you've got me curious," Carl said. "What time's the boyfriend supposed to be here?"
"I don't know-he just said in the afternoon. Man, this is getting spooky."
"Well, maybe the boyfriend is worried about you. Maybe he's coming to check you out."
"Very funny," I replied. But I wasn't laughing.
So Carl (who was still attending classes at the California Television Institute) made it a point to be home early the following afternoon. Carl's room was at the very front of Mrs. Glasser's house, and his window provided a broad view of the street. The two of us were sitting in his room, looking out the window, not really sure of what we were looking for.
"How's he getting here-is he driving?" Carl asked. "And where's Bruce right now?"
"Bruce is in our room," I said, although I was now finding it hard to use the phrase "our room."
"Anyway, I don't know how he's getting here."
Before I could say anything else, Carl's eyes widened as he grabbed my elbow and said, "Whoa-do you see what I see?"
He was staring out the window with that same look of shock I must have had when I first saw the title of Bruce's magazine. It had to be Teddy.
The young man coming up the street was looking at a piece of paper. He stopped and looked at our house, then looked at the paper again. He looked back in our direction and tore the paper in half as he headed up our walkway.
Carl and I looked at each other, then looked out the window again, with our mouths hanging open. Neither of us had ever seen anything quite like this before-and we grew up in Hollywood.
Teddy not only looked gay, he was an absolute caricature of what a swishy drag queen should look like. The only thing missing was a dress and some pearls. We could smell his perfume while he was still 40 feet from the house.
His hair was long (by 1954 standards) and blond and curly. I'm sure he'd recently had a perm. And the eyelashes had to be false. Even girls didn't have lashes that long and so heavily laden with mascara. He had several rings on each hand (but no earrings). My guess was that he saved the earrings for special occasions. And he had a walk that I'd only seen done by fashion models (female, that is) on a theater runway. He also looked more than a little annoyed, as he glanced down at his torn note.
As I began to regain my composure, I realized I had to go tell Bruce that Teddy was here.
Bruce just smiled and said, "Thank you," as he headed for the front door.
"Teddy, do come in," said Bruce with a smile that was now even broader than ever.
Teddy just sniffed as he came through the door, still wearing that look of annoyance. He stopped and looked quickly around. "So this is the place," he said curtly.
"Yes, yes, this is the place. And such wonderful people live here. Here are two of them now. Teddy, I want you to meet Carl and Don."
"Charmed," he said, still not smiling. As he held out his hand I wasn't sure if he wanted to shake, or if he expected one of us to kiss it. We shook.
Then he looked at me. His eyes narrowed as he said, "You must be Don."
"Well, yeah, the last time I looked," I said, trying to lighten things up a little.
Teddy didn't think this was funny. But he smiled at Carl. "Yes, of course," he said pleasantly, "you're the one who has his own room here. How nice." He never looked at me again after that.
But he did look at Bruce, who by now appeared to be feeling as uneasy as I did. "Where can we talk?" Teddy demanded.
Bruce smiled weakly, and said, "Excuse us." Then they went back to "our room."
Carl looked like he was the only who was enjoying all this. "What did I tell you?" he said as he gave me a knowing elbow in the ribs.
About an hour later Teddy came out of the room and headed quickly for the front door. He still looked annoyed-no, he looked angry. Carl and I watched from Carl's window as Teddy quickly disappeared down the street, heading toward Santa Monica Blvd. I found myself wondering how he managed to walk like he was wearing high heels-when he actually wasn't? It must take practice.
I was naturally curious to go back to my room and ask Bruce what was going on, but was almost afraid to. Well, I thought, I'd better get it over with. I told Carl I'd see him later and headed down the hallway. Bruce met me in the doorway. He gave me a strained smile and stepped back into the room.
With the door closed behind us, Bruce began. "I'm sorry about that," he said. "I guess you can tell we've been having a little tiff."
"Yeah, I gathered that. I also get the feeling it's got something to do with me."
"Well, yes and no. You see, Teddy and I used to have a place together. But we had some problems. So I moved out. That's when I came here."
"Well, Teddy's been writing-I wouldn't give him the phone number-and he's been saying we should get back together. I told him I didn't think so and that I was quite happy where I am. But he said he just wanted to talk-so I finally said okay. Naturally he wanted to know if I had another roommate. I said yes, but told him that you're straight."
"Straight?" Well, I'd just learned another new word.
"Then what?" I asked.
