Better A Safe than Sorry

Written By: Rosa L.  Smith

Prologue: I am not much of a salesperson but I sure can ride my Trek east on the old Montauk Highway. On some of those cool, bright, clear, late August afternoons my husband Tony joins me and we usually end up cruising through Southampton’s hedge bound streets and then head west along Dune Road, the Shinnecock Bay to our right, before heading back to Hampton Bays. We may peer with nostalgic curiosity up a certain long driveway on the ocean side to catch a glimpse of a once decidedly elegant Mediterranean style villa, the distinctive orange roof tiles identifying it from the road. We don’t know who owns it these days, but the villa was originally built in the l930’s by Tony’s maternal grandparents Dr. and Mrs. Wesley Bowers. It was so solid and well situated next to a large dune that it survived the big hurricane of 1938. World War II was getting under way and Tony’s father, then known as Nardy, was well into his career at IBM when he was invited by his younger brother Harry who was a big player in the Southampton social set to join him for a weekend on Dune Road. There, Nardy met Jane Bowers, the daughter of the house. They fell very much in love and were married after a brief engagement. -1- Tokyo, Japan, September 1945: The young officer steps off a plane, takes a look around and sees nothing but devastation. A peace treaty has just been signed by Emperor Hirohito aboard the U.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Major McLain B. Smith is one of Defense Secretary McNamara’s first logistical delegates to arrive in Japan. On pre-war visits for IBM he had been fascinated by Tokyo’s ubiquitous, paper-thin, light-wood-constructed architecture. It is all gone now. Almost all that remains after the allied incendiary bombings over Tokyo are wall safes left standing here and there amidst the ashes. For the second time in a week he thinks of his friends and business associates, Edwin Jr. and John Mosler, whose grandfather Gustave had emigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio and founded the eponymous wall safe company in l867. Familiar with their reputation for strength and precision manufacture, Major Smith had not been all that surprised when he’d heard that several Mosler vaults installed in Hiroshima’s Mitsui Bank building prior to WWII had miraculously survived the nuclear attack. (1) -2- Quogue, NY, Summer 1963: Father of four teenagers now, Nardy, now known as Mac, is contemplating how to help his second son land his first summer job. Once again he thinks of his old friends at Mosler Safe and rings them up in his usual efficient fashion. Soon Tony finds himself driving around Suffolk County in his green Ford Falcon convertible, a pile of pamphlets by his side. He knows little about the illustrious history of the Mosler safes. He knows even less about selling. No-one is telling him where to go or what to say. His training has consisted of the sage advice, “here’s a bunch of pamphlets, go sell some safes, young man, don’t disappointment us…” Listening endlessly to the Beach Boys, he cruises around. Driving up to a hardware store he says to himself “Hey, they might want a wall safe.” He pulls over, goes in and nonchalantly tries to strike up a conversation with the unsuspecting store owner– “I just happen to be in the neighborhood… wonder if you need something to store your valuables in?” Stony silence greets him so he adds, “Well I work for the Mosler Safe Company and I wonder if you could use a small wall safe…….you know, the kind you see in the movies.“ More silence. “You don’t want one? Well, sorry to take up your time,” and he slinks back out to the safety of his car, trying not to care. Some Illustrious History: Although the sales acumen of the young man left something to be desired at that early date, the Mosler Safe Company itself had an illustrious history, had Tony cared to find out. I’ll never know how and where Mac and the Mosler brothers met, but it is certainly well documented that back in l891 Mosler had built it’s first fire resistant safe. As early as 1938 -3- it made large steel castings useful in the development of the atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project. So many Tokyo banks had installed Mosler vaults that when the U.S. Army was searching for hidden hoards of Japanese gold in the aftermath of World War II, Mosler could give them all the detailed floor plans they needed as well as hints of where to look. (1) The history of IBM is so well known it hardly needs to be restated here. When in l933 at age 19 my father-in-law-to-be had been forced by economic necessity to drop out of Fordham University, he went to work for the young company and helped to build it. He rose from salesman to second general manager of the Data Processing Division in l958, to group executive in l959. In l967 he joined IBM’s Management Committee and soon became Vice President in charge of European affairs. (2) Back in the Green Ford Falcon Convertible The fledgling safe salesman has accumulated many gas-reimbursed miles but he hasn’t sold a single safe. To his credit, he sticks with it, the surfer music and his extracurricular exploits carry him all the way through to football pre-season. At night he retreats to his family’s summer home in Quogue where his “pop” advises him to“keep plugging kid…. you’ll see what I mean when you make your first sale.” -4- Retirement in Quogue: A few years later when Major Smith didn’t make the IBM presidency he opted for early retirement at the youthful age of fifty-five. He and Jane had separated by then and the Bowers house in Southampton had long since passed out of the family. For the next thirty-five years he lived in Quogue, enjoying those peaceful Long Island summers and wintering in London or in Paris. After a rather rebellious phase Tony started his own now very successful consulting firm and began to embrace his father’s teachings. The two of them would often trade old and new war stories of their failures and successes. For example, when his young business was going through growing pains, Tony would sometimes wonder out loud how much to charge his clients for a coaching session. His dad would half-jokingly respond “raise ‘em ‘til they squeal.” Sage advice indeed! Epilogue: Tony first introduced me to Long Island and to his father in the late l970‘s. I was entranced by the ocean and bays and by the family history. I fell in love with those banks of early summer pink Rosa rugosa blossoms which matured into late summer rose hips and proliferated around the house on Ocean Avenue; with the early morning sunrises which the bright green shutters in the guest annex could not block out at 5 am and the ever-present view of the inland waterway, white herons wading in the reeds and boats cruising by going somewhere, the occasional fisherman dropping anchor and dallying for hours in the little bay. To pass my time, before my daughter was born, I started bringing my bicycle. To the east between Mac’s place in -5- Quogue and the Shinnecock Inlet the ride could be dicey, what with head winds, and the dodging of potholes and sand and salt water puddles at high tide. It wasn’t possible to take Dune Road straight over to Southampton by the old Bowers place, of which I was still only dimly aware, because of the intrusion of the Inlet, born back in that self-same hurricane of l938, so I extended my ride in the direction of Westhampton Beach. But in those days, long before Mac became immobilized by a fall down the front steps of his house and a back problem and other infirmities of old age and before he passed away in the summer of 2004, we would sometimes gather for dinner at Villa Paul, one of his favorite restaurants, with it’s predictable menu, vintage woodwork and attentive service. There, nibbling on sesame crackers and bread sticks while waiting for dinner to be served, and after the usual niceties, talk of politics, and old friends and family, the conversation between Tony and his dad would once again veer inevitably towards business…and the thrill of closing a sale! -6- Bibliography: (1)Wikipedia: Mosler Safe Company: References: Mosler and The Cold War– (2) IBM Archives: -7-