Sunday, September 16, 2018

Only Son

From Salinas to Oakland and San Leandro and on to Phoenix the life of an only child in a single mother household wasn’t all bad. While Rachel Helen Immel moved us every year or so and that will keep a kid off balance she always found the best that the place had to offer. She was an erudite and cultured women who played the piano, loved ballet and art films and enjoyed good food. She had a regal bearing and wore clothes with panache. She was every inch the lady. She was an ardent feminist though she probably didn’t know the term. She was asexual as far as I know and may have been a “man hater” if my father’s younger sisters are to be believed. According to my father’s favorite baby sister, Ruth West, who died at 101 a couple of years ago, he confided to her shortly after he married my mother that “it just isn’t going to work” because they were at odds about sex. He apparently was into it and she was repulsed. But they copulated at least once thankfully. I appreciate your service. Certainly, their paths in life painted a picture of divergent sexual appetites. He had three marriages and a parade of curvy babes and she was devoutly solo. She never had a date and the only man in the house was the plumber. In the years between age four and nineteen I never saw her with a man nor do I know of a single relationship with one.

That didn’t seem odd to me. It was all I had ever known. That she would be involved with a man never occurred to me.

She had two sisters, Fern a textbook spinster, and Imogene, the saucy divorced one who smoked cigarettes and did, reputedly, have a life outside of work. All were elementary school teachers, mom of the first and second grade persuasion.

Fern, the much older sister, was built like a barrel and seemed to be from an entirely different generation than Rachel and Imogene, called Imo. She lived with us for a time in our first apartment in San Leandro and commuted to her school in Niles, California. Niles was southeast of Hayward some fifteen miles away from our apartment. Back then it was in the sticks but now is a suburb of sprawling Fremont. Imo taught in Palm Springs and Santa Maria and had to perspicacity to live outside of the hermetically sealed mother and child bubble my mother created wherever we lived. I was her life until I wasn’t.

Steve at six?

My mother gave me things and experiences in lieu of actual parenting. We never had the birds and bees conversation so I was left to learn through trial and error. When I joined Cub Scouts and there was a fishing merit badge to be had, she bought me a complete fly fishing rig; rod, reel, straw creel, assorted flies and a vest with all the little pockets from a sporting goods store in Hayward. We went fishing precisely once. It was at Strawberry Lake in the Sierra National Forest just west of the John Muir Wilderness. It’s a mystery to me how she found the place. Then there was skiing. The same thing. The full kit though a rented one in this case. I remember the long pointed wooden boards and the leather bindings. Off we went to Frisco Peak by bus in a snowstorm; a real Sierra snow with 20 foot drifts. The snow rose to the eaves of the lodge and that's where I headed. Twenty-five years later our son Garrett performed the same trick at Killington in Vermont. And Peggy wigged out then just as my mother had in 1950.

From wherever we lived in the East Bay we made our way to San Francisco as often as possible. Even when we lived in Arizona we traveled to the “The City” a couple of times. The magic of San Francisco was etched in my brain at an early and impressionable age. As early as 1947 we took Southern Pacific’s Starlight Express from Salinas to Fisherman’s Wharf. We sat in the dining car eating Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches on toast and sipping hot tea. A little later when we moved to the Bay Area we took the train to San Francisco to partake of breakfast at Manning’s, lunch of Welsh Rarebit and creamed spinach at the bar in Townsend’s and high tea at the City of Paris department store. Famed columnist Herb Cain called Townsend’s, “the little old ladies historic hangout.” And so it was.

We watched Alec Guinness in 1951s Lavender Hill Mob at a little art house. We went to the 1950 premier of Winchester 73 with Jimmy Stewart, and the 1951 premiere of Bob Hope’s Lemon Drop Kid where they gave out boxes on lemon drops. This was always in San Francisco I should note. Oakland was beneath us. We saw Shirley MacLaine and Francis Lederer in Princess and the Show Girl at the Curran Theatre on Geary Street near Union Square. The 1,600 seat Curran housed some the biggest productions in theatre history and was home to the San Francisco Civic Light Opera when we saw the young Shirley. It closed for a time but reopened in January 2017. It will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2022.
The Curran Theatre, circa 1950
During the Christmas season San Francisco is magical as all great cities are. To me San Francisco is the one real city on the left coast. There are New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in the pantheon of America’s great cities. The others are pretenders. We always stayed at The Cartwright off Union Square. It was affordable and right in the center of things. From the Cartwright we could walk to all our favorite haunts. Every San Francisco Christmas included midnight mass at Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the corner of California and Grant, the entrance to Chinatown.

