River Pilot, Air Pilot

Part V, Finding the rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: River Pilot, Air Pilot

MV-Sohioan-Curdsville-KY-1944
MV Sohioan, 1944 (tap for larger view)

Let me explain a bit about working on the river. The crew had to stay on 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, working 6 hours on and 6 hours off. The “dog” shift, or midnight to 6 a.m., was the hardest. Pilots usually drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot. Keeping your eyes on the long barges way down in front of you wasn’t easy, especially in foul weather and moonless nights. You had to stay wide awake.

However, there was one big plus about working on the river: wonderful food. The cooks were always the top of the line and the crew were fed three solid meals per day, plus snacks in the galley any time. When guys worked 12 hours per day, good food was like jet fuel for a 747. Everyone ate together rather than separate areas for crew and officers. It really was one big family.

Crew earned days off and would be home for a longer time than ordinary workers would be. But at the same time, they were gone a long time. Actually their families could live almost anywhere as long as it was close to a river and other transportation means. As in the military, usually mothers had the entire responsibility for raising the kids and managing the home.

Granddaddy Smock died

On March 6, 1944 we got a call from Daddy’s sister Leora. Granddaddy Smock had died of heart failure. Mother quickly contacted Daddy who was somewhere on the Mississippi River. She, Betty and I drove to meet him somewhere and then we headed for the big farm house as fast as Daddy dared drive.

At Granddaddy’s funeral I felt as if a giant had died. He had so many friends and family. John Thomas Smock was 81. He had never been ill except for an abscessed tooth. What a life!

It must have been that trip home for Granddaddy’s funeral when the folks decided to leave Evansville and move to Owensboro. I had quit school only a few days after my 16th birthday. I helped Mother and cleaned the apartment next door after the couple left each day for work. That paid a quarter a day! But my wise mother knew I needed to be in school. Did they feel a smaller town in the hospitable Blue Grass state would benefit me more?

Pilot of MV Sohioan

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“Curdsville KY 1944, MV Sohoian, working boat towing oil. Monroe Smock was its first Captain”

So soon afterward Daddy began working for the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. He was made Master of their new top of the line boat, the MV Sohioan. That was a proud moment. Mother and Daddy were wined and dined in Ohio and Daddy received a nice raise. Towing barges of oil to their destination, usually New Orleans, was sorely needed in the WWII effort.

Elizabeth-and-Monroe-Smock-Owensboro-1944We moved to a house in Owensboro probably in April 1944. It was too late now to get in the local high school year. So Mother and I decided a stint at the local business college would be good for me. The skills I learned would be useful all my life; typing and bookkeeping. I learned shorthand too but used it very little, except while working in an attorney’s office.

At the business college I made several friends; it was a small group. One of my friends was Georgia. She was a bit older but we became quite close. Georgia had a friend Lillian.

Lillian had a brother Bill who was a pilot in the Air Force. He would be home for a brief visit from overseas in July 1944. Would I be interested in writing him and perhaps meeting him when he came home? It was a common practice to write to servicemen to help boost their morale. Of course I said yes. I think we exchanged two or three letters, the very thin airmail type.

Capt. Bill Stewart, US Army Air Forces* Pilot

bill-stewart-usaaf pilot ca-1944Sometime in July Georgia called and said Bill had flown in from England and we were to meet him the next day. So about 2 in the afternoon, Georgia looked out the second story window of the business college and said, “He’s there.” Sure enough, my blind date was standing on the sidewalk looking up. A handsome fellow in US Army uniform. I stuck my head out the window and we were introduced.

A whirlwind week followed. We dated every evening. I’m sure his parents longed for him to be with them every moment. But this guy had been overseas a long time and wanted to live every moment to the fullest. We went dancing at night at a nightclub on the river.

Friends had loaned him their car to drive while home. On the weekend he took me out in his motor boat and we swam in the Ohio River. Bill’s home was on the river. His mom would prepare delicious meals and of course I ate with them. Lots of friends and family came to greet him and they were all over the place.

