Up close, he pointed his revolver at me. I moved away. He fired. The bullet hit the ground. Gravel sprinkled my feet from the impact.
Holding the American flag, I’d just lowered from its pole, I ran back. He fired again. It felt like a puff of wind. My right arm flew back. Blood spurted out. I’d been shot. I was 18 years old.
My first gainful employment was in 1952, picking prunes in Santa Clara Valley’s bountiful orchards. It took two heaping buckets to fill a lug box which netted 25 cents. At age 8, the first year, I earned $25. It was all mine. No government entity got its beak wet between the farm contractor and me.
Prunes, beans, strawberries, blackberries, any fruit harvested without use of a ladder was my farm work fate until 16, the age the government determined I was mature enough to fall out of a ladder and hurt myself. Then it was apricots and cherries, easy money, 16 cents a bucket for apricots and 70 for cherries. There was also year-round work as newspaper boy and neighbor lawn mower.
I branched out to used car lot boy at 15 and learned tricks to fool car buyers. At16, it was bus boy at a bowling alley restaurant. There, I learned the pecking order of cook, waitress and me.
Every time I buy tires, the memory of my painting them black to look new, comes back. Restaurants back then made French fries from scratch. McDonald’s brings remembrance of the cook scolding my potato peeling. She grabbed the peeler from my hand and showed me how to use slash down strokes not upward peels. It was my first lesson in work time management. I disobey this rule at home to avoid potato waste.
In January 1962, midway through my senior high school year, the employment wheel spun and stopped on jackpot at Frontier Village, a just opened western theme park, in south San Jose, California. It’s gone now, a victim of Silicone Valley high land values. The only drawback working there was the 25-mile commute from where I lived in Santa Clara.
At Frontier Village the hourly pay scale for part time staff was the minimum $1.25 for first 3 months, $1.40 for the next 9 months and $1.50 after a year. The secret was, few made it to $1.50. Most cowboys and cowgirls were terminated after 9 to 12 months, not to save on the pay scale, but because their smile to the public wore out.
Full time employment was limited to Mr. Zukin the president, Ed Hutton the public relations/flack catcher, an accountant, a maintenance man and two theme characters, Indian Jim on Indian Island and the Village law keeper, Marshall Ron. The latter 2 didn’t act their characters. They lived them.
Part time staff were college students. They operated rides or were trash picker uppers, know euphemistically as groundskeepers. Only cowboys were delegated to groundskeeping, a gender reverse employment ceiling. Cowboys did an initial 3 month stretch on hiring before becoming a ride operator.
After a brief interview, I started work the next Saturday as a groundskeeper and roamed the park dressed in company provided cowboy green Levi’s, short sleeved shirt with FV emblem, deputy sheriff badge, silk scarf and cowboy hat to a background of cowboy music.
The music was a repetitive recorded loop of songs sung by Sons of the Pioneers. After 8 hours of work, “Cool Clear Water”, “Ghost Riders In The Sky” and other cowboy songs drifted into my sleep dreams.
As the music played, in my left hand was a metal drop and plop open, dust pan with 90-degree handle bar grip. In the right was a little broom. My prey was trash, spilled popcorn and cigarette butts the predominate game. With a drop of the dust pan, offending items were whisked by the broom out of sight until the pan filled. Once full, I went to a trash bin and dumped my load where it was supposed to have been put originally. Only popcorn mashed into asphalt by crowd walking delayed my roaming pace.
The $1.25 per hour wage and the 8-hour work stretch was a $10 a day job. For the weekend it was $20! As I strolled with dustpan and broom in hand, my mind was absorbed calculating how much fell into my pocket every minute. After complicated mental calculations, it was determined at $0.0208, prior to the government dipping its beak in and tilting its head back for a drink. Even during break the pennies fell in, 34 cents for 15 minutes twice a day!
The Park’s concessions, restaurants, popcorn stands, arcade, saloon, fish pond, even the stagecoach and burro pack train rides were leased out to quasi-independent entrepreneurs. Most of these want to be millionaires eked out a profit close to my wage earnings. The General Store, the largest concession, operated by Marty Davis was different. He knew how to make money, big money. He operated other concessions all over the west, Frontier Village only one of many.
