1952 - Back from Korea
Job Hunting in Los Angeles
Missing Horse Blanket
As for the trip back to the states, the only thing that sticks in my mind is the matter of the "horse blanket" overcoat. It had been issued to me back at Fort Ord, and had accompanied me everywhere I'd gone. I especially got a lot of use out of it during my first few weeks in Korea but now it was the middle of summer, it wouldn't fit in my duffel bag, so I had to carry it separately and it was a real drag.
I don't know where I left it, but somewhere between trains I'd lost track of it. Oh well I wouldn't be needing it anymore. But a buddy pointed out that at the next "repo depot" (replacement facility) we would be turning in surplus gear, and we'd be charged for anything that had been issued and not returned. The coat, I was told, listed at about $60.00. Oh well it was too late to go back for it now.
At the repo depot, as my friend had said, we were told to get in line and be prepared to turn in everything we had been issued, except what we were wearing. As I stood in line, I was trying to think of a believable excuse. I had turned it in back in Chorwon, but lost the receipt? Someone stole it? No, I didn't think they were going to buy anything like that.
As I stood there trying to figure out what to do or say, I noticed that the surplus gear was getting tossed into three or four piles in a hallway just beyond where the clerks were taking inventory. I also noticed that there was a certain amount of light traffic through this hallway. It occurred to me that someone walking through there could probably lift one of the items of apparel off a pile without ever being noticed. I decided to get out of line and take a little walk.
The coat had a nametag sewed in it but it came off easily. When I finally reached the inventory clerk, he said the coat didn't look like my size. "Well," I said, "you know how the army is they're famous for giving you the wrong size." He just shrugged and tossed it back onto the same pile I'd just taken it off of.
Back at Camp Stoneman the big day had finally arrived my last day in the army. Well, actually it was less than a day because we were supposed to be getting our discharge papers about noon.
However the army wasn't going to turn us loose without giving us one more opportunity to change our minds and accept its offer of a nice bonus for reenlisting.
We were told to report to
an assembly hall after breakfast for a final briefing. We were all very restless as a middle-aged colonel began giving us his own personal farewell speech.
However the speech was brief, and was punctuated with a number of timely jokes. The colonel had an upbeat sense of humor and had managed to make us all laugh and feel at ease.
But he saved his best joke for last, when he said, "And now, gentlemen, I'd like to introduce Lieutenant Higgins, who will give you a two-hour lecture on the benefits of reenlisting."
"Oh, well kiss my ass!" was the loud, exasperated complaint that came out a friend sitting to my right, as he slumped down in his chair and just as the poor lieutenant walked by us on his way to the podium with a look of shocked surprise.
The young second lieutenant was so embarrassed he almost didn't know where to begin. And I was afraid my less than tactful friend might be hustled off by the MPs for insubordination or something. But the chagrined officer finally composed himself and said he was there just to give us our final instructions for finding transportation home. My verbose friend breathed a sigh of relief, as did everybody else in the room.
Anyway, all's well that ends well.
Back to Civilian Life...
But What Had I Accomplished, Career-wise?
Well, I was finally out of the army and couldn't be happier. But after more than three years in the service, what had I accomplished by way of building a résumé that would help me find a good civilian job? Not much. I had taken a construction surveying course at Fort Belvoir, Virginia but deliberately flunked the final exam. That wouldn't look too good on a job application.
Okay, I'd been a Company Clerk in the states and a PX Clerk in Korea (nice soft jobs in the army) but clerical work and retail sales jobs didn't particularly appeal to me as career choices. And my self-taught lettering skills weren't really good enough to get me a job as a journeyman sign painter.
Hmmm maybe I should have stayed in the army.
My discharge came in December of 1952 just a couple of weeks before my 21st birthday. The only job I could find was one that would begin the day after Christmas taking inventory at the Broadway Department Store in downtown Los Angeles. How ironic, I remember thinking. My stepdad's first job, when we moved to LA, was at the Broadway and my first job out of the army would be with the same company.
