The Property Deal

Around ’60 Dad got involved in a property deal with P.O. Swanson and Paul’s friend Gerke (gerkee). Margaret was never in favor of this escapade, but Dad was convinced it was a way to make some serious money. Gerke had a summer cabin dating from the late ‘40’s on some relatively high bank waterfront out past Kingston. He had sold or given some lots to friends and relatives, and soon there was a bit of a community of people enjoying the beach access. It was quite a commute to Seattle – of course times have changed and now people think nothing of an hour and a half drive. Paul Swanson, my Uncle Paul, had thought of getting a plot out there. Picturing a life with Armida, his wife, and Beverly, his daughter (my cousin). However about the time he started to get serious about this endeavor, a rather extensive batch of quite high bank view property was suddenly for sale. It had been a stump farm for a family for a couple generations, but the old man had died and the kids were off into the new world. The farm house at the near end of the lot was habitable but quite run down, There was a small orchard with the fruit trees gone wild, and some of the acreage overgrown with waist thick trunked trees – which was called 2nd growth, but which was in reality 3rd or 4th growth. All that forest had been stripped in the 1880’s and again in the 20’s and once again during WWII when every standing stick of wood was cut down for the war. Waist thick trees would have been growing since WWII.

Gerke and Swanson decided to make some bucks on this, and tried to piece together enough money in loans to buy it. They were a bit short and Dad stepped in and I suspect he mortgaged the Suquamish place to become a partner. Margaret never approved of this venture. The development went on for years – instead of a quick turnaround, they had endless platting, and a water well, and an access road to resolve. The access road suddenly had to meet county and state specifications – a bulldozer track wasn’t going to be ok. And then, of course the housing/property market fell apart as they were pouring money into this get rich quick scheme. All the while, my mother had gone back to work as a teacher full time, and I was heading off to college.

Gerke was viewed as rather wealthy at the time, though by today’s standards he was just a middle class businessman. He had inherited a family music store business in Ballard. As far as I know, he was not musical. The store sold pianos, organs, rental band instruments, a few guitars and drums. I remember delivering a big console hi-fi to the store in ’58. The music business at that time revolved around selling pianos and organs, a few accordions, and an occasional guitar or PA. When I was there I was introduced to ‘Dave’ the stringed instrument guy. Dave had affected vaguely Elvis hair, upturned collar and a Bob Dylan ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ cap. Dave played electric guitar in a band –the name escapes me, but they had a couple regional hits, one of which was ‘Cool Penguin’ (locally pressed on 45’s). The band played at places like the Spanish Castle, and school gyms etc. Dave was in his late twenties, small and cocky. He was to play a key role in Gerke’s fortunes. As the folk music boom hit in ’58-’60, the piano-accordion sales plummeted, but Dave ran the guitar department and suddenly there were dozens of spruce topped acoustic guitars and as the Beatles arrived, a plethora of distinctive electric guitars and amps. The store was briefly headquarters for cool gear, and high profits. By the mid-‘60’s every dime store and loan shop was selling schlocky Japanese guitars, but Gerke’s had a brief lock on Fender/Gibson/Gretsch. As a result of this cultural change, Gerke was significantly better off for a while.

My Uncle Paul is a bit of a mystery to me. He was married to Armida, my father’s older sister, and Beverly was their daughter. Thinking about it now, it seems an odd little family unit. Beverly was treated like a princess, and many a tale was told about how wonderfully bright she was and how perfect her homework was and so on. She is 3 or 4 years older than me. She had been born hairless (through Caesarean, I think) and had, for a long time only a wisp of extremely thin blond hair, which was a constantly retold tale. In adolescence and in college she was quite a striking and attractive young lady. She had one wandering eye, a bit cross-eyed, which had been operated on a couple of times. I recall her wearing an eye patch for a while. She was involved in the Lutheran Church to a much greater extent than Paul or Armida. The retold tale of Paul in church was one Easter after the service, there is a bit of a crowd milling around slowly making an exit. Everyone has to shake hands with the Pastor, so it is slow going. And Paul loudly says, “Who the hell is holding up the line? I’ve got to pee!”

