Pinball Wizard

1932: Colusa to Los Angeles, California
Shortly after marrying, my parents (Carl and Babe) moved to Los Angeles where Dad landed a job with the highway crews building the three-lane Ridge Route Alternate, which later became U.S. Route 99 at Grapevine. A hard worker, Dad was always employed, even during the Depression when many were without jobs.

1934: Watsonville, California
Two years later they moved to Watsonville to be near Babe’s older sister, Verda, and my father got a job working for the Union Ice Company through Verda’s husband, George. George Day became Dad’s closest friend, and they worked for years at Union Ice. Before refrigerators, people had iceboxes in their kitchens or on their porches and Dad delivered 50- to 100-pound blocks to homes on a regular basis. He filled the commercial ice vending machines at all the restaurants, and one of his accounts was the military base with its hundreds of tents and soldiers near Watsonville.

Carl Clemens Ice ManHe also delivered to taverns, sporting goods stores, tobacco shops, and bus depots. It was in the taverns where he discovered pinball. The machines were a nickel a game and paid out in beer or cash. A player could win or lose from four to five dollars dollars in a night, and in 1934, the average weekly labor wage was $19.00. My father was a big boned man who could influence the game outcome by bumping the machines. He became an expert, playing a few games at the end of a long hard day, but it wasn’t long before he was hooked. Not until he and Mom couldn’t cover their bills for a couple of months did he realize how many games he’d played and how much he’d lost. His compulsion, and mom, put a scare in him, and he never touched a pinball machine again. She’d grown up with a gambler for a father and she wasn’t about to put up with being married to one.

When my dad was younger, he’d done some gambling with his friends. In California he gambled some more—gambling he wanted no one in his family to discover since it was the money he’d inherited from his closest brother, Aloysius, or Louis as the family called him, who died in a car wreck on his twenty-fifth birthday.


Aloysius "Louis" ClemensMay 6, 1929, local newspaper, Rochester, Minnesota:
Aloysius Clemens, 25 years old, of St. Paul, son of Mr. & Mrs. Clemens of Cascade Township, was fatally injured shortly before noon yesterday, his birthday. The coupe he was driving collided with a car, struck the guy wire of an electric light post, hit a tree, seemed to jump in the air fifteen feet, then turned turtle and landed upside down at the north end of the street. His brother, Lawrence, who was with him at the time of the original impact, was uninjured save for slight lacerations of the legs.

Lawrence Clemens, in his testimony, was brief. He said that he and his brother were going back to their father’s home in the country west of Rochester and that they were going quite fast. He said he thought their speed was 35 miles per hour. He testified that he believes his brother did not see the other automobile coming onto First street, from the south. He, himself, saw it just before the impact. The windshield of their car was broken and the top was off after the accident, he said.

The coroner’s jury returned a verdict that Clemens’ death was caused by an automobile accident. The blame was not fixed.

Clemens is survived by his parents and a number of brothers and sisters.

Arrangements for the funeral had not been made yet this morning. The young man had come down from St. Paul Saturday night for the purpose of celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday at his home a mile west of the city. All was in readiness for the birthday dinner when it was found that candles were lacking for the cake, and the brothers, Aloysius and Lawrence, volunteered to drive to Rochester to get them. Following the accomplishment of this mission, they were hurrying back to the birthday party when the crash appeared.


Louis’ $2,000 life insurance policy paid double indemnity for accidental death. After covering the costs for his funeral, the balance was split among his nine brothers and sisters, totaling a bequest of $340 to each. Dad, living in Seattle at the time, bought City Bonds with the money he inherited from the brother he’d loved so much. He lost those bonds in a poker game, along with his father’s gold-plated pocket watch. His big-mouthed brother Lawrence, who’d come to California with him for work, spilled the beans when he returned home to the family farm just outside Rochester.

Dad must have won or bought the watch back at some point; today it rests on my brother’s mantel. Dad gave it to Larry when my brother was in college. It’s an Elgin Commander top-winder with 17 jewels, manufactured in 1910. The front and back covers are engraved with mountains, birds, and vegetation, and the fob has a small compass attached. The case is engraved Elgin Case Company, Illinois, USA, with Guaranteed 25 years on the watch itself. It still works today.

Ice Picks Jan 1940Dad was a top ice-refrigerator salesman and then became the manager and foreman of the ice delivery crew. He worked for Union Ice from 1936 to the summer of 1943, about the time electric refrigerators ended the need for home ice deliveries.

Carl Clemens, Carleen, Larry, Betty & Claudia Mar 28, 19431943: Sonora, California
In 1943, the family moved to Sonora (my parents had four children by then; I didn’t appear until 1948) where Dad got a job managing the Sprouse Reitz store on Washington Street. The former farmer, construction worker, and pinball wizard comfortably settled into small town life, working, and raising his family. He limited his gambling to Friday night Bingo and an occasional night of poker at the Elk’s club, but he was careful. He never touched a pinball machine again.

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  1. This is the first blog I’ve read and loved reading about your family. There is so much I didn’t know. I remember visiting often in Sonora, but didn’t know he had the Sprouse Reitz store there. I also had never heard about the pinball gambling. Love your stories.

  2. Memories. Thanks for sharing. Sometimes I start thinking these are my relatives, they feel so familiar to me.

  3. John Duchi says:

    I had no idea Grandpa played pinball. You know that Julie, Tony, and I were big pinball fans. I still have five of them in my garage. Used to restore them and buy and sell them. And repair them for a living. Of course, the ones he played that were payout machines were different. Very few of them had flippers, you would nudge them and try to get the ball to drop into holes with various values. Because they were gambling devices they were mostly hidden in the backs of saloons, much like slot machines. I got a Mills Vest Pocket slot machine from Carleen that Chuck had stashed in a closet. About eight inches square, you could hide it behind the bar. Took nickels on a coin slide, had a metal flip cover over the reels. I’ve restored three of the Mills machines from the 30’s. Fun stuff.

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