Selling Pot Holders & Riding the Rails to New York
1926 through 1934
August 2002, Sacramento, CA – (Dad was 85 years old)
We sat down at the table outside on the porch, Dad and I. I had my tape recorder with me and I set it on the table. “You don’t mind if I have this on while you talk, do you?”, I asked him.
“No, no that doesn’t bother me at all”, he said.
I asked him questions about his youth, about his train ride to New York City, about growing up in L.A. and selling the homemade pot holders. These were stories I had heard before, at least a half dozen times since I was a little girl. But I sat there, at the table across from my dad, and asked him, one more time, “tell me about the time you…”, and he, as always, obliged, and began to talk about it as if he was telling it for the first time.
Selling Pot Holders in Beverly Hills and other areas around Los Angeles
Janis: Do you remember how young you were when you started selling pot holders?
Dad: The pot holder thing started before my father left home, because I remember I was saving money up; quarters. I used to get 25 cents for each dollar I sold. So I saved that up and once I wanted to buy some shoes, and I needed another dollar, and he wouldn’t give it to me. And there were 2 or 3 instances like that.
Janis: And how young were you at that time?
Dad: I must’ve been about maybe 9 or 10.
Janis: So you were still in grade school…
Dad: Yeah, I think it was just about the time I graduated from grammar school. But, we got the idea from – I’m not sure if my mother came up with it or not – but my Uncle Gus* used to make barber’s and nurses and waitresses uniforms – he had this pretty good-sized business -and he had all this material left over, some pieces big enough that you could cut them into squares and make pot holders out of them. And I don’t know who suggested this, but my mother started making the potholders, and they were always in squares – they were about this big (he gestures how big they were with his hands)…
(*Note – Augustus F. Barker was married to Ida, his mother Clara’s older sister.)
Dad: These were real nice materials, and all sorts of colors. They were cut into maybe 4-inch squares, so the potholders were about 4 inches across and they would be blue and tan, for instance, on the front, and the back would be all one color. And they even might be pieced. They would bring barrels of this material and my mother and Eunice would cut this up and make potholders out of it and stuff the insides with the little stuff, ya know.
Janis: and they used a sewing machine?
Dad: Oh yeah, sure. So that’s how it started, and then, I don’t know who selected who to go out and sell potholders – but, maybe I wanted to do it – but Gordon and I went out the first time and took the R car streetcar line that went way out to the La Brea area; as a matter of fact, the line ended up at La Brea. Then from there on it ran into the wealthiest section of Los Angeles, Hancock Park. This is where all the big homes were. That’s where we first started. I remember I went up to the door of one house and I said, “I’m selling potholders for my mother and they’re 10 cents a piece or 3 for a quarter”. And I have the box open. And the lady would say, “Well, we don’t need any”, or “May I see them,?” or whatever. And it seems like about every 10th house we’d sell some. Three for a quarter! And they were nice potholders! And Gordon was doing the same thing, ha ha, I don’t know what he was saying… and both of us were barefoot! And, that’s the way we learned. I think the first day we made a couple dollars. Gordon lasted maybe 3, 4 or 5 times. Of course, he was a little smaller than I was. Either he didn’t like it, or something else…and I think Gerry then tried to help out. Of course, she was small, too. She didn’t last too long, either, so the whole job ended up being maybe 6 months with just me doing it. Of course, then I graduated from Hollywood to Beverly Hills to Pasadena…
Janis: So there were trolley cars that would take you up there?
Dad: Oh, yeah sure, wherever I’d go. To go to Beverly Hills I’d go to the Hill Street Station where they had the Pacific Electric which was a big company owned by the Huntington Family out in San Marino. Pacific Electric had the big red cars and they would go down on Hill Street out to Beverly Hills. And I think they went as far as Santa Monica, down to the ocean. So I would take that out to Beverly Hills, and in Beverly Hills they had a law that there could be no peddlers or agents. So you would never see anybody peddling stuff up there except me, ha ha. It didn’t take me long to learn to watch out for the police because they would patrol in and maybe once a day you’d see one. They didn’t have a lot of police in those days. Or somebody might report me, saying there is a little boy out here selling stuff and we don’t want him around here, ya know.
I worked Beverly Hills for, gosh – 4 or 5 years! A lot of times I’d see mail in the mailbox, like one time I saw the name Oliver Hardy. Oliver Hardy didn’t like me at all!
Janis: Did you actually come face-to-face with him?
Dad: Yeah, he came to the door. He told me off and he called the police. He said, “You’re not supposed to be selling out here!”. He was mad. Gosh, I went to Pickfair, and uh…
Janis: Oh, so was that Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks home? Oh wow…you got into their estate?
Dad: Oh Yeah. You could walk in, I’d go right up to the door. And the maids had their own budget for stuff they wanted to buy. And sometimes the woman of the house would come to the door. But generally I was trying to sell to the maids, unless it was a smaller house.
Janis: What did you carry your wares in? Did you have a little basket or something like that?