It would be a temporary job of about two weeks, and would pay minimum wages but it was better than no job at all. It was also a boring job but I decided to make the best of it while I continued to look for something better.
Well, much to my surprise, when the job ended my crew manager asked me if I'd like to stay on as a salesman for the Broadway. He went on to say that he had been pleased with my work and thought I could do well as a salesman earning a salary plus commissions. (He further flattered me by saying I was the only person out of this 30-member crew to whom he had made the offer.)
I'd never really thought about becoming a department store salesman, but again it would be better than no job at all.
However, I had found another job the day before with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Their offices were on the top few floors of the "Million Dollar Theater" building at 3rd and Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles.
In the 1930s the theater had been the most elaborate in
the downtown area, but by the late 1940s had become a center for Latin American Movies, along with stage shows featuring Mexican and other Hispanic personalities.
I used to go there in
hopes of improving my Spanish.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California had advertised for a surveyor, and I had gone to apply for the job (hoping I could think of some way of explaining or avoid mentioning my flunking out of the surveying course at Fort Belvoir).
But when I got there, they told me the job had been filled, and that I probably wouldn't have gotten it anyway, because they wanted someone with at least two years experience.
But they did need a draftsman. And, although draftsmen weren't paid nearly as well as surveyors, it was still more than the base rate for a department store salesman. So I went to work for the MWD and stayed there for the next eleven months, after which time I decided to become a self-employed sign painter.
Big mistake. More about that later.
Mrs. Glasser's Boarding House
In addition to needing a job, of course, I needed a place to live. Naturally my mother invited me to come live with her but there was no way I would ever do that again. But I found a very nice room and board place in Hollywood.
Mrs. Glasser was a widow in her sixties, who had a house big enough to accommodate eight or nine boarders. For $7 a week, you got a room, which would be shared with one other person, and a delicious full course dinner every night. To me this seemed like such a bargain that I insisted on giving Mrs. Glasser an extra dollar every week. In fact, I would have considered it a bargain at $10 or $12 (even at 1953 prices) but she wouldn't let me give her more than a dollar extra and then only on condition I wouldn't tell anyone else about it.
Hard Worker with No Complaints
She also did all the housework all you were expected to do was keep your room neat. She was a very hard worker, who did everything herself without benefit of a maid or a gardener or any other kind of domestic help. Nor did she drive. Streetcars and buses took her everywhere she needed to go, including to the Grand Central Market in downtown LA.
She made the trip two or three times a week and bought as much she could carry in two over-sized shopping bags. Even though the trip took the better part of a day, she felt it was worth it because the prices were lower than those in the local grocery stores.
She was a rather small woman with puffy legs and who was not particularly strong. Carrying those heavy shopping bags the two blocks from the market to the streetcar, and another two blocks to her house, took a lot out of her. Yet she never complained. I remember Mrs. Glasser with a great deal of fondness and respect.
My roommate was Glenn. I liked Glenn and we got along fine although we never had the chance to really get acquainted. He was a journeyman carpenter and would be off to work early each morning. He had other friends and family in the area, so frequently wouldn't come home till bedtime. He also spent a lot of time at a nearby Church of Christ.
Glenn was a devout believer whose favorite topic of conversation was the theological errors of the Catholic church and the obvious, to him, fallibility of the pope. His proudest possession was a collection of 78 RPM records, which contained a series of debates between someone from his church and one or more Catholic priests.
He would frequently offer to let me hear them and, although I often thought I'd like to listen to at least one I never did, mainly because of lack of time. In any case, he always assured me that his man won all the debates hands-down. Either way, Glenn was a very likeable guy and I often felt remorse that I never got to know him better.
New Roommate with a Nice Smile
A few months later I moved out of Mrs. Glasser's. I was gone for less than a month
but when I returned I found that Glenn had moved away and I now had a new roommate one who was studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and who had a rather theatrical air about him.