Saint Mary's Cathedral
My sartorial needs were not neglected either. On one of those Christmas trips from Arizona I stepped into the Ivy League, buttoned down era; the one with the waspy Princeton haircut. At a small haberdashery on the north side of Market Street I was fitted with my first soft shouldered three button sport coat, a nifty corduroy number, chinos with the buckle in the back and a light blue Gant button down. It was quite the step up from the big shouldered film noir suits I had favored till then. It foretold some seventy years of appreciation for stylish threads and too little closet space.  

And lest you think my adventures were limited to the tweedy environs of San Francisco, it was a 1951 trip to the silver mining town of Alamos, Mexico that led to our move from northern California to Arizona. My mother had seen a piece in Sunset Magazine about a quaint, undiscovered Spanish Colonial village in the Mexican state of Sonora near the western end of Copper Canyon. The Nicky Hilton article extolled the charms of the remote pueblo. It was so alluring that we found ourselves in Alamos by way of Ciudad Obregon and Navajoa and all of that by public transport one of which was a rickety Aeronaves DC3. In Alamos I cobbled together some rudimentary Spanish as kids will do and soon was leading tourists through the village for a few pesos. The highlight of my itinerary was the hacienda of the Mexican jumping bean king. You can’t make this stuff up. I still feel the busy beans jumping in my nine-year old palm.

Our hotel on the plaza had a drive-in courtyard. Our room was upstairs facing the courtyard and fountain. Drinking water was “treated” by resting it in earthenware “ollas” suspended from the second story portal. Many an evening was spent at the “Cine” on the north side of the plaza watching John Wayne and Esther Williams movies dubbed into Spanish.

On the way back to California from Alamos we stopped in Tucson. We sat in the lobby of the long-gone Santa Rita Hotel and absorbed the cowboyness of the place. The lobby was redolent of leather and straw hats. They say our olfactory memories are particularly vivid and the smell of leather still takes me back to that moment. Real ranchers moseyed through on their way to the Mountain Oyster Club upstairs. Women strictly prohibited. In the southeast corner of the hotel was a western wear store, probably Porter’s, where we continued our theme of indulging little Stevie's every whim. I donned my very first pair of cowboy boots, kangaroo no less. The hook was set. We'd be off to Arizona before the following school year.

It didn’t end well between my mother and me as has been reported in these pages. The last words I heard were, "From now on I don't have a son." It was my 21st birthday.

But the women gave me a taste of taste and a yearning for adventure. I'll give her that.

Much to her credit and not withstanding my enmity toward her, my mother exposed me to culture, cuisine and travel that created a life view beyond the neighborhoods in which we lived. From our Oakland apartment near Mills College we took the bus to hear Helen Keller speak at the University of California, Governor Earl Warren, too. I watched twin All-America running backs Johnny Olszewski and Jackie Jensen light up the gridiron for Cal’s Golden Bears. The game was preceded by lunch at Larry Blakes and my first Caesar Salad. In Phoenix we took the bus downtown to see Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Phoenix Union High School. So, the breadth of what my mother showed me was considerable.

In response to my ego bruising tale last week, a California friend wrote, “There are very few 70+ people who still hold grudges against their parents.….” And further, “I realized only recently it was an adolescent mindset to blame parents for unhappiness along the way…..” A valid point to be sure. However, I don’t see calling out specific thoughtless and hurtful acts as blaming them for unhappiness along the way, meaning presumably, later in life. I blame them for what they did when they did it. Always will. And as to very few seventy year olds holding grudges against their parents, I wouldn't bet on it.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Thanks, Dad.

I have no memory of living in a household with a mother and a father though a photograph from 1943 shows that I did.

Glenn, Rachel and Stephen Immel in Urbana, Ohio

Glenn Immel was a Navy officer preparing to ship out to the South Pacific where he would be Executive Officer on a LSM, Landing Ship Mine, which was heading for Guadalcanal. I don’t whether he saw combat or not. My guess is not but I wasn’t close enough to the man to know much of anything about him.

My first memory of him was on board his ship just before he embarked from Treasure Island to the South Pacific. My mother and I had ostensibly moved to California to be near him though I think the marriage was already in a death spiral. I was scratched by the ship’s mascot, an unhappy spider monkey named Spanky, that was tethered to a pole. I cried like a baby. 

