Interview Date: February 29, 1988
Interview Location: Naples, FL USA
Interviewer: Robert Allen
Collection: Penn State Collection
Note: Audio Only
TAPE 1, SIDE A
ALLEN: It’s Monday morning, the 29th day of February, 1988, and I am talking with Mr. Jim Y. Davidson at his home in Naples, Florida, regarding the activities of the cable industry that were a part of his life from the time he put the system on the air in Arkansas until his retirement. The place we would like to start is to go back to the place of your birth and talk a little bit about your parents and brothers, sisters and family.
DAVIDSON: I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is the capital city, on January, 2, 1922. My father was Elie Yates Davidson and that is how I came to have the middle name Yates. He came from Mississippi and I never met his parents so I know absolutely nothing about my grandparents on my father’s side. My mother was from Cabot—the Cabot area about 22 miles north of Little Rock, and she was born and raised in that area. I don’t know why my dad came to Arkansas but he was in the jewelry business. He had a store in Lonoke which is in the same county as Cabot, and is also about 20 miles from Little Rock. And he had another jewelry store later on down in England, Arkansas, about 30 miles southeast of Little Rock.
He did many things. Dad was a pilot, an inventor, a sportsman, an expert marksman, a fine musician. He could play, I suppose, about any instrument; he had a number of instruments of his own. He was a master jeweler, a master watchmaker, an optometrist. He ground his own lenses when he fitted glasses. He held 18 patents that I understand RCA Victor ended up with before they became public domain. I was too young to know the value of them at the time. The patents dealt with shortwave radio circuitry primarily.
He met my mother at a church and Janet and I just learned about this last November when we were up there. We took an aunt out driving who had married my mother’s brother. He passed away in the Fifties. We went out to the cemetery where my mother is buried along with my father, and my grandmother—the only grandparent that I knew—and my Uncle Jimmie, who I’m named after, who died in World War I. We went out to the cemetery near Cabot and Lonoke and went to the graves. Janet and I have put markers alongside my folks because that is where we would like to be planted, but not right away. (Laughter)
ALLEN: No hurry.
DAVIDSON: No hurry at all. And then we went to the cemetery where my aunt’s (my Uncle Sam) is buried. On the way we passed a church and she said that is not the original building, but this is the site where your dad met your mother. So I took a picture of it. and he was in Lonoke and she was in the Cabot area. There was about, I would say, 25 miles or so between the two towns and this church was about midway between them. Anyhow they moved to Little Rock and my grandmother lived with us from the very beginning. We stayed there until I was about 2½ years old.
I remember just a few specific things that happened back then. I remember my grandmother taking me in a stroller out to the park. They also called me “James Yates” and I didn’t like it. And she would say, “This is little James Yates,” and they would look at me and say, “Oh, he is so pretty, just like a little girl.” It would make me furious, I can remember that. I remember one other thing that happened before we left Little Rock. I was chasing a red rooster in the backyard and fell down on a rock. The scar on my nose was a result of that fall and I still carry the scar today. These are the only two things I remember.
The next thing I remember is we moved to England, Arkansas, where he opened a store—jewelry, watchmaking and radio. It was about 30 miles southeast of Little Rock. The radios in those days were Atwater-Kent, Crosleys, and Philcos. This was before superheterodyne circuitry. They were all what is known as “TRF”—Teamed Radio Frequency. And you had to synchronize three knobs on the same frequency before you could get a signal through. You kept returning back and forth until the signal got as loud as it could be. These things were mostly in monstrous cabinets about the size of a refrigerator except for the table models and they had—the Atwater-Kent was in a metal case—all these knobs on the front and a speaker like a horn sitting on top of it.
When I was three and a half years old, my oldest sister was born. My birthday is in January, hers is August 3rd. Just over 3½ so she was born in England, and I remember that day quite well. I remember three other things I guess that happened. Do you want to hear these?
ALLEN: Sure. What was your sister’s name?
DAVIDSON: It’s a lot of trivia. Her name is Dorothy Amelia. She is still alive. Dorothy was born there and I think the house we were renting was about a ½ block from a church that my grandmother went to. I remember sitting on the back porch of this house on the steps on certain days when the hot tamale man came by. He was a real gracious man and pushed a little wooden cart with wagon wheels on it and had the hottest hot tamales you ever ate, but I loved them. Maybe that’s why I have ulcers today. I think back then they were three for a nickel and grandmother and mother would give me, or dad would give me a dime and I would get six of those hot tamales and sit out on the back steps and eat them and cry because they were so hot from the pepper.
I remember one other thing. Dad had a touring car with a fabric roof. I don’t remember what type it was; Willys Overland maybe. I’m not certain about that. I was climbing a tree out in the front yard—the car was parked under it—and the limb broke. I fell right through the canvas roof of the car, right down to the inside of it and obviously made quite a hole in the roof and I was frightened. I thought Dad would really tear me up about it but he didn’t do a thing. He said, “Accidents will happen.” That’s the kind of man he was.
Grandmother used to drag me off to church and to debates. She belonged to the Church of Christ. She was a very wise woman, very frugal. She could peel and apple or potato thinner than anyone that I ever saw and not waste a thing. She carried a tattered Bible, which we just acquired last year from my aunt who had it. It was my grandmother’s church Bible and we have it here now. And these debates, it always seemed to me there was a Church of Christ preacher and a Baptist preacher. I always left confused because if anyone had an argument someone ought to win and no ever seemed to. They would get furious on the altar or pulpit and swing their fists at each other and everything. It was quite impressive. But grandmother was, as I said, very wise.
You have to remember that she grew up in an era that lacked communications of any kind. There were no radios, no telephones, transportation was limited to horseback and wagon when she grew up. So her world was rather small. She believed the Bible—every word of it. She and the other little old ladies at church or at one of these debates, when a preacher quoted a verse of Scriptures, all turned the pages rapidly to that place in the book. If he omitted a word, changed a word, or misquoted it in any way, they caught it. This particular religion felt that anyone was doomed if they did not go to that church: “Upon this rock I will build my Church,” and it was the “Church of Christ.” All of the Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and Presbyterians were going to Hell.
The church split about that time into two factions. Their philosophies were the same except that the other one was called the Christian Church. The ones that split off did so because they wanted to have a musical instrument, piano or an organ. The Church of Christ did not believe in musical instruments at the church. And that was the only difference as I recall. I later learned that the fellow over in England named John Campbell, I believe, started that church so it was a rather young organization and that is why they called them “Campbellites.” I respect all religion, televangelists, everybody; I think there is good in all of it and a lot of people need it for a crutch, a lot of people need it for other reasons. We are devout Christians, but we do not belong to any organized religion. We have our own private personal relationship with the Lord and we are very comfortable with it, and we just don’t feel that we need group therapy.
So anyhow, we stayed in that house for not too long. My sister was born there and Dad was pretty fussy about what doctor we got and Dr. Shelby B. Atkinson was our doctor in Little Rock. Dad had him come all the way down to England to deliver Dorothy. I don’t know where they got the name Dorothy, but Amelia was a sister of Dad’s who lived in Alabama. Anyhow, he found a house he liked better and we moved. And when I was six years old, Norma Jeanne was born. I remember that day quite well. They sent me off to play at someone else’s house, and when I got back I had a little sister. I remember quite a bit that happened there. I started school when I was five and my first book was Baby Ray’s Reader. Did you ever see that?
ALLEN: I don’t think so.
DAVIDSON: I wish I had a copy. (Laughter) But I had memorized it before I even started. And all during this time, my grandmother was with us and she (I can’t repeat it too much how wise she was); she could predict weather better than our National Weather Service. Janet and I will be flying in our airplane from time to time and I’ll get the weather report and I’ll look over and I’ll say, “Well, under these conditions Grandma would have said so-and-so” and usually Grandma was right. With all of our satellites and sophisticated equipment for forecasting weather, they are not always right.
But one day when I was playing with the boy next door and we used to like to climb trees. We were up in a tree and his name was Buddy White—that is amazing that that just came to me. Anyhow, Buddy and I were best friends because we were neighbors, I suppose. It was approaching Christmas time and we got to talking about Santy Claus and Christmas. I suggested to him that our parents were Santy Claus and that there really was not a Santa Claus as such. He didn’t believe me at all. He was rather adamant about it. But then I tried to rationalize it by suggesting how is it physically possible for reindeer and a sleigh to fly through the air? And how is it physically possible for them (for Santy Claus and his reindeer) to land on every house in the entire world and get down the chimneys anyhow. He couldn’t haul all that many toys and do it all in one night and I finally convinced the boy and he cried. He went and told his mother. We got out of the tree and he went into his house crying. I went back home and his mother came over to our house with the kid and raised mortal hell because I had disillusioned the boy. My mother didn’t say much. She was a very reserved lady. So anyhow, I remember that.
I remember out in front of the house on the sidewalk one of the big boys hit me across the back with a baseball bat. I crumpled to the ground and didn’t get up for awhile. I think that may have been one of the things that started my back problems because I have had back troubles as far back as I can remember. I remember going up to Dad’s store quite a few times and watching him work. He had a little lathe and he made watch parts and he manufactured jewelry. This was before we had bottled gas and he used a blow pipe in his mouth for the oxygen to create enough heat to melt solder or melt gold or whatever. He was a master craftsman. He was ambidextrous. I have watched him engrave many times. He would pick up a tiny two millimeter lady’s wedding band and be engraving inside with his right hand. He would lay the tool and the ring down, pick it up again and start engraving with his left hand. I mentioned he was a pilot. He didn’t own an airplane that I ever knew of.
We had a big flood in 1927 and he took lumber and built racks and put all of the furniture up in toward the ceiling. We moved out and moved into a dentist’s office in an upstairs building downtown at the main intersection of England and stayed there for a number of days until the waters receded. There was a fellow named Johnny Stover who had had a Jenny (a World War I Jenny) and he would fly to Little Rock and bring newspapers back—he was a friend of my dad’s—and drop them. We would watch him drop them out the window. People scrambled for them.
I worshipped my dad. I remember quite a number of times when I would be at his shop and I would imitate his like he was talking to someone out on the sidewalk in front of the store. If he stood on one foot and put the sole of the foot against the brick wall, I would do the same thing. If he changed feet, I would change feet. During this flood, incidentally, he was out for a couple of weeks in his boat doing rescue work and got marooned.
So now I have two sisters and we move again over to the other side of town. He found another house he liked better. We were adjacent to the pasture that Johnny Stover flew out of. His house was on the other side of this pasture. I remember one day Johnny crashed. I saw it. He spun in flames. Dad was the first one out there and he got him in his car and rushed him to the hospital in Little Rock. He was in the hospital six or eight weeks and survived. The last time we heard from him he was down below Hot Springs, Arkansas, pretty well up in years and he had quit flying. But he was quite a well-known aviator. He came to our house frequently. I used to carve model airplanes out of scrap soft pine wood. He would admire them and brag on me and tell me someday I was going to be a pilot. He told me how good my airplanes were.
ALLEN: Did he take you up and introduce you to flying?
DAVIDSON: No. It was while we were in England. I was seven years old and Mother had an attack of appendicitis. Dad got an ambulance and rushed her to the hospital in Little Rock. He came back and got us, no, no, no, he didn’t come back and get us; somebody else took us up there because he stayed with her. Her appendix ruptured on the way to Little Rock. The road was rough then, a gravel road. I was barely seven and she was in the hospital five weeks. She got pneumonia and then she got peritonitis. They had her on oxygen and we did not have antibiotics at that time. A couple of shots of penicillin would have saved her life. Dad had to bring a cot in and he stayed with her by her side in that room for the entire five weeks till she passed away. That left my grandmother, my two little sisters and my dad and I and had a maid that lived in. Her name was Dovanna Green. (Now that just popped back into my mind. You know, you get talking about it isn’t that something?) It was a great loss and Dad couldn’t handle it. They evidently were very devoted.
Do you mind if I digress a moment? I remembered something down in England that I need to tell. Dad kept his blueprints for all this design work for the patents on the dining room table. Mother wasn’t too happy about it so we ate in the kitchen. He built the circuits and this is before plastics, before the dielectric and insulating material that we have today. Then he used shellac or silk for insulation or cotton in the case of house wiring. The wire I recall in particular had green silk wrapped around the shellac wire very tightly and that was the insulation. Dad would take bottles of various kinds like an olive bottle or anything that was around them and then wind various diameters of coils around them very carefully. Then he would shellac them with orange shellac and let them dry overnight and put another coat of shellac and repeat this over a period of several days until they had a very rigid form. Then he would go out in the backyard and break the glass out and it would leave a perfect cylinder. He did a lot of experiments with circuitry to achieve those patents. I only know that he had eighteen patents because my grandmother told me later. I keep threatening to try to go to the Patent Office sometime to see if they are still on file somewhere.
Mother died in the hospital in Little Rock and we immediately moved back to Little Rock. Dad put someone else running his store in England. He closed out the radio part and kept the jewelry part but put someone else in charge of it, immediately after Mother died. The next few months were rather traumatic. I was seven, barely, and my little sisters were four and one, three years difference. Grandmother would awaken me in the middle of the night at about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and we would go to the window and watch my dad walk around the block and she would tell me, he can’t handle it. He can’t handle losing your mother. I don’t remember her exact words but it was like he was “spaced out.” He just couldn’t handle it emotionally. So about 11 months later he was killed in an accident which I prefer not to discuss. It left my grandmother with three babies: two years old, five years old, and I was just barely eight. So I had finished the third grade. I started school when I was five and a half. My birthday is January 2nd. She said, “Well, we will be well cared for. He left us financially well off.” She discovered very quickly that he had dropped his insurance premiums during this traumatic 11 months. He had dropped his lodge dues and he was a 32nd degree Mason. I belong to the same Shrine Club and Masonic Order that he belonged to. I have checked the records for that. He had dropped his insurance. She said, “Well, we still have the jewelry store in England,” and the man who was running it said, “Oh, no, that is my store. We made a deal. It’s mine.” Quite frankly, I have questioned that. I always have, and she was such a good old soul that she wouldn’t question anything anyone said.
So we discovered within the matter of a couple of weeks that we were penniless. Nothing but the furniture. We couldn’t even afford the rent, so we moved into a lower cost place. Dovanna offered to stay with us at no charge, and Grandmother would have none of that. So she stayed there maybe a month in the second place and then she told me, “You know all we have—I have spent my savings which wasn’t very much, just a few hundred dollars—to survive on is my monthly check from the government, which is $20.” She said, “We are going to have to move to Cabot back where I came from and find some place that we can live within our means.” So we did.
Grandmother loved flowers. She puttered around in her flower garden a lot with a hoe that first year we were there. I went to school for about a month in the fourth grade and had to quit because she got ill. Until I was 11 years old she was bedfast most of the time. She passed away when I was 11, and we moved again in Cabot. We had a house (I have shown it to Janet. It’s no longer there but I showed it to her before they tore it down) and our rent was $5 a month. The house was owned by a man named J.F. See who had a mercantile store in town. We stayed behind on the rent all the time and he fussed at us all the time. But he never did make us move. The house had holes, cracks you could see the daylight through. It had a fireplace. The house caught on fire from it one time. We had a well and you would draw water out in a bucket. Fortunately, it was a small fire and I was able to put it out. After that we used what was known as a King Heater. Did you ever see a King Heater?
ALLEN: I am not aware that I have.
DAVIDSON: It is an oval shaped thing made out of tin. It is black and very thin, and it will only last one season. They came in different sizes like washtubs. There was Number 1, Number 2, Number 3. We used a King Heater and you could burn almost anything but they would rust out or burn out, they were so thin. As I said, you could buy one for $1.50 or $2 back then. So I chopped word to feed the heater and in the wintertime we had to bundle up in numerous quilts. Grandmother quilted before she got sick. She had a quilting frame that hung from the ceiling and she made patchwork quilts. I would sit by her bedside and listen to her talk for hours. She fascinated me with her philosophy and I still quote her. There is hardly a day that passes that I don’t quote her on something (some of her philosophies), a very devout, religious person.
Like I said earlier, her world was rather small because of lack of communications and transportation then, but so was the world of the Bible. The Bible represents a very small area of the earth and bless her heart, if someone told her that there were other civilizations outside of the biblical area, she would have thought they were crazy. Janet and I really enjoy visiting places like the Mayan ruins, Aztec ruins, and we have read and we know that there were many other civilizations which existed during biblical times. But because of the lack of transportation and communications, they didn’t know about each other. (We are going back to the Mayan ruins, incidentally, in about three weeks on a ten day trip.) I sat by her bedside and listened to her. The girls were, let’s see, when I was 11, Dorothy was eight and Norma Jeanne was five. Dorothy had started to school there, I guess, but I never did get to go anymore. I have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a great curiosity. I enjoyed reading and I enjoyed doing hands-on work. I was building crystal sets when I was ten years old out of scraps and things that I would salvage and later I was building TRF and superheterodynes when that technology came about.
I loved boats, I loved airplanes, but I didn’t see a boat or an airplane very often because there weren’t too many airplanes then. I remember one time one landed in a field near Cabot and the merchants closed the stores and everyone went out to see it. Some Barnstormers and a Jenny. The only boats I had seen were on the Arkansas River in Little Rock, and not too many of them. They were steamboats, usually sidewheelers or paddlewheelers that plied the river when the water was high enough that they could navigate. Incidentally we have run that river—there is a series of, I believe, 17 locks now—and it is commercially navigable. As a matter of fact, Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a seaport right in the center of the country. Commerce arrives there from New Orleans and ports all over the world.
So the closest I could get to an airplane was whittling out models and the closest I could get to a boat was the Number 3 washtub when it rained enough to fill the ditch out by the house. I would get in that tub and try to paddle around. It was rather unwieldy. I understand now why they don’t build round boats. We were a proud little family. We had nothing material. The first Christmas that we were there, there was a lady named Lowman, Mrs. Jake Lowman. She and her husband had a grocery store. Their son still has the store in the same location today. It’s a new store now. Downtown Cabot was destroyed by a tornado a few years ago and was rebuilt. I am going in someday and meet him and tell him the story I am about to tell you. The first Christmas we were there she brought us some toys and food and candy. The second Christmas we were there she did again. I got skates the first time; I can’t remember what I got the second time. From then on, Grandmother was really bedfast and so the third Christmas we were in anticipation of this Mrs. Lowman coming by with our goodies and she never came that time. The little girls cried and I went off and cried. We thought on Christmas when she didn’t show up, that all was lost, and Grandmother said she will be here Christmas Day, don’t worry about it.
Before she was bedfast I remember one time someone donated a cow to the Welfare Agency and they butchered it and divided up the meat between poor people. We got one beef roast and it was small. There was an old bird dog that hung around the house. The back porch had screen on it but it had the holes rusted in the screen, not like our screen today which is a plastic and won’t rust. She had that roast in the kitchen and the door was open and this dog came in and got it. And I’ll never forget her chasing that dog with her apron flapping out across the yard. She yelled and I came running and the girls came running and between us all, we caught the dog and salvaged the roast. She went in and washed it off real good and cooked it and we ate it. We would not do that today, of course. It’s unlikely it would happen.
The teachers at school, it was a small town and everyone knew everyone and they knew our plight. They loaned us books, fourth, fifth, sixth grade and any other books I wanted from the school library. I would take them back and forth and read them. There are many other stories, but they are rather insignificant. Let me add something about the day she passed away because this will cap off our stay in Cabot. One day she was very sick; she was worse. I could tell she was worse. There was a doctor there in town that lived at the opposite end of town. We were on the north side of town half a block from the railroad tracks and he was the south end of town about a block off the tracks. I had to run as hard as my little feet would take me down to his office. There was no telephone. I tugged at his jacket and I pleaded with him to come and see grandmother, telling him that she was much worse and please come. He said, “Get away, boy, you owe me money, you all will never pay me any, and I’m not coming back anymore.” So I begged some more and he still wouldn’t do it so I ran all the way back to the house and when I got back, she was dead.
END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A
Jim Y. Davidson Oral History Interview
TAPE 1, SIDE B
DAVIDSON: So with loss of grandmother, we lost our $20 a month existence. That is what they thought my Uncle James was worth, who died in World War I at a very young age. He is the Uncle Jimmie that I acquired my first name from. Anyhow a local feed and seed store (Huddleston’s) loaned a flatbed truck and put her in a pine box, took her out to the cemetery, donated labor and dug the hole. That is it. Janet and I have recently put matching markers on all of the graves and added our own as I said earlier. Anyhow no one knew what to do with us and an aunt (my grandmother’s half sister) and her daughter, who would be a half cousin, lived there. They some way or another contacted my dad’s sister, Amelia Gregory, in Demopolis, Alabama. They put us on a train and sent us there. They sent us first to Memphis where Dad’s other sister lived. Her name was Cecilia Evans. Her husband was a railroad man and we stayed there a week. While we were there, somewhere in some of the books that teachers at Cabot had loaned me, I had done quite a bit of study on steam engines, the theory of steam engines. So I drew some various steam engines for her husband since he was a railroad man and shaded the parts and everything. These were rather detailed drawings of steam engines and he was quite impressed with them. I wish I had one of those drawings today.
Anyhow, after about a week they sent us on a train down to Demopolis, Alabama. My aunt was a nice lady. She had a daughter about a year younger than I. She was about 10. I was 11. She was their only child. Her husband’s name was Ralph Gregory and he was probably the meanest S.O.B. that ever lived. And, in retrospect, I suspect that he resented us because he beat up on all three of us quite a bit. He was a sawyer, operated a band saw at a sawmill and he was about half nuts we learned later. Years later, I learned that he died in an insane asylum down around Mobile somewhere and shortly after the aunt passed away. The only two relatives of my family on my dad’s side that I ever actually met were his two sisters. We stayed there nearly a year. I went back to school for part of a year and lied about my report card. You had to have a report card showing that you passed such and such a grade to go into another grade. I think I went in the seventh grade for a few months. I had a paper route. The paper was the Mobile Register. I had to walk from downtown Demopolis to a little village, a little sawmill town called Shortleaf west of there, both on the Tom Bigby River. That’s where I learned to swim. It was the first opportunity I ever had to get in water deep enough to swim in. Next door was a one-armed boy. A log wagon had run over his arm and cut it off. He could swim with one arm as good as I could with two. He was very good. We used to swim in that Tom Bigby River.
Ralph Gregory had some cows and part of my chores were to take these cows out to graze along the side of the road or there was a cemetery nearby and they would graze around that cemetery. And I would drive them out there and then drive them back in the evening and milk them in the mornings. I saw steamboats on the river. It was about this time that the movie “Steamboat Around the Bend” with Will Rogers came out. I had no money to go to the movie and I wanted to see it very badly. I’d sit on the river bank watching the steamboats while I was watching the cows. I’d look out there and say, “That captain is a human being, I’m a human being, if he can do, I can do it. When I grow up, I am going to be a boat captain.” And I did grow up and I did become a boat captain. (Laughter) I have a hundred ton Coast Guard license which I have had for a long, long time. I did the same thing with airplanes when an occasional airplane would fly over. I’d look up and say, “That pilot is a human being. I’m a human being. If he can fly that airplane, so can I.” So I am in my 42nd year of continuous flying right now and have owned an airplane since 1946 continuously, and have commercial instrument and multi-instrument ratings.
So this Ralph Gregory would beat up on us and we never did know why. I had no idea why. We did nothing to irritate or antagonize him. He just seemed to have a sadistic pleasure in beating up on us. I could hardly stand it when he whipped the little girls. He would make me take my clothes off or my shirt at least and get over the bathtub. That was my first exposure to running water after our three year tenure in Cabot. He just seemed to get pleasure out of beating up on us. My aunt Amelia was a rather passive person and couldn’t do much about it. He took the money that I made from the paper route. He inventoried me very closely, wouldn’t let me have a nickel for an ice cream cone. I remember one time I found a dollar bill along the side of the road and I hid it. The first thing I did was get me an ice cream cone. I had 95 cents left and I hid the money under my mattress. And once in a while I would manage to sell an extra paper to someone that he didn’t know about and get another nickel. So I started to plan to leave to run away. I told my sisters about it. I swore them to secrecy. I said I am going back to Arkansas and I’ll come back and get you. I’ll get a job, I’ll make some money and get some help and come back and get you.
ALLEN: You were at this point about 12 or 13?
DAVIDSON: Not quite 12 really. So I started stealing things out of the kitchen and hiding them. He had some guinea hens and their nests are the hardest things in the world to find. I think he beat on me one time because I couldn’t find the guinea nests. Along this fence row of this field was some dense foliage. I got a tow sack and I started accumulating things. I got some crackers. I had a pocket knife and a flashlight, soap, a washcloth, a towel, very little food. One morning bright and early I milked the cows and then started hurrying down the road to the grazing area, threw a rock at the cows and said, “Bye, cows.” I went over and got my tow sack out of this fence row and (I had a map, I had maps that would bring me all the way back to Arkansas). I ran as hard as I could and when I got to the bridge northbound across the Tom Bigby River. It was about at the point where the Black Warrior and the Tom Bigby River run together and on that bridge (or approach to the bridge I should say), I got a ride up to Tuscaloosa. I had got another ride from there on over to Columbus, Mississippi.
ALLEN: These were rides on? Cars, trucks, that kind of thing?
DAVIDSON: Hitchhiking. Cars up to now. And I got into Columbus, Mississippi; incidentally, I left with 97 cents in cash plus my little sack of things and got into Columbus, Mississippi, and was picked up as a vagrant. I was sure that an all points bulletin had been put out by this Ralph Gregory and that somehow he had telephoned and found me and everything, but that was not the case. I have been back since I’ve grown up and looked at it a little bit. We did the cable system there for Polly Dunn many years later. (Laughter) I don’t know if I told Polly this story or not, probably haven’t. Anyhow, the fire station and the police station were right together and there was a small restaurant across the street and I don’t think they locked me up but they kept an eye on me. The next morning they gave me 20 cents to go get some breakfast across the street. Instead of getting breakfast, I caught them not looking. I was messing around in my bag like pretending to look for something and when he turned the other way, I grabbed the bag and ran as hard as I could down between the fire station and the police station. I got out on the highway at the north end of town and caught a ride right away and bye-bye Columbus. So then I got on a freight train and they kicked me off. I got back on, they kicked me off again at the next stop. I would have to get a map just to go back and figure out where this happened, but I could do it. I could tell you exactly where that was.