Dad: I had a box. We used to go down to Desmond’s, downtown, and get these shirt boxes, they were about 20 inches square. And they had a lid on them; they were yellow. We’d fill them up and they’d hold about 40 potholders. Anytime I’d go down there I could always get boxes for free; otherwise they’d just throw them away.
I went to almost every place in Bel Air. The founder of Bel Air, Alphonzo E. Bell, had an estate way up on top of the hill, with peacocks walking around! And then below him was Hormel, who also had an estate in Bel Air. All the movie people. Lots of times I’d see mail in the box and I’d see their names so I knew who they were. I knew quite a few of the stars.
Janis: So this would’ve been 1930 or 31…or even before that, maybe?
Dad: It was during the depression…in fact it was a couple years before the depression. I was born in ’17…the Depression really started in ’29. The thing I remember about the depression was I used to go out on Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena and I knew a lot of the homes out there – there was the Warner home out there, there was the Warner family and they owned a lot of stuff. Adolph Busch had a home out there; he started Busch gardens. Hulett C. Merritt*, who was one of the founders of United States Steel. And that is where I met this Tim who used to take me up to Tahoe. He was kind of a house manager. Merritt eventually left his estate to Ambassador College, which is a religious school. They had 46 acres on Orange Grove Avenue. But they always bought potholders from me.
Janis: So did you have repeat customers after getting to know some of these people?
Dad: Yeah, a lot of times they were almost lookin’ for me. I’d maybe go to Orange Grove Avenue twice a year, because I always had plenty of places to go. I remember 2 or 3 families that I heard about who lived on Orange Grove Avenue. They had big homes; I new they were rich, but I didn’t know who they were. But when the crash came – this Merritt family got burned badly when the big crash came; one of the guys was a banker or broker, I think, and he lost so much money he jumped out of a window in New York – committed suicide; jumped to his death. And there were a couple of others on Orange Grove Avenue who lost a lot of money. Later on, when I first got acquainted with Tim I asked him about that and he said, yes I was there at the time and the first day or so they lost something like ten million dollars. In those days, that was a lot of money. If a family back in those days had 50 million dollars they were very rich. But they didn’t go broke. They were the family that also owned Tagus Ranch, up near Tulare. Anyway, as far as I know the Merritts don’t live in that house anymore.
Janis: So would you sell after school or on the weekends?
Dad: On the weekends; on Saturday. Every Saturday.
Janis: So what did your mother think? Did she ever tell you what she thought about what you were doing? What did she say?
Dad: Well of course she was very pleased. The kids in the family didn’t say much. But I know I was bringing home money enough to feed us on the weekends. Because I would meet her down at the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles on Hill Street, and I’d have maybe $3 or $4 and sometimes she would even bring Gordon or Russel to help carry this stuff because we would buy 6 or 7 shopping bags full of groceries. Lettuce was a penny a head; carrots were a penny a bunch. We’d buy apples at 3 for 10 cents. But, hell, for $3 we’d fill 6 or 7 shopping bags!
Janis: Did she every worry about you going off to sell potholders?
Dad: No… we didn’t have those problems in those days. I ran into one instance with a guy out in the La Brea area in an apartment. I used to go out to these apartments where you aren’t really supposed to sell anything; you had to go by the managers’ apartment first. These were 6 and 7 story apartments. So I’d go down the driveway around the back and go up the elevator and start at the top. By the time the manager knew I was there I was all done! I spent a whole hour in there. The apartments were great places to sell pot holders. These were average families and the women I knew were always home. And it would take me an hour or hour and a half to cover these apartments.
I was in one of these apartments one day and the guy invited me in and he said he wanted to look at my pot holders. I was in the dining room and I set the box of potholders down and he was looking at them. And he had windows in the dining room and in the bedroom and he went over and shut all the windows and pulled the blinds down. And I thought oh no, this doesn’t look good. He came back over and he started talking to me about girls and boys and stuff, and then he walked closer and he grabbed me right in the crotch! And I was maybe 10 or 11 at this time. I said, “What are you doing!” Well, I don’t know what he said, but I said “I’m getting out of here!” I think Gordon was with me that day. And I was so damn mad. I went down and told Gordon, and I said “This guys was trying to play with me!” So both of us went back and told the manager. I don’t remember what she did. But from then on I was kinda leery about guys, because I didn’t know guys did things like that.
Janis: so you were selling potholder until you were about 13 years old?
Dad: yeah, just about all the way through Junior High School. Because we didn’t have much income.
Janis: Did you like doing it?
Dad: Oh, yeah! I loved it! Oh, sure! I used to love it. You know, seeing a big house up on a hill was a challenge to me. Especially if I could sell them some potholders.
Janis: And you were helping out, able to help your mother.