Lieutenant Immel, young Steve and Spanky

Recollections of my father are few from the end of the war to 1952. I remember sitting in his lap while he drove his black Buick during visits to our apartments in Salinas, Oakland and San Leandro.  He always drove Buicks. I remember the sandpapery stubble of his five o’clock shadow. I don’t know when Glenn Richard and Rachel Helen divorced but they never lived together after the war. He moved to LA to practice law and we moved from school district to school district in Oakland and San Leandro. It makes me wonder why we moved every one or two years till I entered eighth grade?

The summer before my eleventh birthday I stayed my father in Los Angeles. It would be the longest period I'd ever spend with him. He had a non-descript apartment behind the Ambassador Hotel and was an associate at the Sampson and Dryden Law Firm. During my stay we went to a beach party at Dryden’s house in Palos Verdes Estates and I saw wealth for the first time. High living makes a good first impression.

When he didn’t make partner, it seems to me, his hopes for a soaring legal career even a judgeship, died. He became a one-man ambulance chaser who cobbled together a living through a sputtering personal injury practice and by teaching Business Law at Woodbury College on Wilshire Boulevard and the UCLA Extension. At least he could walk to Woodbury from his apartment on South Kenmore.

I was a latch key kid that summer and had the run of an extended neighborhood from the apartment to my dad’s second wife’s family home on Hoover and further south to the USC campus and Exposition Park.

I joined the Boy’s Club of which I remember little except for learning how to twirl a lasso. That entailed going to the local hardware store and choosing the perfect rope. I tied it as we were taught and practiced for hours till I mastered the elusive skill. Finally, I could do all the standard rope tricks like stepping in and out of the loop as I spun it around me. The club took field trips. One was to the giant Helms Bakery on Venice Boulevard in Culver City. The sweet yeasty aroma fills my olfactory memory bank to this day. Another was to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro from which you could watch the freighters entering and leaving the Port of Los Angeles.

Not all of the experiences were organized affairs. I had my first two crushes in the summer of 1952, one on Mary Jo Renwick and the other on my dad’s wife to be. Denise, also  divorced, was considerably younger than my father, I’m guessing late twenties. She was a saucy number given to sundresses and cleavage. She was also a flirt, even with almost eleven-year-olds. I was big for my size. There was a big swing in Denise’s backyard. She swung higher and higher till her billowing skirt blew up. I was transfixed by the view. She said something like, “What are you looking at Steve? Haven’t you seen a girl’s panties before?” I didn’t answer. I was frozen at the intersection of embarrassment and desire.

I ran with a group of kids from the neighborhood. They were street smart bunch who taught me to make zipguns out of metal tubing, scrap lumber, a couple of screws, a flat head nail and elastic. I sold clothes hangers to laundries for pocket change like the other guys. I don’t know if I needed the money or did it to belong.

Dad and Denise tried to use Mary Jo as leverage to convince me to stay in LA instead of going back to Phoenix with my mother in late August. I remember as clear as yesterday Denise telling me how much I’d miss Mary Jo. What would I do without Mary Jo? I was eleven for Christ sake. I returned to Phoenix to start the sixth grade.

Later that year, 1952, Glenn attempted to get full custody. That entailed a soul scorching trial in Salinas, a trial in which he painted a picture of a mama’s boy in desperate need of a father’s strong hand. The court proceedings were ugly. Despite my father’s contention that I’d flourish under his muscular stewardship it was rare in those days for the father to get custody. Ultimately, the judge took me into chambers and asked, “Who do you want to live with?” I answered, “I think you mean with whom do you wish to live? And if that's the question the answer is my mom.” And that was that.

We lived in half of a duplex on East Virginia Street a couple of blocks from North Phoenix High School. In the fifties school yards were open to the neighborhood like a giant community center. I ran on the school’s cinder track every afternoon and watched talented kids sprint, leap and throw. The school had a tremendous track and field program, so I was surrounded by exceptional athletes, often national record holders. Coach Vern Wolf became head coach at USC through an extended period of dominance. I contracted the running fever which has persisted for 66 years.