I don’t know much about Uncle Paul’s history. He bragged once about his job in a large hardware store in the ‘30’s. He had been one of hundreds of applicants and managed to talk and bluff his way into the job. He would have been in his early-twenties. In a photo of him at about that time, he was a quite good looking stocky young Swede, the son of immigrants, just like Dad and Armida et al. Somewhere during WWII he became a bit skilled in electronics. In my acquaintance with him, he was an eager tube swapper and back-of-the-set twiddler to little effect.

Some time in the ‘40’s he had started his own business. He became a ‘distributor’ and wholesale source for Packard Bell televisions, radios, and related merchandise, such as TV set stands, and antennas, and also some record players, and tube checking devices that were for TV repairmen. TV sales were just beginning to take off. Average working class people were beginning to consider the purchase of a TV set. This was a major appliance purchase. A TV cost as much as a stove or refrigerator. Packard Bell was highly regarded for quality radios and started the manufacture of TV sets in ’48. As sole distributor in Seattle, Paul began to prosper.

When I came down from Alaska in about ’51 I walked into the Grandparents home, and neighbors were all clustered around watching the TV. That moment is etched in my memory; on the screen were dancing cigarette packages. Cigarette-package Costumes worn by lady dancers with only the legs showing, tap dancing in unison across the stage to a catchy tune. The Packard Bell in their living room was a ‘gift’ from Uncle Paul. The screen was perhaps 9” across, the grainy image in shades of grey.  TV’s in those times were in consoles, large pieces of furniture with closing doors, generally mahogany, with decorative styling such as Spanish Mediterranean. The sets were very heavy, more than one man could lift. The console was full of transformers, tubes, steel chassis, lots of wire, and the TV tube itself was thick and heavy.

The P.O. Swanson Company was a wholesale outlet, which means that truck loads of TV sets, hi-fi record players, stands, antennas etc were delivered at the rear, and these were parceled out into orders to be delivered to various retail stores. Paul made his money on whatever the percentage was on the deal – probably something like 10%. When I worked there in 58, the preparation of orders was an occasional afternoon’s heavy labor, building the order piles and calling various freight outfits to pick up. Large orders were often shipped direct to the retail stores.

My Dad worked for Paul as a salesman. My Dad didn’t like Paul much, and from time to time let loose a stream of invective about that lying cheating conniving son of a bitch etc. Nevertheless Dad was out on the road all over the Seattle/Tacoma area. He worked for Paul for a long time, a bit over 10 years before he finally had enough. He had heard about the Snap-On Tool opportunity. He was so sick of Paul’s wheeling and dealing him out of the commissions that he was willing to bolt out of Suquamish and start a whole new life, in business for himself.

As rock and roll took over the country, there was a huge demand for record players. Paul was distributor for the Symphonic line of hi-fi players, many of which featured Garrard record changers. This was considered a great technological advance. There was a speed setting to select, 78, 45 or 33 for LP’s. Many of these units also had radios as well. Most of the Symphonics sold were of the suitcase variety, with decorative tweed or two-tone styling, with hatch tops. These units were relatively inexpensive tube powered players with what would now be considered awesomely trashy sound. Symphonic also built some large console units with ‘lovely’ furniture styling, but basically the same amplifier units. The big ones were no better or louder than the small ones. Packard Bell also produced TV’s with record players in the cabinets, but the younger people wanted to be able to carry the players around with them from room to room, or off to a party. Paul sold thousands of these units, and I bundled thousands of them into orders.

About ’58 or ‘59 Stereo became a big feature (distinct from Hi-Fi). And at the warehouse, Paul reveled in demonstrating the Stereo phenomenon. There was a special LP in which a train went by and you could hear the Doppler effect as it went from left to right, and a ping-pong game sound track, and a sales recitation with the lady on the left and the guy on the right. And people’s heads would swivel from side to side. There was also a stereo LP of Oklahoma and another of Porgy and Bess, both of which I have hated ever since.

In the mid ‘50’s there was the sales pitch about the latest thing – FM radio. In Seattle there were about 3 stations broadcasting FM as part of their regular extended programming. One station played nothing but light classical on their FM frequency, and another had show tunes and jazz – like Brubeck. FM was considered to be a bit classy and exotic. In the late ‘60’s FM was the place to hear hippie music  – there were several stations devoted to Janis, Hendrix, and so on. Anyway, Paul was immediately one of the sources for units that had FM capacity, even though most people in this area weren’t asking for it.

