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From the Journal of Jake Sutton

July 8, 2014

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June 3, 2008

I pushed open the double doors of Lou Baldoni’s Cafe, and went inside. It was just the way I remembered it. And there, sitting in his favorite booth, in the back corner, was Milt Latham.

My first decent summer job was working for the Daily Press back in 1977. I thought I was a big deal working for a newspaper while my friends worked at burger joints, gas stations and supermarkets.

Milt Latham was the assistant publisher back then and he took an instant liking to me. His favorite nickname for me was “youngster.” He enjoyed coming into the advertising department (where I was employed as a fill-in for ad sales reps when they went on their summer vacations) and giving the men a hard time and flirting with the women. When his eyes met mine, he’d say something like, “Well, youngster, would you like to go to lunch with the adults today?” He pronounced “adult”with an emphasis on the “a,” as in the word “add.” To this day, I pronounce “adult” the same way, which has always driven my daughter crazy.

He had a gravely voice that was similar to the actor David Doyle (who is most famous for portraying the character of Bosley on the TV show Charlie’s Angels). He had close-cropped gray hair and he always wore a suit with the tie loosened at his neck.

He drove a baby blue 1966 Mustang convertible. I remember riding shotgun one day, as he drove us back to the paper after lunch. Frank Sinatra was singing “Start Spreading The News” on the car radio. Milt looked at me and stated, “This is the life, youngster.” We stopped at a light, and he gestured grandly at our surroundings. “It’s a beautiful day. We got the top down, and the Chairman of the Board’s on the radio.” He looked over at me and nodded, “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

I was passing through Santa Monica on business. I remembered my old friend’s habit of eating breakfast at Lou Baldoni’s Cafe. Sure enough, I found Milt sitting at his favorite table nursing a mug of decaf. Sure enough, though long retired, he still wore a tie, loosely knotted, around his neck.

He was delighted to see me. “Youngster!” he rumbled, “What a nice surprise. Sit down. Sit down.” He gestured at the seat opposite his.

And so I did, and we had a wonderful chat. We caught up on the years we’d missed from each other’s lives. He talked about his wife Doris’ passing, and his grandson, Grayson, getting wounded in Iraq. I updated him on my wife’s close call with breast cancer and my just-out-of-college daughter’s plans to become an author of children’s books.

When we were through bringing each other up to speed, he settled into an uncomfortable silence.

“What’s wrong, Milt?”

He held his coffee mug with both hands, as if it might sprout wings and fly away at any moment. He shrugged, “Nothing. Just the musings of an old fart.”

I smiled warmly at him. I always found his insights fascinating. “Come on,” I said, “a buck-fifty for your thoughts.”

He laughed lightly. “That’s inflation for you. Thoughts used to cost only a penny.”

I wanted to say that particular price for sundry opinions was way before my time, but instead I looked at him expectantly and waited.

He finally shrugged again and said, “I was just sitting here this morning and thinking about how far we’ve come in such a short time.”

“How far who has come?”

“How far, I don’t know—the world, this country—we’ve come in a hundred years.”

“Technologically?”

“Well, of course technologically,” he grumbled, “but also as so-called civilized human beings.”

“How do you mean?”

Milt took a breath and huffed, “You remember who Stan Laurel was?”

“Of course, “ I said, “He was one half of Laurel and Hardy—one of the most successful two-man comedy teams in movie history.”

Milt nodded. “Yeah, right. You’d be surprised how many young people don’t know about them. Never heard of them. All the old greats are forgotten now. Ask a junior high class who Jack Benny was, or Red Skelton, George Burns, Bob Hope or…” his rumbling voice trailed off. He looked at me sadly and added, “They don’t even know who Johnny Carson was. Johnny Carson! Can you believe that?”

I nodded. “Milt it’s been a long time since Johnny Carson died. If someone’s been out of the picture, so to speak, for so long, how can you expect younger generations to know who they were? You’d have to teach TV history in schools.”

Milt said, “That ain’t such a bad idea, youngster.”

I blinked a bit and added, “Geeze, Milt, like I said—Carson’s been dead for years now.”

“I know. I know.”

We paused a moment, as if giving Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, George Burns and the rest of the TV and movie comedy masters a moment of silent respect. Then I asked, “What does any of this have to do with Stan Laurel?”

“Oh,” said Milt, “yeah. Right.” He took a moment to regroup. “Okay, did you know that the last place Stan Laurel lived was in Santa Monica?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Well, he did. I was a reporter back then, and I bugged my editor about doing a story on him. I was an old movie buff and I thought that having Stan Laurel living in the same town and not doing a story on him was an out and out sin.”

Milt outstretched his hands. “Finally, I got to do a story. Stan agreed to see me, but said that I would have to share the interview with another guy who was working on his biography, or something. Well, I went over there and stayed practically all afternoon.”

