Saturday, February 4, 2012

The War Was At My Door

Life was good but life was complicated in early 1968. I had a burgeoning career in leather, a girl friend, a paying job and a good feeling about school I never had before. If I stayed in college, the draft couldn't touch me but I sensed a change was coming. The problem was that my love for leather work was interfering with school. My grades started to slip, I was missing classes and the lure of money and leather working was taking its toll. I dropped out of school. Not long after that, I approached the Milwaukee Organizing Committee to counsel me once again to a game plan to thwart the draft. The Selective Service System did what they needed to do and ordered me to a pre induction draft physical to determine if I was ready, willing and able to fight their little dirty war. I was up to the challenge and the game was on.

May 27, 1968 I was to report downtown for my physical. Armed with a manifesto from the MOC, I was about to do battle with the hated SSS. First course of action was to attach a whistle ring to my finger for vocal awareness that I was in their building. Next step was to share a hit of window pane acid with a friend and fellow pre inductee, Fred Hirsch. We tripped through the entire process high as kites. Both of us were determined to beat them. Instead of following orders about keeping our papers in order, we of course mixed them all up. We failed every written test they gave us. Being young and healthy we both were physically fit but MOC said that psychologically we would be unwanted if we could convince them.
For me the opportunity came when I failed the hearing test and they wanted to test me in a small individual booth. I refused to go in to this booth and just stammered that I was afraid. Remembering that the patients I had taken care of at the mental health center never knew why they were there and couldn't describe their illness if they tried was my key. I was ushered into to see the psychiatrist. He looked me over, saw the acid craze in my eyes, asked me why I wouldn't submit to the small booth and when I said I don't know that I am just afraid he muttered, "Unfit for military service, classify 4-F". I smiled inside.

My Draft Status - 1968

My friend, Fred Hirsch, who took the same trip that day was given the same deferment. We both were traumatized by that ordeal. Several months later he committed suicide.

My Wisconsin Identification Card - 1966

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Love Was All Around.

Even though I had fallen in love with working with leather, my head still advised me to be cautious. In late 1967, I was struggling to stay in college. This was after spending five and a half years in high school. I have to admit, I was not the best student but as long as I was in high school and still eighteen years old, the Select Service System, AKA: The Draft could not send me off to war. There was a group on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee called the Milwaukee Organizing Committee and they counseled me to remain in high school as long as I could. I slept through many a high school class and extended my stay at Riverside High. Best five and a half years of my life! Time came when I did have to graduate and my older brother Roger helped me enroll at the Milwaukee Institute of Technology. It is now known as the Milwaukee Area Technical College. After struggling all through grade school and high school, this college thing was working out. I had decent grades, which kept the draft at bay, and I had landed a part time job at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Center as an attendant. It was sobering work dealing with patients that were severely mentally handicapped. I had a few jobs before this, delivering papers and pumping gas at a local station but this attendant’s job was something else. Shades of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest still come to mind. The money was good. I think I was making a $1.90 per hour.

I bought my first motorcycle pictured here with that money and rode back and forth to work on it.

My First Motorcycle - 1967

I had built an apartment in my parent’s home on Bartlett in their attic. A huge and long staircase carried one to the best apartment a young dude could ever want. I had to build a bathroom, a kitchen and a combination bedroom, living room-party room. I even had a swing that hung from the high-pitched roof.

Here is a link to a rare video of a young woman swinging on my attic swing:  attic swing video

Life was good in 1967!

So when I fell in love with leatherwork in 1967, I still hung on to my job and I stayed in school. It was not an easy task, working at the MCMHC, attending classes and now I was a young leather worker with a partner and a shop on Brady Street. My girlfriend at the time was Christine Young. It was my first real relationship with a girl. I was in love with her and she with me. The attendant job paid the bills, school was dragging on and the new shop was sputtering along. My new partner at the shop, Ron Raffey, had his own ideas of what we should be selling. We started out wanting to sell leather, but incense, candles and posters were paying those bills. I was feeling disillusioned with the direction the shop was heading. Here we had all these neat machines to make leather stuff but we were drifting into being just a head shop. My patience was running thin and for a short time in early 1968, I actually disenfranchised myself from the shop. Little did I know that a turning point would come in May 1968 that set me on the path I still travel to this day.

Bill Odbert and Chris Young photographed by Gordy Simone
at the Avant Garde on Prospect Ave. - 1968

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Beginning

My name is Bill Odbert and I have been a leather crafter since the late 1960's.

It was in 1967, the summer of love, when I fell in love with leather working. Just before falling in love, I was experimenting with making metal smoking pipes out of small brass bells and copper piping. A friend named Dennis Blankenheim showed me a leather belt he had made. Dennis and another young guy had started a shop downtown called Three Penny Farthing and they were making small leather items. I was intrigued with the belt and Dennis was inspired with my metal pipes. We decided to exchange knowledge and some materials. I received a thick piece of leather from him that was perfect for making a belt. I found several copper bullrings at the old National Hardware Store on Third Street. These rings were used to control bulls by being placed in their nose. The rings were hinged so they could be separated and then pierced into the bulls nose. To the bull, they probably were painful but to me they were the perfect rings for my cinch belt. At the old National Hardware Store, you could find just about anything and I was able score some copper burr rivets that allowed me to secure my shiny copper rings to the belt. A quick trim of the leather end and I was sporting a stylish new belt. My leather love and career had begun.

My girlfriend at that time was Christine Young and her best friend was Ann Holzhauer. Ann's boyfriend was a young guy named Ron Raffey from Minneapolis that came to the east side of Milwaukee and opened a head shop on east Irving Place. He called it Geezenstachs. I'm not sure why he called it that but the store was so groovy to our times. He sold incense, rolling papers, psychedelic posters and clothes for us hippies. Ron saw my leather belt and asked if I could make leather bracelets or watchbands for the store. I was delighted to take him up on his offer. Needing a better source of leather and material I turned to the yellow pages and let my fingers do the walking. I found an actual leather craft supply store on Mitchell Street, called Tandy's. It was perfect. I had a source and I had a market place for my leatherwork. I set out to score some more leather, rivets, rings and leather dye. I read every brochure and book they had on leather working. Before long I had made up an assortment of bracelets and watchbands. The store was selling them as fast as I could make them. My love and career was blooming.

Towards the end of 1967, a small shoe repair shop became available on Brady Street. Ron asked if I wanted to become partners and start a shop. We called it One If By Land. The elderly shoe repairman was Armenian and spoke with a heavy accent. He wanted to teach me how to repair shoes and he couldn't understand why that didn't interest me. He showed me how to operate the small patch machine he used to repair the uppers on shoes. He also taught me how to use the big straight needle stitcher that sewed the soles to the shoes. Ron and I covered the old green walls of the shop with old wood and took up the linoleum floor to expose a beautiful birds eye maple floor. We hung up posters, sold incense and I made leather items. Simple items at first but I quickly got better. The old Armenian just shook his head in disbelief. He was retiring but wasn't convinced we could make a living by selling new stuff. Here is a picture of the actual sign that hung in front of our new store.

The name of the store was not my idea but Ron Raffey's.
I eventually changed it to The Leather Shop.