As a groundskeeper, I was a pony express rider of Village gossip. I elaborated and added to rumors and flirted with attractive cowgirls as I made my sweeping rounds. I also quizzed concessionaires and learned it was only Marty Davis who made good money. He had an elaborate profit system worked out. To run his concessions, he used middle-aged women. Once trained, he left the concession operation to them. I asked how he kept his women, as he referred to them, honest as he traveled to his other concessions.
He called me Smiley, not Jim.
“Well Smiley, it’s easy. I hire an attractive divorced woman about 40 who has a teen aged daughter. I make her manager of the store, provide her an expensive executive briefcase and pay her an excessive car allowance. The daughter stays off the employment roll, mom reimburses the daughter with mom’s salary boosted to cover the daughter’s work. The exaggerated car allowance allows mom to avoid taxes on part of her income. It’s a great deal for her.”
“Sounds like it but how do you keep her honest?”
“Not a problem. What I sell for a dollar, I pay at most, 10 cents for. If she steals stuff it’s not a big loss. How many ashtrays with a Frontier Village logo does a person want? She keeps track of inventory and sales in the briefcase provided and I review it when I visit. If figures don’t match, they know they lose a great deal, so they match.”
“How about she brings their own stuff and sells it? You know, off the books.”
“Smiley, you should open a concession! Eventually most come up with an extra cash gimmick. That’s why I’m working here beyond the store manager training time. I compare gross sales to park gate entrance count. After 3 months, a correlation average develops. If she jiggles numbers, the average is skewed. Then I get a new gal.
In the meantime, my travel expense is low. I sleep at her place when checking up on her. She may appear a little old for you but she’s 10 years younger than me.”
The General Store also had a helium balloon concession out front on the Village Main Street but no one to run it.
“Smiley, you know anyone who would like a job selling balloons? It’s hard to find a someone good with kids who is honest. The markup’s even better than the stuff in the store.”
“Yeah, I know just the guy. I’ll have him come talk to you.”
To offset job travel expense, it was necessary to get friends to also work at Frontier Village for carpooling. My referral to Marty Davis was Louie Silva. Marty hired Louie on the spot when he came for the interview. Unbeknown to me, Louie had a sell, inflate and tye off balloon knack. He was also honest, although not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Mr. Davis liked his sales results and thanked me for the referral.
A second referral got another friend a job as a Village ride operator, another Louie, Louie Ravizza. Both played high school football with me. At times, riding together, the song, “Louie, Louie” would come on the radio as we commuted. In my red and white, 1953 Chevrolet convertible, we sang a chorus, “Louie Louie, oh no, you take me where we gotta go girl, yeah, yeah, yeah, we gotta go work now”, the few words we could decipher and paraphrase in the song.
Once my 3 months groundskeeper service passed, it was ride operator, at $1.40 an hour, and 2.3333 cents a minute. As a ride operator, I shifted among antique autos, merry-go-round, train engineer and mine cars. The borrow pack train and stagecoach rides had real cowboy operators.
Obtaining ride operator status revealed draw backs which surpassed the 15 cents wage increase. Unlike roaming the park as groundskeeper, you were stuck standing and interrelating with the public all day. The kids were pests and didn’t listen to the rote warnings about getting on and off rides. It was the parents who were the more trying. Correction of their children by another, often results in irrational parental ire.
The 2 better rides to operate were the merry-go-round and the mine ride. On the merry-go-round you worked in the shade and walked about the carousel, mounting and dismounting youngsters with parents and kids calmed by the carousal melody. Drawbacks were cotton candy and 8 hours of repetitive music.
The mine ride required standing all day in the sun and dealing with kids who didn’t listen and their irrational parents but it had a secret perk. Inside the dark mine were scary exhibits and hanging stalactites. Before every mine car was set off the ride operator recited a rote verbal warning about keeping hands in the car and not standing up to avoid injury due to low hanging stalactites.
