Autobiography of W. E. Smith.

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Autobiography of William Edward Smith

Chapter 3, part 6, 1917 & After

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In the summer of 1917, when World War I was raging and old Cad and I had about exhausted our abilities in the poultry, etc., business, I was ready to help my country in service -- and incidentally look after the exchequer. During our residence in Long Beach, by some means or another, probably in a trade, we had come into possession of a three bedroom frame house9, also with a bathroom in it, which we rented out -- I mean the house. I had a friend, a retired Scotch preacher, who had a seven-passenger Overland. He was tired of his car -- I was tired of the house -- and again I made another blunder via the California trade custom. And we now owned a big white elephant. Its rear axle kept breaking, a chronic disease of that type of auto, but then the old house was not worth very much and needed extensive repairs. That old Overland was a famed accessory to The Ranch, and if we had had it in Hollywood in the horse and buggy days, our prestige would have had all the other "prestigies" trying to "prestige" up to us. We had grown past that by now.
9. The handwritten version reads a three room frame house.
It was about 1917 that I found employment in Long Beach ship-building. We were making ships for the Navy. My chief task was to secure refunds on freight shipments due to increased rates. It seems like a nightmare to me now. Anyway, I was successful in securing some. My wandering brain led me to think of prepaid shipments. In as much as freight always enters into the cost of production, as well as wages, it occurred to me we were entitled to some refund on prepaid freight. I took the matter up with my superiors and in due process of time presented a bill to the government auditor for his approval. He said he had never heard of such a thing. I told him he was hearing of it now. He countered that nobody else was presenting such bills; I countered, "You are having one presented now," and so it went. I continued making him take those bills, and I am told that Jim Craig and Dean Gardner made a trip back to Washington after the war was over and collected some $40,000 on those claims. I was promised a slice of that pie but never received one cut.

After the war was over I remained with the ship-building company and had some experience with ship repairs on dry dock. That corporation had some primitive ideas as to accounting, and consequently I had difficulty with my end of it. One Saturday morning a ship was coming off dry dock and the owner wanted his bill. I had what data I could assemble and prepared a bill amounting to some $22,000. The chief clerk told me John Craig wanted to see me and we went into his office. He immediately went into a rage about the bill and started to abuse me. My Dutch came up and I told him just what I thought about him and the job and his cost-plus system. I went out of that office in a rage, slamming the door with all my might. In a few minutes the chief clerk came out smiling and told me John Craig had said, "Guess we got Smitty's goat." I never did like John Craig. However, a few years later he extended a courtesy to me. Now the war was over and I was out of a job again.

My next experience was quite unique and something different. Norman MacDonald had a partnership shoe repair shop. The partner was the silent member and husband of my boyhood sweetheart, Stella, who had passed away by this time. He and I had always been good friends. So it was that I became a shoemaker. Norman MacDonald was again seized with the wanderlust in search of a gold mine, which led him to Northern California. He bequeathed to me all his official regalia of a shoemaker, his good will, interest in machinery, stock, etc., and encouraged his partner to relinquish his interests to me likewise, money matters to be adjusted afterwards -- another one of those California trades with the survival of the fittest as the aftermath. In addition to the shoe shop, there was a shine stand owned by the partnership and a hat cleaning business belonging to a hat cleaner, both of which I subsequently fell heir to.

My greatest difficulty was with labor troubles. My responsibility was the management. I found that colored shoe shiners have a strong weakness for liquor. It takes at least some brains to shine shoes, but when alcohol upsets even the bit of brains some shoe shiners have, and one gets drunk . . . well, he's not a safe shiner for lady customers, for such we had, both the drunk and the lady. They don't mix. This extremity finally led me to the shoe stand one day when one of my best lady customers came in for a shine, but no shiner showed so ever! This went on for several days and she needed a shine, so I says, "Mrs. Baker, you just climb up on that there chair and watch what a fine shine I can put on those shoes." She finally did, so I did and OH! What a shine that was -- not only THE perfect shine but the subsequent consequences which grew out of it. Now I was a shoe shiner also.

Norman was a great helper on the shine stand in those days. That boy can put on a shine to this day that would drive the best of shiners to bewilderment. My success with colored shiners just wasn't. They would get drunk and lazy. I don't know what I would have done that summer had it not been for Norman, and I sometimes think "to this end was he born" to help me.