My mom encouraged me to write a thank you letter to the caring judge in Salinas. Along with my heartfelt appreciation I wanted him know he’d made the right decision and that I wasn’t a total wimp. I boasted that I’d run a 440 in about 75 seconds which probably decent for my age. Sad that I felt the need to defend my manhood. Thanks, Dad.         

I didn't see or speak to him again until I was an adult and he was as clueless as I remembered.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Member of the Wedding

I couldn’t have asked for a more photogenic couple to photograph for my first wedding shoot last Sunday. Kara Babb and Eero Vartiainen were statuesque, beautiful and very much at home with the camera. I thank them for the opportunity. Both are impressive and successful. Kara boasts a Master's in Chinese and Eero from Finland speaks four languages. At nearly 6’ and 6’5”, respectively, they made a 5’10” old guy feel little and decrepit.  And that smooth unlined skin, don’t get me started.

And speaking of old, let me put it this way. During the anniversary dance the DJ started reducing the married couples five years at a crack. "Okay, if you've been married five years more you can stay on the floor." "If you've been married ten years or more...." and so on. He stopped at forty years and I said, "Hold on a minute, pal. We can beat a piddling 40 years." The only couples left on the floor were the photographers and their spouses who had logged 46 years and 51 years of wedded bliss. But who's counting? Congratulations to Daryl and Fred Black who celebrated their 46th that very night and to Peggy and me who crawled to the 51 year mark last March.

And what is the secret to a long marriage? asked the Tony the DJ.

I took the mic and answered "Low expectations" and "Separate Vacations." I get to use those lines a lot.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

"The best pizza in Chicago and the best pizza in the country for that matter"

While the Chicago police riots were the most indelible memories of that August visit, another event foretold my life though I didn’t know it at the time. Stay with me here. In 1961 after my active duty stint in the Army Reserve I went to LA instead of back to college as I had promised. My father, a Los Angeles attorney of little distinction, introduced me to Michael Willis, my cousin from Corpus Christi, who was attending prestigious Art Center School when it was still in LA. Michael was living in a rooming house just off Wilshire Boulevard. I moved in.

Boarding house life was restrictive, constrictive and downright asexual. It was way too structured for a young gentleman of my social proclivities. I was a late bloomer and had a lot of catching up to do. On a visit to Art Center Michael introduced me to Jerry Roman, also an Art Center student. Jerry and I hit it off and soon we were living the California lifestyle in a standard issue midcentury apartment complex, two stories, a rectangular footprint with a swimming pool in the center courtyard. About that time, I got a job as a telephone claims adjuster at Kemper Insurance which was an easy walk from our digs. The job was simple. I settled telephone claims for predetermined amounts. Say your can of Hunts tomato paste exploded in your kitchen and you insist on repainting. That’s $500. Settling was always cheaper than a lawsuit. My grisliest claim was for a human thumb in a can of the aforementioned Hunts tomato paste. That's macabre I grant you but really funny.

Dave Burgraff, another adjuster, had a little house in the Hollywood Hills. He gave fabulous parties, one of which was attended by none other than Johnnie Mathis. Also attending was a young giant named John Elvin who boasted that he was the best conga drum player in the world. When I asked, “What about Preston Epps who did Bongo Rock last year?” “No comparison” he scoffed. Bongo Rock was #14 on 1959’s Top 100 and Epps, now 86, still works as a studio musician. And nobody’s ever heard of John Elvin.

Elvin was 6’-6’’ of blonde perfection. A movie star in waiting. He told me that he’d been approached by Henry Willson, the man who invented “Beefcake” and who had discovered, renamed and invented Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson and Troy Donahue and Clint Walker among others. It was widely known that Willson coerced heterosexual actors into sexual relationships in return for publicity and roles. John was perfectly aware of it and said that he was resolutely straight and committed to staying so. At least he didn't become Biff.

One day Burgraff didn’t show up for work and my boss Kazi Kagao told us he’d broken into a house in Pasadena, pistol whipped the elderly owners, rifled the safe and escaped with $500,000. He was rumored to have escaped to the south of France and was never heard from again.

Three flight attendants, called stewardesses at the time, Linda Moon, Stephanie Mirras and Grace Vallos lived across the way.  Linda taught me how to drink chilled Chenin Blanc from an actual stemmed glass and prepared macerated fruit to go with it. Stephanie, a genuine 10, taught Jerry Roman the facts of life. Jerry was as handsome as Stephanie was gorgeous. They were an item until she moved in with Rafael Campos, an actor best known for playing street hoods in movies like “Blackboard Jungle.”