Adults, kids and girls obeyed but often 12 to 16-year-old boys didn’t. They came to the ride with pockets stuffed with rocks for throwing at the exhibits. Given extra detailed instructions of keeping hands inside the car, they were sent off to tour the mine. What they didn’t know was, there was a secret door near the operator’s mine car launch button to the interior of the mine. It gave access directly behind the mine car before it met the first exhibit.
With suspected bad boys sent to the mine, I snuck through the secret door. In the dark interior, I carried the wood handle of a groundskeeper’s broom and walked unseen behind their mine car. When bad boys reached in a pocket, took out a rock and raised their hand to throw, I released pent up public relations pressure with a broomstick handle thwack to offending paws.
With the pleasing sound of, ow, ow, ow, I returned to my station and greeted the offenders when they exited the mine, clutching an offending hand. Getting out of the mine car, they exclaimed there were low hanging objects in the mine. Pockets still filled with rocks, they ambled off to a safer ride.
Despite the perks of the merry-go-round and the mine ride, I yearned for the freedom of being a groundskeeper despite its low esteem status. Constantly smiling while dealing with an irrational public and standing next to the ride control, usually in the sun, wasn’t worth the extra earned. Roaming the Village seeking trash was better.
Trash picker upper had its perks. You took breaks when you wanted. You walked instead of stood all day with aching legs. You transmitted gossip among the employees and concessionaires. You could sneak in the arcade and waste dimes and you could scurry behind attractive females and ogle them discreetly, pretending to be immersed with your broom and dust pan.
The drawbacks were the public’s view of you as a lowly status popcorn and cigarette butt picker upper and restrooms cleaner. I didn’t care about the public’s portrayed low status. As I day dreamed pushing kids on and off rides, I schemed on making groundskeeper the highest paid part-time job in the park, instead of the lowest.
Theme parks need to present a family squeaky clean appearance. Management constantly harped on everyone pitching in to help keep the park clean. With two pop corn concessions, cotton candy and snow-cones sold in the fountain, 3 to 12-year old kids delegated to holding these while munching and straw sipping, this was difficult. In addition, most adults smoked and butts were tossed and stepped on. The need for groundskeepers, their dustpans and little brooms was obvious.
The problem was, those delegated to groundskeeper duty were new hired males at minimum wage who didn’t see the advantages of the position. They tended to slough off and retreat to the back country or Indian Island, out of public view until their 3 months term was up and they moved up to ride operator status.
Standing in the hot sun, guiding kids holding popcorn or cotton candy in and out of electric track autos, I devised my pitch to management. During my afternoon break I humbly entered the president’s office, with a suggestion to Mr. Zukin, the real Marshall of Frontier Village.
“Mr. Zukin, I have a suggestion to help make the park more attractive to families. Can I have a minute?”
“Jim, why don’t you write it down and I’ll review it.”
“It’s too complicated to write down but only takes a minute to explain.”
“Okay, you got a minute, what is it?”
“The park needs to be kept spotless to attract families. I can do this if you let me select and manage the groundskeepers. Instead of being a new hire position it should be an elite position.”
“And how are you going to do this?”
“Let me select a groundskeeper crew from the new hires and move them to $1.50 an hour as privileged employees. I’ll make it a team who scurry about and pick up the popcorn as soon as it drops.”
“$1.75 and hour. The park and restrooms will be kept spotless. If not, then fire me and do what you’re doing now.”
“Who’s your first groundskeeper selection?”
“Louie Ravizza. He rides to work with me.”
“So, you move up to $1.75 an hour, he gets bumped up to $1.50 and the 2 of you keep the park clean?”
“Yes, but on Sunday’s you’ll still need the 3rd groundskeeper due to the crowds. I get to select from new hires who stays as groundskeepers.”
“We’ll give it a try. If it doesn’t work, I’ll take your suggestion and we’ll go back to the old way, without you.”
“Thank you, sir. It’ll work.”
Leaving the office, I went and talked to Louie Ravizza working on the merry go round. At first, he was skeptical but soon was won over.