Paul had a bit of a showroom out front, and a back office set up as a demonstration room for the stereo effect, but this was not a retail outlet, and everything was makeshift and a bit run down and shabby. I would go out and dust the tops of the units, and broom up the cobwebs and dust bunnies every now and then. If a customer came in wanting a deal, cash would talk, but aside from favors to friends, this was rare. Briefly in ’59 he suddenly got on someone’s list – over a period of a couple of months we had several jockeys show up wanting to buy. It was odd, these tiny, thin, frail looking guys in their 30’s coming in wanting to buy a big stereo and expecting a deal. And they would have a roll of cash, some hot chick along with a couple of bruisers to load the unit into a van. As far as I know, Paul didn’t play the horses, but one of the salesmen did.

It is a bit odd to reflect back on those entertainment units. We have a very different sort of attitude now. Virtually all of the Packard Bell and Symphonic units, the TV antennas, the stands – everything in the warehouse, was American made. There was also a thriving small industry of kits for stereos, TV’s, ham radio gear; Heathkit, for instance. My brother, Don, assembled a major stereo set up, with tubes, stamped steel chassis, etc in about ’64. It took hours of soldering and the instructions were a small booklet. It was a wonderful, loud, mellow sounding unit, and weighed 50# all together. It was all-American made bits and pieces. In the same decade it was also possible to build computers, Apple started out selling kits for computers that amounted to little more than adding machines.

Customers didn’t regard TV’s and stereos as temporary disposable distractions. These were serious and major acquisitions. The assumption was that the units would last for decades, that one’s tastes in décor would be constant. Karen’s parents, for instance, still have their original stereo console, complete with 8 track and AM-FM tuner. Their entertainment needs were permanently met with a handful of records, a tape of the Carpenters, and the tuner set on a religious station. A huge console TV set in the rec room was another lifetime investment. Only recently has the antenna come off the roof.

Beverly went on to PLU, graduated with honors, and became engaged to a Canadian medical student, who went on to become an eye surgeon. He was/is very active in the church and plays the organ. They have had what appears to be a wonderful life dedicated to their dozen kids, medical work, and travel. They have done good and prospered. I hardly know these people, I last saw him when I was in college, and have seen her a couple times in the past 20 years. I recall she and her pastor son attended my retirement gathering, but it was not an occasion to sit and chat. Life doesn’t seem to provide opportunities to maintain family offshoot relationships. Each person wanders off into the capitalist underbrush looking for a clear shot at opportunity, and thus we are scattered all over the country. Not just scattered physically, but separated by educational background, political and religious beliefs. Distance, and the travails of travel and the dubious pleasure of visiting people of significantly different self selected life styles, makes it all just too much trouble; we are too busy to maintain connections. Historically a short time ago, such family connections as cousins, step children, aunts and so forth were all part of the family unit and individuals were unlikely to be much different or very far away. We might not like them all that much, but interaction was expected and anticipated. Now it is almost impossible to remember when familial community was of importance.

My cousin, Connie, I haven’t seen since the late ‘70’s. She and her son suddenly visited, Margaret in tow. We had just finished the garage/studio. I think that perhaps Doris (my aunt) had just died. All I recall of the trip was that Connie was anxious to leave, and her strapping son – about 15 or so – saw my crude weight set, and had to show me how strong a football player he was, and wore a blister on his hand during some enthusiastic curls. He was strong, but not a match for me at the time.

Back to the property deal:

Jan and I married in the spring of ’66. I had just been accepted in grad school, but had no idea how we were going to stay afloat. I decided to go back to work in machine shops, and went to inquire at my former employer. In the couple of years that I had been gone, one co-worker had been promoted to shop supervisor. He and I had probably not exchanged 20 words in the past – the machine shop was shriekingly noisy – but he remembered me as steady and on time. “Can you start tonight?”

Minutes after he hired me, he went back and fired two guys that were ‘problem children’. I was to pick up the slack, which wasn’t all that hard. I worked there nights on a sort of whenever basis all through grad school. It was a good deal, low pay, plenty to do and welcomed when I did show up. Seattle was booming for those two years.

