I spent a couple of years in the early nineties as Custom Box Service's outside salesperson. For the most part, I hated sales. From time to time, though, I met somebody interesting or had a strange encounter.
The most interesting person I ever met while making sales calls was Herb Nelson. Herb was eighty years old, loquacious, vivacious, inventive. He had been in advertising for many years. He and his wife, Marguerritte, developed a sewing table made from corrugated cardboard.
The last time I saw Herb was the week after Marguerritte died. He was a wreck. The woman that he loved, to whom he had been married for more than fifty years, was gone. He needed to talk, and I let him. I wished that I had a tape recorder; I knew it would be impossible to do justice to his stories after the fact. Still, I tried to set down two of his stories as best as I could recollect them.
"You never know where an opportunity is going to come from," Herb says.
"I took a year off between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Out of dough. I was walking down the street in Anacortes, Washington and I passed an oyster shop: Padilla Oysters. They were really busy. I had an idea. As I opened the door and walked in, I founded Nelson's News Service."
"I asked the man at the counter if I could speak to the manager. I introduced myself and asked the manager if he could use some publicity. His store looked like it was well-liked and I thought maybe he would like to get the word out."
"'Sounds interesting,' the manager said. 'Let's go talk to the president.'"
"He took me to the president. 'What do you have in mind?' the president asked."
"I explained that I would create publicity for his company so that he could expand his market."
"'How much would you charge for this?' the president asked."
"Well, I hadn't really thought about it. I'd just found the company a few minutes earlier. 'How about 25 centers per column inch?' I said."
"'What if you get picked up by the Associated Press?'" asked the president."
"I hadn't thought of that," Herb admits.
"He said, 'I'll tell you what: I'll give you $50 a week.'"
"When I got out of college I was making $18 a week starting salary at an advertising agency. That's all we made at the agencies. Of course that was during the depression, and this story I'm telling you happened a few years before. Still, $50 a week was not chump change. It was good money."
"So I created publicity for the Padilla Oyster Company. I went to the library and researched oysters. That's all ad-writing really is: library work. Before long I had a series of publicity cartoons. They showed a picture of the president of the oyster company speaking things relating to oysters. One listed the big oyster companies of the world: Company X, Company Y, and Padilla."
"Of course, Padilla wasn't really one of the big oyster companies."
"Have you ever met a famous author?" asks Herb.
"No," I say, shaking my head. I sense another story coming.
"I was in Chicago working on an advertising account. One day Carl Sandburg was on the bus. I was seated here. He was seated three or four rows up on the other side." He pokes the air with his pudgy, wrinkled fingers to indicate their relative positions on the bus.
"I leaned forward and I whispered to him: 'The city of big shoulders.'"
Herb smiles at me as if I should know what this means. I confess I haven't read much of Sandburg's poetry.
"Oh, he didn't just write poetry," Herb explains. "He wrote non-fiction, too. He wrote Lincoln and other non-fiction, too. He didn't just write poetry."
"Well, 'the city of big shoulders' is a line from his poem, Chicago. So Carl Sandburg turns around and he says to me, 'I guess you've got my number.'" He laughs, pleased with himself. "'Why don't you come sit with me?' he said. So I went up and we had a nice talk."
"I was going to San Francisco and it turned out he was, too. When we go to the airport, our flight was delayed, so we walked around and we talked. He was a real nice man. We talked on the plane the whole way to San Francisco. And people didn't treat him like someone famous. I've dealt with a lot of celebrities before: movie stars and singers and the like. One of our big accounts when I was in Los Angeles was Paramount Studios. When people meet a big star, they are usually in awe."
Herb opens his mouth and gapes as if meeting a matinee idol.
"But he wasn't like that. Carl Sandburg was like Mt. Ranier. He was like an object, part of the scenery. One woman came up while we were talking and took a picture and then just walked away."
"Anyhow, when we got to San Francisco, Marguerritte was at the airport waiting for me with the two boys. This was back in the days when you got off the plane on a little platform and walked down a stairway out in the open. There were a bunch of photographers around the gate and Marguerritte told the boys, 'You watch, now. There'll be somebody famous on this plane.' So they watched and watched."
"When I got off the plane, I went over to my wife and introduced her to Carl Sandburg." Herb chuckles. "Imagine how shocked she was to see photographers swarmed around me."
"Carl Sandburg was a nice man. He was like a mountain."
Sometimes I wonder if Herb Nelson is still alive. What would it be like to call him up and ask him to let me record his stories: how he spent time as a fireman, how he "exploded the myth of the 'R' months".
Update: Herb called again. Read more about it in the story of Herb Nelson and the Autogyro Airplane.
On this day at foldedspace.org
2004 — Trivial Pursuit: Geek Edition On Thursday nights Mickey Finn's plays host to Mr. Bill's Traveling Trivia Show.
2003 — Another Reason I Prefer Cats to Dogs In which I cannot sleep because the dog next door won't stop barking.
2001 — Off Kilter In which the Mariners lose the ALCS, I come upon an accident, Fry's sucks, I do not play Diablo, and Kris and I are sick (but we have a nice time anyhow).