Rod Rodriguez: Oh, the stories he'll tell

NORWALK - When speaking to Marcial "Rod" Rodriguez - the former Norwalk mayor - it's recommended you sit down, open your ears and say as little as possible.Rodriguez is a walking historical society and he's not shy about sharing his vast collection of anecdotes and stories of days gone by. All you need to do is ask. Rodriguez turns 80 in July but could pass for 60 with his short-cropped hair and square jaw. He dates himself, however, with his enthralling stories of 1940s Norwalk, when the city was mostly eucalyptus trees and orange groves. "You could literally stick your hand out the window and pick an orange," says Rodriguez, who has lived in the same home near Lampton Elementary since 1969. "I was born in an adobe house near Imperial and Studebaker," he laughs. "How far have I gone?" One of his first jobs, at age 10 or 12, was for a local farmer who tended an orange grove not far from where Norwalk Toyota sits today. The farmer, frustrated by critters ruining his crop supply, offered Rodriguez 25 cents for every "gopher tail" he brought back. It didn't take Rodriguez long to figure out that the gophers were burrowing holes near the river and when you filled one hole with water, the gophers scampered out the other. "So I would wait there with my shovel and when they came out, bam!" Rodriguez recalled. "I went back to the farmer with 10 or 12 gophers. He must have been thinking, 'What did I get myself into?' But he paid me 25 cents for each gopher and that was a lot of money back then." When a local carhop opened, Rodriguez used a squeegee to wash customers' car windows, whether they asked for it or not. Money he earned in tips was spent on entertainment. Rodriguez and his brother would walk the railroad tracks along Imperial Highway before heading north on Downey Avenue, and spend most of the day in the Downey swimming pool. Then they'd catch cartoons at the Avenue Theatre before watching a movie at the Meralta. They'd walk all the way back home afterward, usually not getting back until late at night. "There were no street lights at the time. It was really dark and we were just walking on the train tracks," Rodriguez said. "But you could do that back then. We were kids." Rodriguez also remembers walking to what is now Florence Avenue and Pioneer Boulevard, where overgrowth had overtaken a giant crater in the roadway. "This was in 1942 and there was a horse farm, a dairy and a church," he says. "But there was also this jungle inside the pit. Me and my brother would go in there pretending we were Jungle Jim. And every time it rained this pit would just fill up with water. It looked like a little lake. That's how the Little Lake school district got its name." Not far from there, on Florence Avenue and Orr & Day Road, the military built an underground bunker, Rodriguez says. "I know it was there because me and my brother played in it after it was abandoned," he insists. Rodriguez also fondly remembers his grandparents' annual barbecue. It was an event the entire community - small as it was back then - took part in every year. "It started Friday night and continued to Sunday," he says. "We had homemade brew and somebody would always bring out a guitar." The guest of honor, however, was the 250-lb. hog roasted over an open pit. Vegetarians should skip the following paragraph. "There was this old man that always carried a skive with him and he would pierce the hog's heart. It was my job to hold a bucket and collect the blood, which we used to make heart sausages," Rodriguez says. "We would use every piece of that pig. The women even shaved it and used the skin to make chicharrones. The bladder we would tie up and make into a kick ball." Then there was the time Rodriguez and his brother used their mother's succulent cooking to secure new footwear. "One day I noticed that one of my friends was wearing new boots, which would be great while working on the farm," he says. "Well this guy had always loved my mother's hand-made tortillas. He would eat them up. So my brother and I offered to trade him tacos in exchange for the boots. He said yes." The trade didn't last long. "My brother wore one boot and I wore the other," he laughed. "But then the adults found out and we had to return them." It's Rodriguez's honest, outspoken nature that makes him a curious choice for local politics. But he joined the Norwalk Rotary club in 1969, where he made friends with city leaders. He was a key figure in Cecil Green's successful campaign for Norwalk City Council in 1974 and for his efforts was appointed to the planning commission. "That whet my appetite," Rodriguez says. In 1982 he won election to the city council, serving as mayor twice, including in 1988, when current councilman Mike Mendez was first elected to office. Grace Napolitano, now a congresswoman representing Norwalk, was elected vice mayor. Rodriguez lost his seat in 1990 after he claims he mistakenly submitted a receipt for personal clothing to the city for reimbursement. His political opponents seized the opportunity. "What's the saying? All's fair in love and war? Also in politics," he says. "It was a receipt for underwear. Somehow it got mixed up with my other receipts and I didn't catch it. It was an honest mistake." It didn't help matters that Rodriguez was fined $1,000 by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission in 1986 for alleged campaign mailer violations. Rodriguez downplayed the fine at the time in an interview with the L.A. Times. "It's like doing 70 miles per hour in a 50-mile-an-hour zone," Rodriguez reportedly told the newspaper. "And you get caught, you get cited...and you pay the doggone thing." Unsuccessful in his reelection campaign, Rodriguez says he left City Hall and never looked back. Not that he harbors any ill will. "I haven't been back to City Hall since," he says. "I'm afraid someone will ask me to do something and I'm back in the fold." Today, Rodriguez spends much of his time with Norwalk Rotary, where he is past president. He helped launch the Rotary-sponsored youth club - Interact - at Excelsior and John Glenn high schools. He has also worked to deliver much-needed medical equipment to Hermosillo, Mexico. Rodriguez has a funny story about that, too. "We had our truck parked outside City Hall and it was the day of the Christmas tree lighting," he recalls. "Well somebody decided to write 'Feliz Navidad' on the side of the truck only they spelled it wrong. They spelled it 'Felix Navidad.' On both sides!" "Then we made a wrong turn and couldn't find the freeway," he continues. "I'm thinking, 'Shoot, we're already lost and we haven't even left Norwalk." An insurance salesman with Prudential for 30 years, Rodriguez is a dedicated Rams fan and made friends on the NFL team when they trained in Long Beach and Anaheim. He regularly organized charity basketball games between Rams players and sheriff's deputies at Cerritos College and secured Rams memorabilia for auctions to benefit Rotary. After one charity game, Rodriguez hosted the Rams at his home for a barbecue. To ensure the players' privacy, the dinner was strictly limited to Rodriguez, his wife, and five other couples. "Of course I got a call from one of my friends, crying, that one of his closest buddies wanted to attend," Rodriguez says. "I said, 'I'm sorry, but we agreed beforehand this was limited to the five couples only.'' My friend says, 'But he owns a brewery and says he'll supply the beer if we let him come.' Rodriguez laughs. "I said, 'Invite the son of a...!" One week, due to NFL attendance requirements, the Rams were in danger of being bumped off a national telecast due to low attendance figures. Rodriguez made one phone call and snagged enough free tickets to treat the entire Norwalk All City Youth band to a game. Through his relationship with the team trainer, Rodriguez even got a hold of the pants Eric Dickerson wore after breaking the NFL record for most 100-yard games in a season previously held by OJ Simpson. Rodriguez auctioned the pants and donated the proceeds to Rotary. It's been a fulfilling, fascinating life for Rodriguez, not that he has any plans to slow down much. "I had one woman approach me when I was on the city council many years ago," he says. "She was complaining about a market whose signs were all in Spanish. 'This is America! It should be in English!,' she screamed. I said, 'Yes, OK, I see your point... "But what would we do about Der Wienerschnitzel?"

********** Published: May 03, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 03