Robert-and-Mabel-Stewart-home-Owensboro-1944The river was prominent in Bill’s family’s lives too. The house had a huge yard, lots of trees and a big swing between two big oaks. Much of that yard is gone now, lost to erosion from the river. But it surely was a romantic setting.

This was heady stuff for a 16 year old high school dropout; dating a college graduate who held the rank of Captain and was a pilot too! I honestly think that neither of us expected to see the other again. Would we?

* The Air Force, called US Army Air Forces or USAAF, was part of the US Army until 1947.

Previous: Smocks on the Ohio River

Next: Don’t know where, don’t know when…

Smocks on the Ohio River

Part IV, Finding the rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: Back to the Ohio River

We left Texas in the summer of 1938, heading back to the river. We must have looked like the Grapes of Wrath crowd as we sadly headed back to where was always home: Kentucky. Or at least to the Ohio River.

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Thomas Hart Benton, 1940, Departure of the Joads, Grapes of Wrath series – Rockwell Center

Daddy built a small open trailer (courtesy of the local junk yard) to carry our stuff and we took off. I do remember this trip. Uncle Ben pressed some bills in Mother’s hands as they said a tearful goodbye. He knew we needed it.

The trip was uneventful except for continual flat tires on the trailer. But what can one expect for free? Finally I heard Daddy use a word I had never heard from him – damn! More flat tires. In those days, tires had inner tubes too, so double trouble.

Finally there was no way he could repair the repairs any more. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Daddy pulled in to a small gas station. After a brief conversation with the owner, he backed the trailer onto the station lot. He had arranged to leave it with all our earthly possessions. Later he would borrow a truck and come back, unload the stuff and take it home. The station owner would inherit the trailer.

It wasn’t easy pulling away from our bedding, wicker furniture and kitchen stuff. But we did. None of us expected ever to see our things again. But guess what? When Daddy went back a month or so later, it was still intact! The owner had guarded it as if it were his own. There are good people all over the world!

Ohio River: Jeffersonville IN

We stayed with Aunt Luss [Celeste Steele] in Jeffersonville, Indiana for a brief time until we could rent a bungalow in Jeffersonville [across Ohio River from Louisville KY]. The basement still had mud baked on the floor from recent flood damage. Daddy drove to Little Rock to get our stuff.

Betty and I started school. I was in junior high and Betty probably her third year of high school. Those were not remarkable years for me. Daddy was piloting on the Ohio River and the Mississippi. Mother just calmly kept the family together during all our girlish traumas. She made all our clothing and, as usual, prepared wonderful food. Mother was a superb cook; I still remember the aromas in the house when we can in from school. Also we saw a lot of Aunt Luss and her boys. Aunt Luss, too, was a natural born cook.

marji-smock-1940In those Great Depression years we had very few treats. But one special day I remember was when Mother, Aunt Luss, Betty, Jack and I went to Louisville to the big Loews theater to see Gone with the Wind. Along with an untold number of others, I immediately fell in love with Clark Gable! That day we had a studio picture made too. I had on a handmade rose gabardine blouse and long hair.

When Daddy was home he spent a lot of time studying. He bought a roll of white shelf paper and began drawing the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, with all the sand bars, bends, locks and vital information on the map. That map was spread all though the house. That must have been when he was studying to pass his exams for the advanced “Master, Mates and Pilots” license. The rivers had to be drawn from memory during the exam. He was over forty years old, with limited formal education but he passed.

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Confluence of Ohio and Mississippi Reivers, earth observatory NASA

Mississippi River: Cape Girardeau MO

Very soon after Betty finished high school, we moved to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Daddy had the offer to master one of the boats headquartered there. Cape was a boat town as well as a college town. Nice. Lots of big trees, curved streets and gentle hills. The Mississippi River dominated the town landscape and planning.

We rented a modest two bedroom apartment above a Mrs. Latimer. She owned the local business college and Betty enrolled. Betty rode to the school daily with Mrs. Latimer. In a rush to get home for lunch one day, they collided with the daily noon train. Both were injured but recovered.