The next night or the next day, around noon I was trying to avoid if I didn’t have a ride and had to walk—I was trying to avoid the highways. I was afraid of being caught. I had a good story made up. I was going to visit my aunt in Memphis and if they checked up, you know they could verify that. She didn’t know it unless they had called her and I had no intention of stopping to see her because I was afraid they would send me back to Alabama. So I was walking—if you look on a map, Aberdeen, Okolona, I believe—Mississippi. We later had cable customers in most of these towns ironically.
There is a road that cuts across, a dirt road, and the main highway is like a square-cornered rectangle, so I cut across and walked on this dirt road. I evidently passed out from hunger and heat exhaustion and when I awakened, I looked up and I was lying across the lap of this black man, a beautiful gentleman with the most magnificent white beard you ever saw, who was on a mule and I was in his lap. He had picked me up on the side of the road. He took me home with him. He said, “The first thing I was going to do is get you washed up, young man.” He had a pitcher pump and he pumped water and I got under that water and got cleaned up real good. He said, “You look like you’re hungry. Mama is fixing us some vittles.” And I said, “Oh, I couldn’t accept that. Do you have any work I could do around the farm? Could I chop wood?” I said, “I know how to chop wood.” He just laughed at me. He said, “Well, I got some good boys that just don’t know how to do nothing else but work.” He said, “We don’t need any wood chopped.” I said, “Isn’t there something I could do around here?” We had talked somewhat and he saw my flashlight and said, “Well, I do have a flashlight that doesn’t work.” He said, “Maybe you could fix it.” I said, “Are the batteries good?” He said, “Well, they are new.” So I fixed his flashlight for him and then I felt free to eat his food. And eat I did. I was hungry. When I left there, that’s when I got on the train. I left there walking and I got on a train after that for awhile.
ALLEN: Do you have the name of the man?
DAVIDSON: No, no I sure don’t. Just a…
ALLEN: Just a decent human being.
DAVIDSON: Absolutely. A decent human. A black man out there on a farm in Mississippi. It was after that that I got kicked off the train a couple of times. And the second time the brakeman or a train detective said, “Don’t get back on.” I said, “Well, please tell me which way to go to get to the nearest highway?” He pointed it out and I walked over the highway and caught another ride. I got up to Tupelo, Mississippi, and the only thing that I had of any value at all was my dad’s Masonic ring. As best I can remember, it was exactly like this one. It had about a one carat diamond in it. That’s why I got this style for myself. As a matter of fact, I made this one up when I was in the jewelry business years later. So I was hungry again. I had run out of money. I sold that ring for $5 to a guy who had a gasoline station, filling station. So I believed I could eat for a few days, pretty well as a matter of fact. The ring would be priceless now. You know I would give two or three thousand dollars for it today if I could get it back. But even in those days it was probably worth four or five hundred dollars.
So I got to Memphis, the last ride I had was on a mail truck and when we got to the outskirts of Memphis to Parkway Street which has a median in the center. He said, “I am going to have to let you out here.” He said his truck had a sign on it—‘No riders.’ “You know, I would lose my job over this.” So he let me out and he said, if you just stay on this street it will take you to the Arkansas bridge across the Mississippi River. I already knew where the Ford Assembly Plant was which was near that area. So I walked and walked and walked and finally got to the Ford Assembly Plant. It had a high chain linked fence around it. I could see through it. Huge plant. I walked all the way around that thing straining to see what I could of the assembly line putting the cars together. It was fascinating. I wanted to get in and they wouldn’t let me in. I left there after walking around a couple of times. It was just a short distance over to the Mississippi River where I scampered down the bank. I needed to take a bath so that’s like washing your dishes in used dishwater when you bathe in the muddy Mississippi River. But anyhow, I got in the thing, left my little bag of stuff on the bank and swam out a little ways. All of a sudden I realized how fast the current was. It was swift. It had carried me downstream a bit and the bank was almost perpendicular there. I had trouble getting out. I could not swim against the current, but I did scramble out and claw on the bank and got back up to where my bag was. And I soaped down real good and rinsed off and put my clothes back on. Incidentally they were the only clothes that I had. They were khaki and that is all I had. I had one set of khaki clothes, shirt and pants. I walked on up to the foot of the bridge and caught a ride with two men from Texas, cowboy types, 10-gallon hat types, obviously very wealthy. By then, I was out of money again and I was hungry so we stopped at a place (evidently they could tell I was hungry.) They said, “We are going to stop over here and get a bite to eat.” There was a place called “Blackfish Lake,” which is still there, not far out of West Memphis on Old Highway 70. They have an Interstate there. They bought me two hamburgers and I ate them like crazy. By then you know, I was beginning to lose a little of my pride. It happens when you get hungry enough. They wanted to adopt me. We talked all the way to Little Rock and they wanted to adopt me. They wanted me to go back to Texas and live on their ranch and ride horses and all that stuff. They would get me some cowboy boots. They really, really were serious about it. I think they were sincere. They were the first people on the trip that I told the true story to, and why I was going. I said, no, I have to go back to where I have family and friends. I have to go back and get my sisters. So they let me out. We went across Broadway Bridge and the police station is on the Little Rock side of the Arkansas River, right at the foot of Broadway Bridge. And I sauntered in there as big as you please—it was around midnight—and walked up to desk clerk, officer, whatever he was. I said, “My name is James Y. Davidson and my daddy’s name was E.Y. Davidson.” I said, “Did you know him?” “Well, I sure did,” he said. “Are you E.Y.’s boy?” Cause Dad knew everybody. And I said, “I sure am.” So he let me sleep there that night, the rest of the night. Bright and early the next morning, I knew that my Uncle Sam (my mother’s other brother) lived on a farm out near Lonoke.
His name was Samuel Joseph Gately. See, my grandmother had been married. Her first husband died. She remarried. So my mother had two half-brothers, Uncle Jimmie Gately and his name was James Roy Gately. Boy, this stuff is coming back. This is the first time I have ever done this. This is the first time I have talked to anybody at length about my childhood. But anyhow, Uncle Sam was, oh, they were all good people. They sang in church and they played guitars, real Christian people. Uncle Sam was poor but generous to a fault. He would give you his last dime, even if he were hungry. That was the kind of person he was. I wanted to get out to his plane because he was the only one who I knew that I could go and stay with till I got regrouped and decided what to do. His wife’s name is Willie Mae, and she lives in Little Rock today. Most every time we go back we take her out to lunch and talk. And she is the one that gave me (Janet and I) my grandmother’s Bible last year. I knew that she had a brother; her name was Finley. She had a brother named Buford Finley and I knew where he worked in Little Rock, at a feed mill in West Little Rock.
The next morning I walked out there and found him and asked directions on how to get out to Uncle Sam’s at Lonoke, and I walked nearly all the way out there. It’s about 20 miles. I got a ride part of the way. And then I got out to their house and I stayed there several weeks. He got me a job with a neighboring farmer for 25 cents a day plowing. I was so little I could barely hold the plow up. It was a very small plow and an old mule that pooted in my face all the time. What I was doing was listing. Listing is when you go down one side of a cotton row, you do it in the spring, and throw the dirt off into the furrow and then you come back down on the other side and throw it off in the furrow. You leave the stocks in the center. So I saved up a little money from the 25 cents a day. There is no place to spend it out in the country.
I left again. I walked several miles over to the highway, the one that goes over to Cabot. I had my stake and I was clean. Oh, incidentally, while I was at Uncle Sam’s they had no radio. I had a little Galynn Crystal and we found an old starter motor from a car and took the field windings out of it and salvaged enough stuff that I made them a crystal set. We got an earphone somewhere. I think maybe I used one off an old telephone. The old telephones had a dynamo hand crank that generated the electricity to ring the other phones and the earpiece had a little permanent magnet in it and that is what I used for the earphone. So it worked. And they kept that thing for many years.
I’ll jump ahead in time, a long, long time, after I married. My son was about 4 or 5 years old and I was in the appliance business. Now this jumps way ahead to the early postwar years up at Tuckerman. We went down there for a visit and they were still using that radio. So we went down the next Sunday for a visit, and I took Uncle Sam a radio, a real radio. He got my boy and set him on his lap and he had this crystal set. I started with a little old piece of wood, short section of a board, and had wound a coil and got some tin and made a scrapper to go across to change frequencies, etc. So anyhow, he said, “Your dad wasn’t much older than you when he came through here and stayed with us one time for awhile,” he said. “He made this for us, and it is still working.” He said, “I want you to have it.” God only knows where it is now, probably in the junk somewhere. I would like to have it.
Back to the time I went to Cabot. I had absolutely no place to go and the truant officer caught up with me. Her name was High. Her last name was High. Her husband’s brother had a store in Cabot. His name was Wade High. They had three daughters and they lived out in the eastern part of town near the school. She fixed it up where I could stay with them and work in their store. Now this wasn’t just an ordinary store. It was a combination grocery store, meat market, butcher shop, bus station, restaurant, and I learned a lot there. I stayed there for less than a year. They said, “You cannot stay with us and live with us if you don’t go to school.” So I said, “Then I’ll move on. School is just a waste of time and I refuse to go.” So they said, “OK, you can stay.” I learned to stock the grocery shelves, pull the stock to the front of the shelves. I learned to cut meat, butcher. That winter, at first freeze, the farmers would butcher their hogs and bring them in and I learned to make sausage. We did it on the half. We furnished the big electric grinder and the sage and the pepper and ground it on the half. We kept half of it and put it in our stock.
I learned to cook. Well, I knew how to cook because my grandmother had taught me how to make scratch biscuits and cornbread and cook what little we had to cook. Sometimes we had little more than water and flour. So one of my jobs every morning was to put a big beef roast in the oven. It was a wood stove, big iron wood stove, commercial type thing. I also made a big pork roast and a big pot of chili. We sold chili or stew, a regular bowl for 10 cents. If they wanted a half bowl, it was a nickel. The cracker barrel out there was open. They could eat all the crackers and use all the catsup they wanted and many people came in and ordered a bowl of stew with a chili top. They filled up the top almost full of stew and then put a chili top. This was good beef stew. You know, lots of meat and vegetables in it. We served a plate lunch for 25 cents. Now that’s more than you could eat. I learned how to sell bus tickets, and you know, everything that was to be done.
One day, I wasn’t real happy with it. This is the story of my life. Once I learn how to do something, I lose interest in it. It is not true in every case. I have never lost interest in (yes I have, too)—I even lost interest in boats and flying. The only reason I fly is it’s the best way to get from Point A to Point B. If someone said, “Hey, how about taking me for a ride, you know, to look at Naples from the air?” I would say, “Oh no, not really.” (Laughter) I don’t go out and fly just for the sheer fun of flying. I did for the first couple of years. You know that’s all you talk about when you start a new thing.
So one day a tent show came to town. There was no theater there. Many small towns didn’t have a theater. Transportation still being minimal in the Thirties, early Thirties, people didn’t go to the city to the theater that much so there were a lot of people who went around through the country with portable 35mm and 16mm projectors. This show came to gown and I was curious and went over and talked to the man. His name was Smith. Smith’s Traveling Movie Show I believe he called it or something like Smith’s Traveling Movies. And he got a crew to put up the tent, had a wife and had a little boy who was maybe 3 or 4 years younger than I. And the kid took up with me and I took up with him and I started rewinding the film. He showed me how to run the projectors and I was ready to leave town when they left.
You know, once you learn how to cut up a cow, grind sausage, and cook stew and chili, and sell bus tickets, once you learn how to do it, there is no challenge anymore. And this is the story of my life. When something ceases to be a challenge, I want to get away from it and start something else. So they were tearing down the tent and they just loved me because I learned how to run the projectors, thread the film and everything very quickly, and in the daytime, I was playing with their little boy. I just abandoned the people I was living with and so they notified a sister-in-law who was a truant officer and she came and got me. (Laughter) I said, “Well, I don’t want to stay with them anymore. I am bored.” She said, “I’ll tell you what, I have just the place for you.” She said, “There is a family down near Star City on a farm. They are looking for a little boy.” We went out to the house and got what few clothes I had.
Star City is another 40 miles or so south of England. So we drove and drove and drove and finally got to Star City, to the older man and woman on the farm, and she left me there with them. And, oh, they didn’t want a little boy—they wanted a slave. Here I was getting up at three or four o’clock in the morning milking cows, and there was no challenge out there. They had me doing whatever chores were necessary around the farm. I stayed there two weeks; then one Saturday the old man went to town. He had a wagon and teams. The town was several miles away. While he was gone I was talking to his wife about the car out there. There is a Model T Ford with the front bumper up against a tree. Their front yard was 15 or 20 acres with just a scattering of oak trees, mostly just a big old smooth front yard. And I said, “May I ask what that car is doing parked up against that tree?” She laughed. She said, “Yeah, I’ll tell you that story.” She said, “These two city slickers came out one day with two of them contraptions and they sold ‘Pa’ one of them and the other one went back to town. ‘Pa’ got out in the darn fool thing and got to going around and around out there and couldn’t get it stopped. He finally ran it up against that tree and it sat there ever since.” (Laughter) I said, “Do you think it will start now?” She said, “I don’t know.” It had a crank hanging out the front and I cranked and cranked and cranked and never did get it started. And I was going to borrow it and then leave it in town somewhere if I could get it started. (Laughter)
Anyhow that night after they had gone to sleep and walked to Star City, I slept out in the open where there was some brush or something there. The next morning I walked out and I caught a ride. I went to England. The first time I had been back there since my mother died. I was just walking around on the street and I came upon this radio shop. In the window he had some radio chassis and these condensers and resisters and tubes laying around. I am standing there looking at that stuff, just mouth watering, you know, really taking it all in. The owner was reading a book seated in a cane-bottomed chair tilted back against the wall just on the other side of that window. He saw me looking at it and he said, “Are you interested in radios, son?” And I said, “I sure am.” I said, “Is this your shop?” He said, “Yes, it sure is.” And we got talking. He said, “What’s your name?” I said, “Jimmie Davidson.” He had been asking me questions in between reading. He would read a little bit and ask me a question. When I said Jimmie Davidson, he folded the book up and laid it down. He said, “You wouldn’t happen to be E.Y. Davidson’s boy, would you?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He got up and hugged me. He said, “Your daddy taught me everything I know about radio.” So I just got cold chills. You know there was a real thrill. He said, “What in the world are you doing here?” He said, “Where are your sisters? Where is your grandmother and everything?” So I brought him up to date and he said, “Well, why don’t you just come and live with us?” He said, “You can work here in my shop.” I said, “Do I have to go to school?” He said, “No, not if you don’t want to.” So I stayed with them.
Oh, he had a bicycle shop, too. We overhauled and rebuilt bicycles and all that so I thoroughly enjoyed it. I stayed with him about a year. He was also the chief projectionist, the only projectionist at the only theater in town. It was called the Best Theater. The owner was a guy named J.F. Norman. He was the president of the Motion Picture Association of Arkansas. But I rarely ever saw him. O.V.was the projectionist, his wife sold tickets and they had no children. He taught me to run the motion graph projectors that they still had. They were sound on film that had been converted from silent. They still had the rail, the turntables and the sound was on disk at first. To keep it synchronized, the turntables were connected physically by a shaft up to the projector. They did not have a separate motor which would not have stayed synchronized. Well, it could have. In later years we had Selsyn in motors. We had three wires running through them and they mocked each other. You could string up (I did it in the Signal Corps); you could string up a dozen of them or any number and you could turn one a quarter of a turn and all the rest of them would turn exactly the same amount. But anyhow, that was the state of the art then.
He told me all about the early sound movies. He told about how if the film broke and he had lost three frames he had to splice in that much blank film so it would stay in synchronization, so the picture would stay in lip synch with the sound. Anyhow so he taught me to run those projectors. They had the Peerless Low Intensity Arc Lamps and had a big DC generator that furnished the power for it. The booth was spotless. It was the cleanest projection room you ever saw. And he got to fooling around, I should not say what he was doing—he is dead now, but he suddenly had business in Little Rock and other places. I think he finally got caught, sort of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert type situation. Anyhow he would leave me up there when he started the movie and slip out the back door and get back before the second show was over that night. We would usually run the show through two times. So this went on awhile and he got caught. He was paying me, supposedly paying me $2 a week. My room and board, which wasn’t bad. Sometimes he didn’t pay me on time, but anyhow I learned a lot from the guy which came indirectly from my father. A real coincidence, wasn’t it? So anyhow I stayed there for awhile and got tired of it, and you know after you learn all you can learn about a bicycle there is no more challenge left. And I wasn’t real happy with him.
END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
Jim Davidson Oral History Interview
TAPE 2, SIDE A
DAVIDSON: So I made contact and I don’t recall exactly how, with a man named L.E. Bentley and his wife. They had two young daughters and he owned a gas station. Since I had become disenchanted with Mr. Brown and the radio and bicycle shop, etc., I was looking for something new to do. He had this Mobil Magnolia service station and I stayed for, I guess, less than a year. Again they insisted that I go to school and I said, “No, I’ll just move on.” They said, “Well, you can’t stay here.” So I did start school. I went about two weeks. I’m not certain about this. I think it was the eighth grade and each time this occurred, I had no report card so I lied about it. I had no problems. At the end of two weeks, I had read all of the books they issued and I was very, very bored sitting in class.
I don’t like to waste time. I didn’t then and I don’t today. And even then I required about five hours sleep at nights, that all I still require. And so I am up in the wee small hours of the morning. We go to bed and that’s how we are able to get so much done. And it is just my nature. It doesn’t bother me. I am healthy except for this back problem so we are happy with being busy. I feel like if someone hit the rocking chair, when they retired, they would die, they wouldn’t last too long. We are very active, probably too active for our good sometimes.
So I told him that I was very, very bored with school and that I was going to quit. If they wanted me to stay I would; if they didn’t I would move on. So they allowed me to stay and I must have been about 14 then. I could do some research and maybe find out exactly. Within two weeks, I was washing cars, greasing cars, and fixing flats. Bentley had no bookkeeping system at all and he never went to school at all in his life, he said, but he was a great guy. He was a very, very nice hard working gentleman. He happened to be the fire chief in town. I got a salesman to come by and show me how to work double entry books and I set up a double entry wet of books and posted them. Up until that time he had no books. That may seem a little farfetched today, but you know most people didn’t pay income tax back then and what little they paid didn’t amount to very much. We didn’t have the vast bureaucracy that we have today—especially IRS. So it just didn’t matter whether he filed a tax return or kept good books or not.
Another thing that happened while I was there, I wanted a typewriter and he found one that had been in the typing class out at high school with blank keys on it. I think he bought it for $2 or $3. It was an old Oliver typewriter, manual, of course, and I hunted and pecked around among those blank keys until I found out where all the letters and numbers were, and was typing pretty well on it. And (laughter) one day all of a sudden something flew off of one of the keys and it was a cap. I could see the letter on there. I had been aware that for the typing class they had little caps that they fitted down that had a tab that bent underneath the key to conceal the letters and numbers. I took them all off and I was in a way sort of mad at myself for not knowing that to start with, but in another way it did help me find and remember where all the letters and numbers were.
They had a house with an attic that had been partially completed. They allowed me to have that as part of my deal with him. I was earning $2 a week, my room and board, plus whatever I could make repairing radios. By then I was painting signs and they passed the Arkansas Truck Law while I was there, requiring trucks to have empty weight and gross weight on them. I can recall the vacant lot across the street from that station, I remember. I painted lots of trucks with the empty weight and gross weight.
I remember one period of several days when it had rained and was misting on and off and I still kept painting. These truck owners really wanted it done in a hurry. I was out there painting trucks in all this cold, wet and sloppy weather. It was a muddy field. I started painting flying red horses around the station and completely covered the eave under the overhang roof with probably fifty or seventy-five flying red horses about eight or ten inches high and then made some road signs and this and that. I got to where I could paint flying red horses with my eyes closed.
But I had this little radio repair shop and I repaired radios for people and made a little extra money like that. Occasionally I would need parts and I would hitchhike to Little Rock and buy parts. This may sound ridiculous today but I charged a dollar labor and a dollar for a tube or resistor or transformer or something—maybe a total of two dollars. I would hitchhike to Little Rock and buy all the parts for a dollar. I would come back and sell the part for a dollar and a half and charge them a dollar for installing it. So that’s a long trip. It would take maybe a half day to go there and back and get that part. That is what I did occasionally and started accumulating a few parts.
It was during this time that I built a small radio transmitter, a little Hartley Oscillator and modulated it and started broadcasting at night. I did a little late at night and usually early in the morning. And I had a theme song called “Wake Up and Live” by Cab Calloway and that story you have. There is no point in elaborating on that anymore.
I repaired juke boxes for the man who had the juke box circuit in town—old Seeburgs and Wurlitzers—and he would give me his surplus records, some worn, some not so worn. I had acquired an accumulation of records, all 78 rpm; wish I had them today. They are collectors’ items but anyhow I can recall washing cars in wintertime when it was so cold the water would freeze in sheets on the car as I was pouring it on and wiping it off.
Not a whole lot else to tell about that except one day, I was still relief projectionist at the theater from time to time, if I had time. I would open that gas station at 6 in the morning and kept it open until 6 in the evening and on Saturdays, until 10 or midnight even. So I didn’t have a lot of time and that was seven days a week, but occasionally I would work at the theater when O.V. wanted off.
And one day I got a long distance call from a man named Carl Christian over at Des Arc, Arkansas, which is about 60 or 75 miles away. And he said, “I’m sick in bed and my chief projectionist is at another theater out of town and I need a projectionist tonight—bad.” I said, “Well, that is a long way over there and I don’t know if I could get over there or not.” I didn’t have a car. I was driving by then but I was driving a car that belonged to the man I worked for and the cars around the station and everything. So he said, “Well, I’m opening up a new theater in Tuckerman and I am looking for someone I could send up there to manage that theater.” I said, “Well, I’m only…” (I was barely 16, I think, by then.) You know, someday I will verify those dates. We will be unpacking something and I will find things and one will help verify another one, but we are not far enough off to be of any significance anyhow. So he was dangling this carrot in front of me, plum or whatever you want to call it, and it was tempting. Theater manager at sixteen. So I hitchhiked and caught a ride over there. I think it took me two rides to get there, but I got there. And this theater was at an old Masonic Temple, called the Temple Theater. I was late and I went straight to the theater and the lady who sold tickets had already had some audience in there waiting for a projectionist.
During this tenure at Tuckerman, I trained another fellow to operate the projection machines. His name was Layman Runsick. I taught him to run the projectors and he gave me some relief. He didn’t always show up when I needed him so I was intermittently projectionist and manager during that period. It wasn’t a real big deal. I think I made $25 a week and I stayed at Mrs. Burkhalder’s—how these names are coming back to me (laughter)—boarding house. She had a restaurant across the street from the theater about a half block down and her home was across the alley behind that. I rented a room in her home and had my own bedroom with a bath, indoor plumbing and ate three meals a day at the restaurant and you would never guess how much. Seven dollars a week.
ALLEN: So this was really your first totally being on your own situation. Otherwise you had been living with people.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, but that is true.
ALLEN: Had you had any contact with your sisters at this point?
DAVIDSON: Oh, there is an element that I completely left out. And I guess we need to go back, way back. Two weeks after I ran away from Demopolis, Alabama, they ran away. There was a ravine behind the house and it was very deep and it got more and more shallow and more narrow. At a point where it got narrow and not so deep, there was a foot log and it went across and there were some houses back there. They had given me their word they would not run away and they would wait until I came back, but Ralph Gregory was so mean to them that they were forced to run away. He was beating up on them. I left something else out. When I left there I had bleeding welts from my neck down to my buttocks where he had beaten me with a leather razor strap, you know, like you sharpen razors on. He had beat me with that. He made me take my shirt off and lower my pants and bend over the bathtub and they were still bleeding when I left there.
Anyhow, they ran away and by then I had only stayed a few weeks at Lonoke with Uncle Sam and Aunt Lilie Mae and I was down at Cabot. A neighbor in Demopolis knew that Gregory was mean and knew about us and hid the girls in a closet and called the police. The police came out and they got some money together somehow and put the girls on a train and sent them to Cabot. So no one around there could afford to keep any of us and they put the girls in the Southern Christian Home at Morrilton, Arkansas, which is about 50 or 60 miles west, northwest of Little Rock. It’s on the Interstate between there and Fort Smith now. This is a Christian church orphanage. And they went right on through high school there. They got me up to the front steps on at least one occasion and I ran away so I never spent any time in an orphanage.
ALLEN: Did you stay in contact with your sisters?
DAVIDSON: From time to time, yes. We wrote and I saw them infrequently. Where were we?
ALLEN: You had just rented the room.
DAVIDSON: Oh, OK. So I had a red ’34 or ’35 Ford panel truck that Carl had furnished me as part of my job. He wanted me to train somebody to be a projectionist at Tuckerman because part of my job was if equipment broke down at another theater, I had to go repair it. It could be the audio equipment or the mechanical projectors. It didn’t happen too often, but it did happen from time to time and he expected me to do it. I don’t know if that’s mentioned in there or not; it probably is. So it was during this period, I was barely 17, and got married. I don’t know whether this ought to be on here or not.
ALLEN: It’s up to you. But tell as much as you want to about that.
DAVIDSON: OK, I’ll go ahead and tell it and then I think I will consult with Janet about it. My wife was not quite 16 and we were certainly too young to get married but we did. Carl Christian found out about it and said he was going to have to let me go because he felt like I would be needing too much money to support a family. One of his traits was that he was very frugal and the popcorn story relates to that. Anyhow it sort of hacked me off because I had been very loyal and I liked the man. I really liked him a lot as he allowed me to have a little radio repair shop in the back of the theater and I had put a little darkroom in. I was developing roll film and making prints. I built my homemade printer. I built a homemade enlarger and I was painting signs for people. I was doing brick walls, glass windows, doing gold leaf work for doctors and lawyers, people like that. I was doing pretty good. I didn’t make any money developing roll film. All the film back then was 620 or 120. There were 6 exposures to the roll. It was all black and white and you did it for 25 cents a roll with contact prints. Enlargements were more. So you couldn’t make any money doing that, but I made some money painting signs and doing my scroll leaf work.
