Friday, June 20, 2014

Big Mike loves his job and it shows.

"Big Mike" Ledesma has immersed himself in his job and history.
There's no cell phone reception where Mike Ledesma works in the bunker-like basement of the Los Angeles County Recorder's office in Norwalk, California. Only the most determined, hard-core researchers, title searchers or investigators find their way down there. Big Mike, as people call him, is part of a close-knit mini-team that watches over the oldest of the old maps and deeds and other documents people have brought in over the past couple of centuries --- brought in to make sure there's a permanent copy on file in case something happens to the original.
Today, he perked up when I came in -- I was giving a one-on-one public records orientation tour to a talented 20-year-old kid, Jayden Fishein, who had decided that a summer break from college should still include some learning.
Before I could even introduce Jayden, Big Mike was already telling me about the cool stuff he had discovered in the cavernous collection of index books, documents, microfilm, maps and boxes. He explained to Jayden that he realized that he was surrounded by so much history that he felt compelled to do research on his own when he had the time.
Then he told us proudly about a PowerPoint presentation he had recently shown to staff members and management. It was about the history of Chavez Ravine.
"I'm a big Dodger fan," he said, "and I kept hearing people refer to Dodger Stadium as Chavez Ravine." He said he decided to learn more about that particular ravine, but he discovered that there are ravines in the area with other names. He rattled off a list of other ravines and then told us about what he had discovered about what had once occupied the ground where the the pitcher's mound is now.
When he told me that it was the site of the first Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles, I started to correct him. I knew where it was -- it was down the hill behind the old Naval Reserve Center. I've shown the obscure historical marker to many people. But Big Mike cut me off.
"They moved it," he said. "They moved it a long time ago. I'm talking about it's original location. It's where Dodger Stadium is now!"
Jayden Fishbein caught the research bug.
All I could say was, "Mike, I hope you'll share a copy of that PowerPoint presentation.

I couldn't imagine that Mike could top the story of the cemetery, but he did. He looked at Jayden and said, "Do you want to see something really interesting?"
I answered for the kid. "Of course he does!"
Big Mike pushed his chair back from the counter, bent down and came up with a smile on his face and a big cardboard box.

Abel Stearns' Cattle Brand
"Look at these," he said.
It was a box filled with pieces of old leather. Right away, I could see that each of them proudly wore a cattle brand. Some were shaped like heads of cattle, or like the ears from steers. And some of them had writing burned or etched into them. They were what cattle ranchers brought to the county office so that they could register their ranches' brands.
I couldn't wait to get my hands on them. The writing was hard to read on most of them, but then I recognized a name -- the name of the man who was once owned more cattle ranches than just about anyone in Southern California. I was the signature of Abel Stearns. Everybody who has studied Los Angeles history knows about Abel Sterns.
I was in cowhide heaven.
Then Leonard, a longer-time employee in the office plopped a microfilm cassette into a viewer and said, "I found the book they used to register the brands."
Even though I was determined to complete some other important research, I couldn't take my attention away from the cowhide brand registers.
Now I'm already trying to figure when I can get back there to see if I can match some of the brands with the images they have on microfilm.
This could keep me busy for a long time.
Can you imagine how cool it would be to work with Big Mike, Leonard and the others down there?
There's nothing like the beautiful smell of archives.
 












3 comments:

helpingmedia said...

As always, Don finds a story in talking to people about their lives, jobs, hopes and fears. This is the stamp of a true journalist. Stories are rarely found in press releases - they are for PR spin and propaganda. Real stories are found when you take time to talk to people, have a real interest in what you hear, and cherish, value and evaluate the resulting conversation. Don, you do this so well.

helpingmedia said...

As always, Don finds a story in talking to people about their lives, jobs, hopes and fears. This is the stamp of a true journalist. Stories are rarely found in press releases - they are for PR spin and propaganda. Real stories are found when you take time to talk to people, have a real interest in what you hear, and cherish, value and evaluate the resulting conversation. Don, you do this so well.

Paul Curtis said...

I have been in the basement looking at records both in Norwalk and thru the tunnels in downtown Los Angeles. They are the treasury of our history and Don Ray's book called "Diggin' Up Gold On The Old Paper Trail" contains the magic decoder ring for both how to find what you are looking for and what it means when you do find it.

I was stationed at the Los Angeles Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Training Center in Chavez Ravine from 1965 - 1968 as a Navy Personnelman responsible for maintaining the service records of reservists who trained there. I also served on the Color Guard for baseball games at Dodger Stadium and have very fond memories of the O'Malley family, especially Mr. Walter O'Malley who left a timeless impression on all of us about how to conduct our lives as gentlemen. Lots of other fond memories as well. A guick Google search of Chavez Ravine will disgorge volumes of information about its history.

Paul Curtis