"Well, I told him I still thought it would be better if we stayed apart for a while-you know-to sort of think things over. So, if it's okay with you, I'll just stay on here. And Teddy won't be coming around anymore. I mean, you know, no more embarrassing encounters."
What could I say? Like I said earlier, Bruce in many ways was an ideal roommate. He was neat (a lot neater than I was, in fact)-he laughed at my jokes-he didn't smoke-or snore (and he didn't complain about my snoring). What more could I ask for? I really had nothing to complain about-just as long as the others in the house understood that roommates was all that we were. I believe they did.
In fact, Bruce and I got to be pretty good friends. He was an outgoing, personable fellow who was fond of things like classical music, ballet, and other types of artistic endeavors-many of the same things that Carl and I were also interested in. So I didn't feel awkward about going to lunch with him or stopping for coffee somewhere. Carl, on the other hand, didn't mind living in the same house with Bruce, but going to lunch-that would be carrying things a little too far.
But there was something about Bruce that fascinated me. Here was an intelligent, good looking fellow who, in my opinion, could easily make points with just about any girl he'd want to. So why didn't he want to? In fact, why would any guy prefer another guy? Well, I'm certainly not here to settle the age-old argument about whether it's environment or genes or what (although over the years I've become pretty much convinced it's the genes). In any case, I can think of few things more personally distasteful than a guy being intimate with another guy. But, having said that, I still can't help wondering why they'd even want to.
INVITED TO A GAY PARTY
This must have been what was in the back of my mind when Bruce asked me one day if Carl and I would like to go with him to a gay party. Before I could say anything, Bruce hastened to assure me, "It'll be all right-everyone will know you're straight, and nobody will bother you. Think about it. It could be an educational experience."
"Well, I'll ask Carl," I said.
"Yeah, sure!" was Carl's response. "And right after that I'd like to go to a lynching. What, are you crazy?"
"Well, look," I said, "We can leave any time we want-and Bruce promised that nobody would bother us. It might be interesting. Maybe we'll learn something about those people."
"What's to learn? They like other guys. What else do you need to know?"
"Well, they're still people. And I'm kind of curious. And I wouldn't even consider it if we weren't going with Bruce. I trust him."
"Hmm," Carl said. "We could leave at any time? In fact we could walk in and turn around and walk right out. Is that the idea?"
"Well," Carl said, "maybe if I had a few drinks before we went. That's probably the only way I could manage it."
"Okay. So I'll tell Bruce we're going, but that we may turn around and walk right out. Okay?"
Carl just grunted.
So we went to the party.
Carl has always been a happy drinker. Some people get mean or belligerent when they drink-some get moody or depressed. Carl gets happy. By the time we arrived at the party, Carl was very happy. I was happy that he was happy (and that I was driving).
There must have been about 18 or 20 guys at the party, and one woman. (I never did find out why she was there, but she seemed to be right at home as she talked animatedly with two or three of the guys.) Yes, there were also two or three guys dressed like women-but you could still tell. Bruce seemed to know everybody there (except for the woman).
The lights were rather dim and some soft music was coming from a record player. Not surprisingly, when we first walked in all eyes were on Carl and me. "All right, everybody," Bruce said in a loud voice (as he'd promised) "they're straight. Got it? Straight!" There were several shrugs and a couple of sighs, but nearly everyone went back to what he was doing. Only two or three continued watching us with questioning eyes. They, too, eventually gave up.
The thing that caught my attention the moment we walked in was what a handsome bunch of guys these were (not unlike the ones whose photos I'd seen in Bruce's magazine). There wasn't an ugly mug in the bunch. So why are they wasting these good looks on each other I wondered?. (I just wished I was half as good looking as any one of them.) But that's why I'd agreed to come-to see if I could make any sense out of this.
Bruce introduced us to five or six of the guys, then said, "Let's go to the kitchen and fix ourselves a drink."
"Good idea!" said Carl, who still appeared to be happy, but who also looked like he'd just as soon be someplace else. I think the only thing that had kept him this long was being able to steal glances at the lone woman in the crowd. She was very attractive, and I found myself doing the same thing.
We fixed some drinks and then went back into the living room. Bruce excused himself to go visit with some friends. Carl and I just stood there, neither of us knowing what to do next. Finally, Carl nudged me and said, "Had enough? I'm ready whenever you are."
