Kevin Smith - First Days in the Outdoor Industry

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Right to Left: Henry Gruchacz, Dan Castner, Kevin Smith

Here's a more complete version of the story.

A transcript of the audio is below that.

After I graduated from high school in 1965 I went on to City College of San Francisco but I wasn't much of a student. I was so poor of a college student that I was thrown out after two semesters - went from a 1.2 average to a 1.0 average. Just wasn’t interested and didn't go to class. This led to my getting classified 1-A – first in line to be drafted. Drafted into the Army in August 1967 and after 8 weeks of basic training and 8 weeks of advanced infantry training, I landed in Vietnam in February 1968. Spent 9/10 months in an infantry company – walked point on occasion and was given tunnel rat duties as well – I was the same size as the Viet Cong. One day toward the middle or end of March a radio man was killed and I debated tunnel rat vs. RTO – chose RTO as crawling into enclosed spaces with a flashlight and a .45 caliber pistol looking for other guys with guns was scarier than getting personally shot at for having a radio. So I was an RTO the next 8 months. Came back “to the world” in February 1969; finished my two year commitment teaching rifle training to new recruits at Fort Lewis, WA. Released from active duty in August 1969 – same date as the first day of Woodstock, as I recall.   

Hill 488 - 1968 June 8I returned to home in San Francisco, where the anti war movement was in full flower and I became very involved in that while trying to go back to college (unsuccessfully again) and moving from job to job. While I was still in the Army, I started taking LSD and mescaline; this continued after I was discharged from active duty up until 1973. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not on the radar anywhere – this was how I was dealing with it. I struggled to have close relationships with people but I was lucky to meet a lovely lass from San Rafael while I was still in the Army. She was patient and caring, as was her family, and they (and my family) helped me survive those first years. We moved in together in San Francisco, eventually marrying in 1971. She got a job in Hawaii in early '73, so of course I went along for the ride.

When I got to Hawaii, I wanted to try school again but getting a job seemed more prudent. I met a guy through a classified ad that had a failing camper rental business and was looking to start a new venture.  He had a big propane tank and propane was a big deal in the early '70s – gas crisis of 1974 was challenge in Hawaii – so this was the basis of his new venture. He wanted to open up an outdoor and camping equipment store at the same location with a smaller space to go along with selling gas. He hired me to help get the business going. I became the manager and sole employee. He also gave my wife and me a share of the business, which was pretty cool.

Kevin - Base Camp Honolulu 1974We called the business Base Camp and we were located about 3-4 miles from the Honolulu Airport in the industrial section of the city. We supplied propane for lunch trucks and forklifts for this area; also attracted customers from the rural areas of the island where propane was the fuel for their cooking, refrigeration and BBQ’s. We sold all types of camping supplies – Coleman and such – along with propane tanks and accessories to go along with the gas itself.

During this time period I became passionate about alternative energy products and self sufficient living and such – still have early copies of Mother Earth News somewhere. Wanted to buy everything in the Whole Earth Catalog!

One day in 1974, Mark Erickson and his wife Kak strolled in to my store. I think they still had their swimsuits on and with sandy feet. But I might be making that up. They were looking to see if I would be interested in selling North Face products. I said sure – at least the backpacks and tents. Not much need for parkas, as you might guess. I became a North Face dealer! That was nerve wracking, as I would call up to place or check on an order and immediately say I was calling long distance and need customer service right away. I'd scream “Don't put me on fucking hold, don't… Noooooo!!!!” But on hold I would go. Awful experience.

Anyway, after 18 months I wanted to go back to the mainland to see if I couldn’t find a place to live in the country and become energy self-sufficient, using alternative energy products like solar, wind generators, methane digesters, hydroponic gardens and such – to participate in the “get back to the land” movement.

My wife said, “You’re nuts, I’m staying here.”

We split up and I moved to Nevada City, CA in 1975. There was a company in Pollock Pines, CA that was manufacturing solar powered home heating furnaces and I became a salesman for them. These units could be retrofitted to homes as it was a free-standing unit that would attach to the forced central heating of the house. Thing really worked. I drove all over the Sierra foothills for months knocking on doors and talking to housing developers, with everyone saying what a great idea - but I never sold any. Used all the money that I had gotten from selling my portion of the Base Camp business just to support myself.  