After going back to college in the fall of 1961 I didn’t see Jerry again till my epic August 1968 visit to Chicago. He was an art director at a major agency and had a recently created a television campaign for Prudential Insurance that featured a newborn baby and Barbra Streisand’s sonorous voice singing “Jenny Patricia five days old….”  I located him and we arranged to meet downtown where he worked, and where I was staying. He said, “Meet me at Pizzeria Uno on the corner of Ohio and Wabash. I’m going to show you the best pizza you ever had.” It was like nothing I’d ever eaten before and I was a seasoned professional when it came to pizza. I was gob smacked by the rich, gooey, thick and artery clogging pie. Two inches thick of Chicago sausage, that means fennel, baby, mushrooms, hand crushed whole tomatoes and a pound of mozzarella. I fell in love with that pizza, the pizza Tom Brokaw called “the best pizza in Chicago and the best pizza in the country, for that matter.”  Who could have foreseen that eleven years later in October of 1979, I would become a partner and chief operating officer of Pizzeria Uno and would personally take deep dish pizza to every major city in the country. It would be a wild ride.

I had been offered a partnership position in Pizzeria Uno toward the end of 1978 a year but just become president of Zantigo, KFC’s Mexican fast food chain and felt I had to give it fair shot. That was a mistake on two levels. First, had I remained a KFC vice president for another year there’s every chance I would have become president of the company, second, I detested the Zantigo gig. That made me rethink the offer. 

Before finally accepting the Pizzeria Uno deal I made a pilgrimage to the mother ship Chicago to confirm my feelings about the fabled pie. I guess I should say motherships since there were two locations a block apart, Uno which opened in 1943 and Due which opened in 1952. While I stood at the bar waiting for a table at Due I chanced upon the founder, Ike Sewell, holding court at the bar. I shouldered my way through a bevy of female admirers to meet the great man. The gregarious Texan, an All-America football player at UT, operator of barnstorming airshow and longtime liquor salesman, invited me to join the festivities. He, his cheerleaders and one 37-year-old interloper bounced from bar to private club to bar until we stumbled home as the sun rose over Lake Michigan. I had a new hero. I had been out-partied by a guy forty years my senior. 

Ike Sewell was a man’s man who attracted women like catnip. You’ve heard the line, “Every woman wants him. Every man wants to be him.” That was about Ike Sewell I'm certain. He still had the frame and muscularity of the athlete he had been. The man wore suits like a model. For a dozen years he'd been named one of Chicago’s “Dapper Dozen” in Irv Kupcinet’s column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Though not tall, maybe 5’-8”, his hands were like catcher’s mitts. He moved with the grace only great athletes possess. When you met Ike for the first time he looked you dead in the eye and bent in toward you. I loved the guy. He was a close to an idol as I ever had.

The next day I called my future partner. His first words were, “You want to do it don’t you?” I said I did. I flew to Boston that weekend, drove to his house on the Cape and did the deal. It was smooth sailing till he wouldn’t let me locate the toilet tissue holders in the men’s room stalls of our second location in Harvard Square. He had to make that critical call. It was an omen.

Ike and Florence Sewell had a floor-through apartment high above Michigan Avenue. Florence, a former Conover model, was the female version of Ike.  She was improbably regal and one of Chicago’s fabled hostesses. Ike and Florence had a refrigerator just for champagne, Laurent-Perrier pour madam et Taittinger Comte de Champagne pour monsieur. Florence always spiked a whole strawberry on the rim of the flute before serving. 

I had never seen that kind of style and haven’t since.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Year of Years:1968

If you are of my vintage you remember with crystalline clarity the place and circumstance of a handful of events outside your personal sphere. For me they were the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of RFK, the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and 911 which happened on my 60th birthday. Of the three that happened in 1968, MLK, RFK and the Chicago riots, I had a peripheral connection to two.

I had become friends with a David Gaon, a young lawyer at Baskin Robbins. And, while I don’t remember having strong political feelings, I must have tilted left. On the night of June 4 David and his wife and Peggy and I drove to the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park to hear Bobby Kennedy speak. Early in 1968 Kennedy decided that he had to speak out against the Viet Nam War, racial injustice and income inequality and that was the substance of his towering speech that evening. We were transfixed. At 12:50am Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. He was 42 years old.

