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Los Angeles, 1943: My Uncle Berle and Aunt Flossie lived a few houses down the alley from us in a rundown 1930s stucco duplex. We were all rural Okies, newly arrived in California, and arrived with more money than the Joads, a lot less than the Beverly Hillbillies. (Uncle Berle is the star of this story, but I couldn’t come up with any photos of him, and since I play a small role, I’m throwing in a couple of photos of me to lend some flavor of the era to my story. Besides, every story, as Alice told her governess, needs a few pictures.)
In Oklahoma, Uncle Berle, A big and gangly kid, fished the ponds and lakes around Wanette, a small farming town an hour or so drive from Oklahoma City.
In California, Uncle Berle must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. It’s true that there wasn’t a pond or lake in sight in LA County and the only river was the tiny LA River that flowed its sluggish and polluted way, encased in concrete, toward the Pacific. But Uncle Berle now had an ocean to fish in. He could fish for sand bass by standing on the ocean shore, a long pole in his two hands and casting his line (with heavy sinkers) out past the waves; he could fish from a variety of piers and from the grassy shores of small Pacific Ocean inlets, and, best of all, he could fish in the deep sea from commercial boats out of Long Beach. The guy just loved to fish.
He and Flossie had no children, so Uncle Berle would take me deep sea fishing every so often. I’m sure it was a disappointment to him, but I was more interested in sneaking a few quarters into the ship’s slot machines (we were in international waters) than I was fishing for mackerel. My family once had a photo of me, now lost, holding up a barracuda that was almost as tall as I was. While I was looking for that photo, I found the photo to the right, which shows me holding a small fish of some kind that I caught somewhere or another. (The Forresters seem not to have been much interested in identifying their photos.)
Upon arriving in California, Uncle Berle bought a small, rundown laundry business. People would drop off their dirty clothes and come back, a few hours later, and pick up their clean, neatly stacked, professionally folded pile of clothing. I used to work part-time at the store folding clothes.
Uncle Berle soon fixed up a special section of the laundry where he sold a few fishing rods and reels, baseballs, bats, and mitts. Through the years, he gradually expanded that side of the business and contracted the laundry until the laundry finally just disappeared. Though his sporting goods store was small, Uncle Berle was a likable guy who knew his merchandise well, especially the fishing and hunting gear. The store became a success.
So after many years of hand-to-mouth living, Uncle Berle and Aunt Flossie were finally sitting in the catbird seat.
Then everything turned on them. In 1965, the Watts Riots erupted, and Uncle Berle’s sporting goods store was smack dab in the middle of it. The riots lasted five days, resulting in $40 million in damages and 34 deaths.
Uncle Berle had a large stock of hunting rifles, shotguns, pistols, and ammo in his sporting goods store. He knew that the looters would be coming after those firearms — along with everything else in the store they could smash and grab. It was his store, and he wasn’t going to let that happen, so he started sleeping in the store with a shotgun on the floor next to his cot.
On the second night, the rioters broke through the back door and made a rush for the firearms. Uncle Berle shot at close range into the mob with birdshot shells, the least lethal round for a shotgun. The mob turned and fled the shop, most of them with 20 or 30 small bleeding wounds. The next morning, the cops found a man lying in the lot at the back of Berle’s store, dead from a shotgun wound. He had apparently taken the most serious blast from Uncle Berle’s shotgun and had staggered out the back before he collapsed and bled out. (I got these details from Uncle Berle himself.)
Although Uncle Berle was never charged with a crime, he received anonymous death threats, despite the fact that he had always been a popular small business owner, with a lot of friendly connections with the local community. For one thing, Uncle Berle sponsored many little league teams in the area, made up usually of black kids, and outfitted them with simple uniforms (with the name of his sporting good store on the back, of course.)
But it was just too dangerous to stay where he was, so he and Flossie sold his sporting goods store at a discounted rate and then bought a new sporting good store outside the LA inner core.
His new location never did very well. When I visited in the early ’70s, Aunt Flossie was lying on a bed in the backroom, sick to her death (she died a year or so later). But she had to help tend the store when she could, because Uncle Berle had developed arthritis so bad he could hardly wait on customers. Watching him move slowly and painfully about the store almost brought tears to my eyes. They had to make a living.
My mom always blamed her brother’s arthritis on the trauma of the Watts Riots and his killing of a man. I never put much store in mom’s theory, but in doing a little research for this post, I discovered that severe emotional stress can not only flare up an existing arthritic condition, but even bring on a new case.
The last time I saw Uncle Berle, he was in a bed in an assisted living facility. My mom was feeding her brother with a spoon because he couldn’t raise his arthritic arms, and his fingers, knobby and twisted, couldn’t hold a utensil. Uncle Berle wanted to fish and hunt when he retired.
Whenever I come across a video of a riot on television and see a cop land a solid blow with his baton on the back or head of a rioter or looter, I say to myself, “That one’s for Uncle Berle.”Published in