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Carpenter's dogs--an Old English sheepdog and a mixed-breed terrier--are thrilled to see their master. He kiddingly refers to the sheepdog as his "son." That's ironic, because John and Diana Carpenter are childless, but John does have a son in his 40s whom he has rarely seen since splitting from his first wife in 1952.
John and Diana Carpenter have stumbled down many rocky roads together--largely because of his numerous episodes of infidelity--but somehow they seem to have remained close friends.
"I want you to know something," she says, out of earshot of her husband. "He has done some things that really hurt me, okay? The fooling around and all that. I don't trust him on that level, and he knows it. But I love that man. I know this sounds funny, but John has been a great husband when he's with me."
@body:It has been almost 40 years since Johnnie Carpenter, as he was known back then, eyed a shapely, 17-year-old young woman at a Los Angeles bar. Diana Tootikian was trying to look older by smoking a cigarette--her first, she says.
The darkly handsome young man with the devilish spit curl grabbed the cigarette out of Diana's mouth and told her she didn't know how to smoke.
"That's how it started," she recalls, giggling a little.
Diana was a decade younger than Carpenter. Until they got to know him, her strict, deeply religious parents insisted an older, experienced man wasn't what they had in mind for their young daughter.
They were right about his experience. By the time he was in his late 20s, Johnnie Carpenter had been around the block more than some men twice his age.
Born in Los Angeles, he was the only child of Molly and Henry Carpenter. Henry Carpenter split for good when Johnnie was about 8, and Carpenter says he saw his father only once after that, about 1950.
Molly Carpenter scrambled to make ends meet during the Great Depression, but she never had much trouble finding work. Among other jobs, she managed a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles and, during World War II, she worked as a Rosie the Riveter in an L.A. factory.
Johnnie Carpenter had his first brush with show business as a youth. Bandleader Roger Wagner chose the Indian boy as soprano soloist for Wagner's famed choral group. The group performed often on radio, and Carpenter was paid in bags of Planters peanuts, the show's sponsor.
Before he was a teen, Carpenter got an unwanted taste of rural Indian life when his mother sent him to the Morongo Reservation in Banning, California. Carpenter says he picked apricots on the reservation after school, a difficult task that made him appreciate urban life when he returned happily to Los Angeles.
But like his mother, Carpenter didn't mind a day's work. As a teen, he hawked newspapers, swept sidewalks and worked as a short-order cook for a downtown hash house. Carpenter wasn't big on book learning, but he was a quick study whose impish appearance and friendly patter won him favor with many young ladies.
In his teens--and, for that matter, for the rest of his life--Carpenter remained split between an insatiable desire for the opposite sex and a yearning for domestic stability.
"I always kind of separated sex and love," Carpenter says. "I never gave cheating a lot of thought. To me it was just sex. Maybe I was wrong. But that's the truth."
Marriage at 18 and early fatherhood didn't resolve that dilemma. Soon after Carpenter returned home from a tour in South Korea as an Army tank commander, his first marriage was history.
Armed with only a high school diploma, he says he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. But he soon found the burgeoning electronics field to his liking. A television-set manufacturer named Hoffman Easy-Vision hired him, and from there, he went to Lear Aviation, where he installed radios in airplanes. Then he took a job at Hughes Aircraft.
After his regular shift at Hughes, Carpenter would head downtown at night and put on the black jersey of roller derby's hated New York Chiefs. For a few years in the pre-cable-television 1950s, Carpenter was something of a star in the sport, then in its heyday. Fans cheered their favorites and hissed the villains with the same intensity as millions today cheer and hiss professional wrestlers.
Carpenter was an effective enough villain, he says, that fans hung him in effigy in Los Angeles and San Diego. In the mid-1950s, he toured Japan with the Chiefs. "I couldn't understand why they were cheering me," he says. "But black was good over there, and so I was the hero. Weird."
It was about this time that Diana Tootikian met Carpenter at the little Los Angeles tavern. They were married in Las Vegas in December 1955.
Restless at Hughes in the mid-1960s, Carpenter answered a blind ad in the Los Angeles Times for an unspecified opportunity in the electronics field. After several rigorous interviews, he won a job as regional service manager for a Japanese firm that was starting to make inroads in the States.