To start at the beginning, I was born in San Jose, California on the January 20th, 1931.
My father was Silmon Cordie Spencer, who went by the name of Ray Spencer. The year I was born, my father was 26 years old. He was born in Crump, Tennessee in 1905, his mother was half American Indian and his father was English/Irish. Ray run away from home when he was 14 years old and received no formal education. He had some 'native' intelligence, and read constantly. When I got to know him (much later much later in life) I was surprised at how educated he had become. But, I'm getting ahead of the story. Ray died of a heart attack, in Palo Alto, Ca. in 1962. He was only 57. A short, rough, tough life. As he said 'rode hard and put away wet'.
My mother was Gladys Margaret Fice, age twenty at my birth. Mom was born in Creelman, Sasketchan, Canada in 1911. Her father was Harold Fice, born in Canada of English/Scots parentage. Her mother was a Carnegie, born in Canada, also with a Scots background. Mom's mother died in 1925. Mom's father brought mom, her two sisters and a brother to San Jose, California in 1926. While I will speak of mom as if she were still here, she died peacefully in her sleep on the second of April 2001. She, as her father before her, lived to the 'ripe old age' of 90.
A year and a half after my birth, mom gave birth to a second son. My brother was named Raymond Wayne Spencer. I'll talk much of Ray later, but to complete the vitals; Ray died in 1991, of lung cancer, at the age of 57, survived by Dorothy Spencer-Brown, his second wife. He had four children by his first wife Pat Cleveland.
My father was a cruel, harsh man. He physical beat my mother often. He was 'hot-headed' and quick to take offense or fight. Luckily I knew little of this, because my father left mom with her two little babies, while he ran off with the circus. Mom said that he would come back every few months give her a little money and would be gone again. Finally, when I was about three or four years old, my father just stopped coming back. Mom had a terrible time, with no income or child support she had to work. The Great Depression was in full force, jobs and money hard to come by. Mom's two sisters (Lola and Rita) had married, had two kids apiece, and we all became an 'extended family'. I remember how we all shared what little we had. It seems to me that all of my aunts and uncles worked at the local cannery. I remember that the canneries had day-care centers for us kids. All of us cousins really grew up more like brothers and sisters.
When I was just five and starting kindergarten, Grampa Fice bought a small house on tenth street in San Jose and we moved in with him. For the next several years we lived there with Grampa. Mom eventually got a better job. She had trained for a new machine called a Comptometer and she worked for Wonder Bread doing payrolls. We now had more money and moved into an apartment. My brother and I grew up very self-sufficent, with no dad and little parental time from mom, we were on our own a lot of the time. Our apartment was directly across the street from the science wing of (then) San Jose State Teachers College. When I was seven or eight I would 'cut school' and sit in on the college science lectures. I guess I kinda was turned into a mascot by the students. Mom put a stop to it when an article about my college 'attendance' appeared in the local paper. I was always interested in science and at eight years old had a big collection of butterflies and insects, all mounted and properly identified. Dozens of grampa's empty cigar boxes housed my collection.
Mom had divorced my father and was dating Wes Cleveland. They got married and we moved to the Burbank District of San Jose. A year later mom and Wes had a baby boy, Randolph Curtis Cleveland. A faulty heart took the child after only a few weeks. Wes was proving to be a heavy drinker and a gambler. Their new marriage was on the rocks. Immedietly after this mom and Wes broke up, although she didn't divorce for several more years.
I was ten years old and the year was 1941, when we moved to San Francisco. Both of mom's sisters and their husbands had moved to San Francisco and we followed, keeping the 'extended family'. Mom got a job working for Greyhound Bus Lines, doing payroll on the new Comptometer machine.
I was enrolled in Edison Grammer School, and as luck would have it, I got selected for a 'gifted child' program. Testing had shown that I had an IQ in the genius class. I had learned to read when I was five and always had a book in my hand. I picked up things quickly and was able to follow explanations clearly. The wonderful teachers in that program pushed the hell out of us, made sure we really understood the concepts, and made learning a lot of fun. When I was in the sixth grade (11 or 12), I was taking algebra and science classes at Mission High School ! This program followed us into the first year of jr. high, I was now taking about half my classes at the high school. Then the 'bubble burst', Mrs Bailey, the program head did not get funding and the program was over. The next two years were the most frustrating years of my life. I had passed through all of this material and had to now repeat it at a 'snails pace'. I 'cut school' for a full year, hiding from the truant officer in the local library. I convinced the school that we had moved to get the 'cut cop' off my back. I even got a library job full-time. That was until mom 'nailed' me. They had contacted her at work. The principal was ready to throw me out of jr. high until I convinced him to let me take all of the tests and quizes that the teachers gave, and grade me on those results. The upshot was that I passed and graduated into high school.
