I didn 't really know what was going to happen to me . . .
Aunt Jim. As we crossed the border to California, my past life crossed my mind, too. I didn't know what I was getting into. I knew I would spend some time with my Aunt, Jimmie Grace. She'd married a man by the name of Herschel. Her name was Tice, and she worked at an insane asylum in Norwalk.
Aunt Jim lived in the little town of Norwalk, a suburb of the Los Angeles area, and there were 3500 people living in the little town at that time. She and my Uncle Herschel both worked there at the insane asylum.
Norwalk was really a nothing sort of town, and there was really nothing--it was the heart of the Depression. People were making--if they did have a job--$5 or $10 a week, and millions and millions of people were still out of a job.
I didn't really know what was going to happen to me when I got there, but the people I was with dropped me off in downtown Los Angeles, in an area I'd never been in before. I caught a bus in L.A. to the little town of Norwalk. And I called my Aunt at the hospital.
She picked me up at the bus station and took me to the asylum. She had a room there, and I went to her room. I hadn't had much sleep for several days, and I slept for almost a day and a half.
After I recovered from my sleep, it began to dawn on me: What have I really done? I've left Houston, I've left the place where I've known all the people around, even though it was hard living with my relatives back there. But I did have some friends. Everything was cheap back there, of course.
And, back there, I got a job at a roofing company, making three dollars and a half a week, and that really wasn't my bag. I went to work with a friend of mine, in a geologist place working for oil wells. He took core samples and analyzed them for how many billions of years old they were, and so on and so forth. But again, it wasn't my thing.
And I missed living with my brother for four years. He and I had fun times, at times. We'd swum across the channel together, and had plums to eat. We built a clubhouse and all those things that young kids do. And we'd found an old abandoned life boat. One of the freighters had gone by, and had it hidden in the bayous. And those kind of things, but they were kid things and, uh, I guess it was time to grow up and be a man.
I was there, and I had to take what comes.
Living with my Aunt Jim, I tried a little bit of everything. I worked picking black eyed peas, I worked on a thrashing machine, I worked in a little café, I worked in a grocery store--it was a one-man shop. I worked for three or four days for the Red Star Fertilizer Company. I did all those funny things back in those times, because jobs were really hard to come by, and the pay was nothing, really. The most I ever made was $10 for a whole week's work. And millions of people were still out of work.
Rancho Sespe. Finally, I did get a job up in Rancho Sespe. My Uncle Volley had a job working there. Rancho Sespe was a big citrus ranch owned by A. J. Spaulding and Company. My job was doing fumigation work, fumigating trees for black spiders and black scale.
I worked there, but the problem there was I lived in a kind of dormitory type thing, an enclosure with no roof at the top--kind of like a little closet with a single bed in it, and a little closet to hang your clothes. And we ate at the commissary and they fed us all our meals.
My job working for the ranch was doing night work fumigating trees. When the sun set, we went to work, and we worked all night, unless dew came in or the east wind would blow. And I worked there for a year and a half. It really wasn't for me. The people that ran the ranch wanted me to go to school, to take up agriculture and come back and work at the ranch as a full-time manager.
But again, I didn't really see myself doing that kind of work. But I did make a lot of money--sometimes I was making $12 a night, because I got paid by the tree. I got a penny a tree as a "puller" or a "flapper," or if you were a "taper" you got a cent and a half. If you were a crew chief, you got two cents. After awhile, I became a crew chief and I got two cents a tree, so I made a lot of money. And you didn't have any days off unless the east wind was blowing, or lightning--and you made money but you didn't have time to spend it.
Well, there came a time when we had a lot of east wind blowing, and the ranch decided not to do any work for ten days, and they gave us ten days off.
Alpha Beta. I went into Whittier to see my aunt, and when I got there I happened to go into a little Alpha Beta store. There was one kid running it, a man by the name of John Codd. [Click here to go to Alpha Beta.]
My endeavor with John Codd was that he was all alone in this store. It was a very small little store with wooden floors. Its boss, Amer Asher, was out sick, and the store was absolutely filthy. The floors were dirty and shelves were not stocked, and just a horrible mess. I asked John Codd, who I'd never seen before, boy this is a miserably dirty place, why don't you hire some help to take care of it. And he told me that his boss was sick, and so forth and so on.
So, my conversation kept going, and I finally asked him how much he was making to be the assistant manager there, and he was making $19.50 a week. So I told him I'm working a place where I'm making almost that in one night, but I'm tired of it, and he could hire me to clean the place up and I'd work for $19.50, same as he.