I went and talked to a guy named Johnnie Julian. He had built a theater in competition with ours in an old brick building. He had put wooden benches, bench type seats in it and was using 16mm projectors where we had 35mm.
ALLEN: How big a town was Tuckerman?
DAVIDSON: Oh, about 1200.
ALLEN: Two theaters was probably one too many.
DAVIDSON: One was one too many. So I went and talked to Johnnie and he said, “Yeah, move all your stuff down here.” He said, “I’ll let you run this one.” Well, I had been his competitor and had been a fierce competitor. We had butted heads like crazy but we were friends. And his dad owned a lumber shed and they called them “lumber sheds” then. It was a building supply company and Johnnie was also building houses as a contractor, so I just moved down there and sort of took over that place to whatever extent I wanted. Johnnie was busy with his building deal. You could rent 16mm movies for practically nothing and so I started running double and triple features and serials, two or three cartoons, and all that and putting out handbills. We had a fierce competition there for a little while.
Then I got some projectors and started going around the country to rural schoolhouses. This was before school consolidation and again there weren’t that many automobiles. People who lived in these rural communities just didn’t get to town that often. I would go to rural schoolhouses on different nights. I would go back to the same place every Monday and every Tuesday to a different place, every Wednesday, every Saturday, etc. I went out about five nights a week with portable projectors and ran movies for the people. I had always been interested in magic so I started doing little magic shows in conjunction with the movie. I ran into a guy named Charles Tarbaton. You know, I am enjoying reminiscing about this. Charlie was an absolute genius, a good magician, a good talker, very convincing. He could read gibberish out of a dictionary or something or out the phone book, just start reading names out of the phone book and you would listen attentively. He had a voice that would capture your attention. Just his voice, the tenor of his voice, would hold your attention no matter what he was saying. We did several acts. I learned a bit from him. I built some illusions and we had several tricks that we did together, illusions. I don’t think we need to go into any of them but some of them that are the most convincing are the easiest to do. People like to be fooled. So that didn’t last too long—one summer.
During that time, my wife’s parents lived about a mile from town and didn’t have a kitchen cabinet. In those days, I don’t know if you remember the old kitchen cabinets that you could buy that had a flour bin in it, doors on it with a piece of sheet metal with a lot of little holes punched in the door, and then it had glass up on top. It was a single unit. Johnnie’s father let me go down to his lumber company and pick up scraps and build one for her. I built her a very nice kitchen cabinet. She may still have it today. Anyhow, they were fine people, her parents were. Our marriage didn’t last because we were too young to get married, weren’t compatible but it produced a very fine son who years later when he was old enough allowed me to retire the first time. He literally grew up in the cable business and when he was ready to take over, he did and it allowed me to leave and pursue other things.
ALLEN: When was he born?
DAVIDSON: Well, he’s about 43 now.
ALLEN: So that would be about 1945.
DAVIDSON: Yeah. Janet can verify this. She keeps all these dates. I don’t.
ALLEN: But you were married in 1937, ’38, ’39 maybe.
DAVIDSON: Well, seventeen—’38 or ’39. We waited several years before, a couple of years, I guess, before we decided to have a baby. I left the theater stuff because I wasn’t doing any good with it. Two theaters, as we said, are two too many in a town that size. So neither one of us was doing any good. I quit that and opened a little radio shop in the back end of Ivy’s grocery. Bob Ivy. These names just keep coming back. He encouraged me to come down there. I was doing his repair work. He handled Zenith radios in this grocery store. It was on the corner and the back entrance on the side street; he gave me space there. He said, “I’ll give you space free and keep paying you for doing my repairs. I’ll give you the space free just to have you this convenient.” He said, “I am tired of running radios out to your house and back.” We were living with her parents at that time. We did get out and get an apartment later on. So I moved down there and then a guy comes along—this was after Pearl Harbor now.
ALLEN: So you stayed in Tuckerman and worked in the radio repair business for a year or two.
DAVIDSON: Yes, I was still developing film and painting signs and whatever I could do honestly to make a buck. Incidentally I had a ’34 V8 Ford. It was one of the first V8s and I was out in one of these rural schoolhouses when somebody came up—it was in the afternoon and somebody came up and said, “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” So I went out and turned the radio on in the car and listened to it for awhile till show time. And of course they had the draft and they were calling single men first, and then married men next, and then married men with children next, etc. I just continued working and in the meantime, a guy comes along who had been formerly from a nearby county and he had been up in St. Louis. He came back and we got together. He said, “I’ll put $500 in the business and you put your shop.” My shop and tubes and parts and the test equipment was worth that much, more I would suppose, more than that. So I said, “That sounds like a fair deal; we’ll be partners.” So we borrowed some money at the bank and we opened this store which I think we probably pretty well covered it somewhere along here, haven’t we?
ALLEN: I don’t have anything in my hands right now that deals with—this was the appliance store in Tuckerman.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, so we opened that.
ALLEN: His name.
DAVIDSON: I think I’ll let that pass. We did not get along too well.
DAVIDSON: He liked to play golf and fish all the time and I was running the business. If I may jump up to when I left and cut loose from him completely, and said, “I’ll buy you or I will sell to you, but I prefer to sell to you because I want to get in cable business on a larger basis.” And he just laughed in my face. He said, “You don’t have anything to sell.” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Well, I went down to the safe box and got these stock certificates and they have never been signed.” He was upset because I left.
Now I am jumping up to postwar now, OK. This is getting a little bit confusing so let’s go back again. We opened the store and we were doing pretty well. We had a complete automotive parts just like any automotive parts store you would ever see. We were handling radios, appliances, Frigidaire, Maytag. We had a shop. We were doing welding. We generated our own gas, acetylene gas. You know how you do that, you use carbide and water, like miners put in their caps. It generates acetylene gas. We had an electric welder. We ground valves and seated them. We re-bored blocks and ground crankshafts and welded parts from cotton gins when they broke down and anything else. We took on the Schwinn Bicycle line because I was already familiar with bicycles and we were selling bicycles and repairing them. We handled bicycle parts. We were doing quite well. The business grew and took off. There was a need for something like this in that county. But I didn’t get along with him. He cursed violently. He could not construct a sentence without ugly words in it and that bothered me a lot. It made me uncomfortable. He was a smart man, but if he stayed around very much, you know, I wouldn’t have stayed very long. I couldn’t have handled it if he stayed there all day every day, but like I said, he played golf and fished all the time, so I was in effect really running the place.
ALLEN: Were you the only other employee?
DAVIDSON: Oh, no. I built it up to where I had a secretary and 27 employees before, two stores, before we…
ALLEN: What was the name of the business?
DAVIDSON: Auto-Electric. Anyhow, I did a super amount of advertising. I designed the letterheads. I designed ads for the newspaper. I ran full page ads. I ordered the first boxcar load of Maytag washing machines that ever came to that county. I painted banners the full length of the boxcar and had pictures and advertising and everything. I made a news story out of it. I really enjoyed it, for awhile. Anyhow, the bottom line was, I just couldn’t get along with him and one day I just gathered up my test equipment and parts and boxed it up and took it back down the alley and went back to the store right where I was to start with. So he started to bring the radios down there to be repaired and I fell out with him. I said, “Tom, I just can’t handle this. You are driving me crazy. I can’t handle it.” And so I left and he cursed me like a sailor, you know. It was his way of life. Everybody that he played golf with hated his guts. Everybody that he fished with hated his guts, but they still did it. You know, I don’t know why. He’s dead now, may he rest in peace wherever he is. People still talk about him. I still encounter people up there that say, I don’t know why I ever played golf with that s.o.b.
So he started bringing his radios down there that came in for repairs or that he had sold and they came back with something wrong with them. So one day he started cursing me again, in a nice way—if that’s possible—and said, “I’m wearing out my shoes and wearing a path in this alley, going back, just a block back there.” He said, “Why don’t you get your butt back up to the store and let’s try it again?” I said, “OK.” And I gathered up the stuff and went back. The war was going on.
One day two well-dressed men came in suits and briefcases, which was unusual. Strangers. Introduced themselves and said they were from the War Department and they wanted to know if they could talk to me privately. So I said, “Well, what’s it about?” And they said, “Where can we go to talk privately?” So the secretary was in the little office; there wasn’t any room for anybody to sit in there anyhow. Across the street was the weekly newspaper and I called the editor and I said, “Hey, could I borrow your office for a little conference for a little while, a private conference?” He said, “Sure, come on over.” So we went over there and had the conference. They opened the briefcases. I said, “What’s this all about anyway?” I said, “I haven’t done anything wrong.” They said, “We have a job for you.” I said, “Doing what?” They said, “I guess you know that there is an airbase going in, Newport Army Airbase about 15 miles from here.” I said, “Yes, I have heard rumors that they were going to build it.” [They said], “There are 26 of them being built and they are called “sub-depots” and they are under the 8th Air Service Command out of San Antonio. Our assignment was to find 26 men who could supervise the signal section, maintaining aircraft radio and electronics.
ALLEN: When did this meeting take place? Do you remember at least what month and year?
DAVIDSON: Well, I can backtrack a little bit. I was discharged in February of ’46 from the Navy. OK, go back 23 months from that. I was out there 23 months in the Navy and go back another 18 months and that’s how long I was in the Signal Corps.
ALLEN: So it would be 41 months prior to February of 1946? So we’ll figure that out about October, 1942.
DAVIDSON: I said, “I think I’ll just wait until my number comes up.” I said, “I never have even been in an airplane, I don’t know anything about aircraft radio equipment.” They were real adamant about it, persistent. They said they had gone to too much trouble. They opened the file and they started telling me about everything I had told you up to now. They had gone back from my birth right on up and they said, “Davidson, you have a G-2 clearance.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “That is so you can work on and be privy to confidential restricted equipment.” And I said, “I am sorry that you went to all that trouble but I think I’ll just wait till my number comes up and take my chances.” They said, “It will come up next week.” (Laughter) Because at that time married guys without children weren’t even being called and they had speculation that it might be another year or something. So I said, “Well, OK, I will reconsider.” So I went back and talked to my partner about it and accepted the job. It was the most money I ever made in my life. I had a ’36 Ford by then. Pearl Harbor was December 7th of ’41, right? OK, so this must have been?
ALLEN: It must have been about October of ’42 as best as I can calculate in my head.
DAVIDSON: Whatever; if you want to figure it back, you have some numbers there. Those are accurate numbers, the 23 months, the 18 months. I drove out there. I was on the payroll. It was driving me crazy. I don’t like not to be busy but I drove out there in my car and parked.
ALLEN: Out where?
DAVIDSON: Newport, west of Newport.
ALLEN: Newport, Arkansas, OK.
DAVIDSON: The airbase site was about 15 miles from Tuckerman. I drove out there every day on time in the morning and I was the only person there. I was the first person in the middle of a rice field. I took my lunch and sat there all day long and I would read for lack of something better to do. And then at 5 o’clock I would drive back in.
ALLEN: Were you a member of the Armed Forces at that time?
DAVIDSON: No, no.
ALLEN: Or were you a civilian employee in the military?
DAVIDSON: I was the first civilian employee they hired for that airbase and I wore a uniform. They called it the Civilian Technical Corps or something like that. Back to these men, they were telling me how they had chosen me. I said, “How did you find me in the first place?” They said, “Well, we came to this county and surrounding counties and when we had lunch in a restaurant, we would ask the waitress, hey, our car radio is broken, who’s the best guy around here to fix it?” Or they would check in a motel, they would say, “Hey, I need some radio work, who is the best guy around here to fix it?” And all the times they said that in a 50 mile radius they checked that, all the indicators pointed to me. I said, “Well, that is very flattering.”
And I was doing repairs for other radio shops, too. There was one shop in particular that would bring all of his hard jobs to me. I’m not bragging, I’m just stating a fact. I wasn’t that great, but I lucked out a lot. I was making a pretty good salary at the air base for doing nothing. I watched the first bulldozers and heavy equipment come in, earth moving machines, watched the hangars, the buildings, and the barracks, everything. The first building they built was a supply depot along the railroad spur. They had built a spur out there. Obviously since I was the first guy there, I knew everyone that came in, especially the department heads. I don’t recall his name, but the man in charge of the supply depot started getting in vast quantities of supplies, airplane parts, building materials, whatever it takes to build an air base. So I said, “I am going nuts out here. Do you have anything I can do around here?” I said, “I’ll do anything. I am going nuts. I am tired of reading. I love to read, but I need a little variety in my life.” It was getting monotonous. He knew me. He said, “Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have got to have some ‘No Smoking’ signs.” I said, “Good. How many?” He said, “I think about 400.” (Laughter) I’ll tell you I made olive drab ‘No Smoking’ signs with yellow letters, olive drab boards with yellow letters and I painted those 400 signs for them.
ALLEN: Did you smoke at the time?
DAVIDSON: I never was a smoker. I don’t think I ever inhaled in my life. I smoked socially.
Like you meet a guy, and say, “Hello, Bob,” “Hello, Jimmie,” and you both reach for a cigarette and after one or two puffs I would put it out.
END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A
Jim Davidson Oral History Interview
Tape 2, Side B
ALLEN: How long from the time you started at the airbase before they actually had anything for you to do?
DAVIDSON: Let me think. The first airplane I saw was flown by Colonel Cooper. He was to be the base commander. It was a basic training school that flew BT-13s. They called them the “Vought Vibrator.” They were made by Vought out in San Diego and they used a 450 horsepower radial Pratt & Whitney engine. They made another version which they called the BT-15, which was the same thing except that it had a wooden monocock and a Wright Cyclone engine. We didn’t have too many of those. Our average was about 250 aircraft and then we had some others. We had a twin and some smaller planes and some larger ones and then I had to service a transit aircraft, even got a B-17 in. When the colonel came in with this BT-13, I was back in my car and they had sort of graded off a sod runway and we met and chatted for awhile. I told him I was anxious to go to work. They had already started building hangars. I watched my hangar go up, and my offices were topside on one side of the hangar. I was in what was called the Engineering Department. There was a training department but I had nothing to do with it other than keep their radios working. One thing that happened in the interim was they started hiring more local people, carpenters and machine operators for the heavy equipment. You know, a lot of them I knew so things got a little more pleasant, not so boring. The construction went up very quickly, just a matter of a few months. I had my hangar and I started requisitioning equipment. Couldn’t get it. Things were rationed and I would go look at the big Signal Corps catalog and order things and they wouldn’t come in. In desperation, I finally brought my own test equipment out and that turned out to be good in that I had some test equipment. I finally got Signal Corps equipment and still was using some of my test equipment. When I left the base, I had a hell of a time getting my equipment off there, but I finally made it. I had to get the colonel to verify that it was mine.
One of the things that happened was sort of cute, was that this was my first exposure to military and I despised it. I didn’t like the caste system. I didn’t like the regimentation. I had four mechanics, two civilian and two GI mechanics under me. I had a secretary and I had a stock clerk. I put in my own parts and supplies and everything for the department. When I did leave, I got a letter from the base commander, a little citation thing. It said that in the 18 months that I had been there no aircraft had ever been grounded due to radio failure. I still have that letter somewhere back there. But I saw some things that bothered me a lot. They were taking guys from primary training out of little 65 horsepower Aronicas, Cubs, and Taylorcrafts, which had little opposed engines and practically no torque at all and jumping them all the way up to 450 horsepower and a huge radial engine that had much much torque especially on takeoff. The trim tabs were wheels down on their left side and you had to trim them out. If you took off with the trim tabs in neutral and didn’t trim out that torque, you would crash on takeoff, but they were taught not to do that. But it was a hot airplane. It would be like taking somebody that had never driven anything but a moped and putting them in an 18-wheeler. It was a terrible thing that they did. Of course, war is hell.
I would never go out on the crash trucks. They would bring in the radio equipment with blood and flesh on it and I would try to clean it up, repair it, and put it back in service. And the guys would tell me some gruesome stories like they found a shoe with a foot in it and things like that and I couldn’t handle that. One of the things I did there had to do with when the instructors get mad and throw their headsets. There were no speakers; too noisy for speakers. They would throw the headsets out. The reason they would do that, in the hot temperatures, the foam on the headsets—plastics weren’t as sophisticated as they are today—would stick to their ears in hot weather and get pretty messy. So I went down to the fabric department and got some of this linen and designed a cover with a drawstring in it and piddled around until I got it perfect. I had the fabric department make me up about a thousand of them. I started putting them on the headsets. I just started putting them on there. I took them down and gave them to operations, a bunch of them, and said, “Here, this will solve your problem,” and it did. The colonel found out about it and he wrote a letter to headquarters down in San Antonio and I got another citation for that, which I have also around here somewhere.
But I didn’t like it. I had been there actually maintaining the equipment for a very short time and we only had a handful of airplanes and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing hardly. I mean, it was a brand new thing for me. Numbers I had never heard of and letters and nomenclatures I had never heard of before. I was just groping around and lucking out a little bit and all of a sudden the engineering officer came down and said, “Hey, I have got to send you out to Oklahoma City to Tinker Field.” I said, “Am I being transferred?” He said, “No.” He said, “You are going out for a crash training course called a familiarization and all 26 of you are going.” See there were several sub-depots in Arkansas. They were scattered all over the mid-South. So all 26 of us, we didn’t know each other, had not corresponded or talked, but all 26 funneled into Tinker Field, Oklahoma City, and they had a crash course. It was five weeks. This genius that put it together was another one of the most intelligent men that I ever saw.
We were issued mimeographed sheets that listed every piece of equipment that the Signal Corps had, BC-310 control box, SCR-236G radio compass, BC-212 transmitter, and on and on and on, and out by the side it might say 6 minutes, 12 minutes, 46 minutes, 1 hour, depending on the complexity. A little simple control box with just switches in it might be 6 or 10 minutes. And it was the damndest crash course I ever saw in my life. Well, it was the only time I ever went to any kind of significant school in my life (Laughter), to tell you the truth.
ALLEN: The time that was listed there was the time that was allocated to learn?
DAVIDSON: Allocated to learn about that piece of equipment. The introductory talk was by the man (I think he came out of MIT) who ran the school. He was a very level-headed cool, smooth-talking guy who didn’t waste words, but very very intelligent. He told us up front, he said, “Now at the end of this you will be given a test.” There were 200 questions on radio theory and 200 on Signal Corps equipment. He said, “There will be a time limit on it. When you take the test, you can go back home and in a few days the grades will come. If you pass, you can stay on your job. If you don’t pass, you are out of work. They’ll send someone else.” So I had had enough of the military by then anyhow and I didn’t really care whether I passed or not. Yeah, I did too, I can’t say that, a matter of pride and ego, etc. He made one remark that I paid attention to. He said there will not be a single question asked that will not be covered in this class, so if you listen, you will pass. I detected the emphasis that he placed on that and I did listen and I took my homework back to the hotel every night and studied.
Now jumping up a couple of months later, I kept asking the engineering officer at the base, “You got my grades yet on that?” Finally one day he called me, he said, come down to his office. His office was just opposite mine in the same hangar. So I walked down there and he was standing, had a piece of paper, had a Teletype in his hands and shaking his head, and looked real grim. He said, “Well, it looks like we are going to lose you, Jim.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Well, these are your grades from Tinker Field, Oklahoma.” I said, “Come on, I know I passed it.” He said, “Well, look at it yourself.” He handed it to me. It said, James Y. Davidson, gave my grade and said that I had made highest grade in class, 97.3. I still have that Teletype somewhere around here in some box. (Laughter) If I ever find it, I am going to frame it along with those other things.
Back to the Signal Corps there, I became more and more disenchanted. As more officers and more enlisted men arrived, it became more and more GI. Again this was my first exposure to GI and it was driving me up a wall. I had always heard that the Navy had the best food and was a better outfit than the Army and so I handed in my resignation and they wouldn’t accept it. I said, “Well, I am going to quit anyhow.” They said, “You stay here for the rest of your life and you will be draft exempt till the war is over.” I said, “I don’t want to stay here—this place is driving me up a wall. I can’t handle it.” I said, “There is another important thing going on that is driving me to do this. All of the other guys my age that are married have already gone and when I go back home, I hide. It is embarrassing to walk down the street. I won’t even go to the grocery store. I’m sort of considered a draft dodger even though I am doing my part out here.” He said, “Well, we’ll fix that.” So he came back the next day and he handed me a piece of paper and he said, “We are going to make an officer out of you in the Signal Corps.” You know how they drafted doctors and gave them a commission like that. He offered me First Lieutenant’s commission and said you will be gone two weeks OCS, Officer’s Candidate School or something only to learn how to salute and receive a salute and wear the uniform, how to dress and act like an officer. He said they will do that in two weeks. When you come back, you will be First Lieutenant, you take over right where you are. We’ve got it all fixed. I said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” It was probably a mistake in retrospect. But there were some other contributing factors, too. I just couldn’t handle it. So I quit and joined the Navy.
ALLEN: At this time when you were at the airbase, were you living in Tuckerson?
DAVIDSON: Yes. Driving back and forth.
ALLEN: Did you stay active in your business?
DAVIDSON: No, I didn’t have time. Oh, I piddled around and fixed a few radios at night, or on weekends—whatever I had time to do. But, no, I was not active in the business.
ALLEN: The business stayed open though.
DAVIDSON: Yeah. My partner operated it while I was gone. Let’s say I was semi-active at that time, and still had keys and you know had my equipment, what was left of it. I took most of it out to the base. But I was still semi-active in it. When I left and while I was in the Navy, I got probably the only letter that this partner ever wrote. He would not write letters and it was the most pitiful thing. He said this store is driving me crazy. Hurry and come back. When you are discharged, don’t even think about doing anything else. He said, “I will turn it right back over to you. I still have that letter. As a matter of fact, I saw that letter not long ago. And he made all these glowing promises and everything. He told me about my interest in the business and everything, but it didn’t make a damn when we settled up. I still didn’t get anything. Well, it ended up I finally got back $5,000, settled out of court for that, which was a pittance. They were worth many many times that.
So I went down to Little Rock and signed up for the Navy. I was interviewed by the recruiting officer. He looked at my resume and said, “Oh, we need you.” He said, “How would you like to go to Great Lakes, Chicago, in their radio school?” I said, “Great, I would love it.” I said, “How long does it last?” He said, “It could last 21 months.” I said, “Jeez, the war will be over by then.” He said, “It is a very thorough school.” They go in depth on—you know, the Navy had more sophisticated equipment on ships than the Air Force had by far at that time. And radar was just coming into being. The British had developed it or invented it and it was little bitty CRTs and very crude by today’s standards. Did you know that the word “radar” was confidential and restricted and you could not mention it to anyone? You could not say the word “radar” to anyone unless it was someone that you knew had your same G2 or better clearance. So I was delighted. I was delighted to get to go to school, to that type of school because it had an excellent reputation, top drawer, you know.
So I got signed up with that promise. And they said, “All you have to do is take a test. It is called the Eddy Test.” I said, “No problem.” It was a simple, brief test. I don’t recall how many questions. Maybe 20 questions or something and it was very easy. It was the kind you just check it off. It was like 2 and 2 is 4 all the way through every question. I know I made 100% on it. I knew it. He said, “If you pass this (of course, that guy didn’t know, he couldn’t have answered one question on it), but he said, “If you pass this, you are a shoo-in. We’ll just cut your orders for Chicago.” Boy, I was delighted. So I handed it back. I was grinning from ear to ear. So he says, “We will put you up over at the YMCA until your test results come back.” I said, “Well, I just live about 100 miles from here.” I said, “How long will it be?” I had already sworn in. I was in the Navy, but I didn’t have a uniform yet. He says it would be about 3 or 4 days, whatever it takes for the mail to get it up there, get graded and get back. He says, “Why don’t you go on back home and call me every morning?” So I did. About the fourth day he said, “Well, it’s back, so come on down.” I went on back down. There was some sort of a foul-up. I didn’t get to see him that day but I did stay in the YMCA one night. The next morning I went over there and he shook his head and he said, “Well, you are going to the Navy Training Center in San Diego, to boot camp.” I said, “What? What about the Chicago, Great Lakes?” He said, “Well, you flunked the test.” I got furious. I mean I was ready to fight him. You know you don’t do that in the service. You are a nobody and the officers are everybody. But I was furious. I said, “There is a mistake somewhere.” I was coming to a boil real quick. I said, “There has got to be. I know I made 100% on that test. How much is 2 and 2?” He said, “4, stupid.” I said, “Of course. That’s how easy the test was for me. I know I passed it.” I said, “It was a stupid, simple, dumb test. I don’t know why they give one that is so easy.” And he saw I was pretty upset and he said, “Well, let me look in your file again.” He said, “All I have got here is your orders.” He said, “I just assumed you flunked the test.” I said, “Do you know how important this is to me? Sir, I wish you wouldn’t assume so much; just tell me the truth.” So he got the test, the envelope from Chicago, and I did make 100% on it, but it went on the record that I failed it. I still think I have that record. I tried and tried to get it off. I never did. So I just didn’t have any choice. I was in the Navy and you do what the Navy tells you to do.
They put me on a cattle car train. It had a flat wheel on it—blump, blump, blumpety, blump. There were floods out in the Midwest somewhere and it went all over the country. It took like ten days to get to San Diego. I had about, I don’t know how much money, probably a hundred dollars, and played poker on the way up with the other guys. By the time I got there, I had about 400-500 dollars. I’m not a gambler. I just did it for fun. I just happened to outwit them, I guess, or something. I don’t know if I outwitted them or not; maybe I was just lucky or they weren’t very good or something. But anyhow, I multiplied it considerably. I got out there and went to the training center and went through the routine of boot camp. They issued me a uniform and then came the demoralization that they put you through. Were you in the service by the way?
ALLEN: No, I wasn’t.
