Part VII, Finding the Rivers, Marji Stewart: Grilled cheese fortunes
Our trip out west in 1946 was a real honeymoon. We were gone a month or longer and made some stupid blunders. One I recall is that we drove that old car up a washboard road to Monument Valley in Arizona with only a bag of water tied to the bumper. The bag fell off so we lost our water.
No water, no food and no blanket or emergency supplies in July. People who are much better prepared than we were die in that environment! The scenery in Monument Valley is breathtaking.
In California we visited with Bill’s sister Lillian who was staying with her friend Claudine. We just barged in as people thoughtlessly did back then. We saw the usual California sights, such as Knott’s Berry Farm which was incredible then. The time I remember best was dinner and dancing for just the two of us at the famous Ambassador Hotel when a big band was playing – Freddie Martin. That was heavenly music and food for this river rat.
However, the time wasn’t right then for us to stay in California. We headed back to Kentucky, sightseeing all the way. Glorious simple days. No air conditioning, so often driving at night to avoid the heat. There were very few choices of places to sleep and once or twice we simply slept in the car. Who would dare do that today? Also all highways were two lane. A real drag to be stuck behind a truck going up a mountain road!
Grilled cheese fortunes
Perusing the menu in a cafe somewhere in Arkansas, we thought the price of a simple grilled cheese sandwich was too costly. All of 35 cents. Driving along Route 66 we toyed with the idea of starting a business in Kentucky. What kind, though? What about a restaurant, Bill asked me. Sure, but where?
Back home to Owensboro – and to Bill’s Mom and Dad. Perhaps they could spare a piece of their small property to let him build? I had no experience in food service but Bill had paid his way through the University of Minnesota working in kitchens. A fortune could be made charging 35 cents for a mere grilled cheese sandwich. It cost no more than 2 cents to prepare. So why not? Did we have a lot to learn!
Whether the Stewarts really wanted to give up an acre of land, I honestly don’t know. But give they did. We moved in with them, into Lillian’s bedroom upstairs. In the tiny room adjoining it, we made a small kitchen. We put a two burner kerosene stove and an old card table with three chairs in the little room. I washed dishes in the bathroom. Orange crates held our kitchen stuff. Not that we ate there much. Mostly we ate with the Stewarts or the Smocks. Both mothers did our laundry. Did I ever properly thank them?
I got a job as a teller in a Savings and Loan institution on Frederica Street but I had no transportation. Bill would take me to work and his dad would pick me up in the afternoon. Robert would patiently wait in his car even if it took hours to balance the books so I could leave the bank.
We finally managed to get a loan to build a restaurant, after being turned down by the “big” bank in town. Bill did all the blueprints, planning and consulting. I simply worked and my meager salary kept us afloat.
Uncle Clarence Brown, the city engineer, advised us to build a building which could be turned into a residence if we failed or changed our minds. He was Bill’s mother Mabel’s older brother. But these two greenhorns thought we knew more than the wise engineer. We decided to do it our way. We wouldn’t fail. Famous last words!
There was one crisis time while Bill was building. He had ordered enough strawberry plants for another acre of land. They arrived just when Bill had a serious case of poison ivy from clearing the land. He was so sick I even had to shave him! But the strawberries couldn’t wait to be planted.
A dear older neighbor, Guy Barlow, and I planted those Tennessee Beauties. That spring of 1947 saw a prolific crop of berries. Bill and I had to pick, prepare, make jam and freeze them. We gave away a lot and sold the best ones. Do you have any idea of how many strawberries are in an acre? A lot. A whole lot. It was years before I could enjoy strawberries again.
Stewart’s Drive In
In the early summer of 1947 “Stewart’s Drive In” had its grand opening. It wasn’t long until our glazed eyes were opened too. Yes, we served grilled cheese. But. Running a small restaurant required almost 20 hours per day, seven days per week. And then we barely met our small payroll.
Bill worked in the kitchen and dish area and I waited tables, worked the soda fountain and car hopped. We both worked after closing until we went home in the wee hours of the morning and crashed. Business would be great one day and zilch the next. The first winter was rough, weather-wise and financially. I served cars outdoors even when there was snow on the ground.
In the fall of 1948 Bill decided we would close for the season and go out west until early spring. We settled in Long Beach, California. Both of us got jobs. Working only eight hours a days, we felt as if we really were on vacation. Bill worked at the Union Oil refinery in blue collar work and I “slung hash” in a diner.
Uncle Clarence was right
When it came time to return to our drive in in the spring of 1949, both of us were ready to throw in the towel. Yes, I must admit we were quitters. Uncle Clarence was right, we should have built a multipurpose building.
We managed to lease the drive in and stayed in California. We moved to Wilmington to be close to the refinery. Our big apartment was two rooms plus a hall and small bath. This was a housing project, Avalon Village, a prototype of later public housing but privately owned then. The bed was a Murphy bed that pulled out from the wall in the living room. [Maybe Avalon Gardens.]
We made lots of friends but most of our fun was either on the beach or, for Bill, fishing. He went out on day trips for deep sea fishing and usually made a nice catch. Maybe a 10 pound Albacore or tuna.
There weren’t any decent rivers near us but there was the Pacific Ocean. Our favorite day off activity was spending the day at the beach. We had two large cloth bags (air mattresses) which we would run along the beach and hold in the wind. They filled with air and we quickly tied them. We carried them out in the surf and then rode them in to the shore before the air leaked out. Great, innocent, cheap – but very sandy – fun. Often we went dancing later somewhere in LA or to the Coliseum for special events. Always more than one hour’s drive.
To make ends meet I worked at jobs like selling home products. My territory was Watts. Even then it was a minority neighborhood, gentle and peaceful. Could it actually rock with riots, violence and murder? Yes, sixteen years later, it could and it did.
Of course I never made enough money to pay my expenses. Gasoline was less than 39 cents per gallon, sometimes 19 cents! One of my friends and I tried to get jobs at the local fish canning factory but they wouldn’t hire us. Helen said perhaps we looked too “refined”? I think they more likely thought we wouldn’t stay.
Finally Bill got into real estate and quit his job at the refinery. He was told to be prepared to survive a year before any income would start coming in. He worked in Rolling Hills, a lovely area.
Size 10 to 14
I took a job as a secretary and jill of all trades with a suit manufacturer in downtown LA. During the interview, I was told that the job required being a size 14. I was a size 10 so I told the employer “I’ll grow into it!” He laughed and hired me anyway. I doubt that I made even $35 per week and had to ride the buses downtown to the garment district, now almost in Skid Row. That was January 1950.
Occasionally I would have to wear the newest suit and go meet with a prospective buyer for the boss and model the garment. Lest this sound like a glamorous job, it wasn’t. I was the only person in the office and often felt the wrath of someone – customers, employees or bosses. But I was glad to have a job. However, my plans backfired for working until Bill could make it financially in real estate. When we were least expecting it, we were expecting! You could say I really did “grow into” the size 14.
We’ll leave Marji and Bill for now. See Monroe Smock, Kentucky for the beginning of this story. In a few weeks we’ll go back to the story of Marji’s mother Elizabeth and the McDonald family of Kentucky and Texas.