Dad: Yeah. I remember one time, I was in Pasadena, and it was raining like hell, and I was barefoot. I had these little short pants on, ya know, that my Grandmother used to make, with a little fly here… ha ha. And if I bent down my pee pee would hang out! (laughter…) And no undershorts! And here I was walkin’ around barefoot…and on a winter day! So it was November or December, and I was back on another street back a ways from Orange Grove Avenue, and there’s another big house, ya know…one of these big mansions. And I walked up there – and I had been there before a number of times – I don’t remember ever selling potholders there – but I walked up there to get out of the rain, and there was a marble bench by the front door and I sat there. And I always used to take Literary Digests* with me. My dad used to get the Literary Digests, and I’d take that along with me and I would read that for lunch. So I am sitting there on this marble bench reading the Literary Digest, and pretty soon this Rolls Royce rolls up right in front of the house and a woman gets out with an umbrella, she comes running up and she sees me and she says, “What’re you doing here?” And then the man who was with her came around and he said, “What’re you doing here?” And I said, “Well, I was out selling potholders and it started to rain, so I came up here and sat down”. And the woman says, “Well, come on inside, we’ll start a fire and get you warm.” So we went in and she got a towel and dried off my feet. And I think they took about 6 potholders and gave me 2 or 3 dollars. Hee hee. Yeah, I had any number of people who would bring me cookies and milk, ya know. “Are you hungry?” And I never said no! Ha ha.
Janis: Oh, gosh. Well, that’s nice that you had some good experiences.
Dad: I went to the Arthur Letts home; he originally owned the Playboy Mansion. And over in Beverly Hills, they had a big golf course, the LA Country Club – and you look across and see this huge, English-type mansion – that was built by Arthur Letts, and his father started the Broadway Department store*. So I went in there and could always sell potholders there. Never did see the family there, though.
*actually Arthur Letts started the Broadway and Bullock’s Department stores in 1906.
Oh, let me tell you about San Marino! Did you ever get to the Huntington Library?
Janis: I don’t think so…
Dad: You probably saw it sitting up on the hill. You can see it when you’re driving down Huntington Drive. It’s this huge mansion, English Tudor, and this is where he had his library and his art gallery. And after he died they opened it up to the public. But I used to always go around to the front gate; they had big iron gates, you know, and they had a little guard house in there where the guard was, and he’d let anybody in who was expected. But he would never let me in. He’d say to me, “No, you can’t go in there!”. So this went on for a couple years, and finally one day I went by the bottom half of this area, you know, where you are down on Huntington Drive, and you walk up about 2 blocks then you come to this street, Lombardi Road, and that was the bottom part of the Huntington estate – it was all fenced in with and 8-foot high fence and it went completely around the estate, which was probably about 40 acres. The main entrance was way around on the other side, about 4 blocks away. But they had a drainage ditch that ran through the back of it that was paved and it was about 5 feet deep. And you could crawl right under there, see; and I thought this might work, and I was bound and determined to get onto that estate! Huntington had a cactus garden on the estate and lots of other types of gardens. So I crawled in through that drainage ditch! I got all the way up almost to the front porch when a guard saw me. And he said “What are you doing here?!” And I said, “Well, I just wanted to see what this place is like.” And I said, “I’m selling potholders!” And the guard said, “You can’t be in here!” So we walk around this long porch, which is maybe 60 feet long, in front of the house, and we get around to the entrance where the driveway is and by the time we got around to the front, a big Rolls Royce pulls up and Mr. and Mrs. Huntington are inside it. So they stop and the chauffeur lets them out. And here is the guard standing there with this little kid with a box of potholders and he says “Sir, we found this little boy walking around on the estate and he is selling potholders, and evidently he has gotten in through the drainage ditch!” So Mrs.Huntington, who looked exactly like the pictures I had seen of here – she was all in black; she looked like she’d been to a funeral – she looked at me with disdain, like I was scum, and then just turned and walked into the house. But Henry Huntington stood there and asked me what I was doing there, and I said, “Well, I have always wanted to see this place.” And he kinda smiled at me, and he said, “and you’re selling potholders?”, and I said, yes. And he said I don’t know if we need any potholders, and he said well you’ll have to leave. And so I said, “Well would you like to buy some potholders? You could use them in the kitchen.” And he did take several potholders and had the guard give me a couple of dollars. But he seemed kind of intrigued by all this, ya know. Then the guard walked me out through the main gate. So that’s how I met Henry Huntington.
Janis: Well, I would think some of these very successful people like this would’ve admired your drive.
Dad: Well, a lot of them did! Yeah.
Janis: I mean, you’re this little entrepreneur…
Dad: I think a lot of them were intrigued by it. In fact, there was another family in that area called the Jewel family*, they owned the Jewel Tea Company. And years ago that was quite an enterprise, ya know. The Jewel Tea Company used to have these horse-drawn carts selling tea, coffee and other stuff they would sell door-to-door.
(*Frank Vernon Skiff was actually the founder of Jewel Tea Company, there was no family named Jewel)
Janis: Like a mobile espresso cart!