In August I was in Chicago for my first Baskin Robbins annual convention which happened to coincide with the DNC. We spent the day writing slogans for the new flavors of ice cream that we were introducing and would perform skits later that day to reveal the flavors. How I got lumped with the marketing types I don't recall. One of new tastes was Orange Marmalade Ice for which I wrote the catchy and oh so flavorful line, “Spread it on your muffin.”

Later that steamy August 28 about 10,000 protesters gathered at Grant park for a demonstration against the Vietnam War. In mid-afternoon a young demonstrator began lowering the flag that was flying. The police broke through the crowd and began beating the young man. The crowd responded by pelting them with food, beverage bottles and rocks.

For the rest of the day and especially during the night the police attacked the protestors without restraint. Violence was inflicted on people who had broken no law, had disobeyed no order and presented no threat. Peaceful demonstrators, onlookers and residents who lived in the neighborhoods where the protests were being held were beaten and tear gassed.

From the Sheraton Blackstone Hotel I saw the tear gas envelope Grant Park a scant two blocks away and watched Mayor Daley’s goons bludgeon peaceful protestors. As I watched from my room on the fifth floor, CBS News was capturing the mayhem on the streets and at the convention center. On the CBS Nightly News Walter Cronkite, America’s most trusted person, decried the violence as “police brutality. He removed his glasses and wiped a tear from his left cheek.

At the convention itself, CBS reporter Dan Rather was manhandled by security guards when he attempted to interview a Georgia delegate who was being removed from the hall. The cameras turned their attention to Rather as he was approaching the delegate, “What is your name, sir? he asked. At that moment he was grabbed by the guards. He could be heard telling the guards “don’t push me” and “take your hand off me unless you plan to arrest me.” All of this on national television.

When he was released, the breathless Rather told Cronkite:

“Walter…we tried to talk to the man and we got violently pushed out of the way. This is the kind of thing that had been happening outside the hall, this is the first time we’ve had it happen inside the hall. We…I’m sorry I’m out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that. What happened is a Georgia delegate, at least he had a Georgia delegate sign on, was being taken out of the hall. We tried to talk to him to see why, who he was, what the situation was, and at that instant, well as you can see, they put me on the deck. I didn’t do very well.”

An angry Cronkite tersely replied, “I think way we have a bunch of thugs here, Dan. If I may say so.”

A 20-year-old intern, Chris Wallace, was working in the CBS newsroom that summer. He remembers smelling the tear gas floating above Michigan Avenue. He watched police beat the anti-war protesters with Billy clubs. On the street his father Mike Wallace was assaulted by a policeman and arrested.

We lost our innocence in 1968. The pointless tragedy of Vietnam and the corrosive Nixon White House abetted by the Republican Party arose from mistakes of the sixties: errors and miscalculations built on a foundation of hubris and lies dating back to post-war Indo China and which were perpetuated through the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. Kennedy had known the war couldn’t be won since he took office in 1960. So, too, did Johnson and Nixon but each allowed young Americans to continue to die. In fact, the bulk of those 57,000 deaths occurred after 1968 when it was already clear we could not win. Cynical isn't the half of it. General Westmoreland lifted his granite jaw and lied about the numbers. Robert McNamara knew but hid the truth. The war lasted seven more years. And for nothing.

John Laurence, a CBS reporter in the ground in Viet Nam recently looked back. “As a citizen [in 1968] I was worried that the country was being polarized as never before and that no good would come of it. I had to wait 50 years before having the same worries again.” Past is prologue.

Laurence’s reporting had led Cronkite, a former World War Two correspondent, travel to Viet Nam early in 1968.

“He had been hearing all of those lies from the Pentagon about how well it was going for three years,” said Cronkite’s senior producer, Ronald Bonn. “All of a sudden it exploded in every city in Vietnam.”

Cronkite’s trip led to a prime-time special on the war which aired on February 28, 1968. The broadcast was a watershed moment for television news in that Walter Cronkite declared that there was no victory in sight for the United States.

“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” said the wise man. It was worse than a stalemate. It’s not a tie when you turn tail and your enemy gets the whole country. Walter. We lost that war.

To this day, conservative wags will say that Cronkite’s testimonial dampened support for the war effort. John Laurence dismisses that talk.

“All the optimists who argued that we were winning did a terrible disservice to our country. They really didn’t know what they were talking about. So, too, do the revisionists of today who would have people believe that Walter was undermining the war by being truthful about what he had learned.” Truth to power.