Ohio River: Evansville IN

After Betty’s accident our enthusiasm for Cape waned and Mother wanted to go back closer to home. I think we settled on Evansville Indiana because another of Mother’s sisters, Aunt Grace [Kidd, Jones], lived there. It also was on the Ohio River, across from family in Daviess County, Kentucky. Evansville hosted a “ways” for repair or perhaps building new boats. (There was a shipyard there in WWII.)

ohio river google-maps
L-R Cape Girardeau on Mississippi, Evansville and Louisville on Ohio (tap to enlarge)

On Nov. 7 1941 Mother, Daddy, Betty and I made a quick trip in our old Studebaker to Evansville and Kentucky. On the road, the engine began smoking. We quickly got out of the car with our tomcat Prettything. (A beautiful yellow Persian we thought was a she when we named him.) The car didn’t go up in flames but almost. When the oil had been changed just before the trip, the mechanic had not secured the plug. There wasn’t a drop of oil left. Daddy knew too much about engines to think it could be salvaged. What to do?

We managed to get to an old hotel. Betty cleverly draped Prettything over her arm like a fur stole. All went well until Prettything began balking while going up on the old elevator. The elevator operator looked but said nothing; our secret was safe!

Next morning we had a brand new car. The folks had to buy it “on time”, something Mother never liked. But we had to go on and then get back for school and Daddy’s job. In another month, however, we saw the burned out bearings as a blessing. You couldn’t buy a new car for more than five years! Pearl Harbor changed everyone’s lives.

After Pearl Harbor

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USS Shaw explodes in Pearl Harbor Dec. 1941 NARA (tap to enlarge)

Betty got a job offer with the Department of Navy in Washington DC. It wasn’t easy for Elizabeth to part with her oldest girl, who not yet 18, went to work in a faraway BIG city. Perhaps Mother’s own experiences had prepared her for this big day?

So I began high school in Evansville IN. Honestly I remember little about the school. With Betty in DC and Daddy off on the river, Mother and I were alone most of the time. We spent a lot of time meeting boats or parked on the river bank for hours waiting for the boat to arrive.

One time the boat was delayed and there we were, far from home. We spent the night in a desolate small town. There was an old hotel. We had a room with a window facing the river. There was a brick on the floor, chained to the window sill. The instructions were: “In case of fire, throw the brick through the window and jump.” I slept soundly. But I doubt Mother got a wink in, between worrying about Daddy and possibility of being burned alive in this firetrap.

betty-smock-DC-ca-1942In the spring of 1943 Betty wrote she had a surprise. Bill Vogel had proposed and they weren’t going to wait until the war was over to marry. She and Bill had been dating since they were in high school together in Jeffersonville IN. He had joined the army and was stationed in Michigan.

Betty rode the train home from DC and Mother quickly made her some lovely outfits for her new life. Because Betty was 18 inches around her waist and 5’8″ tall, it was difficult to find ready made clothing to fit. Mother and I saw Betty off on a train to Michigan.

Next time: Working on the river, and Marji meets a pilot.

Want to start at the beginning? See Part I, Monroe Smock, Kentucky.

Smocks in Gladewater TX

Part III, Finding the Rivers, by Marji Smock Stewart: Gladewater TX

Oil-1937-R-Y-Richie-DeGolyer-Lib-SMU-wikicommonsIn 1936 we moved to East Texas, to Gladewater where oil had been discovered. Uncle Ben [McDonald] and his family had relocated to nearby Longview and had been quite successful.

Daddy worked in the booming oil fields as a “roughneck” or laborer who worked right on the rigs. He would come home soaked in perspiration and dirt. It was as hard a job as the name implies.

East Texas was hot and humid, engulfed in oil everywhere. My memory is poor regarding a river to find. There was some sort of river – Sabine or Big Sandy – but it did not affect our lives. [Glade Creek, a tributary of the Sabine, runs through the town.]

Gladewater school

marji smock on pony 1936 GladewaterBetty especially loved the new school and was in the band; she became a clarinet player. High school football games were great in Texas then and still are. The Gladewater band starred at the games. Betty began the 7th or 8th grade and I began the 4th. A picture of me on a pony was taken at Gladewater.