Dad: Yeah! It was horse-drawn carts! And this guy was the owner and founder of the Jewel Tea Company. And I used to go try to sell there all the time, but never had much luck. But the second or third time I was in there, I got almost up to the front door – and they had a big iron gate up there – and a couple kids come running around the corner and they have a little Scotty dog and the dog took after me and he bit me in the ankle, and I was bleeding. And then the kids asked what I was doing there, and I told them I was selling potholders, and then the boy, who was bigger than me, grabbed some of the potholders and threw them up in the air. And about this time their mother came out of the house and by this time I was crying, and bleeding, blood running down my leg. So she took me into the house and patched my leg up and I think she called the boy out for what he had done to the potholders. So she asked me how many potholders I had lost, and I said 3 or 4. So she made the kid go upstairs and get a few dollars to pay me for the potholders. She had asked me about my mother because I told her that my mother makes the potholders. And I said she also does embroidery; my mother made some beautiful embroidered bedspreads, and the woman was interested in seeing her work. So the woman took down my name and address. So she came by the house to see my mother’s embroidery! They came by in a yellow and black chauffeur-driven Packard. It was about a week or two later when she came by the house and my mother had finished one great big bedspread with a large peacock on it with beautiful flowers – I think it was a Saturday or Sunday – so she had called ahead the week before, because I think we must’ve had a telephone by then – so she bought the peacock bedspread for $25 or $50! She really liked it.
She had talked to my mother on the phone, and she talked to me again – and this was after my father was gone – and they were interested in either adopting me or taking me in as a foster child to take care of me for the next 4 or 5 years. And they offered to put me through college. She talked to my mother about it, and my mother wasn’t too keen about the idea. But I was ready to go for it! But she was all hot to go. She and her husband had talked it over, and they were ready to bring me in as a foster child and put me through school. It would’ve been a nice experience. That was another one of the good experiences I had out there.
Another time, in back of the Huntington estate, it was about 4 blocks back, another road I think it was Lombardy Road, right across the street from them was the A.K. Bourne family. Now, A.K. Bourne owns that big hill up in Tahoe. It’s called Roundhill. Bourne started the Singer Sewing machine company with Singer. But they always bought potholders from me. They were always nice.
Janis: It must’ve been really interesting for you meeting all these people.
Dad: Another place I went to was about a mile from there, owned by W. Parker Lyon, who was the founder and owner of Lyon’s Moving & Storage. And he goes way back; this was 1929 – he went back to the gold rush days, and his company goes back almost that far, too. He had a big Italian-style estate, and in the back there was a little museum – it was the 49ers Museum*. And this is what he did – he was retired, about 75 or 80 years old. And I went up there one time and they had a parking lot; you could make reservations to come up to see all this stuff in the museum. The museum was full of 49er relics – everything from hats with bullet holes through them to old guns, and nuggets, and just a whole lotta stuff. So I got in there one day, and I was talking to him and he showed me all through the 49ers Museum, and he was interested in the potholders, too. I had a couple of sessions with him and he would always give me a dollar or two for some potholders. W. Parker Lion. And they finally moved the museum up to Huntington Drive.
*It was called the Pony Express Museum (http://arcadiasbest.com/2018/01/william-parker-lyon-was-a-big-colorful-character-and-as-intriguing-as-the-collection-he-amassed-at-his-pony-express-museum/)
Janis: So did you ever see any other movie stars, like Clark Cable or anybody like that up there? Charlie Chaplin?
Dad: No – Charlie Chaplin….I’m sure I went to his house. I don’t recall ever meeting any movie stars. I would always make a point to look at any mail that was in the mailbox to see the names of who lived there. There were a lot of directors; I went to their houses. King Vidor, he was a director and I remember going to his house. Actually, I can’t think of any house up in Beverly Hills that I didn’t get into, really. I may get thrown off the place, but I’d get into it because it was a challenge.
Janis: So your other brothers and sisters, Calvin and Russel weren’t interested in doing this at all?
Dad: No, they never did any of that at all. Later on it was just me. But they were busy, and they were big enough to work cutting lawns and other things.
Janis: did Russel finish high school?
Dad: Yeah. And Eunice was helping my mother make potholders. And they spent a lot of time making potholders. And we sold a bunch of ’em, too.
Janis: Do you think there are any potholders around? Anybody keep any of them?
Dad: No, probably not. But I’d like to have a couple for ourselves. It was good material; it didn’t fade. It was called Indian Head.
Janis: Well I think all that is just fascinating. And to think you went on to be a salesman after that.
Dad: Well selling was no problem. After I’d gone through that – Hell, I’ve often said I could walk up to the White House and sell potholders! It wouldn’t bother me at all. Most people – 99% of ’em – are nice people. They’re not bothered by little kids, ya know. I remember 2 or 3 times I was turned in – in fact, one time the police picked me up! They took me downtown. And I remember that, too, because I met the Chief of Police of Beverly Hills and I think I ended up selling all my potholders to the policemen! And then they took me over to Doheny Drive, which is the boundary, and he said “Ok, catch your red car, and don’t come back!” They were intrigued; they’d heard about me. They knew there was some little kid coming around selling potholders door-to-door. “So you’re the guy who’s been selling potholders!” But before I left they bought all my potholders! There were just a couple of police cars that would patrol Beverly Hills. And a couple of the policemen – they got to know me. And they would just wave at me when they saw me – they wouldn’t even bother me after a while, ha ha.