DAVIDSON: They made you really, really feel like nothing. I had always had a high degree of self-respect and pride, but they took all that away from you or tried to. And then the obstacle course. At first I thought, this is easy. Then when they said, go around it, and before I got around it the first time, my tongue was hanging out. And then they said, go around again and I couldn’t make it the second time. I just fell out and they raised hell with me about that. There were some other guys that fell out, too. Then we went out on what they call the “grinder.” It was a big concrete asphalt ramp for the calisthenics. They you had to stand duty, like in the middle of the night. They would wake you up. You had to stand a four hour watch and all that. I had written home and said, this is killing me. I said, “I don’t think I’ll ever get out of here.” And the boot camp was 11 weeks. After a week I knew they were going to kill me. Well, one of the things was that we had to walk off of a high platform with a full pack that I could not lift, a lot of the guys couldn’t lift it. You had to walk off into the water. You couldn’t jump, you couldn’t dive, just take one step forward and fall into the water. It was way up there. I don’t remember how high it was. And then you had to get loose from your gear and save your life. They had lifeguards there in case you didn’t make it. A lot of the guys didn’t. It was one of the things that you had to keep doing until you learned how to do it. So it was not very much fun.
At the end of two weeks, at evening muster—you have to muster in the morning and in the evening—at evening muster, the CO called my name and said, “You are to report to outgoing personnel tomorrow at 0600 with your gear laced in a seagoing manner.” I asked if I could go send a telegram, which I’d did. I said, “I am going to sea tomorrow.” I knew that the destroyer base was down on the bay and we figured that was where the ships came in. I figured I would be shipped out from there. I wondered why after only two weeks they were sending me to sea. Very confusing when the boot camp was supposed to be 11 weeks.
So I got my gear laced in a seagoing manner—your book, your hammock, your clothes, everything you have. It’s in a long roll and then you double it up and you pull these ropes and you tie it up and then you go out and somebody puts it on your back and helps you stand up. When you get standing, you can walk for awhile. I went over to this grinder where I was to meet a bus. I had my orders in a sealed brown envelope and I knew I was going to sea from what they said. One guy out on this concrete ramp dropped my gear and sat on it. He’s like this with his head in his hands. Everybody is “Mac” in the Navy. “Hi, Mac,” he said. “Hi, Mac.” I said, “Where are you going, Mac?” He said, “I guess to sea.” I said, “Me, too.” He said, “Jimmie Davidson, is that you?” And I looked up like that. It was Watson Davis. Watson Davis was the guy who took my job at the theater in Tuckerman when I got canned for getting married. (Laughter) So he had worked for Malco and Paramount and several of the theater chains, little older than I but not much. And I said, “How long have you been here?” He said, “Long enough—they nearly killed me.” He had been there about four weeks, I think. They told him the same thing. So we put 2 and 2 together and said, “Well, because of our backgrounds they are sending us to be the projectionists or electricians or something on the ship. Both of us from Arkansas and it was a very strange coincidence. So he and I got on the bus when it came up and it had a WAVE, a female sailor driving it and she said, “Your orders.” We handed her the orders. We had been brainwashed not to ask questions. You don’t speak until you were spoken to. So instead of heading down to the bay—we were the only two guys on the bus—she heads out to the boonies and the hills. So finally I got up courage; I said, “Ma’am, could you please tell us where we are going?” She said, “Camp Elliott.” She said, “I am to take you to Lieutenant J.G. Ferguson.” That is all she knew. What the hell’s going on here? We looked at each other and didn’t know what to say. We got out there and there were Marines everywhere you looked. I never saw so many Marines in my life. Big, big base.
Janet and I were out there in a motorhome several years ago. I went out there. I couldn’t find it. They have torn it down since then. But there was a gas station across the road. It had an old geezer there sitting on a chair at this gas station. Looked like he had been around a long time. I said, “Did you ever hear of Camp Elliott?” He said, “Yep, it used to be right out there.” (Laughter) I said, “Well, I was based there and I thought I was in the right place.” I drove back and forth for 23 months.
So I thought, what are we doing at a Marine base? She stops at building number so-and-so and said, go topside here and report to Lieutenant J.G. Ferguson. That wasn’t Lieutenant Jr. Grade, that happened to be his initials. He was a Lieutenant Commander. His receptionist took us into his office and he jumped up—he was in full uniform, dress uniform—he jumped up, and came around his desk. We shook hands and he called us both by name. I really mean pumped our hands vigorously and I said to myself, “What the hell is going on here, an officer doing that to us?” (Laughter) We were apprentice seamen. They had promised me all this. I was going to be a Chief Petty Officer out there at the Great Lakes. It was quite a letdown, about as low as you can get. He said, “Have a seat, gentlemen.” He called us gentlemen—hey. He said, “I guess you are wondering why you are here.” I said, “Sir, this is an understatement.” (Laughter) He said, “Well, this is obviously a Marine base. The Navy is taking this base over. It’s going to be called TADCEN Training and Distribution Center and what we will be doing here is receiving men who had been in combat for R&R—rest, recreation and rehabilitation. They’ll come here before we send them back home or back to combat or whatever. We will also be processing men from boot camp to go to sea. So this is the processing place.” But he said, “We have a lot of entertainment facilities: 3 theatres, one huge auditorium.” He said, “My staff and I have looked through [I think he said] 35,000 records at the Naval Training Station and we selected you two from them.” I said, “Sir, did you know that we knew each other before and had worked for the same man back in Arkansas?” He said, “What a coincidence!!” No, he did not know that. Watson and I had different personalities. He was—let’s just leave it right there. We had different personalities.
Very quickly I just fit right in. They started Marines out. About all Watson did was operate the picture machines on his shift and not much more than that. I dug in and (it was called the Welfare and Recreation Department), set up new divisions within it and the camp newspaper. I was on the staff. I got a Speed Graphic camera. I did a lot of photography, wrote articles for the paper, set up a darkroom, got a guy in there that was a professional photographer from New Orleans called Ray Cresson. He was a true Frenchman and he was already a famous photographer. Janet and I still visit him occasionally when we are in New Orleans. He is still in the business. He was the chief photographer, the only photographer for the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, and I learned a lot from him. I had already been taking pictures and developing them. I had a homemade enlarger. But now I was able to order some sophisticated equipment. I got an Omega D2 enlarger. I got an Anniversary Model Speed Graphic and some lenses, and an APECO dryer and just the best of everything and set up one heck of a good photo lab, and had a picnic with it.
I learned from Ray; I learned quite a bit from him. The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans was a big place that had a huge ballroom and they broadcast the big band orchestras out of there. They had movie stars there all the time and it was a place where famous people went to eat or to stay when they were in New Orleans. So the newspapers quite often did features on Ray. He sent me copies of some of them. He has pulled out some 8 x 10 glossies of famous people that he has taken pictures of. So I did learn from Ray and I did a lot of photography—a tremendous amount and I have a lot of pictures that I made out there. I got acquainted with a lot of movie stars myself. We put on shows, stage shows. This auditorium was the largest single deck auditorium in the world, seated 3,012 people, one level. Radio City Music Hall, for example, would seat more but it has a lot of balconies. This was the largest single deck theater in the world. The throw was over 212 feet, I believe. The proscenium arch was 100 feet wide. It had a fly loft that we could fly about; I think it was fourteen sets. We put on some tremendous shows.
At that time there was a USO victory committee and the Hollywood variety shows and they would recruit movie stars to do shows. They would go around to the bases and do it free of charge. You know, like Bob Hope does even today. I knew a lot of people and really got into it. I spent a little time around Hollywood, not much, but enough. They gave us some old sets and things, drapes and sets, and I painted some sets. I did some productions on our own. We did “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” at one time. I painted all the sets for it, the bar scene and the Malamute Saloon and all of that. I met many, many stars. The Three Stooges, for example, just to name one. Some of them even remembered me on subsequent meetings, but none of them would now. The ones of them that are still around I am sure wouldn’t because it has been so long ago. The first silk shirt I ever owned in my life was given to me by Curly of the Three Stooges. You know they were the original Three Stooges. Of course, the shirt wrapped around me twice but I wore that thing with pride. I had the only silk shirt on that base. (Laughter) You couldn’t wear it on the base; you could wear it off duty.
I put in all the sound equipment. I fed NBC radio network with my equipment out of there. The Jack Haley Show and the Jack Carson Show and several others. I have pictures of them, you wouldn’t believe. I kept a lot of the color pictures and a lot that weren’t color. Most of them were 8 x 10 glossies. I had all the work details I wanted, unlimited access to men and they all liked to work for me because I treated them nice and I worked hard myself. I just didn’t crack a whip and say, “You do this and you do that.” I crawled up on this roof; this auditorium had a circular roof, oval roof and had the largest wooden trusses I have seen. It was done on aircraft hangar design. There were no supporting columns in that huge auditorium. They just depended on these trusses. So I am way top there on the top and there was a scuttle hole up there. If you got too far over the edge, you would fall down to the seats in the theater. So I got a bunch of lumber—2 x 4s, 2 x 6s, and a tape—and I’d yell down there, “Saw me a 2 x 4, 10 feet long or whatever I wanted and I’d bolt or nail it to whatever I could reach looking down in this hole. And I got me four long scuttle holes about 2 x 3 feet. So I got these down there and then I would nail like a ladder and I would climb down and I would keep nailing. I got some bracing and supports and finally I got down there. Then I could reach up to this truss and nail more support. I made a booth, an open booth with a rail around it that was about 5 x 10 feet. There is the stage down in front of it. I put spotlights and flood lights and color wheels up there. What prompted this was that I was getting cue sheets that called for this type lighting and we did not have it. So that is why I did it. It worked good. The only thing to get up there you had to climb up over this huge roof and it was big enough to put a flock of B-17s on it. It was a big auditorium. (Laughter) I have pictures of the auditorium, the interior of the auditorium.
ALLEN: What rank were you at this time?
DAVIDSON: I was very quickly promoted to Petty Officer and the rating was Specialist X. The X meant that they had no category for the work I was doing. You could be a carpenter’s mate or electrician’s mate, plumber’s mate, but they didn’t have any category for me and finally Ferguson says, “Well, here is one that is a catch all, so you are Specialist X.” (Laughter) So I got a little more money then. I had saved some money during this 18 months. I had probably about $5,000 saved, the most money I ever had in my life. So I got my family out there. I think Jamie was less than a year old. I would have to check back and confirm that. He was a little bitty baby and couldn’t live on the base and our executive officer was a real horse’s rear and he didn’t believe in men living off base with their families. If you did it, you did it on your own. You had to pay for it, no per diem at all. So I got a place at El Cajon behind a man’s house. It was a converted chicken house that he cleaned up and sprayed for the chicken mites. It made a little one room apartment. Rent was cheap.
Every fourth night I ran projectors in this auditorium. There were two other theaters, large ones but smaller than this one and I didn’t have too much to do with them except help them find projectionists. I looked through cards and every time I would find a projectionist from Arkansas, I would get him in our department. They loved me for that because they were on their way to sea. I had one little boy from Hot Springs. His name was Slim something or other. I have forgotten his last name. I had another one from Hope, Arkansas. His first name was Ray and I have forgotten his last name. The more I got, the less I had to work in the booth. I was working at night in town. There was a radio shop in El Cajon that gave me keys and I would go in after I got off. On my way home, I would stop there and repair radios. He paid me, he would not take anything but table models and he paid me 50% of my labor and 10% of the parts. In other words, if I had a $2.00 labor charge, I got a dollar out of it. If the parts were a dollar, I got ten cents. So on a $3.00 repair, I would get maybe a dollar and ten cents. But he had them lined up and first come, first served, and I just knocked out a few radios and dropped by the next time when he was open. This was usually at night and he would pay me for it. I would keep track of what he owed me. He would pay me for it. I also worked in downtown San Diego in a photographic lab and I would go in there after they closed. They gave me keys and I made enlargements till I was so sleepy that I couldn’t see what I was doing. I got paid by the piece for that.
END OF TAPE 2, SIDE B
Interview of Jim Davidson
Tape 3, Side A
ALLEN: We have moved on to Tape #3, J.Y. Davidson, recorded on Monday, February 29, 1988, in Naples, Florida. And you were talking about all of the extra jobs that you were doing on nights and weekends when you were in the Navy in Southern California, in the San Diego area.
DAVIDSON: All those extra jobs were necessary. My Navy pay was very meager and despite the fact that I had a Petty Officer rating, I was not getting subsistence or per diem they called it, for staying off the base. I was told later that I could apply—after I was discharged. I might apply for it and make a case out of it and get it but I never did pursue it. Little by little I was digging into my savings and as they depleted, I had to work harder and harder, and we had to live on less and less. As new departments opened, the Navy took over the various departments—they had a bakery department that would serve a city the size of Little Rock and a cold storage meat plant of similar capacity. As Navy personnel came in, being in publicity and welfare and recreation, I knew all of them. I was there when they got there. So I was one of the first guys other than the personnel department that they met. I made it a point to meet them. I would interview them for the newspaper and needless to say, I had a lot of good connections.
On my birthday one time, the guy in charge of the bakery called and said, “Are you going home this evening?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, drop by on your way out; roll your back glass down.” I did. He set a cake that must have been about 2½ feet square with “Happy Birthday Jimmie” and the date. I remember one Thanksgiving the guy at the cold storage plant called me and said (this was a couple of days before Thanksgiving), “Why don’t you drop by on your way home this evening?” I said, “OK.” So I dropped by and he had a 22-pound turkey for me. Quite frequently he would give me a rack of steaks, rib eyes or whatever, tenderloins, and I would take it home, slice it up and put it in the freezer. I never stood in line for mess after boot camp because as the cooks and the people in charge of the cooks came on board, they knew me, I knew them. I would just go back and eat with the cooks. That was better than the officers’ mess. The best food in the world is eating with the cooks. So I really had it made.
I applied for Navy housing which is low cost, and a nice apartment. It was right across the street from the Navy base. There were four units to the apartment. The living room and kitchen were down, the bedrooms were up. It was that type, but there were four units to the apartment or to the building. I finally got that and it was less money than the chicken coop so I moved. Incidentally, out at the chicken coop at El Cajon, I could reach out from the kitchen window and pluck an orange off the tree and look up at the same time at the Cleveland National Forest Mountains out there and see snow-capped mountains. So I got in this Navy housing finally and that helped. It was after that when I had no money to buy anything for Christmas and I had to buy gas for the car and it was rationed. So I went over to the woodworking shop and borrowed the guy’s lathe and got a piece of walnut and I made two table lamps. I scrounged the brass pull chain sockets and some wire from the electrical department and I went to town and spent my last three dollars on two lampshades and I made two table lamps and that was our Christmas present to us. The baby didn’t get anything.
ALLEN: You were discharged then in early 1946?
DAVIDSON: February, 1946. Oh (Laughter), I was offered higher ratings and everything. Officer’s Candidate School and all that stuff to stay, you know, and sign on. And I said, “All I want is out.” OUT. Out. I started writing a book about the caste system in the Navy. It existed in the Navy. I found out, just like it did in the Army and the Air Corps. It was called the Air Corps back then. This Signal Corps that I was in was attached to the Army Air Corps.
So I wanted my car in good shape and I found an old boy shade tree mechanic who had a little shop out there. He fixed it up for the return trip. We were discharged in the point system. I was getting very close to discharge and I wanted the car in good shape. The car was using oil a lot. I wanted it overhauled so this old boy said he would do it for, I don’t know. It wasn’t very much money. It just needed rings and insert bearings on the crankshaft and maybe grind the valves. It seems to me like it was $75.00 he charged me. It could have been less than that in those days. So he did it and I caught a ride with another guy back and forth until he got the car ready. I went out to pick it up and it wouldn’t start. He said, “Oh, I made the engine good and tight for you.” And I thought, “Uh-huh, I don’t like that.” He said, “We will pull it and start it.” So he pulled it behind another car and it finally started. It seemed to run all right. I cut it off and it still wouldn’t start. I said to him, “Those crankshaft bearings, aren’t they going to get lubricated?” I said, “I think they are too tight. Did you put oversized bearings in it or what?” He said, “No, I fitted it up just right.” He said, “I wanted it a little snug.” He said, “You will be happy, believe me.”
So we started home after discharge. I was put on a small ship called an APD and sent up to San Pedro up the coast for my discharge, and was bused back to San Diego. Why they did that, no one knows. San Pedro is close to Los Angeles. So he pulled the car again. (Laughter) It started again. It finally got to where it would start on its own. I drove it around a few days and got packed up and ready to go back to Arkansas. Out in Texas, I threw a rod bearing—bang, bang, bang. I knew what it was instantly because I had been overhauling engines before I left you know in that shop we had. I know that the ones we overhauled we never did have to pull the car to get it started. But what did I know, the guy sounded honest and convincing. So I pulled off and it was hot, no air conditioner. The baby was crying and my $300 mustering-out pay was being depleted. I was anxious to get back home and get to work. So I started the thing up again and it didn’t knock until I speeded up a little bit. And I thought maybe I would just creep back into town. We were close to Greenville, Texas. I thought maybe I can get back, but I couldn’t do it. we had to idle along real slow so I went into town and a guy pulled me in. He had a Ford garage, but he said, “I don’t have any parts. I may be able to hustle you a crankshaft bearing, but not a full set.” He said, “I don’t have a mechanic.” Rationing was still in effect. I said, “Well, what am I going to do?” Crying baby and everything. He said, “I’ll loan you some tools.” He said, “You know how to do it?” I said, “Yes, sir.” Well, on that model car, you have to take the front motor supports off to get the oil pan off and jack the engine up to get the oil pan off. I got under there and got the oil pan off finally. Sure enough, I found a bad throw on the crankshaft and the bearing was bad. I took it off and I went over and I said, “You got a micrometer?” He loaned me a micrometer and I mic’d the throw on the crankshaft and it was out of round. It didn’t have to be much, you know. An engine is a very precision thing. “Do you have any way of grinding this crankshaft?” He said, “No.” There was no use in taking it out. Now that was a major job taking the crankshaft out. You had to pull the whole engine then. Well, I know I could have gotten it out. I could have gotten it out without pulling the engine, I think. He pitched me a roll of emery cloth about the same width as the bearing—about 1 inch or 1½ inches. I have forgotten how wide these bearings were but he pitched me a roll of it and said, “The best thing I can suggest—and this has been known to work—is to lay on your back with a piece of this emery cloth and sand that bearing onto the crankshaft for 15 minutes and another quarter of a turn and sand 15 more minutes and another quarter of a turn, etc. You mic it every once in a while and after about a day, you might get it to where it would hold a bearing.” So I did that. My arm muscles got so tired and were cramping and aching. I was continually micing the shaft so I started working on the areas that were a little higher and I finally got it within a few thousandths tolerance and I thought it would hold a bearing. So he found a bearing and I oiled it up and fitted it on there and bolted a connection rod to it. It was free and it would turn and it wouldn’t shake. You could rattle the connecting rod on the crankshaft before I started, so it felt pretty good. I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing by then. I got it all buttoned up, got the oil pan on, jacked the engine back down, bolted the motor supports down. We started out again and we got about 15 or 20 miles. I was driving slow. I didn’t want to push it, you know. I was driving about 25 or 30 miles an hour. We were doing pretty good and I kept speeding it up a little bit and speeding up a little bit. I got about 40 some miles and bang, bang, bang, the damn thing went out again. I was sick. So I just sat there and put my head in my hands and I didn’t know whether to cry or cuss or what.
For some unknown reason, I started the engine and started driving off very, very slowly and I found I could get up about 12 to 15 miles an hour before it would start knocking. Go above that it would start knocking. So I thought, “Well, this is better than nothing. We are moving.” And there was not much traffic in those days. Gas was still rationed. There just was not much traffic. I was creeping along at 12 to 15 miles an hour and I am thinking what I should have done in retrospect, hindsight is 20-20; I should have just taken that piston out, the connecting rod and piston out and gone in on seven cylinders. Why it never occurred to me, I don’t know. I was just a kid. Just a kid. We still learn something new every day. I have kicked myself a hundred times for not doing it. This guy that owned the Ford place didn’t suggest that either. The car would run beautifully on seven cylinders. All we would have needed to do was to take the spark plug out, take the connecting rod and piston out and just go about my business. So I kept thinking, “What am I going to do, what am I going to do? It will take days to get back like this.”
I pulled over to the side and got some tools out. The distributor is on the front of that engine and I retarded the spark in the hopes that the light spark would keep the piston pressed down against the throw on the crankshaft and it helped. I got on up to about 25 miles an hour then. I went out and retarded it some more and it wouldn’t even start so I backed it up where it would barely start and went on in. I drove all night and part of the next day and got in at 25 miles an hour. Oh, let’s see, I had about 450 miles to go. I tore the engine down and rebuilt it and ran the old car for a long time after that before I could afford another one.
ALLEN: So you went back to Tuckerman then after you were discharged from the Navy?
DAVIDSON: I went back into the business that I had left with this partner and he took off and started fishing and playing golf again.
ALLEN: After all the time you had been out there in California and around movie stars, did you ever give any thought to not going back to Tuckerman or was that always an absolute in your mind?
DAVIDSON: I considered it and I was offered a job. I just didn’t feel that Hollywood was for me. One little thing that happened during the Navy days, Warner Brothers making some movies out at Balboa Park, you have heard of that, haven’t you?
DAVIDSON: OK. There is a big amphitheater and another theater out there. They shot five movies, or parts of five movies, out there and came to me or one of the guys did from Warner’s; they said we need a harmonica trio. We want three sailors who can play harmonica. I said, “Man, I got just what you need.” And they said, “We will pay you $25 a day.” I said, “You have got it. When do you want us to start?” I played harmonica. The first time I ever played was for the PTA down in England when I was five years old. I played “Home on the Range” at a PTA meeting. I still have a great big harmonica, about a foot long. I had a guy in my department who didn’t have any specific job. His name was Shorty Hogan. I have been trying to think of his name for days. Shorty Hogan was a professional harmonica player and had a fitted suitcase with just several dozen harmonicas, anything from an inch long up to maybe 18 or 20 inches long and he was good. I was just a fair harmonica player, but he was a top drawer professional, a little bitty short guy. I got a picture of him back there and that is why I was trying to think of his name. Thank you very much. I got Shorty. I said, “Hey, we got us a deal.” I said, “How would you like to make $25 a day?” The answer is obvious. I said, “Just one problem. We got to find another harmonica player.” And we searched. We went over to Personnel and we couldn’t find anybody who could play a harmonica. So finally we got old Watson Davis who I mentioned earlier; we took a harmonica and took all the reeds out of it. (Laughter) He is a ham anyway. We took all the reeds out of this harmonica (Laughter) with a pair of pliers. He was really a ham. He stayed on a constant ego trip. Good old boy. I liked Watson. He was just like everybody else; you had to understand him. So he faked it and Shorty was good enough that they didn’t know that there weren’t three of us playing. We worked and had bit parts in five movies—no lines, just walk-on parts. We held onto a ship’s rail while the camera would dolly back and the ship was the backdrop on the stage. The rail was a wooden pole that a gal on each side of the stage held or set on something. They had a track and they dollied the camera up out of this theater. When they played it back, it looked like the ship was pulling out.
ALLEN: Did you ever see these films?
DAVIDSON: Yes, as a matter of fact I have some frames that I can put my hands on right now.
ALLEN: What were the titles? Do you have any recollection?
DAVIDSON: I have forgotten. You know I don’t remember the titles of the movies and I have searched for them. I have looked for them. Someday I am going to find all of the movies that Warner made during the wartime years and see if I can’t find them. Maybe get a videotape. I have some frames from when we got the movies at the theater. You’ve got to remember this has been a long time.
ALLEN: Oh, yes, absolutely.
DAVIDSON: I placed a lot more importance back then on three meals a day—on survival—than I did on saving things for posterity. There are a lot of things I wish I had saved. And when we have a break here in a minute, I can put my hands on these pictures. When the movies came to the theater, I did an unforgiveable sin. I cut some frames out and spliced it back, 35mm frames, and took them down to my lab. Now movie film is positive and so I had to make a negative from the positive, which was no problem, and enlarge it. I made 4×5 negatives and then blew them up to 8×10 and I have the prints. I’ll show them to you in a little bit, some of them. It shows the soundtrack and the frame and everything. We had another guy in our department. We called him “rubber legs” and he did contortions on the stage. We got him in one of the shows.
ALLEN: But you didn’t consider a career as a movie actor then?
DAVIDSON: No. No.
ALLEN: Back to Tuckerman and back to the business.
DAVIDSON: I thought about acting. Yes, I considered it, but not seriously enough to stay and doing anything about it.
ALLEN: Was it difficult to get back and get the business really rolling again after you got back?
DAVIDSON: No, not at all. Things were rationed still, wartime shortage. All the plants like Ford were making four engine bombers, B-24 Liberators instead of automobiles. They were making tanks up at Willow Run. I don’t think we could win another war, I am sorry to say. I hope we could, but the enthusiasm and patriotism that we saw after Pearl Harbor was just incredible. You have heard about “Rosie the Riveter” and everyone rolled up their sleeves and went to work for the war effort. We turned out an incredible amount of armament and airplanes and an incredible number of people were taught to fly and maintain those airplanes and other armament. It was just an era of patriotism that I don’t think we’ll ever have again. Society today is all screwed up. (Laughter) You know what I’m trying to say and I don’t want to make a speech about it. Children growing up today don’t have a sense of responsibility that we did. They don’t have a sense of values that I grew up with. I knew how long and do today, how long I’d have to work today to buy a car or a loaf of bread for that matter. And children growing up today, they don’t have a sense of responsibility. I don’t know if we could win another war like that or not.
END OF TAPE 3, SIDE A
Interview of Jim Davidson
Tape 3, Side B
ALLEN: Tuesday, the 1st day of March, or as my watch says, the 30th day of February, 1988, and we are in Naples, Florida, the home of Mr. and Mrs. J.Y. Davidson and we are talking about his participation in the development of the cable industry as a project for the National Cable Television Center and Museum. When we stopped yesterday afternoon, you had driven that Ford V-8 from San Diego to Arkansas and we just didn’t quite get you to pull into the driveway, so do you want to pick up how you arrived back at your home and how you got involved again in Auto-Electric and began to pick up your life in postwar Arkansas?
