Sunday, January 29, 2012

Volney G. Mathison (1897-1965)-Part 3

Volney the Viking

As early as 1918, Volney Mathison went to sea as a wireless operator. He had learned about radio during his teenage years, claiming an ability to "read most any up-to-date scientific book and get most everything in it of value in a few hours."
Before becoming a wireless operator, he'd worked a little on farms, but found he hated the sound of steel against the soil, such as the clink of a hoe blade against stone. . . . He even picked a little cotton, but broke out in a severe skin rash, felt ill, and earned only about 20 cents a day at this work.
His mother had hoed weeds out of a Texas cotton field as she was carrying her unborn son. Again and again she told herself, "I've got to get out of here!" Maybe by osmosis she passed on to the embryonic Volney her feelings for working in cotton. (He seemed to have believed that himself.) In any case, he left Alabama and the South as a teenager, perhaps never to return.

Son of an itinerant farmer and a woman who wanted "to get out of places," Volney Mathison set out for the West Coast sometime between 1910 and 1916. His desire--like theirs--was to wander, "to get out of places." He admitted that he could have done that by railroading, but "the genes of his Viking ancestry said: 'No, to sea!'" Mathison later claimed many years at sea on dozens of ships. (He also implied that he had been to Shanghai and Helsinki among other ports.) He called himself a seaman while registering for the draft in 1918. I have found his name on ships' manifests from 1924-1927. However long he may have been at sea and wherever he may have voyaged, Mathison preferred tramp freighters because they were always leaving one place for another. While in port, he became "idle, moody, and restless." 

Mathison kept at his seagoing ways through most of the 1920s. Even as late as 1937, he worked as a union representative and spokesman for seamen. More interesting still, in 1938, Mathison applied to the Federal Communications Commission for a radio license for a gambling ship, the "barge" SS Tango, operating out of Long Beach, California. The Tango, recently converted into a luxury casino, was one of two ships owned by Anthony Cornero Stralla (1899-1955), also known as Tony Cornero, Tony Stralla, or just plain Tony the Hat. His ships were designed to float beyond the three-mile limit and thus avoid California's prohibitions against gambling. For a quarter per head, Cornero's passengers were ferried out to the ships, where they might drop all together $300,000 per "cruise." In any case, Volney Mathison's application was denied, but Cornero's ships continued operating into the 1940s, finally to be closed down by Governor Earl Warren. It's a funny and fascinating story. You can read more about it on Wikipedia, better yet on a website called Cruising the Pasthere. Incidentally, Cary Grant was in two movies linked to Tony Cornero and his gambling ships: Gambling Ship (1933) and Mr. Lucky (1943).

By the time he applied for that radio license, Mathison had worked his way through one career and into another. Both grew out of his work as a radioman, first through his writing, then through his invention of what would later be called the E-meter.

To Be Continued . . .

The SS Tango, originally Star of Scotland, Tony Cornero's converted gambling ship of the 1930s and '40s. Volney Mathison applied for a radio license for this ship in 1938. The license was denied but the ship kept raking in the cash.

Original text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley. Quotes from Volney G. Mathison, taken from "Hidden Drives Pick Our Jobs and Professions," from The Aberee, Dec. 1956,  are presumably in the public domain.

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