But there were so many different things that happened to me. I should’a probably kept a diary.
Janis: So you stopped doing it when you went into high school?
Dad: I did it all through Jr. High School. And probably about the first year of high school, and then I stopped. I remember I was 12 or 13 years old and I was still doing it. Hell, we didn’t get out of the hole until – well, Calvin was working at Barker Brothers – and the kids were going to school. There was no income. Roosevelt started this FERA*, Federal Emergency Relief Association. And there was another one that distributed food to everybody – everybody that was poor. Because there were bread lines everywhere. And they started the WPA, Works Projects Association, and the guys used to get maybe $2 or $3 a day working on roads, buildings, dams – all this stuff. Millions of workers who were glad to have a job.
Calvin and Russel used to go down to San Pedro Street where once a week they’d have a great big give away. The farmers would bring their produce in and the Federal Government was paying for it but you could get bags of free cabbage, and other produce for free. Another one was about 3 blocks away from us where we could get butter, ham and meat; bacon and milk. Both Calvin and my mother worked there. And they used to bring home so much stuff; we had a closet with a door on it and inside we had 6 or 8 big hams on hooks! So from then on we ate pretty good. Because Roosevelt did a marvelous job getting this country back together. The Depression lasted 5 or 6 years. 1929 was the crash, and about ’34 and ’35 it started getting better. I must’ve worked up until 1932 selling potholders, so I was in 10th grade, because I started about 2 years before the crash (which would’ve been about 1927).
Janis: so your mother worked down at this food place; did she have any other jobs?
Dad: No. She just worked at the place and got to bring home food for the family. Besides the big hams we had, we always had plenty of butter and milk. Because before that, boy, I tell ya, it was nip and tuck – the neighbors used to come by and bring us a box of crackers.
Janis: Did you have days when you didn’t have any food in the house?
Dad: we had damn little food! I remember that – damn little food. The cupboards were bare! Just absolutely bare! Calvin and Russel were cuttin’ lawns for 25 cents. We had a neighbor across the street – an Armenian family – that owned the market down on Olympic Blvd., and they knew what kind of shape we were in. And they would bring food over. And then if we went down to his store we’d buy maybe a dollar’s worth of stuff and he’d let us have it. And another family who lived across the street from us, right next door to the Armenian family, and he was a contractor – and they helped us out a lot, too.
Janis: Was it during this time that Uncle Clint would help your family out, too?
Dad: Yes, Clint and Gus. Clint had a job at Fox Studios, and Gus had his business. Yeah, they were always bringing food over. Also, the Catholic church, and the Elks, the Masons – we knew ’em all. They’d bring us toys at Christmas time, cloths – boy, we were on the dole, I’ll tell ya.
Janis: So, what about that time you mentioned about Clint was gonna take you somewhere?
Dad: Well, Clint was a Property Manger at Fox. Ya know, there were all the props for the movies. And from there he got into lighting, and he got to be an electrician. And because he was well-known, and everybody liked him, he would do all the back stage work when they put on shows at the Masters Club. They had The Mills Brothers come there, and Jack Benny would do some comedy, and it was all free. And they would have a dinner afterwards, and I went down there and was helping him out, moving stuff around. And I did meet some movie people there. And they were all nice people, ya know. This was when I was a teenager – 16 or 17 years old. And then I came back several years later, when I was in the Merchant Marines, I had my uniform on, and I went over to the club and Clint introduced me from the stage, and a lot of people remembered me. And we went downstairs afterward, and I had my picture taken with 2 or 3 sexy-lookin’ girls! That was fun. Clint and Gus were really nice guys. And they could’a killed my father, for what he did. Such a mean thing to do, to just walk right out.
Going to Tahoe @ 17 and Riding the Rails to New York, 1934
Janis: So, Dad, what were you doing in Tahoe when you were 17?
Dad: Well, I had gone up there, this was my second or third year up there, and I was caddying on a golf course. It was after I graduated from high school. Somewhere during that time I decided I wanted to go to New York.
Janis: And you’d never been to New York before?
Dad: No. I don’t know why I decided to ride the trains, the boxcars, because the fare would’ve only been about $45 and I had around $225 from caddying at the golf course during the summer. The money I had – well, let me tell ya about that. I talked to a few people I knew who had ridden the rails and they said if you have any money be sure it’s well hidden because they’ll kill you for $10, ya know. And of course this was still during the Depression when nobody had anything! So I got a balloon – I had a red balloon – and I got all my money changed into $20 bills; I think I had about 12 of them – and I wadded them into a little ball and I stuffed the money into this red balloon, and I sewed the balloon into my jock strap. That’s what I had to do to protect myself! It was like sitting on it like a walnut every time I sat down! I actually changed the first $20 bill in New Jersey to get across on the Ferry. But before that, let me tell ya – somebody drove me into Truckee where I was to catch the first train and it was 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I had the guys in the kitchen make me a whole bunch of sandwiches, and I think I had some fruit. And I came down into this, kinda like a hobo camp and I avoided the guys and I didn’t want to get too close to them because then I’d have to share my food. And if they knew I had food they’d a probably thought I had money, too. And I didn’t like the looks of ’em, anyway. So I kinda steered clear of them, and sooner or later a train comes along, mosying along about 5 or 10 miles an hour. And you just put your stuff on your back and you run alont the train grab onto the thing and climb up.
