–– A Life “On The Shelf” ––
By Lauren Wooldridge
University of Mo. - Columbia
Though competing with numerous medals of honor, perhaps the smallest keepsake on Mel Stein’s bedroom shelf is a button stating “I’ve damn near survived everything” which has just as much meaning as the other photos and objects of the past surrounding it on his busy wall of memories.
Mel Stein has survived nearly everything. Mr. Stein, “92 going on 93,” is a retired St. Louis Metropolitan police officer whose past includes events from arriving at Shanghai for Marine duty the day the Japanese had the same idea, to being shot at during St. Louis’ most infamous bank robbery, to losing his teenage son in a drowning accident. Many of the tokens of these experiences sit on a shelf in Mr. Stein’s room: photos of him as a Marine or of him being awarded various prestigious honors, medals and weapons he used or he “stole off a dead [Japanese soldier]”, a movie he starred in, and many items more. Mr. Stein received the Bronze Star after World War II for four battles he was in. It sits close to the Medal of Valor, which, in 1953, the Mullah Temple Knights of Khorassan gave him after he caught one of the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted while on duty. One certificate hanging from the shelf boasts of Mr. Stein’s duty as a US Marine Drill Instructor of which he proudly claims to be the oldest member.
Pointing to each item on the shelf, Mr. Stein smiles and says, “Oh, now there’s another one.” Even if it is obvious what the object says about him, this man in a Windjammer T-shirt has a twinkle in his eye because what we see as a photo or cigarette box he sees as a moving reel inside his head, which he can narrate down to the smallest of details. He takes us back to a time many people today do not know about or are not familiar with its stories of hard work, bravery or straight fear.
Mr. Stein grew up in North St. Louis as the middle of three children. He always wanted to be a highway patrolman but found himself on his way to Marine Training in San Diego in 1937 where he “was lucky enough to be chosen” as his platoons Honor Man: one member who “”distinguishes himself from the rest,” he said. “There was a whole parade in my honor.” After graduating, he was the first man to sign up to head to China, and a week later, he was one of 2,200 men who sailed into Shanghai on August 14, 1937, or “Bloody Saturday”. Mr. Stein’s time in the Marines included serving as a switchboard operator while the Japanese flooded Tientsin, leaving them with nothing to eat or drink except beer and canned food to almost having to declare an international incident over stolen beer while running a post-exchange store. Mr. Stein also served as town patrol and assistant forester in the Philippines and gave advice to General Douglas MacArthur and, at the time, General of the Army, Dwight D. Eisenhower. With four years of service behind him, Mr. Stein returned to the states to follow his dream of being a highway patrolman and graduated from the police academy in 1941 only to return to the Marines following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Many of the shelf’s relics are symbols of the 31 years Mr. Stein spent on duty as a police officer, a job that requires “[men] who will call an ace an ace,” he said. Mr. Stein locked up names such as Harry Carrey on Christmas Eve for driving intoxicated. Mr. Stein, who retired as a corporal in 1973, based his actions—no matter the culprit—off integrity and the desire to get his job done well, he said.
“I did my police work by the book,” he said. “I made a lot of enemies that way. They all said they were going to get my job, and I said, ‘go ahead,’ because if they did it is not worth it.”
In 1952 Mel Stein helped to catch William M. Martin, one of the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives and the last man to be hung by the state of Kansas. On April 23, 1953, Mr. Stein was sitting with Officer Bob Heits, his partner for the day, under the Kingshighway viaduct when his radio received reports that the alarm at Southwest Bank was going off. Four men, led by Fred Bowermann, were attempting to rob the bank as the officers pulled up with their sirens off. A mind full of detail still allows Mr. Stein to crouch into his “small target” position where one’s arm protects the heart. “My Marine training saved me,” he said. Mr. Stein also owes his safety in the incident to Heits and a paper box that kept the get away driver from shooting him. After Mr. Stein ducked two shots from Bowermann that went 4 inches above his head he fatally shot Bowermann in the spine as the robber forced a hostage out of the bank.
“Knowing he shot Bob [Heits], I knew this was a life or death deal,” Mr. Stein said. “He shoots me or I shoot him. I felt there was a job to do, and my full concentration was on him.”
Mr. Stein’s role in the robbery earned him a spot playing his own character along side Steve McQueen in Charles Guggenheim’s film The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, which, he says, is very glamorized.
A copy of the 1959 film sits along side the other memoirs on the shelf.
The shelf, however, does not say everything about Mel Stein. What the shelf does not show is how the self-proclaimed “yard bird” and “general repairman”, throughout all of his awards and honors, is most proud of “the two limeys” (British girls) he married. Joyce, a commercial artist and “strictly an English lady” who Mr. Stein married in 1947, passed away after 33 years of marriage. His current wife,Mayvis, worked for the Royal Air Force as a switchboard operator, and Mr. Stein married her 24 years ago on Christmas Day after they decided to quit their jobs for a year.
“I was driving iron wagons for Briner, called and quit,” he said. “I told my boss it interfered with my social life.”
Looking at two separate old black and white pictures facing each other in the living room, one a handsome Marine soldier and the other a poised girl in the Royal Air Force uniform, Mr. Stein laughs. “She says she won the war in the Atlantic, and I won the war in the Pacific,” he said.
The shelf does not mention the fact that Mayvis and Mr. Stein like to eat dinner on their back porch surrounded by the backyard they call Oak Grove. Nor does it say that 3:30 p.m. is Jeopardy time in the Stein house with its new windows and remote control armchairs. It does not say that Mr. Stein is a great-great-great uncle, or has a successful daughter teaching psychology in Fallon, Nevada, or lost his 16 year-old son after he drowned in a Maplewood swimming pool. The fish items he collects from all the places he has traveled (especially with fellow Marines on Windjammer trips) are not on that shelf. (“I like fish,” he said.) The shelf represents a major part of the man who has delivered nine babies while on duty and believes kids today need to grow up with more principles of fair play, honesty and integrity. His mind can unfold like a picture wallet, and each picture is so full of detail it seems like his stories and experiences could fill multiple lifetimes. But he has had just one.
“If you are going to live long life, do what comes natural to you,” he said. “Eat fruits and vegetables. Drink two martinis a day; that is imperative to a long life.”
So raise a glass to Mr. Stein—for who wouldn’t want to take advice (Ike did) from the man who has survived nearly everything.
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