Part V, Finding the rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: River Pilot, Air Pilot
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
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.
We 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
Sometime 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.
The 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.
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