Janis: so did you have a knapsack?
Dad: yeah, a knapsack. And the trains were already filled with people. So you just climb up into the boxcar and you sit down and just enjoy the trip. So the first night we got into – I remember we slept down in one of the refrigerator cars that they hadn’t put ice into yet. And there were 2 or 3 guys down inside this car. But you can get some sleep – you get a little bit of sleep, because your tired. The first memorable thing that happened was we got into a place called Green River, Colorado. And it was sometime in the morning, about 7 or 8 o’clock, and it’s a little tiny town. And they stopped the train long enough to get all the people off the train. Because this was a freight train. And they round all the people up and put them in trucks; there were probably about 100 people. Men, women and some children. And they take them down in the trucks to where there was a small jail and the men where in one iron bar enclosure and the women were in another and they had a canvas between them. And they made us strip down to nothing. Bare naked, you had to put all your belongings rolled up into a ball and hand it over to the police officers. And I remember, one of the guys called me out of the crowd, and he said, hey, you didn’t take your strap off! And I said, well I have a very bad testicle and if I take this off, I’ll pass out! I have doctor’s orders not to remove it or I’ll pass out because it’s in very sore condition. So the guys said, well alright, leave it on. And if I had taken it off they’ve gotten my money! So I kept my money. They took everything from those people on train. They would take jewelry, watches – everything. People were crying the next day. The next day they round up all the people they had brought in from the train, put them back on trucks, and they drive them about 2 miles down the road and the train comes down and slows down and everybody gets back on the train…
Janis: They let them back on the train!
Dad: Oh sure! They did that everyday just to steal peoples’ money.
Janis: So there were lots of people traveling this way back then?
Dad: Oh sure – this was the Depression! They were trying to get back East to visit family or something else, and they had no other way to get there. But I’ll tell ya, the people from the train were so mad, they were about ready to kill those police officers and the other people who take everyone’s things. That’s the worst thing that every happened to me. And then around about in that area, they switched from oil to coal. And when the trains are burning oil all you get is smoke. But when they burn coal you get cinders. So from several cars back you end up getting covered in cinders. So I didn’t know any better, and I got onto the second or third car and the stuff if just falling on your head.
Janis: so the cinders from the coal is coming in because your are riding with the doors open
Dad: Well I was riding on top of the box car!
Janis: Oh, you’re riding on top of the box car!
Dad: Yes you would ride on top, and inside the car if your lucky. Some of the times the cars going back East would be empty so then you can ride inside. But for a couple of days I was unlucky enough to be outside and I just got covered with cinders from the coal. I would shake my head and the cinders would just fall out of my hair. So when I got to Chicago, my hair was longer and I wanted to get cleaned up. So I thought well, I’ll go and cash one of my $20 bills. So I went into a barber and I said I need my hair cleaned and cut, I just got off a train. And the barber looked at my hair, which was filthy, and he said, well that’ll be about $7.50. And he spent a lot of time getting the cinders out of my hair. And I told him that I didn’t have $7.50. And so he had me clean up around his place for a couple of hours to pay for the haircut. He had spent about 2 or 3 hours with a pick getting the soot out of my hair.
Then when we got to Pennsylvania, there weren’t so many people then – a lot of them got off the train in the Midwest. And I was riding up on the top with a little Jewish kid, and we got off in Pennsylvania. And of course the cops were always there, they called them yard bulls, and they were there waiting for you. And you could usually run faster than them, and they would chase you out of town. But we got away from them. But further down we ran into some more of the yard bulls and we were walkin’ along this track and there was a swampy area along side of us and the guys were catching up to us and there were some ahead of as well, so we took off into this swamp, the Jewish kid and I. And before we knew it we were up to our bellies in water! I already had these dirty clothes on, and now I was in this stinky water. So we managed to get all the way through this swamp clear to the other side, about 150 or 200 yards. And these guys were on the edge still waving and shouting at us. So we ended up getting away from them. I think that’s were we found a river further up – and along the way back on the train someone had given one of us a bar of fels naptha soap. So we found this river and this kid and I took all our clothes off, went out into the middle of the river and just scrubbed the hell out of our selves with this fels naptha soap. I don’t think they even make that soap anymore. It was a big yellow bar of soap. But, boy, it really cleans ya! And we got out clothes clean and dried them. And later we went down to where we could get back on the train again.
So this was when I ran into Eunice. She was living in Terra Haute, Indiana with her husband. They were preaching for Aimee Semple McPherson’s church.
Janis: So Eunice knew Aimee Semple McPherson?