Before I went to high school, my father, Ray Spencer showed up at our apartment in San Francisco. After all of those years away he came back like nothing happened. He won the hearts of both my brother and I, by giving us each a hundred dollar bill. A hundred dollars in 1946 was a whole bunch of money. He even gave mom some money. It was summer vacation and what he wanted was to take my brother and I and drive cross country to Tennesse. We were visit, Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Carlsbad Caverns, etc. My father wanted my brother annd I to meet his family. Mom relented and wished us well. God, she was one fine woman, I trust my father after the way he had treated her over the years. We spent over a month driving through the southwest states. I'll alway be grateful for this trip. This was my first extended trip and I learned to appreciate this wonderful contry. When we finally got to Crump, Tennesee I met my 'kin'. The only 'hill-billys' I knew were from the comic strip, Lil Abner. And there they were, just like the comics. Uneducated, unsophicated, uncouth, unwashed hill folks. My brother and I tried to eat the 'possom belly, grits, greens, and okra but it wasn't fit for Californians. Dad, Ray and I would 'slip across the river to Selma Alabama for a hamburger and fries every other day. Dad sold the old 1932 Chevy and we flew back to San Francisco. This was the first time on an airplane, and from Memphis to San Francisco was an eight hour flight. I thank my dad for coming back into my life and allowing me to get to know him even at the late date. But at the end of the summer we still had high school to face.
High school wasn't much of an improvement. I couldn't take the course in Algebra (which I conpleted two years before, in grammer school) because you had to take 'first year math' before 'higher math'. I wanted to take Physics, but that was for seniors only. The science course that I was allowed to take was 'life science' (biology by a 'easier' name). The teacher and I had a talk and I ended up as a 'class room aide', preparing slides, posters, charts etc for her. English was a disaster, the teacher required that we read one chapter of 'The Tale of Two Cities', each night. Well, I loved reading and went through that book in a day, then on to other Dickens novels. The teacher had calculated that, at three chapters a week (one per class), we would get through the book in one semester! Then she would make up stupid questions to verify that indeed you read that chapter (and just that chapter). I didn't do well, and she was going to fail me until I wrote a 10 page report on ten different Dickens novels. I was definately a poor student. The classes that I enjoyed were, drama and art. Drama gave me a chance to be 'someone else', which was good because I felt that I didn't really fit. I started ushering at the opera house in order to see the performances free. One thing let to another and I became a supernumerary, one of the 'others' on stage during the performance. The art class was mostly drawing that I loved and was pretty good at. By the end of my sophmore year I was fed-up with the traditional high school. I wasn't doing well, and wanted an alternative education.
I applied for and was accepted to Samuel Gompers Trade School. The entry tests were tough. There were over 1000 applicants for 100 openings, in four trade groups. I applied for the Watchmaking program. This was an apprentice program sponsered my the Watchmakers Guild of San Francisco. The program was three hours of English, math, civics and science with no 'fluff' courses, followed by a five hour class in watchmaking. I was able to breeze through the academics to get to the good stuff. For almost two years I learned to make all of the parts of clocks and watches, we didn't just replace parts but made then from 'scratch'. We spent long hours learning to temper metal, cut gears, turn parts on lathes, and make all the parts of a clock. Our 'final' was to make, from raw metal, a fully functional clock. Mine was a pendulum clock that struck the hour. I was so proud of it, but couldn't keep it. All the clocks built by the students were sold a action at our graduation dinner with the Guild.
Now that I had a 'trade' I thought that a job would be easy. Not true. World War II had just ended and there were 10 skilled guys for every job. They were also in the GI bill and were getting benifits on the job. I got a few 'nothing' jobs, and worked part time cleaning watches. I had decided that what I would like to do is 'go to sea'. The year is 1948 and I was 17, without a high school diploma, without a job. Mom was making 'noises' like get out and get a job. What to do with my life that was the question ...