DAVIDSON: We finally crept back in after the connecting rod went out for the second time at about, I think, 25 miles an hour and it was several hundred miles. We pulled in early one morning after having driven all day and all night without sleep.
ALLEN: And this was February, 1946.
DAVIDSON: Right, and immediately went back with my partner in the business that I abandoned during the war years.
ALLEN: Did you move back in with your wife’s parents?
DAVIDSON: Temporarily, and then we bought a small home, a new home. I believe the interest was like 3-point something percent, very modest. The partner had written me pleading that I make no other plans and return back emphasizing my interest in the business and how it was building assets for the future, etc. I was later to become very disillusioned about this, because it did not come to pass. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work. The factories had been producing war materials; for example, General Motors at their Willow Run plant were building B-25 bombers or B-24 Liberators., I believe it was—four engine bombers and tanks. There were no home appliances of any kind during the war so my partner had very little to do but hang on. Production resumed in the appliance factories and we started receiving allotments. They were rationing the production out to various dealers. So I took on Frigidaire, Maytag, Philco and Hallicrafters, whom you will recall as having built shortwave equipment primarily family to your radio and some commercial. They started building television receivers. Most people today aren’t aware of that but it was a fairly good receiver. We took on Philco receivers and the Philco appliance line, and RCA and a few others. I am a little bit ahead of myself. We did not take on the television line.
ALLEN: I suspect at the outset there was a lot more repair business than there was new sales.
DAVIDSON: Of course there was. OK, I am about to pick it up now. I moved in with my in-laws who lived a couple of miles from town until we built this home. We started getting appliances. We were selling battery radios. Now that is in here in this thing that we’ve written. OK, I started flying almost immediately. One Sunday morning, a fellow landed a bright yellow J-3 Piper Cub two-seat training plane in a pasture right by our house. I went out and talked to him over the fence. His name was Bruce Higgenbottom. Bruce called me last week. He is coming down to visit for a week or two around the Fourth of July this year. He had been a carrier pilot, not in combat, but trained to fly off aircraft carriers. When he got out of the service, he planned to start a flying school and he bought two of these Cubs. You could buy them for around $900 to a thousand dollars apiece in those days. They had a 65 horsepower Lycoming engine. I chatted with him at length that morning and told him of my interest in learning to fly. I told him that I would like to make a deal with him. I was doing some commercial photography on the side and I had been approached by several rice farmers in this area that wanted aerial photograph of their fields, you know the levees, etc. I had an idea to do some serial pictures on speculation, which I later did and it worked. It sounded good to him and we agreed to split, he would furnish the airplane, I would furnish the camera and do the processing and selling and we would split part of our profits that we made. At that point in time, I had not soloed but I had a vast amount of experience with airplanes from the Signal Corps days. I had to start engines and taxi any size up through the largest airplanes. One of the first things that you have to learn to do when you fly is to taxi and I already knew how to do that. And I had learned a lot about aircraft from having worked on them.
I had obtained a booklet from Piper Aircraft. I believe the title was “It’s Easy to Fly,” or “It’s Fun to Fly.” I got two cane bottom chairs and faced them against the wall at home, laid the book in the one on my right, got a broomstick between my legs and used the wall for the rudders. I used the broomstick for the stick and I would read this book and practice flying. That was my improvised flight simulator, I guess you would call it. (Laughter) So I practiced quite a bit like that and felt like I could just go jump in an airplane and fly. I would not recommend anyone do that, however. We started flying and taking pictures and I guess if anyone taught me to fly, I would have to say it was Bruce. After 3 and 1/2 hours–and this is logged–of picture taking missions, and him telling me a few things he thought I ought to know and allowing me to to do every takeoff and landing—these were 30 minute trips usually, approximately 30 minutes. So after three hours and 30 minutes, he got out one day and said, “You have got it.” So I soloed and came back and he said, “Do it again.” He was sitting out on the runway. Well, I actually learned to fly out of this very short field. I think it was about 1500 feet. It had trees at one end and power lines at the other. Every landing was a thrill, every takeoff was a thrill. (Laughter)
After that I continued flying and I bought a little Aeronica Champion for $600. It was about the same type airplane. It had a 65 horsepower engine. I started flying to Memphis and to Little Rock. I didn’t have a license but I was building up a lot of time and he and other friends signed off as if it were instruction even though it wasn’t. I flew to Memphis and Little |Rock and several other places before I had a license of any kind. These trips were to attend sales meetings or to call on potential customers, or purchasing trips, to try to buy appliances that were still in short supply. And I finally took time one day to go over to an FFA examiner and take the written test and the flight test and I got a private license. I continued flying. There was a friend in Newport named Sam Brownley who had….
ALLEN: Newport, Arkansas.
DAVIDSON: Right. Ten miles south of Tuckerman. He had a lot of war surplus airplanes. He had PT-19, a BT-13, which was the same one that I had serviced so many hundreds of them when I was in the Signal Corps and he had some observation airplanes, Taylor Crafts, etc. I asked him one day if he would rent me some of these airplanes from time to time so I could build time in them. I only got to fly late in the afternoon after we closed the store at 5 or on Sundays, but I flew every chance that I had, every opportunity. Sam says, “I will let you fly any of them and won’t charge you a penny if you will just put the fuel and oil in them and fly a different one every time.” He said, “They are sitting out there becoming rust buckets.” I said, “Man, you have got a deal.” So I went out and flew all of those airplanes from time to time.
Bruce had some sort of deal with him, I think, even though Bruce had his own two airplanes. I think he had some sort of deal with him because he used that PT-19 in his flight school. But I flew all of them including the BT-13, without ever being checked out on any of them. I felt real good about it. I was proud of myself. You know, on an ego trip I guess you would say. I flew the Fairchild one time which had two open cockpits. I flew it one Sunday over to Paducah, Kentucky, to see an airshow and the dedication of Barkley Field. Alvin Barkley was Vice-President at the time. It rained on me all the way over and I got rather wet. The little Aeronica Champion eventually was lost. It happened to be in a hangar that burned so I started renting airplanes after that and flying some of Sam’s when I needed one.
I believe it was in 1947 when we first started hearing rumors about television stations popping up over the country. I don’t recall which was the first one. I know KDKA in Pittsburgh was the first radio station and it may well have been the first television station. I’m not certain about that. We could check it out. The first one of any interest to us was rumored to be going to start in Memphis and WMCT had an AM and an FM station and they had been broadcasting for many, many years. And they got a permit for Channel 4 in Memphis.
ALLEN: Now how far was Memphis from Tuckerman?
DAVIDSON: It was 90 miles.
ALLEN: Do you want to talk a little bit about the business and what it was like to reconstruct the appliance business after the war?
DAVIDSON: People who are old enough to remember wartime rationing will know what I am talking about and those that didn’t experience it would have difficulty realizing what it was like to have the entire country dedicated to wartime production of military ammunition and equipment and airplanes and tanks, etc. Our nation was totally dedicated to that. You could not buy automobile tires, gasoline was rationed. Butter was rationed. Meat was rationed. Geez, just about anything: hardware, nails, there were simply no home appliances, no radios, no phonographs or records or anything of that nature. Naturally the postwar years of ’46, ’47, ’48, and ’49 took factories awhile to gear up to start producing things again. It was a constant battle to find goods to sell, but we did. We had to do a lot of hustling. We even bought appliances from other dealers. There was some postwar black market dealing in appliances. We did not get involved in that but it was going on. So most of the radios that we sold were battery-operated because at this point in time, the REA—Rural Electrification Association—had not gone through the countryside wiring, running or bringing electricity into rural homes. So rural homes had to rely on battery operated radios and hand pumps for water and scrub boards and washtubs to wash their clothes. It is difficult to imagine that it was no longer ago than that.
In thinking about it today, it is difficult to imagine that people can live without electricity, but we did. I mean, many people did. So we sold a lot of radios to these people. Of course we had electric radios too. We probably took on a half dozen or more different lines in order to have enough inventory to sell. I would guess that we sold electric radios and battery radios about 50-50. The people in the cities would buy the electric ones, of course. Batteries were almost impossible to buy and that is covered right there. I don’t think we have to deal with that.
ALLEN: There are a couple of things that I would like to make certain that we touch on, even if it is redundant. Was this the time then that you got involved in music and had your own band?
DAVIDSON: Yes. In the immediate postwar years, in addition to starting flying—I think I mentioned elsewhere that I drew a pittance out of the appliance company—I was very interested in music. I was also very interested in advertising our products, so I built a studio upstairs for recording broadcasts. Radio. This was, of course, not television. I devised a program called “Auto-Electric Home Talent Program.” I would interview anyone that could play a drum, play a musical instrument or sing or whatever. I had an old upright piano that I got tuned up and working pretty good and I had a big electric clock, quartz clock. I had a pull chain lavalier switch to start and stop the clock. I set my drums up and I put up microphones. One of the microphones I put on a stand between my legs and I had this string hanging down from the ceiling so I could start and stop the clock, because the radio station wanted exactly 29 minutes. I did my own commercials. I did my own announcing and advertising, etc., for the products that we sold at the store. They wanted exactly 29 minutes and 30 seconds including my spot.
ALLEN: What radio station were you broadcasting on?
DAVIDSON: There was a station over in Jonesboro. Even Newport didn’t have a station at that time. There were very few stations around town. Little Rock, Hot Springs, Jonesboro, and Fort Smith, I believe, were the only stations.
ALLEN: How far away was Jonesboro?
DAVIDSON: About 10 miles, but it covered our area quite well. So I produced these 30 minute tapes up there and mailed them over to the station in advance and they ran one of them every morning.
ALLEN: Now how were you recording this?
DAVIDSON: Home tape.
DAVIDSON: Audiotape, yeah. 7 inch reels. I would accompany some of the talent with drums and some I wouldn’t. This is how I met the fellows that ultimately formed the band that I put together.
ALLEN: Now you had played the harmonica when you were in the Navy, but you hadn’t played the drums?
DAVIDSON: Right. And do you want me to say what I told you?
DAVIDSON: I had always wanted to play something besides the harmonica and I thought, oh, well, anyone can play drums and those are famous last words. I ordered a set of drums and not only did I not know how to set them up, but when I finally did get them somewhat assembled, I found very quickly that I sounded terrible. I just did not know how to play the drums and I needed some help. Being no one in the area that could teach me anything, I started listening to records and when I had the opportunity I would go to Memphis to the Skyway at the Peabody Hotel where they had big bands which were broadcast. Incidentally, WPAC in Memphis originated network broadcasting. I don’t remember if it was NBC, but I think it was the NBC Radio Network. Coming to you from the beautiful Skyway atop the gorgeous Hotel Peabody in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, here is the music of Glenn Miller and his orchestra. So this is the type of thing that that they did and I would sneak off over there in my airplane and spend the night and go up and watch the bands—particularly the drummer—and get back in time to open the store the next morning.
ALLEN: You had no musical education of any kind.
DAVIDSON: No, none at all. When I felt comfortable with it, I set the drums up in the studio and started accompanying some of the instruments that played and rather quickly put together a band. We played the big band sounds, we played Country and Western and Western Swing. We didn’t play corny country. I am sort of middle of the road. I like all types of music: classical, I love good classical music, but I don’t care for it if it’s too extreme—opera or something like that. We are right down the line. We like good Country and Western, we like good Western Swing which was originated by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Incidentally I built a cable system for Leon McAuliffe, who was famous for having played with Bob Wills originally for many years. Many people will remember the “Steel Guitar Rag” when Bob Wills says, “Take it away, Leon.” So I built a cable system for Leon McAuliffe and Don Thompson over at Rogers, Arkansas, and Leon is still over there, he and Smokey Dakus, his drummer. They own and operate the radio station at Rogers. I have had the honor of sitting in with their band.
ALLEN: What was your band called?
DAVIDSON: Oh, we had several names. Oh, let’s see. (Laughter) The ?? Playboys. We will have to insert that later. Rhythm Kings was one name. The first name was Rhythm Kings and the next one was something Playboys and then after that broke up, I went to Batesville. I didn’t have time to play much, but I needed the money so any opportunity that I had I would. I put together a little three-piece combo, just sax, piano and drums. I had a sax man who doubled on clarinet. I don’t remember what we called ourselves then. We just went out and played any time we could make a buck.
A couple of funny things that happened when I was doing the radio program that I might tell you. You wouldn’t believe how many mothers think their children are talented. One lady came up one time with her daughter in tow, and she had called and made the appointment for the audition. I auditioned everyone first. I never went on live, never. You just couldn’t do that. Some of the talent was incredibly bad. So I would audition and then I would dub off out of these auditions enough to make up a program. It took a lot of time and I finally decided to stop doing it. But it was effective and it did bring in some business. People listened to it. I had gotten lots and lots of postcards.
I want to quickly try to tell you about three instances without too many ho’s and haw’s. This lady had her daughter in tow and came up one morning and she played piano. She would play, she had been taking lessons, had her sheet music up there. She would play and then just stop playing completely, turn the page, and start playing again. (Laughter) So many times it was “don’t call me, I’ll call you.” You never offended anyone. Oh, “Your daughter is very good. Thank you, we will see if we can work her in someday on a program.”
Another time there was a group of people who represented what some people in the North might think that people in Arkansas are like. You know there is an image that people have who have never been to Arkansas. I remember the first time I went to New York back in about 1950. And a couple of times when someone asked where I was from, they could tell by my drawl that I was from somewhere from the South. I would say, Arkansas, they would look down and see if I was wearing shoes. Arkansas has the image like Tennessee and Kentucky and others like Virginia and the Carolinas of the “hillbilly family” lying around with their hound dog on the front porch and all that sort of thing. It is an image we resent because we don’t deserve it. However, there are some people like that around.
This family came up. I don’t recall their name now, but they came up; it was an entire family. I think about five of them: father, mother, and three children. They had a twangy steel guitar and they had fiddles and some more instruments, a banjo, and it was the most terrible noise I have ever heard in my life. They didn’t even play together. They stayed off-key. It was terrible. Just terrible. So I taped it and played a little of it back for them and I said, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” in a nice way. So I started getting postcards requesting the (I am going to make up a name) Willard Family saying when are they going to be on your radio show? For about two days, I was deluged with postcards, perhaps a hundred of them and all wanting the Willard Family to be on my show. “When are they going to be on?” They were from near Swifton, Arkansas, which is about, oh, eight or ten miles north of Tuckerman. I was up there one day in the post office mailing some brochures to box holders. The postmaster mentioned that he listened to my radio show and enjoyed it. I said, “Well, thank you.” I said, “Do you happen to know the Willard family out here?” He laughed. “Sure do.” He said, “Mr. Willard came in here the other day and bought a hundred postcards and he and his family, the ones that could write, sat right over there at that table in the post office lobby and addressed all of them to you.” (Laughter) I said, “I got them.” (Laughter) So I still didn’t respond and put them on. One Sunday morning, after I had bought a home, I heard the damndest noise. The Willards had found out where I lived. I don’t know how. They looked like the Beverly Hillbillies. They were out in front of my house on the street, sitting around on the car hood and fenders with all their instruments serenading us, waking up the whole damn neighborhood. (Laughter) I went out and thanked them and everything and tried to be polite and asked them to leave. I promised to call—well, or get in touch with them. I don’t know if they even had a phone. I promised to get in touch with them and put them on the show. I said, “It is Sunday morning, a lot of my neighbors sleep late and I am afraid we will be waking them up right now.” And it was very, very soon after that I shut the program down. I said, “I just can’t handle any more of this.” (Laughter)
ALLEN: You never did put them on the air?
DAVIDSON: No, never did. But they were a Beverly Hillbillies family, if there ever was one. I shut the program down. It was beginning to be too much work, tremendous amount of time editing and splicing tapes, etc., dubbing tapes, and I had too many other responsibilities.
ALLEN: How big a staff did you have at Auto-Electric at this point?
DAVIDSON: Well, I opened another store at Newport, ten miles away, and had a total of 27 at its peak. Twenty-seven employees and we hire Bruce Higgenbottom to manage the store in Tuckerman. He had shut down his flying school because he wasn’t doing too well with it.
ALLEN: Was this the time that you had the fleet of small trucks that went out?
DAVIDSON: Yeah, uh-huh.
ALLEN: How many trucks? I saw the picture. There must have been a dozen or more.
DAVIDSON: Oh, possibly a dozen vehicles. I don’t remember exactly.
ALLEN: Then you interest began to focus on cable?
DAVIDSON: In late ’47, early ’48.
ALLEN: When you heard that Memphis was going to go on the air.
DAVIDSON: Uh-huh. I think that is pretty well covered.
ALLEN: It is pretty well covered. There is something that came to my mind when I was reading that through, and that is how did you figure out the technical side of picking up the signal? You didn’t have any engineers around that could say, “This is the way you do it.”
DAVIDSON: Well, the state-of-the-art at that time left a lot of be desired. I had a good background in electronics and part of my job in the Signal Corps was to do some teaching of the trainees from time to time. I studied and read a lot. I stayed about one chapter ahead of my class, but we didn’t have much technology to draw from as far as television was concerned. We were dealing with higher frequencies like Channel 2 starts at 54; each channel is 6, I am going to say megacycles. I just can’t make myself say “megahertz,” which is in vogue in recent years. But Channel 2 is 54-60 megacycles, Channel 3 is 60-66, Channel 4 is 60-72, and then there is a skip between Channel 4 and Channel 5 of 4 megacycles. Then Channel 5 and then Channel 6 and then there is a big skip between Channel 6 and Channel 7, and in that portion of the frequency spectrum you will find the present aviation frequencies. Well, first you find FM which goes from 88 to 108 megacycles, and at 108 megacycles, the VHF aviation frequencies, and they go up to 136 megacycles. And then you have some communications frequencies and then Channel 7 starts, which is called “High Band VHF,” at 174 megacycles. Now I said Channel 2 starts at 54. Did you ever wonder why we don’t have a Channel 1?
ALLEN: Sure, why don’t we have a Channel 1?
DAVIDSON: I am glad you asked. (Laughter) Bob, the Federal Communications Commission in all its infinite wisdom did have a Channel 1, and it was from 48 to 54 megacycles, which was just right on top of a very important band of communications frequencies, two way radio. Thousands of licensees had equipment on those frequencies and they started protesting and did protest enough that the FCC said, well, we have to do something about it. So the easiest way out was to just drop Channel 1. That is what happened.
ALLEN: How did you come to site the antenna for the first cable system in Tuckerman?
DAVIDSON: To point it toward the station?
ALLEN: How did you figure out where to site it?
DAVIDSON: Oh, well, I used my aviation background. I was fully aware of magnetic deviation and how to read compasses, etc., so it was no problem. There was no technology or experience to draw on. Those of us that started early were just stumbling in the dark, you know. As to antenna design, commercial manufacturers had already started making home type, residential type antennas for other areas of the country that had already had television. I had never seen a television picture, neither had anyone else in our area that I know of. I had the background and I did a lot of reading on antenna design. It really wasn’t a big problem to put something together that would work.
I experimented with a lot of antennas. Some I bought, some I built and some I modified, but I ended with, I believe, 40 elements. Oh, I had as many as 90 elements. I think at one time I had two quads, 10 elements to the quad. Ninety miles away they started broadcasting test signals. We can verify the dates because they are accurate. They are accurate in this Little Rock speech. They started broadcasting in the fall of ’48 and test patterns from time to time and they did it on very low power. Prior to that time, I just started neglecting the appliance business and “yo-yo-ing” back and forth to Memphis and spending full days over there with the chief engineer who was Pop Frase, the late Pop Frase. Pop was a nickname. His name, I believe, his initials were E.C., but that is also in this other piece. He was quite a guy and a good engineer. I went over and watched them build the tower from time to time. I probably went over at least once a week, and stayed with them and watched them put up their transmitter, their antenna, and all the equipment. I established a very good rapport with them. They were very interested in what I was planning to do because they wanted signal strength reports that far out, which I furnished to them. They wanted the added viewers, which I assured them I was going to try to achieve for them.
ALLEN: To your knowledge, was there anyone else planning to put a cable system on in conjunction with the Memphis station?
DAVIDSON: No, no one else.
END OF TAPE 3, SIDE B
Interview of Jim Y. DAVIDSON:
Tape 4, Side A
DAVIDSON: I don’t recall exactly when it was that I heard about other people starting in cable. We didn’t have too much news to listen to or watch. There was no television at all to watch and I didn’t have time to read newspapers or periodicals very much. But somewhere in there I heard some faint rumblings that someone up in the Panther Valley Region of Pennsylvania was doing the same thing that I was doing. I didn’t contact them immediately and I don’t really remember how I found out what their names were. It was probably sometime in 1949 before I contacted Bob Tarlton and Marty Malarkey, I believe, and possibly others in that area. This was when I had gone on to Batesville. I left the appliance business under rather strained circumstances. I have to say that the partner that I had in the appliance business also wanted to be involved in the cable business with me, and was initially, for a very brief time. It was not a pleasant partnership, no more so than the appliance business had been. So I borrowed some money and bought him out. I started the cable with a $25,000 loan from the bank. I got the franchise at Batesville from the city and applied for pole contracts. In the interim, I was still working on the engineering. I was testing for signals from WMCT. I tested on seven hilltops in the Batesville area using temporary towers for some of the tests, using existing towers, and at one time even tried to use a barrage balloon.
ALLEN: Where did you get your hands on a barrage balloon?
DAVIDSON: You know, I don’t remember. It’s been a long time ago. (Laughter) I really don’t remember. I think I bought it from a war surplus outfit. I am pretty sure I did.
ALLEN: And how well did it work?
DAVIDSON: It was very unwieldy and I abandoned it after one day of testing. You just can’t fly a balloon like you can an airplane. (Laughter) The slightest breeze would move it around. I had to keep the antennas oriented toward Memphis. Now instead of 90 miles like we were over in Tuckerman, I am 114 air miles, or at least the final site that I chose was 114 air miles from Memphis. I tested farther away than that and closer, but all in the Batesville area. Tuckerman is flat. Batesville, even though it is only about 40 miles away by road, it was 24 miles by airline farther from Memphis.
ALLEN: Did you continue to operate the Tuckerman system?
DAVIDSON: Oh no. That shut down. I have no idea about whatever happened to the tower. I believe that Bruce could tell us. I think some of the boys eventually tore it down.
ALLEN: How many subscribers did you sign up in Tuckerman before you finally left?
DAVIDSON: Just the one. That only lasted a very short time. I realized right up front that Tuckerman was too small to support a cable system. I wanted to get out of Tuckerman and get into a larger place and I wanted to get out on my own. The transition was not easy, but I did achieve it. I don’t know how long they continued with that one subscriber, but they never hooked up anyone else. There were 17 outlets, 16 in the store for the display and the one customer, and it’s covered in there, in this thing. The testing was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. Do you have the story about the wasp’s nest, my brother-in-law?
ALLEN: Yes. That is in one of those pieces.
DAVIDSON: All right. That was right in this time, right in this timeframe where we are now. Do you have the story about the night that the tent, the storm came up? I don’t think you do.
ALLEN: Probably not. Why don’t you tell us?
DAVIDSON: One night when I was about to decide which site would be the best, I was on top of Ruddell Hill, which is west-southwest of Batesville, just outside of the city limits. You could look down White River toward Memphis and there were hills on both sides of the river. I had a theory that may or may not have been correct that I might get some sort of tunnel effect from the hills which would help increase signal strength. You have to realize the signals I was receiving were very intermittent and snowy. So one night I had borrowed a tent from a funeral home and set it up because I wanted to do extensive testing and didn’t want to get sunburned. I had two television receivers, two field strength meters and two antennas. I had built four steel towers. This was a large field up there and I drew on some of my Signal Corps background and designed a rhombic antenna for the Channel 4 frequency. I made the back tower where the headend would ultimately be installed taller than the others. They were about 70 feet tall and I added another 20 feet or so on the back one so I could install a double quad yagi array with 40 elements. I put the tent up at the bottom and I was monitoring signals simultaneously from both the rhombic and the yagi array.
These yagi antennas can have almost any number of elements that are physically feasible. You start out with what is called the driven element. It can be used, of course, for broadcasting or receiving. You start out with a driven element which is the one that you tie your feeder line or down lead to. It is a dipole actually. It has a pattern that is rather wide and has no front to back ratio at all so you can receive as much signal from this single dipole from the back as you can from the front. And you add a reflector which is just another dipole on one side and that decreases the lobe or signal pattern on that side and increases it a bit on the front side. Then you add more dipoles or elements out in front of it and they become what is called “directors.” You space them according to what frequency you cut the elements to. In other words, you end up with what is called a “cut to frequency antenna.” Ten elements is about all you can do. It becomes a pretty massive piece especially on lower frequencies like Channel 4. So I watched these signals for days. I had already applied for a pole contract with both utilities, Arkansas Power and Light Company, which is a division of Middle South Utilities and with Southwestern Bell Telephone Company whose headquarters were in St. Louis with a big regional office in Little Rock. I was out on the hill one night—by then Channel 4 was broadcasting from about mid-afternoon until 10:00 or 11:00 at night and I was monitoring their signals on my two antennas, constantly.
I might mention that this was the first rhombic antenna that was ever designed for and used specifically for cable television. The Historical Society of Arkansas contacted me several years ago and wanted to put a monument and bronze plaque out there on the site because of its historical significance. I have never gone up there and talked to them or done anything. I guess I should do that. But a rhombic antenna is a massive thing. I think I had about seven wavelengths on each leg. It is in a diamond shape and you terminate the front end with the 800 ohm resistors and the back end you build an 800 ohm down lead which is spaced wider than the 300 ohm ribbon that you are familiar with. They are spaced, oh, about 5 or 6 inches apart. This gives you an extremely high front to back ratio which is important to reduce co-channel interference, and it gives you very narrow foreign lobe. You have to set it up with a transit compass because it you are a degree and a half off of the transmitting antenna, the signals drop significantly. You have to be right on it. And since it is so large you have to build four supporting towers. I had three layers of antennas, three bay antennas. I had them connected and phased together. So I used copper-coated steel wire because I needed the steel for strength because these spans were so long and had to be stretched tight. I used the copper to keep the steel from rusting and this wire was available. It has a very narrow forward lobe and high gain and it worked better than the 40 element yagi so I used it right from the start. People today, fortunately, don’t have to go to these extremes. You stick with satellite technology and you can have an infinite number of channels with absolute good clear studio quality reception by just putting up some satellite dishes.