Dad: Yes, she was one of her disciples. And I rememer that I was in Illinois, maybe about 50 miles from Terra Haute, Indiana and there was a big thunder storm. I was walking along the railroad tracks. It was about 3 or 4 in the afternoon when this thunder storm hit and I got under a great big tree – an elm I think it was – and lightening hit this tree and split it right down the middle! And I’m about 4 feet away! And I could feel the heat from it. The tree just split apart and two halves just fell away, just like that! And when I saw Eunice the next day I told her about it, and she said, “Well I was praying for you! I knew you were along the way somewhere.”
Janis: Aren’t you supposed to stay away from trees in a lightening storm?
Dad: Yeah – hell, yeah you are! Because this thing was sopping wet, and of course the lightening was drawn to it. But I remember that was one of the exciting things that happened to me in Indiana.
So I was still with that Jewish kid and we were in Pitsbourgh because I remember we took another bath in the river there. And we borrowed somebody’s boat. We walked up this riverbank and there was kind of a sportsmans club and they had little rowboats there, and we “borrowed” one. We rowed out to the middle of this river and the water was very shallow; it was about 3 feet deep, so we got out of the boat, threw an anchor down and did our bathing. But in the meantime some guy had called the sheriff so the sheriff was waiting for us on the bank to bring the boat back. So we brought the boat back and we told the guy our sad story, and that we were just trying to get clean. So, they let us go.
Then, that night, we found a billboard to sleep behind, somewhere in Pittsburg. And I wan’t there very long before I realized I was laying in something that didn’t smell too good! I had layed down in a pile of shit! And my clothes had just been cleaned. So I had to get up and eventually went back down to the river to clean my clothes again.
Janis: So how did you guys eat?
Dad: We would bum food. I remember one place we went into – I think I was with another guy – we went into a restaurant, I talked to the manager, and I said, “I’m hungry, I don’t have any money and I’m trying to get to New York, and I’ll do dishes for you, or I’ll sweep the place for you.” And generally I would always get a meal.
Janis: And what year was this?
Dad: This was 1934. I was right out of high school. But I was always willing to work for something. And then a lot of times I would do the same thing with a house – I would go to the back door and ask if they would make me a sandwich, or give me a glass of milk and I will do something around your house for an hour or two, ya know. I’ll do something around your house for an hour or two. And I very seldom had any problem getting food.
Janis: Were there lots of people on the road like this, during this time?
Dad: I remember a lot of people until we got to the midwest, then it dwindled off. But I remember when we left Pittsburg – this guy and I were on a train – and he had a large, kind of a Victrola box, with all of his belongings in it. And I still had my knapsack. I had acquired a large knife with a big long blade. We were in one of these open cars where they haul lumber, and sitting back in the corner, and we saw 3 black guys coming towards us, and they looked mean to us. And this guy on the train with me had a long bowie knife. So we both got out knives out and we were just playing with them as these black guys walked up to us and just looked at us and then walked on.
Another time I was still with the little Jewish kid – he was about 16 or 17 years old, and he was trying to get back to New Jersey. We had been overnight somewhere, and we were trying to catch the train the next morning, and the train came up and was going about 20 miles per hour so you had to run like hell to catch it! So I said to the Jewish kid, I said “Ok, I’ll get on way back there and wait until I get the train and when I come by you hand your pack up to me and I’ll grab it by the handle.” So I got onto the train, and came along side where he has, and grabbed onto the handle and then he was running on ahead of me about 25 yards or so, and then he got onto the train and I was still hanging onto his pack, which was about 30 pounds, and I hit one of these switches, and the whole thing flew off and his clothes went everywhere and he lost the whole thing. All of his clothes were scattered along the track. He was almost home at that point.
I had a small knapsack that was just big enough to carry some shorts and tshirts and a toothbrush and an extra pair of pants.
So the next day we hit New Jersey. So I was trying to figure out how to get across to New York. Back then it was just a nickel to get across the river on the ferry. And somebody said go down to the YMCA and they will give you a chip for 5 cents to get across the river to New York city. So I got over there, and I wanted to get a room so I could get cleaned up because my skin was filthy! I found a place where I could rent a room for about $5 a week. So I checked into the room, and then I went shopping and I bought a large jar of Ponds Cold Cream and some soap and toothpaste, and spent about 4 days picking blackheads out of my skin. And getting all that soot and dirt our of my hair.
Then I got a job at the YMCA in New York as a switch board operator. So it was November when I go this job; I had left Tahoe around the middle of September – it was the end of the season and it took me about 3 or 4 weeks to get to New York. I stayed through the winter and around April or March I got homesick. I found out I could get back home taking advantage of an organization that Roosevelt had set up to help people during the depression who had been traveling to find work. So for about $18 you could go from California to New York in a passenger car where you could actually sit in a seat, so would be able to sleep sitting up. So I ended up quitting my job and I went back to L.A.
Janis: Why did you want to go to New York?
Dad: I wanted to see New York!
Janis: While you were there, what were some of the memorable things you saw?
Dad: I walked all over, I walked through Central Park, 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue. I just walked every night.
