Life History of Ralph Julius Lauper

Chapter 3b

Unforgettable Characters in my Life

Harold "Skinny" Smallwood

Harold was a classic example of a basically good person who came into the world as a totally unbalanced individual; too much body and not enough mind. It may be said of him that he became a victim of the system. The system under which we live seems always to require less from those possessed of natural physical ability than it does of those who are not. A fawning public then doubles its error by going out of its way to make things easier still for those so endowed. The system, as well as his inability in self-discipline, destroyed him in the end.

When Harold was in High School, his study habits had been atrocious. He developed into an enviable physical specimen. He had already attained a weight of 190 lbs. on a 6'2" frame. His body fat was absolutely zero and would remain that way for many years, despite his excesses, which were many. His handsome face and long, sinewy frame made of him a veritable photographer's dream. He became the "Big' Man on Campus"; a drinker, smoker and by consensus, an All-American womanizer. The last two high school grades were housed on the same campus as the Jr. College and all four grades attended class together.

Midway through my junior year in High School we moved to Ventura, CA. I met Harold for the first time in a Gym Class we shared. His social life and laziness didn't leave him enough time to become involved in team sports so he didn't go out for any. His inertia was resulting in the waste of a tremendous reservoir of natural ability. Gym class was quite a different matter. No effort or extra time was involved there. Harold was, of course, the Star. We each, for some inexplicable reason, took an instant liking for the other. We were so different in makeup. He was a carouser which I wasn't, even though I was somewhat wild. He was a racist. I definitely was not. I studied some, he not at all. And finally, I was short and lightweight, 'alongside his imposing figure. One thing we both took seriously was the touch football games we played in Gym Class. We always got on the same team and we always won. It didn't matter who else was on the team, we still won. Skinny would always be the quarterback. When the Center snapped the ball to him, he would immediately start running, with blazing speed, to make a touchdown, which he was able to do about half of the time. The other half, he would yell, using the nickname he had coined for me, "run Little Man". I would run for the goal post, look around and the ball would be right there for me to catch. Touchdown! The coach was always griping that Skinny would never go out for football.

Harold was a senior in High School and the nickname "Skinny" stuck with him for the rest of his life. Later when I was a High School Senior and he was a Jr. College Freshman, it may have been that the college coach was more persuasive, or it may have been a sudden awareness on his part, that sports could be the pathway to bigger and better things. No matter what caused it, at the halfway point in the season, he suddenly decided to play football. He didn't give one thought to the uphill battle it is for one who has never played a single down of football to suddenly step in and try to even make a college team.

Skinny didn't have to worry. He practiced with the team for one week. To use his speed the coach installed an end-around play. Skinny started the game at right end that Saturday against Taft Jr. College. He played on both offense and defense in every game during the remainder of the season. Harold made so many touchdowns he was a unanimous choice as All-League End, in a Conference which included the likes of Pasadena, Compton, Santa Monica, Glendale, Long Beach and Los Angeles Jr. Colleges.

Once the football season ended, the accolades began to diminish for this athletic marvel and he seemed a little restless. His off-campus shenanigans did go on and on. I said that I didn't participate in his social forays, I still avoided that. He was too wild and unprincipled for me. But I was still drawn to the Big Guy and did get involved in some of his escapades.

Occasionally some of us would ride through the residential area on garbage night. From our positions in the bed of a pick-up, we would lasso garbage cans, drag them a block or so and be long gone before the racket brought the police.

We liked watermelon. There were several good melon patches alongside the Old Santa Paula Road. Whenever the mood struck us, we would drive out there, hop over the fence, and get some. The best field was carefully guarded by an old farmer who didn't mind using his shotgun, loaded with buckshot. He would fire at us even before we got over the fence and onto his property. Harold came up with a plan. We drove out there one night. Skinny jumped the fence and actually dashed wildly across the field, yelling as he ran. While the farmer was busy shooting at him, the rest of us loaded up. We picked him up about a half mile down the road. He almost outran the bullets, but not quite. We dug two bee-bees out of his back and one out of his leg. We used a pocket knife. Skinny laughed off the incident.

In those days, we didn't mind driving over twenty miles out to Somis just so we could go skinny-dipping in an old pond there. Dennis went along at least once. We would even drive a distance of 10 miles from Ventura to Oxnard just to get rich, thick, creamy malt, at Peacocks. Old man Peacock built the absolutely best malt in the whole county.

