in 1978 i left my job of five years near lake okeechobee, where i was a sugar mill worker since i was 18...the crew of about a hundred men would refurbish and rebuild the giant mill during the summer, and my job was to help replace, refit, and repair huge steam lines, tanks, pumps, and other equipment...then in november the sugar cane crop starts rolling in and the crew doubles and switches to six months of 24/7 operation of everything from the railroad yard carrying thirty tons of cane per railcar at a clip of 25-30 per hour, to conveyors, giant steam-turbine operated grinding mills (that was my job), with the resulting juice going to evaporator tanks, filters, and pressure cooking pans the size of flying saucers. the thick black granular liquid was then cured in stirring vats, and spun in a bank of centrifugals to seperate the molasses from the dry raw sugar crystals that went straight into boxcars to the refinery or into warehouses where the mountains of golden sugar resembled a moonscape...the waste, or bagasse of the cane stalks was conveyed into and burned in triple boilers that generated steam for all operations plus a power plant with the capacity to run a small town.
this was a union job, and from age 18 till 24 i probably made at least the average yearly income of a four-year college grad...good money to provide for my wife and two daughters which i had by age twenty. but the problem was, this was a pretty coarse bunch of guys, and the bad habits and attitudes were infectious...we are very much products of our environment, and this product wasn't one my wife much cared for. and of course wifey and i were still just 24 and and had already been married 7 years; maybe we needed to see what else there was to the world.
so anyway, even though we lived well, had new cars, and were building a nice house, she left my ass and went back to south georgia for a while. i knew it would be traumatic, but i wanted a change, too; i could look around at guys who had worked for u.s. sugar corp for thirty and forty years, and they were pretty much living the same life as i was, just waiting to retire...not a bad life, but not what you want forever for yourself, your wife, or your kids, really. so i loaded up my tools, cancelled the house (even made some money on that; this was the height of the inflationary boom of the 70s and i flipped the contract for a profit) and i moved to beverly...oh, wait that was jed clampett...no, i loaded up the truck and moved to wpb, west palm beach, that is, just thirty miles and a whole continent away from the rural agricultural region of palm beach county...swimmin' pools, yep, even movie stars, and lots of flashin' lights.
reflecting on a life change as radical as i could handle, i took a duplex apartment that was big enough for the family that i was sure would be back to me in a short time, and answered a couple of help wanted ads in the palm beach post...one was for diebold, the safe and security company that installs bank equipment...hoisting and installing bigass heavy equipment was something i already knew how to do, and they offered a company truck and pretty good wages and benefits; i planned to start the next monday.
but i had noticed another ad, too; for a manager of a pawn shop...and remembered it was on the main road leading into downtown; i drove that way and saw the store, but it didn't look too impressive; i didn't know anything about pawnshops except what most people think they know, which is usually nothing good. plus i already had a good job offer, so i continued through downtown and then over the bridge and across the intracoastal waterway and into palm...beach...proper.
oceanside mansions featuring kennedys, vanderbilts, lots of other old-money names, and even the ultimate new-money name of trump. then a right turn onto the avenue...worth avenue, that runs from the ocean back to the intracoastal, lined with rolls royces, etc.; tiffany, cartier, and all their buds are there, culminating at the end with private yacht clubs with 100ft toys bobbing in the salty breeze...but i digress.
i had planned to drive north along the ocean from palm beach up to the lake worth beach and pier...a great place for bikini watching, and hey, i was single at least for a while...but for some reason, instead i headed back across the intracoastal and past the pawnshop, but this time i pulled in...the pawnshop was nothing like worth avenue, in fact it seemed pretty low-rent to me; but just as i was about to leave, it struck me that the "decor" was by design...shelves might have been cluttered, but over behind the counter was an antique restored slot machine that i knew was valuable; a closer look through the scratched glass of the front showcases revealed not one or two, but at least a dozen rolex watches from $1000 to $5000 (those 5k watches are 20k now)...then a bit further back, four showcases of handguns, all the usual lowend suspects were there, but a whole row of old colts and breakback smiths, the whole line of colt 45's, a dozen or so wood presentation cases holding custom engraved revolvers, and even a set of browning gold-plated renaissance presentation models from the .25 to the mighty hi-power, all with matching numbers...in the back rack among the obligatory cheap .22's and old sears pumps, was a parker double, an anschutz competition rifle, and the first sliding-stock colt ar i had seen in a store...damn...
so i called the number in the ad, and the lady arranged for the owner, she, and i to meet for lunch at a hotel down the road...what unusual people; she a cool, chic, razorsharp jewish american princess who drove a 'vette and was an interior designer...and dick? not the seedy looking little elf i kind of expected but a tall, slim guy with long hair and beard, meticulously groomed, and with penetrating eyes...and only in his thirties. turns out dick had bought out his father-in-law harry (hence d&h pawn) who along with his own father and brothers had been in the pawn business since the 1920's in new york and palm beach...dick had been exposed to and studied and learned from some of the very best dealers, appraisers and collectors in the world of fine jewelry, firearms, coins, paintings and other valuable art and collectibles...there was little that dick didn't know about ancient roman coins, the history and value of fine guns, even 18th century silversmith proofmarks that can make the difference in a set of silver of thousands of dollars.
but dick didn't like to stay in the store...for one thing, he was best at visiting, talking, and consulting with other dealers, including the hotshots in three-piece suits on worth avenue who listened to and respected dick's opinion, and more, they partnered with him on the purchase of large old-money estates, and traded inventory with him so that he had items from these fabulous estates in the unassuming showcase at d&h, and they had access to his knowledge (and money) for big purchases, and also access to his sometimes amazing pawnshop acquisitions...yeah the store was taking tv's, tools, and bicycles in pawn and helping out the little guy till payday...while dick was putting up thousands against the worldly jewels of asset-rich but cash-strapped palm beach socialites with names like dodge...no kidding, the dodge, more on that later.
and so it was that i took the job as manager of dick bergeron's pawnshop in west palm beach at age 24, having spent the five years prior working in the sugar mill just a short distance but worlds away...and the course was set for what would become my life's work in an industry that few understand and even fewer would believe...jtc