A World War II Wager

bettingIt’s such a small folded scrap of paper I’m surprised it has survived 70 years. I found it tucked among family photos and letters. Actually, I didn’t find it on my first rummage through the pile. It fell out of a stack of pictures I had set aside for scanning. When I pulled an image from the bag, out dropped the paper, as if through a crack in time.

It’s the marker for a bet, a wager made by U.S. Army Private Clarence E. Fisk on what date World War II would end. Fisk wasn’t feeling too optimistic when he scribbled the note. He promised to pay $50 only if it ended on or before April 14, 1947.

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dad in army023I assume he made the bet with my dad, Gunnar Lendroth, who also served in WWII. Fisk’s army records (LOVE the Internet) indicate that he enlisted on November 10, 1943. By that time, Dad had been posted to India where he worked in the photography corps. Was Clarence Fisk one of his army buddies? Or did this marker change hands in a floating game of craps, which Dad dearly loved to play?

I’ll never know, but perhaps the bet remained uncollected because everyone was so relieved that the fighting ended two years earlier than Fisk predicted. Or maybe Dad hung onto it just in case he ever again crossed paths with Clarence Fisk!

Dad at the Fair

fair018A few weeks ago I wrote about a postcard folder from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Here’s one highlighting the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair for which I have a personal connection: my father went there. Often. On a speed boat!

photoThe sprawling fair that opened the previous year in 1933 was so successful in the depths of the Great Depression that the organizers held it over to the summer of 1934, the year my dad, Gunnar Lendroth, moved to Chicago to live with his aunt and uncle.

They were frugal Swedes who wouldn’t squander their hard-earned money on anything as frivolous as a fair, but Dad found a ready source of income by offering Cubs fans a place to park their cars for games at nearby Wrigley Field. “On a good game I could make close to $4.00,” remembered Dad. Not bad in an era where the average wage was 40-50¢ an hour. Dad parked cars in the driveway and on the lawn, and also collected tips to watch over cars left at the curb in front of the house. He recalled the chauffeur of one elegant ride always tipped him a whole $1.00. And he spent that largesse at the fair.

Dad and shep

Dad and his dog, Shep.

A year before he died, I interviewed my father for a photo book I made him about all the cars he had owned and loved through the years. Here’s how he described the Chicago World’s Fair:

“I probably went to the fair six or so times that summer, at least three or four times by boat. The real fun part of getting there was going by speed boat. You had to pay 50 cents. This friend of mine, we would make the trip to the fair by speedboat. You had to go downtown to the Chicago River at Michigan Boulevard. Under the bridge you could walk down and there was a levee, paved concrete, and they had the boat tied there.

They would take two, up to four people. It wasn’t very far, and it didn’t take very long. The speedboat would go out to Lake Michigan and then come in and make a curve. You would arrive “in style,” you see. They had a special dock for people that arrived by boat. People with luxury yachts would come and tie up, and the speed boat would come in there.

There was so much to see that was free — all of the country displays and exhibits, and all the car exhibits were free because they wanted people to buy. They allowed you to get in and out of the cars, sit in the back, sit in the front, sit at the wheel.

ford exhibit017I remember that Ford had a display. You see chrome — all shiny surfaces before had been nickel-plated — but they had a setup at Ford where they showed how a piece of dull looking pot metal could be transformed into this beautiful shiny chrome object. They gave you one of these dull things. And then you watched it go through the different chemical baths, and when it came out, shiny chrome!

The car I was most impressed with was a 1934 Packard [which won best in show at the fair]. It was a cream-colored convertible.

Sally RanAnd then there were the freak shows and the dancing girls from so-called parts of Arabia. And the most famous of all was Sally Rand. That was half a buck. You paid dearly to see that. She would come out and manipulate the fans so it would seem like she was almost going to reveal something, but then the fan came in place. And of course there was a big ballyhoo about Sally Rand doing the fan dance in the nude. You must realize that in 1934, that was just 34 years away from the time when people were still wearing long dresses.

The whole purpose of the fair was to show how… Well, the name of it was the Century of Progress, mainly the century of progress of Chicago, how it had grown, its buildings, its magnificent stockyards, all the things about Chicago that were kind of big and brawny and brash. Also of course, Prohibition had just ended the year before so now you could buy all the beer you wanted, openly. Nobody really asked if you were old enough. They just assumed that if you had the money to buy you were old enough.”

Cars, beer and fan dancers — what a time Dad must have had!