ALLEN: How long did you continue to use that rhombic antenna?
DAVIDSON: Oh, for a long, long time. Years and years and years.
ALLEN: Did that become pretty much the standard in the industry?
DAVIDSON: No, it didn’t. Let me allude to that, but first let me tell you about one night I was out there and a storm came up. I was totally absorbed in watching the meters and the pictures and recording them on sheets of paper on a clipboard. And suddenly up over the hilltop from the west, a thunderstorm just popped up out of nowhere and sucked that tent right up off of me, poured down rain on me and the equipment and everything. I was out there by myself and it was near midnight.
I built a number of rhombic antennas around over the country. I installed two up at West Plains, Missouri. We built that system originally. I did one over in Rogers originally and several other places. The only other person that I know that built any of them was a fellow named Rudy Riley. Rudy lived in Drew, Mississippi. We had built the cable system for him. Rudy was quite an engineer himself. He was also a pilot. He passed away, oh, gosh, some years ago, but Rudy was putting these rhombics up for plantation owners down in Mississippi on their farms. He did several of them down there. I never saw any of them, but he told me about it. He came to work for us after that. I put him on my staff to go out and build systems with the construction crew.
Jumping ahead a few years, at any given time, I would have systems under construction in five or six states at one time. Rudy didn’t work for me too long, just a few years. He was one of the nicest guys I ever knew. I really enjoyed knowing him. After I had retired the first time and he had not been with us for quite some time, I heard that he had flown up to Kansas City. He had started a business in Georgia, flew up to Kansas City and came back to Georgia, landed his airplane, stepped out of it and keeled over dead walking across the ramp from his airplane. He had a heart attack. So he would have been a significant force in this industry had he lived. He was quite a guy.
ALLEN: When did you put the Batesville system on the air?
DAVIDSON: OK. I mentioned that we had applied for contracts with the utilities for joint use on the poles. I had met and visited with and knew a fellow named C. Hamilton Moses, who was the head of the Arkansas Power and Light Company, Chairman of the Board. I had met him before. He was popular with civic clubs, Kiwanis, Rotary, this sort of thing. He was much in demand for public speaking and was one of the best public speakers I ever saw. He was considerably older than I and well respected around the state. He liked me for some reason and I, of course, liked him. When I applied for the pole contract with Arkansas Power and Light, it came through reasonably fast. The first poles, the first few poles coming down the hill from the antenna were Arkansas Power and Light. Then I had to get on Southwestern Bell Telephone Company poles and it took nine months from the day I applied to the day I got the contract. I had already run cable down the hill and had people clamoring for service. As soon as the contract came in, I was ready. I had my entire staff out there—one man. I was climbing poles along with him and we were stringing the cable by hand. We did not even have a cable lasher. We were using a clamp that I had devised out of little strips of aluminum. Later we got a cable lasher, of course, but I was operating on a real tight budget.
A cable lasher is a spinning machine. It spins the stainless steel wire around the coaxial cable lashing it to a steel cable that you have already installed. Coaxial cable on long spins is not self-supporting. It is the same system that telephone companies use for their multi-wire cables. This was in, I guess, 1950. And gosh, I went through a lot of amplifiers. You couldn’t buy taps, transformers, splitting transformers. I found a company called Bursten Applebee up in Kansas City and they had a bunch of little tin boxes about 2 x 2 x 3 inches. I bought those, several thousand of them, and I made transformers and taps. Everything was crude by today’s standards.
ALLEN: You built them yourself?
DAVIDSON: Yes, uh-huh. And I sold them to other systems later. You just couldn’t buy anything off the shelf. Jerrold was making some equipment but for MATV, Master Antennas, for apartment houses. As a matter of fact, I used one of his power supplies and a strip amplifier out at the headend. And Blonder Tongue was making a broadband amplifier that was as good as available. There just wasn’t anything available. I bought some of those and modified them. You had to modify everything you had or build it yourself. Everything was pretty crude back then, by today’s standards. There was no—absolutely zero—off-the-shelf equipment in the beginning.
ALLEN: So it was sometime in late 1950 when you began to put signal in people’s homes in Batesville.
DAVIDSON: I believe that was about right.
ALLEN: And how did you market the services to people?
DAVIDSON: Didn’t have to market. Batesville was a small town, 6,000 population, everybody knew about it. The newspaper had been following the progress, all this testing, the barrage balloon, the towers, the antennas, and everything drew a lot of attention. Everyone knew about it. They were clamoring for the service. But we had one channel, one employee, and the pictures were not very good. By the time I had run a trunk line through town, I was using RG11 military spec cable. There were no cables made specifically for cable or TV like today. I ran cable all the way through town, what I called a trunk line. I had 26 Blonder Tongue amplifiers in series, and you talk about a nightmare. We were learning as we went. I say we; I was and I am sure that Bob Tarlton and the other guys were doing the same. I didn’t know anything about attenuation changing with temperature change, but I found out pretty quick. The attenuation of the cable changed significantly from day to night and I had to go out and reset levels. We had nothing that even resembled automatic gain control at that time. People installing cable systems today have a piece of cake; they just don’t know it.
This went on for a while and somewhere during that period—it could have been ’49, it could have been ’50—I heard about Ed Parsons up in Astoria, Oregon, and the guys up in the Panther Valley Region. I flew up there and visited with some of them. I didn’t go to Oregon; I went to Pennsylvania. Then I heard about another guy. I had already hooked up some customers when I heard about another guy over in Fort Payne, Alabama, and he was one of the very early pioneers. No one to my knowledge has given him credit for it.
ALLEN: What was his name?
DAVIDSON: I don’t remember, but he passed away. It would be somewhere in our records because he became a customer of ours. When he passed away, his wife continued as a customer.
ALLEN: What town in Alabama?
DAVIDSON: Fort Payne, Alabama. And he was one of the very early ones. It was a real struggle and my one employee came in one day—I was paying him 25 cents an hour and he was glad to get it—but he came in one day and said, “Jimmie, I quit.” I had an office in the back of the old Batesville Hotel and I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “If you would hire someone else, I’ll stay on, but it just gets lonesome out there by myself.” (Laughter) So I hired my brother-in-law to replace him. He came over from Tuckerman.
I got about 100 subscribers and I really had a lousy system. Everybody had a lousy system. There were no other kind of systems. This was the first one in Arkansas, the first one in the mid-South. Everyone had the same experiences because by then we were talking to each other on the phone from time to time. I visited people in Pennsylvania a couple of times and went over to Fort Payne. Everyone was picking each other’s brains and we all had exactly the same problems. Each of us tried to devise methods of overcoming these problems and if we hit on something, we would tell the other boys about it. We were really struggling. I couldn’t draw any money out of the systems because it wasn’t there. I got behind on my grocery bill and house rent and everything else. I was going out at night repairing TV sets. If I had an opportunity to go play in a band and pick up a few bucks, I would do that. I was very undercapitalized at one point and I didn’t have the money to buy enough cable to expand as fast as I needed to. And at one point—I think this may have been in ’51—there were 100 signatures on a petition to the city council and I think they might have been ready to tar and feather me, and ride me out of town on a rail. (Laughter) But I kept making promises.
ALLEN: What was the petition asking to be done?
DAVIDSON: Well, there were a couple of things. Poor signals was one of them and the other one was that people I couldn’t reach wanted service. I didn’t have the money to expand out to them.
ALLEN: And what did the city council do?
DAVIDSON: Nothing. They had faith in me. For a few years it was nip and tuck and I managed to borrow a little more money from the bank and along came a company named Entron out in Bladensburg, Maryland, which is a suburb of Washington, DC. They were one of the first to build a halfway decent equipment.
ALLEN: Jerrold was still building just master antenna equipment at that time?
DAVIDSON: Well, Jerrold was getting into it, but they were still going with the strip amplifiers. I don’t want to step on Milt Shapp’s toes because we have been friends for a long time, but his company and his engineers advocated for many years that you could not run adjacent channels and that you could not run channels in the high band. This is a matter of record so I am not telling you anything that anyone from that era could not confirm. Old literature and catalog sheets will verify that.
ALLEN: High band being 7 through 13?
DAVIDSON: Right. And UHF was unheard of. So the attenuation in cable was roughly twice as much in the high bands. You either had to have more signal or special amplifiers twice as close together or have twice as many amplifiers. They were advocating and telling everyone that you could only run 3 channels—2, 4 and 6. Or you could run 2, 4, and 5 because of the space—4 megacycle space between 4 and 5. Incidentally do you know why that space was left?
DAVIDSON: Aviation mark beacon frequencies are in there. So Jerrold hung onto that theory for a long time. Along comes this upstart called Entron out in Bladensburg. There were four men in it: Henry “Hank” Diambra was the president, Bob McGeehan was the vice president in charge of sales, I believe, and George Edlen was vice president in sales, I think, and the chief engineer was a fellow named Hans Blum, a real sharp brilliant German engineer. He was highly educated in Germany. One time we were out at his house talking and his wife was so thrilled, it was the first washing machine she had ever had. She had this automatic washing machine and other home appliances that she didn’t have before they moved over here. He told me incidentally when he graduated from high school over there, a student probably had the equivalent of a college degree here in a lot of instances. But he was a brilliant engineer.
They had broadband equipment, of course. This was before solid state. They had an amplifier called an RA-1 that had 12 6AH6 tubes in a cascade arrangement. Sort of a series of parallel type configuration. At that point in time, as far as I am concerned, this was the best amplifier on the market. But it left a lot of be desired. They came up with a thing called a “Fastee,” which was a pressure tap that you would just clamp on the cable. It had a hex screw in it which you would tighten up and it pierced the cable. You ran your drop right into the house from there, which was a vast improvement over cutting the cable, and soldering on connectors and screwing them on. They came up with several other inventions which they patented. Jerrold came up with a pressure tap and Entron sued them and won and got a judgment against Jerrold. I don’t really know what was involved money-wise. I probably did at that time, but it was a patent infringement. I flew out to Washington any number of times and met with them, and became their nationwide distributor. I guess that was the thing that turned things around for me. They were undercapitalized but capitalized a lot better than I was because they had a factory out there, small factory. They also had quite a few employees and they were cranking out the stuff. So they agreed to send me a sizable amount of inventory on some rather loose terms. And I started selling it like crazy. You saw a photograph from an airplane yesterday with a mountain of amplifiers all boxed up that I was delivering to a system. That was the thing that sort of turned it around.
ALLEN: Was Entron also selling direct?
DAVIDSON: They had been and they had a few direct customers but they told me that I was taking about 75% of their output at one time. And then they got greedy. I learned in later years that George Edlen committed suicide. Bob McGeehan is still around and I would like to see Bob. I helped them on some situations. Bob called me—I think it was Montgomery, Alabama, one time—and wanted me to fly down and right quick. They had a council meeting that night. He wanted me to meet with the council and give him some support as their distributor, which I did. In later years, after several years of an excellent relationship with Entron, they got greedy and started going in and selling my customers direct. I could have sued, gotten a judgment probably and never collected a dime. And I would have spent a lot of money on legal fees, so I just let it drop.
In the interim, they came out with another amplifier called an LRA-40. This was the best one that they had come out with so far. Incidentally they also developed some excellent high key traps. I put together some of their equipment and some things that I did myself—but mostly with their equipment—and I designed what I called “functional design headend.” I assembled those in our lab at Batesville and aligned them with our signal generating equipment and oscilloscopes and tuned those high “Q” traps to very precise specifications. I was able to run five adjacent channels: 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. And I did the very first 5 channel systems in the mid-South: Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Siloam Springs, Arkansas; Rogers, Arkansas; West Plains, Missouri; Batesville, of course, and any number of other places. Obviously I have skipped a lot because we started with one channel and it is obvious by now that some more channels have come on the air. All the experts were predicting back in the early Fifties that it would be 15 or 20 years before Little Rock got channels. We were predicting the same for Memphis. I felt like I was not alone because all the so-called experts felt that Little Rock and Memphis wouldn’t support more than one channel. The advertising revenue wouldn’t be there. How wrong we were.
ALLEN: But your arrangement with Entron began while you were still a one channel Batesville?
ALLEN: And that provided then the income flow that enabled you to get into some of these other activities?
DAVIDSON: Yes. I was already traveling around the country developing new customers. I was meeting with city council and utilities and insurance people and banks. I was trying to develop a clientele and ultimately did. I met with city councils all over the country, hundreds and hundreds of them and drew up franchises for my customers. I did the engineering. I got the city maps and pole line maps. I did overlays. I drew up hundreds of thousands of miles of cable systems all over the country.
ALLEN: Did you work in two levels, one where you had customers who were buying systems from you and the second where you put in more systems that you owned yourself?
DAVIDSON: Yes. We continued to expand with our own systems and we were building systems for other people. We also supplied equipment to people other than those that we built systems for. We built systems in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and a little bit over in Florida. If you divide the United States into four parts: the southeastern quarter is where most of our business was as far as selling systems. However, we advertised nationally in the trade publications that came along, and we had customers that bought equipment and supplies from us in 49 of the 50 states.
ALLEN: Now this was equipment that you were a sales representative for, like Entron? Was it also equipment that you were building yourself?
DAVIDSON: No, we weren’t a sales representative. We were a stocking distributor.
DAVIDSON: We bought coaxial cable connectors, dozens of different varieties. Ultimately there were dozens of different varieties in use and we bought them in barrel lots. We contracted with screw machine companies that specialized in making cable connectors. I guess we sold millions of little “F” connectors. Ultimately we had coaxial cable made with our name, our trade name, Davco. It looks like “Dahvco;” some people pronounced it “Dahvco,” but it’s “Davco” which is short for Davidson Company. We had coaxial cable, several styles, manufactured for us with our name “Davco” on every foot of it. I still have a couple of little samples of it around here somewhere. I sold millions of feet of it. We contracted to have it made with various cable manufacturers.
ALLEN: When did you establish “Davco” as a company?
DAVIDSON: You know, I don’t know what year. We operated under the name “Community Antenna Company,” with the distributorship operating under that corporation for several years. It must have been in the late Fifties. My little sister Norma Jeanne had passed away in the Sixties. She was the one who suggested the name “Davco.” She was not working for me or anything. She did not even live there, but she was the one that suggested it.
One little thing just occurred to me and I am going back now to the early or mid-Fifties. There were a couple of things. I would appear before a city council to apply for a franchise, and the franchise basically allowed us to utilize the streets, alleys, and right of ways. Then I appeared before a board of directors at a bank to borrow money, or appeared before a utility company to obtain joint use pole attachment agreements. In all of these instances in the early days, they would say, “What is a community antenna system?” You had to explain what it was. It was some years later when the name was changed to cable system and Bill Daniels, I think, I would have to say is responsible for that name change. But back then we liked to think of it as pure community antenna and the name told you what it was. It was a single antenna or system of antennas that the entire community would be connected to.
In the mid-Fifties, I am reminded of one instance that is amusing to say the least. I had these huge antennas out on Ruddell Hill. There were some people that still had home antennas and they were trying to get the Memphis and subsequently Little Rock channels. And at 114 miles on a home antenna, you just don’t get a heck of a lot of signal. It will come in under certain weather conditions real good at times, crystal clear, but most of the time it is faded, it is snowy, or it is fading in and out. This one lady complained very strongly about it—about her poor reception. She claimed it had been poor “ever since we put our big antennas out on the hill and started our cable system.” I tried to explain to her, but she was not very receptive to anything that I would say. She accused me of sucking the signals out of the air and not leaving any for her home antenna. (Laughter) I very patiently explained to her that these signals were going over the area and much like the water in White River. Batesville is on the banks of White River. I said it is much like the water in White River. If you stick your finger down in the middle of it and that finger is an antenna, only the signal that strikes it is received by it and you can put another antenna up behind it or in front of it or to each side of it—it has no effect at all. I used that analogy in an attempt to explain to her, but I didn’t get through. She finally harassed the Federal Communications Commission for so long that they finally sent a man up there. They sent an engineer with a station wagon full of all kinds of equipment and everything. He met with her and basically told her the same thing I did, and then he called me. He had been in town a couple of days before he called me and he had gone.
END OF TAPE 4, SIDE A
Interview with Jim Davidson
Tape 4, Side B
DAVIDSON: To try to get things in sequence. First is this one single subscriber that we had for a while over in Tuckerman. After I left and that system was up and ultimately dismantled, I went to Batesville and incorporated under the name “Community Antenna Company, Inc.” I operated under that name for several years. The sole purpose at that point was expanding the Batesville system. However, I did start the electronics distributing and manufacturing division still under this corporate umbrella. I started stocking components, parts, antenna rays, coaxial cable and started soliciting business. There was an unusual amount of interest in the beginning and even while I was testing out on Ruddell Hill before we started the system, it was not unusual to see a car drive up with several well-dressed men who had heard about what was going on and wanted to see what I was doing. They came from all over the country, as a matter of fact. Two in particular that I need to remember are Fred Stevenson from Fayetteville, Arkansas, which is the home of the Arkansas Razorbacks and the University of Arkansas, and Bob Wheeler from Harrison, Arkansas. Fayetteville is on the extreme western edge of the state near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. Harrison is in the northwestern quarter of the state, up in the Ozarks hill and lake country. Both operated radio stations. Many of the early pioneers in cable came out of radio broadcasting or out of the home appliance business.
The people up in Pennsylvania, for example, and other areas of the country were selling television sets to customers on top of the hills or ridges who were receiving pretty good pictures from the distant cities. The people down in the valley got nothing or near nothing and this was the inspiration for many of us to get into the cable business. We felt that if we could pipe the signals from the top of the hill down to the people in the valleys, we could sell more television sets. Fred Stevenson over in Fayetteville had a chief engineer named Rip Lindsey, “Rip” being a nickname. So they came over and looked at my system and what I was doing. I think they made several visits. Then Bob Wheeler had KHOZ AM-FM in Harrison, and visited several times. Both later became customers, especially Wheeler. We did quite a bit of engineering and equipment sales for him over Harrison and some turnkey construction as well. Both are now deceased. Both belonged to NCTA. Fred ultimately became president of NCTA for awhile. It was a great loss to the industry. Both of these men were very active and contributed a lot to the industry. We miss them even today. I still think about them often.
I remember when one of Bob Wheeler’s sons called us down in Little Rock and Janet and I jumped in the plane and flew up. He called and told us that his dad had had a stroke and he was in the hospital. We just jumped in the plane and went up and visited with him. They warned us on the way that he couldn’t talk and didn’t recognize anyone. I think he passed away the next day or perhaps a couple of days later. But when we went up to his hospital room, I said, “Hi, Bob,” and one of the boys said, “Dad, this is Jimmie Davidson,” he squeezed my hand when he said that, so I know that he recognized me.
Fred Stevenson and his wife Edith were over in Paris. I am jumping ahead a number of years now, but he was over in Paris and they traveled quite a bit after they sold their system. They were touring and Fred told Edith he was tired and needed to go back to their hotel room, suggested that Edith continue the tour sightseeing. When she got to the hotel room he was in bed passed away. It was a great loss to the industry, both of them, especially Fred, who worked very, very hard in industry matters.
Going back to Batesville and Community Antenna, the distribution, engineering, sales and construction of other systems was growing to the point that I felt the need to form another corporation for that purpose. Sometime in the Fifties, I formed another corporation, “Davco Electronics,” which I think we alluded to earlier. The suggestion was made by my sister Norma Jeanne for the name.
ALLEN: Did you have any stockholders?
DAVIDSON: No. No.
ALLEN: You were the sole proprietor.
DAVIDSON: Uh-huh. I am going to have to allude to a couple of other things that happened during this period and I don’t know how we will space it in there. It doesn’t really matter that much. It was all during this period in the early to mid-Fifties. And until we unpack some boxes, it will be difficult to nail down dates. I think that it is relatively unimportant to have exact dates. Things weren’t going well—this was in the early Fifties. Things weren’t going well at all. This was before Entron and I am not saying Entron was the salvation. It took a lot more than that but it did help. I was very grateful then to find some equipment that was better than what had been available earlier. But that one point in time during that period, the bank was rather persistent in demanding that I pay off my note which was about $25,000, and I couldn’t do it. I was just on the threshold of expanding and the bank almost shut me down because they applied so much pressure that I spent several months trying to find an angel or someone that would invest in the company. I even offered as much as half interest in it to someone who would bail me out and furnish some operating capital. I went to Chicago to talk with Barney Balaban, who was with Paramount Theaters. He was a well-known figure in the theater industry at that time. Nothing ever came of it. Thank goodness no one ever came through. I would advise anyone if they can possibly do it on their own not to have partners. I had just gotten out of one very unfortunate experience with a partner, costly and unfortunate. Most partnerships do not work.
So it might be interesting to note at this time how I got to Chicago. At that time, I did not actually own an airplane. I was leasing a Stenson Voyager. I kept it on hand. I was paying for it by the hour and using it just as little as I could because I couldn’t afford the payments. I was in Little Rock. I knew a lot of people at the airport so I thought I’ll hitch a ride with someone going in that direction. And I was walking across the ramp and out of a clear blue, I saw a fellow named Jack Treece, who was one of my customers and a friend. He had built a little cable system up at Marshall, Arkansas, a very small town up in the Ozarks. Jack, later, was the recipient of the J.Y. Davidson Award and that is covered in this speech that you have.
Jack had a single-engine four seat place Cessna and he too flew in World War II. And after the greeting, Jack asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “Oh, I am trying to hitch a ride to Chicago. You wouldn’t happen to be going that way?” He said, “Not unless you want to.” And I said, “Are you serious?” And he said, “Get in, let’s go.” He said, “You don’t mind if we stop by Marshall on the way, do you?” (Laughter) I said, “No, not at all.” So we flew up to Marshall and then he took me up to Chicago. I stayed there several days and had meetings with people from Paramount and sort of struck out on that and I had to get back home and I didn’t have enough money in the bank to pay for the ticket. I think the airline ticket was thirty-some odd dollars at that time, from Chicago to Little Rock. I wrote a hot check for it. I have always tried to live within my means, and I have never in my life had a check bounce. I wrote this check for thirty-some odd dollars for the airline ticket and went back to Little Rock and hustled real quick and repaired some TV sets and scraped together enough money to cover the check. A few days later, I went to the bank and I said, “Look, I am spending my time trying to find financing to bail me out here and we have two choices as I see it. Gentlemen, if you foreclose on me, I doubt if you will get ten cents on the dollar. If you would just please get off my back and let me go back to work, I believe I can pay you in full in six months.” So they said, “OK, we will leave you alone and give you another chance.” And they did. And I did pay them in six months. I just rolled up my sleeves and went to work.
I had been wasting time looking for money. I had exhausted every person in town that I felt might want to invest in it. I did find one guy and let him have a small amount of the stock. He was the next door neighbor and I would like to have him be nameless. He offered to put some capital into it and he wanted a small amount of stock. I was traveling all the time and he had an office. This was before I had the building that we ultimately ended up with. So I let him have some stock and he put some money into it and we merged my collection office, bookkeeping office in with his office. It was the worst mistake I ever made in my life, almost.
I was traveling, you know, and building up clientele all over the country. I learned that we were having a lot of flak from some of our subscribers. I happened to be in one day and I received a phone call from an irate subscriber. They said, “Look, I got a bill and I paid but no service.” I got another phone call and I started smelling a rat and started to check up. I stayed in town for a few days and went out to some of their houses and got their canceled checks and made photocopies of them. In every case, this fellow had endorsed them by hand; our policy was to rubber stamp them for deposit only to Community Antenna Company. He had hand endorsed them and cashed them and you know, the bank can tell whether you deposited them or cashed a check. To make a long story short, I found, I think, it was 64 or 65 checks that he had received and just cashed them and stuck the money in his pocket. So I confronted him with it and he got mad as hell. I said, “Look. I don’t need you anymore.” Oh, he threatened to sue me and everything. He said, “I will take you for everything you got.” And made a lot of wild threats and all that. So I got a lawyer and he got himself a lawyer and the two lawyers got together and mine presented the case and his lawyer said, “I wished I hadn’t taken this case.” He said, “My client doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He has lied to me a lot. He denied cashing those checks and everything and here you got the checks.” So he says, “I’ll call you in a little bit.” He asked, “Where will you be?” I said, “We’ll be out at my house.” So we went out to my house and gosh, in about 30 minutes the lawyer calls us and said, “My client is willing to drop his case if you will just return what he has invested and drop your case.” I said, “Well, you got a deal.” He had about 10 or 12 thousand dollars that he had put in so I just wrote him a check and took it down to the attorney and got the release signed. I have never had a partner since then of any kind and never will again. He wasn’t even a partner.
ALLEN: When did you put on your second cable system after the Batesville system?
DAVIDSON: Well, I started expanding in the local area. It was probably in the mid to late-Fifties. I went into several smaller communities in the area and ultimately went over to Newport and got that franchise. I went over to Tuckerman and renewed that franchise and installed that system. I also had several in the Pocahontas area. When I retired the first time or semi-retired, we had been operating quite awhile under several corporations. I had a separate corporation for each cable system. It was Tuckerman Community Antenna Company, Newport TV Cable Link, Helena TV Cable Link, West Helena. Southern Video Inc. had four systems: McGehee, Lake Village, Dermott and Davis.
ALLEN: Were all of your systems in Arkansas?
DAVIDSON: Well, yeah, ultimately they were. I had one in Mississippi and one in Tennessee which I sold. I didn’t keep them too long.
ALLEN: Did you build them and then sell them?
DAVIDSON: Well, I built for another guy and he couldn’t pay for it and he just said, “Why don’t you take it?” There was no animosities or anything. He said, “I just can’t pay you and I don’t see how it is ever going to make anything anyhow.” I didn’t want it, but I took it. I ended up selling it and coming out all right.
ALLEN: Do you remember which was the second one that you put on after Batesville?
DAVIDSON: Gosh, let me see. I am going to guess that it might have been Pocahontas.
ALLEN: When was that? How long after you put Batesville on the air did you go to Pocahontas?
