Part VI, Finding the Rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: 1945
My final year of high school (1944-1945) was at Owensboro Senior High. It was not especially outstanding. I felt older than the other students in my class, although I only turned 17.
On my birthday, Bill’s mother called me to come up to their house on Stewart Court. She had a gift from Bill. He was overseas in England and I was leading my own life. Dating and doing all the things that most teenagers do.
I always loved going to the Stewart home on the Ohio River. It was heaven on earth to me. My wonderful future mother-in-law had chosen a gold heart-shaped locket for me with two tiny pictures of her son inside. I still have it. With the locket was a note from Bill. He had known my age all along. How embarrassing. Oh, to be young again and longing to be older!
I received my diploma in May 1945 and enrolled in the summer session at Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College in Cape Girardeau MO. My sister Betty and husband Bill Vogel were in college there. I lived in a girls’ dorm, had friends and dated but nothing special. Bill and I exchanged letters regularly but it was not terribly serious. The war was winding down.
V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945
I was back in Owensboro by that memorable day in August when the Japanese surrendered. (Official surrender ceremony was held September 2, 1945.) A friend of Betty and Bill’s was visiting us; Dwight was a navigator in the Air Force. We were having our usual tasty Sunday dinner when the news came. People ran shouting into the streets, blowing car horns, etc. Dwight just kept eating. After all, homemade rolls and pot roast were hot and inviting. To a guy who had seen too much action, this celebration was a non-event. He continued eating Mother’s rolls until they were gone. Meanwhile, us noncombatants continued making fools of ourselves out in the street. The war was over!
Americans were still under food and gasoline rationing until up in 1946. We carefully guarded our sugar and meat coupons and never drove unless it was absolutely necessary. Servicemen started coming home and a major transition began for most people. Of course some families only experienced emptiness because their loved one(s) never returned, or returned in poor or maimed physical or psychological condition. That was sobering but, mostly, a new excitement filled the country. There was an exhilarating expectation that now, like prophesied in Isaiah 2:4, man would learn war no more. Sadly, almost 60 years later, man still hasn’t learned that.
Bill comes home
It was sometime after August 21, 1945 that Bill flew back to the States and went through official separation from army service in Camp Atterbury, Indiana. He arrived home not long after.
Bill also earned a Commercial Pilot’s license for multiengine planes. He trained as a fighter pilot but had his ear drums badly damaged by a loud cannon explosion. Therefore he was shifted to piloting big planes whose slower speeds would not further impair him. That change might have saved his life? Many of his original squadron went on to fight over Africa and did not survive. Twice in that summer of 1945 Bill flew his large transport plane to evacuate some of the ambulatory survivors and inspectors from the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. Not an easy assignment.
Back in Kentucky, it didn’t take long for romance to be ignited. Bill was so ready to settle down and have a wife and home; he was 29. At 17 I still wasn’t mature but there were stars in my eyes. Bill asked me to marry him a short time after he arrived home. Daddy wasn’t home, so Bill asked Mother “for my hand.” He expressed some concern about our age difference. Mother seemed to agree but shared that her father was 13 years older than her mother. Then she told him Sarah McDonald had eleven children. That should have frightened him away but it didn’t.
I was working in a local attorney’s office at 35 cents per hour (that’s $2.80 per day or $14 per week). Bill went to Cleveland and other areas searching for a job. But really, he wanted to be home. Bill had his fill of travel. He had been gone from home since before 1937 when he hitchhiked to Minneapolis to enroll in the University of Minnesota. So he returned to Evansville IN in October 1945 and took a job as a salesman with the National Cash Register Company.
By October we both were ready to tie the knot and we set a date of November 10, 1945. Rev. Rake, who had also married my folks, married us in his study. It was a very small wedding with our parents, Bill’s sister Lillian and the couple who stood up with us. Betty was expecting her first baby in Jeffersonville IN and was under doctor’s orders not to travel.
After the ceremony, Daddy hosted a lovely dinner at the Hotel McCurdy in Evansville IN. This was when my family began calling Bill “Stew” since Betty’s husband was also Bill. To add to the confusion, Bill Stewart’s family called him Lester, his middle name. So I had one husband with three names – Bill, Stew and Lester.
I wore a chocolate brown suit with a creme silk blouse and had a hat and veil. The hat was made of gold sequins; Bill had bought it in Paris. Bill gave me a lovely orchid, which had zero fragrance. Not to worry, he also brought me several bottles of French perfume. Never had a bride smelled so good!
There was no honeymoon for us. We had rented one room in a home in Evansville. We shared the kitchen and bath with the landlady, a war widow. She graciously arranged to be gone that weekend. As a dutiful bride I prepared breakfast the next morning. A total disaster. Bill wanted oatmeal which I didn’t have a clue how to prepare and I oversalted the sticky mess. Also I burned the bacon, which is the unpardonable sin. But Bill was sweet and did not complain.
We did walk to church on Sunday morning. Of course I wore my orchid and was dressed in my wedding suit plus coat with fur collar. I must have stood out like a Kmart Blue Light special. Someone came down from the choir and tried to get me to join the church and questioned my salvation. That embarrassed me. I think I was feeling pious for even being there, wed less than 24 hours. I still feel uncomfortable when well-intentioned people buttonhole a stranger, supposedly “witnessing”.
Four weeks, three moves
In the next four weeks I moved us and our meager belongings three more times. Each time to a larger, more private place. All of this was via the bus or walking. Finally we had a small apartment with our own tiny kitchen and our own bath. What a luxury!
I had a job in a law office in Evansville and for the next nine months we stayed put. Of course we rode the Greyhound bus back to Owensboro many weekends. Bill probably needed that good mothers’ cooking to survive my efforts at k.p.
Next time: In July 1946 Bill decided he wanted to quit his job and take a trip out west. He received all his military training in the west and loved that country. So we bought a used car from a man in Fordsville KY.
(Previously on the Smocks: River Pilot, Air Pilot)