For the first time we could buy our lunch at school; away with the bothersome lunch box! My fifteen cents was supposed to get a sandwich and fruit and milk or something to drink. As often happens, I stopped at the snack stand first and indulged in candy – Milky Way, Babe Ruth, and heavenly junk. But my sins found me out. Mother discovered my indulgences so back to the lunch box. Is this the same creature who grew up to have a profound personal and professional interest in nutrition? [Ph.D. Home Economics, Ohio State University 1968]

Gas Explosion

A traumatic event happened on March 18, 1937, a community disaster. At 3:17 PM in a nearby town, New London TX, an event happened that changed its history. In a new consolidated school (1-12 grades) a gas line explosion occurred. Of the 540 students and teachers, 298 were killed. Imagine losing 55% of a school!

All the workers and volunteer groups for miles around rushed there to aid in the rescue. The governor even sent the Texas Rangers. After 17 hours, working through darkness and rainfall, they had accounted for all victims. Daddy was among the rescue teams and was understandably sobered by the experience. He bought home a discarded text book as a reminder. It was so badly battered it was unreadable. I got involved in my own school’s efforts to send things to the families, but really wasn’t old enough to be deeply affected. Daddy, Mother and Betty were.

1937 Floods

Back in Kentucky and Indiana our family suffered, as many others did, in the great flood of 1937. Because most population centers were close to the rivers, it affected many people. Not only along the big rivers like the Ohio and Mississippi but also the many tributaries. The Depression had impacted them too so this was a double whammy.

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Paducah KY 1937 flood. Read about the Rhodes family of Henderson Co in Kentucky Explorer.

Mother and Daddy both felt they should help their loved ones in some way. But how? They had almost no money and what would Daddy do? As always, the river beckoned. It has a powerful tug to those smitten by it.

Leaving Texas

Gladewater 1930s-cityofgladewater.com_aboutIt must have been the summer of 1938 that the folks decided we should leave Texas the second time. Daddy’s clothing drenched in perspiration convinced Mother that a man would kill himself working in that hot humid climate out on the oil rigs. Monroe had passed his 40th birthday; was this what they wanted for the rest of their lives?

But decisions to relocate are never easy; especially with children and their educational needs. I was always ready to move; Betty never was.

Oil_Field_Scene_East_Texas-1930s-Ward-SMU-DeGolyer-Lib-wikicommonsNext: Back to the river and Kentucky

On April 30, 1955 Elvis Presley, Johnny Horton, Jim Reeves and many others played at the Gladewater school gymnasium. The Louisiana Hayride, from Shreveport, was on tour. See Scotty Moore, Elvis’ guitarist, for what it was like. In 1956 Johnny Cash wrote the lyrics of“I Walk the Line” in Gladewater. He was backstage, waiting to perform maybe also at the school and another show featuring a huge line-up of artists. If you haven’t seen it, watch the movie Walk the Line to get an idea of what those shows, and the touring, were like.

Part I, Monroe Smock, Kentucky; Part II, Smocks at Bagnell Dam

Smocks at Bagnell Dam

Part II, Finding the Rivers, by Marji Smock Stewart: Bagnell Dam MO

I regret that I did not ask Daddy to tell me about taking the Sarah Mac to Missouri. I guess I thought I would have him forever. But now I long to know the details. How did he do it?

Somehow Monroe Smock managed to get the boat from Green River to the little Osage River to the site that was becoming Bagnell Dam and The Lake of the Ozarks. Did he have a skeleton crew with him; another pilot, an engineer and at least two deckhands?

Bagnell Dam construction

The lake was a construction site initially, a beehive of humanity. The building of a dam is an immense project, even the small one later named Bagnell Dam. It was a project of the Union Electric Light and Power Co. (UELPC) in Missouri, cooperatively with the US government. There was an effort in late 1928 to the 1930s to bring electricity to the remote areas of the country. And remote it was.

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UELPC Bagnell Dam construction, Oct. 10, 1930 Bill Kuykendall (tap to enlarge)

The area near Eldon, Missouri had been a small army post; complete with accommodations, club house, a small airport and other amenities to attract workers. I recall hearing that even Lindbergh landed there once and Daddy was in the crowd.