DAVIDSON: It was later on in the Fifties. I couldn’t tell you the exact date right now. These are things that when we unpack all those boxes we could determine exactly.
ALLEN: But it was four or five years?
DAVIDSON: I am looking at a diagram here that has no date on it, but it shows Davco Electronics as the parent corporation and it shows a manufacturing division, an aviation division, a construction division, and a wholesale electronics division. We did do all of those things. I had a Part 135 Certificate which is a nonscheduled airline. It is a type of thing that the feeders and commuters and charter companies had. I did do a little charter work from time to time.
ALLEN: Were you the only pilot?
DAVIDSON: No. I didn’t have time to be the only pilot. I did this for a couple of reasons. This was after I had a pretty good ongoing business. I had an opportunity to do some charter work for several clients and I had been doing some without the charter certificate for friends, businessmen occasionally, so I just went ahead and got the certificate to be legal. I never did do a real significant amount of it, but I did hire a pilot in Little Rock. I had commercial, a single engine, a multi-engine and instrument ratings. I hired another guy with ratings and he did a little charter work for us when I wasn’t using the airplane. We turned down quite a bit of charter business. Eddie Holland, who was the director of aeronautics for the state, wanted to rent the airplane from time to time and he did. I did some charter for Winthrop Rockefeller when he was Governor and Eddie did some of the flying for that. It never was a real significant part of our operation, but it just made us legal when we wanted to do it.
ALLEN: When did you buy an aircraft again?
DAVIDSON: Oh, I was never without one.
ALLEN: You were leasing for awhile, weren’t you?
DAVIDSON: Oh, I would say six months probably I leased. I have owned an airplane continuously except for a very brief period when I leased one. I have owned one continuously since 1946. I got franchises for Helena and West Helena. I bought a defunct outfit, three systems, which was Lake Village, Dermott and McGehee, and later bought Dumas, which is nearby in southeastern Arkansas. This was after I had left and semi-retired. I had moved from Batesville down to Little Rock and turned the other business over to my son. I might mention that I reached a point where I wanted to retire. The cable business had sort of lost its challenge. It reached a point where anybody with money could build one. Setting up antennas was no longer a challenge. So I just became disinterested in it. I asked my son one day, “You are about ready to take it over, aren’t you?” He said, “Well, I’ll give it a try.” So I moved to Little Rock and commuted back and forth . It is only a 25-30 minute flight. I flew back and forth to Batesville everyday for I guess, upwards of a year, and then started slowing down and just going up occasionally and eventually not at all, maybe just once a month or once every two or three months. He was doing a pretty good job with it and I had other interests I wanted to pursue.
Let’s go back to when I paid the bank off. They had a new competitor across the street and so when I paid them off, I just moved over to the other bank. I was running a pretty good cash flow then, what with the electronics and the cable. I had separate accounts. Every time I would have a new corporation I would open a new bank account. I just moved across the street and gave them my accounts. So a few months later, it was obvious we were doing a lot better and the president of the bank called one day and asked if I could take time to come visit with the board. I asked, “What is the nature of the business?” He said, “They just want to talk to you.” This was the bank that I had left, the one that had leaned on me pretty heavy. So I went up the next morning at a predetermined time and met with the entire board. They all shook my hand and were smiling. They had coffee and cookies and all that sort of stuff and the chairman of the board said, “Well, Jimmie, I guess you wonder why we asked you to visit with us today.” I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I am wondering.” He said, “Well, we just wanted to let you know that we have a full service bank here; if there is anything we can do for you, if there is anything you need, please feel free to call on us.” I sort of smiled and said, “Well, you know we had some problems a while back and I left you with a little animosity in my craw.” I said, “You did go along with me, but you did lean on me pretty heavy for a while, and caused me to have to go through some traumatic times trying to raise money.” I said, “I could have paid you off several months earlier if you hadn’t leaned on me, but I can’t blame you for doing it. I was in arrears, and I was at fault. But you did go along and”—I said—“I’ll tell you what. I appreciate that and I’ll move one of my accounts back over here.” I had had a little problem with checks and deposits, etc., having two accounts in the same bank. So I moved one of them. I don’t know whether it was the cable account or the electronics but I let one bank have one and one have the other. I moved it back over there. They offered me a line of credit to whatever their maximum was; I think it was two hundred thousand dollars at that point in time.
When I got the Newport franchise, we bought a building and overhauled it and then tore it down and then built a real nice brand new office in Newport with a drive-through window, etc. I had also done the same thing in a number of other towns. I had one office building halfway between Helena and West Helena—real nice one. I had one over at McGehee, a brand new building that we designed and built from scratch. It served those four systems down there. But when I went over to Newport and got that franchise, I knew the presidents of both banks. One of them had George Kell on the board of directors. You many not remember him. He was the most famous third baseman in all of history for the Detroit Tigers. George lived at Swifton.
Incidentally, after I left and retired, my son built a system at Swifton and another one at Southside, one at Bowl Knob and several other places. He continued expanding after I left. I had sort of a system that I used to raise money. I decided if you act like you are anxious and you are hurting, you won’t get the money you need. So I encountered one of the bank presidents out at the Newport Country Club one evening and we got talking. I said, “By the way, you know I have a franchise for Newport now, and we are going to start on this thing as soon as we can get the engineering worked out.” He said, “What is holding you up?” I said, “Well, I can’t get an acceptable pole attachment agreement.” By that time, utilities had gotten real greedy. They were raising the annual rental on poles to prohibitive figures. Everyone in the industry suffered from this. They were charging exorbitant for change outs to make room on the poles for the cable. In other words, they were being opportunists. So I just wouldn’t sign the contract. I said, “The hell with you. I have got a franchise that allows me to occupy the streets, alleys and right of ways, set my own poles where I need to or whatever.” So I started buying poles by the carload. They came in on a train and we set our own poles all over Newport. Ultimately these same utilities that were giving me a hard time started attaching to our poles under agreement. (Laughter) So they backed off and things got better after awhile.
Getting back to the way I raised money for Newport, I needed about $400,000 and encountered the president of one of the banks at the country club. I told him what I was going to do as soon as I got the engineering and pole problems squared away. I said, “I think I am going to need some money.” He said, “How much will you need?” I said, “Well, I am going to need, oh, I don’t know. It could be $200,000, $400,000, whatever.” I said, “I am in no hurry for it. I may not need any; it depends on how I work it out.” He said, “Well, whatever you need, let us know. Our loan limit is $200,000.” We left it like that. It was sort of almost a commitment. It was all but a letter of intent or a letter of credit. Then I went to the other bank maybe a week later and I knew everyone on a first name basis. I met with the president and mentioned what I was planning to do. I didn’t get anxious at all and, of course, everyone in town wanted cable. I said, “You know, I think I am going to need some money to put this in. I haven’t really figured out quite how I am going to finance it yet. I am working on it.” He said, “What can I do for you?” I said, “What is your loan limit?” He said, “$200,000.” I said—I called the other president by first name—I said, “I may just borrow the $400,000 that I need.” I said, “I am going to have to put some with it besides that. I don’t even know how much yet to tell you the truth, but…” I said, “He will go along with me for his limit of $200,000. “ And I said, “I don’t like to put all my eggs in one basket. I thought I would give you a shot at part of it.” He said, “Well, our limit is $200,000 and we will go that with you.” As a matter of fact, if you want to, get it all here.” He said, “Our correspondent bank in Little Rock will go along with us for the whole amount.” So my assets would not justify that kind of a loan at that time. But I got the $200,000 loans and my son Jamie jumped in there and moved into our office building. We had an apartment in the back. We threw that system up pretty quick, got in business, started making money and paid them off. Essentially I did the Helena, West Helena, McGehee, Lake Village and Dumas systems on my own. We had our systems, his systems, and my systems ultimately.
ALLEN: The our, his and mine, you are talking about your son?
DAVIDSON: Yeah. We had the original systems. I started giving him and his sons stock early on. Whatever you could give tax-free every year. He had a sizable interest in the overall company. The ones that I owned alone I started selling off about 20 years ago, I guess.
ALLEN: So that would be the mid to late Sixties.
DAVIDSON: Yeah. We sold the last batch of systems which were the ones we owned jointly and the ones that he owned about six or seven years ago, I guess, and that was the last of it.
ALLEN: Now you talked a little bit about the electronics, sales of the cable company and the air charter. What about the manufacturing? What kinds of things were you manufacturing at this time?
DAVIDSON: Well, I made some passive devices at that time, mostly transformers. Incidentally we potted these transformers. There were capacitors, coils, resistors, and we bought ten boxes and we potted with resin, which is a good dielectric. And this might be of some interest: I bought this stuff in Little Rock and you know in resins you use the resin and you use a catalyst which makes it hardened when they are mixed. I did a lot of experimenting. Right off the bat, I had some problems. I learned that if you used the recommended amount of catalyst, which was a few drops in maybe a quart, it would cure overnight, but it also had shrinkage, which would pull solder joints apart or damage components. If you used less catalyst, it took longer to cure and had less shrinkage but still too much shrinkage. The long cured time also interfered with production. If you use too much catalyst, it would cure very quickly, but you had even more shrinkage.
So we tried to find a happy medium and we were having some rejects, etc. One of our small cable systems was up at Guion, Arkansas, and we boasted that it was the smallest cable system in the world. It had 54 subscribers; all 54 homes in town were connected. We used to say, “We have a system with a 100% saturation, 54 homes. This town is about 38 miles west of Batesville on the banks of the White River, a very scenic area. Their only source of income is a silica mine. There are miles and miles of tunnels through the mountains there at Guion. They would bring out the highest grade silica in the world, we were told. They sell it to the glass companies like Owens-Corning and Pittsburgh Plate Glass. It goes out of there in long train loads. They have a mill there called a sand mill, and I guess everyone there works for the silica company. This mill grinds the silica ore into various consistencies.
I was visiting with the plant manager one day and he was showing me the different grades that they produced. He said, “Here is one that is like talcum powder.” I felt it, and my gosh, you could rub it in your hand and it wouldn’t even cut the skin. And I said, “I would like to have some of this.” I got an idea just like that. You know silica—sand or glass—is an excellent dielectric material and so I said, “I would like to buy a sack full of that stuff.” He said, “I will give you all you want.” He gave me a bag so big I could not lift it. He got a couple of guys to put it in the car for me. I took it back and I mixed it 50-50 with resin, stirred it up and then used the same amount of catalyst and it worked perfectly. It reduced the shrinkage 50%. It reduced my cost for resin 50% because resin is expensive and solved the problem. So from then on we mixed fine powdered silica 50-50 with the resin for potting the transformers. We made terminators, attenuators, quite a few things, small passive devices, all of which had gold labels with black letters.
ALLEN: How many people did you have working in the manufacturing end?
DAVIDSON: Oh, gosh. It varied. It was not a consistent thing. People had multiple duties within the company. We had quite a well-equipped lab. We put together these functional design headends, the T’s, the traps and everything. I hired a couple of boys—teenagers—they never finished high school. Using a blackboard, I taught them Ohm’s Law and how to align this equipment, how to use a signal generator, and an oscilloscope. They turned out to be good.
ALLEN: So you drew on your vast educational background and became a teacher?
DAVIDSON: Well, yes, you could put it that way. (Laughter) I had some eager people that were eager to learn. You know if anyone wants to learn, they can do it.
ALLEN: Did your son Jim go to a little more schooling than you did?
DAVIDSON: Well, he finished high school and he had three semesters in college. He came home at Christmas break and stayed through Christmas and was ready to go back about New Year’s. He came in and said, “Dad, I don’t know what you are going to say or do about it, but I am not going back to college.” I said, “May I ask why?” He said, “Well, I am not learning anything.” He said, “I would much rather work with you here.” I said, “Fine. Roll up your sleeves.”
ALLEN: You had been down that road yourself a few times.
DAVIDSON: Yes. Bob, there are a thousand million, jillion stories within these stories. I think I will take your advice and I’ll try to work on a book. You know what our calendar looks like, but I will try to work on it. As you know, I require about five hours sleep at night, and I am up at 3 or 4 o’clock every morning. We are early to bed and early to rise people and I do get a lot done. I have the best helpmate in the world so we produce a lot of output. I’ll try to extend this material that is on the computer disc. I will try to remember some more vignettes and I’ll try to get some dates. We will try to get some more boxes unpacked and as I run across anything I feel you might want or might be pertinent, I will sure as heck get it up to you.
END OF TAPE 4, SIDE B
Interview of Jim Y. Davidson
Tape 5, Side A
ALLEN: Number 5, and today is the first day of March, 1988, in Naples, Florida. What I would like to do as we finish up the afternoon here, J.Y., is to talk a little, or have you talk a little about the industry, about the people you began working with as the industry really began to form. About how you happened to end up in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, with several other people at a meeting that ultimately resulted in the formation of NCTA. Include your involvement in NCTA and ultimately your involvement in the new organization that you really were kind of the founding father of in Dallas.
DAVIDSON: Well, one thing at a time. I guess we can start with Pottsville. In some manner or another those of us who started early started hearing about each other. I don’t know whether it was trade papers (well, we didn’t have a trade paper), but I guess newspaper stories. But some way or other we found out about each other and started calling and visiting. I don’t know who called that original meeting in Pottsville, but I was there. I was flying a single engine Bonanza—incidentally, I have four single engine Bonanzas; I was flying day and night. I would run the engine out. You know, you can only go so many hours between overhauls. I think on that one, it was about a thousand hours or maybe 1,200. It was a Continental engine. I would run the engine out and just trade airplanes. There just weren’t any decent twins back in those days until Piper came out with the Apache, and then about a year or so later, they came out with the Aztec, which is a 6-place twin, which we still fly. We are flying our fourth Aztec. We bought one of the first ones they ever built and we bought the last one off the assembly line when they quit building them a few years ago, which we are still flying today. But I did fly up there in this Bonanza and visited someone, I don’t remember who, some of their systems. Someone determined that it was high time we had a national organization and that is what came out of it. Perhaps Bob Tarlton of Marty or someone can expand on this. I just don’t remember too much about it.
ALLEN: Do you remember any of the discussion that went into why a national association and how many members were possibilities?
DAVIDSON: Not really. I have to give as an excuse the fact this meeting was in the lounge of the Necho-Allen Hotel; I think it was called the “Coalpit.” That is my excuse for not remembering too much about what went on. (Laughter)
ALLEN: That is a pretty good excuse. (Laughter)
DAVIDSON: Anyhow, what was your next question?
ALLEN: Well, let’s just pursue that a little bit further. Did you become one of the first members of NCTA?
DAVIDSON: On, yeah.
ALLEN: And who was the first president?
DAVIDSON: I don’t remember.
ALLEN: Did you serve on the board?
DAVIDSON: I know who was president. I did serve on the board and on committees from time to time. I made it clear up front that I did not have time to serve as president. If it had been offered to me, which it wasn’t, I would have said no.
ALLEN: I understand that there were two different types of memberships in NCTA at this time: the cable companies and the manufacturers.
DAVIDSON: The cable companies and the manufacturers, right.
ALLEN: And were you both kinds of members, or how did you decide which one you wanted to be?
DAVIDSON: You know, I don’t remember. I was a member but I don’t remember which kind of member. The association grew quickly and after we got into trouble—OK, let me say this. We were not deemed a threat to anyone for a number of years. As a matter of fact, television stations loved us because we were expanding their coverage. As we grew, we became more of a threat. In my opinion, this was because some of the big companies, MSO’s, we were a multiple system operator, but we were a small MSO. The big ones had their eye on larger cities. That started as a lot of Blue Sky. There were very few systems with more than three channels. We had a few five channel systems and they started pulling out this Blue Sky for the sole purpose of selling stock. They were talking about 100 channel systems. They were talking about two-way video. They were talking about reading meters. They were talking about all kinds of things like local programming, on and on and on. They were putting out these colorful Madison Avenue brochures, and prospectus to raise money, to sell stock. That is what got the attention of broadcasters, the telephone companies, the independent theaters, the chain theaters, the movie producers, Hollywood, the utilities and suddenly they all turned against us. They have some very powerful lobbyists and we were rank amateurs at lobbying. I had never lobbied in my life and I don’t know if any one of the other fellows had. Most of the systems in the beginning were “Mom and Pop” systems.
Initially the Federal Communications Commission—we will have to establish what year this was, early Sixties, I believe—but initially the Federal Communications Commission said, “No, we have no jurisdiction over cable because of the Act of the mid-Thirties. The FCC Act specifically states for transmissions or radiated out through the ether. Cable systems do not do that; they are “closed circuit.” So despite that, the lobbyists were so strong that suddenly the FCC arbitrarily took over jurisdiction of the cable industry without Congressional authority, without amending the FCC Act. It just demonstrates the power of the bureaucracy. We elect people to serve and they see a need for something in the “public interest.” In this case, it was the control of the airways, the frequency spectrum, which is good—we needed that. I don’t quarrel with it at all, but from there on they passed an act allocating frequencies in order that they don’t overlap. Everyone in one area couldn’t be on the same frequency and it would be a hodgepodge of useless gibberish that you couldn’t tune on a radio without controls. So the Congress enacts this legislation, the Federal Communications Act, and many others, and then the people are appointed and/or hired to run this bureaucracy. They are given broad rulemaking authority which becomes the law of the land just as if it was made by the people that we elected only it is being made by people we didn’t elect. So this is what happened.
ALLEN: Did you go to Washington and do any lobbying?
DAVIDSON: Like a yoyo, I went back and forth. Here is a kid from Ozark Mountains who had never been in the halls of Congress before and the rank amateur who had no idea what lobbying was all about. I learned pretty quick and I learned too that these people that we elected are not always there to serve us. In lots of instances they become our enemy, not our friends. It was a tough battle.
ALLEN: Who were some of the key people in Congress that you had to be in contact with?
DAVIDSON: Oh, there were a number of them. The late Senator John McClellan was one. I got so mad at him that I could have…the Hollywood people got to him and they have a strong lobby, motion picture producers, and they had gotten to him. We had trouble with him on the copyright problem. I put out a number of booklets which got wide distribution. One of the things that was wrong with our industry was our people within the industry very naively and I was guilty too, spent our time trying to build our business.
I didn’t spend enough time in public relations. Our image became distorted by all of this hoopla and Blue Sky that was put out by the big boys. It ultimately became the little boys against the big boys. Our National Association had a hired president who knew nothing about cable. He was a lobbyist, one of these professional association presidents. I guess that is what was needed but they hobnobbed with the big MSO’s and forgot the little “Mom and Pop” systems that were the very core and founding of the industry. There were more of us than there were of them. They were just bigger. I was on the board of directors at the time, just got totally fed up and had been talking to some of the operators by phone and I called a meeting in Dallas. (You have that.)
ALLEN: This was 1973?
DAVIDSON: Yeah. I had been retired, semi-retired, but came back in to do that. I called that meeting and Janet sent out a lot of the telegrams and letters and phone calls. We had a pretty good turnout down there. (You have all that information.) We formed CATA. I was in an uncomfortable position being on the board of directors of NCTA which was the enemy at that time, so I put together a fellow from Oklahoma, and Bob Cooper and several others. I left the room while they finished the—I got this thing going, made my little speech and left the room. I got David Foster, I think was president of the Association then and got him down there from NCTA. He got sort of a cold shoulder as I recall, but did do a little talking and CATA was to represent the small system operator.
ALLEN: CATA was an acronym for Community Antenna Television Association.
DAVIDSON: Right. Not many people know this but some of the fellows, I don’t remember who, it doesn’t matter, came up with some of the gosh awful-ish long names that would have an acronym of 7, 8, or 10 letters. I finally said, “Fellows, look, Community Television Antenna Association.” I said, “We are community antenna not cable like the big boys are trying to promote. We are community antenna pure and simple. Just call it CATA.” And it latched on. I never got credit for doing it but I swear to God I was the one who named it. Not that it makes a hell of a lot of difference. (Laughter) We accomplished our purpose. A fellow named Bob Cooper ran the association out of Oklahoma City for awhile. He is now down in the Turks and Caicos Islands, which is north-northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, out in the Atlantic. He went down there and put some satellite dishes together and made some homemade microwaves.
ALLEN: Now is he an executive director of CATA?
DAVIDSON: Yes, uh-huh.
ALLEN: Did most of the small operators then join CATA?
DAVIDSON: A great number of them did.
ALLEN: Did they drop their membership in NCTA?
DAVIDSON: Not necessarily, but some of them did, as I recall. One of the good things that came out of it was that Foster went back to Washington and they formed the small system operators’ board of directors. It was a board within a board and he wanted me to head up this board. I was very, very busy. I was spending time on association and industry matters that I could ill afford. The time and money that I could ill afford. I agreed to take it long enough to get it off the ground and working, providing that they would let somebody else take over. I took it for I don’t remember how long; long enough to get it organized and working and then it is a matter of record somewhere. A fellow from the Pacific Northwest—I am sorry that name slipped my mind. I have a letter in there from someone that—did I give you a copy of that?
ALLEN: Not that I recall, no.
DAVIDSON: Let me get it from Janet.
ALLEN: OK. Now you indicated that you semi-retired and turned most of the operations of the business over to your son, Jim. When was this?
DAVIDSON: About the mid-Sixties, I guess.
ALLEN: But you kind of kept a hand.
DAVIDSON: I can stand corrected on that, but…
ALLEN: You kept a hand in the business?
DAVIDSON: Yeah, for awhile.
ALLEN: And you stayed active with the trade associations and everything?
DAVIDSON: For awhile.
ALLEN: You were on the board until the early Seventies and then?
DAVIDSON: Yeah. I went ahead and piddled around. I started boating seriously and I had already been running to the southern Florida areas and running boats and done a few deliveries when I had time. I got my Coast Guard Captain’s 100-ton license. I was totally disenchanted with cable and I would like to make this point. I was disenchanted for a couple of reasons: one, from a technical standpoint, it was no longer a challenge. Satellites came along and made it a lot easier to get signals. I was disenchanted with the bureaucratic mess things had gotten into—competition for franchises for cities, the under-the-table. One of our good men spent some time in jail for offering a bribe to a city council in Pennsylvania. City councils all over the country, what few franchises were left, started asking for bids. “How much are you going to give me for the franchise?” Asking people who were prospective installers of the systems in their town. And the price kept going up. They even hinted that they would consider something under the table from time to time. They started wanting ridiculous fees or percentages. They wanted to regulate the rates. They wanted to regulate a lot of other things that made it not very comfortable for an operator to get in and do well.
Another thing that I got disenchanted with was the type of programming that was coming along. Much of it was something that you wouldn’t want your children to watch. I remember it has not been too long ago when we had something in Hollywood called the Hayes Commission or Hayes Committee that censored all films and did a very good job at it. Now you know daytime soap operas are pornography. So I was disenchanted about what was going on in that regard—quality programming. The quality of programming was going down. All of that added up to just pure and simply—it was no longer a challenge.
ALLEN: Before we continue on with what you did after you began to phase out of the cable industry, can you talk about some of the people in the period 1948-1950 up through say the mid-Sixties whom you felt were really the most important figures in the industry? I think you mentioned Bill Daniels as being one who was a key person.
DAVIDSON: Oh, there were a lot of them. Why don’t I just go through this pioneers’ list and check off a few for you?
DAVIDSON: Bill Daniels, of course. Fred Stevenson.
ALLEN: How did you interface with Bill?
DAVIDSON: I don’t remember. Bill was a member of the Blue Angels. You know he was a pilot. He had a Learjet. He was also a pilot in his early days. He came on several years after I got started. But we were pretty close friends. He came to visit me just for the heck of it, you know. Marty Malarkey, of course. Lots of guys up in Pennsylvania and out in the Pacific Northwest. It wouldn’t be fair for me to put on this tape very many names without going over the pioneers’ list. You have got to remember, I have been pretty well out of it for a long, long time.
ALLEN: I was just trying to see if you could remember any special stories about any of these people, recognizing that there are probably special stories about most of them, but what comes to mind when you think of some of the pioneers?
DAVIDSON: Well, I think first I think about a lot of guys who are true pioneers who have never been recognized. I have been instrumental in getting some of them in the Pioneers Club, getting them some recognition. But I have been disenchanted with the Pioneers because of the lax rules. There has been a lot of patronage. People who are good people but they—if you look up the definition of pioneer, which I did in Webster, it certainly doesn’t apply to some of these people. I feel like a pioneer is one who climbed poles, and sweated, put his money on the line and started when you couldn’t buy off-the-shelf equipment, no existing technology for building the system. A pioneer is someone who went to the bank for money or to the city council for a franchise or to the utilities for pole contracts. Someone who said, “I am going to build a community antenna system” and without exception, they all asked, “What is a community antenna system?” To me that is a pioneer. But not the guys who came in when cable systems were almost a packaged deal and no more challenge than shopping for groceries. And one that deserves recognition is a guy named T.C. Masters over at Mena, Arkansas. He started out not long after I did.
He is retired now. His son has taken over the system, I understand. He built absolutely fantastic amplifiers, didn’t sell any that I know of, maybe a few here and there, never advertised anything. He built them for his own system because he couldn’t find on the market what he needed back in those days. Jack Treece finally got a little recognition. He started probably a year after I did. Bob Neathery up at West Plains, Missouri, has never really received any wide recognition that I know of. Paul Thompson was his partner.
ALLEN: What did they do?
DAVIDSON: Well, Bob Neathery owned a radio station, KWPH, in West Plains, Missouri. I was at an NCTA meeting in the early Fifties and it was either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, somewhere in Pennsylvania, and met these two gentlemen, Bob Neathery and Paul Thompson. They were up there talking to Jerrold. They had already had Jerrold down to West Plains to do a signal survey and they had charged them $1,800 for it and left telling them that it wasn’t feasible there. But they were still interested enough to come to the convention.
Paul had a horse farm. I don’t know whether they were racing horses or quarter horses or what, but he was a big horseman up there. As I said, Bob Netherey owned the station KWPM. Incidentally quite a few country and western stars got their start there at that station including one that you see on the Nashville Network all the time. What’s his name? Wears the glittery jackets with all the sequins and everything. It will come to mind. He had a little studio there. Anyhow, I saw them at the convention and I was trying to steal them away from Jerrold. And I said, “How did you guys get out here?” They said they flew. I said, “Well, do you want to go back with me? I’ll swing by West Plains and drop you off. You cash in your return tickets.” And they did. I dropped them off at West Plains and made friends that I still have today. I ultimately sold them a system and I built two rhombic antennas for them up there. I sold them systems later on in Thayer, Missouri, and several other places.