Rudolph Valentino was one of my customers -- yes, even he appreciated my shop -- and Alice Lake also was somewhat of a familiar figure. I mention these as typical people of those times and customs.

Upon opening the shop one morning a taxi driver informed me he had a passenger in his cab, a lady with a baby girl which she was still nursing. She claimed to be a cousin of Rudolph Valentino's and also of Italian extraction. As she was having domestic difficulties with her husband in Detroit, she claimed her cousin Rudy had sent for her to make a home for her and the baby. In 1922 there was no parking limit on Hollywood Boulevard, and I had the privilege of parking my car all day in front of my shop. Says taxi man, "Let her sit in your car for a while until we can get in touch with Rudy." He had taken her from the Roosevelt Hotel up on the hill to Valentino's home but found the gate locked. The caretaker knew nothing of such an arrangement, and Rudy was not at home. Afterward we located him in San Francisco. She made several trips to Western Union, stating she was expecting a wire from him.

The day wore on and no word was received from her hero. All day she sat in my car, exposing herself without shame, nursing her infant at regular intervals on Hollywood Boulevard. I gave her free use of our restroom. The day passed on and I finally got in touch with the police department. Instead of getting relief there, they insisted that I take her home with me. I argued with the taxi driver -- she was his charge -- but his final argument was that a single man with one bed in his room had no business taking in a woman and a baby. And he was right.

So I took her home with me. That was a charitable deed, but we would rather not have our charity go out that way, especially since we ourselves were in a sort of state of embryo. I took them home. We fed them, we bathed them, we gave them our bed and prayed for them.

Next morning back to the shop I took them. I had the two-burner stove and tub and put her to work washing her dirty clothes while the baby ran all over the shop, and I became nurse and cleaner-upper, more or less. I made personal investigations as to the Valentino relationship, and the studio would not or could not enlighten me. Toward evening I personally called at the police station. They politely informed me they had no place to take care of such cases, and since I had taken care of her one night I could do so on another.

And so Mother was again surprised to find our hospitality had to be extended. The next morning I informed our newly found friend I had an acquaintance who was a very "matronly" lady and persuaded her this individual would be her benefactress. The contact was made and the Matron took our protégé to the police station where the facts were recorded. She had become enamored of Rudy, which made trouble with hubby, so she came to California to seek her Romeo, claiming all Italians were considered cousins in Italy. The police sent the baby to hubby and took care of the Mamma otherwise. Maybe our Good Lord has His reasons for taking Rudolph out of this world.

My shine stand experience has taught me never to try softening a dried up can of shoe polish on a gas plate; it is highly inflammable and may lead to having the fire department's making a hurried call, as it did with me. Also never try to clean elbow-length white kid gloves with any wet solvent. It shrinks them up; I learned that, and I still hope some day to find the owner of those gloves for restitution.

We had a stock of children's shoes, off sizes and difficult to sell. One day the "hat-man," who shared store space with me and lived in Inglewood, wanted a pair of those shoes for his child. He took a pair home, I made an "attractive" price, the shoes fit, and they and the price became the talk of Inglewood. His business was disintegrating due to the end of the straw-hat season, and he wanted to get out. He proposed selling all those shoes to odd children having feet to fit them. He would take 25 pairs at a time, bring back the money, and take another batch. The trouble with that was the last 25 pairs disappeared with him. He forsook his business and I fell heir to that outfit. Automatically I became a hat cleaner. Now, that business was lucrative in season and some broken-down motion picture actors were thankful for a good hat cleaner in Hollywood. Finally all I had left of that outfit was a hat block, hat-stretcher, an iron, a two-burner gas plate, and an assortment of second-hand cleaned hats which nobody wanted, even their owners. Since none of my boys wore hats, these were a total loss.

With that hat branch gone, I had excess floor space which was quickly grabbed up by a three-ball merchant, only he bought and sold; no loan business with him, a Mr. Gold. This store was located at 6520 Hollywood Boulevard. I was to receive a further education along the line of selling second-hand jewelry and the art of buying same. It takes a certain class of people, mentioned specifically in the Bible, to carry on this business successfully. The jewelry store was a success.