Jan immediately got pregnant despite prescriptions for birth control, which was the first of hundreds of episodes in which we learned the hard way that she could not be trusted to take pills with any regularity. Suddenly life took on a more serious aspect. We were living in a horrid little apartment that I had found upon arrival in Seattle. I had been living on savings from a year and a half of sawmill work when I moved to Seattle. We had an opportunity to move downstairs to a larger but equally horrid apartment. Through the family grapevine I got word that Paul and Armida had a house for rent, and that it was in our price range.

It was odd to walk into the house in Ballard. I had stayed there several times shortly after we came down from Nome – 15 or so years earlier. Paul and Armida and Beverly were living there, and I slept on the couch. At that time the situation in Uncle Arnold’s place in Suquamish was a shambles, with Mother supervising the errant and misfit ‘contractors’ tearing the place apart. Mother was fit to be tied at the uproar and the outrage of living in the ‘boy’s’ house with a tiny trash burner for heat and cooking while these local oafs shredded the wiring and kitchen etc in the main house.

As Jan and I were packing to move to Ballard I got a phone call. I had been awarded a TA position for two years. The professor that had suggested that I apply had gone to some trouble to get me the TA – I was the only TA applicant with a teaching degree, and that weighted the decision. I didn’t realize until I was well into the TA program what a lucky fluke it was that I got the job. Suddenly the whole MFA course seemed manageable. And as an employee of the UW we had medical for the baby.

We didn’t feel like it, but in retrospect we were prospering. We had savings, and had been able to pay rent in advance. There was some money to keep the Harley, and Model A and ’52 Chevy running. We also were able to spend some money on Jan’s attempt at being in a rock band. I had a downtown studio; we could hire local kids as baby sitters, and sponsored some parties etc.

Shortly after Jeff was born, Jan’s father died suddenly. I had not gotten along with her parents, particularly with her father. The image of him having a brain aneurism in some customer’s yard after delivering a B-3 Hammond organ seemed a suitable way to go. He had considerable insurance due to patronizing a high school acquaintance/insurance salesman for decades. Everything was paid for. Opal was devastated, but quickly adapted to not having that tyrant stalking around the house.

Jan had become increasing flighty and having panic episodes during the pregnancy, and after Jeff was born she fell into what is today called post-natal depression. She was full of stories, fears, dreams, shadowy voices and so on.  And then her father Bob died and she plummeted into long crying jags and endlessly replaying Judy Collins, Merilee, Joanie Mitchell, etc. Through some acquaintances, she began to perform with a loose batch of students that hashed together a band playing music of the time. The band became known as George Arliss, and had a couple dozen gigs over a year or so. She was keeping it all together with improvised lyrics and spacey music, but once home the crying and uproar continued. Looking back on this, I have come to believe that she was having some sort of affair with the bass player, but that is just my hunch based on later behavior. At the time it didn’t occur to me.

In the same year, Uncle Paul died. He survived a heart attack several years previously, and was supposed to be on a special low-cholesterol, low salt, reduced calorie diet. He was in his early 60’s and vigorous up until the massive stroke. He too had major life insurance and left Armida ‘quite a wad’. She attempted to run the business, but she was not a boss, and the business quietly folded. She was spending time at the golf club knocking back martinis.

I’m at a loss to explain the love for drink that Armida, George, and Doris exhibited. I used to really enjoy having a couple-three drinks, but that generation could really suck down the alcohol. It was amazement. No one got hurt, but it was quite a display. Armida would call us at the house and talk on the phone for hours. First one hand and then the other would go numb. We were living in her house, we were months ahead on the rent, and felt obligated to listen to her endless talk. She was having Bloody Marys for breakfast, and screwdrivers for lunch. When she and Jan got going on the phone I could just leave the house for a couple hours, neither of them were making any sense and they just fed anxieties and dreams to each other.

Shortly after Paul’s death all of his clothes were delivered to our place. Cartons of clothes appeared which fit no one. We took some to a campus rummage sale, and the rest went to Goodwill. I got an oddly checked sweater that was a bit short, and a WWII blue-green nylon bomber jacket that I wore at work in machine shops and the aluminum plant for years. At this point I wonder what became of his cars. He was a Packard man. No car was as good as a Packard. He bought one of the last frog-mouthed hard top Packard sedans, complete with Paxton supercharger. These were enormous and homely cars, not very reliable and softly sprung. Not prized today, but scarce as hens teeth because only a few were made.

