Held at Gun Point… Training for Berkeley in the 60s

The man rested his rifle on the hood of my 56 Chevy. His message was clear. I wasn’t going anywhere

My summers between college were spent working for American Laundry driving a laundry truck between Placerville and Lake Tahoe. In addition to having one of the country’s most scenic routes to travel over each day, the job paid for my college education.

At the beginning of my summer between Sierra and Berkeley, Roger Douvers, the owner of the business, asked if I wouldn’t like to move up to the Lake and work for his son-in-law, John Cefalu. John had taken over a laundry that Douvers had owned, sold and then reclaimed because of back payments.

As an incentive, Roger threw in free rent in an old trailer next to the laundry.

I was happily sleeping in my trailer one morning when the laundry trucks roared to life.  I jumped out of bed. Over sleeping was no excuse for being late. I looked accusingly at my alarm clock. It said 6 AM, an hour before we normally went to work. My watch concurred.

More than a little confused, I looked out my window. An armed man stood in front of my door while other men with rifles were posted around the laundry.

Not having a phone, there was no way to contact Cefalu or Douvers. I decided it was time to vacate the premises.

I threw on my clothes, sidestepped the gunman and jumped into my car. The guard immediately repositioned himself as a hood ornament and looked threatening. Guys with guns can do that.

“Don’t be worried, Curt,” a familiar voice told me.

“Right,” I thought as I checked out the tough looking guy. I turned my head and spotted Woody, our lead driver. “What in the hell is going on?” I demanded.

“We’ve taken over the laundry,” Woody replied casually.

The next question followed naturally.  Who in the heck constituted ‘we?’ Woody had an answer for that, too.

“I work for the people who Douvers screwed when he took the laundry back,” he told me. “We’re here legally and these armed men are professional security guards to protect our interests.” Apparently Woody had been quietly arranging a coup while taking Roger’s money.

“I am leaving now,” I informed Woody.

“I don’t think so,” Woody replied. “Relax, it will all be over in a few hours and you can go to work for us.”

I was beginning to feel like I had been caught up in a Grade B movie.

“Woody, you are not going to shoot me,” I said with a lot more confidence than I felt. “Tell the man to get out of my way.” I was irritated to the point of irrationality. I turned on the car and started rolling forward. At the last possible moment, when it was clear that I intended to keep going, Woody motioned for his man to move. I was glad they couldn’t hear my sigh of relief.

Once away from the laundry, I shoved the gas pedal down and made a dash for Cefalu’s. My trip was over in a flash but it was not nearly as quick as the trip back. I knocked on the door of the dark house and was surprised to find Roger open it in his pajamas. He’d come up from Placerville the night before.

“What’s wrong Curt,” he said sounding a little alarmed. Obviously I wouldn’t show up at 6:30 A.M. to wish him a good morning.

“Your laundry has been taken over by armed men,” I blurted out and then quickly filled in the details. Roger responded by saying some very unpleasant things. He grabbed his jacket, yelled for his daughter to call the sheriff, and told me to jump in his truck.

There are three red lights between where Cefalu lived and the laundry. We managed to run all three. Our truck screeched to a halt in front of the office and Roger jumped out with me close behind.

“Fine,” I thought to myself. “I just escaped from this place and here I am back providing muscle back up for an angry man who is probably going to pop someone in the nose and get us both shot.”

Fortunately there were a lot of words before any action and the Sheriff’s deputy showed up with siren blasting. It would all be settled in court. I was still in one piece. My experience at facing armed men would make a good story.

And, unknown to me at the time, it would help prepare me for being a student at Berkeley.

Next blog: The strange world of Berkeley in 1963.