The Baron of Second Avenue

the-royal-flying-corps-wilf-hardyGrandpa Frank was fearless. Born in 1902, Frank McLaughlin was of rugged Scotch-Irish stock, descended from the founders of New Hampshire. His genteel French Canadian mother tried to tame him, but never succeeded.

He ran away at fifteen, and with a friend rode the rails to Quebec where his kindly Uncle Pierre took them in. Uncle Pierre was a wealthy, deeply devout Catholic who only allowed himself one indulgence: a wine cellar full of priceless vintages.

So naturally, while Uncle Pierre was away, Frank and friend decided to sample the goods—all of them. Upon returning, Uncle Pierre found them sleeping off their bender on a mountain of bottles. They were spared the guillotine, but were instantly sent packing.

Frank grew restless again. He lied about his age, joined the army, and was shipped off to fight The Great War in France. Almost immediately the sky called to him. Compact and fearless, he was built for the cockpit of a biplane, and quickly became a new kind of warrior: a flying ace.

He returned home in 1919, but soon ran off to join the circus–the flying circus! Performing as a barnstormer in death-defying Roaring 20s airshows, he developed an avid female following. But only one won his heart: a pretty filly from Texas named Johnnie Belle Reed. 

Johnnie Belle had her sights set on Hollywood. So, although Frank considered the movie biz unmanly, he agreed to move with his new bride to Los Angeles.

They bought a house on 2nd Avenue. Frank continued barnstorming for a while, cementing his local hero status and acquiring the nickname of The Baron of Second Avenue. But after several near-fatal crashes, and the birth of two daughters (one of whom was my mother), he quit. (Johnnie never became a movie star, by the way, but she performed on radio shows and in local theatre, and had a decided impact on me.)

Frank’s opinion of Hollywood changed when, on a storm-drenched night in the Sierra Nevadas, his Model A veered off into a flooded ditch. Fearing for his family’s life, he finally flagged down two hunters in a lone truck. Working in the darkness and pouring rain, they managed to hook their winch cable to the flivver and tow it out.

It wasn’t until an hour later, while celebrating over beers at a mountain pub, that Frank realized the two hunters were the legendary character actor Wallace Beery and his buddy Clark Gable–widely considered the greatest film star of all time.

Frank never missed another of their movies, and even consented to perform on the radio shows Johnnie Bell wrote, produced and starred in.

Frank McLaughlin remained a showman to the end. I still remember watching a crowd gather as he ripped the shirt off his muscular, grey-haired chest, and performed gravity-defying gymnastics at a local park…

Just weeks before he died.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Culture, Humor, Memoir and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to The Baron of Second Avenue

  1. atimetoshare.me says:

    This must be the colorful past which created your love for the arts. Great story😍

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, and I though MY family was interesting …

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! What a heritage!!! And does it not point straight to what your paths have turned out to be! So glad for you – and for all of us who get to benefit, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. M.B. Henry says:

    What a neat family story! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a story!! Did you know Grandpa Frank well?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. IanC555 says:

    Looks like today is the day for reverie and stories of origin. Synchronistic is funny. I thoroughly enjoyed this yarn. Thanks!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a story…and so great that it was your grandfather!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Gary Fultz says:

    Ummm…That explains a lot I’m thinking, LOL

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Niki Flow says:

    What an amazing story. Your Uncle Frank sounds like quite a man. Thank you for painting him, and his beloved Johnnie, so vividly today. And wow, that rainy night story. Even though he died the year I was born, I’ve been a Clark Gable fan all my life. I never knew this story about him. My friends in high school had David Cassidy posters in their rooms, and I was the “weirdo” who had my room covered in pix of Clark Gable. I can see why he and your uncle hit it off. Great story, Mitch! ♥.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: The Baron of Second Avenue – Niki Flow

  11. Great story! My paternal Grandpa was a mechanic for Eddie Rickenbaker after he switched from flivvers to racecars! Gramps died when i was little so i never heard his stories but this reminded me of him. Thanks so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is so great Mitch. There is no wonder that you would be in the Biz. Such is it with our heritage. There is a lot of Johnie Raye in you as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. revruss1220 says:

    Great story! Thanks for sharing it. Your grandpa was what we used to call “a real man’s man.”

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ann Coleman says:

    What a wonderful story!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Jennie says:

    My goodness, what a wonderful family history. Frank is quite a guy, someone to be very proud of. You are lucky to have this family heritage, Mitch. You inherited Frank’s good genes. And he told you all these stories before he died? Wow! You are blessed. Really. But you know that already. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Bill Sweeney says:

    Grandpa Frank was quite a character. Great story.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This is one amazing story! You could turn that into a book. Now, I’m hooked. I’ll need to visit your blog more often. I wrote a graphic novel about a guy similar in spirit to Frank. In my story, George runs away at age 15, ends up joining the army, and finally ends up in Hollywood where he makes quite an impression and becomes a storytelling legend.

    Liked by 1 person

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