So, it was, I was head groundskeeper, strolling the park among the visitors with my dust pan and broom, paid more than the ride operators, at 2.9167cents a minute. I spread gossip and rumors, played arcade games, followed attractive females, plopped my dust pan down with a bang if I wanted them to turn around for a better look and took my breaks when desired but always ensured the park was clean.
I cherry picked new hires, those who wanted a quick move up from $1.25 to $1.50 an hour and who worked fast with the dust pan and broom. A couple even became life long friends. With their vigorous efforts, my break times became longer. In the break room, I sat, smoked, ate glazed donuts, drank coffee and chatted with others rushing in and out of their 15-minute repasts to expand my repertoire of gossip and rumor. Life was good.
Additional groundskeeper duties were cleaning the restrooms, raising and lowering the flags at the park entrance on opening and closing and directing traffic for parking when the crowds were large and parking scarce. Then, I stood in front of cars and guided them to potential parking spaces but confess, occasionally I sent cars I didn’t like, (Mercedes) to dead ends, difficult to back out of. Cleaning the restrooms educated me, men are tidier than women, when someone else is picking and cleaning up.
Of all the groundskeeper’s duties, I enjoyed raising and lowering the flags at the Park’s entrance most. I was careful the California bear and US, stars and stripes never touched the ground and folded them into triangles, military style.
Every 2 hours groundskeeper status was elevated to actor as the Village undertaker when the Marshall shot the bad guy robbing the Frontier Village Bank. This was done by arriving after the shootout dressed as an undertaker with an open wood wheel burrow. The undertaker swept the corpse with a little broom to make it suitable for burial, lifted the dead bad guy onto the wheel burrow and yelled to the Marshall, “He’s still kicking!” when the bad guy’s leg kicked up on the wheel burrow. The Marshall then shot him again and the undertaker wheeled the bad guy to boot hill, the break room, another chance to take a break.
Marshall Ron was one of the originators in development of Frontier Village. He sold stock and assisted in its design. He was a Gun Smoke TV, Matt Dillion type. He didn’t act as the Marshall. In his mind, he was the Marshall of Frontier Village.
The first gunfighter shootout act was at high noon. The bad guy robbed the Frontier Village Bank. He had a real Colt 45 pistol, waved it at the terrified teller, took phony cash bags, holstered his pistol and ran out on to Main Street.
Coming the other direction was the Village hero, Marshall Ron, with his Colt, 45-caliber revolver slung in his waist belt holster. A crowd by this time would gather for the confrontation.
The bank robber of course refused to surrender peacefully. It was a quick draw re-enactment of the Okay Corral with 45 caliber blanks, loud bangs and plenty of smoke to delight the audience. The Marshall always won. The quick draw shootout occurred every 2 hours after the noon one with 4 acts a day. The killed bad guy, miraculously resurrected in 2 hours to be bad guy again. It was the best exhibit of the park and free.
Like most theme parks, including Disney, the Village attractions were, make belief, fakes but unlike others the Village had a few real attractions. The stagecoach was a real stagecoach with real horses including their apples. The burro pack train ride had real burros, which on occasion required shocking brute force to overcome stubbornness. While the robbery and shoot out were make believe, the guns were real. Only the bullets were blank. They were dangerous with powder and wading blown out requiring the crowd to be kept back and the Marshall and bad guy to retain a sufficient safe distance.
Louie Silva, selling balloons on Main Street in front of the General Store, had a closeup view of the quick draw shootout action. He also had a 6-shooter revolver at home, albeit a lightweight 38 caliber compared to the 45’s. He started practicing quick draw at home on a 20-acre orchard in Mountain View, back when Mountain View still had open spaces.
Once Louie Silva convinced himself he could out quick draw Marshall Ron, he formally challenged the Marshall to a shootout after work. The Marshall, as a real Marshall in mind agreed.
Commuting together with just one Louie, the day of Louie balloon man’s scheduled quick draw shootout, he informed me, based on his shooting at his orchard, the danger of the blanks was real.
“Hey, you know something?”
“Louie, I know everything.”
“No, I’m talking about blanks being dangerous. I put one up close to a 2 X 4 and it went right through it.”