Before I could answer, the front door flew open, and in swept a stunning creature that looked like she'd just come from starring in a fashion show of some kind. She paused just long enough to say, "I'm here everyone-let the party begin." Then she strode to the kitchen with a provocative wiggle that had everyone's undivided attention. The gown, the jewels, the heels, the eyelashes-wait a minute-the eyelashes? Could it be? Yes, it was Teddy!
I glanced over at Bruce, who was now looking like he'd just as soon be somewhere else.
Teddy was back from the kitchen in a flash. Someone had already fixed him (or should that be "her?") a drink. Teddy wasted no time in zeroing in on Carl and me. "Well, look who's here-Carl and Don. You remember me, don't you? Theodora, the love goddess?" Then Teddy raised his/her voice so everyone could hear. "I guess you all know they're straight. Do you hear me, my darlings? Straight." Then he/she winked at us with a with a rather disarming smile and said, "But maybe we can fix that."
Neither Carl nor I could come up with a witty reply. But Teddy wasn't waiting for one anyway. He/she had already turned with a flourish, as he/she had suddenly become aware of the music coming from the phonograph. "Oh just listen to that," he/she said with a dreamy look, "I'm In The Mood For Love."
Then Teddy looked back at us with another unsettling smile. "Well, I'm in the mood-how about you?" Then he/she looked around, and again raised his/her voice. "Oh look, everyone, I've embarrassed them. Aren't they precious?"
Then Teddy turned and knelt down by a young man sitting in a chair not far from us. "Dance with me, Stanley," Teddy said, seductively batting those oversized eyelashes. (By now, several other "couples" had already begun to dance.)
Stanley smiled at Teddy. "You know I'm a terrible dancer, Theodora-but I will let you lay your head in my lap."
That's when I nudged Carl and said, "I'm ready." We waved at Bruce as we headed for the door. Bruce smiled and waved back. He didn't need any explanations or formal farewells.
OUR OWN APARTMENT - WELL, ALMOST
arl and I had been best friends for nearly
ten years and had been through a lot together. But the closest we'd ever come to "having our own place" was living in two different rooms in Mrs. Glasser's boarding house. When my gay roommate Bruce suddenly moved away, Carl and I discussed having Carl move into his spot-but abandoned this idea almost immediately because the room was way too small to accomodate all Carl's stereo equipment and other electronic gear he'd been accumulating since starting school at the California Television Institute. So we got out the classifieds and started apartment hunting.
We found a very nice place on Franklin Ave. not far from Hollywood and Vine. It was on the second floor and had a large bedroom with twin beds. The kitchen and living room were fairly good sized as well, and we were excited about finally having our own place. The rent was a little more than we could afford, but when we happen to catch sight of the tenants in the adjoining apartment (two very pretty girls just about our age) we decided that we'd manage it somehow.
There was only one problem with our new apartment.
As soon as she heard Carl and I had gotten our own apartment, she got on the phone and asked if she could come and stay for a "couple of days." She had to move out of her place (so she claimed) and hadn't found another one yet. It would just be "temporary."
"No way," I said. "You've got lots of friends. Find somewhere else."
If this sounds cruel, it's only because you never met my mother. She'd been after me to move in with her ever since I got out of the army, and, for a multitude of reasons I won't go into here, I had decided there was no way this would ever happen again. If there weren't already enough other reasons for my refusing to let her move in with us, there would still be this one: she hated Carl.
But the phone never stopped ringing. We finally had to take it off the hook.
The second day we were there I got home from my milk route at about 1:30 and found the door to the apartment ajar. This was strange, because Carl didn't usually get home from school till after 3:00. I cautiously pushed the door open an looked in. There was my mother, sitting on the sofa reading a book (whose title, incidentally, was "The Natural Superiority of Women"). She looked up and smiled.
"Now don't get excited," she said. "It'll just be for a couple of days. But I really did have to find a place to stay."
"How did you get in?" was the only thing I wanted to know.
"Well," she said, "I just came and rang the bell. Carl didn't know what to say, so I just walked in. I've already unpacked my things-and I told Carl he could sleep on the sofa." Then she patted the sofa, as she looked at it approvingly. "He ought to be quite comfortable here."
"Hey, this isn't going to work. You've got to get out of here-right now." I stammered.
"What-you're going to put your mother out on the street? You wouldn't do that. Now just relax. Everything's going to be fine."
I didn't know what to do. What would you do? I couldn't pick her up and throw her out-yet I couldn't let her stay. I turned around and walked out.