One day a carload of us were headed for Peacocks in John Bogg's old Dodge sedan. We passed a field a swarm with 50 or so Filipino laborers, who, with their hoes, were weeding a big acreage of lima beans alongside the road. Skinny, who was an admitted racist of the first order, instructed John to slow down. Leaning out of the window he shouted every insult and racial slur he could think of at them. It seemed such a mindless, stupid and senseless thing for him to do, I told him so. I suggested that he should have been born a hundred years earlier and as a slave owner in the Deep South. He affably agreed but at that very moment was apparently working on a plan.

I learned what he had in mind when on the way back from Peacocks, and drawing abreast of that angry herd of workmen, Skinny suddenly leaned over, turned the ignition off, and threw the key out of the window. John swore, protested loudly, slammed to a stop, jumped out and while calling to us for help, he got down on his hands and knees and began sifting the dirt, handful by handful, in search of his key. The rest of us got out to help John. All of us except Smallwood, who just sat in the car, teasing Johnnie.

About a dozen of the workers who were nearest to the road stood up. With their hoes in hand and anger in their eyes, they began advancing toward John. We tried to form a protective shield about him but they kept coming. At the last moment, the Big Man rolled out of the car, walked over and stood before them, hurling invectives their way and ordering them to get lost, or words to that effect. He seemed to realize and to expect the dampening effect on them, created by that imposing figure. Their angry shouts turned to murmurs as John finally found his keys and we drove away with Skinny laughing all the way home. He had just done something that all the rest of us together couldn't do!

I was running around with the wrong crowd and the truth of it was slowly beginning to sink into my mind. The last big escapade in which I became involved, and one which came close to becoming our undoing, happened on a Halloween night.

With Smallwood leading the way, we moved an outhouse from somewhere out in the country, carried it up the long flight of steps fronting the Ventura County Courthouse, and stood it upright outside the front door. We got away scot free on the one. Later, that same night, we didn't fare so well!

Along about midnight we rode down Main Street in a one ton truck, throwing spoiled tomatoes at each car we met. Skinny missed a car but hit a motorcycle cop on the far side of it, dumping both officer and bike up onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, neither bike nor rider suffered any damage. Harold later pointed out how much worse it could have been, a fact I was already too fully aware of.

Of course we stopped to help the officer. The Cop was mad! He got the wagon out and hauled us down to the Police Station. The offended officer was all for throwing the book at us. We were booked up to a certain point, so they would have info on us just in case we got in trouble again. To be fingerprinted in those days was the same as putting at least two strikes against any future you might have, The Smallwood mystique and star-status worked in our favor. Against the protests of three of four other officers who were present, the Sergeant refused to have us fingerprinted because, he of course "knew the Smallwood kid. He had a great future and fingerprint records would look bad for him". Harold had already admitted to throwing the tomato. Since they couldn't deal with the rest of us more harshly than they did him they threw the 5 of us in a jail cell and left us there until after 5 A. M. to keep us out of any more foolishness.

By the time we walked out of there in the morning, I realized that my only real concern all night had been the embarrassment and shame I might have brought on my mother and family. I was able to slip in the house and to bed without detection.

I didn't want any more of that! I told Skinny on the way home about my feelings. I even told him I didn't want to see or speak to him again, ever! I held fast on part of it. We remained close friends, but the only places I ever went with him, after that night, were to places where the potential for trouble was less than one in a million. He was a loaded cannon!

I want to relate one last incident to demonstrate Harold's protective attitude toward his friend, "Little Man." It also reveals the only time I ever witnessed real anger coming from this affable young Giant.

A bunch of us young guys were hired to thin and weed a celery field just off the highway, up on the Rincon, between Ventura and Santa Barbara. Boggs, Smallwood, Dennis and I were among them. There were others in the crew, including two young hoodlums who would be perfectly at home in a Hells Angels Gang of today. They both had prison records to prove it. They were both big men, about Skinny's size, and possessed of mean dispositions.

One was named Harold Hollum; Waverley Starley was the name of the other one. Those two guys were never one bit friendly to me which was all right with me; I didn't care for them either. The thing that galled me the most about them was that they were constantly baiting me, trying to get a rise out of me. Invariably they would get around to my religious affiliation and beliefs. I had no physical fear of them and always felt down deep inside that I could handle either of them. I was growing some and was in tip-top condition. This feeling of self-assurance probably enabled me to restrain myself in the face of verbal attacks upon the church. No, we were not friends, but we shared a friendship in common with another guy and I think they resented it.