“It did. When they keep the crowd back and a distance between the Marshall and the Clyde, the bad guy, it’s necessary”
“You sure you’re shooting blanks”
“Look at the box, it says Wad Cutter. It’s saying filled with wadding.”
I glanced at the box in his hand and a couple of bullets he’d extracted while driving. They looked like the blanks Marshall Ron used only a tad smaller as a 38 caliber. I didn’t give it further thought as I pulled into the Park’s parking lot and parked at a far parking space reserved for employees.
After the park closed, as usual, I went to the front entrance block houses to take the flags down. Passing the balloon sales spot, Louie was carting the helium tanks into the General Store, his revolver in its holster on his belt. He’d worn it all day for the big shoot out with the Marshall after the park closed. I asked.
“When’s the quick draw with the Marshall?”
“Been postponed until tomorrow. He’s in a management meeting.”
I ambled on as he finished his balloon wrap up chores. I’d taken the bear flag down, folded it, tucked it under my left arm and was lowering the stars and stripes when he came out to the parking lot. Disconsolate the quick draw was postponed, he drew the pistol out and waved it around, then pointed it at me.
I’d grown up with guns. I’d bought my first, a single shot 22, for $10 on the lay away plan with paper route money when 12. I’d taken the hunter safety course. I knew when you handled a gun, you were ever cognizant of where the barrel was pointed, you assumed the gun was always loaded and you never, ever pointed a gun at a person. Now one was pointed directly at me, supposedly loaded with blanks.
“Louie, don’t point the gun at me!”
It’s just got blanks.”
“I don’t care. Guns are always loaded. Don’t point it at me.”
He fired off a round near my feet. Gravel spewed up.
“Don’t do that!”
He waved the gun around and again pointed it at me. I walked away to get distance. He fired again. My right arm flew back, a hole through the forearm. Blood gushed out. The California flag dropped to the ground.
“You shot me!”
That’s how accidents happen, at the blink of an eye but time can’t be reversed for the blink.
He was in disbelief but not me. I rushed to the entrance gate blockhouse where they were tabulating the days receipts. There was a first aid kit there. I opened the door and told the cowgirl counting money.
“I need a tourniquet.”
She looked up and started screaming. Obviously, I wasn’t getting first aid from her. I pulled off my cowboy silk neck scarf and tied it tight with the left hand and teeth above the bullet hole on my arm. The blood flow eased.
Her hysteria ebbed and she wanted to call an ambulance. By then I knew it was just a flesh wound, no broken bone and all fingers moving. I decided to have Louie drive me to San Jose Hospital. At the car he was shaking and blubbering about not knowing the gun was loaded. I decided to drive the 10-miles myself.
At the emergency room blood flow was at the seeping stage, not spurting. They wheeled me right into an operating room with my cowboy uniform still on. After a real tourniquet was applied, needle injections for antibiotics and arm anesthesia, a nurse swabbed the holes with an antiseptic.
Once she left, a young doctor waltzed in, asked a few questions, poked around the hole with a latex gloved index finger and gathered his scalpels. He started slicing away without comment. I watched his hacking and cutting in the reflection of the operating lamp chrome rim. It looked like he was cutting my arm off but he just opened the outside down to the bullet hole and scraped the trajectory path clean of mangled flesh. Satisfied with his handywork, he sewed up the arm back to whole as I watched the reflection, amazed it was my arm yet I felt nothing.
He removed his gloves, washed his hands and let me sit up on the operating table. Assured by my responses to his questions I was not suffering from blood loss or in shock he directed me to a little recovery room until the anesthesia wore off. There, listening to Louie’s pleas for forgiveness, as I sat, the door burst open. A police office entered to take a shooting report.
He went carefully over the details, looked at the wad cutter bullets, shook his head while giving Louie a disgusting glance and concluded I was very lucky because a wad cutting bullet is like a dumb-dumb bullet, meant to flatten when it hit something solid like a bone. He said it was only to be used for target practice where the bullet was supposed to splatter when it hits the wall behind the target. Staring at Louie he informed him a serial killer in Santa Cruz County killed 3 with wad cutter bullets.