Daddy settled first in a tent. The tent was floored with wooden planks and had wooden walls up about 3-4 feet. In the summer it was comfortable but in the winter quite another matter.

How Mother reacted to taking her girls to live in a tent I’ll never know. I do know that wherever Daddy was, Mother wanted to be. And after all, kids are quite adaptable.

Green River, Curdsville KY (right marker) to Bagnell Dam. Osage River MO (left); tap to enlarge

It was summer when we arrived. Mother arranged with Zoll Denton (Leora Smock’s husband) to drive us and our tiny bit of furniture to Missouri. Uncle Zoll probably drove non-stop. He stayed a few days and learned a bit about the Ozarks, then he went home on the bus or train.

Tent to “three rooms”

Mother had a lot to do making the tent livable. Daddy worked long hours piloting the Sarah Mac all over that big hole that was to become the lake. The area was quite hilly with sharp rocks, so nobody went barefoot. Betty busied herself just being a quiet helper to her mother. All of us made friends with the few scattered neighbours in tents among the trees. Today, lovely expensive homes are in the area; a prime real estate development.

Marji, age 3, at neighbours’ tent, identical to their own (tap to enlarge)

Before long, we were promoted to the “three rooms” housing. A mansion compared to the tent. A one floor house but built on a hill so the back was two stories with stairs to the sloping rocky back yard.

This was when I learned to paint. I found the small can of expensive green enamel that Mother had bought to paint her second-hand table and chairs. Mother was ill and took a rare nap. So I thought it would be a nice surprise to paint the rough weathered back steps. I thought I did a beautiful job on them. But Mother didn’t appreciate my artistic talents. It took a long time to get the bright enamel off me, and my little dress was ruined. I ended up promising NEVER to paint again!

Worked together, played together

Mother and Daddy slowly became integrated into the group that worked and lived at the lake. That experience was a great equalizer. A small group, probably less than fifty families, was almost like a commune. They worked together and played together. Many nights were spent down on the lake side, having open fires on the rocky beach and toasting marshmallows, or hamburgers or fish over the fires.

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Bagnell Dam – 2 miles southwest of Bagnell, MO Osage River 8/6/32 (tap to enlarge)

Some of the men were engineers or administrators; many were college graduates. Yet others, like my folks, fit in and were accepted because they were just good people who worked hard. It was a magic life compared to the Great Depression the rest of the country was experiencing. This was about 1931.

Lake of the Ozarks

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Excursion boat The Commander at Bagnell Dam, Bill Kuykendall

At some point Bagnell Dam was finished and operational. Tourists were drawn to the area for obvious reasons. It was a natural paradise. Daddy piloted one of the excursion boats in the summer as well as being the private pilot for Mr. Eagan, an UELPC executive from St. Louis.

We swam a lot when he had a day off. Both my parents learned to play bridge and loved it. Mother also played once a week with the women. They rotated between different homes. A small white Irish linen card table cloth and napkins are all we have left of those days. Mother longed to have “nice” china and silver like the other women had. Nobody noticed but her. Served with her superb goodies and coffee, who cared?

Five rooms and two cedar trees

We weren’t in the three room house long until we were able to move to the “five rooms”. The company had planted two small cedar trees in the front of each house. Thirty years later, in the early 1960s, Mother, Daddy and I took a trip back. It was a sweet trip but had lost the magnetism of the early years. Thomas Wolfe might have been right; you can’t go home again. Those little cedar trees, however, seemed to reach to the sky.

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1970s The Strip at Bagnell Dam, photo Bill Kuykendall (tap to enlarge)

Then in 1978 I took a brief sabbatical from the University of Kentucky and drove through the lake region. Much of the dam area as we loved it was totally commercial. It looked like a second rate carnival had come to town and stayed. I was glad the folks weren’t with me. Let their memories live on. Those really were glory years for all of us.

Next time: Gladewater, Texas

In 1936 Daddy and Mother decided it was time to pull up stakes again. We moved to East Texas so Daddy could work in the oil fields. A mammoth oil source had been discovered there.

Also see Part I, Monroe Smock, Kentucky