I ended up with a 1958 Dodge 3/4 ton flat-bed truck with snow tires and no money or job. I moved back from Nevada City to the Bay Area, bounced around in different jobs - moving furniture, driving cab, security guard, driving a truck. Along way I applied for retail at the North Face in Berkeley. On my application I noted that I was a dealer in Hawaii and had met Mark Erickson in my shop in Honolulu. Mark remembered me and passed a good word on to the Personnel Manager, who called me in for interview at the factory. At the time I was a security guard so I came in all proper looking - short hair, no beard, nice pants, etc. I met with Doug Lucchani (spelling?), who had also been in the military - which I think helped me get in – and I was hired in manufacturing in January of 1976. TNF had secured a government contract and my first job was hand drawing pattern pieces on US military sleeping bags. This lead to a job in Raw Materials department with Randy Hamilton after completing my stint on piece rate, with moving later on to the retail warehouse with Bob Gorton.

Kevin Napa 1979During my time in Raw Materials I was promoted to supervisor and had three great people that I was responsible for – George (who cut the leather for packs), Delfina (who cut the webbing) and Ambika Nand, who inspected fabric. There came a time for the annual reviews, which I diligently completed, and made recommendations for wage increases. When I was told that there could be no more than a minimum increase (a dime I think), I pushed back but no luck in getting any more. This got me to thinking that perhaps establishing a company union might lead to higher wages.

When I was openly discussing the proposition, the VP of Operations got wind of it and he called me in to his office to talk. Realizing that the idea of a company union was not viable – and concerned about retaining employment – I resisted the urge to continue.

Some months later there was an outside union – Leather, Plastic and Novelty Workers – who made a real push to organize TNF. There was an election, which the union won, but the vote was so close that the challenged ballots were enough to change the outcome of the election. This led to the challenged ballots and the election being reviewed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). During this review and subsequent public hearing, there were tactics used by the union which caused the NLRB to initiate another election.

During this intervening time, the Personnel Manager left. Bruce Hamilton sought me out and asked me if I wanted to be the new Personnel Manager. Noting to him that I had absolutely no background or education in this area (or any area!), I said yes with some trepidation. He let me know that the person who was working as the Personnel Manager Assistant – Diana Chin – would be of great help in keeping things in order. I am eternally grateful to Bruce and Diana and Ana Mendoza Smith (as well as Mark and Hap and Jack and Randy Hamilton and Dan Castner, to name just a few) for giving me a chance to get my life in order and a chance to succeed.

I stayed with the North Face until 1993 and continued on in Human Resources work (as it came to be rebranded) for a variety of companies until I retired in 2015.

In A Bunker - late 1968 - Kevin

A little more on PTSD. Much has been written and said about this condition over the years but there wasn’t much awareness back in 1969. Coupled with the mistaken view that Vietnam Veterans were time bombs waiting to wreak havoc on civilians, and unrepentant baby killers to boot, the sense of distance from people that I felt at home still seemed like the distance from triple canopy jungle in 110 degrees heat with an 85lb pack to Golden Gate Park.

The use of LSD and Mescaline, as well as cannabis, to self-medicate might be controversial but they were a valuable tool to help me come home and face my own demons and society’s shunning. Along with my friends and family, I will always say that without those drugs I’m not sure I wouldn’t have ended up like so many of my combat brothers.

I have recently seen where there are studies underway in which psychotropic chemicals like LSD and mushrooms are being tested in helping PTSD sufferers or those with a terminal illness. Good news. My son said recently that maybe I should volunteer but I told him I already did in 1969. Hopefully the Iraqi and Afghanistan combat vets (and others) will benefit. Like cannabis, we should look to the easing of restrictions on these medicines so those that need help and are struggling with current healing protocols can find it.

When I first got home I slept in a closet for two weeks, much to the concern of my poor mother. For years I jumped at loud sounds and backfires brought cold sweats and drops to the floor or street; always made sure I had the aisle seat or a seat with my back to a wall in a public place.