My smile broadened, as I sensed that Milt was finally going to swerve into his point.

“The old man did a lot of reminiscing that afternoon. I learned all kinds of things about them. For instance, Stan was the guy who thought up all the gags. Babe—that’s what everybody called Oliver Hardy— was content to play golf all day and show up on set and do whatever Stan told him to do.”

I gave Milt a look.

Milt nodded in understanding, and continued, “Back, before movies, Oliver Hardy worked on stage. Hell, they all started on the stage, Chaplin included. Anyways, during one routine, Babe unexpectedly got a face full of water. His first impulse was to grab his tie and wipe his face. But then he saw a couple of women—maybe they were chorus girls, or something—standing in the wings watching.”

Milt stopped, and eyed me. “Know what he did?”

I shook my head, “I don’t know. He probably went ahead and wiped his face with the tie. But, I bet you’re going to tell me he didn’t.”

“That’s right!” Milt practically shouted as he stabbed the air in front of my chest. “He didn’t. He thought the act of wiping his face with his necktie was too vulgar an act to perform in front of women.”

Milt grabbed his own tie to illustrate. “He twiddled his tie instead.” Milt did a passable impression of the patented Oliver Hardy move.

“Twiddling his tie became one of his most signature moves. And all because of his conservative southern sensibilities that were probably a hold over from the Victorian era.”

He stopped talking and came to rest on the restaurant bench seat. It was like he was an attorney who just named the most important point of his career.

“And your point is?”

“Look how far down hill we’ve gone in a hundred years!”

I furrowed my brow, “It’s not 100 years yet.”

“It’s close enough. Look at the evening news. Hell, you don’t even have to do that. Just look around you. Everything’s going to hell in a hand basket.” Milt stopped, lowered his bushy hedge of eyebrows and asked, “What the hell does that mean, anyways? What’s ‘a hand basket’ have to do with anything?” He paused for a moment, searching his mental thesaurus and library of metaphors. “Yeah, okay. We’re going to hell on a log ride. Yeah. We’re on a log ride to hell.” He nodded, liking where he was going. “And there ain’t going to be a photo at the end with everyone smiling and yucking it up. No, sir! There’s only more log ride. Down. Down. Down…”

He looked at me and blinked. He had reached the end of his own ride of words and analogies and he said, “And it ain’t ever stoppin’.” He fell silent.

His agitation was quieted by fatigue. He sighed loudly, and let his shoulders drop.

I used this interlude to make a show of looking at my wristwatch. “Geeze, Milt. Look at the time. I gotta get going, if I’m going to make it home to have dinner with the wife.”

I shook his hand, and patted his bony shoulder as I walked past him. I paused a moment, because it looked like he wanted to say something else. If he did, he changed his mind.

“Take care of yourself, youngster.”

I went to the cashier. I was perturbed that we hadn’t been waited on. I was going to give someone a piece of my mind and then pay for Milt’s breakfast. The woman behind the register was startled when I cleared my throat.

“Shit, Mister,” she gulped, “You scared me.” She looked around quickly, as if getting her bearings. “Where’d you come from anyways?

I narrowed my eyes and jerked a thumb sideways towards the corner booth where Milt was seated. “We’ve been sitting there for twenty minutes,” I looked at her name badge, “Becky,” I over pronounced the two syllables. “Are you trying to tell me you never saw us over there?”

The woman, fortyish with died hair and sporting a three-packs-of-cigarettes-a-day complexion said, “Mister, there hasn’t been anybody in those booths all morning. Business has been slow as molasses in January on the shady side of an iceberg, let me tell you.”

“That’s bullshit! We’ve been sitting right over…” I turned to glance in Milt’s direction, and my words braked. My body froze. Milt was gone. “That’s odd. Milt was sitting right over there.”

“Milt?” the woman said, her voice suddenly became soft and quiet, “Milt Latham?”

“Yeah. Do you know him? He’s been eating here for over twenty five years.”

The woman nodded. “Mister,” she said haltingly, “You don’t have to tell me that. I loved that old reprobate like he was my own grampa. But…Milt passed away a couple of months ago.”

Suddenly, I had early morning frost on the back of my neck. “What?”

“He…he had a massive heart attack and they say he died before he hit the floor.”

(I wanted to end this journal entry right here, but it suggests, rather strongly, that this is a ghost story. That takes away from what Milt had to say. Not only that, but how do you explain Milt’s hot mug of decaf? Cups of coffee don’t normally do any haunting. Personally, I lean towards a little bit of time travel. Maybe I walked in and out of a rip in the fabric of space and time. I’ve read about stuff like that. Perhaps someone out there has a better explanation. Regardless, it will always remain a mystery. I’m simply grateful that I was able to spend a few more minutes with an old and dear friend.)

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One Comment
  1. Rob permalink

    What a beautiful story. I wish there were a few more Milt’s in everybody’s lives.

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