Gerke died shortly thereafter, leaving his family in chaos. He was also heavily insured. Life was not calm in that family, and his son quickly descended into drug use and went to the Federal penitentiary a year or so after Gerke’s death. This left my Dad with the still unresolved property deal. They were almost ready to start selling lots, one at a time as clearance and permits were obtained.

A local realtor had been given exclusive listing. I don’t know what the details were, but evidently he got a bigger slice than usual when or if he sold something. His name was Huffnagle. I met Huff several times. He was an old school style character. He was about 6’4” and in an athletic trim but aging body. He had been, back in the 30’s and 40’s a professional fist fighter. He had toured the west as part of traveling show of fighters. The crew of fighters included boxers and wrestlers, and often a strongman. Wives, or girlfriends, or a local barmaid would serve as ‘ring girls’. The fights were organized by weight class. They would put up a fight ring in a stable or school gym, and offer like $100 if any member of the audience could beat Huff or one of the other fighters. There would be local guys in preliminary bouts, the winners could then move up to battle the pros. Betting in the audience led to informal heated arguments and fights in the assembled crowds. So the show would pull into Tucson, Bakersfield, or Yakima, set up the ring, and plaster the town with posters. He fondly remembered fighting in the Coullee dam sites, shanty towns full of workers – part of the WPA and other government programs. Those guys were very hard workers, pouring millions of gallons of cement, working 1″ rebar and so on. He said they were damned tough, but luckily for the fight crew, these yokels didn’t know how to fight. They were tough, but losers. The local guys would pay $5 to get in the ring and Huff and the other pros would pound them into the ground. This was ‘thin glove’ fighting, not the ‘pillows’ they wear today.

Huff had been in thousands of fights and his face was a mass of lumps and cartilage. His forehead and cheekbones looked like knuckles. His ears were puffy, and his nose was obviously smashed. He was gravelly voiced and ponderously aching when he walked. I recall him dropping a pen on the ground and saying, “Well, the damned thing belongs down there anyway.” He was not about to bend over or get down on his aching knees to pick it up. At 70 I can certainly agree with him. What kind of a merciful god was it that put the ground so damned far away?

Dad and I would meet Huff at his house, a tidy little place on the waterfront near Kingston. I’m not sure why I was along except to witness the excuses and swindles Huff was trying to pull on each lot deal. I liked Huff. He was a creaky and cranky giant that was soon to fall. He had a tiny wife – maybe 5’1”, grey haired, wiry, slim, stylish and busy. Her name, as far as I know, was Toots. So it was “Hey Toots! How bout some coffee?” “Hey Toots! Has it started to rain yet?” Hey Toots! We are going up to the lots, be back in an hour.” Huff was a ‘secret’ drinker. So we would sit at the table strewn with lot maps, contracts, and paper work with cups of coffee, and little shot glasses of peppermint schnapps for medicinal purposes. He would assure Toots that Schnapps was just what a man needed for what ails him. And 10 in the morning was just as good a time as any for a man to take his medicine. And we would proceed to sit there and have 3 or 4 or 5 shots of schnapps to lubricate the business at hand. Sometimes the schnapps of the day was single malt scotch.

When Dad bolted from Suquamish he was in double trouble on property. The Suquamish place just couldn’t be sold and was rented for several years. Property was simply not moving. And the Kingston development was also sitting partially sold. The folks were long in Longview before all that was finally sold, for far less than they had hoped. Now, of course, it is prime waterfront and was until recently worth millions.

As the Kingston property sold, he got his share –some went to the Swanson and Gerke estate. Huff, of course, got his slice. It was not the windfall that was hoped for. The Suquamish ‘farm’ eventually sold, again not for the price hoped for. The house they bought in Longview during his prime Snap On years was a modest home with a small lot, detached garage. Mother was teaching 3rd grade near by, and Dad was doing quite well with the tool business. He didn’t know doodly about tools or how to repair machinery, but his gift of gab, and the liquor bottle in the glove box lubricated many sales. I rode along with him several times and watched him in action. I think he harbored the dream that I would step in to the sales business, but I was too shy and my mind was on escape. Don tried it very briefly – to fill in for a salesperson that was sick for a few months. Don didn’t prosper at it.

About drjohnnywow

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