Chapter 4 My Cousin Oliver Page I of II
Not everyone has a cousin like Oliver, and shouldn't have one. In fact, there have been many times when I have felt he was not a total necessity in my life. Like the summer night about 1935 when he, his father-in-law, Harry West, known affectionately in the family as "Foddie," and I ended up at the Plantation night club after an evening of bar hopping.
In the summertime in those days, every family left Tucson to get out of the heat for a month or two by vacationing either on the beaches of Southern California, or in the pines of the northern part of Arizona. Most opted for the beaches because there were so few rental units available in the mountains. This, of course, led to lengthy, and eventful, summer bachelor seasons for the husbands who stayed home. Oliver's family was in the mountains and mine was on the Coast. Fodd's wife, Rhoda, was with Oliver's wife, Alice.
I was still in the theatre business in those days, running movie houses for Fox West Coast theatres, so I was out every night, all my friends knew it, and when they could get loose, they'd see a free movie, and afterwards we'd check the action around town.
Tucson was a city of about 35,000 people in the winter and considerably fewer in July and August, our hottest months. It had a half dozen night spots, generally on the outskirts and newly opened in large old homes as a first generation of joints to take advantage of the recently legalized liquor.
The Plantation on North Oracle Road was probably the pick of a poor bunch. It was located on a ten-acre parcel containing a few out-buildings and the main house which had been converted to a saloon and restaurant. There was also a beer-garden type arrangement where customers could sit outdoors until either the bugs or the heat drove them indoors.
Luckily, air conditioning and legalized booze arrived in Arizona at practically the same time. Evaporative air coolers were "discovered" about 1934, and for the first time, desert homes could be made liveable by these "swamp coolers," which anyone with an electric fan could build in a couple of hours.
The Plantation was air conditioned and was more comfortable inside than out. It was owned and run by Bob Nordelli and his wife, Helen, a very compatible couple. He had been one of the community's major bootleggers for many years. Helen had been the madam at one of our better houses of ill-repute.
On the night in discussion, Oliver, Fodd and I were enjoying the tag-end of the evening at the Plantation. About midnight, Bob came around and invited a few old customers to help him and Helen celebrate her birthday. Bob said that after the normal closing hour of 1:00 a. m., the party would commence, and he had invited a few close friends who worked at other joints to join them. Naturally, because of long standing freindships with Bob and Helen, we accepted the invitation and stuck around. Besides, a late supper would be served, and we were still thirsty and hungry.
The bartenders, waiters, waitresses, musicians, cooks, entertainers and ladies of-the-evening started arriving at about 1:30 with all kinds of food and a few strange gifts. We felt right at home. Why not? These people were our friends too. Tucson was still small enough so that we knew just about everybody, especially the "night people" of which I was one at the time.
The party got lively and everyone was roaming around. Oliver and I were sitting on a small wicker bench for two and enjoying our drinks when one of the madams came over to join in our conversation. Often when Oliver had a few drinks, he was quite unfriendly with people he didn't know or didn't like.
This lady was quite unattractive, and pretty drunk besides. Oliver told her to get lost. She left, after a few words, but in a few minutes she was back again. Oliver ran her off again. When she returned the third time, Oliver yelled at her as she approached us and waved his arm at her to get away. As she whirled around to leave, she lost her balance and fell. When her backside hit the wooden floor the crash attracted the attention of everyone in the bar room
Oliver jumped up to help her and was the object of some pretty strong cuss words. It appeared to the two young prostitutes whom our lady friend had brought with her, that Oliver had belted her and knocked her on her backside.
They left their places at the bar and began beating on Oliver, who showed why he should have been a defensive cornerback. He back peddled himself into a corner and had one foot high in front of him, yelling, "I didn't knock her down! Leave me alone!"
Of course, the crowd gathered around to see if Oliver could hold his own against a couple of left hooking hookers. Foddie had no doubt about the outcome, encouraging Oliver with, "Come on Oliver, you can whip any whore in Arizona!"