ALL ABOARD THE FILM CLIP TIME MACHINE

While cameras in the 1930s weren’t as ubiquitous as cell phone cameras are today, they were common enough that we can walk through the fair in the footsteps of long ago visitors, joining the women in their dresses and heels, the men in their suits and ties (and everyone in a hat).

good year blimp

My own view of the Goodyear blimp decades later.

Here’s a rare Kodacolor home movie that must have been shot over several visits. Somehow, the silent, homemade quality of this clip makes it feel more real, letting me imagine how it felt to watch the Goodyear blimp launch from a field or to sail across the fair on the rocket ride. However, I bet the cameraman and I have very different opinions of the midway shows, several of which appalled me 80 years later.

Take a tour of the the fair in this short film that Chrysler must have sponsored because after an overview of colorful buildings and midway rides, the last several minutes dwell on the car company’s test track where “Speed Boys” put Plymouths through their paces.

Finally, watch a clip of Sally Rand’s famous fan dance and imagine my teenaged dad in the audience, dreaming of something besides a Packard at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Cheekie Was Here

Mom's cardDad always addressed his cards for Mom to Cheekie (or Cheekee — spelling was malleable). She signed hers to him the same. I never asked where that endearment originated. Perhaps there was a story to it, or perhaps it just “happened,” becoming part of their lives without their awareness of an origin point.

No one else ever used that nickname for her. I love how it speaks of a time before me, of their courtship, marriage and life as a couple.

Although married nearly 63 years, they almost weren’t a couple. My parents met on the east coast, but Dad had a bad case of California fever and wanted to relocate to the Los Angeles area. Mom didn’t want to leave behind her family in Baltimore. He courted her long distance by letter, even proposing by mail, and eventually she accepted.

Mom's card insideI don’t know when Mom started to sign her name, “Cheekie.” I have a pile of her love letters to my dad, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read them. It still feels too intrusive. However, I did find this wonderful card that she made him in the early 1950s, years before I was born, and the nickname is already in place.

Did Dad ever call her Cheekie out loud? Probably. Perhaps. I don’t know. It’s sometimes hard to imagine parents having lives as people apart from being…well…parents.

Over the decades I saw dozens of birthday cards, Christmas presents and anniversary gifts addressed to Cheekee, and I always knew who they were for and who they were from.

Mom and Dad

I Remember Vegas

postcard004My dad loved Las Vegas. We only took a few family vacations while I was growing up, but nearly every trip passed through Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, with Las Vegas the first stop on the itinerary.

We left home around 2:00 am, climbing into the car beneath starry summer skies. My sister Sherrie and I slept in the back seat while Dad raced the sunrise across the California desert. I remember waking up once when we were driving past the great basin that contains Death Valley. The warm air blowing in the windows blew hotter for a few moments, like a sleeping dragon exhaled in the darkness.

slotsMy 1960s postcard of showgirls at the Stardust unleashes a flood of memories of a time when casinos stood open to the sidewalks, spilling cold air onto passersby. While dad played craps for a few hours, Sherrie and I urged Mom to try her luck on cheap slot machines where we could watch the action. Our favorites? The ones shaped like cowboys with spinning wheels in their chests.

Golden Nugget coffee shopI’m not sure why I have a postcard from the Stardust because the Golden Nugget was Dad’s favorite. As soon as we pulled into town, he took us there for breakfast in a restaurant decorated with western-themed murals. Years before casinos added gaming centers and amusement parks, dining was the only reason kids could walk through all that flashing, clinking excitement.

In today’s child-centric world of play zones and hand held electronics, can you imagine a less kid-oriented vacation than standing on the sidewalk while your mom fed pennies to a slot machine? But Dad never spent more than a few hours at the tables before we hit the road again, driving until we stopped for the night at some random motel that had a vacancy sign — and a pool if we were lucky.

The Stardust casino is long gone. The Golden Nugget has been revamped and remodeled. And nothing costs a penny anymore in Vegas. But I can look at my old postcard and conjure how it felt, waking up to the very first day of vacation as Dad parked the car in the Golden Nugget parking lot. Las Vegas, here we come!golden-nugget-casino-576x362

Dad’s 1938 Packard

PackardDad loved cars — big cars, classic cars, and in particular, the 1938 Packard he owned for three glorious years. That Packard was the vehicle against which all other cars in Dad’s life were measured and fell short, and that’s saying something since he owned 46 of them over his lifetime!