One does not have to have much of a sense of humor to visualize that shop, with a shine stand across the entrance of it -- the one being operated by a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the other by a descendant of that Ethiopian who came to Jesus and asked him what he should do to be saved. In the rear of the store the shoe-maker rapped away with his hammer, punctuated with the banging of the heel slugger and the thrashing of the shoe sewing stitcher.

It was April of 1922 and the rent for the shop was $125 per month. The owner, a Pasadena lady, advised me my lease would expire within 4 months and the new rent would then be $250 per month. I guess she wanted to get rid of me. Maybe it was the jewelry man who was trying to undermine me and wanted the locations himself for further expansion. However, I got busy and found a buyer for my machinery, and the shine stand business faded into thin air. I sold my lease to a lady who wanted to put in a dress store, and I think maybe I crossed up somebody.

It was January 1, 1922, when we moved off The Ranch. I inherited the shoe shop about the summer of 1919. Grandma and Grandpa Smith were living in Hollywood on Wilcox Avenue at the time, and it was my good fortune to find board and shelter with them from Monday to Saturday nights, when I returned home for the week-end.

Possibly the most critical day in the experiences of the family was that second Monday morning in September of 1921 when our home burned up into ashes. I had left home as usual, allowing just about enough time to meet the Electric 6:00 a.m. train for Los Angeles. We had a pressure feed line to an oil burner in our kitchen range. I noticed that morning a small leak in the feed line but did not have time to stop to fix it, so got a can and placed it on the hearth of the stove to catch the drippings.

It was a hot morning. The usual Monday wash was waiting on the screen porch to be hung up; Mother was out in the yard hanging up some clothes. Sister was in the kitchen canning pimentos. She noticed the can was filled with oil and was smoking. She found it too hot for bare hands and picked it up with a tea towel. As soon as she moved it, the fumes caught fire, and she could not hold the can and was forced to drop it. Immediately it became a flaming stream, running under the stove and igniting a wall, which burned like paper.

In less time than it takes to record the accident, the whole house was in flames. Among the few things Mother saved were the cemetery records, which could not possibly have been reproduced, and a great deal of confusion as to the record of burials in that old cemetery would have taken place. I was caretaker of the cemetery at the time. Mother's first thought was for those books, so she ran to the front of the house and pulled the table out which was near the door. The drawer in the table contained those valuable records. Mother's hair was singed for her heroism.

Sister and Dudley had their clothes for a year all packed ready to go to Claremont where they were enrolled in Pomona College. Sister's trunk was near the front porch, and she saved that. Dudley lost all of his clothes as did the rest of us, including the still-wet wash on the screen porch and excluding the ones we had on our backs. Grandma, though greatly excited, was spared from any bodily harm. Don was just a little fellow at Mother's heels, and the rest of the flock were at school. Sister alone was in the house, and in hasty flight she thought of the gasoline stove which stood close to the kitchen range. She grabbed the stove in her flight and saved it. She now tells us she thought it might catch fire and explode. Such was her reaction to a sudden fright. Dudley, who had been working in a bean field, Scobee, Norman, Ralph, Doris, and Charles, who were at school, all have their memories of their first sight of their home in ashes.

Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to bring out -- or perhaps gives people an opportunity to demonstrate -- their benevolence and good will. Those neighbors in Orange County surely proved their good neighborliness in their acts and charity.

Fortunately there was an old frame house across the road which also had no bathroom, other than an oriental one, but had two bedrooms and was vacant and covered with cobwebs and dirt. Soon the women folks tackled that old house and made her shine from cellar to attic, of which it had neigh one. They brought groceries and stacked them in the kitchen until it looked like we were going into the grocery business. They brought clothing until it looked like we were getting ready to send a shipload of Red Cross relief abroad. They brought furniture until one would wonder if the Army was getting ready to move in. They brought money amounting to nearly $1000. The men offered to rebuild the house if I could get the lumber on the place. There couldn't be a more generous and fine lot of American citizens than those fine whole-hearted country folks.

They wanted us to stay in the neighborhood. It was a very difficult matter for us to decide. We had gone through some very trying experiences as farmers, but I am convinced it all worked out to the best interest of the children, and while we had no silver or gold, there was something built into the lives and characters of them which money cannot buy. Mother's throat and general health were giving us some concern and were prime factors in our decision. We thanked our good friends as best we could, but felt we must forsake The Ranch.

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