Still do that actually – but not all the time!

Dreams of horror, night sweats and survivor guilt and hyper vigilance persisted into the early 80’s, with periodic revisits right up to the present - but that’s just how it goes.

Looking back on it all, I have been extremely blessed to have had a successful career, two pretty good marriages, a fine son who means everything to me, mostly good health and really wonderful friends and family who were there when all seemed lost. The North Face and the wonderful people I met there were – and will always be – the center piece of my coming home. Much thanks to you all.

Transcript Part 1:

Kevin Smith: Oh boy.

Al Tabor : Start anywhere.

Kevin: Start anywhere. Um well I wasn't much of a college student. In fact, I was so poor of a college student that I was thrown out of the City College of San Francisco. I went from a 1.2 average to a 1.0 average…cause I didn't go to class. And so this was 1965-66 so I was drafted in '67 and went to Vietnam in '68. You know, one clear path. When I came back I wasn't in very good shape in a lot of ways. I'd started to take a lot of acid and other things.

Henry Gruchacz: He was also the point man in a patrol. He was the dead duck.

Kevin: I started out as a point man. I did a tunnel rat stint for about 2 weeks and then a radio man went down and so I decided between the tunnel rat and the radio / tunnel rat / radio, the radio seemed to make a little more sense…so I was a RTO for months on the field. So that's how you, know, that story.

And coming back, I grew up in San Francisco so I came back to San Francisco and you know the end of war movement was a big deal and so I became very involved in that. From '69 on. Along the way I met a woman and married her and she got a job in Hawaii in early '73. '73-'74 so of course I went along for the ride. And when I was over there we ended up getting involved with this guy that had a failing camper business. Rental campers. But he had a big propane tank and propane was a big deal in the early '70s and so he wanted to open up another business and I was looking for a job and so I got a job as his manager of his store and so I sold propane gas and we opened up a outdoor equipment store.

Al: Okay?

Kevin: So it just kind of fit in. Made sense. We called it Base Camp. And so…

Henry: In Hawaii?

Kevin:  In Hawaii. Honolulu about I would say about 3-4 miles from the airport. On Dellingham Boulevard. Towards Hotel Street between you know the whore section and the industry and all of that. Over a period of time, it was pretty successful cause at that point there was a gas crisis…which led me down a path of exploring alternative energy products and some other stuff.

One day I came to work and opened the door and later on in the morning Mark Erickson and Cack[?] Erickson came in and they looked as if they had just come from the beach. They had swimsuits on and I believe there was sand on their feet. But I might be making that up. And so they were looking to see if you know I would be interested in selling North Face products. So I became a.. I sold packs and tents. And that was insane. Cause I would call up and I'd go, you know, I'm calling long distance and I need customer service and I'd want to order and I'd scream “Don't put me on fucking hold, don't… Noooooo!!!!

Al: Long distance was horribly expensive.

Kevin: It was awful. During that year and half I got obsessed with Mother Jones. Mother Earth News, Mother Jones and all that and wanted to sell alternative energy products…so I wanted to move back to the mainland and my wife at the time said you're insane. I'll stay here. So I left and moved back to Nevada City. Moved up to Nevada City where I got a job, not much of a job, as a salesman for solar furnaces. This was 1975? So it was a free-standing unit that would attach to the central heating of a home and the air would be pumped through this a-frame house filled with wash river gravel and baffles So you'd store the heat in the rocks and then be able to use it during the night.

I never sold any.

I went through the money I'd gotten from the business that I'd sold and ended up with a 1958 Dodge 3 quarter ton flat-bed truck with snow tired. That was my total, all my stuff. So I moved back from Nevada City to the Bay Area, bounced around in different jobs, Burns Guard, worked in the auction business for a little bit and I applied at the North Face. And I tried retail and you know met with Applegate, or I think I met with Applegate, and nothing came of it. But Mark remembered me and so the HR guy at the time, Dan Bailey… I came out and I looked pretty good cause I was a Burns Guard at the time so I got a haircut and I was very clean shaven…and Douglas Lachani[?]  another name that I wonder what's happened with him.