Janis: Did you meat any people while you were there?
Dad: Not really
Mom: They aren’t that friendly.
Dad: I don’t recall making any lasting friendships; though I knew some people there at the YMCA. I got special deals on my food at the YMCA. It was the big 23rd Street YMCA. It was about a 20 story building. They had a nice cafeteria and I got most of my meals at half price. I was making 20 bucks a week.
Janis: And when you want back you went back to your mom’s house.
Dad: Yeah. I think I came home with a lot more money than I had left with! Yeah, because I was makin’ $20 a week.
Mom: Did you still have that $250?
Dad: Sure! Nearly all of it. Oh, I bought some clothes, and personal items…
Mom: Did you wash the money afterwards, ha ha ha!
Dad: Ha ha, I remember it smelled!
Janis: It was in a balloon!
Dad: I do remember that it smelled, cuz it was almost stuck in my….
Mom: You probably peed in your pants a couple times!
Dad: But it was all there. I’ll tell ya…. ha ha ha
Mom: Man, that is a rough trip! But you saw some women and children on the train…
Dad: Oh, yeah. Coming out of California, that train was loaded with people. They were inside in the open boxcar and the top was filled, too. But the one thing that sticks in my head is that Green River thing. I mean, for years I wanted to go back there and shoot a few people, I really did. The only thing they got from me was this cheap watch that I had. But they took everything from the other people on the train. And those people were so mad!
Janis: Do you think any of them went back and tried to do anything?
Dad: I wouldn’t be surprised! And of course they had been stripped naked and they had no way to defend themselves. They did get their clothes back eventually. And these guys had big clubs in their hands and told all the people from the train to get the hell out of town.
Mom: What about that time you were in South Carolina?
Dad: Oh, yeah. Well, that was when I was in the Merchant Marines, and I was on a tanker and we stopped in Charleston, South Carolina. This was around 1948-49. The dock where we dropped off our oil in Charleston was about 10 miles out of town. And in order to get into town you had to call a cab. Every time we would stop at a port an agent would come out to see you, and he brings money for draws for the crew and there are papers to fill out. So this person also said he would call us a cab to get into town. So the cabs showed up within about an hour. So the cabs show up and they all have black drivers. And the minute we hit Charleston the police are there waiting for us.
Dad: Because we rode in a black cab.
Mom: Isn’t that awful?!
Dad: They put us all in jail.
Janis: So that was illegal then because of the Jim Crow laws.
Dad: It was illegal then, and this was all set up. They put all of us in jail, and one by one they would call us out and we would stand before the judge – and generally it was about a $20 fine – and most of the guys had $50 or $100 on them. So riding in a black cab was a $20 fine, and then they’d say get the hell out of here. So we went back that night and told the Captain and he called the agent and they reimbursed us. But really, there wasn’t much they could do beyond that. I’m pretty sure the agent was in on it. When we got back to New York they said something about reimbursing us.
Well, in those days we stopped in Florida…and Texas was bad. We had just come from a foreign port and generally we would be coming back from Europe and have things we had purchased like bottles of perfume – and a couple of other things I had purchased for the girls – and the customs people would take it all away. So the next day the Captain and I were up in the office and the guys were yelling about having all this stuff (they had purchased) taken away from them. They came right aboard (the ship) to take it! Even though you’re just there to drop your oil off, your gonna go then to another port someplace else, and you’re not gonna give stuff away to anybody. But they would come aboard, and if you had stuff sitting around in your room they would go through it, and ask if you had anything you wanted to declare. They would take all of this stuff away. So the next day the Captain and I were down in this customs office, and here this stuff was. The girls had it all sitting on their desks! And there was nothing we could do about it.
Janis: So after that, if you bought perfume and stuff like that, you would pack it away?
Dad: You would hide everything! I did that in New York one time, I came to New Jersey, and I had bough several bottles in Brussels and I took train from Brussels to Paris, France, and the sole purpose, besided just to see Paris, was to pick up some bottles of perfume for these girls I knew at the USO. And there was a place there were you could buy a half ounce or an ounce of a nice little bottle of perfume for maybe $2 or $3. In New York it would cost you $40 or $50. So I bought some for all these girls that I knew. I was gonna have it all done for Christmas and give it to them for presents. So, of course by this time I’d learned my lesson. And I was gonna take it off the boat one bottle at a time. I was going to get off the boat in Baytown. And when you get off the boat you have to take all your belongings off and they would take it and put your locker of stuff into a warehouse and you could come by and pick it up anytime. So all of this stuff that was packed away customs could not get their hands on. So I had the perfume packed away in there, that I should’ve declared. But if you declared it they would just take it away from you.
Janis: So you lived with Gerry when you were in the Merchant Marines?
Dad: Yeah, when I had days off. I would get 90 days off per year. So if you took, say, a 6 month trip you would have 45 days off coming to you. And my address was always Santa Monica. So if I got off at Galveston I would get first class train fare from Galveston to Santa Monica. And then when I got called to join the ship again back in New York, I would get first class transportation back to New York.