He filled out his paper work, assured by me it was all an accidental. As he got up to depart. I stopped him.
“Officer, at the station you file your reports, correct?”
“Why do you ask?”
As usual, cops ask the questions, you do the answers.
“Newspapers are always looking for a story. A Frontier Village cowboy shot taking the American flag down at closing by a guy who was supposed to have a quick draw shoot out with the Marshall would be a tempting story.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“Frontier Village is a good family amusement park. It makes San Jose a better place. They’re very generous with free passes and ride tickets for the police and their families. We don’t want to damage its reputation.
At headquarters there’s probably 2 file piles, one for the mundane and one the newspaper reporters root through. It would be good if your report was in the mundane folder.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
He left, I drove Louie to his car and then drove home. Mom was hysterical but calmed when I moved all my fingers on the shot arm hung in its sling and explained it was just a flesh wound.
I called Frontier Village to explain I needed a month off. They were all abuzz about what happened and of course, misinformed based on sketchy information provided by the cashier in the block house who couldn’t apply a tourniquet.
A few days later, after school, Louie finally able to drive, we went to Frontier Village to be interviewed by our employers. As we passed the General Store, Mr. Davis came out and assured Louie he still had his job. He joked he’d keep him even if he’d shot the Marshall, proof it was hard to find a good balloon salesman.
Mr. Zukin, Marshall Ron and the personal director did our inquisitions. As when criminals are queried, they kept us separate. The shooter testified first. There was no need to get our stories straight. What happened was straight forward simple. I was working taking down the flags in the parking lot, Louie pointed a gun at me, I tried to get away, Louie shot me thinking the gun was loaded with blanks. End of story.
As soon as I sat down, Mr. Zukin told me.
“Jim, Frontier Village does not allow horseplay. We’re terminating your employment.”
I was fired. It took a bit to respond but then I did.
“Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. I’m doing my job, cleaning up the parking lot, taking down the flags, a concessioner balloon sales guy brings a gun to Frontier Village because he and Marshall Ron are going to have a quick draw shootout contest, he brings unknown to me real bullets, he follows me out to the parking lot, points his gun at me, I try to get away, he shoots me and I get fired but he keeps his job?
After being shot I have to tie my own tourniquet, drive myself to the hospital and after laying on the operating table get the police officer who responded to the shooting to keep it out of the newspaper and I get fired?
How about this alternate? Frontier Village cowboy gets shot while taking down US flag, has to tie his own tourniquet to stop bleeding, drives himself to hospital, in thanks gets fired and has to sue his employer yet the shooter keeps his job?
I’m not talking about suing because I don’t think my employer did anything wrong. Louie Silva has agreed to pay my hospital bill. How about a better response? I recover and I return to work, end of story.”
Mr. Zukin was silent during my little spiel but Marshall Ron winced with his name brought into the discussion.
I knew from talking with Mr. Davis, Zukin told him to fire Louie but Mr. Davis replied.
“Hell no, he’s great selling balloons. He can shoot the Marshall for all I care.”
So Zukin pondered my position and replied.
“Jim, your explanation adds more information. Please go to the other room and we’ll review our decision.”
It was about 15 minutes before I was called back in. I knew they were chewing not on the equitableness of my dismissal but their liability and press exposure. When I sat down, Zukin again did the talking.
“Jim, after listening to your explanation we’ve decided to retain your employment here. I want to thank you for helping us understand what happened. Please let us know when you are well enough to come back to work.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Out of Zukin’s office, I knew, for 3 years, the statute of limitations for suing, I had job security.
Once back to listening to cowboy background melodies, following pretty females and plunking down my dust bin, I was again heads groundskeeper. I even managed to ring up 999 free games in the arcade baseball pinball machine to give to some lucky kid when I had to rush off and be undertaker. The Village was kept spotless and when car-pooling to work it was.
“Louie, Louie, we gotta go work now, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
I continued work there 2 and half more years until better jobs came up. I never sued Frontier Village and the public never heard of the real shootout there.
Author Notes: The public never heard about the real shooting at Okay Corral.