Packard ReceiptGrowing up, I heard many stories about the Packard: how Dad purchased it in 1947 for $785 (he kept the original receipt and laminated it years later); how it had been painted a dull gray during the war years; how the leather upholstery and wooden windshield frame were rotted from rain damage; and how Dad restored it piece by piece to create his dream machine.

The Packard was a fixture of Dad’s past, but it’s hard to connect with a story lifted from the dusty shelf of memory. That’s why I loved discovering among my parents’ papers a 1948 letter to Dad from his cousin Majlis where she talked about his work on the car. Her comments written in what was then the “here-and-now” added a new dimension, a sense of immediacy, to the family’s Packard legend. I could picture Dad sending snapshots of his pride and joy, and Majlis sharing the photos with her husband and young son, David, who in turn showed them to everyone else, saying “That’s my Uncle Gunnar’s car.”

Packard convertible“I fell in love with the swatch of material you sent showing how you upholstered it. I said to Stan I was tempted to ask if you had any small leftovers for the front of a jacket for David but he discouraged me saying you probably needed anything left over for patches.”

Dad sewed the new upholstery himself, cutting, piecing and stitching the seat covers after hours in the tailoring department of Todd’s Clothiers in Pasadena, where he worked as an assistant manager. He told me that he purchased an expensive wool plaid fabric because he liked the look of Chrysler’s Highlander cars.

Initials on PackardDad had also written to my mom, Carlyn, about his work on the car, but he had not yet confided to his cousin that the Packard wasn’t his “one and only true love.” That title belonged to a young woman he had met back east the year before.

Dad spent months restoring the car. He had the shiny bits rechromed to make them sparkle, repaired the convertible top, worked on the engine and, finally, had his initials painted on the doors in swirling Old English script.

Packard and momDespite all of the work, when Dad drove his 12-cylinder beauty back to Baltimore to marry Mom, engine trouble required him to feed it two quarts of oil every 100 miles.

Dad called the Packard their honeymoon carriage, but Mom said she only appeared in photos if she stood next to the car.

My parents’ love affair lasted all their lives, but Dad was forced to break up with his Packard when he discovered a crack in the engine block. He couldn’t afford to repair it and instead sold the car to make the down payment on a tract home, purchased with a GI loan. But between Dad’s tales and Majlis’ letter, at least I’ve had the chance to go “along for the ride.”

Majlis letter 1029 Majlis letter envelope032

The Birth of Ballpoints

pen machineIf you’ve written any notes lately, chances are you used a ballpoint pen. Ubiquitous now—except when I’m on the phone and need one—the pens did not debut in the United States until after World War II. But their story began in the 19th century.

An American tanner named John Loud patented a marking pen with a roller ball tip in 1888, an invention he created to write on his leather products. While it may have worked on leather, the pen failed on paper, and everyone continued to write with the new wonder of the age: the fountain pen. Fast forward to the 1930s when Hungarian brothers Ladislas and Georg Biro began tinkering with designs for their own ballpoint pens. After war broke out in Europe, the brothers fled to Argentina and started manufacturing Biro pens there in 1943 (which explains why pens are still called “biros” in some countries, such as Australia and England).

Dad and his pipe

Other players entered the pen game, either paying royalties on the Biros’ patent or designing pens on their own, with the result that Gimbels Department store sold the first ballpoint pens in America on October 29, 1945. Wildly popular, 10,000 pens flew out the door that first day, selling at around $10 each. To put that price in perspective, in 1945 you could buy a candy bar for a nickel, a gallon of gas for 21¢, and a movie ticket (including cartoon, news reel and a second feature) for 35¢.

Within a year, enough pens hit the shelves to push prices down. My own father, Gunnar Lendroth, entered the pen market briefly in 1946 when he hustled ballpoint pens on a New York City street corner for a buck apiece. He was an enterprising young guy…

The new pens were hot. And then they were not. Despite the hype, ballpoint pens did not yet write well. Ink leaked, the flow skipped and writing smeared because it didn’t dry quickly enough.

By 1951, most people had returned to using fountain pens. However, within a couple of years, new companies started the ink ball rolling again, including the French manufacturer Marcel Bich (who named his pens Bic) along with Parker and Paper Mate. By the 1960s, ballpoint pens had again captured the lead, leaving fountain pens the high end niche market.

So whether you uncap a finely weighted Waterman or click a Bic, be thankful we no longer have to sharpen quills to write letters.