Like that hed? A Pocketful of Notes – Dad buys a paper from San Francisco that comes to Mr. Savitt’s store every Sunday, and there’s a guy writing in there that I really like, even though I’m only six years old. His name is Herbert Caen; he’s from Sacramento and has been writing his column “It’s news to me!” in that paper, the SF Chronicle, since 1938. The “Note” thing is one of his sayings. Dad says he’ll be around for quite a while.
I’ve got a pocketful of notes some of which came in the mail to me when people started finding out that I live at 200 Sunnyside Drive. (Don’t send me any mail there because I’m not there anymore. My dad was a real estate man so we moved around a lot, but I always found them.) These letters are asking me to write about something. So this morning I’ll pretend I’m a grown-up Herb Caen and write in his wandering style…I’d like to grow up and write just like him. I hope he keeps writing for a while. [OK – crystal ball-time: He wrote until he died in 1997! And I did write one column for him when he was in the hospital in 1988.}
….First is, I have to go back to Hubbard Field. I wrote about Hank Philcox’ and my bike ride out there a while ago, and all the stuff we saw. But I forgot to include the altitude guage, which I remember. Just at the end of Airport Road north of the hangar was a bright spotlight, that pointed straight up. It was big, like about as big around as a card table in a box on the ground. Somewhere distant, I think at the University of Nevada on Evans Street, a weatherman could put a telescope on the light’s beam, where it hit the cloud level. From the angle of the telescope, he could then determine the height of the clouds, or ceiling, and phone the airport’s tower with the information. Thanks, writer, for the letter. Dad says not to include anybody’s name without their permission, or I could get in trouble. So, if you write me, tell me if it’s OK to use your name. This is a very disciplined column.
…Another note: “You wrote about a ‘fire alarm box.’ What were they?” Thanks for the question. Even before the turn of the century in the late 1800s, the Gamewell Company made alarm boxes for street corners, so citizens could turn in fire alarms. The boxes, all over towns, were wired to a central place like a firehouse where there were big wet-cell batteries making power. If a person pulled the handle on the box, a spring-loaded wheel would start to turn, pulling brass or copper tape over a gadget that “read” it. The tape was punched, each tape different, so the fireman receiving the alarm could detect which box had been pulled and send the firemen to the fire.
The City of Reno had a Gamewell system which was intact until the 1970s when phones and alarm wiring became more prevalent (pretty big word for a six-year-old, huh!?) and the system was abandoned. The Gamewell board, a big brass beauty, was kept, in operating condition, by retired fire captain Jim Arlin, in the Reno Fire Department’s museum at the Reno main station until some genius figured out that the site would be better for a ballpark than a fire station. I don’t know that anyone’s seen the Gamewell board, nor much else from the museum, since. But now I’m editorializing. Some cities, notably San Francisco, still maintain the Gamewell systems, that city’s system taking up a whole wall on the Brannan Street headquarters. But, there I go again, using a crystal ball…! I don’t know about that in 1948 as I write this.
Postscript: Gamewell also made police-call boxes. They were blue.
OK – next saved note: “You wrote of the elevator operators in the First National Bank building and the Medical Dental Arts building knowing all the dirt on Reno’s citizens. What are “elevator operators?” What I wrote was that the two little ladies, for they were indeed short in stature, knew who was boarding their elevators in the old FNB building at 1 East First Street, and the medico-dental building up the block on Virginia Street, and who was consulting an attorney or who was going to doctor and listened in the morning to the patient or the client, and later in the day to the doctors and the attorneys describing them as they rode the elevators. Two plus two equalled four to these ladies, they compared notes and knew what couples were splitting the sheets or which person was suffering from some private malady.
Self-service elevators didn’t arrive in Reno ’til the mid-1950s, and the buildings I mentioned plus the El Cortez and the Riverside and the Mapes hotels also had little ladies to open the inner doors and start the cars up or down. (They were good; they could turn that big wheel-switch just at the right time to stop the car level with the floor!) And they jabbered the whole trip, so little escaped them. The Holiday was maybe the earliest to have self-service cars in 1957 on a major scale. And I wrote one time many years after I write this in 1947 that Gray Reid Wright, in its new building on Fifth between Virginia and Sierra brought the first escalator to Reno.
But, this is 1947. What’s an escalator???
Space draws short, but one more reader said that I had to write about the X-ray machines for feet. OK – let’s do! But let’s call them by their name, which was flouroscope. As kids, we always looked forward to going to some of the shoe stores around town, and I should include the Sparks Bootery in faraway Sparks, and standing on the flouroscope. With our new shoes, or just breaking loose from our parents in Sears Roebucks, Buster Brown Shoes (Big John and Sparky!), Monkey Wards or some other places I can’t remember, whatever they were.
The flouroscope was probably the greatest invention of the 20th century since sliced bread or night baseball. Wearing your old Keds if you’d ridden your bike downtown and just wanted to play with it, or, buying new shoes (combat boots were the norm after WWII in Reno’s cold winter climate, you could stand on the flouroscope and see your feet and bones, and the outline of the shoe faintly enclosing the foot.
Why the machines went away is a mystery to me and most – probably something on the same order as lead-based paint and asbestos poisoning – some idiot probably learned that a flouroscope would make your feet sterile – but we had the paint, the asbestos and the flouroscopes at Mary S. Doten Elementary School and Buster Brown Shoes, and the world didn’t come to an end.
With that I bid you good day on a chilly weekend; when the sun again returns we’ll ride around somewhere else in Reno. Saddle up your Schwinn and ride along with me!!