World War II ended in the spring of 1947. The Japanese had surrendered, and the United States government had stopped drafting able-bodied young men. Americans were dancing to a Latin-American beat, and this 18-year-old was free to go to college, get an education and get on with his life.
Not for long however. In June of 1950, tired of inactivity, the U.S. war powers decided to send troops to Korea to take sides in what had become a civil war on some peninsula north of Japan. The selective service was re-instated, and that same college boy was classified 1-A. It was just a matter of time.
It was during one of those cold snowy Minnesota winters. I was in my senior year at the University of Minnesota the day my father called with a proposal. Ted Karatz, a friend of the family, was flying down to Florida and needed someone to drive his 1950 Cadillac Fleetwood to Miami Beach where he and his wife were planning to spend the winter.
Would I be interested, and could I find someone to go along with me to share the driving? I proposed the idea to Marshall Oreck, my friend from Duluth, where it was usually twenty degrees colder than Minneapolis. His answer was predictable.
“Take your time boys; no hurry,” Ted Karatz advised. “Enjoy the drive. We won’t be leaving for a few days, and it will take us a while to settle in.”
Actually, we did anything but “take our time”. That Cadillac and the status it represented, if only for a few days, was our ticket to Miami’s world famous holiday social scene.
The drive down was relatively uneventful. It was our first exposure to segregation and a colored population in such numbers. Most of the folks, black or white, in the smaller towns we drove through had never seen a Cadillac Fleetwood or any other fancy car for that matter. There were no freeways in those days, but we made it with one sleepover.
Florida was beautiful; we picked oranges right off the trees. As luck would have it, an uncle of one of our fraternity brothers owned a small hotel in North Miami Beach where our buddy was working as manager for the season. He could let us have a room at a very modest price.
Miami at the time was the winter vacation mecca for thousands of “Snow Bird” escapees. South Miami Beach, and in particular resort hotels like the Fontainebleau, the Eden Roc, the Americana and others were packed with families from ‘Noo Yawk’ and other big cities in the Northeast. Most guests hung out around the pool during the day. In the evenings however, they had dinner in their hotels or at one of the many supper clubs. Others could be seen window shopping on Lincoln Road or hanging out later at Wolfie’s Delicatessen on the corner of Collins and Lincoln.
Miami was famous for its nightlife. Leon and Eddie’s, Club Morocco, the Copacabana, the Deauville, the Macamba, the San Souci and the Latin Quarter featured entertainers such as Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Hildegarde, Patti Page and Xavier Cugat, as well as Catskills comedians including Milton Berle, Myron Cohen, Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Don Knotts and the Ritz Brothers. Jackie Gleason was a fixture at the Kenilworth. All were out of our league.
Some of the best known strippers of the times headed for Miami in the winter. Tempest Storm was a regular at the Gaiety, as was Bon Bon the “Yum Yum Girl” at Leon and Eddie’s. Though we couldn’t get in, Zorita with her famous snake act was playing at the Five O’Clock. Also beyond budget.
I will never forget our first night in Miami. We had been invited to have dinner with Dick Blumenthal, one of our buddies from school. Dick was a fraternity brother and football player who had dropped out of school at the end of the summer and was spending all day every day baking his body on the Beach. At the time, he was renting a house with two other winter dropouts in Coral Gables.
We pulled up in our Eldorado to a typical little stucco bungalow on a quiet street. Our friend greeted us at the door and introduced us to his buddies. We looked around. The living room furniture consisted of a card table, four folding chairs and a couple of inflatable surfing mattresses which probably doubled as beds when carried into two other empty rooms.
The boys offered us beers from an otherwise empty fridge, and a dish of fresh coconut chunks which probably represented 100% of their provisions.
“Come on,” I said, “Let’s go out for dinner… any ideas?”
One of the boys suggested Wolfie’s Deli on the “Beach.”
I had attacked my checking account before leaving Minneapolis, and I assumed Marshall had also brought along some cash. Wolfie’s was a Broadway type delicatessen crowded with characters right out of Damon Runyon. It turned out that Marshall and I were the hosts. Dinner for five that night hit us for easily twenty percent of our combined budget. We hung out in our booth at Wolfie’s, watching the parade of colorful patrons until the management decided it was time for us to move on.
It was probably 11:00 pm. Our little group was just leaving the deli when we were stopped by two policemen demanding to see our IDs.
As happens their focus was on our friend Dick, the football player, who by then had acquired a rich chocolate brown tan. It seems that there was a law, or at least a practice, on Miami Beach at the time to discourage the presence of black people on the streets after 9:00 pm. “Negras” was the term they used in those days.
“Where you boys from?” one asked.
“California.” I replied.
“You all together?” he asked again (nodding towards Dick). Then, answering his own question, he said; “You should probably find somewhere else to hang out.”
Being newcomers to Florida we were surprised and embarrassed. Marshall and I started to head for the Cadillac, but our fraternity buddy walked up to the policeman, turned, unzipped and dropped his pants enough to reveal a well-shaped ivory bottom which he offered to the police in a movement that we called, in those days, a “half moon.”
Of course we all broke into applause. After all, the joke was on the cops, who were beginning to redden. However, it was no joke to them. They still had our IDs which they appeared to be examining very carefully.
After leafing through our wallets, they threw them back at us, mumbling something that sounded like “freaking Jew boys…” etc. etc…
After that experience, Marshall and I also worked on our tans every day, and enjoyed a couple of great weeks in the sun on Miami Beach. In time however, running short of cash, I took one of the return tickets Ted Karatz had given us and flew back to Minneapolis.
