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Lost genius found in homeless camp, October 5, 1958

October 5, 2008 |  6:00 am


1958_october_06_meukel Elmer Clarence "Mox" Meukel told his story to a couple of hobos in a shack on Scott Island in the Truckee River near Reno.

Most people wrote him off as a crackpot dreamer. After all, he was a sometime songwriter and self-taught inventor, but these men listened to his story.

Mox said he and some co-workers at Bendix Corp. had been designing a motion detector that would sound an alarm when a child got near a swimming pool.

On Feb. 1, 1958, the day he was laid off at Bendix, two military planes collided over Norwalk, killing 48 people. Mox said he realized that his motion detector could be turned into a device that would prevent such midair crashes.

Without a job, he began working on the device in the garage of the home at 7716 Bonner Ave., Sun Valley, that he shared with his wife, Jean, and three children. 

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"Mox sold his engineering books, my jewelry, cameras, a rifle, tools--just about everything we owned to finance this thing," his wife said.

As the bills piled up, Mox called on several electronics firms with his device. The Polaris Engineering Corp., 11156 S. Main St., expressed tentative interest in his project and offered him a contract. Although Polaris returned his device after a few days, the company forwarded his plans to the Pentagon.

Depressed by the family's rising debts and because no one seemed more than mildly interested in his invention, Mox disappeared. Three days later, the family was evicted and moved to 1602 N. Mariposa.

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As the months passed, Jean took a secretarial job at an aviation company in North Hollywood and worried about Mox. She tried to file missing persons reports, but was rebuffed by police who said Mox's disappearance was merely a domestic affair. There were brief, sporadic notes from Mox and a birthday card for one of their children, but nothing more.

Then one day in late September, Polaris announced that it wanted Mox's invention. Military officials had studied his drawings and asked for a prototype. If it worked as Mox claimed it did, they would offer Polaris a $5-million contract with 3% of the money going to Mox.

Polaris officials were shocked to learn that Mox had vanished after selling most of the prototype to a friend, Russell Hokanson, to raise money. Polaris President Ben Raddatz and Vice President Fred Haglestein came to Hokanson's home, 7224 Lemp Ave., to demand that he turn over Mox's now-secret invention. But he refused and after a long argument, Hokanson gave it to Los Angeles police officers. Unfortunately, the prototype no longer worked because a transistor had burned out and the device would have to be partially disassembled to replace it.

Reporters learned of the dispute and began searching for the missing genius.

In the meantime, Mox was living happily in the shack on the Truckee River scavenging discarded food from bakeries and markets and serving as "Lieutenant Governor" of the hobo camp.

Mox told a few friends that he was going to Spokane, Wash., to see if his brother could help finance his invention. When his brother was unable to bail out his project, Mox hopped a freight, but injured his ankle when he jumped from a moving train near Portland, Ore. Once his ankle was healed, Mox went to Reno, where he lived in a hotel until his money ran out. A clerk let him sleep in the lobby for a few days and then Mox found the hobo camp.

"I got acquainted with three other fellows who didn't drink," he said. "We fixed up a camp away from the other guys -- the winos. I gained about 30 pounds and I weigh more today than I ever have in my life. It's beautiful up there along the Truckee River. I got acquainted with some good guys. I made a lot of friends."

Mox sent letters to friends asking for money and received a $20 check from John D. Lewis of Baldwin Park. When Mox couldn't get the check cashed, he turned it over to one of the men in his shack who exchanged it for $20 at a wholesale meat market in Reno.

The canceled check led Walt McKenzie, a Reno Gazette reporter and Times correspondent, to Mox's homeless friend, who said he didn't know where Mox was, but would tell him McKenzie was looking for him. Mox was about to hitchhike out of Reno but remembered he owned 20 cents to his friend and when he arrived to pay the debt, McKenzie was there. Mox was found.

McKenzie filed a story and drove Mox back to Los Angeles. Charles Hillinger reported on the tearful reunion at The Times Building between Mox, Jean and the children. "I just knew daddy would come back," their 3-year-old son said.

"I can't get over it," Jean said. "He looks so young. Why, he looks 20 years younger than when he left." Then she brought up his comment about eating better in the hobo jungle than he had ever eaten in his life. "Did you really say that?"

"Honey, I was misquoted," Mox said as he winked to reporters. "I don't remember just what I did say, but I didn't say that."

In the weeks that followed, Polaris announced that it was no longer interested in Mox's invention. He told The Times he had several other offers, but the paper never reported anything about them.

Afterward, The Times published a letter from Jean in which she thanked the paper and its readers for their support. "People are really very kind, aren't they?" she said.

Elmer C. Meukel left the world with one final mystery. The Social Security Death Index lists two men by that name, both born July 2, 1917. Elmer C. Meukel, 562-42-1539, died July 2, 1998. Elmer C. Meukel 518-05-7041, died Nov. 15, 1998.

Recall our previous missing genius, Albert Clark Reed.