John Codd said, well, it was alright with him, but he said when Amer Asher came in he would probably fire me because they only needed two people to work there.
Well, to make a long story short, I went to work and I called Rancho Sespe and told them I would not be back. I would be up to get my clothes and thank them for the time they had put in me.
Alpha Beta began as a merchandising concept rather than as a store name.
Albert and Hugh Gerrard had been operating food stores in Southern California since 1900 and had been early adopters of a self-service system in 1914. Their Triangle Grocerteria (at 329 West Second Street, Pasadena) began arranging groceries alphabetically in 1915, the beginning of the "Alpha Beta system".
The Alpha Beta name was first used for the Pomona store in 1917. By the next year, seven stores were operating under this name. Alpha Beta Food Markets incorporated in 1929. --David Gwynn ©1999-2001 http://www.groceteria.net/alphabeta/index.html
And I went to work for Alpha Beta. I worked there three weeks, and Amer Asher came back to work and fired me. And as I was walking out, I passed by the produce department in front, which was run by a young man by the name of John O'Neil. He had three men working for him and they were making $10 a week. They were open in the morning from 8 to 6, and closed on Sundays, and the guys were working about 60 hours a week and making $10 for doing it.
So, as I was walking out after Amer Asher had fired me, John O'Neil said, "Why don't you come to work for me?"
And I said, "Well, I'm not going to work ten hours a day doing this kind of work."
He said, "I've watched you work over there, and you're a hard-working young man. I'll give you $19.50 a week if you'll be my assistant manager."
He said, "What do you know about produce?"
And I said, "Well, I know about as much about it as anyone else."
And I went to work for John O'Neil as a produce assistant manager. And I worked there real hard for about a year, and he kind of almost adopted me. He had three daughters and he would invite me every Sunday to go to his house and have dinner and visit with him. We would play Pangini, a game you play with eight decks of cards.
And I really enjoyed the O'Neil family. Pat O'Neil and Sug O'Neil and a little girl named Tootsie, who was what they called a spastic. She couldn't speak and she couldn't understand it, and she couldn't really walk, and she had a little scooter she scooted around on, like a roller skate thing, and it was a delightful family. I felt like I was one of the family.
And I worked for John O'Neil for a year plus. But one day I told him, you know, I haven't any education other than high school. I really believe I should go back to school--go to college--because otherwise I'll just always be an assistant manager for you in the produce business.
And he thought it was a brilliant idea, because he'd always kind of thought of me as an adopted son. And he got me an appointment with the president of Alpha Beta, Mr. Hugh Gerrard, who took some time explaining why a college education is so important for getting promotions and good jobs in all kinds of companies.
Whittier College. I went to work for John O'Neil. I'd work ten hours on Saturday for $10 a week to work part of my tuition off at Whittier College, which back in those days was $300 a year. [Click here to go to Whittier College.]
I made a deal with Whittier College to work moving pianos or mow the grass during my recesses and hours off. I worked out a deal with a man named Jack Feral to run the Campus Inn. I could wash the dishes at night for this Campus Inn.
I'd bus dishes five nights a week for seven day's meals. I could have the same meals as the sports guys. If they had steak, I had steak. I also helped Mrs. Hadley at the rooming house--the room I was staying in was at her house. I mowed her lawn. I stayed at the YMCA in Pomona for a year, then at Mrs. Brown's rooming house, for $12 a week. I also worked out a deal with the gas company to clean out their place. I got $3 a week for doing that.
So, all in all, I was really a busy young man. I really had too much to do, and not enough time to study. I was very fortunate that I had an excellent memory. I did not have to take notes, and I made a deal with my professors that I did not have to take notes if I could be in the top 10 on exams. And it worked well for me because I was in that category in the tests. And to this day I can remember what happened many years ago, and many of the details.
Basic English. I really enjoyed going to college. And I certainly enjoyed basic English, where you had 60 operative verbs to use, and a vocabulary of 300 words. If you made a speech using these words, even a three-year-old could understand it. And also the president of a company and a dictator, because the words are very easy to understand.
I used the basic English philosophy all the rest of my life to communicate in words so people could understand me.
And I also learned that I had to do a little bluffing to see what you could get away with without somebody calling your bluff.
And many times, if you talk with authority, people wouldn't call your bluff, but thought you really knew what you were talking about.