With that, the two battling broads turned on Foddie. The on-lookers cracked up with Foddie's cheering, and broke up the melee. While that encounter was perhaps the highlight of the early morning birthday party, it was not the only event that left some lasting memories.
Joe Rice, a prominent banker from Phoenix, fell down while competing in an informal dance contest and broke his leg, ending up in the hospital at 3:30 a. m. Shorty Cunningham, an insurance company agent from Phoenix, and a frequent visitor to Tucson and the Plantation, chopped off a five-foot long spear from a century plant in the yard and used it as a funnel for drinks.
Everyone was required to sit on the piano stool in front of the piano while Shorty hoisted the spear to the top of the upright piano. The spear was gently inserted into the mouth. Shorty sat on the top of the piano and poured booze from a bottle. The booze flowed down the spear into the victim's mouth. All went well until Shorty let the spear slip down into someone's mouth, causing a nasty gash on his tongue. From then on, glasses were back in vogue for booze drinking.
About 2:30 a. m., Foddie said he had to visit the restroom, which he was told was located in a small building outside. After fifteen minutes he failed to show up. Oliver and I thought we'd better find him and went out to look for him.
He wasn't in the restroom. As we started looking for him, we heard the sound of bottles rattling around. We looked into another small building that was dark and found Foddie in the middle of several hundred empty beer bottles that had been stored there. The building was about 20 feet square, and the floor was completely covered with empty beer bottles.
When Foddie walked into the dark building, he hit the bottles, fell forward into the mass of empties where he floundered around for all the time he had been missing. We had a hell of a time rescuing him because we also found it very difficult to keep our footing, especially in the dark where we couldn't see the brown glass bottles.
Foddie complained about a very painful injury to his side. The next day he went to a doctor, who discovered he had broken two ribs. However, that didn't prevent him from coming to my house about 7:00 a. m. The next morning to rattle my bedroom window and tell me he needed a drink.
Oliver and his family lived just one house away. Foddie found the cupboard dry there and came to get a "nudge" to relieve the painful rib injury and get his heart started after a rather rough night.
In 1946 Oliver sold his Tucson Steam Laundry to Tommy McGinty, the big time gambler from Cleveland. In the sale contract, Oliver agreed that he would not own an interest in or operate another laundry in the Tucson area for a period of five years. This is a common practice in business, to agree not to compete with the company being sold.
Oliver was about forty-two years old at the time, and, although he could afford to retire, he soon wearied of playing gin rummy every day at the Old Pueblo Club. He realized that Bob Brickman, who was McGinty's front man, knew nothing about running a laundry and, soon after taking over the operation, was in trouble. Oliver offered to go to work for Brickman as his general manager. Brickman jumped at the offer, and for the next four and a half years Oliver ran the laundry he had sold.
When the five year period was up, he left the Tucson Steam Laundry and bought another laundry. While Oliver and Brickman always said it was a friendly arrangement, several of Oliver's friends liked to kid him about the matter not being so friendly. It was suggested that McGinty might have some of his henchmen "take care" of Oliver. Oliver said that he worried about that very thing happening, and for that reason he was having his wife, Alice, go out and start the car in the morning so that if a bomb was set in the car, Alice would be blown to bits, not him. He was always a cautious guy!
When he was in his twenties he had his fuel business on North Fourth Avenue, selling coal, wood and kindling. This was before we had natural gas in Tucson and also before many people had oil burning furnaces. In the summertime he had little to do so he opened up Tucson's first drive-in root beer stand on the lot next to the fuel yard, where he served sandwiches and ice cream. It was the first facility of that type in the city and did fairly well.
However, between natural gas coming in the community and the Depression, Oliver's business went to hell. He was barely getting by and was anxious to get into something to make an honest buck. Flagpole sitting was a popular thing at the time throughout the nation, with new records being set by guys who could stay aloft in a perch atop a flagpole the longest.