I decided to wait in my car till Carl showed up. Maybe between the two of us we could think of something. I finally saw him walking from the bus stop toward the building. He was walking slowly and looking very apprehensive. I hurried to meet him. "Hey Carl," I called.
"Oh there you are," he said. "I guess you know..."
"Yeah, I know. What I don't know is what to do."
"Can't we call the police and have her evicted or something?" he asked hopefully.
"I have no idea, but I think the first thing we'd better do is go in and see if we can talk her into leaving," I said-although I really had no illusion that this would do any good. It didn't.
We were both at a loss for what to say or do as we opened the door and walked in. And we were both surprised f by the smell of meat cooking that came from the kitchen.
My mother came out of the kitchen and said, "I've put a roast on. I'm cutting up some vegetables now to go with it." Then she disappeared back into the kitchen. Carl and I just looked at each other. Where had the food come from? Neither of us yet had bought anything except a few snack items. She'd come prepared.
Suddenly she was back in the living room, setting the table. "I hope you like roast beef, Carl-I know Don does," she said with a warm smile. "It'll all be ready in less than half an hour. I hope that's not too soon for you. I know Don has to go to bed early because of his milk route." (I noticed that she made it a point not to call me Donald or Donny-she knew how I felt about those names-and she was obviously anxious to perpetuate the myth that we were just one big happy family here.)
But it was like Alice in Wonderland-totally unreal. Carl and I couldn't do anything but look at each other in disbelief and despair. What could we do?
Well, we cleaned up and sat down to dinner, but it was all very weird. My mom did all the talking, because she was the only one who could think of anything to say.
"I met your nextdoor neighbors this morning," she said with an impish twinkle in her eye. "I can see why you chose this apartment, you rascals. I introduced myself and said that I was sure we would all become good friends. The blonde is Clair and the brunette is Ginny. I told them, "My son Don and his friend Carl are dying to meet you.' See-I've already broken the ice. Wasn't that nice of me?"
Carl and I just groaned.
Then after dinner the proverbial fecal material finally hit the proverbial rotating blades.
"So Carl," my mother began with a smile that was quickly beginning to lose its prior warmth, "what do you expect to get out of this 'television course' you're taking. You're going to be an actor or something?"
I could see what was coming and wasn't about to let Carl get dragged into it.
"He's studying to become a technician," I said simply.
"A technician? I see. But don't you have to be pretty smart for that? I mean-I heard that you never got particularly good grades when you were in junior high, Carl."
Carl was now itching to say something, but I kicked him under the table and he gave me the right of way.
"Look," I said, "whatever Carl is doing is none of your business, and you know it."
"Well, it's my business if he's holding you back."
This statement was so far off the wall there was no way to respond to it. Carl and I were both speechless now. But not my mother.
"You know," she said, her voice now becoming strident as she pointed at Carl, "it's his fault that you and I have problems getting along together. If it wasn't for him, you and I could get along just fine!"
"You're starting to talk like a crazy person," I said, trying to maintain my composure. Then I turned to Carl and said, "Maybe you'd better leave till I get this settled."
"Yes!" agreed my mother, emphatically. "Why don't you just leave-and not come back!"
She leaned forward across the table as she stared menacingly at Carl.
"Why are you just standing there?" she demanded to know, as she started to move slowly around the table in his direction. "Didn't you hear both of say it was time for you to go?"
Carl looked helplessly at me, as he started to back away from my mother, who by now had fire in her eyes. Before I could say anything she was literally chasing him around the table. "Get out of here!" she was screaming.
Carl was now running frantically around the furniture, with my mom in hot pursuit. It was like something out of a Tom and Jerry Cartoon. Only it wasn't funny.
Finally Carl made it to the front door and let himself out just as my mother appeared to be about to grab him by the throat. She slammed the door triumphantly and spun around to look at me.
"Good!" she said with a demonic look in her eyes. "Now let's throw his clothes out there with him!"
"The only thing going out there with him," I said, "is me. And we'll be back with the men in the white coats." Her look suddenly went from rage to shock to fear as I went through the door and slammed it behind me.
Outside Carl was white as a sheet. "Did you see that look in her eyes?" he asked. "And she almost caught me! Man, it's a good thing she didn't have a knife in her hand!"
Now I really must stop here and say something about how this story has changed somewhat over the years-when told by Carl. At first he would say my mom looked liked she wanted to kill him as she chased him around the apartment. Later he would add emphasis to the story by saying, "It's a good thing she didn't have a knife in her hand!" Finally it became, "Did I ever tell you about the time Don's mom chased me out of our apartment with a butcher knife?"
