Memoir #3: Robert M. Martin; People Who Made a Difference

(People who made a difference, 1943-58, San Francisco)

Grammar school

During the course of a lifetime, you sometimes meet a delightful, wonderful person whom you never forget. Sister Mary Bernard was just such a person.

She understood people, both pupils and parents, intuitively. She was honest and evenhanded to all who knew her, had a great sense of humor, and had time to listen to any of her students, past or present, if they needed counseling.

By the time that I was fortunate enough to have her as my 8th grade instructor, she had been a teacher long enough to compare some of her current students with their parents that she had taught a generation earlier. Luckily somehow, the comparison seemed only to be made if the current student was not doing as well as his/her parent had done a generation earlier.

If there was anything that good Sister Bernard seemed very enthusiastic about, it was her charity promotion

drives for the poor and starving children in Africa and Asia. Whether it was a raffle, auction, or donation collection, she was behind the activity 110%. Parents were also encouraged to participate by their children who were in Sister Bernard’s class.

Of the charities, the one that her students remembered most in later years was for the Pope’s Poor Children. Five dollars was enough to help an infant survive for an extended period. And the recipient would be given our name, as benefactor and informal adopter. and we would get a certificate for each child helped.

By the time many of us were in a university, we would sometime jokingly quarry about whom we had adopted and if those children may someday show up on our doorsteps, announcing, “This certificate states that you saved us as infants. Now we need you again. We are tired, hungry, and need a place to stay.” So far, we benefactors have been fortunate.

Model trains

In the postwar years, the U.S. experienced a vibrant economic growth, with both blue and white collar workers making real strides in their savings and discretionary spending.

Model trains absorbed leisure time for both the active and passive hobbyist. For the beginner and advanced railroaders alike, there were Lionel and American Flyer, two domestic companies that dominated local markets throughout the second half of the 1940s. By the 1950s, European model railways began to make major inroads into the U.S. markets with smaller gauge railway track sizes that had the advantage of putting more into less space for the garage or tool shed hobbyist.

During my middle grammar school, I’d visit the Christmas Holiday railway model displays in the Downtown Market Street shopping area at the Emporium, Macys, White House, and J.C. Penney. For a pre-teen, the variety of operating equipment and layout display possibilities was amazing; and they definitely wetted my appetite for a set of my own.

My parents were always willing to help me get started on a worthwhile enterprise, academic or general interest. They discussed the idea of a model railway for me between themselves as well as among the three of us in concert.

They allowed me to select the set from the Lionel catalogue, and both came with me to one of the local Clement Street stores that had the entire line of the latest models. There we followed the common postwar ritual of having the item held until paid, the lay-away account, to be incrementally paid off. And for us, that way was just before Christmas.

Additional track, rolling stock, and layout display items were very slowly added. My folks had made the initial purchase for me. I would use my own resources to do the additions. Paper route, flyer deliveries, and delivery boy were among the early jobs. My father’s business property in Hayward, California, offered gardening experience jobs, seeming without end; but I went back for more.

As a freshman in high school, a golden opportunity developed for my continuing hobby. Greg, owner-operator of one of the largest model railway, T.V./radio, electrical shops on Clement Street was discontinuing his model trains and discounting what he had remaining.

I took a chance and contacted Greg, another high school student model train enthusiast, and my father. Greg would offer me an even better deal on his trains if I agreed to buy everything he had, lock, stock, and barrel. The other train enthusiast agreed to take half of the merchandise, and my father, in concert with my mother, agreed to give me a loan.

All three transactions were easy enough to conclude, but for the first time in my life, I was a debtor and I definitely wanted to retain my credit standing with my father.

I decided that another project was in order. My portable typewriter, sheets of typing and carbon paper, a pair of scissors, and a stapler made paying the loan off a possibility. I would have a raffle covering the Richmond District where I lived and beyond, if necessary.

Don, my younger brother and still in grammar school, was willing to help for a reasonable wage. Together we went door-to-door, block after block, for weekends and school holidays for weeks on end. We were well received, and the closer to the Christmas Holiday season we came the more tickets we sold.

One afternoon a San Francisco Police Patrol Car pulled up to the curb and an officer got out and came over to speak with my brother and me. He listened to us, heard about the distance we had covered up to that point, and thought for a long second. Finally he told us that we could not sell raffle tickets without a license. We had to stop selling tickets, then and there. I took a deep gulp and said that I understood.

When the officer drove away Don and I went to a nearby mom and pop corner grocery store for an ice cream and a moment to think. “What are you going to do now, Bob?” he asked.

“We know that we can’t sell any more tickets and it would take forever to return the money to people waiting for their chance to win a model railway. The police officer said nothing about having the raffle drawing, only that we should not sell more tickets.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“We have the raffle tonight.”

“Can I draw the winning ticket?”

“Of course, and you can come with me to set up the train set at the winner’s house. How does that sound to you?”

“Yes, I like that a lot.”

A family in Sea Cliff, just down from the Legion of Honor Museum won the model railway set. My father drove my brother and me over to their house and we set it up. The recipients were delighted.

My father took Don and me to Mels Diner and we all had Hot Fudge Ice Cream Sundays, and took a "take out hamburger" with everything on it for mom at home.

That night I paid off my debt to my father. He smiled and said that my credit was still good with him.

—Copyright © R. M. Martin, "People Who Made a Difference, 1943-58, San Francisco.

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