After awhile, John O'Neil got transferred to Pomona to a bigger store, and he asked me if I would like to go along. I told him I would have to find out. I didn't have a car, and a move to Pomona was a new place for me. I also would have to change schools--colleges--lots of things would have to be reviewed and thought about. But eventually we worked out a deal. I went with him to Pomona, and I stayed at the YMCA.
I ate my meals out at a little restaurant in the morning and lunch. I worked 40 hours a week for Alpha Beta, and I went to school just part-time. After awhile the doctor told me that I should either quit school or quit work, because my eyes wouldn't take care of it. 'Cause I'd had quite a few operations on my eyes when I was in the Whittier area. I had four. And I didn't want to go through that again. I finally decided to quit college. I was going to Pomona Clairmont.
So I quit and went to work full-time for Alpha Beta, 40 hours a week. A little while later the company thought I was good enough to manage a store, and they moved me to a little store in Monrovia, as a manager.
My problem was that, as a manager, you were a slave to it. This store was open from 8 to 7, and you had to be there early in the morning to get the wet rack ready and do all the trimming' so you had to get there at 6:30. And at night time, to close, you were there til 8 o'clock--so it was a 14 hour job. And the big pay was $35 a week. Big deal.
After awhile, I gave myself a raise, and the company was rather irate about it. But I told them I could be a slave for 40 dollars but not 35 dollars. And I worked there for a little while longer. I stayed with a young couple, called Gay Arnold and Gil, and I had a room in their home. And after awhile, I decided I should move on to something else. I went to work as a night stocker for Alpha Beta at a store called "number one" back in those days, on Atlantic Blvd. The store had no doors or windows, but was an open-air market, and stayed that way until World War II started, and with the blackouts they put canvas around it to pull down at night if you had a blackout at night--you were forced to do that back in those days.
So, I worked there for a long time. Not a long time, really, but it seemed like a long time. And I finally decided I should do something other than what I was doing, because World War II had started and a lot of my buddies were being drafted and joined.
I tried to join but they refused me because of my eyes, and again, feeling guilty, I decided to go to Houston and work at Brown Shipyard Company. My brother informed me that I could get a job there, because all the ship builders were making deliveries as soon as they finished, and they needed people desperately. Because so many of the young men and even older people were in the military, and labor was scarce. [Click here to see a 1944 Navy ship built at the Brown Shipyard Co.]
So I drove back to Houston and went to work in Brown Shipyard. My job was like a steam fitter. Primarily, what I'd do when they launched from Houston all the way to Galveston was to see if anything was wrong with the ship on the six hour cruise down, and the six hour cruise back. I started out fitting it for the mission it had been manufactured for.
On the top deck alone, there would be sometimes 600 people--just on the top deck. Our instructions were just to keep moving, keep moving. All I did was move around until they said they were going to launch the ship and go down to Galveston and back. That was my primary function.
I worked at that for three months and felt really guilty. I decided I should quit because I was making pretty good money, and I wasn't really doing anything except going out on these ships after they were launched.
And I got a telephone call from John O'Neil. And John had opened up a market in Whittier. He'd bought some Japanese people out because when World War II started, the Japanese people were put into concentration camps. And anyone who was doing business in the L.A. area, they were automatically rounded up and taken away.
The Box Market. So John O'Neil, I guess, gave them ten cents on the dollar for this produce stand at the Box Market in Whittier.
One of my friends, Joe Sims, had been working there. He was drafted into the military and went to India. So, my friend John O'Neil called and said, "Why don't you come back and run my produce department for me?"
"I'll go to the produce market and buy the produce and bring it out to you, and you run the market," he said. "I have four guys working for me, and I'll give you $50 a week."
So I gave him a call back and told him I have a problem. "I'm in Texas, and there's a gas rationing program going. I'm only getting four green stamps a week for gasoline, and I can't get too far that way."
But he'd bought a citrus grove and he had a farmers market token thing, so he sent me enough gas tokens to head back to California with. And I took him up on it, and I became the produce manager at the Box market.
It was a fun thing for me because I did love the produce business. I'd worked for John O'Neil before, and John had always given me my way on things. He liked the way I could get things accomplished. And also that I could make a profit doing what I was doing.
Lee Strong. So things worked along fine, and, meantime, I'd hired a young man by the name of Lee Strong. Lee Strong was a young man from Washington, D.C. who had moved into the area.
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