Now I admit this was a very traumatic event for all of us-especially for Carl, since he was the chasee-but I don't want to make it worse than it already was. (However I'm still not sure I've ever been able to convince Carl that she really didn't have a knife in her hand that day.)
But back to the story-now what? My mother had our apartment, and we were out on the street-with no place to go. It was Friday-so we went to the beach.
We were nearly broke-we had just paid two months rent plus a security deposit for that apartment and were left with just a few dollars between us. But walking in the sand at Santa Monica on a warm summer night would be free. We could sleep in my car and call the police in the morning.
This was back in the days when you could actually find places at the beach where you could drive right out near the water. As I started to leave the asphalt, Carl said, "Aren't you afraid of getting stuck in the sand?"
"Naw, I'll leave the back wheels on the pavement. I just thought it would be nice to get as close to the water as we could." The words were no sooner out of my mouth when we felt the back wheels slide off the asphalt into the soft sand. Oh, oh.
Well, I thought I'd better see if I could get the car back on the pavement before we did anything else. Knowing the likely futility of the idea, I nonetheless gunned the engine into reverse. We felt the car dig its way another six or eight inches into the sand.
"Well," I said, "I guess this is where we're spending the night. Might as well make the most out of it."
In the meantime, a few beach walkers would stroll by, and some stopped to ask if they could help. (It was pretty obvious the car had not been placed up to its hub caps in sand on purpose.) It was a moonless night and starting to get pretty dark-so we thanked them for their offers, but said we'd wait and take care of it in the morning.
We made the best of it, but didn't sleep too well as we contemplated the options for getting my mother of our apartment-and then maybe moving to New York or Australia or someplace where she might have trouble finding us. In any case, we were sure it was going to be a whole lot easier to get the car out of the sand than to get my mother out of the apartment.
Daylight found more people coming on to the beach, and several stopped to ask if they could help. One said he'd seen some old boards over by the pier and that, with some help, he was sure he could get a couple of them over here to make a ramp for the back tires.
Several guys volunteered, as more people gathered around and looked at the car. It seemed to have sunk a few more inches during the night. The hubcaps were now totally out of sight. By the time the plank committee returned with the boards, the car had become surrounded with about three dozen people who said they were going to help push it onto the boards and out of the sand. One was a Santa Monica Policeman.
Two or three leaders had emerged from the group and were now giving directions as to what everyone else should do. One of the leaders asked me for the key as he slid in behind the wheel.
"Okay," he shouted toward the back, "Have you got those planks down under and as far forward as they'll go?" He was assured that they did.
"Okay, I'm gonna gun the engine, but let the clutch out slowly. All you pushers out there-as soon as you feel the car start to move, lean into it for all you're worth." Carl and I could have been out having breakfast.
It took less than a minute, and the car was back on the pavement. Everybody cheered and shook hands. One of the leaders came over to admonish us about going easy on the braks for a while, because there may be sand in them.
Finally, the uniformed one, who had helped with the pushing, came over and asked to see my license. "I suppose you know it's illegal to park in the sand." he said.
No, I didn't, but it was an accident anyway, I explained. "We just sort of slid into the sand."
"Just sort of slid. Uh huh. Well, I'm giving you a warning this time, but if I catch you in the sand again, it's gonna cost you."
"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir! That's very nice of you, sir!" I said, with all my old army protocol starting to come back to me. "By the way, sir. Can I ask you a question?"
"If someone moves uninvited into your apartment, and she refuses to leave, what can you do?"
"What-she expects you to marry her?"
"No, not a girl friend. It's my mother."
"You want to kick your mother out of your apartment?"
"You don't understand. We haven't gotten along in years. She sneaked in while I was at work, you see, and now she won't leave."
"How far is the apartment from here?"
"It's in Hollywood."
"And you're asking a Santa Monica cop? Hey, we got our own problems. Go find an LA cop-and keep that jalopy out of our sand."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," I said.
So we went and got an LA cop. (Hollywood is part of Los Angeles, in case you weren't sure.)
Actually it was two policemen who met us at the door to the apartment after we called from a phone booth. They listened politely as we explained the problem. They got real attentive when Carl told how she'd literally chased him out of the apartment."
"What do you want us to do?" they asked. "Are you willing to sign a complaint saying that she tried to inflict bodily harm on your friend? That could be hard to prove, you know."
"No-we just want her to leave," I said.
