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Here is a little history of how I came to be in art shows--and it harkens back to where I was in downtown St. Petersburg last weekend.

Ironically, my booth at Artscape in St. Petersburg last weekend was right across from the old Crislip Arcade where they had coffee for the artists.  In 1956, at age 11, I had my first taste of selling retail.  read on.

His name was Col. John Fritz, retired Air Force, and he showed up at our Boy Scout Troop 268 meeting one night.

My pop was our troop leader.  he was a Lutheran but our troop was all Catholic because it was at the St. Joseph Catholic hall in southside St. Petersburg.  Father John Murphy, our parish priest, would always chuckle and say, "Johnny, you are just one of us, your just a little bit to the left." My pop was Nels Johnson Jr. (I am the third) but in his Coast Guard days he was known as "Johnny."  Only my mother called him Nels.  Hence the priest's benediction.

Anyways we were all earnest Boy Scouts going for our million merit badges so we could become a Eagle Scout( I made it there plus three palms, fifty merit badges all total, an over-achiever at an early age--but what the hell, I was the scoutmaster's son, I had to better than the rest or there would be hell to pay.)

Anyways, Col. Fritz shows up at our hall lugging collections of rare coins--he got our attention--we kept hoping he would drop just one fifty-cent piece on the floor.  

He was the guy we would have to beguile if we wanted our Stamp Collecting or Coin Collecting merit badge.  Curiously I noted, he brought plenty of coins but no stamps.  So when the meeting ended I cornered him.  I said," Hey Col. Fritz look at my stamp collection.  Whadda ya think?"

He was impressed. I had stamps from all over the world the.  Borneo, San Marina, exotic small island republics in the Pacific who are long gone now.

You have to understand I had just come off a three year bout with polio--a winner, before the Salk vaccine.  I had lots of time sitting around so stamp collecting took me traveling to far off places.

I think he saw my enthusiasm for stamps  and also saw i was good talker.  So he offered me a deal.

He was opening a new shop in the Crislip Arcade where he was going to sell stamps and coins.  he wanted me to come work for hi, after school weekday afternoons, and then all day Friday.

In return he guaranteed me I would get both badges, which was cool since I did not have a coin collection.  Heck a coin collection to me was what you used to buy packages of Fleer Bubble Gum with baseball cards inside.  Or nickel Hershy bars.  I said, "Sign me up Colonel, I am all yours."

I would ride the bus for a nickel down to Williams Park in St. Pete and then walk a few blocks to the arcade.  My pop picked me up at night and dropped me off on Saturdays.

I remember when you first walked in the arcade there was an old juice bar there and they sold papaya juice along with orange and grapefruit.  Papaya was exotic to me.  My parents never touched the stuff.  Naturally, I wanted it.  It was 15-cents a glass, it was served in little pilsner glass like you would get 25-cent drafts of beer years later.

I imbibed papaya on a regular basis and showed up charged ready to sell stamps to the Rockerfellers.

My crowning achievement came one Saturday.  This guy came in flush with cash.  You could smell it.  And yes, he was wearing "good shoes."  He wanted a ton of stamps, but naturally, he wanted a "best price deal."  He was looking at buying almost $500 worth of stamps, which was the most money I ever saw in my life.  He looked first at the Colonel and flashed his big smile.  "I will give ya $300 for the whole bunch."  

The Colonel looked over at me and told him, "talk to my associate here, young Nels, he handles the stamps."

I took a big gulp.  He was backing me.  I was nervous, but I knew it was my play.  I looked the guy right in the eye and said,"$450 and not a penny less."  The guy smiled and pulled out the cash.  He was impressed at my moxie.  Even then, I had figured out the guy really wanted the stuff, so you gave him a little so he felt he had gotten a deal.  Everybody went home happy that night.  I got both my merit badges and continued to work for Col. Fritz until his untimely demise a year later.

So back to the present.

I walked into the old arcade last Saturday and of course it does not look like it was in 1956--that was 55 years ago.

I walked down to the last suite on the right where Col. Fritz" shop was.  I looked inside and I could remember every shelf with the coins on it and every stamp collection laying on the tables. I could see that young kid,me, grinning and looking forward to talking to people about stamps.  Just like I do now with my art.  It is a long journey, but to me it was just like yesterday.

I had a magic childhood growing up in St. Petersburg in the 1950s.  It has shaped me and made me who I am today--I am truely blessedI hope you liked my Thanksgiving tale.  

God bless you all and aloha, Nels.

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Comment by Kathleen J. Clausen on November 25, 2011 at 8:18pm

Loved this story, Nels, and feel honored to have you share it with me.  My memories of growing up in the '50's include biking to Rock's Grocery Store in Grandview, Washington and stopping at the only pop machine in the area for a Bubble-Up, which we had to drink on the spot so that we could return the bottle to the bottle box and save ourselves 2 cents.  I think that the pop was 5 cents!  Thanks for sharing ;).

Comment by Barry Bernstein on November 25, 2011 at 8:16pm

I still have most of my stamp collection from when I was a kid.

Comment by Annette Piper on November 25, 2011 at 2:51pm

What wonderful memories Nels - you took me right there with you.  Thank you.

Comment by Mary Anne Maslanka on November 25, 2011 at 12:23pm

Great story!  I think that all of us who rew up in the 50's probably had a magical childhood, whether in Florida, Georgia (I am an Atlanta native), or Washington State...Things were different then, children were allowed to "try" far more things than the average kid today.  I think they are too sheltered, and I am convinced that the government school system does its very best to create cookie cutter citizens !  Just my humble opinion....Mary Anne Maslanka

Comment by En Soo on November 25, 2011 at 10:44am

Hi, Nel, 

I enjoyed reading your tale especially you had mentioned favorite place, is Sabah in the present time.  I collected few of those old Borneo stamps (almost a complete set) and now passed them on to my nephews.  Happy Thanksgiving.


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