Little Ships and Big Ships

I started in the securities brokerage business in 1957 with a Cincinnati firm named Westheimer & Co. It was a regional firm as most were in those days. The president of the firm was a venerable old gentleman after whom the company was named.   I traveled to Cincinnati to be interviewed by him only to find that he knew all about me.

When I entered his office, he was standing behind his desk to greet me. After we were seated, we talked about my life, family, school, service in the Air Force, my wife and children, everything but the securities business. At this time, all the brokerage firms were partnerships. I discovered later that he was more interested in my character. If I brought on a lawsuit, because of some questionable action on my part, he was fully exposed in terms of liability. I had a degree from Notre Dame and had served as a commissioned officer in the Air Force. He figured they could teach me what they wanted me to know, and so he hired me.

I started with the company in their Wheeling office that was located on the mezzanine of the McLure Hotel. I worked as a “board boy” chalking up the prices by eights as the ticker clattered and printed them on a tape. I would record the latest sale in a column under the ticker symbol for the company, and when the column was full, I would erase it and chalk the opening, high, low and last. I remember that when President Eisenhower had a heart attack, the volume on the New York Stock Exchange soared to 18 million shares! We were in the office until 7:30 that evening catching up on the tape.

I was the lowest person on the totem pole, yet when Thanksgiving arrived, I received the biggest turkey from Mr. Westheimer. When I asked Mr. Grouch, our manager, why, I was told that I had the biggest family in the office. The following year we had added a baby, and my turkey was increased by one pound.

My father encouraged my interest in stocks. I went to Central Catholic High School in the early ’40s in downtown Wheeling. The school was close to my father’s office and the brokerage office of Parish and Co. which my dad called the “bucket shop.” He told me to do my research and pick two stocks. He bought some shares of each; they had to be held in his name, but they were mine. I would meet him occasionally after school at the bucket shop and listen to him and his cronies talk investments, and I began to “follow the market.” I remember those two companies that I picked, and they did well. I sold Curtis Wright and Pennsylvania Railroad to buy the engagement ring.

After a year and a half or so, Fred Seeley and Tom Griffith, co-managers of Harold Bache and Sons, formerly Parish & Co., asked me to go to work for them.   Not only were the managers the same, but the office was unchanged from the time when I was in high school.   It was a large room with six or seven rows of five or six green leather-cushioned chairs with cuspidors — or spittoons — strategically placed among them. The spittoons sat on black rubber mats to take care of the near misses. It was that era’s answer to the potbelly stove in the general store. It was a “hangout” for local businessmen and was as sacred a male domain as a workingman’s bar. Women who conducted business did so in the front office, where they could enter and exit by a side door and not compromise their “virtuous standing” in the community. I remember meeting my dad there after school, and I always had the feeling I was entering a lodge, with its esoteric language and secret symbols.

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The “customer’s men” sat at their desks along the wall on a raised platform opposite from the“big board” separated from the sitting area by a chest-high counter in the big room. It was just the right height for tape watchers and customers to hang an elbow.   The wall opposite the brokers’ desks was the “board,” a wall-size green chalkboard with two horizontal rows of stock exchange symbols at the top of vertical columns where the latest prices were posted by the board boy.

The board was framed in lovely old wood, as was the platform where the board boy traveled back and forth posting the latest prices. I believe it was custom built during the roaring twenties. The board was well lighted by shielded bulbs that directed the light on the board.

The latest prices were printed on cellophane tape that came through a slit in the board having been printed behind by the “ticker.” The chatter from the ticker was constant and highly audible. It could be heard above the noises from the Dow Jones News teletype and the office wire machines from which our “wire operator,” Roger, typed orders and messages to our New York office and received confirmations and messages. All orders were written on a form and handed to Roger. We picked up our confirmations from a spike next to Roger, where he would impale them on our spike when received.

One of my customers was a Jewish Russian immigrant who dressed like a bum and always carried tobacco juice stains in his unruly white mustache He butchered the King’s English but knew how to make a dollar in his junkyard business.   This was during the era of fixed brokerage commissions, so Mr. Pavalik kept moving around the three brokerage firms in Wheeling trying to discover a way to save a dime. I was young and called on him in his junkyard a number of times trying to get his business. Finally one day he called and gave me a buy order which I executed. When I called him back to give him the price at which the shares were purchased, he asked what the price was at that time. I gave him the last sale, which was slightly lower.

He immediately screamed “Why didn’t you wait!”

I replied, “Mr. Pavilack, can you tell me what # 4 scrap will close at today?”

He said ‘”You a pretty smart kid.”

nad I had his account.

I got to know him well and became the only one in the office who could understand him.  Like other customers, he would telephone and ask for the latest prices on his holdings. His list went as follows: Jorgan Oil, which was Standard Oil of New Jersey; Spereous Rand — Sperry Rand; my medicine stock — Sterling Drug ; my suit stock – Celanese Corporation, and on it went. He always ended our conversation with, “What is big ships and little ships?” These were Newport News Shipbuilding and Criscraft Industries.

Roger, the wire operator, once remarked “This truly is a wonderful country when someone can buy $10,000 worth of a company he can’t pronounce.”

Eventually he became known in the office as “Big Ships and Little Ships,” and I can still hear Fred Seeley calling out “ Hogan, Big Ships is on 4.”

My favorite story, and there are many, was the day the market was plunging with a late tape, and “Pine Bough” Hazlett was leaning against the back wall calmly smoking his cigarette.

The fellow standing near him exclaimed nervously, more to assure himself, “I don’t have anything to worry about; most of my holdings are in preferreds.”

And Pine Bough replied, “My friend, when the whorehouse burns down, all the girls come out.”