Dan Castner: I saw him at the Jim Carey's funeral.

Really? Douglas Lanchani had been in the military. I think he was a General's Aide or some shit like that in Saigon or something. So I was appealing to him cause I was five years out of the infanty and looked like it. So he hired me as, I did….

Henry: No PTSD?

Kevin: No I had it. I didn't know I had it at the time but I did.

Al: They didn't really have a good sense of what it was at the time.

Kevin: I slept in the closet for a week cause I couldn't stand the open space above my head. To this day I sit with my back to the wall if I can you know. That shit. I used to jump at stuff. But I did ok. Like I said before. I took a lot of acid and acid helped me come home. And in fact just recently I found online that there is a study being done to treat post-traumatic stress disorder with LSD. And my son said why don't you participate and I said I already did. I'm done now. Let the Iraqi guys do it. The Afghan guys and shit.

So I got hired to do government sleeping bags actually. I would hand draw the pieces and then it was cut back then. And then I went into raw materials and then ended up being the personnel manager in the sewing factory after a few years. And so that's how I got there!

Al: Okay!

Henry: Somehow I thought you went to University and got your degree in HR [Laughing]

Kevin: In HR, yeah, that happened.

Transcript Part 2:

Kevin: You know how I became a personnel manager. I was running the raw materials.. well I wasn't running it. I was in raw materials, hand distributing stuff, and I had 3 people who reported to me: Delfina;…I forget the guy's name…George, who used to cut the leather; and a fabric inspector.

We had our annual reviews and I didn't like that I couldn't get any more than a dime. I thought they deserved more. So I said you know maybe we should form a Union.

Henry: Oh Jesus.

Kevin: But an internal Union. We don't get it outside Union.

Henry: Oh. That’s a great idea.

Kevin: So that word got to the executives and it was like, “Let’s talk to this knucklehead. Do you what what you’re doing?”

And I said, “Well I think these people deserve more money!” I was an activist.

Time went by. Someone else was personnel manager and they Union vote happened? Remember the Union vote? The first one. And so they fired that person [the personnel manager] because you know there was uproar about an external Union. The Leather, Plastic and Novelty Workers as I recall.

And Bruce Hamilton came to me afterwards and said, do you want to be personnel manager? And I looked at home and said, what? What does that mean? I said, I am not very good with details. He said oh you have Diana Chin and she’ll handle all the details. And she did.

That’s how I got the job of personnel manager. He said you are an activist and you support this stuff. So what do you do with an activist? You hire his ass.

Henry: You buy him out! [Laughing].

Kevin: You buy him out.

And the first thing I realized is, wow, I get to look at the personnel files. So I looked at all the personnel files and the second thing I learnt is I can't talk about any of them. So all the people I was friends with, all of a sudden couldn't say anything.

Dan: The other thing is what you said, “He walked up and said, do you want to be?” It wasn't like they went out and hired someone from outside…

Kevin:I think they rarely did that. They hired a woman from the medical industry and she couldn't handle all of the 14 languages and the angry people and you know the crazy people.

Dan: You know that’s what happened back then. It doesn’t happen now. It’s all, too, formal.

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KevinSmith KevinSmith's picture

This Story is part of a Series...

  Right to Left: Henry Gruchacz, Dan Castner, Kevin Smith Transcript (with modifications for... Read Story
Here's a more complete version of the story. A transcript of the audio is below that. After I... Read Story
Transcript: Al Tabor: So you started to say something.  Dan Castner: So, this is a little known... Read Story
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Mark Erickson (not verified)
Beautiful story Kevin. I well
Beautiful story Kevin. I well remember that propane station in Hawaii... And beautiful profile Al - great piece of work! I Love Henry and Dan's voices too. Mark
Peter Alexander (not verified)
Good to hear your story Kevin
Good to hear your story Kevin. I had never heard your story before TNF. It was great to work with you. Definitely one of the best HR people I have worked with and remember your copy of Dr Js hand prints Peter

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