One very cute story. (Laughter) He had a lot of little radio stations in these small towns in southern Missouri. I did not know this. I thought West Plains was the only one. I was leaving Rogers, Arkansas, where we were building this system for Don Thompson and Leon McAuliffe and I flew from Rogers over to West Plains. This is before we had Ohm 1’s and VOR’s for navigation and I was tuning around on the local radio stations and I tuned across one in Thayer. It had a guy who would preach a little bit and do his hallelujahs and then he would stop and sell Maytag washing machines and then he would preach a little bit more. I laughed at it. I mean, it was really comical. Just a little old country town and I looked at my atlas; heck the population was just a few hundred.
So after I landed, Bob met me at the airport and I said, “Bob, I know you have this station here. West Plains is a pretty good sized town, county seat town and everything, but,” I said, “you know I tuned across a station on my way up here. I said it was the funniest damn thing I ever heard in my life and I sort of ridiculed it.” I told what this announcer did and Bob is sort of a quiet guy. After I had ridiculed and made fun of this announcer for a little bit, I said, “Incidentally, I wonder how the hell that owner makes any money out of a radio station in a town that small.” Bob said (he cleared his throat), “Well, Jimmie, I just spend less than I take in.” (Laughter) So that was a good lesson to me. I have always remembered that. And I ended up building a system for him in that little town, too. I will have lots of little stories.
ALLEN: Does anyone else come to mind that you feel was a real pioneer who hasn’t gotten recognition?
DAVIDSON: Oh, there are lots of them. I got a call from Virgil Jackson a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t heard from him in 25 or 30 years. I built a system for him down in Vidalia, Louisiana, and down at Burris and Venice, about a hundred miles below New Orleans on the peninsula. Those were destroyed three times by hurricanes and we rebuilt them every time. There are two guys you never hear of anymore: Vern Coolidge and Bob Gerrigan. They started systems in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I don’t know where they are anymore. Why don’t I try to get some of our old customer lists and get some names. I don’t want to offend anyone. There are so very, very many.
ALLEN: You wouldn’t be offending anyone. What we are just trying to do is to pick up some little stories like the radio station story. You built the system for Polly Dunn.
DAVIDSON: Polly Dunn and her husband, Morris Dunn, started the system at Columbus, Mississippi, and two finer people you would never meet. I don’t know where they came from, but I think it was Indianapolis originally because he offered me a pass and a seat at the races. He passed away just before the system even got off the ground good. He just had a few subscribers. Polly is probably one of the sweetest, most gracious Southern ladies you would ever want to meet. Their office was upstairs at a building in downtown Columbus. After Morris died, she was ready to give me the system or sell it or just shut it down or whatever. They had a few local minority stockholders which they still have. She has made wealthy people out of all of them. But I talked her into keeping the business. She will tell you this; she never misses an opportunity when we are together at a convention or something to bring it up. She says, “Without Jimmie Davidson I wouldn’t have this system.” I insisted that she keep it. I told her that I would help her on some engineering and sell her some equipment on time payments and whatever,
Off the record, she told me what she had been offered for it recently and it’s a bunch. But the problem is there are not very many of the original owners left in Mississippi or anywhere else for that matter. They sold out like we did. In Mississippi she told me if she sold her system she would have to move to another town because the first thing the big MSOs do is to reduce the quality of service. They take off channels to reduce overhead, they raise rates and they alienate all of the subscribers and they get by with it. They send in some manager who doesn’t talk Southern, you know, and that just doesn’t go over down there. We talked about that at length when I did the speech down at the Mississippi meeting in Biloxi last year. Polly, Janet and I surprised her one time. She had a guest, Beverly Murphy from the NCTA office, used to be the Girl Friday up there, was down visiting Polly and Janet and I gave her a call to see if she would be at home. We jumped in the plane and flew down there and took them the same day to New Orleans for a surprise birthday party. We spent the night and brought them back the next day. A picture is somewhere in there. I think you saw it yesterday, a picture of Janet and Polly and Beverly and me. We were down on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter when somebody took that picture. I have a lot of fond memories of Polly Dunn. She is a gracious lady. She has worked very hard in the association business and is still active. She has had not the best of health but despite that she has hung right in there and is very active even today.
You got the story about Morgan City, Louisiana. A fellow that started the system down there is a guy who has been in for a long time and has had little or no recognition. A lot of guys don’t want it, you know. I had this appointment with him. I had been over in Florida and stopped in New Orleans and spent the night. I think the appointment was 8:30 the next morning. It was in midwinter, cold, cold. I just took the suit I had on my back. I got in late that night and I checked in the hotel. This hotel had server doors in the door and I called the bellman to see if I could get my suit pressed. He said, “Sure can,” and I told him about my early appointment. I said, “I will be checking out at 6 in the morning and I need my suit back.” He said, he will take care of it, no problem. I gave him a handsome tip and went to sleep. I got up and showered the next morning and opened the server door and my suit was nowhere in sight. I called the bellman and this guy that had taken it before was off duty and a new fellow was on. He couldn’t find my suit anywhere. So I said, “Is there anywhere I can buy anything?” He said, “No, sir, the stores don’t open until 10 o’clock.” I said, “Well, I am in a bind.” I had a little overnight kit that I kept in the airplane all the time. I had shaving gear, swimming trunks, sports shirt and some shorts, just shorts like you would wear in South Florida. They were wadded up in the bottom of this overnight kit. So in desperation, I thought, well, they don’t know me, I don’t know them, so why be embarrassed? I put on the shorts and the sports shirt—the bellman had my shirt, my dress shirt, too. He was going to launder it and press it—so anyhow, no coat of any kind. It was cold. I went down through the lobby. There were people dressed in suits and overcoats and women with fur coats on in the lobby. I went over as big as you please and checked out. A hush came over the lobby; you wouldn’t believe. I checked out and went out and got a cab. I could tell the cab driver was suppressing something. I told him to take me out to the airport and in a little bit I said, “I guess you are wondering why I am dressed like this.” He just let out a laugh you wouldn’t believe. And he said, “Yes, but I was afraid to ask.” So I told him the story and he got a laugh out of that. And the reason I didn’t send the taxi driver or bellman or something out to the airport was because my door key on the airplane was not easy. It was a trick thing to open and I don’t think that if I would have sent the key, anyone else could have opened it.
ALLEN: But you had other clothes in the airplane?
DAVIDSON: I had other clothes in the airplane so I went on out and changed clothes at the airport and made my appointment on time and about two weeks later, I got my suit in the mail.
ALLEN: You not only made your appointment on time, but I suspect you probably sold the system.
DAVIDSON: You got that right. (Laughter). And ultimately sold the system across the river from Morgan City; what is that little town? Well…
ALLEN: Well, just kind of in quick summary, after you retired from the system and your son took over, what have been your interests and your occupations because I know you have retired now about three times. You had to retire from something each time.
DAVIDSON: After the first retirement I got back in cable a little bit, down in southeast Arkansas, five systems in southeast Arkansas. The ones at Lake Village, Dermott and Dumas—no, no, Lake Village, Dermott and McGehee. I’ll get it right in a minute. The fellow who owned those had married into part of the Hunt family, the Texas Hunt family, and part of that family is in the McGehee area, cotton delta country. He married into that family and he built these three systems and had been ordering equipment from us all along. All of a sudden we didn’t get any orders from him. He had gone to Guatemala and was farming 12,000 acres of cotton, had a banana plantation, from Guatemala City all the way over to the Pacific Ocean. He had a huge, huge farm area. He had three cotton gins on it, had his own airplane, a single engine Cessna. So I went down there and visited with him. I had never been to Guatemala before. Yes, I had, too. I had been by there one time. As a matter of fact, I had been to every country in Central America. I wouldn’t do it today. I went down there to visit with him and he said he wanted to sell those systems. He had just abandoned them and they had run down considerably. I remember there was a volcano, active volcano, just south of the airport. Have you ever been down there?
DAVIDSON: We went and flew over that crater—smoke and fire belching out. Took pictures looking straight down and then we landed out on his farm in several places. We took a tour of it. I bought those systems for $25,000 for all three of them. What I was buying was practically just a franchise or the three franchises. So I went in there and rebuilt them. If he would have come back into town, the people would have killed him. Everyone in town was mad. The pictures were terrible.
So the first thing I did, I went to the mayor. Then I went to the bank and by then my reputation was such that I could borrow any amount that I wanted from anyone. So I just went to the local bank and made arrangements for a quick loan to finance rebuilding the system and met with the mayor and Chamber of Commerce, etc. I drew up some ads and took them to the local newspaper and announced that I had purchased the franchise, was quite aware of the condition, and I was going to completely rebuild them and put more channels on. I said, “You can’t wave a magic wand; I’ll have to do this in phases. An announcement in a few days will tell you what the phases are and how we plan to do it. We will try to stick to our schedule as closely as possible.” I did, we did, it worked and this was mine.
I didn’t have any stockholders. It was separate from the group that operated out of Batesville, Pennsylvania, Pocahontas, and Newport. I spent quite a bit of money on them and kept them for about a year and sold them. But again, I was still disenchanted with it and this was just an opportunity to do something. It was a challenge, OK. After I had lost interest in cable by and large and I was fooling around with boats, I bought a big Hatteras and went over to the Bahamas. I brought it up to Little Rock and did some charter work. I got it licensed for 49 passengers and did a little charter work. I soon got disenchanted with that. I enjoyed boating more than I did fooling with people. And then I sort of got out of that. I had two boats as a matter of fact up there. Sold both of those. Well, I moved that one down to Biloxi and kept a car on both ends and flew back and forth, about an hour and a half flight between Little Rock and Biloxi. I played around with that for awhile and then sold both of the boats and Janet and I were flying around, just traveling a lot and not doing much of anything significant.
We would fly down to the islands a lot. It gets to where all the palm trees look alike and all the sand beaches and surf looks alike, all the islands just alike. We were down there one time and we had been there two weeks and slept on a different island every night. I had a pocket full of credit cards and travelers checks and we were going to another island and didn’t know which one, just thought, well, let’s go look at some and decide. We had already been to most all of them and we had been talking about doing something else. Gemology fascinated me. I had been piddling around with precious gems for quite a while, collecting a few and I was selling diamonds and other precious stones, primarily diamonds at that time to a few jewelers. I kept them in a safe deposit box and didn’t advertise. It was just sort of a hobby and I liked playing with it. One time I read an article about lost wax casting.
ALLEN: Lost wax casting.
ALLEN: It is a phrase I am not familiar with.
DAVIDSON: It is the same system that dentists use when they cast a tooth. I never heard of it before and it fascinated me so I called a company in California that happened to be mentioned in the feature story in this magazine. I told them to send me everything it takes to start doing it. I set up a shop in our garage basement at our home in Little Rock and the first ring I made was a success. I was carving waxes and casting. I had been down on Ambergris Island off the coast of what was then British Honduras.
END OF TAPE 5, SIDE A
Interview of Jim Y. Davidson
Tape 5, Side B
DAVIDSON: So I was really fascinated by this and I had this little pearl I had given a native $100 for. It was a pink pearl, by the way, a beautiful thing. I still have it. And the first ring that I ever carved and cast was for that pearl and it fit. I set the stone, the pearl in there and made a pinkie ring for myself, which I still have. That was all the inspiration I needed. I really got hung up on it and I started carving all kinds of fancy rings and setting various stones and then I started collecting even more stones, started going to the gem shows, etc. I made some connections with cutters in New York and other places. So I was selling these things, doing custom manufacturing. I would design, do the manufacturing and the setting. It was a whole new challenge, something that I had never done before and I was pretty good at it from the very start.
I had this ability to paint, draw, cut, carve, already. It is natural talent. I guess I inherited it from my father, very fortunate in that respect. So we had been a bit concerned about having this little shop at home because of security reasons, although we rarely kept anything at home. The branch bank was only about three blocks down the street and we had several safe boxes there. I was running back and forth all the time and it was very inconvenient. The bank wasn’t open sometimes when I really needed to get something out of the box like on Sundays or Saturdays or after hours, etc. We had sort of been talking about going down to the Donaghey Building in Little Rock and renting a small room and putting in a little shop and a security system. It would be open by appointment only—keep it just like it had been before. I did not want to get married to regular hours; at least I thought I didn’t.
So we are out over the Atlantic Ocean probably several hundred miles from Florida, getting ready to go to another island. We had been talking about this and I looked over at Janet and said, “Are you ready?” She said, “If you are thinking what I think you are thinking, yeah, let’s do it.” So I just banked the airplane around and headed for Miami and landed there and cleared customs and went on back to Little Rock. The next day we went up to Donaghey Building and rented a small room. The reason I chose that building, it is a very well- constructed building. The columns and the floors, between floors, everything is poured concrete. It has no load bearing walls in it so they can take all the walls out of a floor and give you a whole floor if you want, or they can put walls in. They have a fulltime carpenter crew and shop in the basement. They have a huge air compressor which you need in jewelry making. Every floor, every room is piped with compressed air. It is about a 14-story building, I think. I rented space on the 9th floor. There were several jewelry operations there already. It had been mostly dentists and doctors in the building, but they had been phasing out and going out to malls in the suburbs. Some jewelry operations had started in there and some of them were already buying from me. Oh, there were some insurance offices and one thing and another. So I rented this place on the 9th floor and never did move into it. It got too small from the very beginning and we both got excited and enthused which we are guilty of doing sometimes on a project. We just put our heart and soul in it and went down on the 6th floor and rented a larger space, several times as large, and moved in, carpeted it, put the walls where we wanted them, and put in a first class shop. I am sort of a perfectionist and so is Janet. We just don’t like to do things halfway. I got some directories and I started finding out where the manufacturers were. In jewelry business, there is a word called “findings.” These are the bolts and nuts of the trade, the components. There are die struck or cast that you use to make up jewelry; for example, a ring shank would be a finding. The head that you solder on it would be a finding. It could be a six-prong head or a four-prong head. It could be a marquise, or oval, or round or an emerald cut or whatever. It could be in any size from a few points up to a few carats. There are literally tens of thousands of these little teensy, weensy, parts and pieces in gold, white gold, and yellow gold that are mass produced by companies up in Providence, Rhode Island, and up in Attleboro, Massachusetts, and a few other places. Those are the prime sources. I wanted to be a distributor. I didn’t want to be a dealer. I wanted to be wholesale only. So we put in two locked doors with remote control magnetic locks. There was a foyer which was a trap. If somebody got in there, we didn’t want them to go any farther; they couldn’t get out. It never happened, but you know we could have called the police or something and kept them trapped in there if they didn’t look right.
I saw a need there, just like I saw a need for cable and I put in the first really full supermarket for jewelry items. There was a fellow there who had been there for 17 years, I think, who carried a pretty good stock of odds and ends. But he didn’t have the variety that I had, and he was about ready to retire anyhow. I ended up expanding three times in the first year. Janet and I worked our tails off. We had a beautiful place, murals on the walls, carpet, glass, 67 lineal feet of cases, tens of thousands of gemstones, diamonds, precious stones, semi-precious stones, emeralds, opals, sapphires, rubies, you name it. All of them plus all of the fine synthetic stones. We didn’t carry any garbage, you know. We had findings by the tens of thousands, gold parts, pieces. We carried tools and machinery. We set up several people right out of stock with complete jewelry stores. I taught the people to make jewelry or to repair it. To solder it, to cast, to set stones, etc. We ended up with a staff that included Janet’s sister, her cousin, another lady. I trained both of them and they are still up there with the man that I sold it to.
ALLEN: What was the name of the company?
DAVIDSON: Well, we called it Davco. (Laughter)
ALLEN: Not much imagination, then.
DAVIDSON: We called it Davco Wholesale. This was another corporation and we did not use the word jewelry for security reasons. We had the largest inventory that had ever been in the state and the most varied inventory. We were not open to the public. We never put jewelry on our letterheads, cards or on the door. If a stranger came and rang the doorbell and got into the first area and asked, “What do you do here?” And if they didn’t look right, the girls would say, well, we are in the insurance business. If they said, “We would like to buy insurance,” they would say, “Well, we are wholesale brokers. We don’t sell to the public. And thank you for stopping by, though.” That happened a few times.
This thing nearly killed us both. We had two basic sets of clientele. We had the custom work which I had already developed up to a point. Then we had the jewelers and both of them did quite well. As a matter of fact, it just grew up overnight and as I say, it nearly killed us. It put me in the hospital after about two years of it—just sheer exhaustion. We were working late and going up there at 2 o’clock in the morning and especially during November and December, which was a big season. For about two years, we both existed on an ego trip when we found out what it was doing to us, and we didn’t need it. We were comfortable, we didn’t need to go to work at all, but it was a challenge and it was interesting. It was a brand new thing to us and we were good at it. Janet could overwhelm you with her knowledge of gemstones and findings, and jewelry in general. If you had a cluster ring with any kind of stone in it, or stones in it, and one was missing, she could go pick the stone, match its size, color, quality, clarity, everything, and match it up and price it out to you. The other two girls could do the same thing. I eventually trained some shopmen. One of the best shopmen that I ever had was an automobile mechanic when he came to work for me, but he learned real quick.
ALLEN: What was the time that you were running the jewelry company?
DAVIDSON: It was in the late Seventies.
ALLEN: Then you decided that you had learned all of that, you sold it?
DAVIDSON: Well, it had lost its challenge and it became a real drudge. It was very, very hard work. So I tried to find a buyer. I had a lot of money in it. When we found someone with the money, they laughed at us. They said, “What do I need with that?” And if you found someone with the ability to run it, they wouldn’t have the money. So we sold it the first time and carried the paper ourselves and the boy almost destroyed it. We had to repossess it. Janet and I went back in and took it over and got it squared away again and sold it very quickly to the guy who has it now and he has been doing very well. He is making his payments. Never missed one.
ALLEN: And was that your last retirement?
DAVIDSON: Yeah. We got out of that and went straight up to Louisville or Prospect, Kentucky, up above Louisville between Louisville and Cincinnati upstream. There is a boatyard up there. We had built a 70-footer up there before that. We lived on there with our two kids for 2½ years on that 70-footer. You saw a picture of it yesterday. As a matter of fact, we lived on it while we were in the jewelry business or part of that time. And then we decided we wanted another big boat. We went to shows. We went all over the coastal areas, Miami, and all up and down the coast and the Gulf and everywhere. Even looked over in Europe a little bit. Couldn’t find what we wanted. I decided, let’s build another one.
This yard, in this little town of Prospect, Kentucky, was almost out of business. It had no boats under construction at all. Since we were friends and everything I made a deal with him. I had already drawn up our prints. I drew every print for it: the hull, the wiring, the electrical, the plumbing, everything. We knew exactly what we wanted. I am sorry you won’t get to see that while you are here. I made a deal with him and he pitched me keys to all the buildings in the yard and helped me put a crew together. We had twelve or thirteen men. From the time we laid the keel till we launched it, it was 13 months. We were up there seven days a week. We worked. The crew worked five and six days. Janet and I worked seven days. We worked all day New Years and all day Christmas, the winter—we were there. We had to wear insulated underwear—it was so cold. We had chill factors like 40 below. We were totally dedicated. We built the best vessel that it’s possible to build and equipped with the best. We put two Jacuzzis on board. We put ocean stabilizers, custom 600 gallon a day reverse osmosis water maker and king size electric bed, exactly like the one in our bedroom here. I could just go on and on and on but we were very proud of it. We spent a lot of time and a lot of money. We enjoyed her for a while until I had my back problem and now we are going to sell it.
ALLEN: You talked all throughout the entire time about Janet, but you haven’t told us who she is.
DAVIDSON: Oh, she is my wife. (Laughter) Janet is one of the best things that ever happened to me. We have been married a long time and we are very much in love. As much so as we were at the beginning. We have two children, a boy and a girl. They have three babies and they have had all three of them since we have been moved to Florida. We have only been down here about 3½ years.
ALLEN: Where are they living?
DAVIDSON: In Little Rock. You would rarely see one of us without the other. We complement each other. When I’m in areas where I am dominant, she is passive and vice versa. Our likes and dislikes are the same, incredibly the same. Our tastes for food and entertainment, music, people. We are loners, we don’t socialize much. We don’t care to. We are very happy with each other. We have our projects. We collect things and have projects that you are aware of.
ALLEN: The last thing: do you have any observations that you might like to make about the status of the cable industry today and where you think that cable might be going in the future?
DAVIDSON: Back when we first started launching satellites a lot of people were frightened that we might have direct satellite to home television. Some people even sold their systems based on that fear. I remember when the FCC allocated some UHF channels for small towns and there was some fear (this goes way back) that someone could put in a television station, and put the cable system out of business. Even back then I said, that there was no way because the cable system was able to offer more variety than a single channel would.
Some of them went on the air and I was correct that small towns could not get enough advertising revenues to support the local channel. But there was some fear after that of satellites and you know direct satellite home broadcasting is possible. The technology is here. The problem is everyone in the United States and Canada and Mexico and the world, I guess for that matter, would be picking up the same channel. But let’s say, just take the United States as a whole—it could not ever replace local programming, local news, local weather. It couldn’t offer the variety that we have now and how in the world would you pay for it? How would the investors get paid for it?
The way the system works now, they have three basic networks: ABC, NBC and CBS, with this upstart, my friend Ted Turner, who had made quite a name in the industry. He is a guy that saw a need and filled it. The news channels especially, and of course, his independent station is WTBS. But the way it works, networks rely on their affiliates scattered all over the United States. It gives pretty good coverage of the country. These affiliates in addition to carrying network programming do local programming. They have a way to control and get paid for the programming which would be very difficult if the networks just beamed all their programs to a satellite and transponded it down for anyone to pick up. How in the heck would they ever collect for advertising? How would they do local programming, which is very important?
I think that if it ever comes to pass, it’s probably way down the pike in the future. Considering cable as a whole there is no need to allude to its growth. It has grown phenomenally and it is still growing. There are no more plums out there to be picked. Franchises are already gobbled up. The big boys have gobbled up the little boys—the big MSOs. All you have to do is look at the directories and see how they have expanded. They are buying up little systems and big systems. They are trying to get their subscriber base as high as they can.
With a cable system, you can also control the tiers of channels very easily. There are several methods by which it is done now. Basic cable would cost so much a month and another tier, pay channels—HBO or Showtime or some of those. Some are tiered, some are by the channel but it is real easy to control on a cable. It would be very difficult by a satellite. The scrambling has come to pass now to control dish owners out in rural areas. But you can buy a descrambler for it, or you can even get one on the black market and not have to pay the annual fee, I understand, although I have never seen one.
One of the bad things that has happened—big is bad in some ways. It gets like a bureaucracy. It gets like government. For example, it’s a very frustrating challenge to try to get someone on the phone with this cable company. I’ll bet you right now, if I challenged you, made a wager with you, you couldn’t get the manager of this company on the phone within three days—maybe not at all. It is frustrating. We constantly see letters to the editor in this newspaper, in the Miami newspaper, and this is happening in all of these big cable systems. They have a lot of subscribers who are paying because they don’t have any other choice. It is like the telephone company. If you don’t like the service, you can’t go anywhere else. You know, if I don’t like my tailor, I can go to another tailor. If I don’t like my grocer, I can go to another grocer. If you don’t like cable service, or telephone service, or electrical service, it is just tough. You have to deal with it. The system here has alienated practically all of its subscribers. There has been a lot of flak about it.
If you want, I will get you a set of photocopies of the series that was done on the systems over in Miami. They were pretty interesting. As a matter of fact, maybe you ought to have that. I clipped them last year, I believe it was. That is the one bad thing. I think that cable systems should be more responsive. This has just evolved and happened. I really don’t know how it would work, but it loses its local touch. Call up old Jim or old Joe or old Bob, the guy who owns it, is the manager and everybody knows everybody. You know all the people within the system. Now they are sending a bunch of people from out of town to run it. They subcontract running the drops. They subcontract construction and it’s just no longer a local operation. They live and operate by rules made by the home office, which is in Atlanta or New York or Chicago or somewhere. They are just out of touch with their customers. They are unsympathetic with their customers. They come in and buy up systems and they raise the rates and the quality of service goes down. They took WGN in Chicago off this system last year because it was costing them more than they wanted to spend. They just arbitrarily took it off and said, “OK, we will save that much every year.” Oh, this newspaper was full of complaints about it and they got telephone calls. I tried to call one day myself just to see if these jokers were right and they were right. I let the phone ring, I counted the rings. I give up at 60 some odd rings. And another time I called—no, I’m sorry, it was not 60 some odd rings, it was 60 some odd minutes that I was on hold and they were playing background music and every once in awhile they would come on with their recording. “Please don’t hang up, your call will be answered in sequence.” It was 60 some odd minutes that I held just to see if they would ever answer the thing. This is what people in this town are dealing with and it is not unique. It is happening all over the country. I am distressed about it. I am distressed about the quality of the programming. I am distressed about the pornography, the Playboy Channel, and the stuff you see on the regular network channels. It is not fit for our children.
ALLEN: Would you recommend to one of your grandchildren a career in cable at this point?
ALLEN: You feel it is just not a business to be in anymore?
DAVIDSON: Well, the opportunity is not there, no longer there like it was when I and my peers got into it. You just can’t go out and get a franchise for a city of 10, 16, 12,000 population like we used to. You take a system with a couple of thousand subscribers. It is worth a big hunk of money today. So the big MSOs gobble it up and now you have a system that is reporting to a home office. It has out-of-town management and they have rules. Decisions are made by a board of directors in New York or somewhere. It is just not a pleasant business to be in as far as I am concerned. If you had the money and could go buy a system already operating, it would cost so much that it would take you a lifetime to get your money back.
ALLEN: So there are no more new frontiers left and without new frontiers, J.Y. Davidson is not going to be there.
DAVIDSON: You couldn’t have said it better.
ALLEN: OK, thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW