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.

Ohio River Mississippi-confluence-earthobservatory.nasa_.gov_images_6261
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.

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