Oliver and I thought there should be a way to commercialize flagpole sitting. He agreed that he would be the sitter, and I his manager. We decided that the large radio antenna atop the ten-story Consolidated National Bank building would be the place for Oliver to establish residency for a while.
He contacted the bank, and they said they had no objection but that we would have to get approval from the owner of the steel tower, a local radio station. This was no problem since we planned to use a radio station in our money-making scheme.
It was planned that Oliver would stay up on his perch for three weeks, twenty-four hours a day. He would have a telephone attached and a microphone for his hourly broadcasts. We were going to sign up a group of merchants and businesses whose products would be advertised by Oliver on the radio and in personal calls from atop the tower,
We worked out an agreement with the Tucson Daily Citizen for them to co-sponsor "Sitting Oliver," as he was going to be known, as part of the scheme of advertising goods and services offered by his sponsor. Joe Snyder was then general manager and publisher of the Citizen and entered into a written contract with Oliver and me.
We had everything arranged, but we had overlooked one little detail which developed into a major problem. In fact, it put the kibosh on the whole idea. We hadn't discussed the matter with Alice. I learned then that Oliver's wife didn't have red hair for nothing. She was his boss, and said that the harebrained scheme would do nothing but embarrass her and the whole family.
Oliver still has that contract signed by the Citizen, but he and I defaulted on our part of the bargain. Actually, it was Oliver who defaulted, as 1 was willing, ready and able to perform my part of the bargain. Joe Snyder allowed us to escape from the agreement. I don't know if the present owners of the Citizen would be interested in enforcing the contract, but I hope that the statute of limitations has long made the contract null and void.
Oliver was a man in those days who liked to live it up a bit. The night his first child, Jim, was born, he celebrated by driving through the wrong side of the Fourth Avenue subway a couple of times. There is room for only one car each way so there is no way to avoid disaster if your timing is not absolutely perfect, with luck being the only determining factor. When Alice heard about his performance, she gave him hell. He promised he would never do it again, and he didn't either-until his second child, Anne, was born! (I don't know for sure, but I think that was one of the reasons Alice bore him no more children.)
He was elected to serve on the Tucson City Council about that time, and he caused no end of problems for me. As a city councilman he had certain authority over the various departments, including the police department. Good-natured Jack Dyer was the chief of police at the time. He and his men had known Oliver and all the Drachman boys for years.
On two or three occasions Oliver would go to the police department when he got a snootfull and threaten to wreck the place. There was a big, old brass spittoon which was kept shiny by the trustees and which was a prominent part of the furnishings of the station where the police sergeant would sit behind his raised desk. The night sergeant was Mac McLaughlin, a kindly man many years older than we.
On several occasions I received calls at the Opera House from McLaughlin to please come down and do something about Oliver, who was threatening to do all kinds of things. Once when I got there, Oliver was standing on a chair with the brass gaboon in his hand, making gestures of hurling it through a large plate glass window of the station house. Mac was surely glad to see me. He couldn't lock up a councilman, and Oliver knew it. The police had to get old Roy to do something they couldn't handle!
And it wasn't the only time. On another occasion, Oliver went to the police station and insisted on having a police motorcycle escort him home. They again called me to come down.
Bill Nugent, a life-long friend of both of us, was a motorcycle cop at the time, and Mac assigned him the job of placating Oliver until I got there. I arrived just in time to fall in behind Oliver in his car and Bill Nugent on his motorcycle as they pulled away from the station. I stopped Bill and told him to forget it, but this time I couldn't handle Oliver, who insisted that Bill lead us home with the siren being sounded all the way. Oliver and I lived only a house apart and, when we drove up Palm Road, the neighbors were impressed that we had arrived in such style.
Thank goodness Oliver served only one interim term on the city council. I don't think the police department could have endured a second term, and I know that I couldn't.