Bruce was a very likeable fellow whose Hollywoodish ways made an interesting contrast to Glenn's serious-minded outlook on life. Here's a story about Bruce
Carl Comes to Live at Mrs. Glasser's
Carl had joined the army a few months after I did and we both spent time in Korea. But Carl and I had two totally different experiences in the service.
While I had purposely flunked a Construction Surveying course to latch onto a soft office job, Carl had signed up for the Signal Corps and passed a Radio/Telephone Communications course with flying colors. He was sent to Hawaii, where he received more training and eventually ended up doing communications work in Korea.
He also developed a love for electronics that would serve him well for the rest of his life. After his retirement from McDonnell-Douglas as an electronics technician, he opened his own TV/radio/VCR repair shop. He currently teaches computer applications at Bellevue Community College in Bellevue, Washington.
Back to 1952, his discharge and return to civilian life came a few months after mine, and at a time when one of Mrs. Glasser's boarders had just moved out.
The spot that was vacated happened to be the only single room in the house (besides Mrs. Glasser's) and it rented for a couple of dollars more than the doubles the rest of us paired up in. When I told Carl about Mrs. G's fabulous home-cooking, he jumped at the chance to move in.
Carl Gets a Single Room
Well, Carl and I would have liked to have shared a room, but when I suggested to Bruce that maybe he'd like to switch with Carl he said he really couldn't afford the extra charge for the single room. And Carl wasn't too unhappy with the arrangements because he had a lot of stuff to store, and the single room came with a lot more shelf and closet space.
Carl had always been (and still is) a very organized person. While in the service he had arranged for all his personal belongings, such as his record collection and comic book collection, as well as all his electronic gear, to be well taken care of. The larger single room would suit his needs quite nicely.
I, on the other hand, have never been good about taking care of my things, and over the years have lost track of many of them. I've given some away, lost some, and thrown out others because they became outdated or obsolete in one way or another. Carl's things, by contrast, have always been meticulously cared for and when they were no longer needed he would sell them and not infrequently for more than he paid for them.
Carl was also a lot more organized about what he wanted to do with his life after the army. He signed up for every GI benefit available, and used them first to go to school and eventually to buy a home and to start a business, among other things.
I, too, was eligible for all these same benefits but never signed up for even one mainly because I hate to fill out forms. So while Carl was going to school, and getting a government stipend for doing so, I had been going from one entry-level job to another, trying to find my future.
Then one day I spotted a newspaper ad for "Sign-Painting Instruction." Well, so far, sign painting seemed to be the only thing I showed any real aptitude for, so I decided to check out the ad.
Dick Relf had a small sign shop on Crenshaw Blvd. in Los Angeles, where he gave sign-painting lessons three evenings a week. He had three students at the time. I would be number four.
Fascinating Character from whom I Learned a Lot
Dick turned out to be a very interesting fellow, who would substantially alter the course of my life.
He was in his mid-forties and his sign business was basically a one-man operation. However, I came to learn that in the past he had run shops that employed a dozen or more sign painters, and that he had also been a teacher at Los Angeles Trade and Technical Institute (formerly Frank Wiggins Trade School).
Surely he could make more money with a larger sign business, I thought, and I knew he got paid more at LA Trade-Tech than he was getting with the nominal amount he charged us four students (whose number ranged from about two to five at any given time).
Why did he restrict his business to just what he could handle by himself, and do this part-time teaching for less money than he could have made using the same time for his sign work? Also, his shop was in a high-rent area on Crenshaw Blvd., and could easily be found because of its large neon which read "Modern Signs" in a stylish script, which was followed in smaller type by "Gold Leaf - Vehicle Lettering - Silk Screen Printing."