Actually, the highlight of this mid-semester adventure occurred when I changed planes in Chicago for my flight home via Northwest Airlines.
The young woman sitting next to me on the DC-4 was very attractive, and we chatted pleasantly during the flight that lasted maybe an hour and thirty minutes. She was quite nice and very interesting, however she made sure early on that I would notice the little diamond she was wearing on her left hand.
On the other hand, my attention was diverted from time to time by the plane’s equally attractive stewardess who kept smiling at us as she walked up and down the aisle. When we landed in the twin cities I said goodbye to my seat mate and, with a little effort, managed to be the last passenger to leave the plane.
The stewardess with the big smile was at the bottom of the stairs. I said whatever guys said to introduce themselves in those days. It turned out that Minneapolis was her home base. She had completed her round trip, and would be happy to share a milkshake and a taxi ride home.
That stewardess’s name was Joan Baker. She was from Detroit, and we were destined to be a twosome, at least between flights, for the balance of the year.
I had spent the previous summer in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota building and managing a drive-in theatre for my father. The property fronted on a beautiful lake where we had built a small cabin.
Detroit Lakes was appropriately named, the town’s Chamber of Commerce claiming that there were 425 lakes within 25 miles of City Hall, a fact that nobody ever bothered to verify.
Though I certainly lacked the necessary skills, I had actively participated in the construction of that cabin and therefore claimed certain proprietary rights which included a weekend to myself and a guest from time to time.
We really enjoyed that cabin, my stewardess and me. We were like Adam and Eve… well, almost but not quite.
“Why not?” I asked. “I thought we loved each other…”
“I can’t… I just can’t,” she said with a little shake of her head.
“Don’t you love me?” I pleaded.
“Yes, I love you,” she replied, “but I love God more. We’ll just have to wait until we get married.”
“How does a guy respond to that?” I was matched against the Pope. Tough competition.
My stewardess, the Pope and I shared another few months before someone warned me that my selective service number was coming up… and soon. The government was saying that college would no longer be grounds for deferment. I was running out of ideas. Joan was taking a week off and suggested that we fly back to Detroit so I could meet her parents, though I knew darn well that it was the other way around. We landed the next afternoon, and I took a hotel room downtown.
In those days Detroit was humming, and Joan showed me around the city the next day. As happens I didn’t have to rent a car, because Joan’s father owned the Yellow Cab Company and, as I found out later, a lot more.
Her folks, who I would meet that evening for the first time, lived in a suburb called Grosse Pointe Park. Their home was sizable and on a beautiful piece of property. They were warm and welcoming and really seemed like good people.
We had dinner that night at the Grosse Point Yacht Club which was considered quite prestigious and reputed to be “very exclusive”. Actually I was comfortable in the presence of her parents, and thought I had made a pretty good impression. Her father and I talked golf and football. He was impressed that I was a cousin of Michigan’s All-American fullback, Dan Dworsky.
Joan and I flew back to Minneapolis the next day and continued our romance. The fact that I was a nice Jewish boy going with a nice Catholic girl didn’t seem to bother my family or, so I thought, hers.
I was prolonging my post-graduate studies at the University when I received a call in November from my friend, Joe Mackey, whose draft number, like my own, was on the short list. At the time, the papers were full of Korean casualty reports, and with winter coming on it was certainly not the right season to be digging fox holes. Some guys burned their draft cards and moved to Canada where the winters were as miserable as Korea, but at least no one was shooting at you.
Joe had heard of an opening in something called the ‘Inactive Air Force Reserve’. It was supposed to be like the National Guard, only you didn’t have to go to meetings. Someone else mentioned that if we didn’t want to go into the army as privates, we could always apply to go to Platoon Leader School in the Marine Corps. I checked into it. All I had to do was spend eight weeks training in Quantico, Virginia, and, as a college graduate, they would make me an officer, a second lieutenant.
“Not a good idea,” said my Uncle Paul, a World War II veteran. He explained that the first GIs the Japs shot at were the officers, the guys with the bars on their helmets.
Wasting no time, my buddy Joe and I drove over to Fort Snelling and enlisted in the Inactive Air Force Reserve. All we had to do was sign some papers and take a physical. We had beaten the system.
Joan had made plans to take a week off the following month, so we could fly out to Colorado and go skiing over Christmas. Never happened. Someone at our draft board got wind of our Inactive Air Force Reserve gambit, talked to somebody in government, and Joe and I both received notices on official Air Force stationary. Our inactive reserve status had been revised, and we were ordered to report within thirty days to Fort Francis Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming for indoctrination into the United States Air Force.
The dodge was over; I was being called to serve America in time of war.
Joan and I enjoyed thirty beautiful days off and on, depending on her schedule. We pledged our troth and promised to spend the rest of our lives together. So I left my little virgin stewardess and went off to save somebody else’s country.
I wasn’t thirty days into basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas when I received a long tear-stained letter from my beloved. It seems that she had been reunited with an “old boyfriend”, the son of one of her dad’s yacht club pals from Yale. He had returned to Detroit over the Easter holidays. They had gone sailing together. The old flame had been rekindled and etc. etc. etc… She would “cherish our friendship forever.”
The boys in the barracks referred to her letter as a “Dear John”. There’s a song that’s appropriate for the occasion. Be my guest; sample a chorus. [Click Play below]