"Well, it's not that simple. We'd have to see some documentation to prove that it's really your apartment. Even then it could be difficult to eject somebody unless they're creating a disturbance or doing some damage of some kind. And even if she leaves on her own-what's to keep her from coming back and starting in all over again?"
Carl and I just looked at each other.
"All right," I said, "how about just keeping an eye on things while we go in and get our stuff out of there?"
By now our nextdoor neighbors had begun peeking through their window with perplexed looks on their pretty faces.
"All right," said the cops, as one rang the doorbell.
"Who is it?" came the disarminly sweet voice from inside.
"Police officers, ma'm. Please open the door."
The door opened almost immediately. My mother appeared genuinely surprised as she looked around and asked, "Is there some kind of a problem officers?"
"These gentlemen say this is their place, and that you're not supposed to be here and that last night you chased him (pointing to Carl) out of the apartment."
Now my mother looked more surprised than before. "I chased him out of the apartment?" she asked increduously. "Do you believe that?"
"Then what did happen?" they asked.
"Well, I just came by to visit my son. That's not a crime, is it? I fixed them both a nice dinner, and then that one got all upset about something and ran outside. Then my son, Don, went to see if he could help-and they didn't come back-till just now. I don't really know what's going on."
Now the cops were looking at me like maybe I was crazy.
"Do you mind if we come in?" they asked.
"Of course not, make yourselves at home. Can I fix you a cup of tea?"
They said, "No, thanks," and followed her in, still looking at me as though maybe I was nuts.
Our nextdoor neighbors had by now opened their door and were standing there watching as the police went in.
"Isn't this exciting?" was all I could think of to say.
Inside the apartment I said, "We're just going to get our stuff."
As Carl and I started hauling things out, my mother began to look a little worried.
"What are you doing?" she asked, looking at me. "This really isn't necessary, you know."
"That's all right," I said. "You just entertain the policemen-we'll be done here pretty soon." (It didn't take too long to collect all our stuff, because a lot of it hadn't been unpacked from moving in.)
My mom now began to look even more disturbed, but tried to hide it as she smiled and showed the officers her favorite book (The Natural Superiority of Women).
"Have you heard of this?" she asked. They hadn't.
So she started pointing out some of the highlights of the book, as she continued to watch us nervously out of the corner of her eye.
Finally we got everything out and stuffed into my car. I walked over to the policemen and shook the hand of each one, saying, "Thank you very much. You've done a wonderful job. We couldn't have managed it without you."
As Carl and I walked out of the apartment for the last time, I looked back over my shoulder. My mother was sitting there speechless with a look of disbelief on her face. I only saw her once after that.
About a week later I happened to walk into a drug store on Hollywood Blvd. She was there getting a prescription filled. She spotted me before I could turn around and walk away. She rushed over to me.
"Don't you want to talk?" she asked hopefully.
"I think you said enough the other day," I said as I turned around and left the pharmacy. I never saw her again after that.
I know this sounds pretty extreme, and indeed it was. But at the time I was pretty upset. Carl and I had put just about every cent we had into the two months' rent and security deposit for that apartment-now we had no place to stay, and not enough money to rent another apartment.
Couldn't we have gone back and tried to reason with my mother? You never met my mother.
My intent was never to hurt her-all I ever wanted was to be left alone to live my own life. But, from her point of view, I was all she had (she'd already been through four failed marriages and I don't know how many boyfriends) and she wanted desparately to cling to me as the one steady male figure in her mostly unsteady life.
I'd never meant to shut her totally out of my life-but given the circumstances of the moment, I could see no other option. For one thing, it never occured to me that she wouldn't "track me down" sooner or later. Except for a few brief weeks in 1956 and 1959, I've never lived anyplace but Southern California, and my phone number has always been listed. Furthermore, Edrington is not a real common name, and anyone could have found me at any time with very little effort.
Trying to locate her, on the other hand, would have been a much more difficult job-simply because I never knew what name she was using at any given time. With four ex-husbands, sometimes she would use one's name-sometimes another's-and sometimes she'd go back to her maiden name. Sure, a private detective presumably could have checked out the various names, but it seemed easier just to let her find me, if she wanted to. But she never did (and I have no way of knowing if she even tried).
Given the benefit of years of hindsight, I'm obviously sorry that it ended that way. But at the time I could see no other choice-and for a long time I really didn't give it much thought one way or the other. I just assumed that, sooner or later, one day she would sudddenly reappear. I was wrong.)