Cronkite’s even-handed reporting had become the television industry standard. His willingness to offer his interpretation based on the facts as he understood them gave birth to the blend of fact and opinion that prevails today, for good and sometimes ill.

On June 6, the day after Bobby Kennedy’s murder, and perhaps prompted by Cronkite’s February voyage into truth telling, NBC’s David Brinkley warned that political assassination was putting the country in the danger of becoming a police state. “And in a police state, people don’t shoot politicians, politicians shoot the people.”

In an autocracy those in power will do anything to maintain control. Read Russia, Turkey, Nicaragua and Venezuela and the heart of despotism, Africa. Which countries will join the descent into authoritarianism? Hungary, Poland, the United States? What could possibly go wrong when only 25% of the population believes that democracy is essential to its wellbeing (that number was 80% a generation ago)? And the legislative branch is unwilling to exercise its constitutional obligation to check the executive and appears to believe its first duty is to “protect” the president and the party before the nation.

Assault on the free press is always part of the path to dictatorship or military rule. Any coverage not entirely supportive of the Dear Leader is suppressed. To Nixon the press was the enemy. Echoes of that sentiment reverberate in the White House today. Attacking the press is a song out of the Hitler and Mussolini hymnal and is a device used by every tinpot dictator in history. Control the press, better yet be the press, and you’ll control minds. Hear one song and one song only and soon you’ll soon know all the words and believe every one of them. There’s nothing particularly inventive at play. There’s no need to reinvent the formula. The formula works.

Thomas Jefferson told John Jay in 1786, "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it." And later, "The freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained except by a despotic government."

The danger is real.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A year among years: Part One

If BC and AD demark the history of the world as we know it, 1968 demarks the post-war United States that was and what it is today. For anyone born before 1950 that tumultuous year divided our callow youth from our wary adulthood. When I think back to the late sixties and early seventies I tend to think that every historic event happened in the tsunami of 1968. Nationally we were overwhelmed by psyche shattering events and as young adults we were stumbling through the early milestones of adult life; marriage, births, and first real jobs.

Christmas 1968

On the very first workday of 1968 I reported for work at Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream’s headquarters on Burbank Boulevard in beautiful downtown Burbank, California. It was January 2. My road to becoming an exempt clerk (code for no overtime pay) in the Store Planning department at Baskin Robbins was paved by losing my position as Manager of Food Operations for a chain of drug stores in Tucson and the pressing need to support a wife and four-month old son. California beckoned. The Golden State was and will always be the land of possible dreams.

In late November of 1967 I traveled to Los Angeles to look for work and wound up walking into the Ame’s Employment agency at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. I was a 26-year-old married father of one and a recent graduate from Arizona State University on its eight-year work release program. My resumé boasted a list of food service jobs; pizza cook, singing waiter, bartender, assistant restaurant manager and former Manager of Food Operations at Ryan Evans. Not on the resumé was a lot of living, none of it easy.

The position as a store planner at Baskin Robbins Ice Cream is the only one I remember pursuing and, certainly, the only one that led to an interview. There was, however, a small catch. I had to be a draftsman to fill the slot. I was told that I had to draw the floor plan of a typical Baskin Robbins store and bring it to my first interview. “When?” I asked.  “Tomorrow” they replied. I had helped design and remodel seven Ryan Evans stores during my truncated employment there and may have had some inkling about laying out a retail business. In less than a year at Ryan Evans I had performed three roles starting with the remodeling of the stores, handling advertising for a few months and, finally, operating our lunch counters. I upgraded the menu and renamed them Sunburst Cafes. Sales doubled but they were still little more than lunch counters new name or not.

Being a veteran of jobs that I wasn’t equipped to do, I figured I’d become a draftsman overnight. How hard could it be? Fortunately, Peggy had majored in architecture and owned the basic tools; a drafting board, a straight edge, various triangles, mechanical pencils and, importantly, erasers. Under her watchful eye I finished my floor plan at dawn. To award my effort with a D would be over-grading.

In the morning I was interviewed by four people; Larry Tate, the general counsel (don’t ask me why I had an interview with a lawyer); Ross Roeder, the VP of Human Resources; Kurt Kornreich (who pronounced it Cornrich to head off assaults on his moniker) and Frank Merlino, a construction guy and the long-time Store Planning Manager at BR. I’ll start with Merlino who did not guffaw at my amateur drafting attempt. At best, he saw that I was no pretender to the throne. Or so he thought. Both Tate and Roeder had told me that Merlino had threatened to quit on two occasions and that, if I could learn how to draft and get a handle on the department, they’d accept his resignation the next time made the threat.