On that particular day, Skinny and I were working side by side. The two thugs were working towards us, 100 feet or so up the row. They started up with the same old chorus, wondering, in voices loud enough for everyone to hear, how many wives Ralph planned to have, and no wonder he wanted to be a Mormon in such a wild church. I was getting hot and yelled back at them that, "I'd a whole lot rather be a Mormon, than a jailbird." That seemed to make Starley mad and he began plucking oranges off from an orange tree, a row of which grew alongside of him. Every minute or two, he would throw one at me. Finally one of them hit me. I started to get up saying, "I'll fix him good for that!" Harold hadn't said a word until then. He reached out; pulled me back down and said, "Don't go up there Little Man. They'll both jump you and half kill you. Let me handle it." I have no idea what he planned to do. Whatever plan he had was abruptly changed when an orange hit him in the ear. I had loudly warned them against hitting Smallwood, saying, "He won't like it!" Now, for Starley, it was already too late.

Harold stood up without a word, walked quickly to where they were also now standing and in less than a minute Wave was only semiconscious, lying on the ground, two beautiful front teeth gone, a deep laceration on his cheeks, one eye closed, nose broken and a concussion which would keep him in the hospital, seeing double, for five days. And he hadn't even fired a shot. Little wonder that his brave ally failed to come to his aid. Skinny walked back to his hoe, saying, "They won't bother you anymore, 'Little Man'." And, of course, they didn't. I gained an impression, right then and there, that Smallwood, had he so desired, could have become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. But let us get back to the things which he did do, both on his way up and on "his way down, to the very bottom.

As I said already, the football season was over and his stardom enjoyed. Now he was tired of it and would never put on a football uniform again in his life. The track season had just started. I recall a conversation we had one day, as we stood on the sidewalk out in front of the college. Out of the clear blue sky he made a short statement, "Ralph, I'm going out for track."

"What for?" I asked, almost without interest. His answer jolted even me.

"I'm going to run the dashes in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, and win."

"You're crazy," I said. "You don't have the grades to get into a decent college, where you could get some decent coaching. This is 1934 Harold, be sensible! Besides that, you've never run a race in your life!"

Skinny patiently pointed out that just because he hadn't been on a track team, it didn't mean that he couldn't run. He figured the fact that his dad, who was born in England and had been a World Class Sprinter, should count for something. He finalized it by stating that in footraces against his brother Fred, Fred could beat him up to 50 yards, but that was all. When I weakly asked how he planned, to even get into a University, I found that he already had it all worked out.

"I'll do my part," was his rejoinder. "When I get through with them, then the Alumni will take care of the rest." (Note: Skinny's elder brother Fred had left school and was working full-time at the grocery store where I also worked part-time.)

Harold won the 100 and 220 yard races in every dual meet in the Conference that year. He also anchored the 440 and 880 relay team and crossed the finish line first, no matter how much ground he had to make up when he was passed the baton. He was already being watched and talked to by recruiters from many major universities. He repeated his usual scenario at the Conference Championship meet in the L.A. Coliseum where he fell under the watchful gaze of Dean Cromwell of U.S.C., who made up his mind right then and there, that Smallwood was going to college at Southern Cal., and why not? Skinny had long since picked U.S.C. as his school. The Trojan campus was the Track and Field Factory for the whole nation, the world even! They were perennial N.C.A.A. Champs. In the Olympics they usually scored more point totals alone than all but the larger nations. Their athletes past and present held more world records than did anyone else ever and boasted of several of them in school at that time. Skinny had done his part. The Alumni would now do theirs. They wined and dined him, slipped him money under the table and had him on the payroll, more or less. Then they took him in to meet "The Man." Coach Dean Cromwell was aptly named. He was also the Dean of the American Track and Field Coaches. He was the winningest coach in history, had coached the previous two American Olympic Squads, and had been selected to coach the 1936 squad in Berlin. Dean's P.R. was good, knowledge of the sport better and in talent evaluation, excellent. His ability to motivate was tops. Sadly enough the same can not be said for his recruiting methods. In a "winning is the only thing" system, ethics and morals are always the first to go. The system was at work. Cromwell operated very well under that system, though he may not have instigated any wrongdoing, he would have had to know of it, and he tolerated it. Skinny became a Trojan which he had wanted to be all along. He showed me a packet which was mailed to him by the U.S.C. Athletic Department. It contained a warm letter of Welcome from Coach Cromwell, more to the need; however, it contained a copy of the entrance exam, along with the answers. Even Harold could pass that one. They continued this practice with every examination for which he requested help up to and including his final, day before graduation at USC. Harold always had money and said his "friends" gave it to him. He never worked or studied and said the best equipment at the school was a long ladder at his Fraternity House which could reach the 3rd story of the Women's Sorority Buildings. His social life blossomed and he broke all training rules.