This was an ideal location for walk-in trade. Yet he was hardly ever there except during the evenings when he was giving lessons. Most of his work was done outside the shop and he didn't even have an answering service. (Answering machines hadn't been invented yet.) Economically, this just didn't make any sense at least not to me.
But Dick Relf was a philosopher and an idealist. He had decided that he was going to spend his time doing only what he enjoyed.
So what did he enjoy?
Well, he enjoyed doing certain types of sign work; in particular, gold leaf lettering on windows. He didn't care for doing walls or billboards, but did enjoy lettering vehicles and posters and anything else of a smaller scale where he could put his highly creative layout skills to good use.
And he loved to teach.
And he didn't just give lessons in lettering. He also taught you how to sell your work. Dick was a good salesman, and appeared to enjoy selling his work just as much as doing the actual lettering. One of the first things he would tell a new student to do was go out and buy two books: "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie and "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill.
The Carnegie book would teach us important things about how to make a good first impression on a potential customer, and how to make the customer feel important and receptive to our ideas. The Hill book would teach us how to delegate authority and how to build a business based on being a good manager and getting others to do the actual work.
Dick acknowledged that regarding the latter, he used to do that pay others to do the work but had given this up in favor of his "one man, but less stress" philosophy of running a business. However, there was no reason why his students shouldn't learn to build a successful sign business where we would eventually profit from other people's work. And, in fact, I eventually did that but not without a lot of hard knocks along the way.
Anyway, under Dick's tutelage, I did learn a whole lot more about professional sign painting techniques than I had been picking up on my own. And he did give me the confidence to believe I could do as he did go out and look for work, and then sell myself to a prospective customer.
Thought I Was Ready to Quit my Job and Strike Out on my Own
So when I told him I thought I'd come far enough to quit my job at the MWD and become a freelance sign painter he tried to talk me out of it. "You've come a long way," he said, "but you'd be better off to keep your job and try to sell your sign services part time to start with."
He even offered to let me use his shop for any inside work, but suggested that working weekends and evenings would be a smart move rather than giving up the security of my regular job.
But I couldn't wait. I decided I was ready. Dick said I was crazy. He wasn't the only one who thought so. I had worked at the MWD for eleven months. After one more month I would be eligible for a one-week paid vacation.
"You're going to quit now, and give up a week's paid vacation?" my friends asked in amazement. "Would staying there one more month kill you? What's the big hurry?"
Good Advice Ignored
Well, I rationalized, I was going to be so successful at my new career that I would more than make up for the week's pay I'd be forfeiting. Boy, was I wrong!
Not that I didn't get some orders I did. I diligently went around and handed out cards at businesses that looked like they could use some sign work and would get an occasional order. But what I wasn't prepared for was the fact that nobody would give me an order without first haggling over the price.
I was not good at haggling then (nor did I ever become good at it). Nor did I ever develop any love for making cold calls in the first place. Dick loved it I hated it, and still do. I was now wishing I had stayed at the MWD for another month and gotten the week's vacation pay.
There were other problems. Even when I got an order, there would be the cost of the supplies (paints, solvents, etc.) which were somehow always more than I expected. But my biggest problem was the time it would take me to do the job. I always had this "perfectionist" attitude, and would spend way more time than I should on little things that, for the most part, no one would ever notice but me.
By the time I added up all my expenses, and subtracted them from what I got paid for the job, and then factored in the time I had spent, I was making way less than minimum wages. I didn't even have the $8.00 for my next week's rent at Mrs. Glasser's.
I asked Dick if he had any suggestions.
"Get a job," he said, "and stick with it until you're really ready for this."
In the meantime, he offered to let me live in his shop until I got back on my feet. His shop's bathroom had a tub in it, so I used some 2x4s to build a frame over it, onto which I placed an inflatable air mattress.
Also, he had an electric hotplate and a refrigerator. I was able to struggle along for for a few weeks like this, but it became embarrassingly obvious that he and my friends were right and that I'd better start looking a for job.
So I became a milkman.