In three months they accepted his resignation, I became store planning manager and my career trajectory tilted upward. Three months after that Merlino put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. His son Frankie found him.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Out of the Dark

Far beyond the sales growth, profit and awards I’m most proud of what didn’t happen during the Black Out of 1977. I was home in New Canaan at 8:27pm on Wednesday, July 13 when the first call came from Bruce Raba, our District Manager in Brooklyn, telling me the borough had lost power and things were going to get ugly fast. Restive crowds were gathering on the corner of Bedford and Lafayette and at Nostrand and Atlantic. I turned on the television as a lighting strike tripped circuit breakers at Buchanan South on the Hudson River. A second strike caused the loss of two 345kV transmission lines and the loss of power at the 900MW nuclear plant at Indian Point. At 8:55pm there was another strike at the Sprain Brook station in Yonkers and things went downhill from there. By 9:36pm the entire Con Edison system had shut down, almost exactly an hour after the first strike. A surreal light glowed across the Hudson from New Jersey but the sky over Manhattan was dark enough to see the Milky Way.
My first concern was that we would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of product. I called our Area Managers and asked them to call our major suppliers and to lean on them for refrigerated trucks so we could keep the chicken and produce cold until power was restored. KFC chicken was shipped fresh and packed in ice but not frozen making it especially vulnerable. Before morning a million dollars of product had been saved in the trucks thanks to our quick thinking and the unflinching support of our suppliers. We lost absolutely nothing. We had conceived and executed a rapid response on the fly. Most of our inner-city managers, often middle aged black women, stayed in “their stores” throughout the night and through the next day. The ownership they took for their stores was extraordinary. I couldn't respect them more.
New York was dark for 25 hours. The steaming streets became war zones where, according to the NY Post, “Even the looters were being mugged.” By the time the lights came back on arsonists had set more than 1,000 fires and more than 1,600 stores had been looted. None were KFCs.
I believe that because we had rejected the carpetbagger mentality that had prevailed before 1976, that we had demonstrated respect for neighborhoods of color and that our locations were managed by people who were pillars of the community and who took ownership of the situation we were spared.

The Blackout of 1977 was “a metaphor for the gloom that had already settled over the city. An economic decline, rising crime rates and the panic-provoking (and paranoia inducing) Son of Sam murders had combined to make the late 1970s New York’s Dark Ages.” according to Time Magazine. Some saw unrelenting poverty and institutional neglect as the fuel that ignited the explosion. The head of the National Urban League said, "The underclass in a crisis feels no compulsion to abide by the rules of the game because they find that the normal rules don't apply to them." 
This is one of two stories from my forty years operating restaurants of which I most proud, and both come from places of mutual respect and a measure of caring and humanity.
KFC stores in the inner city were often the only national brand businesses in their neighborhoods. One store in the Bronx comes to mind. It was literally the only operating business within six square blocks. Each time I visited the store it felt like it was the last living thing amid the burned-out hulks of apartment blocks and tenements. It looked Hamburg after the bombs. Its manager was a proud Egyptian PhD in Chemistry who had tried teaching high school in the South Bronx and had been unable to stomach the utter disinterest and lack of respect he was shown. To hear him tell it, a teacher in Egypt wielded absolute authority in his classroom. In the Bronx it was worse than babysitting. He was better off, he decided, to manage an ordinary KFC store where he could expect and demand performance from his employees. He did just that and was named one of the ten best managers in the country at the convention in New Orleans in 1977. One of ten from 1,000. I wish I could remember his name. I’m embarrassed that I can’t.
Of 68 store managers in NYC, maybe half a dozen were Anglo males. KFC in New York was a true United Nations, operated by immigrants from around the globe. Another top ten manager whose name I can remember was Deepak Patel in Manhattan. Deepak, a slight, soft-spoken gentleman with a college degree and a commitment to excellence was a first generation American from Pakistan. When I Googled Deepak Patel four names popped up, three were medical doctors in the United States and the other was a retired New Zealand cricketeer of Pakistani descent.
Without immigrants we couldn’t have operated those New York stores in 1977.