Coach Dean took Harold out for a private workout at the beginning of the fall semester. He timed Harold in the "sprints" and watched his "starts" as well as his "finishes." His shrewd eye had detected something. He said, "Smallwood, you don't start fast enough to run the sprints. You are too tall to get out of the starting blocks in time. You will win lots of races as a "sprint" man, even the National Championship, maybe. But I'm going to make a World Champion Quarter-miler out of you." The Coach either wouldn't or couldn't control Skinny's libertine behavior, but he did motivate him to work out on a schedule, both strenuous and regular. It was payback time for Skinny and he was more than equal to the task, winning the quarter mile race in dual meets all over the Pacific Coast conference. He and three other speed merchants were also winning the mile relay at these events. Harold ran the quarter mile anchor lap. It was up at the Fresno Relays that Skinny proved to be a wise investment for Dean Cromwell and the Trojans. Fred and I sat raptly by the radio as Smallwood ran the anchor lap on the mile relay. They set a World Record! When I saw Harold a couple of weeks later, he was quite pleased about it, but not overly so. He had his sights set on the Olympic Gold. His main competition, in the "world batch" of 440 men, proved to be a rising young "phenom" out at [University of] CAL in Berkeley. They had yet to compete against each other. In subsequent races they met three times. Archie Williams dealt Smallwood a stinging defeat in the Drake Relays at Des Moines, Iowa. In their 2nd meeting at Madison Square Gardens in New York, Skinny beat him, but was forced to a new NCAA record in order to do it. Their third meeting matched them up in the Olympic tune-up games, out on Long Island, New York. Harold won the Rubber match. He was ready for the Olympics! On the boat trip crossing the Atlantic Skinny didn't feel so good. He partied a lot and blamed that for his condition. He also became a close friend and admirer of Jesse Owens, the great black sprint star from Ohio State University. When I asked him how he, a racist, could be so laudatory about a black man, he said that Jesse was a true gentleman and a great credit to his race. Hitler was not nearly so magnanimous. He himself was a racist, and when that humble black man stood on the Victory Stand to accept his fourth Gold Medal and third World Record Performance, it became intolerable and "Der Fuhrer" walked out of the stadium, never to return. Despite not feeling well, Smallwood won his 3 or 4 trial heats easily, and posted the best trial heat of all heat winners, including Archie Williams, who also won his heat. The news media picked up on this event and called it the "Matching of the Two Great American Quarter Milers". They also predicted that tomorrow's winner in the finals would have to set a new world record. Alas, Harold's two year flame was flickering. He was never to realize his dream. His greatest competition was not Archie Williams at all. As it turned out, He himself was his own greatest rival.

Front page headlines the next day carried the news! Harold Smallwood had gone to the hospital during the night, to have a ruptured appendix removed. He was also suffering from a terribly over-enlarged heart and was not expected to live. But live he did, and came home, on a gurney, aboard the same ship as the victorious American Squad. Archie Williams won the Gold but did not set a new World Record. Poor Harold was denied the chance to even compete! Skinny was popular among his teammates and, when the boat docked in New York they all pitched in and paid the plane fare for him to Los Angeles. He lay in critical condition in a hospital for some time, not realizing how bad off he really was. Jean Harlow, the top box office draw in Hollywood was a patient there and when she gifted him with a small radio, it was the first time he was told he was dying. He had such a powerful body that he not only got out of the hospital alive, but was soon trying to get back in shape for the next track season. He was looking toward the 1940 Olympics. At first it was a slow, painful process. He'd come home for a weekend, play a game of touch football with us and go to bed for two days. He still had something left and when the next track season arrived, the doctors gave him the "O.K." to run. He lasted 2 weeks and had to quit. The members of the great Trojan track squad voted him Honorary Captain. The last time I saw and talked to Skinny was after I had moved to Oakland, CA. I attended a dual track meet between USC and CAL at Edwards Field out in Berkeley. He was there with the team, wearing a nice business suit. I slipped down on the field and we enjoyed a long nostalgic talk. It was sad in a way, because, how do you speak about the many things you just can't say? The lost youth, the shattered dreams, the golden years now gone forever? It was too much for me; l left early and went home in a depressed state. Years later Harold died. He had married a rich girl. He had also become a hopeless alcoholic. Harold "Skinny" Smallwood came into the world richly blessed. He left it broke, without a wife (divorced), diseased in body and mind, utterly lost, and became, in the end, a victim of his own excesses, and the very system which spawned him.

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